|Interview MICHAEL FRIEDMAN
January 2004 (by E-mail) www.michaelfriedman.ca and www.michaelfriedman.de
During the 90's there was this great little bookings agency in Germany and the owner, Christa, is still a friend of mine. Due to a growing snowball of bad luck, according to Murphy's Law I should say, she had to close down her business. Everybody can mention at least one or two favorite American singer-songwriters who haven't been back here since... The leftover promo-material was returned to the artists but some said to hand it out anyway and I even sent some stuff to the Dutch DJ's. That's when I started listening to Canadian Michael Friedman's two albums, being pulled from the pile and I really liked what I heard. A beautiful three-and-a-half octave (!) voice, perfect guitar-playing and arrangements, even interesting lyrics, it was all there! After sending him playlists Michael and I began an E-mail contact, we also made a few phonecalls during his frequent tours of Germany. Then, in November 2001, he came up with a plan for the two last days before his return to Vancouver: he and a friend wanted to drive all the way from Berlin to Rotterdam for a hello in person... Needless to say I was flabbergasted first and then I quickly arranged for that Monday an interview with Wim Kerkhof at Radio Rijnmond plus an informal little in-store for a handful of people at Hitsound Records. It was total fun, they all loved Michael and I think anybody who books him, anywhere, will never regret it. He likes to talk and he got the writing talent from his mother Sylvia, who at 75 (!) still works as a journalist, so enjoy the interview! Michael, this one's a thank-you for that two times eight hours drive!
Johanna: Michael, you're from a family of musicians, please tell us something about your background?
Michael: Yes, I am fortunate in that I was immersed in Music (and the arts in general) from the word "go". My Dad was a flautist (Flute player) and a choral conductor. He also led a folk group back in the 1950's. My Mom was a sometime stage actress, but her main bread and butter has been in journalism. My parents along with my Uncle organized the first Pete Seeger and Earl Robinson concerts in Vancouver - both of whom were on the House Unamerican Activities Commitee's blacklist in those days. My Dad's younger brother was a Folk singer and Banjo player who became a very popular artist in both parts of Germany. Other members of my extended family were and are to this day musicians or otherwise involved in the arts.
J: Lots of singer-songwriters learned all the tricks along the way, but you had a real musical training, right?
M: Well, the way I see it, any way you can get your chops down is a real musical training. I had piano lessons from the age of 4 or 5 and my Dad did ear training exercises with me from even before that. I rejected the formal aspects of piano when I discovered the guitar and learned it's rudiments in an organic fashion. Anyone who could show me some guitar chords was my guru for the day. I already understood harmonic structure to a certain extent by ear and so very quickly figured out most of the songs I knew. As a small child I had a constant diet of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs and as I figured out the ins and outs of the guitar I worked out all those tunes. The Beatles, Stones, Dylan et al were the popular songsters of the day, and I sat diligently with my guitar by the radio learning their songs. Since the musical structures of verses and choruses generally repeat several times, I was able to get the gist of a song by the time it finished. A few years later I had classical guitar lessons given to me as a birthday gift. Two years after that I entered a Music Conservatory for four years on scholarship. Of course, all sorts of light bulbs began flashing as I finally began to understand much more intently and formally how music works.
J: The guitar is a musician's best friend, how many guitars do you own and what's the favorite? Do you use special techniques and tunings?
M: The guitar is one of the great inventions of humankind. Although all musical instruments are cool, I would argue that there isn't one more beautiful than the guitar. It is one of the few instruments that functions in both an accompanying as well as a solo capacity. And of those, it is by far the most popular and practical - just try to drag a piano down to the beach. How many times have you been accompanied by a harp around a campfire? You get my drift....
