Q&A with Michael Sheridan

So following on from this week’s review of New York-based guitarist, Michael Sheridan’s new album (Prelude), we have a wee bit a Q&A with the man for you too. Thanks very much, Michael, for taking the time to answer the questions.

On with the show!

What’s your background with the guitar? How did you get started?

Well before guitar I was already into music.  When I was in kindergarden I joined the choir.  There was a girl who I had a crush on who was in it so I joined, then she quit a week later and I was stuck there.  But I was really lucky, the choir program was amazing and I learned so much.  I was 4 turning 5 then, so by the time I was 7 and started guitar I was already around real musicians for years.  I had been begging my parents for a guitar and the summer after 2nd grade I got one and started lessons.  I was only in lessons for a few months and then I stopped those.  After that I taught myself.  In some ways it was harder I imagine but in other ways it was amazing.  There was no one telling me what I could or couldn’t do.  There was no thought of “would this work in competition” or “would this be a good audition piece” It was only “would this sound cool this way”.  Everything was wide open.  Later on when I did go to school I studied with Phil de Fremery and he was just the perfect teacher for me.  Phil doesn’t give a sh*t about the “right” way to do things.  He doesn’t even care what the composer wanted most of the time.  He only cares about the sound and the emotion;  if it said exactly what you wanted it to say.  I love Phil.

 What was the process for coming up with Prelude? 

I remember being a kid and being backstage before shows. We’d be in choir concerts or summer theater groups or whatever and my favorite moment was always when the lights go down and it’s really dark and you’re backstage and you know the crowd is out there waiting for you.  I think that’s the feeling I had in mind the whole time I was working on the album.

What is your personal favourite track on the album and why?

That’s a difficult question just because it keeps changing.  I love the Django tunes.  For a while the first tango was my favorite to listen to but I think if I have to pick, Felicidade is the one I most proud of from a performance standpoint.  “Berceuse” is also very special to me though because Roland Dyens dedicated it to me.

Prelude is your debut album – can you tell us a bit about the recording process? Did you enjoy it? What were your favourite parts of the process? And the least favourite? How long did it take you all up?

Oh God it took forever!  I really didn’t know what I was doing at all.  Thank God for Alfonso Almiñana!  He is a producer from Spain that got ahold of me.  He helped me so much, it really turned the whole thing around.  It took me 3 weeks just to figure out the best place for the microphones.  My favorite part was definitely making the creative decisions.  I loved thinking of the album as a whole, how it would flow, the way people might listen to it.  I remember listening to certain albums in headphones as I was falling asleep, it’s great when you hear all the nuances and deeper things that open up when your mind is relaxed.  I like to think of someone having that experience with my album.  My least favorite part is using the computer, I’m not a huge fan of computers.

What “lessons learnt” did you take from the process of recording the album? What would you do the same and what would you do differently next time?

Well I definitely wouldn’t record it in Brooklyn again!  Street noise was such an issue, that’s really the greatest part of what Alfonso did.  I also recorded way too many takes in the beginning.  I think those early tracks I had like 100 takes of them.  We never used more than 2 or 3.  We wanted a very natural sound without a lot of editing so the editing was mostly for street noise etc.  Next time I think I could get the whole thing done in a week and a half.  Quiet room, I know my mic placements now, 3 takes each and done.

You crowdfunded the album through Kickstarter – well done! How did you find that process?

My brother actually told me about it.  I had never heard of Kickstarter and when he explained it to me it was kind of funny, he was like “It’s for like Dentists and Accountants to feel like they’re involved in something creative.”  I couldn’t imagine anyone just giving money to a stranger.  But my friend Paul and I made the video and went for it.  The experience was not at all what I thought it would be.  People from all over the world go on and contribute to artists they believe in.  It’s an amazing thing to have that support, and I really wanted to come through for everyone.  The Kickstarter staff gave our video a “Staff Pick” which put our video right up front for a while.  That was a huge boost.  Then Andrew York donated to me and a bunch of musicians and guitarists and fans followed his lead.

Any plans for the next album?

It’s almost all I can think about!  Yes!  I don’t want to give too much away but it’s going to be different.  More collaborations.  I think I’ll do most of it as a trio, with a second guitar and bass.  There will be more styles brought in and more original compositions.

What else are you working on at the moment?

This summer has been interesting, I’ve gone back to total basics to reflect on some technique.  I was playing with just too much tension.  I’m also working on a book about certain training ideas and physical issues guitarists face.  Again, I don’t want to give too much away but I’m very excited about it.

What can we expect to see from Michael Sheridan in the next year or so?

This next year should bring a lot of exciting stuff.  I’ve met so many people here in NYC.  Tango players, guys from the gypsy jazz world and some amazing guitarists.  I’m really just soaking up all these different styles and philosophies.  In this next year you’ll start seeing a lot more of that make its way into my shows and videos.

