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Exclusive Interview With ‘Canadian Man’ and Country Singer Paul Brandt

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When the team here at Canadian Twang first began discussing what artist should be featured on “launch day,” there was only one name that merited any serious consideration. Paul Brandt has been deeply committed to the Canadian country music scene since returning home after a four-year stint in American with Reprise Records, a period during which he landed nine songs on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles chart (including “My Heart Has a History” (#5) and “I Do” (#2), both in 1996).

The singer and songwriter launched his own Brandt-T Records in 2001, at a time when artists stepping out on their own without the support of a major label was far less common than it is today. Since then, Brandt has won countless Juno and Canadian Country Music Association awards on his way to becoming one of the most respected artists in the history of Canadian country music. 2002′s Small Towns and Big Dreams and 2005′s This Time Around were each named the CCMA “Album of the Year,” and in 2005 he was named the (American) Country Music Association’s “Global Artist of the Year.”

Brandt recently took time to speak with us about his charity work, a new album that will be released in 2011 and his current single, a cover of the Junior Brown song “Highway Patrol.”

CORY NOEL: Let’s started by talking about some of the charity work that you do. Specifically, tell me about a trip that you made to Cambodia recently with a website contest winner.

PAUL BRANDT: It was an incredible trip. I actually had the chacne to go over there about four years ago for the first time, so it was the second trip for me. We wanted to run a contest where we bring a fan, and we’ve done this before—we did a tour through a promotion we ran with the “Risk album, where we sold water filters that fans could buy. These water filters provide clean drinking water for 8-10 people in the developing world. Then, we took the people who bought the filters and entered them into a contest and on that trip we went to Etheopia and Egypt, where we got to see the pyramids together and do all this cool stuff. And, we did stuff that actually gave back.

The cambodia trip was another trip like that. We ran the contest through Twitter and through our website, PaulBrandt.com, and the winner who came with us, her name was Lara Howsem. I just ran into Lara at another benefit event that we were both at, and she’s a Masters Of Journalism student at University of British Columbia. She blogged about the entire trip while we were there—letting people know about some of the things she was learning about the people over there and the problems they were facing, like human trafficking. That’s going on around the world, and especially there in Cambodia.

CN: Another one of the “charity” things that you’ve been doing—and I say “charity,” but really it’s tied in with one of your sponsors, UFA (United Farmers of Alberta)—is the Small Town Heroes contest, which you just announced the winners for. Tell us a bit about that.

BRANDT: I think it’s really amazing to meet people overseas that are doing great work, but it’s also really special to recognize those who are closer to home that are also doing amazing things. We wanted to find a way, along with UFA, to recognize the great work being done by people right here. We wanted to recognize people who are heroes in those small towns, that do a lot of great work, but who don’t necessarily blow their own horn—they just get out there and get the job done. So, we asked people to nominate their small town heroes, through a website that UFA had put up. And we had tons—I mean hundreds of thousands—of people who wrote in with stories about people in their town that they look up to.

It was really hard to pick, but we did manage to narrow it down to two [nominees], and I’m going to be headed to Milk River and Beaver Lodge to perform a couple of shows in the early part of next year, and perform for our Small Town Heroes. Hopefully, those shows that will benefit their town in some way, through not only ticket sales—UFA is going to give them a special prize for being recognized, so it was really a pretty cool contest.

CN: Talk a bit about why charity work is such a big part of what you do.

BRANDT: I feel so blessed to be able to do what I do. I never—well, I try not to, anyhow—take credit for any of this. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, to be able to sing and to write, and for some reason people listen to me when I talk. But, I think we’ve all got something that we’re good at, and I just wanna take what I’m good at and do the best that I can with it. Country music and country music fans are the kind that always wanna help, always wanna give back. So, I wanna partner with them to do that. I feel blessed to be from Alberta, to be from Canada. What an incredible country, that we get to believe the things we wanna believe, and say the things we wanna say. What a great country. And with some of these trips that I get to take around the world, you realize that’s not the norm. So, I wanna just take advantage of that, and use that to do things that I think are really important to people.

