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Photo: courtesy of the Kennedy Center

A Footloose Conversation with Isabelle McCalla

The movie Footloose evokes memories of a young Kevin Bacon angrily dancing next to that iconic yellow Volkswagen Bug. Maybe you think of the popular Kenny Loggins’ song of the same name? The music, clothing and cinematography all scream 1980s. So why is this story continually rewatched and remade? After speaking with Broadway Center Stage: Footloose star Isabelle McCalla, it’s clear this narrative is still extremely relevant.

The Kennedy Center is bringing Footloose to DC with a star-studded cast. Among them is McCalla, who in addition to playing the role of Ariel in this production, has played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and originated the role of Alyssa on Broadway’s The Prom. Like her character Ariel, McCalla is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. She and her The Prom co-star, Caitlin Kinnunen, shared the first same-sex kiss in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade history. Before seeing her on stage, read on to learn more about her history with the material, performing in DC and more. 

On Tap: The movie Footloose came out in 1984, the musical was introduced in 1998, and the movie was then remade in 2011, what do you think is so compelling about the story that makes it able to span decades?
Isabelle McCalla: I think it’s really a story of communication, or the lack thereof, and people with different ideologies who don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s a story of people who listen and understand someone who walks in a different pair of shoes. So I think that has transcended and we do it with musical comedy, and that’s what’s so incredible. 

OT: At the very heart of it, Footloose is about young people fighting for what they believe in. This is very relevant today, especially here in DC. Does performing at the nation’s capital have a different impact?
IM: Oh absolutely! We are in a very difficult time in our history where there is a lot of negative rhetoric going on and the people in charge aren’t necessarily representing their constituents. [Footloose] is about a time when the new generation has to do some toe stepping while standing up for what they believe in and it will resonate a lot with the people living in DC today.   

OT: What was your first experience with the film?
IM: I’ve actually never seen it!

OT: Really?
IM: Yeah, I somehow managed to go my entire life without seeing it. It helps keep it fresh for me in the role.

OT: What drew you to the character of Ariel?
IM: I like that she is very intelligent and able to play the various facets of her society. She knows exactly what roles she has to play with which type of people to get by. She has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and she just wants to get out of her small town and make something of her life. That’s not something that many people in her community aspire to necessarily. That’s been fun to tap into. She’s very dynamic. It’s hard to find roles that are so versatile, in the sense that they can be vulnerable and demure yet so confident and sexy at the same time. Ariel is kinda the whole package there.

OT: Obviously, the narrative focuses on a small town that bans dancing. You originated the role of Alyssa in The Prom, a musical about a small town that shuts down a prom because Alyssa and her girlfriend want to attend. Are there any similarities between Ariel and Alyssa?
IM: There are similarities in that they both have broken relationships with their parents. They love their parents but for some reason or other, Ariel with her father and Alyssa with her mother, their parents have visions for their daughters that don’t line up with their daughters and who those characters actually are. It’s constantly a fight to just be seen for who they are by their parents. 

OT: If music and dancing had been banned from your town, what would you be doing today?
IM: Oh my god. I would have to move towns. I love singing and dancing, but I’d probably be an investigative journalist. That was always a dream of mine. 

While McCalla isn’t sure what’s next, her successful career thus far is an indication of great things to come. See her in Footloose this Wednesday through Monday, October 14. Showtimes vary, tickets $59-$175. For more information, click here.

The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St.NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Josh Cheuse

Tales Of America: J.S. Ondara Intertwines Kenyan Roots and Americana Style on Debut Album

It seems counterintuitive that someone raised in Nairobi, Kenya could tell such compelling stories of the American experience through song. And yet J.S. Ondara does so with such skill on his first album Tales of America, released this February, that he’s seen high praise from the likes of NPR, Rolling Stone and Billboard. Raised on 90s alt-rock like Nirvana and Radiohead, the 27-year-old musician discovered great storytellers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young in high school, forever altering his musical style. In 2013, Ondara moved from Kenya to Minneapolis where he taught himself guitar and was eventually picked up by a label. We had the chance to ask Ondara about his roots, moving to the U.S. and why he never gave up on his goals before he plays Sixth & I on October 30.

On Tap: What was it like to move to the U.S. and pursue a career as a musician?
J.S. Ondara: It certainly wasn’t easy, but really, I was just too far from home. There was no looking back. If home was a bus fare away, perhaps I would have given up at some point. I never really had a choice.

OT: Who influences your sound?
JSO: I am mostly influenced by music from the 60s and 70s – songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Tim Buckley.

OT: What was it about Minneapolis’s music scene that drew you to that city, and how has it affected your music?
JSO: I was initially drawn to Minnesota after learning it was [Bob] Dylan’s home but the scene and the people of Minneapolis are why I chose to stay. The city has a lively music scene, but it also has a certain quietness about it that is essential for writing and growing without too much distraction.

OT: Why were you able to tell such a compelling American story with Tales of America despite having grown up in another country?
JSO: I suspect it is because I was making observations about America as an outsider with no bias other than to draw a portrait of the America that I saw.

OT: What lead you to the Americana genre and why did you decide to make the album entirely acoustic?
JSO: As an avid fan of stories, I was drawn to the storytelling nature of folk music and I believe that’s why I found myself drawn to that kind of music. That said, the journey has just begun, and I most certainly intend to experiment with more sounds and arrangements as I make more records.

OT: What do you hope people will get out of listening to Tales of America?
JSO: I think art at its best is a mirror through which a society can observe itself and hence change course whenever necessary. I hope that people will see a mirror in Tales of America and gain insight into themselves.

OT: What can people expect from your DC show?
JSO: I am looking forward to playing some new songs live for the first time.

OT: Where do you go from here? What are some of your goals for the future?
JSO: I am currently working on my next record so the next step for me is to finish that and share it with the world. My goals change all the time, but this year my goal is to try to make it through 27 without dying unceremoniously.

Catch J.S. Ondara at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Wednesday, October 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20. For more information on Ondara, go to www.jsondara.com.

Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW; 202-408-3100; www.sixthandi.org

Photo: Nick Donner

Confessions of Traveling Snack Slingers

What happens at the food truck rodeo doesn’t always stay at the food truck rodeo. We caught up with food truckers around the region to hear about the highs and lows of cooking on the road.

