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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to NewAgeReporter.com. Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation with Gypsy Soul, Jun. 2007
A Conversation With Michael O'Connell, Mar. 2007
A Conversation with Paul Avgerinos, Nov. 2006
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Joe Ebel
February 2004
I first learned about Joe Ebel from his work with guitarist/composer Ken Bonfield. I particularly enjoyed, the Bonfield & Ebel album, Dancing With Shadows, which showcases Joe's beautiful and distinctive violin playing in a modern acoustic setting.

But I knew Joe only as a violinist from the Bonfield & Ebel records (they made two together). So to my absolute unexpected surprise, Joe's debut solo album, Primebel, features not only his work as a violinist and composer, but also as a guitar player -- and a really good one at that!

Besides Joe's outstanding playing, writing and production, Primebel features a cast of first rate players including: keyboardist/percussionist/producer Chris Rosser, acoustic bassist Eliot Wadopian, drummer Tony Creasman, fretless bassist Don Porterfield, vocalist/executive producer Annie Lalley, soprano saxophonist Stuart Reinhardt and percussionist Bryon Hedgepeth. When you add to the mix fretless bassist Michael Manring and then have Grammy Award winner David Glasser master the album, you know you have a real winner.

If you'd like to learn more about Joe and his music, please visit his web site or visit the Primebel site for more info on Joe's solo debut.
Joe Ebel
Photo Credit: Michael Mauney
"...I finally
just allowed myself
to let it be as it is."
Jamie: The first thing that struck me after listening to Primebel was that this is an album and not just a collection of pieces. There are lots of twists and turns, up-tempo tunes, beautiful ballads and great playing throughout the record. When you started recording Primebel did you have an idea that the tunes would work so well together?
Joe: I take that as a high compliment! Thanks! Actually, I wasn't sure how or if they would work together. A lot of it has to do with the sequencing of the songs. I spent quite a bit of time on that, and ultimately wound up going with the suggestions of my friend, bassist Don Porterfield. He's got a great ear for that sort of thing. It's a lot like putting together a set list for a live performance with movement from piece to piece. I wanted it to be an emotional journey. Also, I think I have a fairly strong voice of my own. That is, the violin tone that I have is unlike most others I've heard. Now that could be looked on as a bad thing in that it doesn't have the tone of the well-trained classical violinist. But it is unique, and I think that helps bind the songs together.
Jamie: I think you're right. A player's tone is the first thing that a listener responds to. When I think of Miles or Michael Manring, I can immediately hear their sound in my head. Of course, a distinctive sound is only part of the overall picture, but I think it's a good starting point for recording artists. Did your sound come easily to you or was it something that you developed over time?
Joe: Actually, I have to respond with "both." It was easy in that I didn't set out to develop my sound. But it did take many years to get it to where it is today. I think the biggest change was in allowing my sound to be different instead of mentally berating myself for not sounding like a concert violinist. I realized that with my electric guitar rock/pop improv experience I had a different approach to violin improv and I finally just allowed myself to let it be as it is. "I think the biggest change was in allowing my sound to be different...."
Jamie: Well, that's the real challenge as an artist -- to be yourself. For me, that mental critic is always going to be there. Sometimes with good advice and sometimes just to sabotage me. Lately, I'm mostly telling him to take a hike!

Before hearing Primebel, I had only known you as a violinist, but this album also shows you to be a great acoustic guitar player! How does playing the guitar affect your violin playing, if at all, or vice versa? Are there any technical challenges in playing the two instruments that you've had to face?
Joe: My history with these two instruments is a bit unusual, I think. I started with six years of private classical violin lessons. That's where I learned some really basic but important things, like where all the notes are on the fingerboard, how to read music, and the essence of syncopation. Knowing how to read music gave me the ability to analyze rhythms more closely and I was always fascinated by syncopation.