CN: I know one of the other things that’s changed for you in the last couple years is that fatherhood has become a part of your life. How old is your son, Joe, now?

BRANDT: (Laughing) Yeah. Oh, man! Well, Joe’s two-and-a-half now. And, well, we don’t sleep much in our house anymore. I don’t know what that’s about. But no, he’s just awesome. He’s my pride and joy, and we just have so much fun hanging out together and just getting to see what he’s up to every day. Every day it’s something new—he comes up with something new that makes us laugh. And now, we’ve got number 2 on the way here…pretty much any minute now.

CN: Wow!

BRANDT: Yeah, we’re really excited about that. And yeah, it’s been great. It takes a lot of adjustment trying to figure out how to take all of that in stride, really for anyone with any job. But, for my job and what I do, it’s tough to figure out how we’re gonna take this and fit in all the road stuff”. I was really excited the other day when Liz [Brandt’s wife and a back-up singer on the road] came up and said ““I’m ready to get out on the road again. Let’s take the kids and hit the road.”” So, we’re gonna be hitting it hard next year, and I’m really excited to share this new music with everybody. And to be getting on the road again with the whole family. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

CN: It’s going to be great to see you back out on the road, for sure. The other big thing you’ve been up to during your couple of years away from the road is that you got hooked up with those Rempel boys from up in the Lecrete country. Tell us about the trio High Valley and your work with them.

BRANDT: Those guys are great. We’ve had a lotta fun with High Valley. Actually, I was down in Nashville just a couple weeks ago and got to head out to a hockey game with Brad [lead singer Brad Rempel] and got to catch up with him. They’ve got some amazing things happening in their career right now, and the song they’ve got out right now, “On The Combine,”” sounds great on the radio. I’m just proud to be associated in any way with those guys. They’re quality guys.

CN: They sure are. And, I wanna ask you about giving them advice. Now, I hate talking like you’re this grizzled veteran of the business, like Ian Tyson or someone who’s been around for 50 years, but the boys obviously have the benefit of leaning on your experience. So, tell me what it’s like for an act like High Valley breaking in to the business today, compared to when you were getting started back in ’95 or ’96.

BRANDT: Honestly, I gotta say, I think it’s a lot harder now than it was back then, for me. You know, I had some really great breaks and the business was just so much different back then, and it’s changed so much. I think it’s a lot harder now, trying to get people’s attention—especially as a new artist. And I think the fact that High Valley’s been able to do that shows that they’re incredibly talented and hard working guys—and really good guys. They put their hearts and souls into everything they do, and they work so hard and have been working so hard for so many years.

CN: As far as Canadian country music in general, has the scene progressed from when you started out? Are you proud of where it is right now?

BRANDT: Yeah, I think it’s really great. It’s really healthy. You see a lot of great new talent coming out, and new artists with new music, trying new things. In Canada, it’s always been a bit different than what’s happening doing in the US, because in Canada we’re a lot more accepting of new and different types of music that all kinda fit in to Country music. I think that just makes it a bit more lively up here. You know, I really enjoy that part of the scene here. I think it’s alive and well and doing great. It was really great to be at the CCMAs this past time, and see all the new talent coming up. It’s challenging times in the business for everbody, but for everyone that’s out there and working hard and putting out music, I think it’s going to be a good thing and I think it’s going to pay off, and I think we’re all still having a lot of fun.

CN: Speaking of new music, you’ve been back and forth to Nashville working on some new stuff that you’re expecting to have out in 2011. It’s different for you now, living in Canada and just traveling south for work, as opposed to living there full time. What was your experience like when you were living there, and how has it changed now that you’re just heading down for work?