 Is there any chance of us seeing Michael Sheridan performing in the Land Down Under?

Oh my God I would love to!  My wife and I talk all the time about where we’ll go when we leave Brooklyn.  New York is great, I mean it’s just great but if you like being outdoors, the city can be a challenge.  Australia is high on the wish list of places to go.  We love to sail and snorkel and I absolutely love surfing.  Australia seems like heaven.  If I could even come close to breaking even on a tour down there I’d leave tomorrow.

What are your top tips for someone currently learning or thinking of learning the guitar?

That would really depend on what stage you’re at.  In the beginning I think it’s really important to have fun and just play a lot.  Stick with it, you know.  When you decide it’s going to be your career I think it’s really important to work very hard.  Very hard.  When I was in school it was funny because it was always the same 3 people in the practice rooms all the time.  We never saw anyone else there until finals.  Once you actually make it your career then I would go back to advising you to have fun and play a lot.  When you’re very driven and you get to a certain level it’s important to remember to just forget about everything sometimes and just play.

What music (both to play and to listen to) excites you the most and why?

I love gypsy jazz.  I love tango.  I love opera.  But growing up my father listened to Motown and my mom listened to the Beatles so hearing any of that always gets me pretty stoked and everybody in my family loved big band jazz.  My wife is really into Vampire Weekend and I always love listening to that when we’re driving to the beach.  When the weather gets cold I tend to get more into Sinatra and Coltrane type stuff.

Which guitarists do you find the most inspiring or exciting? And other musicians?

Right now I can’t get over Angelo Debarre.  He’s this amazing gypsy jazz player and he’s just so soulful. It’s very cool stuff.  Of course Roland Dyens to me is the ultimate.  I think Roland is the greatest guitarist in the world.  Not just because he plays so well but because his mind is just like lightning fast.  His creativity is a beautiful thing to watch.  Stephane Wrembel is another gypsy jazz player who I’ve always looked up to.  He’s also just an incredibly nice guy.  I met him a while ago at a show and we became friends.  So that’s 3 French guys.  I should really come up with an Australian guy for you….Simon Powis is very good.

For other musicians I’m a huge Sinatra fan.  I always go back to him.  He would phrase something so perfectly but then when you hear an alternate version it’s totally different but just as perfect.  I think because he was so sincere.  Brando was like that when he acted.  That’s always in my mind when I’m playing.  I just try to be honest, I always leave certain places in the pieces for some element of improv, I don’t want it too set or it’ll feel forced.

When you’re not practicing and playing, what do you get up to? Activities with minimal nail damage potential I presume?! Or not, because I note you have a love of basketball!

I love basketball!  I used to do my counterpoint homework in my head while I was shooting freethrows!  I really like all sports, I was a kickboxer for a while, as a kid I played a lot of baseball but my biggest love at this stage of my life outside of music is surfing.  I learned when I lived out in California.  Here I surf down at Rockaway.  I have a 5 mm wetsuit and I surf all year round.  My wife and I sail, she taught me and we sailed all last summer.  Basically anything on the water I like.  I could never live away from the ocean.

Classical Guitar Debut Album from Taylor Brown – Conference of the Stars

As you will most probably know, dear reader, I very much like to promote new talent. You’ll also probably know that I also like to promote talent that adds something new, rarely heard or something slightly different to the repertoire.

I am incredibly excited, therefore, to introduce to you US guitarist Taylor Brown, who has recently released his first classical guitar album. Oooooh……

Taylor Brown earned a degree in classical guitar performance from Vassar College under the tutelage of Terry Champlin, whilst simultaneously touring steadily with folk musician Kate Taylor (sister of James Taylor. Yes, the James Taylor).  Brown has performed here, there and everywhere from Carnegie Hall, New York City, to the Napa Valley’s French Laundry, to a 5-star boat on the Mediterranean.

Taylor has made other recordings in the recent past, mostly with a bluesy,folky pop kind of flavour. His new solo guitar début album however – Conference of the Stars – is a step away from that. It’s “a journey into the ancient stories of the night sky. In this live and fully analog recording, original compositions and improvisations weave their way through the long-lost Greek melodies of Haralampos Eckmeksoglou, from Sunset to Sunrise.”

Sounds pretty cool huh?

Conference of the Stars – so what do I reckon then?

This is clearly a work born of a love of music and melody. I wouldn’t describe it as high art in any way and I don’t believe that’s intention. And believe you me there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. What is important is that this music has a timeless clarity and pure essence to it; a devotion to beautiful melody and romantic sensibilities.

The album has a very romantic style about it, with a slightly folksy element, built on pretty, very singable melodies supported by unfussy harmonies.