But at age fourteen some classmates approached me to form a band. They wanted me to play guitar even though I had never played one. They obviously had more confidence in my ability to learn a new instrument than I did, but I gave it a go anyway. I got my first acoustic guitar on my fifteenth birthday and got my first electric guitar and amplifier three months later. I played in a rock and roll cover band all through high school and learned how to improvise by patterns. I quit playing violin for seven years.

When I again approached the violin, after hearing a concert by cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, I began to see the patterns in the fingerings, a mental image of the spacing and relationships of the fingers, in ways I hadn't as a classical student. I could now use what I had learned on guitar and apply it to the violin. For the first time, I could improvise on the violin. I chose not to read music, even though I was capable.

My phrasing on the violin is very influenced by phrasing on the electric guitar. I did a piece with Joe & Tree Brunelle, singer/songwriters out of Texas. It was a rockin' piece called "It's a Beautiful Day" where I played electric guitar in the style of Mark Knopfler on "Money For Nothing". I added an electric violin solo using a wah pedal and distortion. The guitar and violin trade off licks at the end of the piece. There are times when you're not sure whether it's the guitar or the violin!

I don't see any particular technical challenges playing both instruments. However, I don't always feel obligated to create a strong melody line on the guitar if it doesn't come easily. I can always approach song creation on the guitar from a support, or rhythm section direction then add the melody later with the violin. On those songs, I use the guitar to set the mood and use the violin to articulate the melody. All this is done with little thought, actually. It's only when I'm asked a question like this that I sit down and analyze and realize what I've been doing naturally.

Fingerstyle acoustic guitar is really the latest thing I've done with the guitar. Until 1996, I played almost entirely electric guitar in standard tuning and electric violin. Now I play acoustic guitar almost entirely in alternate tunings, and electric guitar in standard or near standard tunings. It was alternate tunings that opened the doors to all the new songs I've written and continue to write.
"My phrasing on the violin is very influenced by phrasing on the electric guitar."
Jamie: I noticed on the liner notes for Primebel that you included the tuning that you used for each piece. This is definitely something that helps out people who like to transcribe, such as myself -- thanks!

This is another two part question... What is it that appeals to you about alternate tunings? Do your pieces start by finding a specific tuning on the guitar and grow from there? O.k. I lied, let's make it a three parter.... How do you handle so many tunings in a live setting?
Joe: Well, there's the obvious thing about interesting arpeggios with sustaining strings. "Annie's Garden" uses DADGAD to advantage that way. When I was doing the tablature for that song, the computer program I was using automatically assigned fingerings to the notes. It found simpler ways to do some things, but it disregarded the sustaining tones and often put two sequential notes on the same string. Though it was correct to the note sequence, I had to override it and tell it what strings to play the notes on so they would all ring out nicely. That kind of sustain just can't be gotten with standard tuning on a lot of the melodies I write.

It is interesting to note though, that some of the best examples of sustaining arpeggios on Primebel are actually in standard tuning but use what I call "Silly Capo Tricks". "Broken Lullabye" uses a five string capo and a three string capo. The high E-string rings through. That song was created from the tuning arrangement itself. If you try to transcribe it (and I'll get to it myself soon and have the tablature available on my web site) you'll see that most of the song uses only one or two fingers at a time and lots of open-string sustain. When I put the capos in that arrangement, the song just sort of tumbled out. Of course I was in the mood to receive it, too.

"Palenque" is another one that uses the five-string and three-string capos but one fret higher than "Broken Lullaby". It has a completely different sound (C#m9) and again is mostly very simple for the left hand. In general, open tunings present opportunities to leave behind the patterns of playing that have limited my sound palette. Primebel grew out of the tuning as did "First Snow". Basically, it's just a lot of fun discovering what a new tuning can bring to my writing.