All my guitars are working instruments - that is I don't own any guitars for show. I do not have a giant collection of fancy shmancy guitars that I keep in a vault and am too afraid to take out into the light of day. I have an old Martin D-35 and two Morgan Guitars made right here in Vancouver - one is an OM model, with very ornate quilted maple sides and back. My brother, who owns a music shop in Vancouver known widely as one of North America's premier guitar shops ("Not Just Another Music Shop" www.njams.net ), gave that guitar to me as a gift when I completed my first solo album. The other Morgan Guitar is a much less ornate instrument. It's a dreadnaught with mahogany sides and back and a Sitka Spruce top. That guitar spoke to me from the first time I played it. It played and sounded like a mature 20 year old instrument from the start. Everyone that has played this one has said it's the best guitar of it's kind, bar none. I must confess - this one is my favourite. Morgan Guitars are built by David Iannone - www.morganguitars.com. David, like many other guitar builders in Canada apprenticed under Jean Larrivee, the Granddaddy of Canadian luthiers. I also have a 12-string guitar, a custom Strat (electric), a beautiful classical guitar built by Joachim Schneider from Markneukirchen, Germany and an assortment of other stringed noise makers.
I do employ many "New Acoustic" guitar techniques, though I try not to overdo it on the technical side. I do some slap and tap rhythmic stuff and I am a fingerpicker. I think what distinguishes my "sound" from others is the way I employ altered guitar tunings to increase the range of the guitar and then do my harmonic and melodic thing. Of course there are quite a hand full of guitarists doing the "New Acoustic" style - however they are mainly instrumentalists. I am a singer with a bunch of songs that involve a more intricate accompanist style on the guitar than one normally encounters. When I first picked up the guitar, I tuned it in open D - DADF#AD. I played around with that for a while then went over to standard tuning. Although I was stoked about playing "real" guitar, I missed the bigger "open" sound I had had. Later I was listening to Joni Mitchell and Stephen Stills and there it was - that big sound. So I started exploring altered tunings again. These days I use quite a few different tunings, including standard, but it's just one among many. When I hear music in my head, I hear it polyphonically in both a vertical (harmonic) and horizontal (melodic) manner. Timbrally, I hear the varied sounds of many instruments, and so I do whatever I can to create what I hear in my head. My guitar sound is very orchestral. The techniques I use (altered tunings, harmonics, tapping, pitch bending, fingerpicking and my particular brand of musical phrasing) all serve to create with one voice and one instrument whatever it is swirling around in my brain.
J: I noticed that you speak fluent German, you lived in Berlin for some time, how did that happen?
M: My Father decided in the 1960's that he wanted to further his formal musical studies. (He had studied Flute in Philadelphia in the late 1940's). My Dad was always big on vocal music. He wrote and arranged a lot of different music. His favourite was always vocal. Just as my Dad was trying to figure out a way to go back to school to study choral conducting without his family (wife and 3 kids) starving to death, he and my Uncle (Perry Friedman) had a brain storm. I have already mentioned that my Uncle was a very well known folk singer in Europe - mainly Germany. (I am pretty sure he played in Holland as well). They came up with the idea that my Dad should study in Berlin (as it turns out East Berlin - where my Uncle was married and living at the time) at the Deutsche Hochschule für Musik "Hanns Eisler". So that's what we did - we picked up and moved there for nearly 6 years while my Dad learned the ins and outs of choral conducting and arranging. It's there that I learned to speak german fluently. And that's where I first picked up the guitar and decided that music was to be my career choice. It's in East Berlin where I hovered by the radio listening to whatever was "in" and on at the time. I listened to American Forces Network, British Forces Broadcasting System, RIAS and SFB from West Berlin and of course Radio Luxemburg which I could only faintly receive in the middle of the night. A couple of buddies who were playing guitar as well did the same thing and we would exchange whatever knowledge we could glean off the airwaves. We didn't have a T.V. while in Berlin, but I would watch Radio Bremen's "Beat Club" at friends whenever possible. We managed to stay on top of what was going on in the world of Pop Music. During my Dad's studies in Berlin, some of his Professors took note of my musical progress. I was told that I could come back to Berlin to the same conservatory to study if I wanted and when I was ready. And I did. I went back in 1974 and was there until 1980. I would say that I certainly spent enough time there to learn the ins and outs of the German language. I still have a little bit of a time with German grammar. Doesn't everybody? Generally though, most people don't catch on that I am actually a foreigner who speaks a mean Berliner dialect....
J: You also composed for movies and television productions, what type of music was that, going with what kind of images? Any good stories from that time, about people in the film-industry?
