In 2007 Perri released a Folk-inflected album called Tiny Mirrors, which for the first time was presented under his own name. While the shift found him dabbling in more conventional singer/songwriter waters, it still left room for his more experimental leanings. His latest “solo” album, the addictive Impossible Spaces, expands upon Tiny Mirrors, employing a variety of sounds, instruments and textures — Arto Lindsay’s Brazilian-tinged post-DNA solo records pop to mind — all anchored by Perri’s understated yet oddly affecting vocals and guitar work.
The peeps at Pitchfork named Impossible Spaces one of the 40 best albums of 2011, and Bryce Dessner gushed when asked why he was compelled to have Perri play at this year’s MusicNOW: “It’s one of the best records I’ve heard in a long time. It’s interesting because it’s not the type of music I tend to be drawn to. It has a bit of a Jazz-inflected kind of range to it, and I tend to be turned off by kind of Jazzy songs, but his music is so incredibly well made, the melodies are so infectious and the playing so inventive.”
CityBeat recently phoned Perri to talk about his creative process, his move from Electronic music to (relatively) more conventional songwriting and his hometown of Toronto.
CityBeat: How are you, Sandro?
Sandro Perri: I’m well. And you?
CB: Not bad. A little hungover.
SP: (Laughs) I’ll be gentle.
CB: Were you familiar with MusicNOW before agreeing to play this year?
SP: I had heard about it, yeah, but I had never been to it and wasn’t that familiar with it. I think I heard about it through Owen Pallett, who lives in Toronto and played there a couple of years ago.
CB: Right. Given your initial Dance-based Electronic recordings, I thought it interesting that you studied Jazz guitar in college for a time.
SP: Yes. Part of my training is studying guitar through Jazz theory. It’s the kind of thing where you learn some of the techniques and the theory behind it, but it takes a lot more than that to really be a Jazz guitar player, to really embrace the whole genre fully in spirit and everything. I didn’t quite have it in me to follow one specific sort of genre, so I just kind of studied the music and some of the theory. I’m a big fan of a lot of Jazz, but it’s not by any means a foundational thing for me.
CB: How do you think it impacted what you’re doing now?
SP: I got interested in Jazz mostly through the stuff that was considered outside (the genre) at some point — like mid-to-late ’60s Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy and Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, stuff like that. It’s interesting for me because of the harmonic richness you hear in a lot of Jazz. There are also some challenging rhythmic things that you hear in Jazz that were appealing to me as a kid, and just the sense of freedom that you hear within a lot of Jazz. That’s what has impacted me the most. It took a lot of studying to scratch the surface to how musicians start to approach that kind of style of playing.
CB: How then did you get interested in Electronic music? It seems like a complete 180 in many ways.
SP: Yeah. Partially it was a reaction to being in Jazz school, but more than that it was just being seduced by how good Electronic music really plays with timbre and texture and the idea of morphing sounds together and creating new sounds and having music which can end up sounding more liquid, I suppose, than a lot of performed music or acoustically made music. That’s appealing for someone who thinks just in terms of pure sound.
Once I had been in school and sort of started to get over the idea of music having to be performed by live musicians, then it opened up this whole world of the seduction of working in a studio and creating music which is more like creating a painting or creating a film where you’re doing it in real time but you’re creating something in a medium that will be experienced outside of a performance. That kind of opens you up to this whole world of possibilities that doesn’t really exist in performing music. I think Electronic music kind of embodies that idea, and that’s very appealing.
CB: Creatively you can do almost anything when you’re not limited by your own technical skill as a player and musician.
SP: Yes. The studio allows for all kinds of things to happen that might not happen in real time and don’t necessarily need to happen in real time. I think the idea of music as a performing art is only one way of looking at it.
CB: Well, interestingly, the new album has a lot going on sonically, a lot of interesting textures. I’m curious how you go about presenting the songs in a live setting. Do you try to re-create them as they sound on the record, or is it a little bit of different take on the songs?
