Ethan Burns just released his first solo album, Illusion, March 13th of this year. His unabashedly soulful voice has a way of reaching straight into the soul of his listeners. During these wild times, Ethan found the time to answer my questions about his musical history and musical process. Read below.
MFL: I read that you taught yourself how to play guitar. Is that when you and music began your relationship together or did your musical beginnings come before the guitar?
Ethan Burns (EB): I always loved singing along with songs as a kid but I didn’t start writing songs until I started playing guitar.
MFL: Where did you grow up, where are you now, and how did these locations influence you as a person and a musician?
EB: I grew up in Grover Beach, California. I moved around a lot in my early 20’s and now I’m back in Grover Beach.
As a writer you draw on experiences within your surroundings so maybe in some subconscious way certain imagery is absorbed and reflected within the songs.
MFL: Illusion is your first solo album which is incredibly exciting! When and how did the idea for Illusion come to you?
EB: I started recording half of the songs for Illusion back in 2014 with my friend Chandler Haynes and they ended up becoming unreleased material, demo tapes you could say. Those “demo tapes” resurfaced early last year and I had written a bunch of new songs that I felt fit into the concept so I had my friend Brenneth Stevens play pedal steel guitar over the whole collection and it completed the Album.
MFL: Now that Illusion is out, what do the next few months look like for you?
EB: I have a lot of shows lined up and I’m also getting ready for the release of my next Album Electric Mental State with my band The Ragged Jubilee.
MFL: If you were to pick a landscape for Illusion, what would it be?
EB: Walking through a small town at night or maybe the slight flicker of a light house in a storm.
MFL: How and when do melodies come to you? Do lyrics or melodies come first typically?
EB: It’s different every time, with some songs you feel like a radio and the song is moving through you, other times you sit and think about every word you want to say. Sometimes there’s just a melody that you can’t get out of your head.
MFL: If you could pick a handful of milestone events in your life in the last 10 years that lead you to where you are now, what would they be? I know…that is a loaded question!
EB: That’s a hard question to answer, the most meaningful event was the birth of my daughter.
MFL: Finally, if you can, pick your top three favorite albums from 2019!
EB: I don’t listen to a lot of current music but the three albums that I listened to the most in 2019 were:
The Silver Tongued Devil and I by Kris Kristofferson
Beat the Devil’s Tattoo by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath by Black Sabbath
Big thanks to Ethan for answering my questions and Joshua Brinckerhoff for connecting us. You can follow Ethan on Spotify and Facebook.
Ben Alexander is truly gifted at creating emotive soundscapes that tell stories without words and conjure up images, either with specific intention or other times, left up to the listener. From Norway originally, Ben is currently in London where he is continuing to both work on personal projects of his own and write music for movies and television. Below, we dig into his writing process, inspirations and beginnings as a musician.
MFL: Your music has an incredibly atmospheric and emotive quality to it. What is your writing process like and what are some typical sources of inspiration?
Ben Alexander (BA): That is a great question. I have always been a great admirer of film music as this genre has a way of captivating selected emotions with just music. What I love about that music is that it doesn’t nhiecessarily need a vocalist to sing about what you are supposed to feel when you listen to the song. Instead, the music is created in such a way that it allows the listener to freely interpret and feel the music through their own individual mindset. I do, of course, write a lot of music that contains lyrics as well. I just have such respect for the unspoken music and would say that it is one of my most important sources of inspiration.
My writing process vary quite frequently. Sometimes a song can present itself in my mind and I need to start creating it physically when I am in the moment of inspiration. On other occasions, it may take time. I might need to explore my surroundings, think or listen to music that I adore in order to create something. I really enjoy discussing topics like philosophy and apply those thoughts to my current environment and this can be a great way of starting a new musical piece as well. I believe that music is very closely related to philosophy and the “deeper” aspects of your mind so for me, these two are closely linked to each other on many occasions.
MFL: Is there a difference in your writing process depending on whether your composing for a movie/TV show versus whether you are composing for yourself, personally?
