It was an honor to illustrate for the LA Phil as 2018 came to a symphonic close. Seeing my work animated (by Daniel Anderson) was a real treat, as my drawings transformed in imaginative ways along with Olivier Messiaen’s vibrant Turangalîla Symphony. I’ve gathered additional illustrations for this piece, as seen below, to give you a more complete appreciation for the evolution of the video:
Working as a graphic artist for the USC Thornton School of Music has given me the opportunity to help visualize some incredible stories about its students & faculty. One of my favorites from last year was “The Magnificent Seven,” about a group of seven legendary drummers brought together to honor the legacy of professor Leon "Ndugu" Chancler. Faced with the challenge of completing her friend and colleague’s remaining weeks of instruction after his untimely passing last February, Patrice Rushen, Chair of the Popular Music Program, “…called seven legendary drummers, asking each to fill in for one week. They all said yes.” Having grown up listening to Chancler’s work with artists such as Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Lionel Richie, it was a honor to express how much his impact on the music communities, both at USC and around the world, will be cherished and missed.
Story by Julie Riggott / Illustrated and Animated by Sean David Christensen / Music by Ricky Berger
Named for the highway suspended between Bakersfield and the Kern River Valley, The 178’s reimagines classics from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson through cloaks of electronic flourishes and dreamlike arrangements. I had the pleasure to visualize this connection from one city to the next, one genre to another, by deconstructing a familiar roadside landmark with an abstract approach that speaks to the album’s quirky sensibilities. On their rendition of “Crazy,” the vocals scatter like broken radio frequencies, the type you’d expect to find in-between AM stations, chirping through the gaps. With elegant instrumentation and production, The 178’s handful of new classics illuminate the connections between the past, the present and every side road along the way.
Evan Calbi: Nylon-string guitar, electric & double bass, pedal steel, vocals
Pat Dietz: Electric guitar
John McClung: Pedal steel arrangement on “Silver Wings”
Bill Severance: Drums
Rich Wenzel: Hammond B3 organ, keyboard
Win_go: Backing vocals
Recorded at Ardent Audio Productions, October 2018
Mixed by Rich Wenzel
Produced by Evan Calbi & Rich Wenzel
It was a joy to help out my good friend David Luraschi film his music video for "Penny Girl," the debut single from Cola Boyy's debut EP, Black Boogie Neon. I spent a whirlwind weekend driving around Oxnard helping gather bits and pieces of sunshine that Luraschi spun into gold. As Matthew (Cola Boyy) himself said best: "This is not just my world, but a part of me that's so vulnerable. All my differences are on the table, and my song plays in the background. Oxnard has so many bright colors and faces, it shows in the video. Isn't it nice?" More than just nice, it was truly inspiring to see his community come together to support this gifted young man and our heartfelt romp through their neighborhood. I can't wait to see what funky magic Matthew conjures for us next, as well as myself, his newest fan.
Director: David Luraschi / Production company: SlowDance / Executive producer: Valentine Suc / Director of Photography: David Luraschi / Line Producer: Mike Medoway / 1st Assistant Camera: Riley Keeton / Set Designer: Sean David Christensen / Production Coordinator: Jocelyn Rummler / Production Assistant: Jocelyn Cortez / Editor: Kenza Meunier & Wyatt Earp Color Grading: Marjolaine Mispelaere / Post Production Company: Motion Partners
Special thanks to: Oxnard, CA, Adrian Pillado, Nic Hessler, Corentin Kerdraon, Marc Teissier du Cros, Cesar Wogue, Record Makers, Juniper Carrasco, Luis Franco, Jun Porte, E-scan, Fotokem, Motions Partners, Panavision, Reel Good Films & Daniela Garcia
READ ABOUT THE VIDEO via The FADER
I had the good fortune to catch AmirSaysNothing at a concert showcase organized by the prolific Charlie Scovill, held at the Bootleg Theatre in Los Angeles earlier last month. Amir's blistering set featured selections from his most recent collaboration with Scovill, Love Always, Mr. Right, which promptly made me an instant fan; Hence, this fan art. For more music from this electric pair and many more artists produced under Scovill's unique vision, please visit www.charliescovill.com to catch just a glimpse of this wunderkind's prodigious output.
I've been experimenting with making cut-and-paste collages from my own illustrations, scrambling them in order to find new shapes or meanings. Music usually keeps me company while I do this, and one of the most delightful songs to do so last year was Boy Pablo's "Everytime." The music video is a delight, sun-dappled friends playing together on a dock in Norway. As the guitars swell and ring, you can almost feel the brisk of the afternoon by the water and the joy shared by all the musicians. Unexpected and effervescent, I highly recommend giving it a listen.
