Julien Baker (photo by Jake Cunningham)

Clouds hung in the evening sky and an unseasonably chill breeze rustled the May buds emerging on trees in front of London’s St. Pancras Old Church. Oblivious to the weather, small clusters of people chattered excitedly in the churchyard, waiting for the doors to open for the first of two sold-out London shows by Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker.

Since moving to London from the San Francisco Bay Area in November 2014, I attend shows on a near weekly basis, including concerts by established U.S. artists like Damien Jurado and Heartless Bastards. Nonetheless, nothing prepared me for the open-armed London reception of a 20 year-old American singer-songwriter’s debut solo project from a small, American independent record label.

Released in October 2015, Baker’s album Sprained Ankle (6131 Records) recounts the young artist’s struggle as a teenager to overcome addiction and self-loathing. Sprained Ankle’s nine tracks sound as stripped back and straightforward as Baker’s startlingly mature lyrics about emergency room visits and sleeping in a park. In the United States, she has performed with fellow musician and fan Sharon Van Etten, and received critical praise from U.S. media as diverse as Pitchfork and the New Yorker.

Give me everything good, and I’ll throw it away
I wish that I could quit but I can’t stand the shakes
Choking to smoke, or singing your praise
But I think there’s a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain
-Julien Baker, “Rejoice”

Since the July 2015 global music industry shift to New Music Fridays, music fans throughout the world, including the UK and Europe, can now obtain digital and physical album copies the same day they are released. If anything, the six-month gap between the October 2015 release of Baker’s album Sprained Ankle and her London shows appears to have intensified her fans’ enthusiasm to see her perform.

I arrived at St. Pancras Old Church with the hope of placing my name on a waiting list, and expecting to hear the sound of American voices among the crowd growing in front of the church door. Within three minutes I managed to purchase, at face value, an extra ticket from a university student, who had flown down from Glasgow for the show. Laughing, she told me her older brother could not attend at the last minute, and she was glad to recoup her “10 quid.”

Joining a small group of people talking near the arched entryway, we met a man from Budapest, who had also traveled to London specifically for the show. He held a ticket for the next night’s gig at the Forge, a venue in London’s Camden Town neighborhood.

When I mentioned to the group my challenge in purchasing a ticket for either concert, someone suggested that they had sold out as early as December. Perhaps even more than their enthusiasm to attend shows, the people I spoke with clearly respected Baker’s music and Baker herself as an artist. I listened as they recounted the online interviews and performances they had watched, sharing a deep knowledge of the young musician.

Later, seating ourselves in the dusky, lamp-lit church, the university student and I met a young Australian woman, excited to catch Baker during a visit to her sister. She also planned to attend the show at the Forge. Due to the long flight times to Australia and the sheer size of the continent country, she said, fewer non-mainstream, international artists like Baker tour Australia.

London’s St. Pancras Old Church (photo by flickr / DncnH)

Our row quickly filled with other solo concertgoers, including a gentleman who proudly showed us the marble-edition vinyl copy of Sprained Ankle he had ordered from the United States. He also displayed the marker he had brought in the hope of getting his album signed at the end of the evening.

While we talked, St. Pancras Old Church continued to fill with people, ranging from a group of middle-aged Baker fans sitting in a front row of seats to East London hipsters standing in the back. At one point, Baker herself dashed down the aisle, cell phone in hand, unnoticed amidst the growing excitement for her performance.

When she eventually stepped in front of the audience, the dusky candle and lamplight around her casting a soft light on her face and guitar, the audience fell completely silent. Realizing the candles burning near her feet were real, Baker said, “These are a bit of a fire hazard.” Smiling somewhat sheepishly, she said in her soft Tennessee accent, “I’m just joking, of course.”

Part of Baker’s appeal as a performer, like her music, is her self-aware and also humble stage presence. Experienced enough to perform without an auto tuner, she stopped briefly mid-performance to manually tune her guitar. Apologizing, she transitioned effortlessly into another set of songs, laying bare her life experiences to the audience of nearly 200 people.

Baker sang, with sincere simplicity, most of the songs from Sprained Ankle, as well as new pieces like “Funeral Pyre.” Small in stature, but clearly at home with her guitar and lyrics, Baker’s music went straight to the heart of the audience.  Next to me, the university student wiped away tears during the performance, as she had predicted she would.

After the show ended with Baker playing “Go Home” on the piano, I thanked my new friend again for selling me her extra ticket. Glad for release from the unforgiving wooden church seats, but reluctant to leave, we and the other audience members slowly started to disperse. Wishing one another a goodnight, many people made plans to meet at Baker’s show at the Forge the next night.

Baker’s own performance moved me, but I was equally touched by the audience. I did not meet another American during the evening, and, a significant number of people I met had traveled from other parts of the UK—and even from other countries—just to see Baker perform on a Wednesday night.

London welcomed Julien Baker with open arms this spring, and I expect to see her touring here again before too long—perhaps next time selling out even larger venues.

Learn more about Julien Baker, including her upcoming U.S. tour schedule.

June 20, 2016, S. L. Bhatia


I’ve had to take a hiatus from Apsara for several months, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview folk artist Kelli Rae Powell, whose latest album has taught me more than a thing or two about the versatility and beauty of the ukulele.

Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)
Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)

Think you know the ukulele? Meet folk singer-songwriter Kelli Rae Powell, who since 2003 has made this much misunderstood “baby guitar” her instrument of choice.

Cradling it in her arms, Powell knows how to bring out the best in her ukulele. Its gentle tones nimbly carry the melody for her sweet, yet powerful voice on solos, and adeptly serves as lead instrument in an ensemble of blues harp, upright bass, and mandolin.

Powell, an Iowa-native now living in New York, draws inspiration from Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday for the musical poems about life that she weaves. Her latest album Live at Jalopy, is a flawless offering of wit and sensitivity, which also captures a special evening in Powell’s life at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

In a recent interview, Powell describes her love of the ukulele and her favorite music venue, and shares about the exciting next chapter of her life.