BRANDT: Well, we’re back and forth quite a bit, and I guess it’s weird for me because it doesn’t seem like it’s changed all that much. When we were down there in the beginning, I mean we were doing 180, 190 shows a year. So, my house was in Nashville, but we sure weren’t there very much. What was great about it is when you are home, and you need to get work done on your music, you can just head down to Music Row and everything is right there for you. All the people are right there. My creative team and all the people who have played on my records, they’re all based there. So, it’s kinda like old home week now, when we go back there and I kinda get the best of both worlds.

I enjoy being back in Alberta and being around all our extended family here, and then I take trips down to Nashville for recording, and y’know, you talk about me going down there for work, and I guess it is kinda like that, but lemme tell ya, I’ve got a pretty awesome job. It’s so much fun to go down there and catch up with everyone and record this new music. It’s a project that is going to be about two albums worth of material, and we’re actually trying to put together one version of this project that will include a book that sorta tells the story of from way back in ’96 when I got my record deal, all the way to present time. And it’ll include every album from Small Towns Big Dreams, which was the first album we put out on our own label, to present time. So, it’s gonna be a really cool look back but also an exciting look forward to what we’ve got coming next.

CN: It sounds really cool! You talk about the label, Brand-T Records, and I have to ask, since every project you’ve done since starting your own label has won “Album Of The Year,” what kind of pressure do you feel going into the studio now?

BRANDT: Man, I try to not think about it, ’cause you can’t put pressure on yourself to outdo it every time. It’s the same thing I tell anyone who comes up to me and says, ““How do I make it in the business?”” The thing I tell them is that the one thing I’ve always kept in mind—right from the very beginning—is that I do it because I love it. I absolutely love performing for people and writing songs and doing what I do. And, y’know, I think that if you don’t win “Album Of The Year,” and if people aren’t coming out to shows, if all that happens…well, I’m still doing it because I love it. You can’t take that away. I think that’s really the key for all of this, for me. It’s just being really passionate about it, and using it as a platform to do great things around the world and partnering with the fans to do that. And, it’s about doing my best to make the best music I know how.

CN: The first single from the new project is a cover song, a cover of the old Red Simpson and Junior Brown song “Highway Patrol”.” But your own material, your own songwriting, has always been a big part of what you do. How much of the new project is going to be your own material?

BRANDT: Yeah, y’know, “Highway Patrol” is really the only outside tune we’ve got on this project. It was a favourite of mine from when Junior Brown put it out, way back in the early ’90s. I started doing some digging and looking at the songwriters, and Red Simpson, a great Bakersfield-area artist, y’know, part of that era, had cut it back in the late ’60s. I just loved hearing that version of it as well. I’m really happy with how our version turned out, but yeah, in these last three years I’ve done a lot of songwriting behind the scenes, and I’m really excited about sharing that with everybody too.

CN: Do you have a release date yet for the new project?

BRANDT: I don’t have a specific date just yet, but I am thinking the middle of next year. It’s one of these things where it’s been such a labour of love. I don’t want to rush it and put it out before it’s just as perfect as I can make it. But, we’re hoping it’ll be about that time, and then we’re going to get out there on the road and start playing this stuff for everybody.

CN: And I know everyone is really excited to see you back out there on the road. I wanna take a second just to talk specifically about the new single, “Highway Patrol.” Like you said, it was a song you’d wanted to do for quite a while, and just hadn’t got around to it yet—but what was it about Junior Brown’s version, specifically, that drove you to want to record it?

BRANDT: Well, y’know, it’s one of those things that always sorta resonated with me, because he’s got that same kinda baritone, bass delivery that I like to have in some of my songs. I thought that his version had a real quirkiness to it, and a real artistic vision to it, in the way that he delivers it and plays his guit-steel guitar. It’s one of those songs that I’ve always enjoyed, too, ’cause it’s sorta tongue-in-cheek, in that it’s sorta paying homage to the men and women of the police force who are keeping us safe out on the roads, but at the same time, it’s like you’re trying to get away with something. I just like that part of the song, and we’ve had a lot of fun playing it live. We’ve had a lot of great response from it so far.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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Interviews

Interview with Vince DiFiore of Cake

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It would be an understatement to say that 2011 is going pretty well for Cake: the sardonic rock band’s newest album, Showroom of Compassion, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, and they’re about to embark on a string of sold out shows (of which the 9:30 Club will host three). We got the chance to chat with trumpet/keys player Vince DiFiore about Showroom, the band’s solar powered studio, and where the band’s going next.

