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The Good Kind: How Big Name Artists Are Giving Back

It seems that lately famous names, especially those with musical talent, are all about doing good. Musically inclined individuals are readily inspiring warm fuzzies. Maybe I wear rose-colored glasses when viewing icons responsible for my longtime love of audible bliss. No matter. I’m comfortable with this analysis, content to single out a handful of mention-ables for their meaningful efforts to make a difference for those less fortunate. Or, in some cases, their willingness to lend a hand (err, track) on behalf of the greater good by making their art both part of the conversation and solution no matter the cause.

Recently I had the great pleasure of attending the fourth installment of SPIN Magazine’s Liner Notes, a series that highlights the influence of literature on music, promotes literacy, fosters a love of reading among music fans and raises money for organizations. In this instance, Ben Folds and Nick Hornby shared the stage, co-headlining this special gig, where music and literature intersect. The two discussed their collaboration on recent release Lonely Avenue and performed select songs from the record—the audience couldn’t be more pleased by the intimate engagement. The event, held in New York, raised funds—and awareness—for Housing Works, a non-profit that strives to ensure homeless and low-income people living with HIV/AIDS and their families have adequate housing, food, social support, drug treatment, health care and employment.

While neither singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist nor novelist touched much on the charitable basis of the benefit, their brand names brought fans that packed snugly into the Crosby Street bookstore and café. The sold-out event was attended by 250 people and raised over $10,000.

Trees!--Moby.com

Producer (and so much more) Moby took a different approach by lending his tunes to a powerful documentary film that is sure to turn heads; Director Lucy Walker’s Waste Land is a transformative exploration of the human spirit. The movie chronicles the everyday lives of poor trash pickers who make their way collecting recyclable materials at the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Moby, who spoke about his participation in the film at the React to Film screening at SoHo House, said “I’ve never been happier to have my music used than in this film. There [are] so many messages.” His involvement piggybacks another way in which Moby is giving back. He told attendees, “I started a Web site called MobyGratis.com, which gives free music to indie filmmakers. To anybody.” He quipped, “You can even lie and say you’re an indie filmmaker.” He explained the simple process, “What I’m particularly happy about [is] now, [when] someone submits a request for a license and we don’t get back to them within two days, it’s pre-approved. Which is great. Free music for everybody!” So, while all independent projects may not align with an obvious cause, or multiple causes as Waste Land does, Moby is himself coming to the aid of struggling moviemakers attempting to convey meaning via art.

Moby’s not the only musical wunderkind with a soft spot for significant films. So too, it seems, is John Legend, who lent his vocal acumen to the soundtrack of Waiting For ‘Superman,’ a film that explores corruption in America’s education system. Says Legend, “I was really inspired by the film. I wrote a song for it. It’s the only original song on the new album.” At the red carpet premiere at New York’s Lincoln Center a few weeks ago, Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, pointed out, “John Legend has been really terrific about these kinds of issues. His voice in this is really important.”

Musicians who speak out as, well, “spokesfolks” for important issues deserve recognition too. Take John Mayer for example.  He attached himself to the Malaria No More campaign, specifically the Comedy Fights  Malaria effort, which uses laughter-inducing videos with major celebrities (Aziz  Ansari, Orlando Bloom, Jason Schwartzman) delivering hilarious lines and talking @#$% about the epidemic. In one of the videos, Mayer says, oh-so-seriously, “Mosquitoes will tell you they don’t have malaria, but use a net anyway.” It’s a clever viral tactic that aims to make an impact and garner attention—and funds—to help wipe the planet clean of this disease. One of Mayer’s songs, “Why Georgia,” also appears in one of the videos, entitled “My Childhood.” Prior to this enterprise, the organization released Indie Rocks! A Benefit Album for Malaria No More last year. This 14-track compilation included contributions from Peter Bjorn and John, Wild Light, The Walkmen and eleven others.

Whether through music or using their voices to speak up on behalf of a cause they believe in, be it animal rights (HERE, Paul McCartney) or civil rights (Beautiful Small Machines, Pink), education reform (Lil Mama, John Legend) or the environmental crisis (Green Day, KT Tunstall), curing diseases (Coldplay, John Mayer) or fighting poverty (Metric, Madonna), musicians are ready to be heard for more than just music. From the U2’s of the world right on down to more underground outfits like HERE, artists are making a difference globally and locally through the medium of music or the fame that comes with making great music. So much good is going on in the face of so much mayhem and dismay, it’s almost become a necessary step to success to get involved. At the very least it instills warm fuzzies.