M: I did and I still do. As you can imagine, it's not easy making a living playing music. And though when I started out, playing gigs for a live audience was all I wanted to do, I quickly found out that playing gigs alone was not going to pay the rent and put food on the table. I had to find other resources. I didn't want to do some old menial job. I figured I should try to find something that I felt qualified for. Teaching guitar was one thing I started to do and at one point had up to 45 guitar
students per week. I started to write music for some low budget film projects that were aired on cable television. Basically I was winging it at first. I had no idea of how to go about it. I got some recording equipment and away I went. Most of what I did then were documentary films on a variety of subjects and I learned to add the emotional element to the story at hand. It was obvious to me that you don't write disco music to a picture of a cowboy on a horse on the range, unless the cowboy rides into a discoteque and he and his horse start grinding the "Bump" or something.... Anyway, it was a great opportunity for me to write a vast array of different styles of music - whatever was needed. I kept at it, and the jobs got bigger and more interesting - one film was about a blind man who lived alone on a farm 60 miles from nowhere in the Yukon Territory, another about Rick Hanson, who lost the use of his legs when he was 15 in a car accident. Wanting to raise money and awareness for spinal chord research, he set out riding around the world in his wheel
chair. Another film was about the Fraser River - Vancouver is on the Fraser Delta - one of the world's longest rivers. The Fraser is the largest salmon fish river in the world. I also scored a film about the Haida Indian Nation - their past, present and future through the eyes of three important tribal elders. And I scored many more projects. I cut my teeth writing a variety of musical scores utilizing styles culled from all the genres. In 1992, I happened to phone an old friend in the television business, named Cameron Bell, who I hadn't talked to in a while. He told me that he was the Executive Producer of a TV show that was a Canadian cultural icon and now belongs to Canadian legend. The show was a current affairs program called "Front Page Challenge" that began airing in 1957. It had been produced in Toronto for 35 years. It was decided the show needed a new feel, so they moved the production to Vancouver. Cameron told me they were looking for someone to take over the Music Director duties and I should audition. Well, I did and I got the job. I really got a taste of the harsh TV deadlines. Given that it was a current affairs show - and I mean up to the minute, I didn't always know what the story was until the moment I had to start writing. The show always featured 2 guests and we always taped 2 shows at a time. We made a mini-documentary film of 1 - 2 minutes in length for each guest. I got my assignments on a Thursday evening and had to deliver 4 finished scores on the following Tuesday morning. The stories ranged from the starving throngs in Somalia, to Canada's first woman in space. We had boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter on the show, who was falsely accused of murder, tried and thrown in jail for 20 years (Bob Dylan wrote a song about him). Robert Kennedy Jr. who is a well known environmental advocate was a guest. Politicians, entertainers, athletes (we did 3 or 4 ice hockey stories - this is Canada after all) - anything and anyone with an interesting story in the news was attractive to us. The most interesting story from my vantage point was when we had the son-in-law of John Demjeniuk on the show. The story was about the man who was accused of being a concentration camp guard at Treblinka during World War II and was on trial in Israel. He was later acquitted for lack of evidence beyond a doubt. The music I wrote for that piece was a jewish-ukrainian death march. My work at "Front Page Challenge" was very instrumental in getting my writing chops together. I had to write without thinking, and yet still nail the emotion required to get the story across. I as often as not had a finished video tape to work with. When I didn't, the producer or director would say, "OK, the story is about such and such. For the first 37 seconds our story subject is introduced, then there is an emotional change etc. I did anything I could to get the job done on time.... The network (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - CBC) cancelled the show in 1995. After 38 years it was time for a change. In the three years I was Musical Director, I scored approximately 110 mini-documentary films for the show. I have done some more films since then. One about David McTaggart - the former chairman of Greenpeace (which was incidentally founded in 1971 here in Vancouver). Another about a woman who escaped from a fundamentalist Mormon settlement where she grew up in south-eastern British Columbia. These particular Mormons believe that the only people to be saved from the Apocalypse will be those who are in polygamous marriages. I will definitely keep my hand in film scoring. Too much fun!
