Interview with Erica Mulkey, the Woman behind Unwoman

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Erica Mulkey is Unwoman, an independent, self-published musician, who has released several albums of original songs and covers. Mulkey’s most recent CD is entitled Lemniscate: Uncovered Volume 2 and features her take on The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Q Lazarus’ “Goodbye Horses,” as well as thirteen other cover songs.

What makes Unwoman unique is her choice of accompanying instrument and the people that she plays for. Mulkey performs live at a variety of Steampunk and fandom conventions all around the US. Unwoman’s instrument of choice is the cello. She has tackled the difficult task of playing her songs live with the use of a looping cello, which allows her to generate an amazing musical accompaniment to her haunting voice.

This year at Dragon Con in Atlanta, Unwoman performed several times throughout the weekend. Mulkey also managed to find some time to talk to Target Audience Magazine about her history and future plans in music, and the approaches she uses with her self-publishing and touring.

Like many songwriters, Mulkey began playing music at a very young age. At the age of 9, she picked up the cello. She explained that it was her choice and not from any particular family pressure. “I was lucky enough to be at a school that had a school orchestra. My dad played the violin just kind of casually, and I picked up the violin first when it was time for school orchestra. But then, the violin sounds like a dying cat if you can’t play it well, so it is a really tough instrument to start on. But, I had friends that played the cello and it sounded so much better, so my parents let me switch. It was definitely my choice. My parents encouraged me to practice, sometimes when I didn’t feel like practicing, but it was a thing that I always wanted to do.”

Playing an instrument and learning music that has already been written is one challenge, but the desire to write her own music was also something that she discovered at an early age. Around the same time she began taking piano lessons so that it would be easier to write her own songs. “I played around with it when I was 9 or 10, but I wrote my first song when I was 13,” she said. “I wrote it on the piano. I actually was not songwriting on the cello until I was in my early 20’s.

After college, Unwoman began trying to establish herself as a solo musician, but was having trouble finding a core audience. Mulkey’s musical influences came from the Goth and Industrial music scenes, but since her chosen instrument was the cello, she found that her style didn’t really fit into that format. But, much to her delight, the culture known as Steampunk soon found her and embraced her.

Explaining the details of how this union came about, Erica said, “Steampunk chose me, but I was very happy to be chosen. I worked with bands like Rasputina and Voltaire, both of whom are kind of tangentially Steampunk affiliated, and Vernian Process who explicitly call themselves Steampunk. Playing with them and also opening as a solo artist, I played at Steamcon in 2009. Up until that point, I had no idea that Steampunk was such a vibrant, actual scene. The [Steamcon attendees] embraced me and the show went so well and it was so much fun that from that point on I started emailing Steampunk conventions and saying ‘here’s who I am,’ and playing all over the place.”

A quick glance at Unwoman’s tour schedule reveals a bit more about her union with the Steampunk culture. Mulkey primarily tours and performs at Steampunk and sci-fi/fantasy conventions throughout the year. “Last year I had this realization that I was putting a lot of effort into playing shows in dive bars in cities that were on my way to conventions, but I didn’t make enough money doing that. I would play for like 10 people, and I would go to the convention and play for like 300 people and everyone would buy my CD. So, I decided it made more sense for me to try and rest on those days than to try and play shows for10 people. Now I don’t try to put together driving tours anymore.”

As an independent, self-published artist, Erica has used Kickstarter to fund five albums, one re-release and one DVD documentary project. With her success using the crowd sourcing website, she does have some general insights into how to approach a Kickstarter campaign.When I did my first Kickstarter, the things that made it successful … First of all, I already had an email mailing list with about 2,000 people on it and about 1,500, 2,000 Twitter followers. So, I already had a social network that I could tap into.”

She added, “I only asked for two or three thousand dollars, and I had already produced three albums at that point, so I could say, ‘hey, I’ve already done this.’ What Kickstarter tells everyone is to have rewards at a lot of different levels. That’s very important, because most of my funding came in on like $300 pledges for that one. So those things were really key and once you’ve done your first Kickstarter, you can ask for a little bit more and a little bit more, because you have a sense of what you can reasonably ask for.”