The ukulele is perhaps one of the more misunderstood, and underappreciated instruments. When did you first encounter the ukulele, and what about this instrument led you to make it a focus of your music?

In 2003, I acted in a play and the director wanted my character to play ukulele. I loved performing with the uke so much that I just couldn’t stop. The ukulele fits in my arms perfectly. I love its small size, its portability, and the beauty of its sound. No one expects the poignant tones a ukulele can make.

In my angry twenties I would go to open mics wielding my little uke and the guitar boys would always make fun of me, saying: “What a cute baby guitar!” They all shut their traps when it was my turn to perform, though. That was fun.

There seems to be strains of jazz, blues, and folk influences in your music—who are the musicians who most inspire you?

When I was very young, I used to listen to Dolly Parton on my record player. Then I would tape myself singing her songs and play them back—I was listening to myself and trying to sound just like her. In high school I had a CD of Billie Holiday’s Verve recordings. I listened to that album every day for probably three years. Those women shaped my taste in music more than any other artists I can think of. They are storytellers of the highest order.

Kelli Rae Powell's Live at JalopyHow did you come to record a live album at Jalopy, and what about this venue provided the right backdrop for it?

My first performance at Jalopy was in the midst of a huge blizzard. I opened for songwriters Al Duvall and Bliss Blood. We all trudged through the snow towards Red Hook [Brooklyn] fairly certain there wouldn’t be anyone at our show. Jalopy didn’t have a liquor license at that time, so we brought bottles of red wine. We basically played for each other all night and drank as the snow piled up around us. It was magical. The owners Lynette and Geoff Wiley never seem to care about how many people you can draw. They like my songs, so they let me book shows there.

The audience at Jalopy is extremely respectful—they come for the music. They sit in the old church pews and listen to your stories. There isn’t any other venue for me in the world. When I gathered the courage to record a live album, there was no question that I would record it at the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

Your songs range from beautiful, simple descriptions of the first moments of falling in love, to more humorous reflections on living and loving. Are you drawing on your own experiences, or more generally on the stories of others?

These are my stories. Some of the details will be slightly altered for dramatic effect or to protect the innocent, but, even if the details aren’t necessarily true, the stories are. The songs on this live album are the songs I wrote about losing my grandmother and finding my husband Jim (my husband Jim McNamara is the upright bass player on this recording and on my previous album New Words For Old Lullabies).

The experience of recording this album was an absolute celebration for Jim and me. Our favorite musicians joined us on stage that night: Shaky Dave Pollack on blues harp and Joe Brent on mandolin and violin. The occasion was made doubly special, because just days before the live recording we learned we were pregnant. We were giddy that we captured that special night.

What project are you planning next?

My next album will probably be full of lullabies written for my little girl. I’ve already written a bundle for her.

“Some Bridges are Good to Burn”


Somewhere between electro-acoustic and folk, and between forest and ocean, emerges the music of Arborea, a husband-and-wife duo from Maine.

Arborea: Shanti and Buck Curran (courtesy the artists)

Since releasing their first album Wayfaring Summer in 2006, Buck and Shanti Curran have toured regularly across the United States and Europe, absorbing sounds and experiences along the way that filter into their music.

Red Planet (Strange Attractors Audio House, 2011), Arborea’s most recent album, conjures images of barren landscapes and misty forests; of sunny afternoons and contemplative hours; and the happy, although swift, passage of time.

The minor key and atmospheric electric guitar of tracks like “Phantasmagoria in Two” and “Wolves” lends a touch of mystery to the album, which is balanced by the lighter sounds of “Spain” and “A Little Time.”

Buck and Shanti both skillfully play a large number of instruments—guitar, banjo, and harmonium to name only a few—and Red Planet features a handful of instrumental tracks, such as “Fossil Sea.” Shanti sings on most of the songs though, in a warm, sweet-sounding voice at times tinged with plaintiveness.

Arborea’s music is captivating and unconventional in a way that keeps you wanting to experience more, and it’s well worth setting aside some time to listen to one of their albums.

Already this spring, the duo has performed at SXSW and on NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert. They took time out of their busy schedule, which includes touring and homeschooling their two children, to catch up with Apsara in an e-mail interview.

Arborea’s music has been dubbed as “psych folk,” “indie folk,” etc. How would you describe it?

We’ve been called “avant folk,” “indie folk,” “psych folk,” “dream folk,” “free folk,” “folk rock”…but it’s not strictly folk. With elements of rock, blues, and Eastern modal music, you might describe it more as “soundscapes.” More often than not, our music is created as if it were a soundtrack for the landscapes and environments we’re moving through or interacting with, so it’s really impossible to say it’s just one thing. A lot of people associate us with forests and mountains, but we’re equally inspired by the power of the ocean and the rugged coast of Maine, as well as countries we often visit: Ireland and Wales, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Your first album Wayfaring Summer came out in 2006, and you recently released your fourth album Red Planet. In what ways has your music evolved over this span of time?

Our music has evolved quite a bit over the past seven years. We’ve gotten so much stronger and intuitive as a duo because we’ve dedicated everything we have to playing music and spend most of our time each year touring throughout the US, UK, and Europe. We heard a term recently in an old interview with Marc Bolan (T. Rex), in which he talked about the reality of life as an artist and touring, and how you don’t make a lot of money. But you do it because you “live your environment”—and that’s exactly what we do.

Red Planet features renditions of “Black is the Colour” and “Careless Love” alongside your own compositions. How did you approach interpreting these traditional songs, which have been performed by musicians from many different genres?

“Careless Love” is actually two distinct traditional songs. One version is a folk song about pregnancy, and the other is a blues song about frivolous love (Bessie Smith recorded a notable version in 1925). It’s origin though is an anonymous poem. Shanti randomly discovered the short poem in an old literature book and at the time we didn’t know about the other versions. We took words from the poem, then composed the song with our own rhythm, melody, and song structure. Our song is linked closer to the folk song, with the references to young love and pregnancy, and wearing the apron high and low.