J: Although you've always been busy with music, it took you until 1995 before you released your first solo-album "I Never Knew What Hit Me Until Now". Why then and not earlier? Had you been working on the songs for a long time already?
M: I would have to answer that it was because of circumstances on several levels - a) personal (family), b) personal (artistic) and c) shifts in the recording medium. When I started to play professionally in 1972, it was extremely rare that anyone playing cafes and bars and small halls had album product. There was the odd player who had a 45 single release if they were signed to a record company. There were no "indies" in todays' sense of the word. I went to Berlin to study in 1974. Of course I gigged throughout the time I was there, to the chagrin of some of my Professors. While there I did do some recording - some individual songs on album compilations. Since these records were (supposedly) available in stores (whenever - this was East Germany after all), there was no need to have them at shows or festivals that I was playing. Besides, I only received one or two copies for myself from the record company anyway. In 1980, I returned home to Canada with my first wife and 2 kids. We moved to Vancouver where my family was, however I hadn't lived in Vancouver for a long time (I lived in Toronto between 1970 and 1974). I knew virtually no one in the music business. So I began teaching guitar, playing a few little gigs here and there and generally struggled to stay afloat. With little time and money, serious recording was out of the question. I split with my first wife in the mid-eighties. So there was turmoil leading up to that event and beyond as well. My present wife, Marilynne came into my life around this time. Things kind of settled down and soon I started doing some film scoring work, I was still teaching guitar and doing a few gigs here and there and in 1989 our son, Jonathan was born. Over this period of time things were changing in the music industry - slow at first, and then with increasing speed. The first CDs started replacing LPs around 1983. In the early 90's, you could see that it was getting affordable to independantly produce and release a CD. That was reflected by the fact that everyone and their dog had CD release. I started thinking about releasing one of my own. I didn't want to record a bunch of old material. My writing was getting better I felt, and the 3-year run as Musical Director of a TV show helped to solidify things in that department. Most of the songs on " I Never Knew What Hit Me Until Now" were written in 1994. I was doing some writing with Kevin Vogen then, who is only the most prolific songwriter I know. I remember him going down to SOCAN (Canada's Performing Rights Organization - like BMI in the USA) with a box of 2000 (!) of songs he wanted to register.... I also co-wrote 2 songs on that CD with Colleen Eccleston. Both Kevin and Colleen are fantastic songwriters. Anyway, the CD " I Never Knew What Hit Me Until Now" was released in 1995 - not too late and not a bit too soon either. Just the way things worked out.
J: Just picking the track which is most intriguing to me on that CD, "Two Guns, Twin Arrows", with the chant, medicine drums & rattle by Manbear, please tell us something about this song?
M: There are two little towns 6 miles (10 Km) apart along the old Route 66 (now Interstate 40) in Arizona, USA. One called Two Guns and the other called Twin Arrows. I have travelled with my family to this region a few times. It is so spectacular and while you are there you can't help but find yourself steeped in the history, the majesty and mystique of the place. The area is littered with towns who's names are somewhat telling of what went on here in the late 1800's. (Tombstone, Gallop, Flagstaff etc.) From Two Guns and Twin Arrows it is not that far to where Kit Carson, the most cold-blooded killer of North American Aboriginal people, did his murdering in the name of the U.S. Government clearing the area of the Indians to allow the European settlers to take over the land. I felt that the names of these two towns were telling that story - so Kevin Vogen (my co-writer on this song) and I filled in the blanks and did a little storyboarding. The song starts out in the present day, then flashes back to the "wild west" and finally returns to present time with the last line of the song. We wanted the song to feel like you are watching a mini western film - the only difference being - in this story nobody wins....
My friend Manbear (or Bear as we call him) is an actor and singer of Cherokee and Irish background. He really wanted to bless this song with his contribution. Not only do you hear him chanting, beating his Medicine Drum and shaking his rattles. He was dancing as well - and you can sense that as his voice pans from one side to the other in the track.
J: You record and tour sometimes with Don Ross, an extra-ordinary Canadian guitar player. He's from Nova Scotia, the complete other side of the country, how did you meet and start playing together?