Captain Cookie & the Milkman

On Tap: What is the craziest event you’ve ever taken your truck to?
Founder // co-owner Kirk Francis: That would be The Festicle, which was a testicle-cooking festival held at the Bullpen. There were numerous testicle-cooking competitions, a team who did WWE-style wrestling and pole dancers. A close second was the Flugtag by Red Bull, where we saw various teams compete to push their homemade flying objects on hilariously unsuccessful launches. There was a lot of smashing and a tiny bit of flying.

OT: Most surprising order?
KF: We make cookie cakes, and over the years we’ve been asked to make some highly inappropriate cookie cakes for bachelorette parties. We also made and delivered a cookie cake once that simply said, “F—k you.” I hope it was a joke.

OT: What’s your favorite snack to enjoy after Captain Cookie calls it a day?
KF: Kimchi with rice and a fried egg. I ferment my own so there’s always a jar handy. It’s salty, sour and spicy, but still pretty healthy.

www.captaincookiedc.com

Photo: courtesy of CapMac

CapMac

On Tap: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever made for a customer?
Owner Josh Warner: The craziest order would probably be catering. They wanted to get fancy, and they wanted six courses and a plated dinner for four hours. Zero mac and cheese at all.

OT: What’s one thing most people don’t realize about owning a food truck?
JW: You think we’re only open for two hours, but we make everything from scratch so it’s a full day. It’s so much more if you do it right, and we do it right. We love people more than we love food.

www.capmacdc.com

Photo: courtesy of Rebel Taco

Rebel Taco

On Tap: What’s one aspect of owning a food truck most folks don’t realize?
Owner Mike Bramson: It gets hot inside the truck! If you’re feeling hot, imagine 10 degrees warmer – at least. Whoever is serving you on a warm day, just give them a “thank you.”

OT: What Rebel Taco dish do you crave post-shift?
MB: I’m normally craving the taco that I saw go out the most that day. It’s usually either the Super Chick (chipotle-marinated chicken, avocado crema and pico de gallo on a flour tortilla), steak quesadilla or the Shrimp Gone Wild (cornflake-battered shrimp, slaw and Rebel sauce).

OT: Name the food order that made you raise an eyebrow.
MB: One time, we had an order of 16 tacos from one person. I figured he was taking it to a group, but it was just him and his friend. I guess they must really like our tacos.

www.rebeltacova.com

Photo: courtesy of Swizzler

Swizzler

On Tap: What’s the oddest food order you’ve received?
Founder Jesse Konig: The weirdest thing that I’ve seen get ordered is asking for two hot dogs in one bun. I think people see the spiral-cut hot dogs and think they should be able to fuse together and make a super-sized hot dog. I respect the creative thinking, but it just doesn’t quite work out the way you think it would. Please, don’t order it.

OT: What’s your go-to Swizzler snack after a long day?
JK: I’ve been on a big burger kick recently so I’d have to say my number one choice would be a Swizz Stack fresh off the grill, maybe even with some caramelized onions and candied jalapeños added on top if I’m feeling crazy! After a long day working on the truck, that thing will disappear in 30 seconds flat. If we’re talking hot dogs, it would have to be a Feast Mode. Just thinking about it is making me hungry!

www.swizzlerfoods.com

Photo: courtesy of Pepe

Pepe by José Andrés

On Tap: After a long day with Pepe, what do you eat standing over the kitchen sink?
Chef Aaron Helfand: Spanish pulled pork with shredded cabbage slaw, hold the bread.

OT: What’s the weirdest thing someone’s asked you to make?
AH: Being a small workspace, we only have so many options to alter something. But guests come up with all sorts of interesting tweaks, whether it’s adding jamón to everything or adding croquetas to the inside of a bocata.

OT: What’s the one thing you can’t do without on your truck?
AH: This depends on where we are in the DMV area. It is interesting how guests at each location crave different items from our menu. We try to bring as much as possible so everyone can enjoy, but we can never be without jamón.

www.joseandrescatering.com

Greta Kline (second from left) and Frankie Cosmos // Photos: courtesy of Frankie Cosmos

Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline Talks Addiction to Newness, Stupid Lyrics and Close It Quietly

When Greta Kline joins the stage with the rest of Frankie Cosmos this Friday at Black Cat, she won’t want to be Greta Kline. Whoa, whoa, that actually sounds harsh, but I promise I’m not writing that in the way you’re reading it so let me clarify:

*clears throat*

What I’m saying is, she’s currently in search of a stage persona, an alter-ego. Think of Corey Taylor putting on one of his several Slipknot masks or Beyonce channeling Sasha Fierce, or even Tyler, the Creator throwing on a silver wig during his IGOR tour. She’s in search of a different outlet, a way to avoid giving all of herself on a nightly basis. Frankly (ha, rhymes with Frankie ((as in Frankie Cosmos)), when she’s describing this to me over the phone before the band’s latest album Close It Quietly has even come out, it sounds like an exhausting position to be in, constantly opening yourself up. Throw in the fact that the band is insanely prolific, three albums in four years prolific, and you being to see how touring so much could become cumbersome. Perhaps this is the real reason why superheroes put on masks and capes. Yeah, they say it’s because they want to protect their loved ones, but maybe it’s actually because being yourself, your true self at home and at work and during your side gig is too much to offer. What if Batman’s cowl and cape is actually just a result of this truth: being Bruce Wayne all the time is a lot of freaking work. I don’t know, and neither does Greta, probably, I mean I didn’t ask her this stuff when we spoke. However, she is an indie rock superhero.

While I didn’t ask her about comics or Batman, I did get a chance to speak to the singer, songwriter before her show at the Black Cat this Friday, ranging from her fascination with marbles and that ability to churn out an incredible amount of songs. Oh, and we of course chatted about the latest record, a 21-song indie rock epic which represented a slight departure from their previous works, but still contained the existential mid-20s drama you’d expect from the group. It’s soothing, powerful and fun. So read on and get excited to see whatever alter-ego Kline comes up for the band’s set at Black Cat.

On Tap: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musician with as many alter egos as you on their Wikipedia page, it’s like that scene in Rocky when they’re reading all of Apollo’s nicknames. Do you have a favorite?