I recently gave my musical project a name, standing atop a mound of eviscerated ideas at the hands of Google search: "Behold, I am become Google search, the destroyer of first drafts of band names." Nevertheless, Maggie Dave is here, and in the meantime - while I desperately try to banish the creeping suspicion that there's somebody out there waiting to pounce on that unreserved domain name...I'll choose to breathe instead.
I'll be performing new songs during the holiday months ahead, so check back here during Decembertime for concert dates, live performances & more. Until then, enjoy this kitchen-recorded demo of "Haven't Been The Same," a cover of one of my favorite songs by the magnetically gifted singer/songwriter Uni and her Ukelele, aka Heather Marie-Ellison.
I love the hypnotic sense of equilibrium and pastel stasis in this video, directed by Daniel Brereton. Everything feels frozen, like a strange department store. Taken from Pool, the arresting new album by Porches, "Car" is a propulsive midnight drive that shimmers with Smiths guitar and rolls along a thick backbone, like the line of Shelby GT500.
When asked about the song, lead singer/songwriter Aaron Maine said: "I just liked the idea of shedding something and how amazing that feels to kind of discover something new or to feel like you're finding yourself in a different way." Listening to Pool, you can feel that same sense of Maine trying to define himself, trying to shed past lives and emerge as something of his own creation. Something amazing. For the listener, it is a similar experience. Preferably at night, listening to these stories melts away layers of guarded emotion underneath the cloak of anonymity provided by the dark hours between one and three A.M. On the other side of dawn, you too emerge different. Having shed.
Pool is a beautiful slow dive, through waters of loneliness, longing and wanting to be safe. Porches has crafted a focused, nocturnal tribute to the unease you feel when everyone else has gone to sleep, and you can't stop hitting "refresh," waiting for something new. Something amazing.
Pool by Porches is a Domino Recording Company release, available where all fine music is sold.
I recently got back into composing music and writing songs, several of which I made demos of in the winter of 2015 and the following spring. One of these, "Family Tree," is now available to download online through SoundCloud if you are so inclined. It's good company, and plays well with others on your music device or phone.
It's a rough draft though, unmastered & recorded in my mom's kitchen. Maybe a bit soft. Normally I'm leery of sharing works-in-progress, but I've always been intrigued by the organic quality of a demo that's still finding itself - stretching its connective tissue to other instruments yet to be added. To that end, I feel comfortable sharing it this way, because my main goal with my music hasn't always been sonic perfection, but rather, evocation of emotion & memory.
I hope, if anything, it's a pleasant aural diversion that isn't too much of a drag to listen to. Lord knows I love the darker shades.
The picture above you depicts two versions of the profoundly gifted folk singer/songwriter Meredith Axelrod. I drew "Blue Meredith" at what must've been two o'clock in the morning after a fitful night of sleep, as if it woke me up to roar itself into existence.
Trapped like a firefly in a jar, the original picture from which the illustration is based, illuminates my mind intermittently, and has done so in the five and a half years since I first saw it. Truly, it is one of my favorite photographs of all time, and keeps my drifting thoughts company at the most wonderfully inopportune times.
When I showed it to Meredith, she said, "You captured what I meant to convey by the photo."
I don't know what either is supposed to convey, but I captured it. Whatever it is. And that's something to be proud of.
Meredith Axelrod's evocative, stirring Americana folk music can be heard on Soundcloud.
There’s a specific lyrical choice made in Japanese Breakfast's tragic and penetrating "The Woman that Loves You" by singer/songwriter Michelle Zauner, that speaks to the larger, fragile heart of their stunning debut LP, Psychopomp:
The word “try.”
In the context of the song, this word edges its way into the chorus, suggesting: “Don’t you think? Don’t you think? You should try to do as little harm as you can/To the woman that loves you.”
It’s a heartbreaking detail. A whispered suggestion to someone not in the hopes of an end to the emotional abuse they dole out, but rather, less of it. They should “try” to make an effort. For the character in this song, the more realistic goal for her isn’t liberation from this man, but rather settling for a finer grit of sandpaper on her psyche. One that she can live with.
Psychopomp is rich with such detail, in rivers of narrative that stretch from feeling lost in relationships that are out-of-focus, to the weariness caused by years of a partner’s casual cruelty slowly grinding away at your patience.