General information about Kickstarter aside, she had some very specific advice for Kickstarter newbies as well. “Make a Kickstarter video and put it on YouTube, but don’t upload as a Kickstarter video. Leave that as just a picture, because the way that Facebook interacts with Kickstarter is when you put a Kickstarter link on your Facebook, it plays the video instead of going to Kickstarter. That leads to more clicks before people can actually see your project, so it’s bad.”

Continuing her analysis of working with Kickstarter, Mulkey believes that once you’ve become familiar with using Kickstarter and have had a successfully funded project, it does get easier to do. Mulkey did admit that she was a bit lucky with her first exposure to the crowd source funding program. “I did my first Kickstarter back in the days when they didn’t approve anyone. Absolutely everything was ‘you’ve gotta know someone.’ I got Kickstarter codes from my friends, Stripmall Architecture, because they had done a Kickstarter project. So, I got to do one without having to go through their approval process back at the end of 2009 when basically no one got approved. So I was lucky I got in. I think it’s a lot more accessible now in terms of strangers who haven’t done it before being approved. That can definitely be done at this point, but it is tricky. I actually have a new Kickstarter that is going up that I submitted and it was approved about 24 hours later. It’s just a really quick little project. I just need money to master this bonus EP for Lemniscate, my last cover album. But, Kickstarter was very quick in approving that.”

When you are a self-published artist, sometimes it becomes a challenge to ask for money for your work. Unwoman gives some recommended reading material. She refers artists to an essay written by Amanda Palmer called “Why I am not Afraid to take Your Money.

Explaining a bit about the importance of that essay, she said, “My biggest piece of advice would be to read that article and really internalize getting over the stigma of asking for money for your art. That was a huge, huge problem for me. Especially while I had enough money, telling myself ‘well, I have enough money. I don’t have to ask for money for music. I can just do it as a hobby.’ And, I look back on those times and I say ‘but I didn’t have to.’ I could have been doing music this whole time if I had been unafraid. Don’t be afraid to ask for money and don’t be afraid to promote yourself because you don’t gain points for being quiet. If you’re doing something [for] food, people want to hear what you’re doing. They want to hear your self-promotion.”

While she writes and performs her own, original music, Mulkey has also released a few cover CDs filled with a variety of interesting choices. One of those covers is a mash-up of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” and Ciara’s “Like a Boy.” It is a very approachable take on Kate Bush, which is not a task that is easily pulled off. “The funniest thing about ‘Running Up that Hill Like a Boy’ is that I feel like the fact that I am mashing up Ciara with Kate Bush skirts around the ‘Kate Bush is Holy’ factor. Because, I’m instantly saying ‘I’m so sorry. Forgive me. I’m doing something terrible to Kate Bush.’ So, it makes it okay because she’s amazing and I think she’s kind of untouchable. Honestly, I like any version of ‘Running up That Hill.’ It is just such a great song.”

Regarding another Unwoman Uncovered volume, she began gleefully talking about one of her theme ideas. “I have so many different theme ideas for Volume 3. It’s really tough. I loved Lemniscate so much and the just cello and voice looping covers, and I’ve learned a ton more looping covers that I’m doing live so I kind of want to record those. But, my other idea is that I really want to do the cheesiest 80s songs and do them with love and sincerity. Like Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time,’ Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ Richard Marx’s ‘Right Here Waiting’ … there’s so many beautiful cheesy songs. I loved them when they were on the radio, and I feel like I can bring the sincerity to an audience that’s used to irony. You hate to love them, but they get ya. So, that’s one of the themes, but I have to focus on my next original album first.”

Unwoman is not one to rest on her laurels. She is already hard at work on her next album of original material, due out in Spring 2014. While she doesn’t have a name for the CD yet, she is excited about what is to come. “I have eight songs totally written, and I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the production work I did on Lemniscate. So far all of them are cello and voice looping based songs.”

Interview with Nate Query of Black Prairie and The Decemberists

In 2007, during some downtime, three members of Portland-based band The Decemberists (Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk and Nate Query) wanted to experiment with a new, acoustic sound. To round out their newly created band they enlisted Annalisa Tornfelt (The Woolwines and Bearfoot) and Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw and Dolorean). With these five band members in place, Black Prairie was brought to life in Portland, Oregon.