Greta Kline: Ah man, it’s my addiction to newness. I need a new band name all the time. It’s easier than being one person forever. Definitely Frankie Cosmos is the one that stuck, it feels like the band and it feels like me. I relate it to what we’re doing, that’s why I haven’t changed it. I’m still constantly coming up with band names, but you can’t just make a new band, because people will get confused. I just like names, the ideas. When I was doing the bandcamp, and I didn’t have a band, it was just a way to pretend that I have a band. It’s easier than being yourself. 

Even GRETA feels weird, whenever, whenever someone calls me Greta. More often, people come up to me and call me Frankie, I guess. A lot of it’s Frankie Cosmos, I thought it was funny to have other names. It’s fun. It’s like you’re getting to escape yourself. It’s like having a wrestling name. Something that I want to do this album cycle, is be a different person on stage. One of the things that exhausts me on touring is giving my soul in an earnest way, and being purely me. I don’t know, it can be nice, but I want to have an option to be a performer on stage. I want to take on a performer character. Greta isn’t a performer, Greta is shy and anxious, and for awhile “we’re Frankie Cosmos” was enough of a mask, so I don’t know being different in some way might make it easier. I wore some wigs in our latest music video, I don’t know. I haven’t put enough thought into it.

OT: This is your third album in four years, are you exhausted yet? It feels like you might be?
GK: You know, to me it’s not that much. It’s not that much [to be] making albums. What’s exhausting is touring. Getting time to make an album is the break, that’s the fun part, that’s the creative part. [When] we can really do the work, I don’t even think about it. We’re not exhausted by anything at all, it’s so exciting. I have a little bit of an addiction to newness, I always like my newest song the best, and that’s making an album, it’s a way to enjoy that. 

OT: You’re exceptionally prolific, do you find that songwriting come easy to you?
GK: Sometimes, yeah, it definitely something that’s fun for me. I never really force myself to write a song. I think the hard time I have is finishing songs. The idea part of it is something that just happens, and the other part is setting apart time to work on it. When I’m writing songs, it’s when I feel the most in touch with myself and everything. 

OT: You compared this record to changes people make when they rearrange your room or get a flashy haircut, it’s still your stuff or your hair, but it’s different. What sort of spurred this sentiment, and how were you able to turn the record around so quickly? Was this reshuffle something you had in mind already?
Greta Kline: I mean, I guess it does feel easy and natural; we just want to make music. We don’t think about how it’s too soon to put out records. We definitely started thinking about making this album before we put out Vessel (2018). I mean we didn’t record it until this winter, so it feels pretty fresh. Yeah, that line about your hair and rearranging your room, I really like that image, I feel like it makes sense. My bandmate Luke [Pyenson] said we sort of give ourselves room to mess around, even it if doesn’t sound the same. 

I never think about what [the music is] going to sound compared to the other albums. We had more time and more equipment, but it’s still us arranging the songs and me writing them. There are some different tones on it. I keep thinking about the modular synth on a couple tracks, that feels like a big change. Yeah, it feels like a pretty different album to me. 

It’s more organic. We had room to play, so we did. We felt about that on the last album too. We had a marimba on a track, crazy keyboard sounds and it’s in the moment. We’re not thinking about what it’s going to mean in the concept of the album until it’s done. All I think about is what it feels like when I’m singing it or playing it. I know it’s a good take if it feels good, but sometimes it doesn’t sound good even if it does feel good. You have to sort of do it.

The hard part for me is thinking about the album as a whole and talking about it. I always think about this quote, “If I could explain it all, I wouldn’t need the song.” Writing the bio doesn’t come as naturally to me as sitting and making it with my friends. 

OT: How did you all come up with the title Close It Quietly?
GK: It sounds so stupid to say it. It’s kind of meaningless. Every time we make an album, I know the name the whole time. This was different — the album was done and we didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t want it to have a title track and it was a weirdly hard album to name. One day I was like F-it, I was going to name it like I would on my bandcamp demo. It was just going to be something that I say today, then I told someone about my gate, to close it quietly, and that’s the album title. Since thinking about it, it could be a lot of things. It could be a chapter, a relationship and the album sort of closes quietly, we all just fade out. 

OT: So it was kind of profound and universal after the fact?
GK: Never A day goes back that I don’t say something profound [laughs]. I really wanted to call the album I have to do the dishes.

I kind of like that, it’s funny to give a pedestal to stupidity.

OT: The short songs, how do you know when to cap off an idea? I feel like most artists hover around the 2-4 minute range, but you have a ton of songs that are like 45 seconds.
GK: I mean, I guess you just know. If I force it to be longer than it needs to be, it’ll get scrapped. The fun part is coming up with a melody and doing something new, I don’t want to repeat the same lyrics and melodies longer than I have to. Once in awhile, I’ll write a song where it takes more time to say what I want to say, or to explain the feeling. I like short songs, and I think it’s about having a short attention span and liking something that’s new. I like that we play dirty songs instead of thirteen longer songs. I don’t know, sometimes it gets boring. The songs that make it longer have to feel right. 

OT: Lately it feels like a ton of artists are doing this thing with less than 10 tracks, whether that’s because of the listener’s attention span or whatever. Close It Quietly has 21 tracks, and I kind of love that you zigged while a lot of musicians are zagging. Was there any consideration to condense the album? Is it hard to put a track list in order when it’s 20+ songs?
GK: On all the records we cut songs, so this is the condensed version. It is hard to order it, it’s always hard to put in order. I never think about it as an album. I always think of every song as a single. I think the last two albums, Luke has decided what the first track is going to be, that’s the easy part. We think about it like Side A and Side B, which doesn’t translate to Spotify, obviously. It’s a weird process, we all just sat and listened to a first draft of the order, and we made notes. If I put it in whatever order I want, it would be meaningless, so my bandmates are definitely helpful. I have a hard time thinking of an album as a whole, I can’t think of how they relate to one another when I’m in them.  

OT: Let’s talk about marbles since their heavily featured in the album artwork. How many did you own as a kid, are these pictures in the album art just your marbles? What is the significance of them?
GK: I think it’s sort of like, well we almost called the album marbles. It’s just the idea that these are my marbles, and you could lose your marbles. The song “Marbles” is sort of a love song, and I just have a feeling about how marbles have a personal meaning to me. I had this image come to me in the album art, I wanted to take a photo, and I described it to Lauren [Martin], and she drew it as I imagined it, and that became the art.