In “The Woman that Loves You,” Zauner is embarrassed, upset that she’s let this relationship push her boundaries inward tighter and tighter, like a dog trapped in the backseat of a stalled out car: “You’re embarrassing me,” She confesses. “With a postponed marriage and this stalled out car/Then you leave me in the back/With half a window rolled down/Like a dog/Like a dog in the summer heat.”
Listening to this song, you can’t help but think that with all of her anger notwithstanding, she’s never once verbalized her plea for all of this to stop. Thought about it plenty of times for sure, but never out loud. Never to his face.
As the song winds down amidst a sea of frosty blue synthesizers, choral guitars, galloping drums and pulsating bass from the evocative performances of Ned Eisenberg, Nick Hawley-Gamer, Colin Redmond & Peter Bradley, the couple finds themselves “gazing out for better things,” knowing that they’re both reaching the end of the proverbial road. But perhaps they’ll give it one last chance. Or at least, they’ll try.
Psychopomp by Japanese Breakfast is available for purchase though Bandcamp and streaming for subscribers to Spotify, Pandora & iHeartRadio.
I came across Beach House's Bloom while sifting through the CD rack at my local Goodwill on the corner of 16th and Indian School in Phoenix, AZ. A pleasant textural surprise, the raised cover art of a seemingly endless array of white dots vanishing into inky darkness caught my attention and drew me in. I knew not of any of their prior releases, but loved the cover, and followed my gut. It was doubled-packed with a homemade Ritmo Latino Vol. 6 CD, complete with a torn Avery label face sticker, which was a bonus.
I went jogging that night and couldn't believe my good fortune of plucking such a sublime, rich nocturnal drift of an album from the void. Bloom is a gorgeous record, soaked in reverberated guitar, fragile Casio keyboard drum loops and haunting vocal arrangements that hang perpetually suspended in smoky atmosphere.
"Myth," the album's opener and first single, is a Cocteau Twins-inspired sonic lullaby that is equal parts mourning the decay of what's "dead and gone," and embracing change of what's yet to come, as you find yourself "...in a new direction, eons far from the sun." Even though you're hurtling through pitch black darkness, of which there is much to go around on when listening to Bloom, there is a luminescence to the milky light that shimmers off of songwriters Victoria Legrand & Alex Scally's work that keeps you inspired to move forward.
"I've been listening to a lot of Beach Boys lately," I said, leaning against the steps of my old San Franciscan apartment on the corner of Broderick & Fulton in 2006. Nathan Hartley Maas turned and looked down at me past the bridge of his nose and lowered his pair of neon green-templed sunglasses. He smiled. A breeze sighed through the street as the final days of spring relaxed into the final stretch of our semester at SFSU, which seemed to recoil with the acceptance of missed deadlines and unfinished film projects left to dangle in the wind like so many unpaired socks. The Beach Boys were a pressure release valve for me at the time that I slowly rotated in those years to alleviate those worries, but I wasn't listening to "Fun, Fun, Fun."
"Which album?" He asked.
"Love You," I replied. "The one they did with 300 pound Brian Wilson in like, 1976?"
We both shared a laugh at the cosmic horror that Wilson's life had become after his mental breakdown during the sessions for Smile in 1967. Our laughter came easy that day, because of course we would never welcome such depths of misery in the future because of course we would always be young. Things like that don't happen to the young. Not to us. Right?
Love You is an undeniably uneven album, but it’s also rich with some of the most personal and specific songwriting Wilson has ever crafted, full of twilight tales about taking his young girls roller skating, watching Johnny Carson alone at night and planning date night with his wife along with a quick visit to Phil Spector's mansion and his collection of guns. The songs are inmate, paranoid and fascinating. Maas, a life-long lover of The Beach Boys, has parlayed his prodigious gift at intricate composition, much like Wilson, into an equally challenging record that roars into existence using the same motifs as Love You. Full Color Depression, the first in a series of four albums by Nathan Hartley Maas, skates in-between layers of dread, isolation and raw uncertainty. It is also heartbreaking, deeply textured and raggedly endearing.
The album kicks off with “Let’s Start A War!,” a rollicking power punk anthem that explodes with untethered abandon. “I wanna hide, hide, hide, but you keep finding my hiding place…I tell my friends I’m building a fence. I’m keeping’ you out,” Maas snarls like a surrogate frontman of a scrappier version of The Stooges - as it collides with the next track, “The History of the World.” Building upon the propulsion provided by the combative drumming of Dusty Grimm, the song quickly morphs and expands outward into a haunted dub track, then implodes back in on itself to complete the blistering one-two punch of the opening tracks.