In 2010, Black Prairie released its debut album Feast of the Hunter’s Moon followed by an album commissioned by the Oregon Children Theatre to write accompanying music for their performance of Eric Coble’s The Storm in the Barn based on the book “The Storm in the Barn” by Matt Phelan. Since then Black Prairie has recorded two more albums, begun incorporating more of Annalisa’s vocals and has added John Moen (also from The Decemberists) to their lineup.

Black Prairie’s debut album, Feast of the Hunter’s Moon was released in 2010, but the band was conceived three years prior. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for the band’s formation?

It really came from Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee and I wanting to play more acoustic and instrumental music sort of inspired by some of the Nashville stuff like Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas. So, we thought it would be fun to try and do more of that, and the best way to start seemed like it would be to get some actual, bona fide bad-ass acoustic musicians. So, we asked John Neufeld and Annalisa Tornfelt if they were interested and wanted to do it. I didn’t know Annalisa at all, but Chris did. He didn’t know her well, and he only knew she was a good fiddler. He didn’t know what a good singer she was. I knew John Neufeld for twenty years.

We basically just started out in my living room and were like “okay, now what?” From the beginning, we kind of all just created song ideas and started working them out together. We’d meet every Tuesday at 10 a.m. for a few hours, and have coffee and pastries. I mean, acoustic rehearsal is so civilized, you can just do it in a living room. You don’t need soundproofing or a PA or anything. So, that was the original concept, and it kind of grew. We made our first demo recording in 2008 or 2009 and that was just done at my house. We just spread ourselves out through the house, set up some mics and started demoing, and that’s the stuff we sent to Sugar Hill on a whim because we knew somebody there.

They were excited, so we decided to make a record. We released that record before we had ever played a show, which is just bizarre these days. But this band really formed as a collective labor of love, like an instrumental acoustic version of a book club.

As an artist with so much music under your belt, where do you continue to find new inspiration to work on new music? Is it easier to for you to create music on your own and then bring it to the band, or do you all kind of round-table ideas together?

For me personally, it’s really both. The time I spend by myself trying to hone in on an idea and trying to refine it is really helpful. The way I almost always bring things to the band is sort of a like a sketched out idea. I play it with the band and get everyone’s input. Sometimes it changes a lot from that point, and sometimes I’ll just take it home again and refine it, given everyone’s input and how it sounded in the band context.

It sort of varies between both extremes in Black Prairie. We’ve done a lot of stuff that we wrote completely together with all of us in a room. There is also a bunch of songs written almost entirely by one person and it didn’t change much at all from what it was before the band got a hold of it until after.

So, there is room for all that stuff in this band. The band is really good at working together at writing, which can be a tricky thing. “Too many cooks in the kitchen” is a really easy thing to have happen. But, for whatever reason, we’re on a roll. The more we write together, the more fun we have doing it.

Around the time that you were recording The King is Dead with The Decemberists, you were quoted as saying that you preferred working with the upright bass as opposed to the electric. Can you explain the reasoning behind that?

That is what I said. There is a thing that has happened with The Decemberists many, many times where for the practicality of recording, where we are doing it live in a room, recording the upright bass in the same room with the drums is almost impossible. So, what we do is I record with an electric bass with the intention of overdubbing with the upright later. Well, it has happened that a lot of times when I do that, everyone says “wow, that sounds great! Let’s just leave it on electric.” I don’t get bent out of shape about it, but it’s happened a bunch of times. It happened with “Yankee Bayonet,” “Rox in the Box” and a couple of other King is Dead songs.

Part of forming Black Prairie was because I wanted to play upright more and I really enjoy playing upright all of the time, even when we’re rocking out more on tour. I mean, it’s kind of hard playing Led Zepplin on upright, but it’s fun. And of course, the only performing I’m doing right now is for Black Prairie, so I am starting to miss playing the electric bass.

With the availability and popularization of portable devices like the iPad, smart phones and even the Garage Band, do you find yourself using them to help you create your music?