A marble is this tiny thing and it holds this depth and you could look at it forever. I definitely played with marbles as a kid. It was fun to just get a bunch of marbles, take the photos. It was trippy because I was looking at them with a magnifying glass. They just kind of take you out of the real world for a second. 

OT: Last question, you asked what the stupidest Frankie Cosmos lyric was on Twitter a few months ago, so I’m wondering what your opinion is on that question, and also what’s the stupidest lyric you’ve ever heard? I know, I know, this is on the spot.

GK: I think I tweeted that to be self deprecating, but I got some really funny responses. There are so many stupid ones. Sometimes you hear a lyric and it’s so dumb, but I kind of like that, it’s funny to give a pedestal to stupidity. I really like when songwritiers use cliches in a way that’s moving, and you’re turning it on it’s head by using it, that’s my favorite kind of stupid lyric. In Frankie Cosmos some of them are just stupid and funny. 

I think that there is a lot of emotion in the silly off the cuff sort of thought. One person wrote “I drank bad coffee, I hope that you call me.” First of all that takes me right back to the moment when I wrote it and I know what coffee I was drinking and who I was hoping to call me. There’s a pureness that takes you straight to your stupid emotions. It’s deep, but you don’t have to put it in some poetic way. I think sometimes the best lyrics that i get really excited about come from letting myself spew out. Letting loose and not worrying about being stupid; it represents how you feel. It can mean something bigger than the stupid thing that it says. 

See Great Kline and the rest of Frankie Cosmos at Black Cat DC on Friday, September 27. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets $20. For information on the show, click here.

Black Cat DC: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; 202-667-4490; www.blackcatdc.com

Kaena Kekoa as Jasmine // Photo: Deen van Meer

Into A Whole New World: A Q&A with Aladdin’s Kaena Kekoa

“Jasmine knows what she wants and she is determined to get what she wants, she stood out to me because she is a sign of empowerment for young girls.”

Kaena Kekoa said to me over the phone as we discussed her role in Aladdin. The Broadway national tour of the play is making its way through cities across the country to bring a whole new world to each audience, taking the Kennedy Center stage on July 18. While many remember the classic 90s Disney film, the stage version has chosen to rewrite Jasmine in order to give her more “umph” as Kekoa says. On Tap was able to speak with her about her start in theatre and what it means to play such a well-known character.

On Tap: When did your interest in the theatre first begin?
Kaena Kekoa: I got into the theatre when I was 11, mostly church musicals and community theatre. I have been singing for most of my life. 

OT: What brought you to Aladdin?
KK: I went to an open call at the end of January 2019 in Honolulu, when I auditioned for the show. I had moved back home after college, they had an open call for Frozen, Lion King and Aladdin. I had no intention of going because I was already home and I missed it and wasn’t planning on leaving. I thought it would be a fun thing to do, I got called back for Princess Jasmine in mid-February, which felt so fast!

OT: Why were you interested in playing the part of Princess Jasmine?
KK: Honestly, I had no intention of doing any of it, it kind of just happened for me. She is a role model for young girls, especially in this time where girls need a strong independent woman figure. Especially on the stage, they get to come to the show and see her. She knows what she wants and she is determined to get what she wants. She stood out to me because she is a sign of empowerment for young girls. 

OT: In terms of the power dynamic, Jasmine tends to get pushed away as a female, how did you approach this?
KK: In the show, we give her some umph, she was written with more umph than the animated film. She has her friends who push her, we have three attendants instead of a tiger, who push her to run away. “Love comes to those who go and find it, and if you dream then stand behind it,” she really takes that on in this show. She is determined to find what she wants. Even though her father is telling her what to do, she is still determined to go out and be a better person for her people and for herself. She’s not just another Disney princess, she has developed [much more].

OT: Do you think Jasmine’s story as a character is important? Why?
KK: Oh most definitely! Mostly because she kind of wears the pants, she is the only Disney princess who wears pants, actually. She takes charge of her own life. In this production, Jasmine is one of the only female principles in this show and she is surrounded by men telling her what to do. [It’s] relatable to this day and age, and it’s a story for all, not just for the little ones. 

OT: Did you feel pressure playing this character that is so well known and well loved by anyone who grew up with Disney?
KK: Honestly, no. I love taking on a character and figuring them out and adding my own flavor to it, but I didn’t feel as much pressure with Jasmine. As a woman of color, I love to represent that on stage because it is so important. 

OT: Do you ever get pre-show jitters/how do you get past them?
KK: I definitely had pre-show jitters for the first month straight. I’ve never been part of a Broadway national tour. I had a mentor in high school who told me to turn my nervousness into excitement and that will give you the energy to go on stage and take people to a “whole new world,” [laughs] if you will. 

OT: What are your favorite productions, what is your dream role?
KK: Hmm, good question! A Chorus Line, everyone in the theatre can relate to the first song, “I Hope I Get It,” and that song runs through your head and the story overall, getting to know all the different characters and their stories is just so touching and moving. Honestly, I probably don’t have a dream role, I feel like they are the ones we don’t know about yet, whether they are written or not, I haven’t played it yet so I guess I wouldn’t know what it is. I can [also] tell you that Princess Jasmine is my dream come true. 

OT: What advice would you give to anyone coming into this business? Something you wish you had known?
KK: Hmm, I guess I would say to be kind to everyone, and I kind of knew to be kind to everyone, but it’s something that not a lot of people know how to do. There are so many people working hard behind the scenes making sure you are safe and that your show works, be thankful and say thank you and express that to everyone backstage. Express your gratitude, because if they weren’t there then you wouldn’t have a show. 

“Aladdin” will be featured at the Kennedy Center from Thursday, July 18 to Saturday, September 7. For more information and for tickets please visit here.

John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Courtesy of Mark G. Meadows

Changing Minds Through Jazz: A Q&A with Mark G. Meadows

If you’re tuned into the jazz music scene, then you’ve probably heard the name Mark G. Meadows. Best known for his social change album, 2016’s To The People, wherein he encourages his listeners to look toward their future how to best handle the successes and failures.