JULI THANKI: You’ve been with Cake since the beginning. How has Cake evolved in the past 20 years?

VINCE DIFIORE: The electric guitar was bound to creep in and become stronger; it was so restrained on the first album and the second album, too. There was a very deliberate restraint that didn’t want to be restrained, because it’s an electric guitar. Given time, that sonic expression of the electric guitar is going to make its presence felt to a greater degree. I think it’s the nature of the beast and probably something that had to happen.

I became the default keyboard player in the band starting with “The Distance” synthesizer line. When it dawned on me and everyone else in the band that I was playing keys, we started adding a lot of keyboards in the studio because we had somebody to play them. It was like we added a keyboard player. The first album has instrumental organ parts that we didn’t really play when we played those songs live.

The third part of that answer would be the background vocals. We have always had harmony vocals but I think we really stepped it up as other band members have been in the band longer. Once you find your voice in the band, maybe even through your instrument or how you identify yourself in the band, then the vocals come. There’s something singing that’s very personal, and you have to mean it. All five of us are singing onstage now. Victor [Damiani], our old bassist, never sang, and Gabriel [Nelson, the current bass player] sings. That’s been a huge difference.

THANKI: Aside from the B-side comp, this is your first record since Pressure Chief in 2004. Why was there such a long gap in between records?

DIFIORE: We toured on Pressure Chief for two and a half to three years, going all over the world touring, then resting for a while. It became a lot of business details with record labels and stuff. We made the decision to leave Columbia Records and started Upbeat Records and put out B-Sides and Rarities. We did a little bit more touring for that. Then we took about three years to make this last record. We did gigs here and there to keep being a band that plays and has a connection with an audience. We communicated with each other musically and through the website to get us all on the same page and have a similar worldview. We weren’t on a deadline; there wasn’t a record company saying “Your three years have passed. Where’s your next album?” It was up to us. We knew that if we were putting out an album we want it to be an album that we can really stand behind. So we took the time to do that.

THANKI: What else do you dig about having your own label? Is it mostly the freedom?

DIFIORE: It’s a lot more freedom. There’s a feeling of helplessness in anything if you don’t have control over the situation. It’s probably why couples fight so much and why there’s antagonism in business relationships, because you want to determine the outcome of something and say how much of your life is going to be committed to something and hope that the commitment turns out to be some sort of self-fulfillment also. When you’re living like that and you don’t have control, it makes you feel helpless. We’re experiencing the opposite of that now in terms of calling the shots. There’s a lot more administration that needs to happen, but we have a very good manager and a very good distributor. Everybody put their best foot forward and had all the pistons firing at the same time.

THANKI: I heard you guys have a solar powered recording studio. Tell me a little bit about the decision to go green in that aspect of the band’s career.

DIFIORE: We figured how much energy we would need to rehearse and record and then put thirteen solar panels up. Lo and behold, we did the entire album with solar energy. I think it changed the way we felt about being in the studio. It was a really good move. It assuages some of the guilt of being on the road and consuming energy and traveling about and using hotels and all that. Everybody is an energy consumer if you want to participate in society; that’s the way things seem to be running. That made us feel a little bit better about [the band’s] carbon footprint.

THANKI: Cake plays DC fairly often. I don’t know how much free time you have, but do you have a favorite thing about the city or a favorite part to visit?

