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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 Justin Elswick of Sleepthief, Oct. 2006
A Conversation with Ryan Farish, Sep. 2006
A Conversation With Chris Field, Jul. 2006
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Michael Dulin
December 2005
When you listen to one of Michael Dulin's records, you can't help but think, “What can't this guy do?” He's a classically trained pianist, who completed his studies at Julliard, and he has performed as a sideman in The Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards' touring band. How many artists can claim to have this much range? But it doesn't stop there. Michael is also a studio owner, a session musician, a producer/arranger, and a composer of award-winning music for radio, television, film, and theater. A few of Michael's commercial credits include music for General Motors, NASA, Jack Daniels, 3-M Corporation and Blue Cross-Blue Shield.

Christmas At Our House is Michael's seventh release and features his outstanding arrangements and performances of Christmas classics. If you're searching for an album that truly captures the Christmas spirit, look no further than Christmas At Our House.

Please visit MichaelDulin.com to learn more about Michael and his music.

Michael Dulin
"If I had to choose between heart and technique, give me heart every time..." - Michael Dulin
Jamie: I have to say, when you sent me your new Christmas album, Christmas At Our House, my first reaction was: "I'm not ready for Christmas -- I'm still enjoying the summer!" But your arrangements and performances are so impressive that I found myself absolutely enjoying the music. What was equally impressive to me was that on Christmas At Our House, your voice comes through so strongly. Is it a challenge for you to retain your own identity when working with such well-known, traditional material?
Michael: You know, I really did try to record these songs in such a way that they would sound as convincing as if I had written them myself. I definitely wanted to record these well-known Christmas songs in a way that hadn’t been done before. And that IS hard, because we have all heard “Joy to the World” a million times.

I know that “everybody needs to do a Christmas album”, but if it’s not
unique and original, why bother? I feel like one of my original songs is ready to go on the CD when it holds my interest from beginning to end, and I looked at these Christmas songs the same way. So maybe that’s my voice – just what I find interesting!

What about you? Does playing a song that someone else wrote instinctively give you the same level of emotional connection that you get from your own music, or do you have to work to make it totally “yours”?
"I feel like one of my original songs is ready to go on the CD when it holds my interest from beginning to end, and I looked at these Christmas songs the same way."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: I definitely have to work to make it my own. I covered "Nights On Broadway" by the Bee Gees on my last record and it was challenge for me -- took a long time to get something that I was happy with. The Bee Gees have such a powerful, distinct sound that I had to be careful not to be artistically overwhelmed. My arrangement is different than what the Bee Gees did and that was completely intended -- I didn't want to mime their record. I respect them too much too do that...

But that said, I also didn't want to do something that was different just to different. I felt one element in particular, the original bassline was a strong anchor for the tune and wanted to keep it in my version. I guess in the end what I did with tune arrangement wise, and how Ron Scott sang it, is darker than the original, and maybe more introspective, but I'm happy with the way it turned out!

Your performances on all of your records are, to me, technically flawless -- I've heard very few piano players (and even fewer composer/pianists) with your fluency. Do you find having such top notch technique a help or a hindrance in your composing and arranging?
Michael: It's definitely an asset to have the physical technique to be able to get around the keyboard well. But I do have one gripe about it - I all too often write music that I have to PRACTICE!!

Seriously, though, I think I know by now the pitfalls that go with having a good technique, and I try to keep myself aware of them. It would be easy to fall into the trap of recording music that is all flash and no substance, but I was taught early on that whatever physical gifts you might have are really useless if they're not put in service of the emotional message of the music.

Another experience that we share is that of producer, and that has kept me aware of the big picture. You don't have to fill every hole in a song just because you can. If anything is getting in the way of the melody, no matter how much I might like it, it has to go! I'll bet there are plenty of licks that you LOVED that you decided not to keep because they just got in the way of something more important...

What the technique does give me, just like having a good recording setup, is more options. Lots of pianists and guitarists can play fast, loud and clean, and leave you feeling totally empty, and there's lots of music coming out of top notch studios with 1st rate production value, but no musical value. Technique and gear are just tools. If not used with good taste in service of the music itself, you might as well not have them.

If I had to choose between heart and technique, give me heart every time..
"...I was taught early on that whatever physical gifts you might have are really useless if they're not put in service of the emotional message of the music."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: Completely agree! For me, it's a tough balancing act -- seeing both the big picture and the small detail. I guess the challenge is knowing, or feeling, where the balance between technique and heart is -- it seems to be a moving target...

Since we're talking about heart and technique... You've obviously had some phenomenal training studying at Julliard. How do you feel your time at Julliard impacts the music you're making now?
Michael: Most of the teachers at Juilliard are not only great teachers, they are great artists! They instilled in me a real appreciation of how precious, how really important music is, that it is very basic and fundamental to life itself. My wonderful teacher, Adele Marcus, could trace her lineage directly back to Beethoven. So I heard words of wisdom from her that Beethoven himself had probably passed on to Czerny, who taught Leschetizky, who taught Schnabel, who taught Marcus, who taught me!