BA: Yes and no. When I am composing for a movie/TV show etc., I often work for a client that wants to present a certain mood or feeling. This might vary depending on the client of course but very often they would want something that enhances their message or identity in whatever project they assign me to. It is then up to me to go deeper into that project and their vision to create something that follows their desire. As good music is based on sincere feelings (at least in my opinion), I need to personally understand the client’s identity in order to truly create something that is both beautiful and pleasing to the client and myself.
When writing my own music, I don’t have a set request from the beginning. This means that I am freer to create whatever I want. I set my own limits and manipulate them as I move on. It doesn’t necessarily have to be based on a certain mood or feeling but rather pure inspiration from either the get-go or throughout the process. I very much enjoy both types of making music as it brings me into new environments and expands my skills as both an artist and a composer.
MFL: How do you come across opportunities to compose soundtracks, or rather how do they find you?
BA: It’s a nice balance between contacting people yourself and them contacting you. When I approach people myself, I do it because I know I have something great to offer them and I want to provide them with exactly that. This can be everything from e-mailing relevant people in the film industry directly or meeting them at various events and building relationships. The industry is very much network-based so over the years, I have acquired friends in the film industry that I reach out to when I hear about new potential projects. After successful jobs, the work spreads around and I quickly receive e-mails from other filmmakers that have seen/heard my previous work and wants to involve me into their project. The industry is also very reputational based, so I always make sure that whatever project I am working on, I am doing my upmost best and strive for the ultimate perfection. My work is my identity and pride as it takes a piece of me every time.
MFL: If you were to share the stage with a musician from the past or present, who would it be and why? Feel free to discuss a couple if you cannot narrow it down!
BA: This is a very difficult question as I could name so many great musicians. I have chosen to present 3 different musicians based on their impact on me as an individual; Hans Zimmer, Chris Martin/Coldplay and Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was such a huge inspiration to me growing up as I know he was for most people at the time. His music was innovative, his personality was inspiring, his stage performance was incredible, and his talent was unbelievably amazing. Chris Martin is the lead singer in the band Coldplay and these guys have been one of the few musicians who have continuously impressed and amazed me even to this day. I am a huge fan and being able to perform with Chris Martin or Coldplay collected would be a dream of mine. The last one I have chosen is the well-known film composer Hans Zimmer. I have attended his live performance in the past and all I can say is that there is no denying his musical genius. Even as a film composer, this man gives one hell of a performance and I would love to sit down with him on each of our pianos and play the music that has allowed so many people to feel.
MFL: When and how did music become a fixture in your life? List some milestones if possible!
BA: My mother told me a story of me when I was around 2-3 years old. Apparently, I was playing in the living room and my mother put on a record of the great Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli. She explained that once the music started, I stopped playing with my toys, found my way over to the speakers and sat there throughout the entire record just staring at the speakers and listening. Obviously, I don’t remember this and I sincerely hope my mother wasn’t exaggerating that story (simply because I love it) but you can say that my love for music started at a very early stage in my life.
I started playing the piano at the age of 8 and has been playing since. Ever since I started playing that instrument, my own will to create started developing and I created my first song when I was 11 years old. I acquired a huge fascination with experimental sounds and musical tech and created many different songs that reached throughout many different genres. All in all you could say that my fixture of music has literally been there since the beginning.
MFL: Do you have a favorite location/venue in Norway that you like to play? What about worldwide?
BA: I haven’t really given too much thought about a favorite venue. It would of course be fantastic to play in front of a huge crowd that loved your music but in terms of a specific venue I don’t really have a direct answer to that unfortunately. I now live in London, so I don’t think much about certain venues in Norway either to be honest. I try to adapt to the places I am. If I had to choose specific venues on the spot, I would say maybe Royal Albert Hall, The Roundhouse, O2 Arena or Wembley Stadium. Not something unexpected from a musician I would assume.
MFL: Describe one of your most powerful performing experiences.
BA: There are always moments during a performance when you know that the crowd is actually there with you in their minds and spirit. When people actually listen, take in their impressions and really feels the moment. To ask that of every member of the audience would be ambitious as we are all different, but just a selection of them feeling it and moving with me as I perform is something that means indescribably much for any musician. The response from the listeners means so much during a live performance.
MFL: Your single set “Upeo // Daybreak” is your latest work. Is this part of something larger that we can all look forward to?
