(Music) BRENDA CARSEY
“I have always been fascinated with humans and the mind, community and groups, the ability to change and improve, the concept of awareness and consciousness, and the concept of challenge. So naturally these topics find their way into my art, whether through my music or my events.”
Brenda Carsey is a singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. In this interview, she talks about her music background and vocal influences, her upcoming album Sirens, and the community work and events that she curates through her organization Wonder & Awe Productions.
Check out all of Brenda’s music here.
Interview by Tyler Nesler
I've read that your interest in music stretches back to early childhood. Did you come from a particularly musical family background, or was music something you were just naturally drawn to on your own? What was the first instrument you really gravitated towards?
I think it’s a little of both. I have always been drawn to and curious about music as far back as I can remember. Music has always been part of my spirit. I’ve always been able to express myself through music in some way. I was also definitely supported and encouraged to do music by my mom from a young age and I also have a lot of musicians in my bloodline. Most of the musicians in my family passed away before I was born though and no one in my family ever actively played music for me or with me. So it’s both just part of my spirit and in my genes too.
Voice was my first instrument and way of connecting with music. I was in choir in kindergarten and first grade. Then my family moved. My mom had played the clarinet in her childhood (among other instruments) and she still had her clarinet from when she was a kid in the sixties, a beautiful dark mahogany wood clarinet with silver trim and buttons. It’s a beaut. She gave me her clarinet after we moved, which began my introduction to music in a deeper way, taught me how to read music, and taught me how to blend with an ensemble. I was eight at the time. I did wind ensemble and marching band from the age of eight to thirteen. I also grew up with an upright piano in the house and started teaching myself piano by playing my clarinet music on the piano (even though it’s a whole step off). As I began exploring the piano, songwriting came naturally along with it. I was nine when I started writing songs that I can remember. Then we moved again. I didn’t connect with the conductor at the new school so I switched back to choir. I then sung in different choirs from age thirteen till I graduated from college at age twenty-two. I continued to write songs and poems my entire adolescence, and at age sixteen I performed my original music for an audience for the first time. Everything just kept growing from there.
I hear a few different vocal styles across your earlier recordings, but now you've headed into a more consistently soul-rooted sound. Has soul always been a big influence on your songwriting and singing? Who are one or two all-time influential or inspiring vocalists for you?
I definitely feel like I am an organic mixture of all that has inspired me and of everything my brain has absorbed. Early jazz and soul from the 1930s to 1950s, 1960s Motown, 1970s Funk, and 1990s R&B have all definitely been a huge influence on me both vocally and stylistically. I have always been drawn to gorgeous voices, athletic singing, and sick bass lines and pocket beats.
That being said, I have been influenced by so much different music that I can honestly say not one style has influenced me more than another. From playing and listening to classical music and musicals in my younger years to listening to a lot of soul, R&B, neo-soul, and hip hop in my tween and early high school years to listening to a lot of rock, pysch, grunge, alternative and emo in late high school to listening to a ton of trip hop, Trance, deep house, drum and bass, reggae, and classic rock in my early college years, to listening to jazz, math rock, and progressive rock in my mid-twenties and onwards. It’s all in my brain swirling around and meeting at intersections that come out of me as my own version of music and self-expression and creation.
If I have to name a few (and I gotta pick more than two) for vocalists who inspired me as a kid it would have to be Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Freddie Mercury, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, Jim Morrison, Sia (from her days singing with Zero 7), Thom York, The Supremes, The Temptations….I’m gonna make myself stop hahaha…
With its "Alternative Soul" style, your 2017 full-length album Solitary Refinement hits the expressive declarative flourishes of soul while also being quite introspective and searching. You've been on meditation retreats and you practice yoga. In what ways do you think these spiritual disciplines have encouraged a greater openness and vulnerability in your songwriting?
I have always been fascinated with humans and the mind, community and groups, the ability to change and improve, the concept of awareness and consciousness, and the concept of challenge. So naturally these topics find their way into my art, whether through my music or my events. I feel yoga allowed me a path for self-exploration and self-love, my first real connection to spirituality, and an opportunity to experience and move through moments of change and discomfort to recognize the concept of impermanence in a first hand way. This all allowed me to let go more with my art, connect to spirit and allow energy to flow freely outward from me to others and from others back into me. It also allowed for me to let go more — let go of any illusion of control, let go of what anyone may think of me, let go of expectation for future. Dreaming and wants are different than expectations and control.
Solitary Refinement was the first album you worked on with a producer and sound engineer (Brian Frederick), along with live instrumentation. You've now also worked with producer and sound engineer Nicholas Tashjian on your new single "Stuck on You." What's it been like for you recording with a team versus handling most duties yourself on earlier recordings? Did you have any initial reticence over giving up some control of the process and working more collaboratively?