DIFIORE: You know what’s remarkable? The amount of space there is. You’d think it would be a crowded place like New York City or Boston or Philadelphia. Those places are roomy, but when you’re out on the Mall, there’s so much space around you. There’s not much difference in the Mall when there’s no one on it and a weekend in the summer when everybody’s there. Things are still working out. I feel so safe at night. I love to go out on the Mall at night on a bike or walking; it’s so open and peaceful out there.

THANKI: You’ve got a couple co-writing credits on Showroom. How involved do you get in that process?

DIFIORE: John wrote the words for those songs. He came in with the words and melody; I got credit because I came up with a lot of parts for the arrangements. He was nice enough to give me credit on there, and I think I deserved it (laughs). I did write a lot of the music around the melody. You want something that’s interesting both melodically and rhythmically and that goes along with the song. A lot of the process is intuitive, just doing it, then stepping back and then doing it again until everything seems to work.

THANKI: Where do you see the band going from here?

DIFIORE: I liked how everybody worked together on the last album and how everybody felt confident about bringing what they liked about music into the band. That was really great. Nobody was shy about their contributions. We all played how we wanted to play, and there was a great chemistry working out. If we do that for the next record then no matter what we bring in, it’ll be something good. It might not be different [stylistically]. It will be a different experience certainly, but the precedent that The Beatles and The Police set for changing their sound on every album is pretty freaky, you know? (laughs)

I think our strength is writing songs within an album. The sound works out for us. It’s guitar-bass-drums-trumpet-keys-vocals, and that’s what we are. I don’t think we’re going to bring in any kind of robot to play synths or Xan’s going to turn into a classical guitarist or we’re going to start playing like U2. It’s going to be the same effort if we are so lucky to get together and make more music.

THANKI: As a big Louvin Brothers fan, I was so glad to see you guys touring with Charlie Louvin a few years ago. Whose idea was it to bring him onto the tour?

DIFIORE: That was John’s idea. I’m so glad that so many people were introduced to Charlie Louvin’s music; that’s a great thing. He was fun to be around. It was important for him to be funny. He always had some jokes. He was a very friendly guy. I actually visited him in his museum that he had near the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He just hung out there during the day; you could go in and see the Louvin Brothers’ stuff and talk to him and get photos with him. He was really a good person to be around. The Louvin Brothers were the Everly Brothers’ favorite band, which says a lot. They had those really sweet vocals and wrote incredible songs and harmonized really well together. It’s a beautiful thing when brothers are singing like that.

THANKI: Were you a fan of their music before touring with Charlie?

DIFIORE: I knew of the Louvin Brothers from when we were on the road; we had mix tapes and mix CDs in the van and John loved “The Great Atomic Power,” which I heard on the way to Portland once. I clearly remember going over the bridge over Lake Shasta and hearing that song. It’s a good memory. There’s a bunch of great Louvin Brothers songs, but there was about two or three that I knew before we toured with him. It was really special. What a great experience to have.

THANKI: We’re about out of time, but thanks so much for talking with me, Vince.

DIFIORE: Right on. I appreciate the interview. Have a great day, and we’re looking forward to being in Washington, DC again.

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Blake Shelton: New Album, New Format, Newfound Focus

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On March 2nd, country superstar Blake Shelton released Hillbilly Bone, the first in a planned series of two 6-song releases dubbed “Six Paks.” The second, as-yet untitled Six Pak is tentatively scheduled for August.

The move is an apparent attempt by Warner Bros. to shake up the stale album release formula that has contributed to more than a decade of declining album sales. The two half-length collections–which Warner Bros. adamantly opposes referring to as EPs–will serve in place of a new Shelton full-length album, the most recent of which was released in 2008.

Last week I had the opportunity to chat with Shelton about what this new format means for him as an artist.

JIM MALEC: Will these so-called Six Paks be digital only, or will there also has a physical version available in stores?

BLAKE SHELTON: There’ll be a physical product in every normal retail store where you’d find music.