Maas continues to burrow into fractured narratives of past is prologue: “The supermassive black star field, without a star...Through the thicket, bring a lantern/It’s always dark,” he sings on “The Great Attractor.” There’s real palpable fear of trying to come to terms with things you’re powerless to change, and alternating between states of defiance and resignation.
Nowhere is this more effective than on the stunning “They Won’t Remember Your Name,” a meditative, haunting ode to the ruthless nature of a history that either forgets or never even bothered to remember in the first place: “It’s hard to be somebody, it’s easy to be nothing…World records are broken all the time/They won’t remember your name.” Where other songwriters might employ jocularity with such a subject, Maas finds only wry clarity about the hopeless cause of fighting against the tide. To that end, the song's sparse guitar and nocturnal complimentary vocals of Madi Goldsmith offer no light to guide the listener along this desolate path, just more beautiful shadows.
“The Five O’Clock Flight To Nowhere,” with its percussive piano, twinkling chimes and sweeping string arrangements add up to an impressive tonal throwback to Wilson’s Pet Sounds-era songwriting, except with seven more layers of dusky dream and hobo reverb. “We Was Young” is an unexpected gem of 8-bit chip tune recollection at trying to re-kindle or re-imagine a path you never took: “I wanted us to fall in love. We never did. And though we still could, it wouldn’t mean as much as it would’ve when we was kids.”
As “1997,” the album’s final track melts away into neighborhood atmospheric sound and ice cream truck bells carrying the hungry eyes of children behind windows, you are left with the residue of a deeply personal journey that Maas has invited you to be a part of - a road trip of sorts. Perhaps you rode shotgun in an actual ice cream truck. You slowly cruised past the movie theatre he was embarrassed to be seen at with the girl he never fell in love with, or his parent’s house, whom he feels a metallic distance from when he finds himself on the highway underneath a storm. Somewhere in Georgia, somewhere warm.
Through layers of regret and obstinance in the face of a future that stopped returning your texts years ago, Full Color Depression borrows notes of displacement and unease from the musical corners of The Replacements, Brian Wilson, Elliott Smith and The Clash, forming its own beautiful future that’s not quite sure if it wants to exist yet. For listeners willing to make that first step into the unknown, they’ll be sure to find light along the way - but only if they’re honest about where it will lead them, not where they feel they deserve to go.
Full Color Depression by Nathan Hartley Maas is available for download on Bandcamp.
I first met Heather Marie Ellison, the singer/songwriter known as Uni and her Ukelele, at an intermission for a show I was stage managing in San Francisco in 2006. The theatre company had been playing her debut album My Favorite Letter is U as house music at my gentle insistence, it having originally been made known to me via the recommendation of my dearest friend from film school.
She arrived rolling behind her a day-glow pink suitcase with a rainbow travel strap, rose petal ukelele tucked beneath her the crook of her right arm. Dressed in an outfit not too dissimilar to the one you see above, she appeared like a bolt of rainbow piercing the gunmetal grey and charcoal intersection of Van Ness and Geary outside. She played a handful of selections from her latest release during intermission as a guest performer, while audience members sat nonplused, unsure of what to make of the stories woven by her and her ukelele, tales of heartbreak and loneliness spangled in bright plucks of string and bubblegum pink.
I introduced myself shortly after she returned her gear to her traveling suitcase and proposed that maybe I could draw a poster for her someday. "Sure," she said with a smile.
I revisited her first album this spring on the eve of its 10th anniversary, each song ringing with the same clarity of vision and spirit that had originally captured my interest a decade ago. My Favorite Letter is U is a resoundingly satisfying record, and a deeply personal piece of art that addresses the dissatisfaction with growing old and out of love, old wounds that refuse to heal and the indomitable spirit that keeps the world bright while everything around you seems to be getting darker with every broken high heel. "Tell me that my world is pink, not blue," Ellison pleads on the final song, its namesake a coda that reverberates with each repeat listen and speaks to the healing power of music itself.
Layered with ukelele, guitar, kazoo, xylophone, melodica and fuzzy keyboards - the eclectic and vibrant songs collected on this release are a sly veneer to the deeper messages of melancholy that run as major themes beneath the entire album. An aural companion to the city of San Francisco, a luminescent port of call that seems to draw people in like moths looking for renewing flame, My Favorite Letter is U is enriched by a cast of characters that pass by each other like cable cars: shitty ex-boyfriends, charming but hollow lovers, burnouts, dreamers & frauds, each with a story that blooms for a short while in fifteen finely-crafted indie pop gems.