SP: By necessity it ends up being a different take on the songs because the kind of process that went into making the record and mixing it is not really possible in a live setting because there are so many factors that are unknown. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole to try and control the live situation as much as you can control a recording. You end up working against the essence of performing live, which is to communicate in real time and to try and reach a place where you’re needing more broad strokes to express what is at the heart of a song or a piece of music. A lot of details can’t really be adhered to. As much as I’d like to — I’m tempted often to try and do that — it’s just not really feasible. I think it would end up coming off as being hyper-controlling to try and do that in a live setting. Hopefully the essence of the music remains when a slightly different approach is taken live.
CB: Well, specifically, in the song “Love & Light” there is this rhythmic, kind of breathy, panting at the beginning that works so well on the recorded version. Do you try to re-create something like that live?
SP: We do usually, yeah. There are a couple of different ways that we approach it. We’re sort of working out some of the details. We do things and we try different approaches and we’re always sort of experimenting with different ways to play things live. I can’t make any guarantees about any part at this point, but, yeah, we usually try and do stuff like that if we can.
CB: In recent years you’ve come to a more conventional singer/songwriter approach. Why were you interested in moving in that direction?
SP: It’s a new challenge. I like words. I like the idea of putting words to music. After a while I got stuck in a place where I was repeating myself a lot with the Electronic music. The stuff I was doing had a very similar tone all the way through. I found it to be a little bit of a safe place once you find your thing. It can feel comfortable, but it can also get kind of boring. I get restless, and I think that writing words and music was just an extension of what I was doing.
I was doing that when I was a kid, too, but it was not something that I chose for whatever reason to have be part of my output. I initially started putting out the Electronic records because maybe it seemed more feasible at the time. Ultimately I think it just comes down to wanting more challenges and being excited about those challenges and deciding to try it regardless of whether you think you can do it or not, just stretching out and putting yourself in a place where there is an unknown factor.
CB: Can you tell me about your songwriting process? Do you come up with the sounds and the music and then write the lyrics based on that? Or is it more of a combination?
SP: It can be more of a combination, and it can be sometimes lyrics first, sometimes music first, sometimes just a melody first. It can be a very slow, laborious process with endless revisions and experimentation with instruments and with length of the songs and tempo and arrangements and the key. Often the things that end up on my records have been through so many revisions and re-workings that there might be 10 or 15 different versions of a song somewhere in my sketchbook or on my hard drive.
That’s the joy of it, too — all of the possibilities that you can go through with a piece. But all of that just goes to the essence of what it is, and sometimes it takes a while to learn what a song actually is before it’s ready to be finalized. The process can involve a lot of different approaches depending on the song and depending on how it came about. I’ve found that for me there hasn’t been any standard way yet that I’ve hit upon to write.
CB: Do you basically create the songs on your own? You don’t really have a full-time band, right?
SP: Most of it is on my own because my band tends to change from time to time. Different members will come and go depending on the music, depending on schedules and all kinds of things. For the most part the process is one that I do on my own. I often play things for friends and ask them what they think, but for the most part it’s a solitary thing because sometimes too many options can come in the more people you involve. It can be easy to lose focus sometimes if there is something really specific that you’re trying to get at. But it’s nice to have other people involved later on, once you’ve worked on a bunch of ideas. It can help to re-energize when I start to introduce the music to other people and we start to work at putting it together in the final stages.
CB: I’m not that familiar with the Toronto music scene, but I go up every year for the film festival. It’s a really fascinating city, much more multicultural than I envisioned before going there. I’m curious how Toronto and the arts scene there have impacted you as a musician.
SP: Well, like you said, it’s very multicultural, it’s very broad and it’s very non-competitive, which is maybe more specifically a Canadian thing and a Toronto thing. There are a lot of opportunities to play regularly, and, coming back to a national thing, there is pretty good arts support in Canada federally, provincially and even locally within cities.