JM: From a business and career standpoint, what’s the reasoning behind this substantial shift in formats

SHELTON: Not only do I not really know, I don’t even care. (Laughing) That’s a record company dilemma. They’re the ones that came to me and told me about their idea and about what they’d like to try to do. They asked me if I’d be ok with it.

I came back with, “absolutely.” The more I thought about it, you know, I could see the advantages for me, and for my fans. This will make it easier to get music to my fans—and at a lower cost. Honestly–and I don’t want to speak for all artists in Nashville ‘cause I know there are some that it does make a huge difference with–almost 100 percent of my income comes from touring. So I’ve never once wondered or thought about how record companies make a profit, or how much they make off a 16-dollar album versus a nine-dollar album versus a six-dollar album. That’s never been something I’ve thought much about because that’s never something that’s been a big part of my world.

Obviously, I pay attention to how many records we sell. That’s always something I keep track of. And, of course, I keep track of what our singles do. Because those things support my touring.

JM: What would you say is more important to you, then, as far as your touring and your profile as an artist: Is it country radio supporting your singles, having new music available on a regular basis or albums sales?

SHELTON: A combination of all of that. When you release a new record, there’s a lot of publicity that comes along with that, which, in turn gets me on television a lot more. That, in turn, may make someone out there pick up the phone and go, “Hey man, I heard Blake sing his new song on television this morning and I wanna hear it [on radio].” It starts getting that ball rollin’. It all matters to my world, as far as touring goes. A big hit single out on radio may be the best thing of all.

But as far as how they make money on those things, I’d probably kill myself before I was satisfied with knowing how that all works.

JM: So let’s talk about it from an artistic standpoint, then. How do you approach choosing songs for a six-song album? And how is that different, or not different, than choosing songs for a “full length” album?

SHELTON: We were already workin’ on a record, and we were right in the middle of it when we decided that we were gonna do this thing. So we had more than six songs recorded already. So, what we decided to do was make the most rounded album we could make with six songs.

We said, let’s make it as good as we can, and the things we don’t use for the first one will be our starting point for the next one.

That’s what we did. And, obviously, I’ve always been a guy that has four or five ballads on each album. Well, clearly you can’t do that with only a six-song album. So “Hillbilly Bone” was set to be the first release, and we had another song recorded called “Kiss My Country Ass” that I knew needed to be on this first record because it fit so will with “Hillbilly Bone.” And the record kinda started becoming this little piece of attitude. It was an in-your-face, redneck anthem type of album.

We just decided to go down that road with this particular record. There’s only one ballad on the album, and one mid-tempo, and the rest of ‘em are all up-tempo, fun, party, drinkin’ songs. Which is new for me also, just to kinda go there. To completely go there with my music.

JM: Do you feel like this format for a record gives you more or less artistic freedom? In the future, do you envision each song being recorded as its own, almost one-off project, or will you approach the recording of a Six Pak more as a structured, themed project?

SHELTON: Definitely, each song is under the microscope way more than if you’re doing a 12 or 13 song album. You know this as well as I do—if you’re makin’ a 12 or 13 song album, you end up with two or three on there that probably not only you [the artist] aren’t that crazy about but also that nobody involved is really that crazy about. But you need those extras, you know?

You’re not gonna record anybody’s great songs as album filler. And you’re not gonna waste one of your great ones as album filler. And it’s not that “filler” means “bad songs,” it just means those songs aren’t difference makers.

When we’re doing a record like this, we can’t have one song on there that’s not great. Each song you cut has to have the possibility of being something great. Whether you’re even thinking about getting it played on the radio or not—just like the song I mentioned before, “Kiss My Country Ass.” We know good and well that’s not gonna be played on country radio. But we also know that there’s a lot of other avenues for somethin’ like that. The song will get a lot of attention.

So we had to think about it that way, as each song being really important. Because once they release this thing, they’re gonna go all kinds of directions with songs. There’s only one that goes to radio, so they have a lot of projects to do with the other five songs to get them heard as quickly as possible.