BA: Yes, it is. I am very much proud of this single as I have worked a long time on it and its finally ready for everyone to enjoy. It is part of a greater project, but I don’t want to say too much about that now. The single itself is meant to tell a story through music and although I have my own stories to present, I would encourage the audience to create their own narrative and connect with the single through their own inner self rather than being too affected by my descriptions. The single is set up by and intro and a main track that is two parts of a whole and hopefully my listeners will appreciate and truthfully enjoy it in a matter that makes sense to them.
I was instantly captivated by the scenery and the sounds that were part of Argentina-born musician, Cielo Pordomingo’s music video for “Azule Delirio.” The desolation of the backdrop combined with the extreme colors and her haunting melody created something totally unique and new for me. The musician has been a resident of Mexico since 2003 and has been making waves musically for many years. She took the time to answer some questions about her career, her writing process and much more.
MFL: Your music videos are so visually stimulating. I’m dying to know where you filmed “Azul Delirio” and what the idea behind both the track and video were.
CP: Thank you! The “Azul Delirio” video was filmed in a volcanic crater called El Rincón del Parangueo in Guanajuato, Méx. It´s an impressive place that looks like another planet!
Well, the song talks about a woman who lives in a kind of delirium. She tries to enter in a world to which she does not belong. And that place (in the video) is like a delirium too, when you enter there it is as if it were from another planet, very surreal.
MFL: How did your life change when you moved from Argentina to Mexico in 2003? If you were already writing music at this time, how was that affected?
CP: I came to Mexico for vacation, with no plan to stay, I really liked it.
Back in that time, people that I met began to offer me several projects related to music, and I was testing, and I was staying, without realizing it.
Coming to Mexico made me stand out more the contrasts in my way of composing.
I am currently based in Querétaro, and I have found it very comfortable to create, play and travel. But I imagine living in Argentina again, at some point.
MFL: When and how did music become an integral part of your life?
CP: It was gradual, after the first album (DFret), without planning it, every time I spent more time composing, producing, studying programs, preparing the sequences to play live, rehearse with musicians, until this last album (Moirai) where I realized that music is an integral part of my life.
MFL: You mesh electronic and orchestral elements in your music. What is it about this mix that you find attractive?
CP: I find it very attractive to combine real instruments with virtual instruments, it’s like living reality and fantasy at the same time in a song. And I think we live like this all the time.
MFL: Is there a concept/story associated with your most recent album, Moirai?
CP: Yes, on this record, I changed the process or the way of composing (previously I started a song and until I had it almost finished I started with another one), now I was doing all the songs almost at the same time, it was a kind of sound collage where each one took its own path (destiny = moirai) and in the end still so different from each other they are still part of the same mural.
MFL: Do you perform internationally often? If so, where are your largest fan bases?
CP: I try to play outside the country at least once a year. I like to play in many cities, I would not know where most of my fans are, because I have a good reception in cities like Guadalajara in Mexico or in cities like Barcelona and London, and that makes me very happy.
MFL: When you are not writing/recording music, what are you doing?
CP: I enjoy the nature! I love going out to the forest or the river to drink mate! And I read and watch movies and series. I love the cinema, it always inspires me. Also, every time I can I’m always studying and practicing mixing and production.
MFL: Finally, what does 2020 hold for you as a musician?
CP: I hope to continue sharing my music! Thanks to spaces like yours and concerts touring Mexico, Argentina and the world!
On the agenda we have a tour abroad … hopefully it will be completed by mid-year.
And I want to play in every festival I can!
Big thank you to Cielo for taking the time to offer insight into her musical magic and to Lily Yañez for connecting us! Follow her work on Spotify and Facebook.
Every year since the beginnings of Music For Lunch I have reached out to two of my most trusted and respected musical comrades, Mark Levy and Brian Haviland. This year I not only tasked them with picking their favorite five albums of 2019 but ALSO their top three albums of the last 10 years. After weeks of our own personal internal debates, we all came up with lists we are proud of. The challenge of reaching back in time to dig for music from the last ten years that shaped us, colored our memories with soundscapes was unsettling at times but in the end, satisfying!
In no particular order of preference, I reveal representative tracks from the top 5 albums and the lists themselves according to Mark Levy, myself and Brian Haviland. Followed by a playlist with representative tracks from our decade picks, a list and light discussion added by the musical curators themselves, all in the same order as above. Happy 2020 <3. May it bring you all love, joy and incredible music.