As for live performances, I try to have several guitars and arrange the set list so that any tuning is minimized. If I do it right, I'll only need to tweak one or two strings between songs. Like going from DADGAD to DADFCD or from standard to EADEAE. And the three songs in standard tuning only have capos to change.
"Basically, it's just
a lot of fun
discovering
what a new tuning
can bring
to my writing."
Jamie: "Silly Capo Tricks"... hahaha... that's just great! I never would have guessed what you were doing on "Broken Lullabye". To be truthful, I haven't seen anyone use two capos simultaneously before -- is that something "normal"? Where did the idea for "Silly Capos Tricks" come from?
Joe: I guess the first time I saw it used was at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Kerrville, Texas in 1996. I'm sure others have used them for years, but it was new to me. Typically, a Keyser capo is modified with a hacksaw and a knife to allow the low string to pass through and the two high strings to remain open. What that does is create the tonality of DADGAD, only one step higher. The neat thing about it is that you can still use all your old familiar patterns and chords above the capo because it's still standard tuning. It's like having three extra fingers hole those notes for you wherever your hand may be. The second capo comes in when you want that sound in a different key. A full capo is placed where you want it and the cut capo is placed two frets above it. That way you have the tonality of DADGAD in just about any key you want. There are enough differences, though, to require you to use DADGAD for certain songs.

I then started experimenting with leaving a string open through BOTH capos. I was working on a song that my son, Brendan, had written and was trying to put a guitar part to it. He had composed the song completely on a computer using some old DOS looping program. I discovered after much experimentation that I could get a very similar chordal, arpeggiated sound by using a standard capo on only five strings, keeping the high string open, and placing the cut capo two frets above it. The song "Palenque" on the Primebel CD was a result of that experimentation.

Another interesting technique with the partial capos is that you can play on the 'back' side of the capo where the strings ring through. The bass line on "Broken Lullaby" walks down to where I'm fretting the low string behind the three-string capo. That, too, is common among singer/songwriters down here.
Jamie: Some great ideas! I'm going to try out some of these capo tricks. That is, if I can find my capo.... it seems to have disappeared as soon as I started using the words capo and hacksaw in the same sentence.

Just to shift gears for a second, I think you've used technology really well both on your new album and on your website. Primebel is an enhanced CD offering photos, MP3s and tabs, and your website has two free MP3s for download. In many ways technology has become central (maybe even a necessity) to what musicians do at this point -- particularly from a marketing standpoint. For me, the challenge is to balance the demands that technology can place on my time and resources. Do you feel technology has been a help, hindrance or both for your work as a creative artist and as a label owner?
Joe: Definitely both, but probably leaning more towards a help. It does take a lot of time, but I've always been a techno-nerd and have developed more than a few computer skills. The internet now is pretty much my only hope, outside of a label deal, to get the music out. And label deals usually aren't the preferred way to go for an independent musician. There are more ways for them to go wrong than to go right.
Jamie: I suppose this a good time to talk about the state of the music industry circa 2004. Obviously, there are huge changes going on, but how the industry as a whole is going to end up is, in my view, a guessing game. But one thing I think is certain is that there will be more independent artists at the end of 2004 than there were at the beginning. Lots of labels are either cutting back their roster of artists or are simply going out of business. And ultimately the industry as whole, and the contemporary instrumental industry specifically, will have to adjust to the fact the bulk of artists will be independents. The net certainly caused some of these changes to occur and in some ways it will be part of the solution to getting things rolling again. When you say that the net "is pretty much my only hope" is that because you feel other aspects of the industry are "closed" to you? How could the industry better adapt to your needs as an independent?
Joe: Well, I guessed I opened up a can of worms on that one! I've know more than a few musicians that have been hung out to dry by their labels because they didn't hit the numbers or the label didn't meet the expectations they set up at signing. I don't want to go there. I'm hoping there is a way other than touring 250+ days a year to make ends meet creating music.

