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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 Grundman, Jan. 2005
A Conversation with Will Ackerman, Dec. 2004
A Conversation with Ottmar Liebert, Dec. 2004
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation With Montana Skies
October 2005
To date, 2005 has been a busy year for Montana Skies, the cello/guitar duo of Jennifer and Jonathan Adams. They won the NAR 2004 LifeStyle Award for “Best New Artist”, had their second album, Chasing the Sun, reach #1 on the NAR Top 100 Airwaves chart and have had (and continue to have) a busy performance schedule. Clearly a new band with a buzz!

But like many “new” bands, Montana Skies didn't just emerge fully formed. Since meeting almost a decade ago while studying music at the University of Georgia in Athens, Jenn and Jon have both been incredibly busy. A few of Jenn's stylistically wide-ranging recording credits include: the ARCO chamber, Soul Miner's Daughter, and Submersed. Jon is no slouch himself, having released six albums for a number of labels including: Intersound records, Pamplin records and Mel Bay publications, as well as independent releases on his own label, Sonic Grapefruit. And in 2002 Jon's full length instructional book and CD, Getting Into Fingerstyle Guitar, was published by Mel-Bay Publications.

Please visit MontanaSkiesMusic.com to learn more about Jenn, Jon and their music.

Montana Skies
"...the main thing for us is to follow the muse and make sure that the music comes from the heart." - Jon Adams
Jamie: The old saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention", certainly applies to Montana Skies. As Jonathan says, " The fact that 'ready made' repertoire is not available for our combination of instruments is really what pushes us to be more creative with our music." Besides having to write and arrange new music, are there any performance-oriented challenges that your guitar/cello format present?
Jenn: Happily, our experience with performing has been without many challenges! We have to develop and pick out our music, as you already mentioned, but that is usually more of a pleasure than a pain. There is, of course, the natural problem of our two instruments' volumes. The cello is just a very loud instrument compared to the guitar. When we were in music school being trained classically, the thought of amplifying was kind of crazy! Jumping ahead to now, we always amplify at our shows and we love it! It allows for us to equalize our instruments' volumes and allows us to always present a high quality sound regardless of the venues' acoustics.
Jamie: The guitar is such a quiet instrument, isn't it? Especially when compared to many "Classical" instruments. I used to say just about the only instrument a guitarist could play with is flute -- and that was only if the flute player was nice! Thankfully there have been huge advancements in acoustic amplification in the last decade or so, which has opened up so many possibilities. What effect do you feel that your Classical training has had on your current music?
Jon: Yes, and we love to amplify! I always thought it was silly to go to a classical guitar concert and have to strain to hear the music. When we play we want to fill the venue with sound and create a "technicolor" experience for the audience. Also, because we are now using quite a bit of live looping and guitar synth in the show, it is absolutely essential.

Well, I think the main thing that I have taken from classical training is the discipline of learning "how to learn". And I mean that in regards to technical learning as well as musical learning. Technically, studying classical guitar was useful in breaking down movements and techniques into their smallest terms and then building from the ground up. I think most good musicians do this anyway, classically trained or not. Whether your learning music by Michael Hedges or Segovia the way to learn is the same. Musically, I think studying classical music was also very valuable for me in looking at how music is put together. Not just classical music, but all types of music. Most music, from Mozart to Metallica has a similar goal of tension and release and studying older composers is a great way to learn more about music in this way.
"When we play we want to fill the venue with sound and create a "technicolor" experience for the audience."

- Jon Adams
Jamie: Yeah, there's no need to reinvent the wheel, is there? Older composers may have (probably have?) dealt with many of the compositional "problems" that arise in much of modern music. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this, but I think it can't hurt to be aware what's gone before.

Not to "descend" into tech talk so early in this conversation, but you mentioned live looping and the guitar synth in your last answer. Is this something new for Montana Skies? What gear are you using?
Jon: Well, I love tech talk. I am a total gear nerd and I enjoy experimenting with new technology. We have been experimenting for the last couple of years with new things, but we are using the looping and synth a lot more now in live performance.