He meditates on how to best move forward as a nation, while also making sure we take care of each other. We were able to sit down with him and talk about his upcoming performance at AMP by Strathmore and the creative process for his new album, Be The Change.  

On Tap: What brought you into jazz music originally?
Mark Meadows: Honestly, my dad is my biggest influence in terms of jazz; my dad, Gabriel Meadows, [he] is a jazz vocalist in Dallas. I started with classical piano when I was five. He actually lied to my Russian piano teacher, saying I was six. She didn’t take anyone under the age of six. I would go to my dad’s gigs and would listen to him play jazz, I already had the ear, that’s when I began taking formal lessons with Nora Jones’ teacher Julie Bunk. 

OT: What do you love about the jazz world?
MM: I love the fact that it is never the same and always fresh, no matter what song or what field I am performing in, we are already listening to create and to create something new. Similar to having a conversation with old friends, no matter what, you always enter the conversation not knowing where it’s going to go.

OT: Where do you typically draw your inspiration when writing your songs?
MM: My personal experiences, without a doubt. My music is very telling of my personal life. It is generally my therapy. I use my music to grapple with different life choices I have to make and whether it be career choices or more philosophical thoughts or relationships. Everything I write stems from a sincere honest place and that phase of my life. 

OT: How did you feel post-2016? And how did that inspire your next works?
MM: Sure, well 2016 was a crazy year, the year I released To The People, my mantra for social change. It was also the year that I played the lead role in a musical called Jelly’s Last Jam. Where I took on a whole new world of possibility and connections, a fearless leap for me. After that, I was dazed and confused, between a whirlwind of dropping the album and having my first experience acting. I didn’t know which direction to go in, whether I was an actor, musician or music director. It shook me after I made this statement of change and how far we have to come, what’s the point all the time I spend and all the messages I want to convey. Is it being lost? from that came Be The Change, which is about what your change is, whether smiling to someone on the street, we all can and should do something to make that change. 

OT: What do you hope to achieve with Be The Change?
MM: After everything I had done, that we still as a country made the decision we made and I saw all the alt-right groups and things I never thought I would see again. I thought “man, maybe I’m not really making a difference.” After some meditation and conversation I realized I am, it sounds a lot like Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” this is my 2019 version of that. 

OT: Any pre-show rituals?
MM: I like to spend time with my band and talk and hang with them. Most importantly, I need 5-10 minutes by myself to meditate and convince myself of my mission to communicate joy, love and understanding to people. 

OT: What is it that you want listeners to be aware of when listening to this album?
MM: I want them to be aware of listening to music outside of their comfort zone. People who know my music know that the track is not my normal sound, it is my attempt to be the example of the change. In order to be the change you have to change the way you talk and interact with people, you have to change your circles. My attempt to reach outside the typically jazz, soul and R&B world. To be honest, most of the people who are my fans probably think and have the same political views as me, we as a world need to try and find a way to interact with those who are different than us.

OT: What are you most looking forward to with your next performance?
MM: I’m looking forward to performing a very special evening to what I hope will be an amazing audience. I don’t set expectations, I live in the moment and on July 11 I will give my all to the crowd, and hope they are with us.

Mark G. Meadows plays at AMP by Strathmore on July 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets $18-$32. For more information visit the website.

AMP by Strathmore: 11810 Grand Park Ave. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.ampbystrathmore.com

Photo: Eleanor Petry

Julia Shapiro Presents Imperfect Perfect Version

Julia Shapiro didn’t want to talk about it. In April 2018, amid health concerns, a fresh breakup and an existential crisis, she couldn’t tour anymore. Her indie rock outfit Chastity Belt cancelled what was left of their tour, sparking a long overdue period of self-discovery for Shapiro.

Her solo sound doesn’t differ much from the pathos of her beloved band. The music is still constructed upon a lyrical foundation that ranges from witty banter to existential thought experiment. The low-key instrumentation and soft melodic choruses are where the subtle differences become noticeable.

With questions of self and very real trepidations concerning the literal grind of touring, the artist had already planned to explore music solo. Upon returning to a newly empty Seattle apartment, she transformed the space into a makeshift studio and dove headfirst into writing, performing and producing songs that would become her latest release: Perfect Version.

“This is like its own thing,” Shapiro says of her solo project. “I think it’s helpful because if I was in a nice studio, there would be too many options. Having limitations and having to do it myself, I had to go with what sounded best.”

Shapiro has learned from last year’s record cycle. She’s checking in with herself and her bandmates more, and generally feels “way better.” Chastity Belt has a number of dates confirmed for the winter and she’s currently touring for Perfect Version, with a stop at Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe in Adams Morgan later this month. She’s ready.

On Tap: You recently said you were questioning whether you were interested in music anymore and pondering why you fell in love with it. At what point did you decide to start even thinking about music again?
Julia Shapiro:
I’m always questioning what I’m doing. At the time, I felt exhausted from how much we’d been touring and disillusioned from the whole album process. I never thought I’d stop making music, but at that point, I didn’t want to tour anymore. Coming back, I started writing songs right away. I got really attached to the demos and thought they were good. I figured, “Why record another version?” because I’m lazy and they had a kind of magic.

OT: You basically self-produced Perfect Version. Were you learning on the fly or did you have the demos at the ready?
JS:
There’s no one right way to mix something. I just used my ears. Doing it with someone else could have sounded more pro, but this is more personal. I don’t love records that are only high fidelity. I like demos because they feel more personal and there’s a uniqueness to them. I don’t think your average listener will be able to tell it’s not the best quality. It sounds like music.

OT: Are you officially renting out your apartment as a studio?
JS:
A couple of my friends have asked me to produce things but I haven’t started on them yet. I don’t know what it would be like to produce someone else.

OT: Did you feel any pressure for your solo album to sound different than Chastity Belt or [your punk band] Childbirth? It seems slower and more melodic than your previous work.
JS:
I didn’t really think about it. I hoped and assumed it would sound different. It’s going to be in the same vein because I’m writing the songs. Writing parts of my own songs seems so easy, because I know exactly when the transitions are.