M: Yes, Don Ross is known world-wide for his adventurous acoustic guitar playing (www.gobyfish.com). Up until last year he was the only Canadian ever to win the U.S. National Fingerpicking Championship. To this day he's the only player to win it twice. Just to set the record straight: it's Don's Mom who is from Nova Scotia. Don was born and raised in Montreal and now lives near Toronto. I first met him in 1989 at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival where we were both performing. Over the years we stayed in touch and in 1993 and 94 we did some co-billed shows. To that point Don had only played one gig in Europe at the Montrieux Jazz Festival as a member of the Harbord Trio (with his late wife, Kelly on Vocals and Harp and Oliver Schroer on Violin). However he had never toured in Europe. So I thought it would be fun to do a tour in tandem. I set up 10 dates for us in late 1995 in Germany. Over the next few years I arranged 7 or 8 more tours in Germany and a couple in Canada together with Don. Our schedules don't gel that much anymore so these days it's the odd gig from time to time. I want to stress that we only shared the bill - our audiences heard two concerts per show - one Don's and one mine. He played on a few of my tunes and I played on some of his. Likewise he is a featured player on my first two albums, and I sang with Kelly and him on the recording of their song "Sweet Sister" on his album "Loaded, Leather, Moonroof." It's always fun, but we aren't a duo.
Don Ross is one of the most incredible and entertaining guitarists on the planet and doesn't need any backing at all. And if I may say so, neither do I.
Speaking of collaboration though, I would like to mention that I do also play in a trio with 2 other fabulous songwriters - Sam Masich and Mark James Fortin. We bill ourselves as "FFM" ( Friedman. Fortin & Masich) although we're still trying to decide on a definitive name. We've written a bunch of songs specifically for the band and have been labelling what we do as "Folk Noire - 3 part harmony, 3 guitars, no waiting". Sam and Mark are both truly two of the most incredible songwriters/musicians I know and it's both a joy and honour to be playing together with them. As FFM we've done two tours to Europe so far, but otherwise have stayed close to home. It's hard to schedule long-term - Sam is one of the world's foremost Tai Chi masters and as such is very much in demand and Mark and his wife now have a newborn baby keeping him much in demand as well. We have released a CD - "FFM Live Plus" and hope to record a studio album sometime this spring (2004).
Another interesting form of collaboration for me is with my friend Jens Naumilkat from Berlin. Jens is a fantastic cellist and arranger and we've known each other since our days as students at the Conservatory in Berlin. After receiving an invitation to perform with the Central German Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra (Mitteldeutsche Kammerphilharmonie) out of Schönebeck, Germany, I needed some orchestral arrangements of some of my songs. Jens was just the guy for the job. We chose a half dozen songs for starters, including incidentally "Two Guns, Twin Arrows". Done up this way, the songs are BIG, lush and beautiful. Last June, 2003, I performed with the Chamber Philharmonic and two weeks later also with the Neubrandenburger Philharmonie doing Jens' arrangements of my songs. (By the way - Don Ross also performed in Neubrandenburg with arrangements by Jens of two of his compositions).
In May, 2004, I will be performing once again with the Central German Chamber Philharmonic and both Don Ross and I will be playing two concerts with the Loh Orchester Sondershausen, Germany.
Jens is working on further arrangements and I am excited! To play with 30 to 65 musicians depending on the ensemble is one of the greatest thrills of my career. Later this year (2004), Don and I will play 3 concerts with the Vogtland Philharmonie. Fun, fun, fun!
J: On your second album "Angst Ridden Writer", there's the song "Scrolls Of Destiny". Is it about the Dead Sea Scrolls maybe? How important is your Jewish background for you, like in everyday life?
M: "Scrolls of Destiny" might conjure up that image, no doubt. But it's not about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I gave this one over to Kevin Vogen - I had written the music and I had just played it for him in my studio. We then went out into the garden in my back yard. We noticed an ant colony where we were standing, and he remarked how we people are seemingly just like those ants - running back and forth and up and down with no explicable purpose of direction. He wanted to make a statement to that effect. So he wrote about what looks like an archeological site where one would expect to discover something of the past, but instead one discovers these "scrolls of destiny", inferring that this time they uncovered the future. A little bit of the Twilight Zone?