By Nell Alk

Nell Alk is a culture and entertainment reporter based in New York. Her work has appeared in Paper Magazine, InterviewMagazine.com, Zink Magazine and BlackBookMag.com, among others. She also contributes to NBC’s Niteside blog.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Call: Playlist for an Autumn Day

The leaves have changed, the temperature has dropped…there’s no doubt that it’s officially fall. Before the really cold weather starts to set in, sometimes it’s nice to go for a walk with some hot chocolate and an awesome acoustic playlist.

Here are our picks for music as chill as the air outside— the soundtrack for that perfect autumn day. Click on each artist on the list to check out their OurStage profile!

1. Andrew Varner – “Autumn Leaves” Could there be a more perfect title for this playlist? Andrew Varner starts us off on the right foot with this soulful yet spunky tune, complete with some The Fray-esque piano parts.

2. Hana Kim – “Chase the Morning” Hana’s voice is beautiful and perfectly compliments the soft guitar parts on the track. If you like A Fine Frenzy or Missy Higgins, you’re sure to be a fan of Hana’s!

3. Caleb Lovely – “Stay” Caleb’s voice makes this love song soothing and endearing. Definitely love the hand drumming as well!

4. Ron Pope – “Drop in the Ocean” This song grabs you right from the start. It’s an older version of the song, which now has a full band on it. Ron’s piano playing is flawless and his vocals truly capture the emotion in the lyrics. Ron performed this song as an unsigned artist on MTV’s Total Request Live and was soon awarded a record deal with Universal Republic!

5. Jesse Thomas – “Say Hello” Like KT Tunstall, Jesse Thomas’ voice is both pretty and rough, with a slightly raspy quality that makes her stand out from the typical female singer-songwriter. If you listen closely to this cute and quirky tune, you may realize the lyrics are deceptively dark.

6. Jordan Tolentino – “Closer To You” Jordan’s got the right idea on this song, as he sings, ”We can grab some hot chocolate, walk and talk about the things that make you who you are.” The vocal melodies, fantastic harmonies and lively guitar on “Closer To You” remind us of Jason Mraz!

7. Torin Dinh – “I Could Lose the Night” This song has an almost country-like feel to it. The bells in the background add a bright and bouncy quality to this sweet acoustic number.

8. Natalie Creel – “To California” Sounding like a young Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Creel’s voice is full of emotion and sincerity. With songwriting chops like this, it’s hard to believe she’s only 20-years-old!

9. Chris Ayer- “Say What You Mean” One listen to this song and you’ll see why Chris Ayer has received a multitude of awards and praise for his music. On this track, Chris’ warm and encouraging voice asks listeners to “Say what you mean this time and stay who you are.”

10. Micah Premnath – “Oh My” Micah’s impressively smooth vocals start off this track on a high note, and it only gets better when the reggae-style beat fills in behind the guitar. With romantic lyrics and a catchy chorus, “Oh My” is sure to please fans of Amos Lee and Bruno Mars.

Check out all the songs in the player below and let us know which songs you would add!

Q&A With KT Tunstall

It’s no surprise that KT Tunstall has a passion for culture. Growing up in England with Irish, Scottish and Chinese blood, Tunstall was instantly and independently drawn to musical performance at a young age. In 2004, her debut record Eye to the Telescope spawned worldwide hits “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” “Other Side of the World” and “Suddenly I See.” Following further success with 2007′s Drastic Fantastic, KT has returned with her third effort, Tiger Suit. We caught up with KT and talked about her confidence crisis, recording in a legendary studio and the inspiration behind this eclectic and organic new record.

OS: Growing up in a family with no musical background, what caused you to learn several instruments and eventually pursue a career in music?

KT: It was pretty freaky! It was a weird, very innate thing, where I just gravitated to music straight away as a little kid, and nobody else in my family really did. It’s kind of funny because my mum found a diary that she kept of when I was a baby and she said when I was six months old, she found this diary entry going, “I’m really worried because Kate screams louder than anybody else’s baby.” (laughs) But no, I was asking for piano lessons by the time I was six and playing a bunch of instruments when I was quite young. It was just always something that I found really natural and an easy way of communicating, through music. It’s just always been there.

OS: Tiger Suit is the title of your new record, and refers to a recurring dream you’ve had when you were younger. How have you interpreted the dream and how does it relate to your music?