I can still remember Uni rolling her suitcase away from me after shaking her willow wisp of a hand, thanking her for performing that night ten summers ago. White go-go boot heels clicking on pecan terra cotta tile, she firmly pushed against the bronze-plated door of the lobby of the Cadillac Building, only to brave another perpetual evening drizzle of rain on her shoulders. Indomitably, she hoofed up a 30-degree incline towards a bus stop off of Geary Blvd., to wait for her ride through the arteries of city back and home again - home again to write more songs & dream of brighter colors. She dreams for me when I listen to her music now, and I long to stave away waking up every time.
My Favorite Letter is U is available to stream for subscribers of Spotify & iHeartRadio. It is available for purchase through Amazon, iTunes and unimusic.us.
Earlier this month, my dear friend Ellyn Maybe & Robbie Fitzsimmons released their debut LP, Skywriting With Glitter, an essential release for the adventurous listener who yearns for something brave and new. A composer and vocalist of prodigious talent, Fitzsimmons dances alongside Maybe's intricately-crafted poems that are intimate, yet cosmically gorgeous in scope. Each song is crafted like a miniature universe, and seems to limitlessly expand with each repeat listen.
When I go running in the evenings, I rely on a stable of "night albums" to carry me through the twilight. They range from Harry Nilsson's ethereal 1973 standards album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night to Deep, Peter Murphy's third solo album. Each one is laden with its own atmosphere, and chosen thusly. When I bought Ellyn's new album on iTunes shortly after getting a sneak peek, I put it on my iPod and went for a midnight run, not knowing that I'd only get about 27 feet before I'd have to stop and walk slowly down the sidewalk for the rest of the way, so as to not disturb the delicate soundscapes that Maybe, Fitzsimmons and the recording engineers had created.
"The shadows seem familiar," is a line taken from "The Girl in the Wishing Well," a stand-out track on this album strengthened by the most consistent and heartrending motifs of Ellyn's writing that she's been exploring for the better part of the past twenty years - the intrinsic sweet sadness of a family's love, longing for a sense of belonging & dreams that seem just out of reach. At the bottom of the well, you can hear Fitzsimmons angelic vocals and Maybe's distinctive voice echoing upward - yearning to escape, and the emotional resonance of the song is devastatingly powerful.
"The Life of a Raindrop" is a nimble showcase of Fitzsimmons dynamic range as a performer and virtuosity on the piano, shifting from thunderous to sprinkling keys that skip along with his soaring vocalization. "Marathon" is propelled forward by a truly haunting refrain, "...one shoe at a time," and the piece addresses the struggle of trying to find your footing in a world that has lost its way. The entire composition stirs with a sense of weariness & dread, with trembling piano rolling ceaselessly underneath Maybe's sharp use of imagery and evocation of anxiety and fear. In the end, no matter where the needle drops in between the ten songs on this record - you're gonna land on a captivating piece of songwriting that you won't be able to shake for days after.
Skywriting With Glitter is available on Spotify, iTunes and through Amazon in both digital and physical format. You can also visit them at ellynandrobbie.com for more information about seeing them live in the Los Angeles area and beyond. If you have an appetite for poetry and music combined in a way that commands your attention, you cannot miss this release. If anything, it'll give you a great soundtrack for your next moonlight mile in your favorite pair of sneakers.
I was working on some 1/12 scale miniatures this summer, and in the background, I listened to a pretty steady diet of late 80s/early 90s Pet Shop Boys - one of my, along with my sister's, favorite musical groups.
They fused fragile humanity with the muscular aural language of 80s synth pop and created a unique combination that is so quintessentially proper and very evocative for me. It always brings me back to the white linen hallway outside my sister's old bedroom, hearing the rolling bass lines on their landmark 1993 album Very pumping through the walls.
One such track is "Can You Forgive Her?," whose video is enriched with some terrific art direction & costumes by theatrical producer/artist David Fielding. It's a drama-laden track, which makes me think of its spiritual cousin, the stone cold 1987 classic "It's A Sin." The two songs address closeting one's feelings to avoid shame, rejection and ultimately the devastation of one's soul. Each character in the song is haunted by their past, the former by his repressed homosexuality, the latter by his oppressive Catholic upbringing.
Through it all, I just love the fact that both Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are dressed like nightmare candy corn while they sing about psychic torment. Such a bold choice at a pivotal shift in the band's trajectory, all the while fully realizing their marriage of orchestral sound with programmed synthesizers that would come to define them for the next decade.
Give it a listen, enjoy those fantastic pointy hats, wish you had some & have a look around. I'm glad you're here.
-Sean (8/21/16) *The first of what he hopes to be many posts.