OT: From your time in other bands, how different was it for you to answer to yourself? Was it difficult?
JS:
I had feedback because I needed to make sure I wasn’t completely in my own head and doing something weird. I still had people to bounce things off of, but ultimately, all the creative decisions were mine. It felt really good to be totally in control. That’s kind of f–ked up, but it felt good. I made the music video [and] did the album cover myself, and it made it easier. It was a very different experience.

OT: How did you settle on the title Perfect Version? When I first saw it, all I could think of was how one of my favorite aspects of your songwriting is this unabashed imperfection.
JS:
The whole experience of writing the record was about embracing my flaws and embracing imperfection, and it’s represented by this record that isn’t perfect. The song [“Perfect Version”] is inspired by that scene in Lady Bird when Lady Bird goes dress shopping with her mom and they’re getting in a fight and she says, “I want you to be the best version of yourself.” And she replies, “What if this is the best version of myself?” I related to the mom [because] I tell myself I should always be improving. I’m going to always strive to be better and [sometimes], it’s not going to happen. It’s embracing that.

OT: Even when you and your bands are having fun with lyrics and being whimsical and silly, you seem to always be dealing with a sense of existentialism – from the perils of Tinder to coming to the conclusion that you’re bored all the time. Would you agree that going further in this direction was completely natural for you?
JS:
It’s not something I consciously thought about, but yeah, I guess it is the next level. It’s even more vulnerable – it’s less funny and more earnest.

OT: How did you go from leaving the Chastity Belt tour to where you are now? How big of a role did Perfect Version play in helping you heal and grow?
JS:
I’m still transitioning a little bit, but I feel way better than I did a year ago. [Chastity Belt has] a ton of tour dates we’ve been setting up and it feels kind of daunting. It feels like I’m in a really good place. We got really lost in the last album cycle. We felt forced to do a lot of things we didn’t want to do, and I didn’t like it. Labels feel that you need to fit in these little boxes and stay within these lines, and we wanted to feel more in control and be intentional. I was kind of having an existential crisis, like, “Who am I outside of this band?” It was fun to have a few months to not be in the band.

OT: When you talk about your label asking you to do things you didn’t want to, was that actually happening or was it a more subconscious sense of duty?
JS:
Kind of a bit of both. Subconsciously, we felt this pressure we hadn’t realized. Now, we’re just kind of questioning everything and making sure that everything is in our control. Even with music videos – we don’t need to do something crazy. We can record something on an iPhone. Stuff like that, where the label goes, “Are you sure about that?” Our album covers, they let us get away with that, and our new one is really f–ked up looking. They’re like, “Are you sure?” and we’re like, “Yeah, absolutely.” They’ll challenge us, but you have to stand your ground. Maybe we weren’t confident enough in our ideas [before], but now we’re like 100 percent. Them challenging us on it makes us think it’s good and interesting.

Shapiro headlines Songbyrd on Monday, July 22. Doors open at 7 p.m., tickets are $12-$15. Follow her on Twitter @cool_slut.

Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe: 2477 18th St. NW, DC; 202-450-2917; www.songbyrddc.com

Photo: Chad Moore

Yeasayer Bring Episodic “Erotic Reruns” to 9:30 Club

A quick Google search on the band Yeasayer will show they fall under the genre of “experimental rock.” The Brooklyn-based trio consisting of Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder have long been revered for their clever lyrics, electronic influence and inventive aesthetic.

But on their fifth studio album Erotic Reruns, released in June, the band looked to new sources for inspiration, drawing from the urgent and guitar-heavy sounds of seminal bands from the 60s and 70s. We caught up with Keating ahead of their stop in the District on July 12 to talk new music, the ideal setlist and why 9:30 Club is an important venue to them.

On Tap: Your new record Erotic Reruns has more guitar and rock influences than some of your past work. What inspired that sound to really come through here?
Chris Keating: I think we were looking to make something very immediate. I wanted the songs to be under three minutes and reference some of the 60s and 70s music I liked: some Bowie stuff [and] The Velvet Underground. We tried to make it guitar-based and not as electronic as some of our past albums.

OT: The shorter songs leave the album at just under 30 minutes (29:05 to be exact), which seemed like maybe a different approach to a full-length album.
CK: In theme with the title, Erotic Reruns, we wanted it to feel like a half-hour TV episode. People these days have a tendency to overload and pack an unlimited amount of material onto a streaming album. One of my favorite albums that came out in the last few years was the Pusha T album [Daytona] that was only seven songs long. I really appreciated that because I listened to it a few times and I was like, “Oh, a lot of other albums have like 21 songs on them.” We wrote about 20 songs and just decided it was a cool concept to come in under half an hour.

OT: The brevity almost makes you enjoy an album as a whole even more. Almost every album that I love has a couple of songs where I think, “I don’t really know why this is here.”
CK: It’s very rare that you can just listen to an album all the way through. And I think partly that is because we have this short attention span culture when it comes to music. It’s also partially because we want to curate our own singles, but it’s cool when an album can be played the whole way through. We tried to make it work that way.

OT: How did you decide what to include while avoiding filler or an overly long album kind of vibe?
CK: To be honest, I’m not really sure. At a certain point, you start listening through and you’re like, “Eh, I don’t know about this one” or “Yeah, let’s do that one” or “Let’s put out another seven-song record in a year.” When you start listening to them and you think [about] what works together in a group, some things stand out as outliers. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s really sort of an aesthetic decision.

OT: Yeasayer already has a rather large back catalog of music before you even factor in the new album. How do you curate the setlist you have now, and balance the old and new?
CK: We basically play the entire new album because it’s short enough. Then, we still have another 45 minutes of stuff from older records to play for [a total of] an hour and 15 minutes. You’re playing a new song, an old song, a new song, an old song. It usually works out pretty well if we time it right.

OT: It must feel good to incorporate a little bit of both. I would imagine as an artist who just made this new material, you’d really want to share it but not forget about older material or audience favorites.
CK: Oh, definitely. I hate it. I mean, just like everyone else, I hate it. I hate going to see a band when I know they’re only playing new stuff. We are very much of the mindset of, if a song was popular 10 years ago, you just keep it in the rotation. Maybe you shuffle some in and out. I guess there’s some level of artistic integrity to abandoning your back catalog, but I always thought it was a little frustrating.