If you get to a certain level of seriousness as an artist you’re eligible for funding for making records and for touring and stuff. I’ve been lucky with some of that — I’ve been turned down plenty of times as well — so it can be nice to make music in Canada for that reason. Or to make any art for that matter if you’re serious about it. Even if you’re not a full-time professional artist there is still encouragement to explore things and to try things even if you’re just semi-professional or a hobbyist.
There is a lot of exchange that can happen amongst musicians, in particular, in this city. Over the last 10 or 15 years I’ve made a lot of inspiring connections with musicians and artists here in the city. It’s hard to say or pinpoint exactly how that impacts your work, but I think overall just having people around you who support and who do similar things creates a feeling that you’re not doing it in a vacuum. That gives you the confidence to keep working and to keep pushing yourself into new territories, but without it being a competitive thing. I find there is a distinct lack of competitiveness amongst the people I know in Toronto making music…
CB: What do you mean when you say “competitiveness”? Do you mean in terms of getting attention?
SP: I think just the general feeling between people. The feeling is very supportive and people help each other out and play on each other’s recordings. There is just a general willingness to help other people out and to be involved in what other people are doing without there being a feeling of threat to your professional aspirations. It’s maybe not a matter of survival like it is for some people in other countries. I’m really not sure. Maybe it’s the way the social system is set up here in Canada where it’s hard to feel like you need to cut the person beside you in order to survive.
I’m not sure what it is, but there is just a general feeling of support and friendliness between artists here that I think has had a pretty positive long-term effect both in your ability and your willingness to try different artistic mediums and try things and feel safe and entitled to do so. I might not be the right person to comment on this, because it’s probably a lot more complex than that, but that’s just my general feeling on making music in Toronto and Canada. As a result there may be people here in Toronto who are phenomenal talents but who just don’t reach the outside world because they don’t really care to or they don’t try to. It’s just about what they’re doing and less about who they’re reaching.
CB: I looked at your bio on your website the other day and it was interesting that the very first sentence describes you as “a songwriter and a producer of new music.” I thought that was a curious way to describe what you do. What does the term “new music” mean to you? Is it that you’re creating new music all the time, or is it that you’re trying to do something new with the music?
SP: Maybe a little of both. It’s maybe one of those things that just has a nice ring to it. You also have to be careful what you read into bios, because it ultimately can be sort of a meaningless thing. But to me the idea of making “new music” means not worrying too much about what genre you’re doing or what someone will call it and just think about following your gut and your instinct. That to me is “new music.” Anything else is when you say to yourself, “Oh, I make Hip Hop or whatever.” When you decide and tell yourself, “I am this and this is what I do,” then it informs in a lot of the choices that you make and what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do, what you are afraid of and what you’re not afraid of. There is a lot of music that just goes for it and doesn’t try and define itself or whatever.
To me that’s “new” music. I think it’s a pretty broad term, but it’s optimistic to me to call something new but without the trap of something having to be new to be relevant. That’s maybe a dangerous way to read into it; that it’s only good or relevant if it came out this week. New music can be found new maybe long after it’s been made, long after it’s been released into the world. The reason for that is that it comes from a place of just genuine curiosity and adventure, and that lasts through time. You can sort of smell that in music, you can sense it.
So, yeah, a longwinded answer, and perhaps meaningless, but that’s kind of how I feel about it (laughs).
CB: I hear a lot of different influences on the new album, including, maybe surprisingly, a kind of 1970s and ’80s Pop radio singer/songwriter thing. Did you listen to Pop radio growing up?
SP: Oh yes, I definitely heard all that stuff when I was growing up. I probably listened to a lot of Pop radio that was playing older music, like even for the ’80s. I would hear a lot of Motown. I definitely wasn’t in a vacuum growing up. I didn’t latch onto a lot of popular music in the ’80s, but I certainly heard it. Though sometimes it took me 10 or 20 years to get into music from my childhood, to really get into it in a new way.
much as I love listening to and exploring different and more
“difficult” music, Pop music has always appealed to me if it’s
done well. If it speaks to me then I don’t discriminate against Pop
music at all; I definitely love it. So I suppose there is probably a
lot of that in the new album. Trying to write melodies will often end
up sounding pretty Pop (laughs).