I grew up in a secular Jewish Canadian family. As such my Jewish heritage is very important in that it is a part of my contribution to world heritage. I was raised without the religion. But I know the history, songs, stories, the dances, the food, the joys and heartaches. And of course I know of the suffering. (Both the suffering that so many Jews have endured at the hands of ignorant and over-zealous extremist crazies and the suffering endured by others at the hands of some very over-zealous fundamentalist extremist Jews and bad governmental policies backing them.)
If someone asks me who and what I am, I generally start with the bigger things and work my way down to me - the smallest. I was raised in a household with an internationalist outlook, so I tend to see myself outwardly as humanist first. I was born and raised in Canada (mostly), so I am Canadian. My ancestry is Jewish and I play guitar. I don't use race, creed or colour to define who I associate with and my friends do not use ignorance as guidance for their friendships. The part of the Jewish community I associate with mostly is secular and progressive and very much involved in the community at large. I am a spiritual person, however I choose to explore that part of me outside of established organized religion.
J: Then we come to your latest CD, "Diamond Space". There are "fireflies", short instrumental tracks, throughout the album, please tell us about them?
M: Sam Masich, who I have been working with as co-writer for quite a number of years, is the producer of my album "Diamond Space". When we started the project we decided that it should have a different feel than my previous 2 efforts (which differ from each other as well).
We stripped down the production to Hand Percussion, Bass, Guitar, Sax and Vocals. We thought it would be cool to take some short instrumental tracks that came about during the sessions and insert them here and there as segues between the songs. They give the listener pause and breathing space while helping set up the next song. I called them fireflies because like those little creatures you see on a summer's night, they seem to flicker in and out of your consciousness. As of this writing I have only released the "Diamond Space" album as a limited edition since it is not quite finished. As mentioned before it has been difficult to schedule enough time between Sam and myself to complete the project. We are finally forging ahead though as I write this. I am so looking forward to its completion.
J: I think "Golden Rose" is a touching song, true story?
M: The song "Golden Rose" is not so much a true story, but rather a vivid portrait of a young person consumed by the child pornography industry. Golden Rose as an image represents a girl's childhood innocence not formed enough to be awakened. This kind of pornography is a lucrative business and another expression of Vulture Culture. It's one more example in the way that children are exploited by people with no conscience and who's motto "it's only business" is as cynically perverse as it gets.
My usual process when conceiving songs is to write the music first. Sam Masich, who penned the lyrics for "Golden Rose" says that my music feeds him, setting him up with an immediate picture of what the song is about. He seems to wordsmith the same way I write music - as though taking dictation. "Golden Rose" is a very powerful song - sometimes overwhelmingly so, and I have often wrestled with that, trying to get its performance just right. That song is hard to do justice to, not in a technical sense - but in a balanced emotional one. It's so intense, but you have to harness it so it's intent doesn't drown in pathos.
J: "Vulture Culture" has the right amount of cynicism, what inspired you and your co-writer Sam Masich to this one?
M: "Vulture Culture" is a laconic commentary on the process of Globalization as has been increasingly evident. We are constantly being told "this'll be good for the economy, it'll be good for you." Then Big Business rides rough-shod over every legitimate human concern to complete the transaction and satisfy the shareholder, even though this results realistically in mass impoverishment, lowered standards of living and all too often brutal war. The nightmare is that if we continue down this path, we will have no right to the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the food we eat. And as we watch these vital elements of survival either dwindle away or become perversely compromised by improperly tested experimentation, I think we need to ask ourselves - who does this serve and where is this leading? If our planet becomes one giant garbage dump, what do they care? Their money's in the bank.... I don't see the logic in the way things are happening. Money is merely a means. You can't eat it or drink it. And since people are always fighting over money, has it ever bought peace or contentment?
J: You live in Vancouver, British Columbia. What is the music-scene like in your city?