OT: Speaking of live shows, you recorded your live album Good Evening Washington D.C. at 9:30 Club in 2013. Why did you decide to record it there, and what are you looking forward to being back there on your upcoming tour?
CK: Anand [Wilder] and myself both grew up in Baltimore. When we were in high school, the 9:30 Club was a really big deal. Whenever a friend was able to drive, we were going there to see bands like Pavement and Kool Keith, or The Roots and Weezer. It seemed like we were there once every few months. It was always just a special place. I didn’t realize how great it was until we started traveling the country and playing other clubs. DC is so lucky to have something like that there. I think it’s probably the best c lub of that size in the country, if not the world. It’s always a stop everybody looks forward to. It’s the kind of place where I’ll see a lot of family members and friends. I’ll look out in the crowd and see teachers from high school, which is really cool. Some random person will stop me at the dressing room door and be like, “Hey, we went to school together” or I might run into someone I haven’t seen in 20 years.

Yeasayer return to 9:30 Club on Friday, July 12. Tickets are $30, and doors open at 8 p.m. For more on the band and their new album Erotic Reruns, visit www.yeasayer.band.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

Photo: Eat Humans

Folksy Faye Webster Plays DC9

Faye Webster is more than a folk artist, though that’s how most websites and music critics classify her. The 21-year old singer-songwriter from Atlanta does indeed strum acoustic guitars and her soft voice comes with a faint Southern accent, but her sound has undoubtedly evolved since her first release, 2013’s Run & Tell. Though traces of that traditional twang is still evident in 2017’s Faye Webster and this year’s Atlanta Millionaire’s Club, it’s clear the young musician is growing exponentially with each release.

There’s little doubt the use of her name on the second record was intentional, acting as a fresh introduction to a new direction she wanted to take her music – trading some of the bluegrass for pop and some of the country for R&B. If Faye Webster was a taste of Webster’s versatility than  Atlanta Millionaire’s Club is a buffet.

While Webster is on the road, we had a chance to chat with her pen pal style, where we asked her about her photography, her Braves, her yo-yos and, of course, her music.

On Tap: The first thing I noticed listening to Atlanta Millionaires Club is how different it is than your self-titled LP and especially Run & Tell. It seems like you’ve sort of reached this point where you’re truly free flowing from R&B to folk to country to wherever else you feel like going, but it all still sounds uniquely you.
Faye Webster: I don’t think about that stuff when I make music, I just write and record and let the song call for whatever it wants or “meant” to sound like.

OT: This album has a seamless flow to it, even as it goes from a song with a tropical sound like “Room Temperature” to a pop-sensible “Right Side of My Neck.” How much work did you put into getting the order right to better tell your story?
FW: It was a lot of back and forth, I probably made five drafts of the track list. When I finally made this order and listened to it front to back, it was just an instant feeling that this was the one.

OT: Before this record, you sang a few hooks on hip hop songs, was there anything learned from the experience of doing features that you brought to Millionaires Club?
FW: Definitely, I learned to let things happen in the moment because when you are there doing a feature and collating with another artist you don’t nit pick lyrics or make revisions, you just let your heart out. With this record, I tried not to go back and touch on songs; I just left them raw and imperfect. Also having Father on this record is really special to me and is kind go a homage to him and Awful Records. They hold a very special place in my heart always.

OT: Speaking of hooks. Being from Atlanta, what hip-hop legend would you most want to do a song with? I know you did a photo shoot with Killer Mike, does this mean we can expect you on RTJ4? (Please say yes!)
FW: He’s not from Atlanta but JPEGMAFIA and I have been talking about doing a song together, and I really want that to happen.

OT: I know you’ve said in other interviews that everything you write is personal, but was this one more difficult because of the subject matter? I think you mention crying approximately 57 times, it’s extremely open and intimate.
FW: Approximately, yes. Singing about my family is always hard, especially when they are there in person listening. I used to have conversations with my brothers about whether or not I should take out something I said about my mom or grandmothers, but it’s how I wrote it and that’s how it should stay.

OT: As a photographer, do your album covers sort of mean more to you than they would other artists, because so far they’ve all been some take on an a portrait of yourself. What was the process of doing the coin photo? Also, how many of the coins did you actually eat? 
FW: Yeah, I try to not just make it an album but a art piece as a whole. It took two days to get that picture and I didn’t eat chocolate for three months after that.

OT: Does your music and photography intersect at all, do you find yourself inspired by the music you for a shoot and vice versa? 

FW: I think it’s just something that I enjoying doing. It definitely shows off in my music videos though.

OT: What was the toughest environmental portrait you’ve done as a photographer? Why was it difficult?
FW: I think the portrait of Killer Mike because we met at his barber shop and that’s all I had to work with. It was just hard transforming the photograph to look like we aren’t in a barber shop.

OT: Switching gears, what is the most expensive yo-yo you own? Is there a difference in quality or is it simply the design/aesthetic that makes it expensive, because I’ve looked some up and prices are WILD.
FW: An $80 Cadence (Kieran Cooper’s signature yo-yo made by SF Yoyos). When yo-yos are metal they start to get fancy and expensive. But that’s what people compete with.


OT: Do you ever sing and yo-yo at the same time? Is it like brain gymnastics, like does it help spark ideas when you’re stagnant?
FW: No, but I have a whole playlist to yo-yo to.

OT: Lastly, what happens first: 1.) You sing the National Anthem at an Atlanta Braves Game? or 2.) You throw out the first pitch at an Atlanta Braves Game?
FW: First pitch. I would forget every word to the National Anthem, it would be terrifying.

Faye Webster will play in front of a sold-out DC9 tonight. For more information on her, her music and her yo-yo exploits, follow her on Twitter @fayewebsters.

DC9 Nightclub: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; 202-483-5000; www.dc9.club
Photo: Roberto Chamorro

Whole Lotta Soul: Eli “Paperboy” Reed Wears Influences on His Sleeve

Full disclosure: I’m a total sucker for a retro-inspired sound. Add crooning vocals, soulful instrumentation and thoughtful lyrics to the mix, and I’m sold.