I really don’t mean that to sound like a bad thing at all. It’s great in its simplicity – it’s lighthearted, joyous, melancholy, easy-going all in one, with each of the pieces very much song-like in approach.

I really like, in particular, Venus, with Greek and Spanish inflections and hints. Brown plays this track very musically and with a delicious tone. One can imagine sitting out front of a Greek taverna, the sun hanging just gone down, crickets chirping, the heat of the day simmering down….. And album opener Sunset is lovely too. As a kind of lullaby, it has a gentle simplicity to it.

Don’t take my word for it for any of this of course. I urge you to check it out for yourself and form your own opinions! Head over to Taylor’s website right now and check out some excerpts from the album for yourself: http://www.taylorbrownmusic.com/Conference-of-the-Stars

I want to know more!!

I thought you might ask that, so Taylor very kindly took the time to answer a few questions, telling us a bit more about his background and the process of coming up with the new album…. He has a few good tips for those learning the guitar too. Read on!

What’s your background with the guitar? How did you get started?

There was always an interest in the guitar. I began playing around with my Dad’s big old Gibson guitar as a toddler. It used to sit awkwardly on my lap, facing upwards, while I plucked and made up little songs. I mainly taught myself to play blues, folk, rock and some jazz until the age of 15 when I was amazed by an older schoolmates’ performance. When asked about his training he mentioned that he had studied classical guitar from a very young age. The next week I started classical guitar lessons! Classical guitar quickly became extremely important to me and I practiced hard in order to ‘catch up’ on lost time. Upon matriculating at Vassar College, it was clear that classical guitar performance would be my major. During college I worked as the sideman for folk singer Kate Taylor (sister of James Taylor). So I was learning in the classical realm as well as the folk / rock realm.

What was the process for coming up with Conference of the Stars?

About a year ago I was scheduled to do a 3 month gig playing aboard a cruise ship. However, I was ‘burnt out’ from gigging too much and about a month before the scheduled departure a feeling hit that I should instead find a space and focus on creating. So I rented a small studio and began going like a 9-5 job. Immediately, a collection of melodies by Greek composer Haralampos Eckmeksoglou flowed back into my hands. I had been playing them intermittently since college and always felt particularly connected with them. It seemed natural to use them in a larger work.

While toying with the overall structure and arrangements I began having melodic ideas of my own. Some started as transitions or ways to tie the pieces together, but then also became their own thing. The title and thematic element for Conference of the Stars came after I wrote one of the central pieces, ‘Man in the Moon’ (which returns later as ‘Woman in the Moon’). The night sky has always been fascinating and inspiring… And so the idea was basically a story of planets and constellations beginning with Sunset and ending with Sunrise. I don’t really have a clear memory of when I considered the work complete, but I practiced and performed it in all sorts of situations: blindfolded… for a group of 50 elderly nuns… on the rooftop… I think it always changes a little and comes out a bit differently.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m honestly trying very hard to follow through with Conference of the Stars before embarking on a new project. I think it’s often a problem for artists – once we finish a song or a painting we move on to creating a new one and the older ones can get lost. I spent so much time and gave so much of my soul to this album and I feel that the recording worked out really well too. So I’m focusing my energy mostly on getting it out there! Of course there are always songs in the works though…

What can we expect to see from Taylor Brown in the next year or so? 

I hope to be performing Conference of the Stars all over the world.

Is there any chance of us seeing Taylor Brown performing in the Land Down Under?

I certainly hope so : )

What are your top tips for someone currently learning or thinking of learning the guitar?

Practice! Even if you can’t play a lot every day, 15 or 20 minutes a day (consistently) will pay off. I think Bach is a great composer to start playing early on because his music works fast and slow… Even if you’re playing through the Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude quite slowly, it can still sound ‘musical’ and be enjoyable. Also – put away your smartphone so you can really focus!

What music (both to play and to listen to) excites you the most and why?

Live music is wonderful. I love going to the symphony and I also love a good street performance. My excitement about music really depends on the emotion it imparts and the pulse. As far as playing – classical guitar is by far the most challenging material I perform and so that challenge in itself is exciting. My connection with playing and singing blues/jazz and folk is always very strong, so when the audience is really listening that is wonderful too.

Which guitarists do you find the most inspiring or exciting? And other musicians?

There are so many wonderful guitarists out there! I’m often amazed and excited by performances or albums I hear – but I may not even know who is playing or may never hear it again. Some of the guitarists I have thoroughly listened to and learned from are Robert Johnson, Doc Watson, John Williams, Terry Champlin, Jimi Hendrix, Tao Ruspoli…

When you’re not practicing and playing, what do you get up to?

I definitely have a soft spot for cooking and drinking wine (and cheese). I’m also a pretty avid runner and I draw/paint.