“Black is the Colour” is our own arrangement of a version that’s on the 1987 Martin Simpson and Jessica Radcliffe album True Dare or Promise. That song was passed down to Jessica from her mother, and most likely the source of the version that’s best known comes from the American composer and collector of traditional ballads John Jacob Niles. It’s a song with Scottish origins, brought to the Appalachians by immigrants from Scotland. The River Clyde in Glasgow is referenced in the lyrics and shows direct lineage to Scotland. We also have a version of “This Little Light of Mine” that we recorded for an Odetta tribute. Interpreting traditional songs can be a really fluid process and a lot of fun, because you have a solid reference point from which to start. Our approach is quite simple because the framework of the song is established. We can then improvise with all the existing parts: varying the melody, removing words, and adding new ones. One thing that’s of great importance to us is making sure that there’s plenty of space in the recording so the melody can shine through. That’s how we try to produce all of our music though, not just traditional songs.

This month, you performed a lovely, three-song Tiny Desk Concert at the NPR headquarters. What was this experience like?

We had such a great time! Bob Boilen and all of the crew at NPR are really down to earth and professional, so it made for a relaxing, fun experience. We homeschool our kids, and they were on tour with us and also got to see the NPR headquarters. After our session, NPR let us keep our van in their garage, so we took an amazing family walk around Washington, DC, and eventually ended up at the Air and Space Museum.

Arborea on NPR Music


Israeli musician Idan Raichel shares the incredible story of jamming with Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Touré and uncovering a diamond.

Vieux Farka Touré (left) and Idan Raichel in concert. (Nitzan Treystman)

Two years ago Vieux Farka Touré and Idan Raichel met in a rehearsal room in a south Tel Aviv recording studio simply to jam. Deciding it would make good archive material, they recorded the spontaneous three-hour session.

“There was something about this session that just brought out our love of music,” Raichel said during a recent phone interview.

A week later Jacob Edgar from Cumbancha Records contacted Raichel with the idea of turning the session recording into an album. Raichel initially hesitated at the thought of cutting down the 15- to 20-minute improvised melodies into album tracks. But after spending a few months listening to the recording, he realized it resembled an unpolished “diamond” and took on the task of producing the album.

Raichel’s work paid off in the form of 11 shining tracks. Under the name the Touré-Raichel Collective, The Tel Aviv Session was released on Cumbancha last week. The four musicians from the original session—Touré (guitar), Raichel (piano), Souleymane Kane (calabash), and Yossi Fine (bass)—form the core of this acoustic album. A select group of guest artists, including harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet and singer Cabra Casay, also lent their talent to the album.

“Vieux Farka Touré and I are very song- and production-oriented, so it was a very different experience for us,” Raichel said. “[But] The Tel Aviv Session album ended up as one of the most exciting works that I have ever done as a musician.”

During production, Raichel kept the album focused on the original 2010 session, especially the unrehearsed musical exchange between the artists and the overall atmosphere of the studio. Like on a jazz recording, the musicians take turns leading, and when they all play together they create shimmering cyclones of sound. An occasional breath or sigh even comes through on the recording. Listening, it is easy to imagine the excitement and connection between the musicians during the session.

“[With the album,] I tried to emphasize the best part of each musician,” Raichel said. “But the most important thing was still the communication between the four of us.”

There is a feeling of freedom and experimentation on the album, and even of heightened virtuosic ability. On the track “Bamba,” for example, Raichel plays glissandos and plucks the strings of the studio’s grand piano to create the sound of a West African kora. Touré’s dazzling finger work and tone especially come through on tracks like “Hawa” and “Ai Houde Bakoi.”

The guest musicians also add energy and texture to the album. Yonnet’s high-power harmonica playing on “Touré,” for example, shakes up the middle of the album, escalating the rhythm to a foot-stomping pace. And Mark Eliyahu’s haunting kamanche weaves in and out of the melody on “Alem,” until it fades away with Touré’s guitar and closes the album.

Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)
Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)

The Touré-Raichel Collective begins a two-week tour of the United States and Canada on Apr. 13. Tapping into the spirit of the 2010 session, they will improvise around the album’s tracks.

“What we will try to do onstage is not to play the album, but to play the idea of the album,” Raichel said.

The concerts, like the album, provide a unique opportunity to experience Touré and Raichel—two of the most talented musicians of their generation—come together in such a personal and open style of performing. And it creates an uncommon experience for the musicians too, like discovering a diamond.

“Special moments like the Tel Aviv session are very rare,” Raichel said. “And we are very lucky to have them.”

Join the tour on Twitter for backstage photos and insights from the road.


Appalachian Mountain dulcimer doesn’t always take center stage in American folk music, let alone in a rock band. But in the band Twang Darkly, it gets the spotlight.

The Sound of Secret Names (Mar. 2012), the first studio album by Shreveport-based rock trio Twang Darkly, breaks out of the standard mountain dulcimer folk repertoire with songs that could just change the way we view this unassuming Appalachian string instrument.

Twang Darkly founder Michael Futreal, a North Carolina native and multi-instrumentalist who Apsara featured last August, bought his first dulcimer in college and hasn’t looked back since. After experimenting with “Appalachian rock” on several of his own albums, The Sound of Secret Names firmly establishes Futreal as an innovator of this genre, and especially of the dulcimer.

Futreal and bandmates Troy Messina (percussion) and Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and electric guitar) have released an all-instrumental album of beautiful folk rock, gritty roadhouse rockabilly, and harmonica-fueled blues. Twang Darkly specializes in improvisation, and although the album was recorded in Futreal’s home studio, several of the songs are first-takes.

The Sound of Secret Names features acoustic and electric dulcimer, harmonica, flute, and banjo. It draws inspiration from Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Jethro Tull, and Tom Waits, as well as surf rock, spaghetti western and 1970s television soundtracks, and a whole host of other musical influences.