I currently use a Roland GR-33 guitar synth. I use it mainly for adding bass to fill out the low end. Guitar and cello are both very "midrange" instruments, so I wanted to add some "oomph" to the bass. We used this on our CD Chasing the Sun with songs like "Tunnels", "Xeroscape" and "Chasing the Sun".

We use the Boss RC-20 looping pedals too, and I love the textures that can be built with looping. Looping is probably most obvious on songs like "Xeroscape", where we looped a beat. (This is actually Jenn playing her cello like a bass drum!) Also Chasing the Sun uses quite a bit of looping in the guitar part. We also used this concept of looping beats or chordal things on a lot of songs on the new album.

I use RMC pickups on both guitars (nylon and steel string) and this translates the guitar input to midi info as well as a standard acoustic/electric signal. Bob Altman (http://www.altmanguitars.com), who built my steel string guitar, has really helped me a lot with installing pickups and setting up my guitars for these things. In concert, I run two lines for the guitar, one is through the pickup to the synth and the looper and the other is through the microphone to the looper. This seems to create the best acoustic sound, while still giving the freedom to use all of the effects. Jenn currently runs everything through her mic signal. This is our basic set-up, but we are always experimenting!!!
Jamie: O.k. one last guitar/tech question... sorry Jenn! Jon, do you process your guitar (i.e. reverb, delay, etc.) at all? Do you go direct to the house PA or use an amp?
Jon: Well, on both cello and guitar, we use varying amounts of reverb and sometimes a little delay to add "space". It usually depends on the hall/venue and how it is treated acoustically. For smaller venues we might use more verb to create spaciousness. In a larger space we won't use as much verb. For instance, last summer we played at the Seoul Arts Center in Korea and there really wasn't a need for any reverb because it was so large (and with lot of hard surface area) it really had it's own reverb, built in.

As far as effects go, I want to experiment more, in our music, with things like stereo delays, etc.

For guitar, I mostly just go direct to the house through the gear and mics I mentioned above (for guitar) and use a Yamaha AG Stomp as a preamp for the direct signal. Sometimes though, we will both go through an amp (and use it as a monitor) and then send that feed to the house.

I've really worked hard to try and figure out a standardized system.
Unfortunately, it seems as though most situations require a slightly different treatment. The EQ and set-up that work in one venue might be totally different from the next.

I'm sure you've been through all of this with your live set-ups! As the group's default sound technician I am always trying to educate myself and learn more and I also have a much greater respect for professional sound techs!!
Jamie: Oh yeah, a sound tech can definitely make or break a gig... And personally, sound quality is absolutely important to my own performance. I find it incredibly difficult to play with a "bad" tone.

Sorry again for leaving you out of the conversation Jenn... Since we've been talking about gear, maybe you could tell us about your cello(s) and your live set-up.
Jenn: Well, I have an AKG c1000 that is a great all around mic that I use in live shows. It is tough and durable and it has a good tone. We use AKG C414's if the venue has one of those. I run this signal directly into the mix and then reverb is added to give the sound 'energy'! I also have a pick up on my tailpiece which gives me the option to mix in a direct sound for a really large space like outdoor festivals so that I can boost my volume and sound a bunch with out any chance of feedback. I have also recently gotten a Ned Steinberger electric cello. It has a really great sound and I can also stand while playing it!! This is great because it enables us to move around the stage.
Jamie: Your most recent album Chasing the Sun has added some new textures and collaborations to the Montana Skies sound. You have mandolinist Butch Baldassari playing on a couple tracks as well as pianist Robin Spielberg joining in on "Three". What was the impetus for bringing in other "voices" for Chasing the Sun? Any plans for future collaborations?
Jon: I guess the impetus for adding new voices on Chasing the Sun was really just to mix things up a bit. Jenn and I had already done a full duo album with Montana Skies and we wanted to do something different with Chasing the Sun. We have worked closely with Butch and Robin before, so it was a natural progression. It was a lot of fun and an eye opener for us. There was a lot of creation on those ensemble pieces all the way up to through the recording process. As the producer, it really opened a whole new palate of possibilities.

