Thursday, November 09, 2006

Nov Chills and Thrills

Hi All

Toronto in November! It's only the start of winter and it's crisp and clear (-2 already)...and I'm soooo delighted we were here for the last days of a spectacular fall season: the trees were exploding with color (I haven't seen a real fall for years) and we spent halloween with our two year old niece watching her hand out candy to witches and goblins of various sizes and ages... My Brother in Law (a film FX guy) had glued a third hand to the middle of his chest and painted a bullet hole on the middle of his wife's forehead: much to the delight of the trick or treaters... We finished the evening with the gory family watching a cozy screening of 'The Bride of Dracula'

Lisa and I are just settling down in TO after a fun filled week in Sarnia, Ontario..... OK.. it wasn't our first choice to spend a week in this particular small town, but this was the '06 site of the Ontario Theatre Conference - so we went where they were.. Lisa joined me straight from a mini tour of western Canada. She had done readings at Calgary Wordfest Literary Festival, then hung out for a few days being 'creative' at the Banff Centre and then met up with her agent in Vancouver. We threw ourselves on the 401 highway and headed west to spend our time schmoozing...

The theatre conference is a gathering of all the independent theatre bookers in Ontario looking for acts for the 07 - 08 season. I've been curious what these events are like and if I could make the move out of festivals and into regular theatre seasons with Whiskey Bars: the Kurt Weill show I've been doing for years. We were picked by the conference jury to present Whiskey Bars in performance and it went well... we ended up opening the showcases at the conference, and I was delighted to be told later by one of the jury members that Whiskey had been high up in the picks of the jury. Since the Jury has some amazing theatre creators and professionals on it, it was a fine compliment. Whether all of this will add up to bookings is another thing - every theatre has it's own mandate and size and season and we'll find out in the next months whether we'll fit into their needs - however the feedback on the show was pretty amazing and we were delighted to get that kind of response for a first time out... And finally Sarnia was surprisingly fine - incredibly friendly and great food (!?!) - Lulu's Lounge served us the best tiramisu I've ever had....

And now we're hunkering down in an apt on Church and Queen...and beginning work on the production of A Bad Year for Journalist that will be going up in Toronto at the end of December. I spent yesterday in a ginormous wreckers lot outside of Toronto wading around in immense mud puddles, avoiding wrecking machines and pulling auto parts out of cars for pieces for the set... so for the meantime we're sharing the apt with some rusting metal. We found a couple of wonderful actors in auditions last week and now have to choose between them... hard to do... weighing different physical types and timings against the character we're casting for... For those of you in Toronto or with friends here we're doing a first reading on the 7th of November and two shows at the Alchemy theatre on the 20/21st of December.

Toronto is already treating us well. There is theatre and performance and music everywhere we look and several new friends from the Theatre Conference are around town. As I write this our dog is careening from one end of the apt to the other playfighting with the dog we're looking... so the house certainly feels like an action packed exciting place to be... We'll be on this side of Yonge St. for the next month and then in December we'll be back to our friends house in Kensington Market and house sitting as they enjoy the month in their new home in Costa Rica (Costa Rica!!! Jealous... me?... not at jealous at all). And after that... probably heading North for several months to an artist residence just below the arctic circle...

if you're in town or passing through in the next month or two then drop a line and say hi...


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Stampin' at the Stampede

What a weird month July was... It was spent in the BAKING heat of the Calgary Stampede grounds: the Biggest Rodeo in the world. No joke, eh. Enough cowboy hats and daisy-dukes to... well... I'm not sure exactly what that many hats and short short cut-offs could do for the world... but they made one impressive sight.

My Mom's a painter ( ) and the last years has been painting her lifelong obsession: 'The West'. Cowboys, cowgirls, horses, the range, the rodeos: all with an extravagant use of color and an almost baroque attention to detail. Well, the Stampede isn't just bucking broncos and little fried donuts, there's also an immense hall of art devoted to the legends of the West: statues (we were flanked by a life size bronze of a rearing horse... scared me every time I came round the corner..), paintings, quilts... you name it... and my Mom was juried in to have a stand for four days. It's the first show she's had of this work and she needed a hand getting it all organized and heading over the mountains from Vancouver to Calgary. So, I flew to Vancouver, helped her and my Sister and Brother in Law to pack up a whole pile of cowboy paintings and 'en famille' we drove over the mountains to Calgary.