But this isn’t a crazy quilt of sounds. Futreal, Messina, and Boultinghouse have created something that’s both entirely original and rooted in musical traditions from Appalachia and the American southeast. We look forward to future releases from Twang Darkly, and hope to see them at SXSW next year.

Apsara spoke to Futreal recently to get the story behind this intriguingly named album.

Twang Darkly: Troy Messina (L), Joel Boultinghouse, and Michael Futreal (courtesy the artist)

How has Twang Darkly evolved as a band since Live from Wire Mountain (Feb. 2011), your first set of recordings?

In one simple respect, on a technical level, I’ve built a recording setup that is appropriate to capturing a band live in multiple tracks, allowing for a proper studio mixing approach without diminishing our live mojo. My previous studio setup, as employed on Devil’s Stomping Ground for instance, was entirely geared towards me working alone to layer together different instruments. I did some overdubs on this album working in that way, but the primary essence of each track was born from a live take on which we played together in some combination.

Our primary power as a band is the resonance that allows us to improvise together upon a loosely structured “song” idea. Though I’m the primary “writer” of our material, what happens when we perform together is emergent and it’s always beyond what I imagine for any particular piece.

We’ve played a lot of shows together since we captured Live from Wire Mountain as a kind of field recording, and the accumulation of that experience puts us all very much more on the same wavelength. We have a feel for how to work together that lets us do things that surprise us all and approach new ideas very fluidly and rapidly. We took advantage of that in the recording process to capture some stuff that was very fresh. For instance, two of the songs, “From Flatlands Starlings Rise” and “The Beautiful Years Roll,” were first-takes on the same day that I introduced those pieces to the band. Similarly, Joel doesn’t even remember recording “Pastime with Good Company.” But if I start a song, he just starts playing along and we ride it where it leads—that’s what happened with that one.

What’s behind the name: The Sound of Secret Names?

The idea of “secret names” appeals to me primarily through the folkloric notion of something’s true name holding a magical power over that thing—a power to conjure or to hold, for instance. A good literary exploration of this idea is found very prominently in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, of which I’m very fond, but it’s an idea I’ve run across many times from a wide variety of sources ranging from Tolkien to Springsteen.

The given titles to instrumental pieces hold a power of suggestion over how people experience listening, but I also like to think that these pieces all have other secret names that will vary from listener to listener. For example, what to me paints an impression of how it felt to behold a particular desert landscape at a certain point in my emotional history will, for another, call upon other scenes and feelings appropriate to their own imagination and memory. The song they hear will have a different secret name than the song I hear. They may not even know the name they would choose, as they may not be accustomed to navigating such impressions or making such choices. But if they feel the music, then that name is there, if perhaps just out of their grasp.

Two songs on the album feature very beautiful, very organic-sounding flute—what type were you playing?

On “Her Secret Name,” I’m playing a bamboo renaissance flute that my parents gave me back in my college days. I actually learned to play that thing in a place at North Carolina State University called the “Free Expression Tunnel,” a pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks that bisect the campus. I used to go down there at nights and play as people painted (it was the place on campus where graffiti was officially sanctioned), enjoying the wonderful echoes that made even the simplest bits of music into magic.

On “Spirit Defenders of Nikwasi,” I’m playing a Native American-style double flute. It actually has two pipes, one of which serves as a drone as you play through the divided mouthpiece. That flute, which is made of aromatic cedar, was built by a fellow named Odell Borg out in Arizona. I adore that flute—the drone set against the other pipe’s scale makes it the wind equivalent of a dulcimer to my way of thinking, so it’s a natural fit to my particular musical brain. I’d only had it a short time when we recorded that song, but that conceptual mapping makes it a natural instrument for me.


When her 20-year relationship broke off abruptly, singer-songwriter-producer Terry Radigan felt like she’d been knocked off a bicycle. Dazed, she took a year to rage, cry, and regain her balance, and to begin to heal through writing songs about the experience.

Although she didn’t initially intend to make an album about the end of her relationship, a friend and fellow producer persuaded Radigan to reconsider. The result is the recent album The Breakdown of a Breakup (Catherine the Great Music, Feb. 2012).

Terry Radigan

Radigan is known for her work with Nashville stars like Patty Loveless and Trisha Yearwood, but her own music doesn’t belong to any specific genre. The Breakdown of a Breakup is truly a multi-genre album, ranging from blaring brass-rock on the track “Mistake” to madcap waltz on “Siamese Twin,” and string-ballad on “Beautiful Lie” to alt-country on “The Truth.”

The Breakdown of a Breakup is a gift to anyone who’s ever gone through a breakup or experienced a major life change. With clarity, honesty, and an occasional dash of humor, Radigan opens her heart up to listeners.

She recently spoke with Apsara about the ups and downs of finding her way again, and about the process of putting the experience into music.

The songs on the album take listeners through a very natural progression of emotions. How did you go about putting the album together?

I ended up taking a couple of months just to get my feet back under me. The joke my songwriter friends and I have is that even if this kind of thing happens, we know we’ll get songs out of it.

It took a while to take everything in, and then I started writing some of the songs. I wrote most of them close to the order they are on the album, but I didn’t have a thought at all about making a record out of them.

David Barratt is another musician and producer who I work with. A year ago, he asked, “When’s your next record?” I said, “I don’t know, and I don’t really know what I want it to sound like.” He said, “You’ve been writing a bunch of songs—why do you feel like you don’t have one already?”

I thought about it, and about a week went by before I called him and asked if he wanted to be my executive producer. Once we sat down to put the songs together, I saw there was a really clear storyline. It wasn’t so much about two people meeting, but about how you feel in the aftermath of a breakup.

The Breakdown of a Breakup album coverIt isn’t really possible to pin a single genre label to this albumthere are all sorts of styles of music and instruments on it. How did you decide what type of music to use for each song?

It just flowed—that was the most liberating part of this album. The mood of each song laid out so clearly what the track would be. The only thing a song had to do during production was to back up what the emotion was.

What was the experience like while you were writing the songs?