KT: Well, it’s a really cool dream where there’s a tiger in my garden and I go out and I start stroking it…and I’m a kid in the dream. It’s not until I come inside the house and look at the tiger through a window that I’m really afraid, and think, “What the hell was I doing? It could have eaten me.” And I can’t see myself in the dream, so I thought, “Am I disguised as a tiger? Am I also a tiger?” But there’s something going on where I am able to commune with this beast and it’s not attacking me. And I suppose that, even now, as an adult, makes me feel how I feel about music. A lot of the time…where I’ll just jump in and do something and not really think about it, and then afterwards, just go, “Oh my God, that could have gone so wrong!” But also, the title is kind of referring to when I go on stage. I go on stage as myself. I’ve never had, like, a character. But I suppose after six years of touring…I think this last year, I had to write and stuff, it just made me realize that I’ve got this kind of armor and it’s this kind of, Joan of Arc warrioress, “I’m gonna do what I fucking want,” armor (laughs), and I get on stage and be who I want to be. And at the same time, I’ve got to take that off when it comes to writing and I’ve got to be as vulnerable and as real as possible. It’s a protective thing, but also a really fierce thing…I’m a huge fan of Where The Wild Things Are, the movie that just came out, that was my favorite book as a kid. Max wears his little wolf suit and I was just convinced that if he wasn’t wearing it, he would just be eaten in about five minutes. He’s got his magic suit on that keeps him fierce.

OS: You have called your new music “Nature Techno.” Can you explain what that means and how your sound has evolved since Eye to the Telescope and Drastic Fantastic?

KT: Yeah, it was kind of a concept of what I wanted to try out…I haven’t like, made a house album. But it was really just about the fact that I’ve realized I’m a huge blues fan. I love up-tempo blues as well, more rockabilly stuff…Eddie Cochran being one of my favorites. And it just made me realize when I was digging deep to kind of find out what was going to turn me on the most in terms of making a new album, I really rediscovered my passion for dance music. I’ve been a big fan of Leftfield and DJ Shadow, The Chemical Brothers and a band called Lamb…and I realized that that music makes me feel quite similar to when I’m listening to up-tempo blues music. It’s got this really primal, four-to-the-floor pulse…I just find myself getting lost in it, in the rhythm. When I’m dancing around a campfire, I end up feeling pretty similar to when I’m dancing in a club. I just really wanted to mix those two together and see what happened. And I think the big difference with this album is it’s the first time I’ve gotten quite experimental. It’s been quite traditional instruments up until this point and this was the first time we kind of used electronica, synthesizers, drum machines and that kind of thing. I also feel like there’s just a wilder streak to this album, where I’m not too worried about technical perfection in terms of my singing and it’s more just about being a bit freer and expressing myself a bit more.

OS: Between records, you took an international trip that had a huge impact on you. Can you tell us more about the trip and its effects on you personally?

KT: Yeah, the first part of the trip was to the Arctic, to Greenland, which was a really incredible landscape that I dreamt about for many years and wanted to go and see. I went with this group called Cape Farewell and they took 20 scientists and 20 artists on this boat. So I’m on this boat with Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, Feist, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vanessa Carlton, Robyn Hitchcock, Laurie Anderson, all these amazing artists….and because it was right in the beginning of starting to make a new album, my ego just attacked me with a huge machete and just went, “You suck! You’re not nearly as good as these people, you’re never going to make an album that’s going to excite you as much as you want to excite yourself.” I just had this big confidence crisis where I felt like life had become quite complicated. I was in this beautiful place where the Northern Lights come out and there’s whales in the water and icebergs floating that are the size of skyscrapers and I just felt like, “I could really just get off the boat and stay here for awhile.” And that was really what that song was about,”Uummannaq Song.” It’s the first song on the record, which has got that very tribal feel to it. All of the places I visited over my travels had this very strong indigenous culture, and I also felt there was a real, rooted musical culture. I traveled South America, went to New Zealand and went to India and heard incredible music. I think traveling just basically really fired up my imagination in terms of, with this album, I’ve sort of given all of these songs location. I think they’re set in places in my mind and what I saw and experienced in my travels really helped fuel that.

OS: You recorded Tiger Suit in the famous Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin, Germany. What was that experience like?

KT: It was awesome. It was so cool. I’d recorded most of the demos at my place in England and it’s really cool, but it’s quite small, so I wasn’t really going to be able to make the record there. And so I went to Berlin, and it’s just this amazing legacy, where Bowie recorded Heroes, U2 recorded Achtung Baby and Iggy Pop recorded there. It’s got this energy for me that I just felt like I wanted to play better. I recorded with a live band for the first time and we recorded vocals live and we were just so energized by the history of the place. It looked so cool and Berlin’s an amazing city. Very vibrant.

OS: You released two different singles in the UK and America, “(Still A) Weirdo” and “Fade Like a Shadow.” The songs are very different from each other. How have the two been received in their respective countries?