While it’s not part of the Fringe, Avenue Q, presented by Showbiz Players at Covington’s Carnegie Center, has the same zany vibe. It’s an X-rated musical with puppets that might visually remind you of Sesame Street — until they open their dirty mouths. The show was a surprise Tony Award winner several years back, and it promises lots of laughs for those who go. Through June 10. 859-957-1940.
If you want something more traditional, try Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. It’s officially categorized as a comedy because it has humorous and romantic elements. But the central story about a potentially fatal argument between a moneylender and a businessman is anything but amusing. CSC’s artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips takes on the role of the rapacious moneylender who has faced anti-Semitic discrimination for his entire life. Is Shylock a villain or a victim? Shakespeare gives him aspects of each, and CSC’s production does not tilt in either direction. You get to decide, and it won’t be easy. Box office: 513-381-2273, x1.
Be sure to consider downtown’s newest performance venue, Speakeasy Theatre, storefront space at 815 Race Street. Their inaugural production is Paul Baerman’s The Whistler, set in 1965 in an unnamed Southern city awash in racist attitudes. The Andy Griffith Show is in its fifth season, and the guy who whistles the theme (played here by local professional actor Michael G. Bath) is living off his royalties. But life gets more complicated when he meets an African-American trumpet player (played by Tony Davis) who shares his passion for music. The Whistler will be onstage through June 10. Box office: 513-861-7469
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
As the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) prepares for next Tuesday's announcement of its 2009-10 season, there is indication it will be bringing the big, nationally reviewed Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand show here from Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The first museum retrospective for the popular and controversial street artist, Supply and Demand looks at his career up to his creation of the iconic Obama silk-screen posters, depicting the then-presidential candidate, head slightly and nobly uplifted, above the words "Progress" and "Hope."
If you’ve seen The Seagull at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (and CityBeat theater reviewer Tom McElfresh recommends that you do), then you should plan a return visit for The Nina Variations, playwright Steven Dietz’s delightful take on the final scene of Chekhov’s play. CSC offers another way to see the 1896 classic, via Dietz’s 1996 script, presented by the Bruce E. Coyle Intern Company from Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
I haven’t seen the Showboat Majestic’s opening production of its 90th season (that’s right, the boat has been entertaining audiences for nine decades!), but Babes in Hollywood is another show that’s light and entertaining. It’s a revue of tunes made famous by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney back in the 1930s and ’40s when they were happy-go-lucky adolescent stars. I did see the four-member cast do a number at last Monday’s LCT Awards event, and they have fine voices and a sense of style. I suspect this show will be popular with the grey-haired audience that frequents the Showboat, but I bet people of any age will have a good time watching. Box office: 513-241-6550.
If you want something a tad more profound, try Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. It’s officially categorized as a comedy because it has humorous and romantic elements. But the central story about a potentially fatal argument between a moneylender and a businessman is anything but amusing. CSC’s artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips takes on the role of the rapacious moneylender who has faced anti-Semitic discrimination for his entire life. Is Shylock a villain or a victim? Shakespeare gives him aspects of each, and CSC’s production does not tilt in either direction. You get to decide, and it won’t be easy. Review here. Box office: 513-381-2273, x1.
There’s a new theater downtown, just a few doors north of Cincinnati Shakespeare’s venue. They’re calling themselves Speakeasy Theatre, and they’re performing in a storefront space at 815 Race Street. Their inaugural production is Paul Baerman’s The Whistler. The show, directed by Tim Waldrip, is set in 1965 in an unnamed Southern city where a lot a racist attitudes are out in the open. The Andy Griffith Show is in its fifth season, and the guy who whistles that show’s theme (played here by local professional actor Michael G. Bath) is living off the royalties of his work. But life gets more complicated when he meets an African-American trumpet player (Tony Davis is taking on the role) who shares his passion for music. The show just opened on Thursday and I haven’t seen it, but it’s always good to give a new theater a try. The Whistler will be onstage through June 10. Box office: 513-861-7469.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
I hope my Curtain Call column (found here) in a recent issue moves you to head to UC's College Conservatory of Music for Richard Hess's staging of Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Heidi Chronicles, onstage through . If you remember the 1970s and ’80s, this production will transport you back in time as you watch young feminist Heidi Holland grow up, grow weary and grow wise. Tickets: 513-556-4183.
