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InterviewsJennifer Cutting Interview

Posted on Friday, November 12 2004 @ 05:48:19 CST by Greg Cummins
Progressive Rock After being amazed at Jennifer Cutting's new CD, Ocean : Songs For The Night Sea Journey, Greg Cummins was intrigued to discover all the inside details on this projects 7 year history. Join Greg on his quest for the facts.

Greg: Hi Jennifer, and welcome to Sea Of Tranquility.

Jennifer: Hello Greg. May I call you Greg? I would just like to apologize now for everything I'm about to say.

Greg: Now settle back in your most comfortable chair, pour yourself your favourite blend of tea and help yourself to the scones and cream.

Jennifer: Oops, I've spilled the tea now.

Greg: I hope you know a little about our web site here but if not, we'll take you on a little tour while exploring some of the intricacies of your new CD. I was lucky enough to be the one to review your amazing CD and had to wrestle this one away from my wife, who wanted to play it at work. Considering the disproportionately large amount of men who prefer the heavier style of progressive music we cater for, compared to the mainstream music market, it must be satisfying to know you have released a body of work that will appeal to a large number people, irrespective of gender or age. Have you any idea of the demographics or your record buying public or is it a bit too early to tell yet?

Jennifer: I don't have complete insight into the demographics of who's buying the CD. But it seems to sell mostly to middle-aged asthmatics, former rodeo clowns, and pasty white people.

No, seriously… It's very gratifying to hear from so many different camps that all seem to be enjoying Ocean. Actually, a lot of my most enthusiastic fan letters are from men, so they must be finding something that appeals. Women are responding very viscerally to the lyrics and the emotional and psychological content. One fan plays it to his two kids, who demand to hear it every night before their bedtime. Perhaps the ultimate compliment is that my 87-year-old mother-in-law loves it!

Greg: There must have been many wonderful and also challenging moments while preparing for the recording of your CD. Would you like to share with us any of the highlights from your studio sessions in the U.S. and abroad?

Jennifer: As you've seen from my bio, I'm both a professional musician and an ethnomusicologist who works with the biggest world music archive in the country (Archive of Folk Culture, Library of Congress). But in all my training to make field recordings in the most remote places in Asia and Africa, nothing prepared me for the strange situations that befell me when trying to collect performances for my Ocean album in an industrialized European society. To illustrate, I'll recount some of my experiences from just one typical recording expedition.

One of the singers I wanted to work with in England couldn't leave her farm full of sick and aging animals, so I had to travel to her. I was traveling alone, with a suitcase and sixty pounds of analog tapes. Boarding the plane at Baltimore/Washington airport, the first thing that happened was that my master tapes were taken away from me. Post 9/11, I guess they couldn't take any chances. I was hysterical until I got them back at the other end.

On arrival, I found that British Rail had split up and its parts sold off. This meant I had to take five different trains get from London to the singer's farm in remotest Shropshire. Understand that each time you change trains in a British railway station, you must ascend and descend two steep stairwells. Each time you go to the toilet, you must ascend and descend one stairwell. That's fifteen stairwells times seventy-five pounds, and, by the end of the journey, one grumpy and exhausted writer-producer!

When I finally got there, the studio the singer had heard about turned out to be a cobweb-covered Christian Rock studio in a converted chapel that hadn't been used for 20 years. The first thing I did was to recording some lovely vocal accompaniment tracks on the antique pedal organ in the back room… But they all had to be scrapped because of the cooing of pigeons who had taken up residence inside the instrument. Then, after a full day of painstakingly getting down the perfect vocal tracks, it turned out the disused console was printing continuous white noise to tape! Everything was adulterated. Engineers worked all night to get the noise out.

We adjourned to the pub for some sustenance. The singer was an outspoken vegetarian. As fate would have it, the first thing we saw when we walked in was a huge side of rare roast beef, sitting in a pool of congealed blood in the carving station.

