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Career opportunities
George Howard and Kitty Brazelton show how itís done
BY TED DROZDOWSKI

Music is about connections. Not business or networking connections, though thatís part of it, but emotional and creative connections ó harmonious meetings of people and sounds and ideas that cohere into special, shared experiences. George Howard and Kitty Brazelton have both learned that, and theyíre sharing that notion with audiences in different ways.

Howard, the former president of the Massachusetts-born Rykodisc label, has written a book. Its ostensible audience is musicians hunting for label deals, but "itís really about community," he says. "The book is about how to build a career to the point where you can decide whether or not you want a record deal. I think the problem with music now isnít downloading and all the other red herrings the RIAA is talking about. The real problem is that a lot of the soulfulness around music has been lost, and I think people are looking for the kind of community that good, soulful music can create. The bands that are making emotional connections ó Phish and Dave Matthews are two of the best examples ó are doing great."

As for Brazelton, the veteran singer and composer is making two important connections with her new group What Is It like To Be a Bat? The first is her partnership with the bandís co-leader, sonic manipulator and guitarist Dafna Naphtali. The second is something Brazelton has been reaching for in her music for years. "Iíve been looking for a way to do computer music for a long time. At first it was in the old-fashioned way: pre-recorded music, stuff not in real time." Then the dynamic performer ó who shuttles between Bennington College, where she teaches, and her home in New York City ó decided she wanted to use computer-generated and -processed music on stage. But in a way that would be visceral, spontaneous, and exciting ó not as a laptop jockey. "VCRs and tape recordings brought in the concept of fast-forward and rewind. I wanted to have both of those things, but do it in a band ó to manipulate time in that way."

Between Brazeltonís own scoring and Naphtaliís live audio processing, sheís achieved that in What Is It like To Be a Bat?, who recently made their homonymous debut on John Zornís respected Tzadek label. Brazelton and Zorn already knew each other ó in fact, the notorious avant-garde curmudgeon had once fired her from a gig for "singing too straight," she recalls. "It was for a Burt Bacharach tribute, and I guess he felt I was being too reverent with a Dionne Warwick vocal." Brazelton asked Zorn whether heíd like to issue the Bat disc when they crossed paths on a Manhattan sidewalk.

Not every musician is, of course, lucky enough to get fired by John Zorn. And for those who havenít been, Howardís Getting Signed! An Industry Insiderís Guide to the Recording Industry (Berklee Press) may be the ticket. Itís a hell of a lot cheaper than the fee charged by conferences and seminars that claim to provide the same information. Whatís more, itís written in crisp, simple language thatís not over the head of anyone capable of writing a song. The handbook-style volume, complete with to-do checklists, has a conversational tone that makes its step-by-step guide to career building clear and manageable.

"There are so many inscrutable things about the record industry that I think are kept inscrutable to keep it the good-old-boys club that it is," Howard argues. "I really wanted to avoid that. None of the concepts is hard. A lot of books about finding your way in the business are bought, put on a shelf, and never used because musicians find their convoluted explanations or the language so intimidating. When you break things down, this is not rocket science at any level, so my approach was to take a plain, conversational tone."

The book was part of a creative burst that Howard had after leaving Rykodisc, which changed ownership and cut loose most of its staff, including him, before being moved to Los Angeles early this year. Howard had been at the helm of the company for three years before that transition began, and heíd been in the business of selling albums for 11 years before that, running his own Rykodisc-affiliated Slow River label. He was made boss at Rykodisc when music-industry trailblazer Chris Blackwell ó the visionary founder of Island Records who signed a host of important artists from Bob Marley to U2 ó brought the label under his Palm Pictures corporate umbrella. "I wasnít looking to become the president of Rykodisc, but the label was going through some big changes and Chris and I hit it off. We had a similar æsthetic, and he asked me to do the job."

While running Rykodisc, Howard worked with its diverse pool of artists, signing or helping to guide the careers of the Slip, Robert Cray, Josh Rouse, Kelly Willis, Chuck E. Weiss, Kelly Joe Phelps, and others and producing discs by Phelps, Weiss, Jess Klein, and the band Matthew. He enjoyed his tenure there until Blackwell stepped back and other financiers tightened their grip on the company. Today, Rykodisc seems a shell of its former creative self. Many of the labelís artists have left or been dropped, and it seems bent on releasing reissues and new recordings by nostalgia artists like Joe Jackson.