I use an iPhone to record ideas all the time and I just use it as a recorder. I have had many different recorders over the years. I used to use a handheld cassette recorder, then a mini-disc recorder and then I had a little mic that plugged into an iPod. But now, the recording sounds so good just with the iPhone that I just do that. It is great for recording ideas and whatever.

For writing, I will use Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools. I am used to working with more pro stuff in the studios, so it is actually harder for me to use Garage Band than it is to use Logic or Pro Tools. So, I use those two for demoing ideas and laying down multi-track stuff. Or sometimes in Black Prairie, I’ll record my part and send it, then Chris will compile with the other stuff.

In Black Prairie, there are a few of us that use Sibelius a lot. We started using it when we wrote The Storm in the Barn because we had to have a printable score that could be given to the other musicians performing it. I found that to be an incredibly useful tool because I am comfortable with written music and it’s a great way to tweak things. It’s gotten to the point where you can listen back and the sounds are great. One of the songs I wrote for A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart, “Evil Leaves,” I wrote it all on Sibelius. I just wrote a bass line into it to hear what it sounded like, then dumped it into Logic and recorded a guitar part. Between using all of those things and getting comfortable with them, it has made it really helpful when trying out an idea by yourself. Mostly I rely on my band-mates, my memory and to a lesser degree, writing stuff down. But, being able to do this stuff at home, on my own is quite useful.

How do you feel that social media contributes to success in the music business?

Almost the entirety of the music business and promoting and trying to sell your music, I approach reluctantly. Using Facebook, and Twitter and such isn’t really any more annoying than in the 90s, hiring an intern to call record stores to see if they’ll put your CD in a place, or begging the clubs your playing to put up posters. I mean, literally in the 90s, this band I was in had a mailing list of thousands of people, so it cost an unbelievable amount of money to send out a mailing list. We sent these little postcards out with all of our tour dates packed into it so we’d get the bulk rate. I am so glad those days are gone. So, having an email mailing list is just fantastic, and while I know it’s daunting that there are so many outlets, being able to sell your music online is really nice.

It’s better to be worried about making the quality of your music better and better than to worry about the business stuff, but it is important to have the business stuff together a little bit.

Regarding in Portland, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems as if there is a community of musicians that really enjoy collaborations. Do you think there is any truth to that observation, or is it just a cliché?

In any music scene, if you really look carefully at it there is a lot of crossover, but it is certainly true that without knowing any other music scene very well, I do think that Portland is a really community minded group. The music scene is not a competitive thing, which I know is true in some cities to a certain degree. Musicians in Portland don’t necessarily expect to be paid every time they do anything with their music, and they tend to say yes to things based on whether it sounds fun or not, or whether they’re excited about it or not. It’s usually not so much about whether it’s something that would be better for their career, or if it will make money for them. It’s usually about fun and creative reasons. Partly because it’s a relatively cheap place to live, and there is not a lot of hustle and bustle, so people tend to have time to do that stuff, which ends up fostering a lot of interesting collaborations.

Portland definitely is a little bit special, because some of the clichés about Portland are true about coming here to retire and whatnot. People take it pretty easy and are happy to do weird collaborations just for the hell of it.

The Decemberists have a huge fan-base, so I think I would be remiss if I did not ask about future plans for the band.

We’re going to get some work done this winter. So, yeah, things are happening. Things are bubbling.

Have you ever considered doing a Black Prairie/The Decemberists concert tour?

Yeah… no, I don’t think so. I think that would be way too much work. It’s nice to be able to do one thing at a time and give that your all. Doing a show with either band takes a lot out of me, so doing one with both on the same day would be a bummer.

 

Interview with Ashland Belle

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Interview by Danielle Boise

 

Ashland Belle hails from New York, but is taking the country scene by storm with their debut release, Bringin‘ Country Back, which was released Aug. 3. The independent band takes the heart and soul of country and mixes it up with a splash of southern rock, creating an infusion of highly enjoyable music.  I had a chance to sit down and discuss Bringin‘ Country Back, touring and what makes Ashland Belle shine as a band.