Well, our next album is going to be quite a departure from what we have done so far. We are planning on adding bass and percussion. We are currently working with percussionist Arvin Scott who has played with jam band Widespread Panic as well as Mose Alison. He's a fantastic player and we are looking forward to working with him. We have also worked with the Jeni Fleming acoustic trio in Montana (http://jenifleming.com) and we are looking forward to working with them more. We really like working with other musicians and if we can mesh on a creative and musical level, we are open to anything. I think when you collaborate with other musicians it really opens up new worlds for all involved.
"I guess the impetus for adding new voices on Chasing the Sun was really just to mix things up a bit."

- Jon Adams
Jamie: How does adding a rhythm section change the Montana Skies sound? Do you find you have to write/arrange/perform "differently" with the increased sonic resources?
Jon: Well, I think it is definitely different than the way I have approached composing before. I think it will also open up the possibility for both of us to approach our instruments in a different way, because we won't need to fill in all of the harmonic and rhythmic cracks. In a way this really feels liberating to me as an instrumentalist. I see this album as having a lot more "grooves" and possibilities for improvisation too. Both of our previous albums were more "composed" (from a classical perspective)... more so on Montana Skies. We have been improvising a lot more in our live performances, so we are looking forward to presenting that on CD too. We're still working on it though and things are changing every day (during this creative stage) so we'll just keep working on it and see how it goes. We're also tentatively planning on a few vocals. I am not really sure at this point how these things will change our sound, the main thing for us is to follow the muse and make sure that the music comes from the heart.
Jamie: I think that's really the best way to make music. Of course there's always an element of risk involved in following your heart -- the music that you believe in may not find an audience. But clearly with all of the success Montana Skies is having, both on record and live, you've found a substantial audience!

And speaking of audiences, any tours in the works?
Jon: I think in the end, once you get past all the fancy graphics and marketing etc. etc. Music (and most art) itself is only about transmitting the truth, or perhaps just acknowledging some common human truth. In the end I think that's what resonates with people, in any genre, the truth of your heart. I have been listening to a lot of Michael Hedges lately and I think with great artists like him, the "truth", or the sincerity of human communication, is what gets through in his performances. Whether it was his singer/ songwriter material or his instrumental stuff, for me, the same thread of communication is there. I think most good art comes with a fair amount of risk. I wonder what Michael was thinking as he wrote "Aerial Boundaries". You know, that was radical stuff! There is no way he was thinking this is going to be a mega-hit. At the same time, Michael included a lot of "entertainment" in with "art" in his live shows. I had a chance to see him in concert and he really mixed it up in a masterful way. I am not comparing ourselves to someone as great as Michael Hedges, but I look to artists like him for inspiration.

I have also been listening to Ottmar Liebert lately, whose music I just recently discovered. I really like La Semana. Awesome stuff. In fact, the only reason I got turned on to Ottmar was because Jenn and I went to one of his live shows in Atlanta. It was by far the best sound, I have heard at a concert in a long time, and a great show.

For us, playing live is the main reason we are in music. We just make the CD's in order to get out and play! We have some gigs coming up in the fall. We even have a gig up in Brantford, Ontario which I believe is not too far from you. We are also working now with a concert promoter for two tours in 06-07, mostly in the Midwest. For your readers, our dates are always posted on our website at: http://montanaskiesmusic.com
"Music (and most art) itself is only about transmitting the truth, or perhaps just acknowledging some common human truth."

- Jon Adams
Jamie: That's great that you're coming up here -- love to see you guys live!

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation. Best of luck in the future and please stay in touch!
 
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