I'm not sure who was more nervous: my Mom or me. I was the one who had encouraged her to apply and to take the plunge to head over and show her work, and she wasn't sure of what kind of reaction she was going to get for it. One of her pieces had been chosen for the high-end 'invitation only' auction so she knew she would have to watch people bidding on her work as well as seeing their reactions face to face as they walked into the stand: so it would be really clear whether or not her worked clicked with the Stampede goers. The morning of the get-in got stressful: my sister had an emergency so couldn't get there in time with the frames, and when we loaded the work in at 6am we found that we were surrounded by hundreds of very, very serious paintings featuring Cowboys bringing in the herd, or riding bucking broncos, or doing very serious and dramatic cowboy sorts of things.... all super quality work... but Mom's never been one to paint dramatic profiles of noble looking, rugged working cowboys as they watch the setting sun over the great plains... So both of our hearts kind of fell and I ended up making a lot of encouraging and super-enthusiastic noises while feeling in my heart of hearts that we were doomed: and Mom just sat there and said things like 'we're doomed'..... it was all rather stressful.

The morning began slowly and folks started wandering in... very quiet at first... we were towards the back of the huge hall, so by the time they got to us they'd seen all of the stands. And at first I swear several actually recoiled as they turned the corner and saw the huge canvases and the dancing and smiling figures of Mom's paintings. And then first one, then a whole family, then pairs of women began to smile, and laugh and wander in and admire the work, picking up postcards and beginning to chat to Mom about how she'd come up with such a world of dancing cowboys. And so it continued for four days.... In a way we were perfectly positioned: by the time they reached the Stand they had seen hundreds of rugged cowboys and prairie landscapes and they were dying for something different. And it turned into this immense pleasure to sit at the Stand and watch face after face light up when they were confronted by her work.

I never got to see much of the Bucking Bronco part of the Rodeo... I got about as far as the friend donuts, and then had to head back to Cowboy Art... but maybe next year I'll take some time to experience more of the whole real Cowboy side of things...

The ides of what...

The end of September... no wait a minute... it's still just the middle of the month. It's racing by so quickly that I already feel like I'm over in October somewhere. We're having an indian summer here... warm days sweeping over the city and beautiful early sunsets. But, as usual, I'm seeing only part of it, since I'm spending most of my time in my basement rehearsal/recording space fussing with tracks, improvising around ideas for a new show and doing various maintenance work on the computer: ie. figuring out budgets on how to cover costs and rehearsal schedules.

Above is an expressionist painting from the Bruck museum in Berlin: an extraordinary little museum far out of the centre of the city. I was dragged out to it under protest, since my plan had been to sit in the middle of town and drink beer and people watch, but it was not to be.... It's housed in a little modernist building by a huge park and documents the beginning and the progression of the expressionist art movement by a small group of Berliners in the early part of the century. I'd never really known what expressionism meant: but the museum opened my eyes to what they were trying to do. I won't get into the artspeak of it all... just visit the site: It was amazing to watch the development of a new vision, or way to look at the world.... The painting above is my screensaver right now...

So, we're packing up the house in preparation for several months away. All very confusing at the moment since we're not sure whether we'll be away for two months, or five - a writer's retreat has offered Lisa a three month residency, however we still don't have the official confirmation, so we're heading off prepared for both. Lisa heads to Calgary for Wordfest and then does a series of readings and we meet up in Toronto before going on to the Ontario Theatre Conference to present Whiskey Bars for the assembled theatre professionals. Ayieee... every booker and agent in eastern Canada watching me wander around in my underwear... and here's me still with my Burgundy stomach still hanging around... it's going to be a month of diets and sit-ups...

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Return

September is the 'Rentree' in Paris: everyone returns from their long summer holidays tanned and relaxed and ready to launch themselves into a new season. And I think perhaps it's a good time to get restarted recording the ups and downs of what's up and down with me.

For us..,the summer never seems to be the long holiday at the Beach that it appears to be for most of the French population... I've been working on a new show, re-recording tracks in my home studio, doing work on the house. However I did manage to get almost two weeks of that work done at our Barn in Burgundy (from whence comes the name of my company 'Big Empty Barn Productions'. See above...)

I feel like I'm racing to keep up with the plans for the fall and early spring. I'm presenting my one-man show 'Whiskey Bars', based around the songs of Kurt Weill, at the Ontario Theatre Conference. Then I'll be staying in Toronto for a while to begin work on an adaptation of Lisa Pasold's award winning book 'A Bad Year for Journalists'. I probably won't be back in Paris till the beginning of January. However, in mid-october I'll be doing a first concert of the jazz and pop standards that I've been working on for a while and then in February doing a recording of the same pieces.