JM: I remember when Rhett [Akins] released “Kiss My Country Ass” as a single–I had the same thought even back then: “There’s no way!” I think I heard it on the radio once, and that surprised me–

SHELTON: –and it was bleeped out!

JM: It was! But on the subject of that song, I read a quote from you that said something to the effect of it represented the kind of artist you want to be. You said that you heard that song and realized it as the foundation for what you wanted to do in the future. Do you remember saying that, and if so, can you expound on that statement? I know you take a lot of pride in being Blake, so talk to me about what that song in particular means to you, personally and artistically.

SHELTON: Well, artistically it…man, here’s the thing: You can exist a long time in this industry by having hit singles. And this, what I’m about to talk about, has happened a lot. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists. I don’t want to be one of those artists that was “the guy that sang ‘Austin’,” and “the guy that sang ‘This Song’ or ‘That Song’.” I want people, when this is over, to go “Blake Shelton…” and then remember my songs. Not vice-versa. Not think of a song and then try to remember who sang it.

I guess what I’m sayin’ is that at some point here I came to the realization that I’ve gotta try to step out and become a person that people know what I stand for. I want them to have something they can cling on to, whether they hate me or love me for it. They’ve gotta know who I am. And I finally…well, you gotta figure that out for yourself, first. Then you’ve gotta find a way to get it to the fans. And then you just hope they buy into it.

For me, I just finally started realizin’ some things. I moved back to Oklahoma because I missed bein’ out in the middle of nowhere. I love my friends and my family. I love drivin’ back roads. I love drinkin’ beer. I love that type of thing. So, I guess that’s who I am at the end of the day. And I need to figure out how to connect that with my music.

I’m finally doin’ that.

JM: What is country music?

SHELTON: Country music to me is…oh man, that’s an excellent question.

It’s music that’s about real emotions and real things that real people go through. And real feelings that real people have. That’s the easy answer. To me, the bigger picture is that it’s music that has the ability to adapt. It’s always music that people—generations—take ownership of. They don’t want to let go of their decade, or their two decades. And I love that about it, that each generation has its own decade or so that they’ve staked their claim on. “Man, that was the good years of country music,” you know?

If you look at country music, when it was created and who it was created by, it’s so much different then that now. In so many ways. You’ll hear a lot of people in my parents’ generation bitchin’ about how country ain’t country no more—well, the music they were listenin’ to wasn’t country to their parents. It’ll always be that way, and that’s my favorite thing about country music—if you look at the history of it, from then ‘till now, there really aren’t any boundaries. Because it has its own way of stayin’ true.


This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2018. 

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Honeyhoney on Hiatus: Revisit our 2008 Interview with Suzanne Santo

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According to lead singer, fiddler and banjoist Suzanne Santo, Honeyhoney isn’t country. But on the Venice CA duo’s debut album First Rodeo, the powerful vocalist and her musical partner Ben Jaffe have crafted a style that is rootsy and rhythmic, one which sounds deeply and naturally connected to the genre’s traditions. Lyrically, the record is stark and raw, marked by moving songs of love, homecoming, fear and anger. That First Rodeo occupies this particular musical space is not surprising given Santo’s influences.

“I love bluegrass, Appalachian type stuff,” she explains. “I listen to a lot of Earl Scruggs and Pete Williams, Johnny Cash. Gillian Welch.”

But Santo has eclectic taste, also citing Tupac and Master P as influences. And while you won’t find anything resembling 90s gangsta rap on the record, it does brush up against jazz, blues, and even ska (on the delightfully frantic “Give Yourself To Me”).

“We weave in and out, like we’re drunk-driving through music genres,” Santo says. “Let’s go a little more rock this time, or let’s go a little more cowpunk. And I like to believe that people will take to our music because of that.”