The Best of 2019
Good at Falling by The Japanese House
Sunshine Rock by Bob Mould
Kings and Queens/Knaves and Thieves by The Ocean Blue
Modern Mirror by Drab Majest
Old Star by Darkthrone
Assume For by James Blake
Drastic Measures by Bayonne
All Mirrors by Angel Olsen
This is How You Smile by Helado Negro
Triage by Methyl Ethyl
All Mirrors by Angel Olsen
Ghosteen by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend
On the Line by Jenny Lewis
Not by Big Thief
The Decade’s Best
Mogwai’s Harcore Will Never Die But You Will came out early 2011. I was working at Big Sky that winter. My commute through the canyon was always around 7:30 am. This record will forever be the soundtrack to the following scene. The sun hitting fresh fallen snow while steam rises from the river. An Ansel Adams photograph comes to life.
Rush is the worlds biggest cult band and I have been a member for forty years. I could write a book about my life and connections to their music. That said, they have always pushed themselves to create the best art as possible while remaining true to their form. Clockwork Angels (2012) is no exception. As per the recent, devastating loss of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, it shall be the last. I think this album is fantastic start to finish. The band will end on a high note.
Growing up in New York, I’ve always enjoyed hardcore as a genre. I love bands from back in the day. Cro-Mags, Sick Of It All and Gorilla Biscuits to name a few. Turnstile is a band in the scene currently making great music. You can hear nods to the old school while keeping it fresh and interesting. Time & Space (2018) is hard and full of hooks. Can’t wait for more.
In Colour by Jamie xx somehow worked its way into my ears the year of its release in 2015. I believe it was the track “Loud Places” that first caught my attention. My best friend has this magical ability to sense what music I adore and she gifted me the record on vinyl for my 27th birthday. I think I partially blew out the speaker on my record player. I can’t remember a time since receiving that gift that I have been able to not listened to it from start to finish once I push ‘play’ on the top track, “Gosh.”
I heard something very strange but extremely enticing in early 2012. It was “Fitzpleasure” by Alt-J. I became obsessed with how bizarre the sounds, lyrics, vocals, instruments…everything, was. The obsession grew with the release of their debut full length An Awesome Wave in 2012. I listened to it over and over again, dug into the lyrics to discover more than just complete oddities but an attractively eccentric logic I appreciated. Come spring 2013 and another music-loving friend and I drove ourselves to Seattle to see them perform, the album on repeat for all 7 hours.
I cannot begin to describe what sort of feelings Future Islands conjure up within myself. This band has been a staple in my musical existence, a mainstay in my life the last 10 years. I find myself going back to their music always when I lose track of myself, when I become a version of myself that isn’t honest. It was challenging to pick one album of theirs as all but their debut were released in the last 10 years. I chose On the Water (2011) as it holds the highest density of my favorite tracks.
Brothers by The Black Keys (2010) –Without a doubt my Most listened to Album of the 2010s. Is that a fair comparison to make? After all, I had a full 10 years to listen to it as opposed to less than a year for an album released in 2019. Really, I just don’t listen to full albums like I used to. This might have been the last physical CD I purchased. Oh, and it’s damn good. Every song.
Wild Onion by Twin Peaks (2015) – Five years ago I became worried I’d slip into a Classic Rock loop of contentedness, listening to the same music over and over. It’s an easy thing to do and hey, the music is good. So when I came across this gem I felt a renewed drive to keep digging up new music like I used to. Best Rock Album of the Decade and somehow still flying under the radar.
Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest(2016) – I might dodge the question if you ask me what kind of music I listen to (Me: “Oh, I listen to everything” Humorless observer: “Everything? You listen to every single song ever released?” Me: “Yes”), but I prefer Indie Rock. I’m sure I’m not the first to make comparisons to one of the all time indie greats Pavement.
The psychedelic rockers, Dream Phases, released their debut album at the end of 2019 titled, So Long, Yesterday. The record is a sonic exploration of gathered experiences growing up in LA and travelling along the West Coast and how those experiences have put them where they are now. The group is fronted by Brandon Graham who kindly took the time to answer my questions.