M: Like many musicians residing here, I am pretty ambiguous about the music scene. I feel that there has to be public and official support for those small non-mainstream places that function as laboratories for an emerging culture. They may not be the places mentioned in tourist broshures, but if you want to see where a culture is "brewed", these are the places to visit. Vancouver sometimes has a hard time just leaving these places to do their thing. Liquor and noise bylaws often place these venues in jeopardy. Also over the years some beloved locales became victims to arsonists torches. I feel that these places need to be nurtured and protected and treated with respect and dignity and as part of a heritage. Vancouver is a young city by any standard. It doesn't have the vast reservoir of cultural tradition that cities in Europe have by comparison. Since Vancouver's is mainly a resource based economy (forestry, mining, fishing, tourism), there is a tendency to rely on those things to bring the money in. Things are changing - but never fast enough for those of us who are restless. My feeling is that people here still would rather import something from somewhere else than to develop our own human resources and showcase them when it comes to things artistic. This may be a somewhat myopic view on my part, because we do have very much to recommend. Perhaps it has to do with my work in Europe. When I return home from a tour abroad, I often feel as though I am returning to a cultural wasteland. I know this isn't true. It's just me taking what we do have in Vancouver for granted. You know - the grass is always greener.....
Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities in the world - and that's the truth. The climate is decent, we are very close to big nature, ocean, mountains and forests and it fits many varied lifestyles. So people tend to want to live here and come from all parts of Canada and beyond. As such many very creative people from all over the world are drawn here. Many well known musicians are from here (or near here), or got their start here or just decided this was the place to call home, eg. Sarah McLachlan, Bryan Adams, Diana Krall, Randy Bachman (Guess Who; Bachman, Turner, Overdrive), k.d. lang, Nelly Furtado, Nickelback, David Foster. Joni Mitchell has a home near here. And many more. Of course the above mentioned are all world reknowned and I guess they do figure to a certain degree directly in today's music scene in Vancouver. Two of the most successful Music Management firms are here: Sam Feldman & Associates, and Bruce Allen Talent. We have two very fine symphony orchestras - the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the C.B.C. Radio Symphony Orchestra and there's the Vancouver Opera Company as well. Also well known around the world are the Vancouver International Jazz Festival (Downbeat Magazine's Favourite) and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. We have some very fine music venues including the fabulous Commodore Ballroom which is considered to be one of the best live concert venues in the world. There are countless recording studios large and small churning out music like candy - Hip Hop, Techno, Rock, Pop, Country, Punk, Jazz, Folk, Classical - it's all there - and what's most important - we have an abundance of world class musicians. There are not enough of the types of small venues where musicians can woodshed before a live audience. The flip-side of the coin is that there just isn't enough support from the general public for live performance of local talent. And this is a shame, because the amount of immensely gifted musicians here is staggering. And I find it strange that people can raise the strapping amounts of cash needed for the giant stadium concert extravaganzas and all that goes along with that, and yet balk at paying a 5 dollar cover to hear some local up-and-coming talent playing in a much more intimate setting. So many venues have switched to disco or have gone under, either because of a lack of public support for live music or it's just cheaper and more convenient to hire a DJ to spin CDs. Of course I know that technology is changing the way that music can be made, however we are not robots..........yet.
It would be nice to get a little more home grown public support. As proud of being Canadian as most Canadians consider themselves, I think there is still an underlying notion that if it's Canadian, it's probably not good enough - better to import something from somewhere else - most likely the United States. And although admittedly things are changing, there is still a prevailing attitude among artists, that one must go away somewhere (usually the U.S. like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and so many other Canadians did - and had to in those days) and make it big in order to come back and get the deserved recognition from the home crowd. (Of course there are many notable exceptions (eg. Guess Who, Tragically Hip, Bruce Cockburn, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Cochrane). One thing about Canada though - it is so stretched out from east to west (7000 Km), and that makes it very difficult to tour without major backing. I find it much easier to set up a tour in Europe than here in Canada. Well, at least I can make my little mark in the world and still live in Vancouver. And, you know what? In spite of what may have come across as a bit of a rant, I love this place!
J: Could you name a few Canadian artists, whom you really like a lot and wish we would check out? Are there also Canadian artists you dislike? I know we're both not too fond of Shania Twain...