Oh I love it! I am good at audio engineering, but I will never be as good as these two people and others who have dedicated their lives to fully learning and understanding the capturing of sound waves. Not to mention learning the ins and outs of the digital programs and key commands (and these two engineers are super fast working which I love), knowledge of which mics and amps to use for which sounds and vibes, which effects we can add to things. That and so much more. Being able to let others do what they do best so I can do what I do best is freeing. In all of these projects I am still in the role of producer and mixer. I have a really good ear for sound and blending and a strong vision for my final products. I am not in the driver seat pushing buttons and turning knobs any more but the way things are being laid out in the stereo space, volumes of each instrument, and parts and instrumentation of course, I have a large hand in the production and it is definitely a team process. It’s fun being able to go back and forth with ideas and experiment with someone who knows more than me and who can take my weird descriptions of sound and vision and turn that into action and a final product. Bringing others into a project definitely lends itself to other perspectives that can change the overall sound from what you originally imagined. But I think that can be cool.
Your recent song "Stuck on You" is the first single off Sirens, a new album due for release later in 2019. What will you be exploring thematically and stylistically on Sirens? What's most exciting to you about the creative direction that this new album is taking?
Sirens is going to be a completely different sound from anything I have released, but still somehow me. It is a fully acoustic album featuring guitar, violin, layers of vocal harmonies, and some keys. There was never a plan to record this music or to make an album. It just sort of happened. I was going to SAE Institute in Los Angeles, where Nick teaches, once or twice a quarter to play songs and help guide new audio engineering students through a recording session from the musician/artist side of things. I went in with a guitar and a song. We would record the guitar then the lead vocals and then I would improvise harmonies on the spot. I was happy with what the student, with Nick’s guidance, captured. After six sessions over the course of a year, Nick and I realized we had seven songs and I asked him if he would be down to finish it and make it a real “thing”. It was an on-and-off process that took a year and a half of not rushing and no expectations. We worked on things very slowly amidst changing lives, unforeseens, traveling, work and all. We slowly added a few more instruments and then mixed everything and then all of a sudden, it was finally done! The entire album focuses on layers of vocal harmonies behind a strong, raw lead vocal. The songs are all older in that I have been playing them for years but never recorded them. So this album is like echos of the past. The vocals being the most important component — along with the calling of past memories — inspired me to name the album Sirens. Every song on the album except for “Stuck On You” has guitar as the lead instrument with sprinkles of Rhodes and violin and banjo on one song too. I chose to release “Stuck On You” first because we were really excited and happy with how the song turned out and also because folks know me best as a pianist. I thought it would be the best bridge between what people expect from me as a piano player and songwriter and the rest of the vibe of the album.
(Check out Brenda’s new single “Stuck on You” here)
You frequently play live solo and also with your band Brenda Carsey & the Awe. What are some of the different subjective experiences for you when you play solo versus with your other musicians, in the sense of creative energies, reactions from the audience, unique challenges, etc.?
They are two completely different experiences for me. When I play solo I feel like I am more exposed and thus more seen. I tend to share more stories about the meaning of my songs and about myself in general. When I play alone I can always sink into the exact tempo and volume of each moment of the song that I want and feel. When I play with a band, though, it’s my full vision come to life! I hear all of the instruments and parts in my head when I am writing and when I am playing solo. To share and make music with talented people on stage is one of my most favorite things. Sometimes it means being more flexible with how the song is performed in regards to tempo and volume and things I don’t have control of once we are in the moment of the song. But it’s a beautiful thing to let go to the looseness and jam of some sets and the softness and intimacy of other sets.
What's coming up next for you? Any forthcoming single releases and performances that you would like people to know about? Is there a tentative release date set yet for Sirens?
I do not have a release date set for Sirens and actually haven’t really talked about it much yet. I’m not in a rush with this one. I feel like this album is for my real fans, for those who already know me and have already been riding along side with me on this crazy journey. I have some creative ideas with what to do for the release but I’m gonna keep that a secret for now. What I can share is that there will be another single or two leaked first and maybe a music video or two as well.
With Sirens slowly making its way into the world this year, I am super excited to begin putting together my team and planning my next full-length giant studio album which will feature songs I have begun to play live like “Home”, “Party’s Over”, “Unfortunate Men” and “Rebel Walls,” that so many people have shared praise and support for both live and across the internet, as well as a slew of other new smash hits. This next full album of new music will be huge! I’m not going to hold anything back. The music will be beautiful and lush and diverse but also tangible and filled with catchy hooks. It will share a large turning point in my creative voice and perspective as a songwriter and growing artist. Stay tuned for sure!
You've created Wonder & Awe productions, which curates community-oriented event experiences. What got you interested in starting this project, and how is its approach to event production different from other industry models?
Wonder & Awe Productions is a name is created in 2011 for the community work and event curating I was doing. I started curating shows in Long Beach, but I didn’t call myself a booker nor promoter or anything like that. I just wanted to share the night with bands I liked, music I liked, vibes I liked, people I liked, and have things run smooth and on time. I moved to L.A. in 2013 to dedicate myself fully to art and music. I was playing often and in different venues across the city. I was meeting tons of new people and other fellow musicians. I began to learn through my own experiences and through stories from peers how backwards and broken the club scene in L.A. was and what third party promoters were and how they operated.