KT: It’s been really interesting because I’ve not had that happen before, releasing different singles. “Fade Like a Shadow,” for me, was really good…I understood the record company going, “Yeah, let’s go with that,” because it’s so upbeat and it’s quite urgent. It’s about exorcising this ghost of someone who’s still alive, who’s haunting you. It’s got that electronic influence on it. And then in the UK, “(Still A) Weirdo” is such a strange choice for a single, I thought, “What are you doing, putting that out as a single?” It’s like the weird little runty puppy on the album, this very eccentric little fragile song. But they said, “it’s really emotional. It’s very different from a lot of what else is out there and it makes people feel something.” And I think it’s the same for “Fade Like A Shadow” as well, it’s a pretty emotional song. But they’re going great, I’m really pleased. They seem to be popular, as far as I can tell.

OS: You’re heading out on tour, first to the UK and then across America. Will your stage show be different this time around to accompany your new sound?

KT: Well, I have a slightly different band. I don’t know if any of you guys remember a British band called Ash, they were quite big. They had this girl guitarist called Charlotte Hatherley. She went off and did her own thing but she’s joined the band for this tour. So we have a girl on lead guitar, which is so cool. And we have a Welsh rock ‘n’ roll boy on bass, but I have the same drummer and same keyboard player. But it’s basically quite full tilt. Rehearsals were like, going clubbing, for awhile. We play a lot of beautiful, really down-tempo numbers as well, and I’ll play some stuff on my own. I always like to keep it quite diverse. I also have an awesome backdrop being painted with UV paint, which I’m very excited about.

Check out KT’s fall tour throughout the UK and the US:

10/19 Cambridge, UK – Junction
10/20 London, UK – O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
10/21 Manchester, UK – Ritz
10/23 Glasgow, UK – Barrowland
10/24 Wolverhampton, UK – Wulfrun Hall
10/31  Portland, OR - Crystal Ballroom
11/1   Vancouver, BC - Commodore Ballroom
11/2    Seattle, WA - The Showbox SODO
11/4    Spokane, WA -  Knitting Factory
11/5    Boise, ID - Knitting Factory
11/7    Reno, NV - Knitting Factory
11/8    San Francisco, CA - Warfield Theatre
11/11  Los Angeles, CA - The Music Box
11/12  San Diego, CA - House of Blues
11/16  Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre
11/18  Minneapolis, MN - Epic
11/19  Indianapolis, IN - The Vogue
11/21  Chicago, IL - Vic Theatre
11/22  Detroit, MI - The Crofoot
11/23  Toronto, ON - Phoenix Theatre
11/25  Montreal, QU – Club Soda
11/26  Philadelphia, PA – The Trocadero
11/27  Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
11/29  Boston, MA - House of Blues

The Old Soul

Hannah Thomas

Hannah Thomas may be a fresh-faced 21-year-old, but she’s got a seasoned voice that sounds like it’s seen it all already. And maybe it has seen a good bit. Thomas made her debut at an open mic night at Atlanta’s songwriter haunt, Eddie’s Attic back in 2006. From there, it was full-steam ahead—taking first place in competitions, appearing on local TV and radio shows and releasing a record. “The Rest is Yet to Come” is Thomas’ first offering, a low country, bluesy, coming-of-age anthem that sounds like it could have been written by KT Tunstall. “Will I get married settle down and have some babies? Or spend my whole life searching and never find love?” the singer muses. Thomas’ deep, smoldering drawl is her calling card. The electric guitars may whinny, the bass and drums may thump, but it’s Thomas’ voice that will thrill you to your country-lovin’ core.

Girl Fight

Mieka Pauley of the Mieka Canon

Mieka Pauley had already achieved some traction as a solo artist before linking up with Brian Cassagnol and Andrew Morgan to form the Mieka Canon. There was the Starbucks Emerging Artist Award, the New York Songwriter’s Circle Award and gigs opening for KT Tunstall, Natasha Bedingfield, Ben Kweller and John Legend. Now, with Cassagnol and Morgan in her corner, Pauley’s music underwent rigorous training, doubled its muscle weight and is now strong enough to take on the mainstream.  Take “Colossal,” for example. Crushing drums and towering guitars (reminiscent of John Frusciante) push Pauley’s soulful husk to aggression.  With hooks coming at you from all angles, you may as well surrender.  In “We’re All Gonna Die,” Pauley channels her inner bad girl for a careening kiss off, while “Faster” is conversely slower – a glossy power ballad that showcases Mieka’s serious lyrical chops. There may be many who prefer Mieka’s pared down, softer work as a singer-songwriter. But for those who like to see a female contender on the male-dominated modern rock charts, put your money on Mieka.

 


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