M: I am particularly indebted to some amazing Canadian songwriters. In my early years I got into Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Murray McLaughlan, The Band, Willie Dunn, Perth County Conspiracy Does Not Exist, Neil Young, Harmonium (from Quebec).
I have always been into the jazz scene and there are many great Canadian players: Oscar Peterson, Don Thompson, Moe Kaufman, Freddy Stone, Maynard Ferguson, Rob McConell, Ed Bickert, (the older generation) and Renee Rosnes, Brad Turner, Mike Murley (both Metalwood), Miles Black, Francois Houle, Talking Pictures, Jane Bunette, Holly Cole, Kate Hammett Vaughan, Christine Duncan (the current generation) and so very many more.
Some other fantastic Canadian artists that I've really liked over the years are: Tom Cochrane, Northern Pikes, Chilliwack, The Odds, Spirit of the West, Payolas (later Paul Hyde solo), Jeff Healey, Colin James, the Philosopher Kings. I could go on and on.
I have saved the longest list for last and I would really like to recommend these artists because they represent a wellspring of exceptional Canadian talent and they deserve much wider recognition. Here goes: Jane Siberry, Zubot & Dawson, Asza, John Mann, Oliver Schroer, Flophouse Junior, Madagascar Slim, Bill Bourne, Bocephus King, Susan Crowe, Gary Comeau, Veda Hille, Be Good Tanyas, Wyckham Porteous, Jonathan Inc., Stephen Fearing, Gerry Barnum, Silk Road Music, Leslie Alexander, Ken Hamm, Paperboys, Dave Goodman, Valdy, Tricontinental, Alpha Ya Ya Diallo, Roy Forbes, Joe Keithly, Paul Hyde, Shari Ulrich. The list is way too short....
Canada's World Music scene will certainly blow any fans of that genre away since the country's general make-up consists of our First Nations People and Immigrants and their decendants from all over the world. Definitely worth checking out.
And yes, there are certain ubiquitous Canadian divas that are not my cup of cocoa. Nuff said....
J: I noticed during my journeys in Canada over the years, that most Canadians are quite outspoken about the fact that they don't like Americans very much... Why is that, do you think?
M: Well, in my case I have met some of the coolest and most intelligent people in my travels to the States over the years. It's not even a hand full of people - I know lots of them from all over their country. And I have the utmost respect for American contributions to world culture. I grew up on some pretty wonderful music, films, art and literature from the United States. And I think that many Canadians feel the same way.
What many people don't like is the brashness with which Americans in general seemingly believe that the world is theirs for the taking and often act upon that notion. Given our geographical proximity to the U.S., it's only natural that we would be wary. Historical memory is long - the only country to ever attack us militarily is the United States. Not just once - many times - the last time in 1812. And to this day the United States considers the territory of Canada as part of their manifest destiny - ripe for the picking. That comes across especially in the way the Americans negotiate any "agreements" with us. They usually get to determine how we "agree". And if there is something in a treaty that doesn't work to their advantage - they ignore it. I think that many Canadians resent the fact that more than 70% of our economy is owned and run by American conglomerates (perhaps we resent ourselves for the sell-out too). Canada has great oil reserves, much of the world's fresh water supply, uranium, copper, silver, gold etc. We are a huge country with phenomenal resources and only 30 Million inhabitants. The U.S. is a huge country immediately to the south of us with 10 times that many people and a prevailing attitude that anything in this world that catches their eye is in their "national interest" - and that somehow gives them the right to take it. It never really matters who happens to be in power in Washington although the present (not really elected) U.S. government makes people especially nervous, and not just in Canada. I hope that the intelligent Americans like the ones I know and love, gain the upper hand again and elect someone with some form of sanity back into the White House and I am sure many many Canadians feel the same way. I don't think we will ever completely stop being wary, but we might be a little less on edge.
J: Let's end with a fun-question. I always ask guys who shave their head if it's a statement they want to make or if it's just convenience?
M: In my case the top of my head made the decision for me. I had a choice between less or nothing and I opted for nothing. Pretty convenient too.
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www.michaelfriedman.ca and www.michaelfriedman.de