So... I'm either glued to the computer (editing music and working on ideas for this adaptation), or I'm glued into a rehearsal space (trying to get the new show together), or I'm on the metro travelling around Paris to see or rehearse with musicians. Days speed by in a blur of different interior spaces. The musicians are proving a problem (don't they always...) and it's a typical problem... those that are good are busy... and those that aren't good... well, I don't want to work with them. It's finding the thin line of people who are great players and can communicate what they want, while listening to what I want... and are probably just at a stage in their careers where they have some time to devote to a new project. I'm sure if I had the budget of a big label I could just pay the most expensive players to turn up and work... but I don't.. so I have to pay people decent wages to turn up and do a great job... It's all a bit of a juggling match.

If I'm not in those interior spaces then I'm at the Gym trying to get rid of my Burgundy stomach... At the town nearest to our Barn there is a bakery that serves what I will swear is the best french bread I have ever tasted... they bake it fresh three times a day, so you can normally pick it up still warm, plus, there is a local butter that is simply ambrosia, plus there is a local dark organic honey that tastes like nothing I've ever eaten before... Put those all together and there goes my morning and there goes my waistline... However, every single pound was worth it and even if there is now a few hundred thousand sit-ups to do... well... damn it.. it was still worth it...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Under the Boardwalk...

February 1st and recovering from six weeks underground in the basement studio working on a set of new songs....I'd descend in the morning and reappear in the early evening realizing I'd just missed daylight... But today I sang through 19 songs for a small invited crowd and I got the thumbs up for 14, a question mark for 4, and a thumbs down for only one... which I think is pretty good.

I've been trying to find some new ways into old songs. Swopping back and forth between a mic and recording and arranging software... trying new sounds, new tempos, new orchestrations...singing them, playing with them, trying to make them work.... I'm not sure if I can say I've found new ways, maybe I've found my own way into them. Standards. What a strange name for a set of extraordinary songs. Standard.

from Websters:

CRITERION, GAUGE, YARDSTICK, TOUCHSTONE ; a means of determining what a thing should be. STANDARD applies to any definite rule, principle, or measure established by authority <standards of behavior>: something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example :

but if you go the etymology it makes a bit of sense:
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French estandard rallying point, standard, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English standan to stand and to Old English ord point -- more at ODD
1 : a conspicuous object (as a banner) formerly carried at the top of a pole and used to mark a rallying point especially in battle or to serve as an emblem

They are 'rallying points': where the army gathers their forces and says 'we stand here' in support of this belief, this king, this faith. Then, for me, the word works better... as I see it: sheet music was the money maker in the first part of the 20th Century, and songs and ditties - comical/ballad/dance numbers/ethnic/'race' songs etc etc etc - were churned out by the thousands and thousands.... people like Gershwin got their start sitting in music shops and playing through the new compositions: they were called song pluggers.... and so we have this incredible legacy of smart, sad, funny, witty, good, terrible songs and somehow, after years of winnowing, we've all reached some kind of concensus that these one hundred, or five hundred or one thousand songs have something more, something worth re-interpreting time and time again... so they're standards... they're places we've decided are worth revisiting and redefending time and again..

The funny thing about singing these songs is that I'm realizing how hard it is 'do your own thing' with them. These songs are tough. They were made to withstand a battered piano and a tone deaf singer in small town America in 1932.... in some way, they know what they want, and they know how they're supposed to be sung. You kind of have to sneak up on them, and take a word or a phrase by surprise to see if you can pull some new sense out of the song... and then they realize what you've done and push you back to singing them they way they want to be sung... they way they're 'supposed to be sung'...

I'm trying to discover what my 'standards' are. I'm singing the Chemical Brothers side by side with Gershwin, and Ron Sexsmith beside Cole Porter... and I'm not sure what defines one from the other. There's a harmonic depth that the older songs have that is totally lacking from the basic chords of a pop song. The older songs are filled with puns and double entendres and complicated rhythmic grammer that is a joy to decipher... But, nevertheless, a great pop song can have a totally different power that the early standards don't. Sometimes, great pop lyrics have the beauty that is the flatness of everyday speech put to music... a sort of joyous, cynical lack of art..... and the hook... the sweet pleasure of the hook of a pop song, that blend of slurs of speech with a simple melodic jab that can pull your heart out of your chest.... whether it's Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Drifters or Brittany Spears... There is something magically powerful and beautiful and empty about great, great pop songs...