The next day, just as I had got the perfect lead vocal parts down for the last song on the album, a flash thunderstorm took the power out, and we lost the whole bloody thing. Crestfallen, I started all over again. By the end of the sessions, I had somehow summoned the patience to get the parts I needed, and it was time to make the arduous journey back, this time with even more pounds of analog tape. The trek from the farm to the station would be a long one.

This is when the skies opened and the hailstones came down. Hailstones the size of cricket balls! Desperate to protect my larvae, I tried to break into a run, but my feet wouldn't move. I looked down and realized that, because of the weight of the tapes I was carrying, I had sunk almost to my knees in liquefied sheep manure. It was a long trip home for my fellow passengers, sitting near me in my exquisitely pungent jeans. So much for recording in industrialized European countries!

But every one of those situations was worth enduring for the superb vocal performances I captured! (And that's just ONE of the recording sessions. The rest will be in my book…)

Greg: Did you encounter any major problems while in the studio that you were able to learn from?

Jennifer: What problem didn't I encounter? Over the course of the seven years I went from analog recording on two-inch 24-track tape to digital recording in Pro Tools, paralleling the transition of the recording industry in general. The large studio I used here in the Washington, D.C. area was making that transition at the same time, and I was one of their first Pro Tools clients.

It wasn't a case of learning a few isolated things… the whole project was a constant learning experience. In addition to that, I was introduced to the whole world of computer-based music production tools, including samples, virtual instruments, and software effects. There has been rapid development in these areas in the last few years, and I was very much trying to keep up with it. A few of the songs that I'd started as all-analog productions, I later ripped apart and rebuilt from the ground up, and I'm very pleased with the resultant sound palette for Ocean.

Greg: Excluding rehearsal time, how long were you actually in the recording studio?

Jennifer: I didn't see the sun for months at a time. Let's see…Eight different studios in three different countries over a period of seven to ten years, so…Countless hours, really.

Greg: It must be gratifying to be able to amass so many highly credentialed musicians to accompany you on this musical odyssey.

Jennifer: Yes, it was, but it certainly took a little doing! Let's just take "Forgiveness," and follow it from beginning to finished mix, so you get an idea of the odyssey required for just one song!

The all-star recording session for that song involved some strange coincidences. I'm not a member of any organized religion, but somehow this song came out sounding like a hymn, and somehow, all the events that led to its recording felt like somebody up there was smiling on it.

I completed the lyrics to "Forgiveness" in a noisy Washington, D.C. courthouse where I was serving on jury duty. I recorded the home demo on an 8-track half-inch analog tape deck with no automation, mixing with a different person moving each fader. I filled out an application to enter "Forgiveness" in the Song Contest at the Merle Watson Memorial Festival, but got discouraged, and threw the application in the trash. Later, a friend came over and rescued it from the trash, sending it in, still covered in coffee grounds. The song was selected for the finals, which meant I had to get to North Carolina somehow to compete. I say "somehow" because I am the world's most nervous driver. Then, "somehow," a friend with free time materialized to do the driving. Then followed a long, eventful road trip to North Carolina, where I drew the straw that meant I would be the last on stage to perform. Because "Forgiveness" had been assigned to the Gospel category, I had to compete with gospel quartets who had Big Hair and matching polyester outfits. But somehow, my simple piano and vocal performance of the song took first place. The disgruntled 3rd prize-winner, accustomed to walking away with a First in everything he entered, threatened, on-mic, to "strangle the judges" with the lifetime supply of guitar strings he had won.