It was quite the spectacle and in a good way. As I, along with other members of MUSE, approached Great American Ballpark around 4 p.m., there were already hundreds of World Choir Games participants thronging the entrance, and despite the stifling temperature, the excitement was palpable. All the hype about this being an international event was no hype at all. For the first time I can remember, Cincinnati looked like an international city.
Choirs from West Chester, Loveland and Pleasant Ridge chatted with groups from Japan, Colombia, Canada and Australia. Cheers erupted from all parts of the plaza, spontaneous singing and dancing were everywhere. The plaza was a riot of color: the Colombians in vivid red, orange, and yellow; Japanese women in blue and pink kimonos; the Nigerian choir in bright green dashikis and caps; and the Costa Rican women's choir in flowing white dresses embroidered in bright red.
With no signage but a multitude of helpful volunteers, 5,000 of us were mustered into holding areas before marching over to U.S. Bank Arena. Bottled water and mist sprayers relieved the heat, and when the water ran out, there plenty of ice cubes — putting them down my back never felt better.
We found ourselves in a shaded area along with a youth choir from Erie, Pa. Suddenly they started chanting, "Sing! Sing! Sing!" As we launched in the South African Xhosa song "Bambelela," their eyes lit up in recognition and suddenly we were one big chorus. They answered us with "The Storm is Passing Over," and this time, our eyes lit up. Same arrangement we do. They sang a beautiful arrangement of "As I Went Down to the River to Pray." When we sang Bernice Johnson Reagon's "I'm Gon' Stand," with Lois Shegog belting out the solo, they were riveted.
Once inside the arena, more cheering as groups saw themselves on the JumboTrons. The soundtrack took in The Temptations, The Jackson 5, Gloria Estafan, The Monkees, and I think Neil Diamond was in there somewhere. The Aussies sitting below us started a beach ball toss that would have gone on longer if an arena-wide wave hadn't taken over. I didn't see many empty seats.
WCPO's Clyde Gray and Carol Williams were affable emcees and the opening remarks by Mayor Mallory and Interkultur head Gunther Titsch were mercifully brief (Titsch spoke in heavily accented English and then reverted to his native German. That was fine — I'd rather look at his translator any day. Williams read greetings from President Obama — the letter was projected on the video screens to the accompaniment of hundreds of camera flashes. Rob Portman didn't applaud. But he recovered to declare the games open.
Cincinnati Pops conductor John Morris Russell paid tribute to the late Erich Kunzel, who was the driving force behind bringing the WCG to Cincinnati. And it was his vision to include the traditional July 4th concert as part of the opening ceremony. I think he would have been delighted and not at all surprised at the power of singing to bring people together. Choruses rose with pride as their nation's flag was announced, but they also cheered on their peers. I'll never forget the group from Namibia turning to cheer South Africa.
As we left, I couldn't help singing India Arie's "There's Hope." MUSE sang that, too.
As I wrote in my column in the current issue of CityBeat, there's a lot of good holiday theater available on Cincinnati stages right now. The Playhouse's production of A Christmas Carol, now in its 22nd year, is best in class — a well-told traditional tale with some of the best professional actors in town onstage, from Bruce Cromer as Scrooge and Dale Hodges as the Ghost of Christmas past. There are a few new faces, too, playing the Cratchits. And speaking of new faces, I feel comfortable recommending New Edgecliff Theatre's one-woman show, The 12 Dates of Christmas, which is being engagingly performed by Annie Kalahurka. It's paired with David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries, which feels a little shopworn to me, but you can catch the double-bill downtown at the Arnonff's Fifth Third Bank Theater — and maybe go for drinks at Arnold's before or after the show.