I almost felt like I was writing a letter to myself. When I was writing “Beautiful Lie,” it was like I was writing to myself, saying, “This is what’s happened, and this is how you were feeling.”

I’d been writing “Beautiful Lie” throughout the course of a day, and I remember I took a break in the evening to go to a music place just a few blocks from my house. It’s a tiny little club, and in the backroom there was a string quartet playing. Strings just kill me, and they especially killed me that night. Then I walked back, and finished writing around 2:00 a.m.

“Beautiful Lie”

I felt peaceful after writing that song. When you sit down quietly for a couple of hours and really sort of drift, you find out what’s floating around in your head and you get to put a name to your feelings. They’re right there in front of you, and you say them out loud. It makes me feel better to be aware of what I’m feeling, instead of just feeling it in the background.

The last song I wrote for the album was “The Truth.” That was the result of David’s sitting with me and saying, “The one thing I think is missing is the song where you tell on yourself.” I agreed with him, but I didn’t want to write it—I spent three weeks dodging him.

Just before I was going to have a breakfast meeting with him, I decided I needed to put something down and it just sort of fell out. I think it’s the most personal song that I’ve ever written. Once I decided to put it on the album and the song was written, then I knew the record was done.

“The Truth”

Since releasing the album, what kind of response have you received?

The release party we had for the album was such a brilliant night. There was a lot of chatting in between the songs as I expanded the story a bit. It felt like a conversation, but I was the only one talking.

I’m a songwriter and I’ve put out an intensely personal record for people to hear, but I’m essentially really private. My friends have asked, “Why in the world didn’t we get a phone call saying that you were feeling bad when you were writing this music?” But it was almost like I could get all of my emotions out in the songs.

Through this album and the feelings on it, I’m able to connect with people listening to it. When we were putting the album together I didn’t want it to be a “poor me” or an “angry” record. There’s a little bit of every kind of emotion in there, but the thing that people are walking away with and they’re coming to me and saying is that they feel good by the end of it and that they feel strong.

And that made me feel so good because that’s the most important thing. It’s like, yes, you go through all of these different emotions. But at the end of it you’re still you and you’re still there at your core.


Not all songs need lyrics. On his newly released album World Behind Curtains, Israeli musician Yair Yona once again shows his talent for communicating to listeners without saying a single word.

Yair Yona, Feb. 2009 (Facebook/Yairyonamusic)

Yair Yona immediately wanted to sell his bass and switch to guitar after buying a Bert Jansch album eight years ago in London. His life changed direction again a few years later when he discovered the instrumental acoustic music of guitarist Glenn Jones.

Yona, who just released World Behind Curtains, his second album for guitar, says his unmapped journey of discovery, frustration, and inspiration has all been worth it and life is better than ever. Although he’s immensely talented on guitar, he doesn’t actually call himself a “guitarist” and identifies more with behind-the-scenes roles in the music world.

It’s not difficult to see where he gets this self image from. In addition to writing, recording, and performing his own music, Yona keeps busy as a co-founder of the music label OutNow Recordings, manager of freestyle saxophonist Albert Beger, and writer/publisher of the music blog Small Town Romance.

World Behind Curtains, at heart an acoustic guitar album with cinematic inspiration, builds on Yona’s first album Remember (2009). Incorporating instruments like electric guitar and french horn and a special mother-son piano/guitar duet,  Yona has developed his musical voice in an even further, more meaningful direction.

He spoke with Apsara about the journey leading up to this latest album.

You first discovered fingerstyle guitar when you lived in London studying audio engineering. What drew you to this style of playing?

I played bass in London, and in my dream world I believed that I was going to find a psychedelic rock band, go on tours, and become ridiculously rich and buy more bass guitars. That was the plan anyway.

Then one day when I went into a record store in Camden and stumbled upon Bert Jansch and Jackson C. Frank’s first albums and I bought both of them—I’d never heard of either of them or their music before. There was just something about the album covers that made me curious to pick them up and listen to them. When I first listened to Bert Jansch’s music it immediately felt so familiar. I don’t know how or why—it just sparked my senses. I remember that feeling even today. It was like the excitement of the first time you see the girl of your dreams.

Has fingerstyle guitar been the focus of your music since then?

When I discovered Bert Jansch’s music, I immediately wanted to sell my bass guitar and become an acoustic guitar player. That was it. I’m a person who makes strong decisions and usually goes to the extreme with them. And then I meet myself somewhere in the middle. I didn’t even know how to play except for the basics, but something inside of me just felt so right so I went in that direction.

I don’t actually see myself as an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist, or as a guitarist at all. To me, a guitarist is someone who takes the time to practice for five hours a day, and knows all of the notes, scales, and modes. And I don’t. I have no formal musical education and everything I know about guitar playing serves my music only. If you put me in a band with a guitar in hand, I have no idea what to do with myself. I’m a good guitarist for my music—I think that’s the right definition.

I think art has nothing to do with formal music education. I like to improvise as I go along. But I do think if you know the musical rules and then go and break them you’re in a better position. Still, Paul McCartney’s musical education started later on in his career… I’m feeling good with myself and with the path that I’ve taken. I’ve just followed my heart, and my heart has taken me to where I am now. Things are going great and I’m happier than ever.

World Behind Curtains is even more of an instrumental album than Remember (2009). Guitar still takes center stage, but there are other instruments, including the violin and piano. How did the idea for this album evolve? What’s the meaning of the title?

When I initially thought about how to do the marketing for this album, I thought about tracking down a film director and proposing to make a film for which this would be the soundtrack. It was born out of lots of soundtrack listening hours—lots of Americana and 1970s Italian composers. The music was composed on solo acoustic guitar, and just evolved out of itself in a way.

“World behind curtains” is a phrase that my girlfriend wrote in the first line of a story. Translated from Hebrew it is something like: “The girl looked out of the window and saw the world behind curtains.” I told her: “That’s a good name for an album.” Only later did I learn that in English it can mean “someone behind the curtains.” It somehow fit me perfectly. I was always behind the scenes, as a label manager who was managing artists or as a bass player who wasn’t the focus of the rock band. This is an album that says: “This is a picture of the guy who’s behind the curtains.”