 

Do you think that coming from Buffalo, NY has flavored your sound by adding a Northern hilt to the songs within a Southern-infused country world you’ve joined?

 

I think there is a hint of the Northeast in our writing, both in lyrical content and in some aspects of our music, but being raised on the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks and the like, our location has had little effect on our overall sound.

 

What was the process like of recording Bringin’ Country Back for you?

The recording process for Bringin’ Country Back was a multistep and stressful endeavor for sure. But luckily for us we are always up for the challenge so I think we handled it all well. From laying down the music tracks, all the way to tracking the last set of vocals, there was an overwhelming sense of excitement and worry for this album to hit the airwaves.

Along the way, however, we had to make some very last minute choices that could have potentially derailed the whole project. Luckily, after having two mixing guys and two mastering guys back out of the project, we were hooked up with Mike and Dan in Nashville, who took the album and brought it to the level you guys hear now. I believe everything happens for a reason.

 

Are you writing any new material in between promoting Bringin’ Country Back? If so, what are your inspiration and influences that contribute to the building your sound?

We are ALWAYS writing and working on new material. We have a strong dedication to this project and we are always too excited and motivated not to write. Our inspirations for our music span across decades of country and southern rock.

A couple of my big influences include guys like Keith Urban, Brantley Gilbert, Garth Brooks, Alabama, and vocally, Dwight Yoakam. Dwight has a way of making you feel and hear his pain in his voice. To this day it gives me the chills.

Every time I listen to “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” when he hits that chorus and he is just simply singing “Oh I,” I feel a desperation that no other singer can portray. That’s always a goal of mine when I sing and write. I want to make our fans feel what I’m feeling and exactly how I’m feeling it.

 

With such an influx of talented musicians, what makes your music stand out amongst a sea of other gifted artists?

While there are so many great up-and-comers out there, I feel that we stand out because of our edgy southern rock sound and our infectious pop hooks. When I heard Rascal Flatts for the first time, their hooks and harmonies floored me and that’s the kind of experience I feel we can deliver to the listener with a little rock to keep them even more on the edge of their seat.

 

You’re not currently signed on with a label; how does that impact you getting your music out to the masses and what have you found to be the best tools in reaching your fans?

Without a record label backing us, we have had to rely on the indie promotional companies like CD Baby to get our music out to the fans. Plus, we have worked really hard over the past year to grow our following, via Facebook and Twitter, and that has paid off tremendously.

Not having a big time backer definitely hinders the full potential of what we are capable of achieving, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work that much harder to reach all of our fans out there. Like I mentioned before, we love to work and we love our music and fans so we will do what is necessary to get AB to the masses.

 

Having toured with greats like Jamey Johnson to Luke Bryan, what did you take away from those experiences as building blocks for performing live?

Watching guys like Luke Bryan perform live allowed us to really hone our live show and make it a real show, not just a band playing songs. I have been performing for 11 years now and I always learn new things from all of the artists we share the stage with.

In the past we have all done festivals and big national events with other various bands, so with all of our professional experience, this band hits the stage for the first time as if we have been around for six or seven years. Our live show is the essence of this band, and we like to make it feel like a rock show, like Keith Urban’s live performances.

 

I enjoyed the entire album; it holds the listener’s attention. I really connected with a couple of the songs, like “Dumb Enough” and “Play That Old Guitar,” and I really fell in love with “Dream Called You.” What was your favorite track on the album and why? Was there any other tracks you wished you had either added or changed out that didn’t make the cut?

Well, we are all glad that you enjoyed it so much. Thank you for really taking the time to listen to it thoroughly and being able to detect and connect to these tunes. My favorite off of the album is “Dumb Enough.” I wrote the song in about a half hour while watching a Luke Bryan live performance.

I like the song so much because it is a real honest look into a break up and it exposes that feeling in all of us when we break up with someone. For a while you want to see them unhappy but at the same time you don’t want them in your life so it’s like a catch 22. That part of a breakup has always fascinated me.

There are two other songs I wish made this cut (but we will release them on the next record). One being “Me Without You” and the other “Finer Things in Life.” Both are very great songs that are an even greater extension on our identity as an artist. We look forward to getting those out to everyone soon!