A girlfriend introduced me to soul singer Eli “Paperboy” Reed about a decade ago (fun fact: she went to the same high school as Reed in a Boston suburb and was super proud of this fact) and I was immediately smitten with his modern-day take on the genre. Since then, I’ve seen him play DC venues multiple times – most memorably with a full brass band at Rock & Roll Hotel – and listened to his records incorporate everything from blues and gospel to R&B and pop sensibilities. But soul always remains the foundation of his signature sound.

With a new album, 99 Cent Dreams, out on April 12 – produced in Memphis by Matt Ross-Spang with Ken Coomer (Wilco) on drums – and a tour that includes a stop at The Hamilton Live on May 4, I finally had the opportunity to pick the artist’s brain about reinventing what has come before and making it his own. We chatted on the phone recently when he was at home in Brooklyn doing some spring cleaning about life as the father of a two-year-old, how DC has the best Ethiopian food (duh) and what soul music means to him.

On Tap: I want to start with a question that sometimes mildly offends musicians when I ask it, although I’m not completely sure why.
Eli “Paperboy” Reed:
[Laughs] I’m very excited to hear what the question is now.

OT: I find that so much of the music I love is a reinvention of older sounds. With soul being the backbone of yours, and as a musician on the soul scene for more than a decade now, how do you reinvent that sound with each new album and keep it fresh and true to you?
EPR:
I think it’s a good question. I think if you had asked me 10 years ago when I started out, I might’ve been one of the ones who was offended. I think that I’ve come around to the idea that I don’t mind wearing my influences on my sleeve. I hope at this point in my career that I’ve been able to make records that people can identify [with] sounding like me. Everybody takes from something. I don’t think there’s any point in trying to deny it or be upset about being called a revivalist or whatever. I guess just at the heart of it, the point is that people want to put your records on and listen to them, you know? I think that my goal has always been to make music that I want to listen to and love.

OT: I would for sure say you have a signature sound that’s all your own. Your music feels like something I can dance to, and Top 40 isn’t that for me, do you know what I mean?
EPR:
Sure, well that’s great. I think that’s also part of the goal for people like myself or any of the other artists that are clearly very influenced by 60s soul music is to provide their listeners with something they can enjoy that they might not otherwise be able to find on the radio or at a show. The fact that you can come out and see me play live and enjoy yourself and dance is something you can’t do with a record that’s 50 years old.

OT: Very true. So tell me about 99 Cent Dreams. How long was this record in the making?
EPR:
I have a daughter now who’s two-and-a-half and I had this idea that I was going to write a lot of this record while I was home on paternity leave and that didn’t really happen [laughs]. Once she started daycare, I buckled down in earnest to write the songs. Thankfully, there’s a really amazing community of musicians and singers and songwriters here in Brooklyn, and a lot of people were able to just come over to the house and sit down with guitars or on the piano and write. It was a nice chunk of time that I was able to set aside at home with my family and also work with a lot of people who I really respect. It was a very productive time period for me.

OT: Did you draw on home life – being a parent and a husband – at all during the songwriting process?
EPR:
Absolutely. I think these are songs that are really representative of my current situation and how I feel about my wife and my family. I feel like it’s a more settled record, that’s for sure. But in a good way. And I don’t think that makes it any less soulful or any less emotional. I think it’s just a different kind of feeling that I’m drawing on.

OT: I have a two-and-a-half-year-old as well, and I grew up playing classical piano. I’ve been wondering when to start teaching him how to read and play music. As a professional musician, have you already started thinking about teaching your daughter how to play an instrument?
EPR:
We play music together in the house all the time. I’m not really trying to do the lessons thing. For me, the idea is just to have [music] be around, and I want her to pick up on things that she likes to do. I want to let her figure it out for herself. As long as we can listen to music together, that’s enough for me.

OT: Are there any songs on the record that are particularly close to your heart or that you think listeners will really connect with?
EPR:
I like “Tryin’” a lot. It’s a song that I wrote from my wife’s perspective. She’s the one in the family with the 9 to 5 job, and sometimes it’s a tough life to have a 9 to 5 gig and try to come home and be a parent, or a husband or a wife.

OT: When did you have that moment of, “Okay, I’m all in, I’m doing this” about soul? Why was it the genre that you connected with the most?
EPR:
Soul music is kind of the quintessence of all the things that I love – blues and R&B and jazz and gospel and country music – put through the lens of a pop format. That’s something I could wrap my head around as a performer: how to do that and do it in a way that I felt was original and that people would be interested in hearing.

OT: Do you feel like your sound has changed a lot over the past decade in terms of sticking to soul, or even your live performances?
EPR: I had a period where I made a pop record that came out on Warner Bros. and for one reason or another, it didn’t really connect. Then I kind of went the opposite direction and made the My Way Home album, which is more [of a] gospel record. I felt like I had to do something that was just for me. I’m incredibly proud of that record. It felt cathartic and necessary. When it came time to make this album, I wanted to do it in a little bit more of a controlled and thoughtful way. I feel like it became what I wanted it to be, for sure.

OT: Are there any sounds or genres you’d like to explore or pursue in the next few years? What’s next for you?
EPR: I’m still buying gospel records all the time. I love gospel music. It’s an endlessly deep well of inspiration for me. Man, there’s so much, you know? But for the most part, I come back to the same things because I think there’s so much to discover in the genres that I love. There’s still records that knock me out. I’m finding new music every day and it’s still amazing how much good stuff there is that is undiscovered.

OT: Who would be your dream co-bill for a future tour?
EPR: Probably Beyoncé [laughs]. I think Beyoncé pretty much takes the cake for all of it.

OT: What’s your favorite part of playing shows in DC?
EPR: Ethiopian food, man. Ethiopian food in DC is the best. There’s a particular place and I’m forgetting the name, but every time we play in DC, I stop in Alexandria at this tiny Ethiopian place in a strip mall that’s open until 2 o’clock in the morning. We go there after every show. It’s SO good.

Eli “Paperboy” Reed plays The Hamilton Live on Saturday, May 4. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets $15-$20. For more information about the performance, visit www.live.thehamiltondc.com. Learn more about Reed at www.elipaperboyreed.com and follow him @elipaperboyreed.

The Hamilton Live: 600 14th St. NW, DC; 202-769-0122; www.live.thehamiltondc.com