You’ve dedicated several songs in the past to musicians who’ve influenced you. On this latest album, for example, you’ve dedicated one track to guitarist Glenn Jones. What has his music meant to you over the years?

When I discovered Bert Jansch’s music and the whole world of British folk music I tried to write songs in English, which isn’t my native language. When I tried to sing it just didn’t sound right to me because of my accent. I kept comforting myself by saying: “Nico had a German accent and that’s okay, it worked for her. And Björk has an Icelandic accent and it works for her, so I can do it too.” But it didn’t feel authentic to me, and I felt I would be lying to myself if I continued that way. I had a couple of hard years because I desperately wanted to be a songwriter, but it didn’t feel right and I was really frustrated by that.

Then by chance in 2006 or 2007 I listened to Glenn Jones’s first album, which was released on Strange Attractors Audio House, the same label as my albums. I had known of him before as the guitarist of Cul de Sac, an experimental rock band I like very much. When I listened to the music on his first album, which was for six- and 12-string acoustic guitar, it made so much sense. He said so much without saying a single word. It just liberated my mind. I listened to the music and said to myself: “You know what? That’s a good way to express yourself. You don’t have to sing.” I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, I could just do it my own way. It was all thanks to Glenn Jones’s music.

Since then he’s released three more albums, and people are starting to recognize him now. He signed on to a bigger label—Thrill Jockey—and he’s touring. He’s seriously amazing. And he’s been a big supporter of my music. When I finished the work on Remember, I sent it to him on a CD-R before it was released. He wrote me such an amazing note afterward. Reading those words coming from the most important person to me in that field was the ultimate stamp of approval.

In the liner notes for World Behind Curtains, you write that you composed the song “Bella” while watching TV: “The song just poured out in a couple of minutes.” How did this beautiful song, which features your mom on piano, come about?

It was written about two-and-a-half years ago for my previous girlfriend, whose nickname is “Bella.” Someone had bought me a guitar instruction DVD by Kelly Joe Phelps that I was watching. He’s a really amazing guitarist and a soulful singer. I like to watch guitar instruction DVDs because I like to see how guitarists move their hands and how they hold the guitar. I really like to study from other people. He was playing with an unusual tuning: C-G-C-G-C-D. I tried to retune the guitar and that melody just poured out in five seconds. It just wrote itself, and when that happens you feel like you’re the luckiest person on earth, seriously. Then I recorded the demo of that song so I’d have it at home to work on.

My mom was a wonder kid on the piano. But she stopped playing for about 40 years and just returned to it about four or five years ago. I decided that it would be amazing if she’d play piano on the album. I wanted to give her a stamp of approval again. She sees me as her “son the musician.” So I decided to bring her into the studio for the first time in her life, and have her put headphones on and make her part of the process. I was very excited and also very nervous because I was on a tight schedule and had limited time in the studio. Everything had to be quick, but it was very, very exciting. It was a different level of connection between mother and son. She was really happy with the result. She said she loves the album and that it’s so beautiful, but that’s just mom talking.

World Behind Curtains released Feb. 14 from Strange Attractors Audio House. Preview it, and Farthest South, Yona’s latest musical project, on Bandcamp.


Life hasn’t always followed the exact course Seattle sing-songwriter Robert Deeble has thought it would. It’s even been painful sometimes, and required taking a long break to focus on family and self. But it’s led Deeble to deeper understandings about what it means to be human, and about change. After several years away, Deeble decided in 2011 to return to the studio and turn this wisdom into the album Heart Like Feathers, which releases on Feb. 7.

As with his earlier recordings, Deeble’s latest full-length album lulls listeners into a beautiful world of gentle, lazy-sounding guitar, and vivid lyrics that are honest and sometimes even slightly haunting. There’s sadness in many of the songs, but it’s ultimately a triumphant story about finding one’s self and cherishing relationships. Featuring Deeble and the contribution of many of his longtime friends, Heart Like Feathers sensitively captures the shades of life’s pain and joy.

Deeble spoke with Apsara about the album, his life and music, and about his enduring friendship with Emily Dickinson.

You’re originally from Long Beach, but have lived in Seattle for several years. How have these two places influenced your music, and as a musician do you identify more with one?

I never felt at home in California, although I have a soft spot for San Francisco and Long Beach. Rainy dock towns better match my personality and also my heritage (my family traces back to Wales). I think I was alluding to this in the “Boy with the California Sun” (Thirteen Stories).

The new album’s title refers to Emily Dickinson’s famous poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” and the poetess even appears in a song on Thirteen Stories. What is the significance of your latest album title, and has Emily Dickinson had a larger influence on your music?

Emily just sort of came along for the ride in my career. We met in the song the “Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” (Thirteen Stories) after I was introduced to her in a poem by William Carlos Williams.

From there Emily and I learned a bit about each other, and grew to appreciate each other over the years. Her phrase “Hope is the thing with feathers” is one I probably conjured subconsciously in the title of the record. I had been writing what would become the title track when I fell into the phrase “Heart Like Feathers,” which perfectly described what I was trying to say. The song is about the battle between the head and the heart, with the heart gradually getting free. It was later as I read a review by Image Journal of the record that I realized the similarity to Emily’s poem, so it is nice to know she is still hanging out with me.

Robert Deeble (Xeandra Wescott)

What are some of the most important elements from the past six years listeners can find in the songs on Heart Like Feathers?

It is a very human record yet one that tips its hat to the spiritual, but always in an earthly manner—not in a dissociated way. The material covers a lot of very real struggles from depression, marital issues, fear, and anxiety, with some slivers of light that finds its way into those dark places.

Was This Bar Has No One Left, your previous shorter release, part of the creative process leading up to your new album?