Finding Her Way, The Hard Way

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Santo spent her early teens busing tables at her grandparents’ Italian restaurant and dreaming of something different. At age 14, she landed a few small-time modeling gigs, which opened the door to bigger gigs in Chicago and Tokyo. Two years later she was fully immersed in the modeling world and moved to New York City, where she attended a private performing arts school. From a family of modest means, Santo financed her education with the earnings from her photoshoots.

“Pretty much anything I made would go to the school,” she says.

At first, her parents made frequent trips into the city to visit and attend to her business affairs. But the strain of so much travel wore on them. Santo was emancipated when she was 17. She was living on her own and fending for herself. And her modeling work was drying up.

“It was a really hard time,” she says. “My body started to change and I wasn’t landing as many jobs. I had never had to diet before. I had never had to cut back anything that I was eating. When my body started changing and I was getting curvy, I wasn’t working as much and I needed to pay my rent. And the stress it would put on me would be really scary.”

So she tended bar and waited tables at a barbecue joint. She worked as a nanny and a building manager. She struggled to keep things together, and she started mapping out a new path for her future.

“We’re Definitely Not Named After the Abba Song”

While in New York Santo started acting, and her acting aspirations eventually led her to Los Angeles. She even scored a few small roles in shows like Law & Order and Without a Trace. But she was also writing music and performing at open mics around town, which is where she caught the attention of a music engineer known as “The Double” who had worked with Jaffe – a New England native and Gershwin-bred classical music fan who was previously the guitarist for Sonya Kitchell – on a solo project credited as Black Tie Society. The Double introduced the two, and it didn’t take long for a new partnership to bloom.

“We started singing each other’s songs and mushing ‘em together and then we started writing together,” Santo says. By the time the two new collaborators had finished their second song (“Come on Home,” which appears on First Rodeo), they realized that something special was brewing.

“After we wrote that song we thought, wow, this is great. Let’s keep doing this.”

Santo and Jaffe officially joined forces not long after under the moniker Zanzabar Lewis, a title coined from Suzanne’s childhood nickname. After signing with Kiefer Sutherland’s Ironworks Records, the duo wanted to find a name that more accurately reflected the tone of their music.

“We choose Honeyhoney because it’s kinda southern and sassy,” Santo explains. “We’re definitely not named after the Abba song.”

“I Can Smack His Ass Around”

“We’re married without the candy,” Santo says of her relationship with Jaffe, not really joking. “Sometimes Ben and I forget to hang out because we’re so busy. But he’s hilarious. I freakin’ love that kid. But no nookie.”

“Besides,” she says, “I’m about six months older, so that means I can smack his ass around.”

Their personal relationship may be platonic, but First Rodeo is a sexy and intimate record. Jaffe’s churning guitar rhythms complement Santo’s sometimes soaring, sometimes searing vocals. The first single from the project, “Little Toy Gun,” is smoky and dangerous – a modern gunslinger of a track. On “Sugarcane,” the subtle moan of a steel guitar underscores unforgiving lyrics: “You say you’re fine and sigh, sigh, sigh/So when I fuck around, don’t ask me why.”

Like Honeyhoney itself, First Rodeo is hard to classify. It simmers then boils; it whispers then howls. Throughout, Santo delivers stunning performances that will make you wonder why the hell you haven’t heard of her yet.

“When we signed our deal, Ben was teaching music at a store in Redondo Beach, and I was doing all these different day jobs,” she explains. “Before we signed it was really hard to keep our jobs and continue to be busy with music and have time to write and practice. And when we finally signed and got our advances, we were able to live off of music as a job, which still blows my mind. I’m like, holy shit, I don’t have to sell barbecue anymore. I don’t have to watch babies to pay my bills. When you work in the service industry or you’re a teacher it’s consumes a lot of your time and at the end of the day you’re really tired and exhausted and it’s harder to be creative. I feel like we have more room now to be creative.”


This content was originally published in the country music blog The 9513 on November 7, 2008.

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