MFL: Who all is in Dream Phases and what is your coming together story in as many or as few words as you’d like to use?
DP: Dream Phases has a few different lineups. Typically in the studio, the band comprises myself (Brandon Graham), Shane Graham, and Keveen Baudouin, along with a few guest musicians. The live band is augmented by Anthony Marks, who also played on a good portion of the new album, and a few other revolving musicians depending on what we are doing. The band came together as my solo songwriting project and evolved into a band situation. I knew that I wanted Shane and Keveen to play with me once the initial set of songs were written and demoed. Shane is my brother and we both have played with Keveen for years in previous bands we were in.
MFL: How do you approach songwriting? Is there one primary songwriter or is it a team effort, perhaps divided effort?
DP: So far I have been the primary songwriter, but our goal is to collaborate more with the writing on the next album. Until now, the process is typically me writing and recording essentially a fully arranged demo, which is then shared with the band and the song is developed from there in our practice space or in the studio. Then we record the final band version of the song. Shane often sends me drums tracks for the demos as well.
MFL: I read that you played SXSW a couple of years ago. I’d love to hear know about your experience there.
DP: SXSW was fun, and usually is. I’ve played there about 5-6 of the last 8 years.I’m not quite sure it’s still as relevant or as important as it once was, but you always meet new people, see great bands and overall have a good time partying. At this point, I’d really only go back if there was an important reason or really good showcase.
MFL: How does one choose a recording label (if you are still with Lolipop) and know that it is a good fit?
DP: We are not with Lolipop anymore, they just put out our first EP.We are currently working with Nomad Eel Records and Lunar Ruins. For labels it’s important that they believe in what you’re doing, are offering a good deal, not taking your publishing or writing credits, and that they have a good track record of promotion and releases. It’s kind of a toss-up nowadays as to whether it’s worth it to work with labels, however it can be very useful to lighten the load financially of a new release.
MFL: As a band, do you collectively have sources of musical inspiration? If so, discuss a few of them.
DP: The overall influences and inspiration of the band members are pretty wide, and that was part of the reason I spent time developing the sound on my own initially so that it would be focused. There are pros and cons to having a wide range of influences. On the one hand, you can draw from a lot and have interesting results that might sound fresh and new, but on the other hand, without too much curation the end sound can be lost and unfocused. We all agree on a lot of 60’s psychedelia, and more noisy rock stuff. I might kind of force the softer folk-rock and country-ish sounding stuff on the guys!
MFL: Describe the experience you create for the audience when playing live. Does this experience change when you’re on tour depending on crowd size/location?
DP: We try to create an immersive experience, regardless of whether or not we are touring or the location. We often work with different lighting artists to help that immersion, as well as try to play shows with friends or bands that work together. A lot of our songs flow into each other live, so we might play 3-4 songs directly into each other, with transitions. We like to keep the energy and flow going through the set and to have dynamics throughout the set, to keep it interesting and to not just have a full-on sonic assault the whole time. There is a bit of improvisation every night and setlists can change spontaneously, which makes it exciting for us. On tour, we do like to filter songs in and out and change it up at least a little bit every night.
MFL: What has life been like since the release of So Long, Yesterday and what’s next in terms of touring etc?
DP: Well, it’s only been two months, so not a whole lot has changed. We did the five-week European tour to promote the album and we played a few LA shows. It’s nice to have the album out there. We might do a bit of US touring in Spring, we are working that out now. I’m taking a short break from touring right now, as I just completed my seventh tour of the year, with Dream Phases and some other bands I play in as a side musician. It’s nice to be home.
MFL: Finally, favorite tour bus/van story…GO!
DP: No way I can pinpoint or even accurately remember them all, and I actively try to sleep as much as I can while in the van since it’s the most boring part of touring, which I call time traveling. On our last tour, we all got obsessed with a podcast called ‘Rock N Roll Archeology’, which is made by a rad guy from San Francisco. It’s a great podcast tying in music with the cultural and technology of the time. We geeked out on that pretty hard, that was definitely my favorite part about being in the van.
Thank you to Brandon Graham for answering my questions and Ashley Hoffman for coordinating. You can follow the band on Facebook and Spotify.