Just the year before, New St. George had shared the stage with Maddy Prior and Friends at the Mariposa Folk Festival. Maddy had listened raptly to our whole set, asking me after the show if I had written any songs she might like. Still, it took a good three years of pitching the idea to her label and trying to coordinate getting my favorite musicians from both sides of the Atlantic in the same studio at the same time to record the song. But one day the pitching and schedule-juggling stopped dead as the stars and planets fell into some magical alignment. Busy Grammy-winning guitarist/producer John Jennings booked a flight to England using his frequent flyer miles, mysteriously choosing exactly the days that the legendary Chipping Norton Studios had free for the session, though he had not spoken with me to know this. The legendary Chipping Norton just happened to be willing to reduce their rates drastically for the session, after which executive producer Scott Miller just happened to come forth with the support to make the trip across the Atlantic. Legendary drummer Dave Mattacks, who was at that time playing in the Mary Chapin Carpenter band with John Jennings, just happened to be in the country and free on those days. The recording day for Forgiveness just happened to fall on the very day of a rare Total Eclipse of the Sun.

Back in Washington, D.C. with the completed mix of "Forgiveness," I accepted a last-minute chance invitation to a music industry dinner party, where I met the late Billboard Editor-in-Chief Timothy White. White overheard me talking about the session, asked for a copy, and left me a phone message pronouncing the song "Exquisite." That same week, he ordered an 800-word write-up in Billboard, before the song had even been released. The Billboard piece telling of the all-star recording session helped me to recruit others for my Ocean project.

Greg: You didn't have to ply them with extra topping on their pizzas did you?

Jennifer: No, but Maddy wanted a bottle of good red wine before she would sing!

Greg: Considering the rather predictable and disappointing style of music that is appearing more frequently these days, how important do you see Celtic / Folk / World music as a mainstream genre, particularly in an age where the more enlightened music lover will be aware of the style of instruments you use?

Jennifer: There was certainly a time when Celtic and World music didn't exist as commercially viable genres. Was it just the zeitgeist that the whole Celtic and World thing would take off, or was it due to a few individual artists like Enya? Certainly, someone like Enya wasn't following a formula; she was going out on a limb at the time. I hope that I'm similarly marching to the beat of my own different drummer.

Greg: Are you finding a ready acceptance for your music or is the ignorance factor and barrier still highly evident, so to speak?

Jennifer: I haven't run into any real doors being closed. So far as radio and distributors go, I've been very lucky. One has to be careful to target the right ones. I find that people in general are far more open minded than I give them credit for. I'm surprised and gratified that progressive rock magazines and sites are reviewing Ocean, because it is on the periphery of that genre. (On the other hand, as a baby keyboardist, I did cut my teeth on Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, and perhaps that seeps into my present work).

Getting distribution is hard work, but this has more to do with the present business climate than anything else. The music business is very conservative these days, because they have their own set of problems.

I've always been able to sneak my music in under the radar, for some reason. So more often than not, I'm being pleasantly surprised by all the different camps that end up claiming it.

Greg: Have you been pleased with the CD's sales results so far?

Jennifer: It's way too early to tell, but it looks very promising.

Greg: How many copies have you budgeted to sell?

Jennifer: I started with 2000 to cover the press and radio campaign, to sell off the stage, and to cover a handful of stores and mail-orders until I have wider distribution in place. It's the norm now for an unknown artist to do the publicity campaign first and get distribution second, which is the opposite of how it used to work. The timing is tricky, since publicity campaigns run their course fairly quickly. The way it works now is that, after a label has distribution, the label still has to pay for advertising and for prominent placement in the chain stores and their in-house publications. Those programs hopefully result in large purchase orders from the store, which means I would have to be ready to press several thousand more CDs at a moment's notice. It's a risk… the CDs could all be returned, too. But national distribution looks like it's just about to come through, and when it does, I'm going to go for it!

Greg: It must be so frustrating knowing you have released a major piece of work, but that its ultimate success can rest with a handful of people who will decide upon its additional promotion to the larger masses. Do you believe that the internet has help to spread the word for you or are the more traditional forms of marketing helping you more?

Jennifer: Both. The internet helps, but you can't rely on it completely. You still have to get the word out through other channels. And while online sales are growing, they are still only a small percentage of total sales. You still need to have your CD in front of people's faces. That's why I put bare breasts on the cover.