"Pop is a means to perfect liberation from meaning...anyone who believed differently, who believed that rock n’ roll could support concepts more complex than yes or no, or tell stories more intricate than ‘I want’ or ‘leave me alone’ would be destroyed by the form itself -- punished for betraying it. You might get a hit, he said, and then take the response to the sound you made as proof you had something to say, but it isn’t true. and anyone who believed otherwise would end up as a shabby old man with a a tin whistle standing in the rain trying to make himself heard, to get someone to listen, to get one more hit."

from the great book: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, by Greil Marcus

Sunday, January 01, 2006

a new year end

January 1st, 2006,

Nice number 2006... The year of the Dog.

The New Years party was at our place, and it finished at midnight with everyone burning their lists of regrets for 2005 and resolutions for 2006 in an impromptu fire in our back yard. We're thinking of using the ashes to pot a plant on... wonder what kind of fertilizer that will be? Now, the morning after, the house is littered with champagne bottles and even the dog has a hangover.

It was a good year. The fall featured Lisa working intensely on a novel and finishing the final drafts for her poetry book that will be launched in the spring in Calgary and Toronto. She's also considering doing a theatrical adaptation of it with a wonderful canadian actress Emily Pearlman. My Jaques Brel went very well. I certainly had a great time and the audience...well, they seemed to love it, and besides: it took place on a little theatre built on a barge floating right beside Notre Dame Cathedral, there were windows looking onto the river and the buttresses of Notre Dame, so I imagine if anyone wasn't into the show, they couldn't complain about the view... The final night I had the immense honor of having Leslie Caron come to the last show and meeting her afterwards... If you didn't grow up with a Mom obsessed with music theatre (Mom only likes movies with happy endings and music theatre generally guarantees that) then she's the woman who's the female lead of an American In Paris, dancing around the city with Gene Kelly, I thought she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen when I was 12. And at 77 or so, she's still pretty beautiful... Ironically, the dance scene that's always stayed in my head, one of my first ever movie memories and also basically the only thing I knew about the city before I washed up here, is set on the Quai of the Seine, by a set of steps leading down to the River, and those steps are just a few hundred feet from where the barge was moored.... Some kind of synchronicity involved here..

After the fringe it was a real pleasure to have a gig where I just turn up and do my thing and someone else worries about all that production/money/profit/organization thing... Although, also after the fringe, I'm constantly having to stop myself from getting involved or giving 'advice' (wanted or not)... been practising not getting involved as I watch various panic attacks hit various people on the production end.. though I did have the pleasure of getting to act like a Diva when an inexperienced house manager tried to throw out Lisa because the house was overbooked, (he came down ten minutes before the show and told me she couldn't have the seats that had been reserved for her since he needed them for a larger group and he'd maybe let her stand at the back) To give me credit, before telling him I wouldn't go on if she didn't have the seats, I did spend five minutes trying to talk rationally to him... (she got the seats...)

I replaced a sick friend for four days at Disney, so I got my taste of the Magic Kingdom... I'm thinking of it as an innoculation against ever working there again (unless they pay me way, way, waaaaaaay more money). The people involved are all quite wonderful, but the disney worldview gets me down.....very, very down. I still go down on weekends with a friend and sing opera arias in a beautiful renaissance square in the middle of Paris (Place des Vosges). I'll never sing these things professionally again so it's a pleasure to have the chance to get up and exercise my voice in that style that I spent so much time training in. A while ago I had one of those moments that makes me so love France: my friend got bored of the usual Opera favourites, so she pulled out her backing track of Schubert songs that she had using earlier to give lessons with. Within minutes she had a crowd around her and people smiling and nodding their heads (and throwing money in the hat). Where in North America could you walk out on the street and start singing Schubert and have dozens of people recognize it and love it. And it's not like a knowledge of schubert implies any sort of superiority ... it was just so nice to see that some people aren't only, only familiar with pure pop culture...

Oh yeah, the new dog... we now have a muppet for a dog... a ragamuffin cross breed of a french hunting dog (a Griffon) and something... she's a raggedy assed enthusiastic 8 month old with a shaggy silly head that we got from the pound this weekend. She looks like a close realtive of Animal from Sesame St. She's kind of timid and hand shy so we think she was beaten around a bit, but she seems to be quickly gaining confidence...

2006... a very even and calm number.... we'll see what kind of irony that plays with..