Yes, that really is the preface to Heart Like Feathers. In my mind it was supposed to be one record, but then it started as an EP which was supposed to move into a full length—life does not work the way we plan. The EP came out and I traveled extensively supporting it, but I felt things beginning to slip in my life. It started with my label but soon afterwards my life seemed to show the cracks of potential collapse. I think I started to see my life as a reflection of my art instead my art as a reflection of my life. I needed to take some time off and reboot. I found myself shutting down, retiring a band, and stopping writing for awhile.

I spent the time during that hiatus rebuilding who I was at home more than who I was on the road. This included paying more attention to my marriage and the changes in myself as a man, and I eventually found a restorative way to reintegrate my artistry.

Who are some of the key individuals who lent their creativity and voices to Heart Like Feathers?

Well there are a lot of them starting with a new band. About three years ago, I gradually started writing and playing with some guys that I had built really good relationships with. All us are in committed relationships and most of us have children, which always makes a band more difficult but I like how it reflects who I am as a person. Naturally we all make significant sacrifices to be in a band together and yet we all totally respect how not to let it compete with the rest of our life. As I got older, I wanted to integrate the two and be with others who were in the same boat.

So for the band it is: Jeremy Summer (also part of the Whiskey Swillers) on bass; Jeremy Dybash (an original member of Velour 100) on drums; and Neal Vickers on guitar and strings. And then I flew Lili De La Mora, my backing vocalist, up from California to record the album.

Our producer was Dylan Magierek, who runs Badman Recording Co. Dylan had come to see several of my shows over the years when I was on tour. And I have always loved the kind of artists he associates with, so it seemed fitting to ask him to be a part of he project.

Then there is an amazing array of guests on the album. It meant a lot to me that so many folks would come out of the woodwork to celebrate a new album with me. Stephen Hodges, who plays percussion,was my musical mentor over the years. He currently drums for Mavis Staples and was known as Tom Waits’ drummer during the Rain Dogs years. Victoria Williams, one my favorite folk heroines, returned to join me on the song “Sunflower.” Ric Hordinksi (Monk), originally from Over the Rhine, had a big part in encouraging me to write and record this record and he offered up two guitar tracks for the album. Anna-Lynn Williams (Trespassers William) is an old pal from my California days and she did an amazing vocal with on the song “Undertow.” And lastly, we pulled a choir together with some great friends from over the years. Daniel G. Harmann, Kate Tucker, John Vecchiarelli, and Adam Selzer—just to name a few—are all some wonderful folks from my musical past that came together to sing on the last track.

Most of the sessions were filmed by two great film makers: Todd Zeller and Tommy Harrington. So we got a lot of great footage of the album, which we hope to feature on a limited edition CD.

“Sun Flower”

Here comes the bird to eat the worm, 
but he’s hiding ‘neath the corn
Big black cat hanging underneath the tree, 
waiting for the bird to meet

where did you go?
did you know?

Humming bird never hurt no one,
troubadour strayed away from home
All of life under love and toil,
two hands digging in the soil

There’s a garden in our souls, we forget to water
all those storm clouds coming north
I guess we’ll get that shower
So rise up now… let’s shine

I miss you so
Sunflower did you know?

Desert storm across the plains
we dug a ditch to direct the rain
Bright red tractor in the mud
teach us to tinker with a flood

And I just got your weather report
I’m so sorry about it girl
All those dark clouds around your porch
I think they’re blowing over
Let’s rise up now and shine


Flowing steadily through countryside and city, the mighty Nile River connects 10 north and sub-Saharan African countries. It is a source of life, history, and culture for the citizens of the countries surrounding it, but how much do they know about one another and about the invaluable resource they share? What can they learn from one another about the cultures and environment of the Nile?

Sunrise on the Nile River, Uganda, Jul. 2010. (Flickr/Andrew West)

Mina Girgis and Meklit Hadero, two San Francisco-based visionaries originally from the Nile region, have set out to connect the countries of the Nile through music and dialogue. Their multi-phase Nile Project involves an album, performances, a TEDx event, curriculum materials, and more. They hope to raise $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign by Feb. 1 for the first phase of the project, a scouting trip to find the musicians who will become the heart of the Nile Project.

Girgis, an ethnomusicologist and founder of the non-profit music organization Zambaleta, spoke with Apsara about the ideas behind the project.

How did you and Meklit Hadero first come up with the idea to collaborate on the Nile Project?

This was last September. Meklit and I had not seen each other for months. I had just returned to the Bay Area from two months in Cairo, and she had just returned from a tour in Ethiopia. We met at an Ethiopian concert by Debo Band, and I was sharing with Meklit how I only came to discover Ethiopian music after moving to the United States. This lack of cultural exposure among East African countries is a bit strange seeing we are neighbors and we share our lifeblood—the Nile. So we decided to embark on a new project where we would bring together musicians from various Nile cultures to perform along the river and abroad.

Mina Girgis

What do you most hope to achieve?

Well, we definitely hope to make good music. But we have other ambitions. Through these cross-cultural musical collaborations, we hope to foster cultural connections among the people of the Nile to help us tackle our water-based environmental challenges. So the Nile Project is both a musical project and a platform to spread environmental awareness and inspire social change among Nile citizens.

The Nile flows through 10 countries that are diverse, yet are also linked by historical and cultural ties and present-day politics. What role will music play throughout the different stages of the project?

There are some problems only the arts can help solve. And in the Nile Project’s case, there are two challenges we hope to tackle through music.

I come from Cairo. And when I look around my hometown today, I see that we have become so disconnected from both the river that runs through our city and the people who live down that river and drink from the same water. To most Cairenes, the Nile is either a natural barrier you have to cross, a reservoir of water you cannot live without, or a demarcator of privilege for those who can afford waterfront real estate. When we lack such a visceral connection to our immediate ecosystem, how could we be aware of our environmental impact? Bringing back this visceral connection will not happen through intellectual campaigns. But it could happen with music.

The other issue is a cultural one. Because the Nile is so crucial to our livelihood, it has become the domain of political discourse. When we began working on this project, we were asked the question: “Do either of you work for the government?” We obviously do not. But the question shows you how polarizing the Nile has become. One way to rekindle our cultural connections is through the music we will make.