Greg: You obviously have a good working relationship with Larry Kolota from Kinesis in promoting your music, having used his services for some of your previous work. It must be encouraging to be able to call upon someone who will stick by you and promote your work while the major labels find the lamest excuse to drop any artist or band whose sales drop below a certain level.

Jennifer: Larry has been helping with the Ocean project for many years now, both as house engineer, business manager, and occasional musical collaborator. I'm very grateful for the help of someone who has occupied such a central role internationally in championing intelligent music of quality and integrity, and who has such a ready command of the history of such music.

Greg: How many years have you been with the Kinesis label?

Jennifer: Exactly zero. Larry gave me a barcode in exchange for a hot meal once. Other than that, the CD is on my own fledgling label, SunSign Records, which, while it does not boast an extensive catalog, does have a better-looking logo than Kinesis.

Greg: Your résumé within both the archival and professional musical realms is impressive to say the least, with you being involved in so many projects. How did you manage to squeeze so many activities into your daily schedule?

Jennifer: I reduce bathing to a bare minimum, and I found I could kill two birds with one stone by combing REM sleep with my day job. However, my most clever timesaving device is reading my mail while driving.

Greg: Apart from releasing this CD, what was your most satisfying musical experience?

Jennifer: One that's still fresh in my mind is that, after 10 years apart, The New St. George got back together for a reunion concert, opening for the electric version of the Strawbs (three days prior to their headlining NEARfest 2004). It was a heady experience, the two things combined… seeing all my mates in the New St. George again, realizing how big a part of our lives we had spent together; and being able to share a dressing room and a stage with some of my all-time musical heroes, who were also having a reunion (30 years!). And the icing on the cake was the incredible outpouring of love that came from the fans, who turned up ten years later, as if not a single day had passed!

Dave Cousins really liked NSG's live sound and both the High Tea and Ocean CDs, and we may end up working together in the future. His song "Benedictus," in particular, had a profound effect on me… I was driving the first time I heard it, and I was so moved that I had to pull the car over on the side of the road, and have a good cry. Eventually, I was able to get back on the road and finish reading my mail.

Greg: Predictably, you would have enjoyed a strong influence from much of the folk music that has been available in the past 3 decades from the better known bands such as Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Clannad. Which band's music has had the biggest impact on your own appreciation of this style?

Jennifer: I have to say, I've always been a big Steeleye fan because of their clever, craftsmanlike arrangements and terrific taste in curating their material. Another major influence was a lesser-known English band called Pyewackett, whose combination of English folk, quirky pop, early music, and 1930s novelty tunes was a complete revelation and inspiration. Pyewackett blew my mind and influenced a lot of my arrangements.

Greg: And what about soloists such as Mary Black, Enya, Maire Brennan,

Jennifer: Enya and Maire Brennan set the standard for lush vocal productions, and influenced the overall sound of the Ocean album quite a lot.

Greg: Who else do you listen to for help in nurturing those creative juices?

Jennifer: Later, in the period after New St. George disbanded and while starting on Ocean, I was tremendously inspired by the sound of the band October Project and by Karl Jenkins's wonderful symphonic/world project "Adiemus." I also like the band Paul McCartney was in prior to Wings.

Greg: Have you heard much music from any of the lesser known Celtic folk / rock bands such Karnataka, Solas, Capercaillie, Anam, Malicorne and others and would you consider their music a source of inspiration?

Jennifer: I was definitely influenced by the sophisticated sound palette of Capercaillie, and Malicorne was one of my very favorite electric folk bands because of their intricate arrangements and stunning vocal harmonies. That's why it was especially wonderful to have Gabriel Yacoub join me on the album. He's one of my favorite male singers, and also one of my favorite producers and arrangers. He deserves to be even better known on this side of the pond.

Greg: Can you enlighten us on some of the newer emerging bands and musicians that you have discovered during you own musical sojourn? There must be hundreds whose talents need and deserve to be discovered.