So many stories of these promoters/bookers not helping promote the shows they booked in a real way. So many shows where these promoters/bookers don’t show up for the event they booked. Shows running super late because no one is stage managing. Promoters/bookers not being transparent with financial cuts and percentages, offering very little incentive and opportunity for artists to achieve success in the live circuit, and most often not offering payment at all. Third party promoters would make a flyer and act as though that was helpful. They were not reaching out to printed or online media sources to promote their events but instead relying solely on the bands they booked to do all promotion and crowd-sourcing for them. And then they would take a significant cut of the money in the end.
I do think promoters/bookers deserve to be paid. Doing outreach to bands, confirming bookings, orchestrating a time schedule for the night, collecting input lists and info from bands, and making marketing materials is a lot of work. But some of these bookers/promoters and some venues as well are to this day taking much more than they should to cover their bases. Many are taking each band of the night’s first $250+ or first twenty-five humans though the door before these bands see anything. So call it four bands for the night, that’s at most four hours of performance time, an hour of set up, and an hour of breakdown. So for six hours they are claiming they need that $1000+ out of the bands’ pockets to cover their expenses for the night. And some of these venues doing this are small! Like only 100 capacity rooms with only one sound engineer. It’s hilariously tragic and dark. Third party promoters also often put together a line up of acts that do not have cross over audiences so there ends up not being good opportunities to gain new fans from other bands’ fan base. Many promoters/bookers/venues just want to fill their slots and take their cut for the night. Some venues also treat every time slot as a separate event or show. Little collaboration, little thought for community, little appreciation for what the artist is doing to bring money through the door for an otherwise empty room.
Not every venue nor every promoter are doing these things. Some venues cuts, deals, and perspectives are totally cool and fair for the size of their staff and building and other components like that. Harvard & Stone, The Hotel Cafe, The Virgil, Bootleg Theater, and Highland Park Bowl, to name only a handful, have always treated me and other artists with respect and offered opportunity and room for success and negotiation and a cool space to express oneself in.
After experiencing a lot of what I shared above, I started booking more events, booking my band as well. I started negotiating with venues for better deals. I started asking questions to see what was possible and what options there were. It’s all business and numbers for these bars and clubs and I totally respect where they are coming from. They need to pay their bills. They need to sell drinks. They need to see numbers. All totally fair. Covering their base minimum to run a successful night is totally fair. Taking more than is needed from artists and bands who are the sole reason for there being any patrons in the venue is terribly sad and frustrating. I feel most venue owners should have the creativity to realize that what they are actually selling and what they should be focusing on is creating community, vibes, and scene. Do that, and the money and sales will come. There should also be more transparency and vocabulary changes with communication between venues and bands. If a venue plainly stated “We charge a $300 rental fee for use of the room for three hours on a Thursday night,” that to me is much easier to swallow and much more respectful and educational for all involved than a venue that says, “We are going to take 100% of the first thirty people who pay for tickets then you can start taking money after that.” It’s essentially the same amount for the same purpose but the meaning and transparency of it is so different.
It’s interesting to learn the ins and outs of this aspect of the music industry and then be able to use the knowledge I’ve gained and used on myself to begin helping other people. All of my events are from an “all for one” perspective. We all promote, we all do our part, we all bring people, we all split things evenly as long as everyone pulls their weight. In the end, it’s the experience we create and the support for one another that is most important. I treat everyone as a professional and hold people up to standards I know they can meet. I am transparent with goals for draw and money for each event. I create compelling artistic marketing images. I actively promote along side bands/artists I book. I began booking events with genres in mind, themes in mind, scenes in mind. For me it’s all about creating a great vibe and energy and space for people to come together, to have somewhere they feel they can belong and be supported and experience what community is all about. It’s all about creativity and self-expression coupled with respect and awareness for diversity and for people who are opening up their souls.
Separate but related to all of that, I also saw and experienced first hand a lack of support for singer songwriters in L.A., especially on the east side of town where I live and am most active. I felt my music and stage experience to be somewhere in the middle of band, art experience, and songwriter. But I was literally told I wasn’t “weird enough” “artistic enough” “current enough with my sound” “expressive enough with my costuming” to fit into the east side scene. What weird things for people to say to someone, huh? So I started an open mic focused on community, listening, and support for singer songwriters. I am so happy to share that it was a successful experiment and has been flourishing, connecting people, and helping artists blossom and find their voice for three years now! I have also curated events focused on supporting visual art such as video and paint, and I have also collaborated with and collected donation for a variety of non-profits.
There is so much more I can share about this subject, both locally in my own city and from touring across the country, but it's better and easier to share and talk about in person. ;-)