"I wasnít able to be creative in my last year at Rykodisc," Howard acknowledges, "so when I left, a lot of things came out of me fairly quickly. It was almost like stream of consciousness ó I had so much welled up inside." In fairly short order, he wrote Getting Signed! and an unpublished novel and began making music again. "Iím doing a lot of music," he allows. "Itís very personal and intimate. Iíve got a home studio and ProTools, which I speak highly of in the book, and I feel like Iím getting back into creating soulful music for the right reasons." Heís also teaching in Northeastern Universityís music-industry program, and his book is being used as a teaching text there and at Berklee College of Music. And heís founded Essex River Works, an organization that helps schools raise money for arts and music education through the sales of classical and jazz CDs.

Howard, whoís just 34, is already writing a follow-up to demystify publishing ó "one of the more complicated and indecipherable aspects of the music industry" ó plus more fiction. Heís also appearing at bookstores to sign copies and spend some face-to-face time with musicians. "One of the bookís major points is that artists have to believe in themselves to be heard. The very best part of the book is the story about Kurt Cobain, who sent out stacks of demos trying to get a record deal and was totally ignored for a long time. He sent 20 demos to Touch & Go alone and never heard back from anybody. Then, even after heíd recorded for Sub Pop, he had to find outside financing to make Bleach because the label didnít want to spend the money on him. If thereís an essential quality that artists must have, itís an absolute belief that their music must be heard and that theyíre willing to do everything they can to be sure that happens."

Like Howard, Kitty Brazelton is an educator: she teaches the structure, composition, and history of music at Bennington. Sheís also an unfettered musicmaker who has room for jazz, rock, and classical influences as well as composition and improvisation in her creative works. Bostonians may know her best through her nine-piece jazz-fueled band Dadadah, who released their debut CD, Rise Up!, on the local Accurate label. More recently, sheís shared the compositional and performing credits in Hildegurls, a group of four like-minded vocalists with similarly soaring abilities (Brazelton has a four-octave range) who debuted their "Electric Ordo Virtutum," an adaptation of the 12th-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingenís plainchant morality play, at Lincoln Center in 1998. Then thereís Bog Life, her chamber group for voice, two harps, percussion, and oboe, and lots more in the way of past bands and compositional credits (you can get the whole story at www.kitbraz.com).

On What Is It like To Be a Bat?, Brazelton and Naphtali do indeed master time and space, catching the music theyíre making and re-forming it into something new even as the next cascade of notes comes tumbling along. The result is as high-density as the work of another group on Tzadek, Zornís own Naked City. The 18 tracks that make up the two composed pieces on What Is It like To Be a Bat? at times blow by like little sonic hurricanes ó dense, squalling swirls of voice processed by Paul Gelusoís filtering and powered by Danny Tunickís steam-engine drumming. Brazelton also plays a sampler keyboard and bass, and Naphtali churns out guitar lines and does a live cut-and-paste thatís the aural equivalent of a William Burroughs cut-up. Itís not easy music, but itís transporting, especially since the tempo-snapping "BATch 7-8" is balanced by the bold simple melody of "BATch 5" and the relative tranquility of "BATch 6," which sounds a bit like a faraway radio signal that wonít quite come in.

Those tunes are all part of She Said ó She Said, "Can You Sing Sermonette with Me?", a kind of abstract electro-punk mini-opera. The discís second composition, in 11 sections, is the more text-driven 5 Dream; Marriage, which explores the emotional fluctuations of a long relationship through lyrics and soundscapes.

Zorn was so taken by What Is It like To Be a Bat? that he invited Brazelton to make another album for Tzadek. Sheís not sure what that will be, but when this semesterís over, sheíll be embarking on a new compositional project. "The late George Plimpton had written a libretto called Animal Tales, and Grethe Holby, who directed Hildegurls, has asked me to compose the music for the opera." Three or four companies are interested in presenting Animal Tales; sheíll begin putting notes on paper early next year.


Issue Date: December 12 - 18, 2003
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