Jennifer: One particular favorite of mine right now is I Muvrini, a folk-pop band from Corsica that can go from the traditional Corsican unaccompanied harmony singing to a truly sophisticated sound palette that holds it own with the best productions coming out of any of the major studios. I also love Polyphonic Spree, a choral psychedelic pop band out of Texas that somehow manages to meld that endearing sixties spirit with something new.

Greg: What instrument do you enjoy using and playing the most?

Jennifer: Cambodian bundle pipes. They sound awful, though.

I love playing my melodeon (diatonic button accordion) because it's such a satisfyingly physical experience, squeezing out those chunky happy bouncy melodies in a way that can't be done on any other instrument in the world. It's a hell of a lot easier to play the keyboard though, and that's satisfying in its own way because I can pretty much translate any idea from my head directly to the instrument. Also, I love all the expansive sounds I can make on my Kurzweil.

Greg: At what age did you actually begin playing and what was the first instrument you learned?

Jennifer: Classical guitar, when I was 7. I was a miserable failure.

Greg: Maddy Prior sounds as wonderful as ever on this record. She must have been a delight to work with?

Jennifer: Absolutely wonderful. Totally down-to-earth!

Greg: And I'm sure Peter would have kept you on your toes?

Jennifer: He was a dream to work with, too, as he's both a great reader (many of my compositions are in notated form), and a great improviser. The challenge was, for me, as the less experienced person, to manage the sessions in such a way that I remained true to my artistic intention while respecting the input of the veterans.

Greg: You managed to embrace so many wonderful musical ideas and interpretations on this CD, embellishing your concepts with the inclusion of some truly talented musicians such as the Bulgarian group, "Slaveya", Troy, Maddy, Peter and a cast of thousands. How much input did people such as these have in the overall production of your project or were they merely invited to contribute to their own respective song or songs?

Jennifer: I try very hard to allow each person's creative input to shine through, and I believe that's the strength of my productions. Because each song was a separate recording project, the musicians were hearing only the ones on which they were featured. Peter, for instance, has a vast repertoire upon which to draw, and when I was fishing around for a tune to follow my own composition "Neptune Reel" as the last track of the main sequence of the album, it was he who suggested the traditional Irish reel "Woman of the House." Slaveya commented that the syllables I'd chosen for their vocal parts were not typical, and when they tweaked it slightly to be more Slavic, I welcomed that. Troy, who can play anything strung or blown, always improved on the parts I wrote while preserving their original structures. Engineers, too, have creative as well as technical input. There are a lot of years of experience represented by all the people here, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of that and use it wisely.

Greg: What other styles of music do you like to listen to these days?

Jennifer: I'm listening to a lot of traditional Highland Pipes music right now, as well as a lot of 60's mods, Afro-pop, and Rodgers & Hammerstein's show tunes. I secretly love Abba.

Greg: How often do you manage to play live?

Jennifer: Oh, about once a month, whether we need to or not.

Greg: Do you ever think of undertaking a major tour of either America or England / Europe?

Jennifer: I aspire to put together a U.K. lineup of the Ocean Orchestra to play some of the great festivals over there. But there is a tremendous amount of planning and sponsorship that must go into any undertaking as ambitious as overseas touring.

Greg: What is the largest audience you have played for?

Jennifer: Oh, I'd have to say Philadelphia Folk Festival, playing on the main stage to over 18,000 people.

Greg: Would you like to share some secrets about your family life?

Jennifer: Well, they wouldn't be secrets, then, would they? The sordid details of my life will be published later as an autobiography, so I don't want to give it all away just yet…

But I will say that there are many kinds of families. In my life, there has always been a shortage of biological family, and an incredible wealth of chosen family. I'm surrounded by a group of incredibly smart, funny, and talented people, some of whom I call the Brain Trust (you can see their bios on my website).

As for my hobbies, I like to raise Sea Monkeys. None have lived to adulthood.