If you're looking for something kind of different, try The Naughty List (review here), a holiday-themed improv show (presented in Arnold's courtyard on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings) by Know Theatre. Five quick-witted comics who constitute OTR Improv are doing routines that use audience suggestions (and occasional audience participants) for nearly two hours of entertainment. It's a different show every night.
Have kids you want to take to the theater and give them a taste of what fun it can be? Two good bets are Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati for one of its musical fairytales with a moral (this year the show is a colorful, cartoonish rendition of Alice in Wonderland) and Covedale Center, where Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is singing and dancing its way through another familiar story the kids will know. The prince is handsome, Cinderella is sweet and the nasty Stepmother is played by a guy.
As far as familiar stories go, you've probably seen Frank Capra's classic holiday film It's a Wonderful Life a few times during the holidays. But I bet you haven't experienced in the unique way that Falcon Theater offers it up at Newport's Monmouth Theatre: The script frames the story as an old-time radio drama, and you get to watch behind-the-scenes as a handful of actors play all the roles and a few others create the necessary sound effects. It opens this weekend and runs for a week. I haven't seen this year's edition, but I've enjoyed past incarnations, and I suspect this one will be entertaining as well.
I was at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music last evening to see this weekend’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I love this densely intellectual script that’s awash in math and physics theory as well as conflicting perspectives deriving from the Romantic movement and the Age of Enlightenment. The play alternates between 1809 and 1993, with characters in the more recent era speculating about actions and motives of people, including the poet Lord Byron, from nearly two centuries earlier. It’s a fascinating conceit, but it’s also three hours of dialogue that require close attention — and a lot of the CCM audience took off at intermission. The challenge is exacerbated by a lot of fast-talking using British accents and amplification (the actors wear body mics) that sounds blurry. That’s too bad, because the production looks great, is nicely costumed and has some fine performances, and Stoppard’s script is one of the great plays of the past 30 years. But unless you’ve seen it or read it, you might find this production a challenge. Box office: 513-556-4183
Pump Boys & Dinettes at the Covington’s Carnegie Center is something like an off-Broadway classic (it had a brief Broadway run) from the early 1980s. Set in a filling station that’s also a diner — where you can “Eat and Get Gas” — it’s a jaunty framework for downhome Country tunes and cornpone humor. It opens a three-weekend run a week ago, and I found it to be a delightfully entertaining production. Read my review here. Box office: 859-957-1940
More musical froth is available this weekend, including My Favorite Year, through Sunday at Northern Kentucky University (859-572-5464), and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat through May 13 at the Covedale Center (513-241-6550). The former is a story about backstage shenanigans in the early days of television; the latter is an early show by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on a familiar biblical story. Neither is profound, but both should fun to watch.
For a musical with some sharper edge, you might check out Know Theatre’s production of the recent off-Broadway and Broadway Rock musical hit, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The show is a youthful mix of political commentary, driving Rock performances, history, humor and sober observations on the will of the people — just what we’ve come expect from Know Theatre. (The “orchestra” for the production is the local band The Dukes Are Dead.) The show has a cast of strong musical theater performers, and they make this sassy political satire a Critic’s Pick. This is Bloody Bloody’s first professional regional production, and it will surely be the big hit of Know’s season. (Through May 12.) Box office: 513-300-5669.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of The Grapes of Wrath (running through April 29) is a powerful theatrical interpretation of John Steinbeck’s grim tale about a Depression-era family of Oklahoma sharecroppers driven to homelessness by ecological and economic disasters. It’s a portrait of the desperate life wrought by the Depression in the 1930s and a powerful reminder that life hasn’t improved for many Americans 80 years later. CSC’s production is made all the more relevant by folksy musical interludes performed live by some of the actors. A downer of a story, but definitely worth seeing. Box office: 513-381-2273, x1.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.