What will you do during the Lincoln Center presentations in 2013?

We will definitely have a performance series to showcase the many musical collaborations we are developing. All of them will feature cross-cultural performances among Nile musicians. We will also have presentations by scholars, artists, and social entrepreneurs who work on the Nile. We also hope to collaborate with other river projects.

What issues will be discussed during the TED conversations, and who will participate in them? Is any part of the project intended to get at the subject of water control along the Nile?

TEDxNile will feature scholars, social entrepreneurs, and artists who will share their expertise and ideas about the Nile. We hope the videos will help spread these worthy ideas and bring more attention to those who are coming up with solutions. We also hope these solutions will inspire others to come up with more ideas.

The Nile Project is not a political project. It is an environmental and cultural project. We want to spread a new paradigm that overlooks the political boundaries among our people. We like to think of the Nile region in a holistic way, as an ecological and cultural system that predates nations and states. And we believe the solutions will come from this outlook. In our book, the only way towards sustainability is equity. But we are not in the business of fighting over water.

The Nile Project Kickstarter Campaign Video 

Feb. 4, 2012, Sarah notes: I’m excited to share that the Nile Project surpassed its goal by Feb. 1—thank you to everyone who helped support it!


The Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), an annual five-day celebration of folk music and performance traditions from around the globe, just wrapped up this past Sunday in Jodhpur, India. Famous for its royal history and its traditional arts, Rajasthan is a major international travel destination. Tourism means more business for the state, but how do Rajasthan’s artists fare?

A bird’s-eye view of Jodhpur. (Sarah Lin Bhatia)

During a folk performance in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert a few weeks ago, I found myself pulled from my comfortable cushion at the edge of the stage and made to dance in front of a large, cheering crowd. I soon realized that I was tripping over my feet not to a Rajasthani folk song but to a familiar Bollywood tune played on dholak and harmonium!

Rajasthan abounds with artistic talent and its famed handicraft markets overflow with colorful wares ranging from hand-printed bedspreads to exquisite silverwork. Such abundance and the availability of cheaper, factory-made goods begs the question: How can artists make a living in Rajasthan?

Roughly the size of New Mexico, Rajasthan is a large state in northwestern India with vast stretches of desert. The “Land of Kings,” it consisted of approximately 20 small kingdoms before India’s independence and partition in 1947. This, in part, accounts for the almost overwhelming variety of musicians, dancers, and artists in Rajasthan today.

Meharuddin Langa, a “living legend,” playing the algoza during an RIFF performance.

Outside of Jodhpur, we visited a family of weavers long renowned for the quality of their carpets, and in Jaisalmer we met an uncle-nephew puppet troupe carrying on a five-generations-old tradition. Every artist we met seemed to have a similar story of inherited skills.

Thousands of people from India and abroad visit the state each year looking to experience traditional Rajasthani culture. Palace-themed hotels, camel safaris, and “folk” music and dance performances such as we attended appear to be flourishing. Tourism is unquestionably vital to Rajasthan’s economy, but after a few days of travel I found myself wondering if it benefits everyone in the same way.

Surviving as an artist in Rajasthan is definitely as challenging as it is the world over, and the downside to tourism is that it can reduce artistry to mere “lite fare.” Perhaps the more important question then is: How can Rajasthan sustain its vibrant artistic traditions in a way that both honors the past and helps its artists grow and thrive?

Several visionary individuals and organizations in Rajasthan have already taken up the call to achieve this goal, including encouraging collaboration between Rajasthani and international artists. The Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF), a nonprofit trust founded by John and Faith Singh in 2002, is at the forefront of this movement.

“Virasat” means “heritage” in Hindi—a fitting designation for an organization dedicated to promoting Rajathan’s traditional arts as well as to creating new opportunities. The folk festival is one of JVF’s many initiatives, and the trust has conducted searches throughout remote parts of Rajasthan for the state’s most talented artists.

A few years ago, JVF brought UK artists Jason Singh and Bex Mather to Rajasthan to conduct workshops and perform with folk musicians. The result? Dharohar: A sensitive and successful merging of artists from different cultural and social backgrounds who toured and performed together throughout India. During the performances, Singh joined forces with morchang (mouth harp)-player Raies Khan for a jugalbandhi (duet) such as the world has never seen before.

Arrangements for traditional instruments go awry very quickly when sounds and instruments are senselessly thrown together—particularly so in the vague genre of “fusion” music. But Singh and Khan’s musical duo works because it’s an innovatively simple pairing of musical techniques and artists who are perfectly attuned to one another.

Are projects like Dharohar and RIFF sustainable and will they benefit artists in the long run? Optimistically, I would say “yes,” because such types of well-organized performances and recording projects provide Rajasthani artists with access to the growing number of people with globally oriented, non-commercial music interests. And for listeners, it is now easier to discover such music thanks in great part to the internet.

Of course, nonprofit projects are susceptible to the ebb and flow of funding, and there’s also commercially oriented competition in Rajasthan…which brings me back to the subject of tourism. If not specifically visiting to attend RIFF or another festival, what can a tourist possibly do to help Rajasthani artists?

  • Take a little time to research before you go. (I write this tongue-in-cheek having attended a Bollywood-themed performance.) Cruise the internet a bit and reach out to a local non-profit organization, which may be able to recommend lesser-known performances and artist collectives. We found a lot of handicraft collectives, both in the city and in the countryside.
  • Don’t be afraid to explore and ask around once you’re there. In our case, this led to a private puppet show and a dance performance in the courtyard of a lakeside haveli.

Again, tourism is essential to Rajasthan’s economic vitality and even the commercial ventures provide opportunities for artists. But options do exist that more fully showcase the individuals who are helping to keep the state’s amazing artistic traditions alive, so why not choose one of those instead? You’ll have a more meaningful and memorable experience—and if you aren’t careful, you might also find yourself onstage.