Greg: You were involved in a band for many years called "The New St George" and released an album called "High Tea." Although I have not had the privilege of hearing that CD, you have piqued my interest in the style of music that you performed all those years ago. How does it compare musically to Ocean?

Jennifer: The New St. George was my attempt to create interesting new work within the genre known as Electric Folk, or British folk-rock. There were a number of bands who had done it or were doing it in the U.K., where it was born. But when I arrived back in the U.S. after doing my graduate work in England, the sound was nowhere to be found here. That's to be expected, I suppose… the U.S. has a large Irish population, whereas there aren't that many Americans with a sense of English ethnic identity. So while there was (and is) an active Irish music scene in the U.S., The New St. George was nearly unique. Just like progressive rock, there were some who said there was nothing new that could be done in Electric Folk, and saw it as a relic of a particular time in history. I disagreed, and thought I had something new to say. People who hear High Tea can judge for themselves.

Greg: I remember when I was a young teenager; I had explored a lot of the more progressive rock music from the late 60's / early 70's but also enjoyed much of the folk music of that time, especially from England. Do you remember a delightful band called Magna Carta? They released some truly brilliant records called "Songs From Wasties Orchard" and "Seasons". Do you wonder why such clever musicians and great songs never reach even a reasonable level of success or acceptability?

Jennifer: The early '70s was a time of incredible freedom for musicians to experiment, and there was a great flowering of creativity. Boundaries between genres were not so rigid then, and there was a lot of cross-fertilization between bands and styles. My own favorite hybrids of that period were the rock/early music bands such as Gryphon, Amazing Blondel, and some Gentle Giant. Eventually the music business became a big business, and that freedom could not continue. So much from that period has been issued on CD, and archival recordings unearthed, that we can be thankful there's such a wealth of great music available to us in the new millennium.

Greg: What do you think plagues the overall music industry these days and what genre do you find the most unpleasant?

Jennifer: If you look at the biggest sellers in the industry, that's all oriented toward celebrity and not music. But that part of the music industry is becoming less and less relevant, and below that, in the less-than-million-selling category where I fall, I'm happy with the opportunities I have, and even feel that I'm able to compete favorably with labels that have far more resources behind them.

The older traditional channels of promotion such as radio have been eroded (radio is owned by big corporations, and magazines such as Rolling Stone have become entertainment magazines little different than People) but, on the other hand, the internet has opened up new avenues of promotion that allows more direct communication between artists and fans. Sites like Sea of Tranquility, created mainly as a labor of love, help greatly in this regard.

As to which genres I find most unpleasant, I would have to say Appalachian Fanny Fiddling. Definitely the worst.

Greg: For the majority of people, it's all about melody when you boil things down to the lowest common denominator. Is this an art that has been lost with much of today's music?

Jennifer: The melody/rhythm thing may break down along cultural lines. What I hear in popular music today is that rhythm has become king, as in hip-hop. In much of this music, there's nothing BUT rhythm.

Greg: What other projects do you have in the wings and is another CD on the cards?

Jennifer: Yes, there is definitely another CD on the cards. However, given the expense and the pace at which I work, none of the people alive today will be privy to that. Perhaps their children's children will live to hear it.

Greg: Will you be sure to send me a copy for review if and when that follow up is released? I'd be honoured to review that one as well.

Jennifer: Yes, I will send a copy to you in Australia, if you'll promise to send me a copy of every single episode of the Paul Hogan Show.

Greg: Jennifer, it's been a delight to have you with us. Your music and talent deserves to be exposed to a much wider audience. Let's hope that through the Sea Of Tranquility and other sites such as this one, we can help you attain a higher level of awareness with the record buying public.

Jennifer: Cheers, thanks. If you speak to the record-buying public, tell them they can stop by for tea.

Greg: Thanks again Jennifer, I'm glad you could drop in.

Jennifer: I always like to get the last word in.

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