As to what the industry could do better, they could probably stop trying to hold on to the old way of doing things. I mean, with the RIAA sending warrants out to 14 year olds, we're in some strange universe! In my opinion, the old guard completely missed a golden opportunity to market music on the web. But then, it's given a chance to independent musicians to use that tool so it's not all bad.
Jamie: If anything, I think the net offers more opportunities for independents than the majors now. Of course, things can shift pretty quickly -- we'll just have to wait and see.

Back to the fun stuff.... Have you had a chance to play any of the tunes from Primebel in a live setting yet?
Joe: Yes, I have. I've been doing "Shirley Mae" for quite a while now. I use an Electrix Repeater to lay down the guitar track, and then pick up the violin and do two more loops to end up with guitar and two violins playing at once. If you listen to how "Shirley Mae", "The Calling" and "Ray of Hope" are set up, you'll hear the loop point in each of them. The arrangement has a little intro section that I use to switch instruments at the top of the loop. In fact, "Ray of Hope" on the Primebel CD is exactly the way it sounds live (on a good night!). "Shirley Mae" turns out to be one verse longer live because of the need to lay down the guitar track first. I do have the ending chord of "Shirley Mae" pre-recorded so I don't have to switch back to guitar for one chord. I didn't need to do that with "Ray of Hope" or "The Calling". "Ray of Hope" ends on the long rest in the intro, and "The Calling" is a fade out. I use a volume pedal for the fade live.

I've pretty much stuck to using only a prerecorded end chord or maybe a bar of ritard. Most of the audiences I've been in front of are particular about seeing the music being made in front of them, so I've avoided any lengthy pre-recorded stuff.

I've been doing "Freefall" as a solo guitar piece as I have "The Caper", "Broken Lullaby", "Father to Son", "Island Daydream" and of course, "Annie's Garden". I'm in the process of transcribing all of the songs on Primebel for guitar and violin/viola (because of the five-string violin I use). I've been posting some of them on the Primebel web site (www.primebel.com) as I complete them. Someday I'd love to present the songs with instrumentation similar to the recording, and having it all written out will facilitate that.
Jamie: Sounds great! So when are you bringing the show to Toronto?
Joe: I LOVE Toronto! Last time I was there I was working as an electronics engineer for a medical equipment manufacturer. I was visiting the CSA testing labs there and while I was up there (or actually, DOWN there from where I lived in Wisconsin) I took in the nightlife including a great blues band. It's a beautiful city. Jamie, we need to talk!! :-)
Jamie: You're right -- Toronto is a beautiful city. And we'll definitely have to talk.... 8^)

So what are you up to now? Any new recording projects or gigs you'd like to talk about?
Joe: Well, I'm actually on hiatus from touring at the moment. My wife, Annie Lalley, and I have been through a rather frenetic last couple years. In as short as I can put it, we got engaged in spring of 2002, planned and borrowed for a significant addition onto our rather small house, my twenty-one year old songwriter son, Brendan, was killed by a drunk driver in June of 2002, we broke ground on the addition in June 2002, we got married in August 2002, I continued working on my CD, moved into the new addition in February 2003, in May 2003 Anne's younger brother died, through the summer of 2003 we worked on our yard repairing the construction damage and in November 2003 I finally released Primebel. We've had no time to book any shows, and I'm not sure I could have dealt with any touring during this difficult time. But we're ready now and are beginning to look to the future for live performances again. Anne is working on a new project, her third, and I have the material to complete another CD similar in style to Primebel. I also hope to begin a project using Brendan's music and mixing in my "organic" instruments. Anne and I are planning on building a nicer home studio in our new addition shortly and hope to give it its maiden voyage on our new CDs. "My wife, Annie
Lalley, and I
have been
through a
rather frenetic
last couple years."
Jamie: I'm so very sorry to hear what you and Anne have been through -- an incredibly sad period for you both. But hopefully, your, and Anne's, music and creativity will continue to bring you a little sweetness with the bitter realities that life can bring us.

Thanks for doing this conversation -- I've had a great time learning more about you and your music. All the Best! Please stay in touch!!
 
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