Another opportunity that Juilliard afforded me was the chance to hear great artists who played Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. I heard famous musicians come through New York and play beyond perfection, and I also heard great artists having a really bad night! The memory of those perfect performances always gives me something to shoot for, but the remembrance of the bad performances helps me to remember that I'm human, too. The philosophy that remains with me: Music is worth everything you put into it and more, and it deserves the very best you have to give. Make music the center of your life, and never give up!

Sound familiar? Guess that means that going to Juilliard is kinda like being in a band!
"My wonderful teacher, Adele Marcus, could trace her lineage directly back to Beethoven."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: Last year you had the opportunity to play for six months with The Temptations Review. I'm a big fan of Motown music so I have to ask: What was that experience like? Can we expect to hear any Motown influences in your future work?
Michael: The Temptations Review experience was tremendous! I love Motown. You may not know that there is a very strong Birmingham (Alabama - my town) connection with the Temptations. The late, great Eddie Kendrick was from Birmingham. My fiancé, Jan, teaches at a school where Eddie's sister is the assistant principal.

Many of the Review bandmembers are from Birmingham - C.C. Jones, the music director; Rick Archer, wonderful guitarist; Big John Taylor, who is the trumpet player and leader of the horn section; and the late Robert "Bucci" Maye, who was the bandleader and bass player until his death this past March at the age of 41. Bucci was like a brother to me, and I miss him very much. He had been hired by Eddie Kendrick when he was only 18 years old.

It was an honor to play with the BAND, not to mention the singers (and DANCERS, too, of course - this IS Motown, after all...wouldn't be NUTHIN' without the moves! ) The great Dennis Edwards is the star, of course - the last surviving lead singer of the Temptations. He took over as the lead when David Ruffin left the group. Dennis sang on a lot of big hits, but my personal favorite is "Papa was a Rolling Stone". Funny thing about that - the lyric mentions the 3rd of September as "the day my Daddy died". The writer didn't know that Dennis' father had actually died on September 3rd. And so did my father!

Dennis is a wonder! A legend and still a legitimate star, he is always trying to make the show better, always giving helpful suggestions to everyone, always giving 100 percent at every show, no matter what. He still has that great voice, still has that presence on stage. And he's no slouch as a piano player!

The thrill of being a small footnote to Motown history will always be with me. But more than that, I hope I can be HALF the professional that Dennis Edwards is when I have been in the business as long as he has!

After a little over 6 months on the road with the Temps, 3-4 days a week, it just became too much for me to handle. With the record company and the studio, I had to give up something. I was sorry to give up the Temps, but my own creative work and the studio responsibilities made it a definite choice, if not any easy one. I still stay in touch with the guys, though, and I count them all as my good friends.
"The thrill of being a small footnote to Motown history will always be with me."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: I can only imagine how tough a decision it must have been to leave the Temptations, but there really is only so much time in a day.

The studio you mentioned in your last response is PSI - Digital Recording. You are, as the PSI website says, "in charge of all creative projects" for the studio. What's an "average" day at PSI like for you?
Michael: Controlled chaos is the only way to describe it. As you know, Jamie, in the life of a musician there is no such thing as "average". I think that's one reason why most people would kill to do what we do! Everyone else does the same thing day after day, but for us, every day is different! I wake up every morning so thankful that I am a musician.

I usually wake up at 5 AM (though I am definitely NOT a morning person.), work at the piano 2-3 hours, then work out or walk for an hour.

Then I head for the studio, where a normal day involves overseeing and managing the various projects we're working on. PSI has two studios and an additional editing/mastering suite, where there are projects in various stages of completion.

Right now we have several projects in the works: Courtney is doing the final mixes on an album project for a band in Atlanta, Dan is hard at work on recording and editing voiceover projects, and I am producing a piano album, plus writing charts for overdubs on another album project that I'm producing. We have several other projects at various stages - preproduction, short-run duplication, scheduling, etc.

My job is to make sure that all of these projects are completed on schedule, and that the clients are absolutely satisfied. We have a service attitude at PSI - our goal is to make the client feel like one of the family. And we really do give our very best on every project that comes to us, no matter what.

I always spend at least a couple of hours a day in actual production - some days I'm in the studio recording piano with Courtney engineering; other days I'm editing, mixing or mastering, or recording my voice for telephone banking (that's right, you never know when you'll hear my voice saying."For your account balance, press 1.") We are blessed to have a good mix of clients - corporate, advertising, music, churches and schools. God has really blessed us!

In addition to the studio, I also take care of Equity Digital company business from my office at the studio - and you know how much time that takes! Distribution, licensing, emailing DJs, publicity, marketing, etc. - there is always more of that than I can handle, so I just try to push everything along a little bit every day.

When I can get out of the studio at a reasonable hour, I spend time at home in the evening writing new music and working on transcriptions for other artists. Transcription has turned into another business in itself. I started learning Sibelius notation software while on tour with the Temps - I carried my laptop with me and used it on planes and in airports.

I started by transcribing my own music, then offered the service to other artists, and now I have more clients than I can handle! By the way, Jamie, Sibelius can handle GUITAR, too, so whenever you're ready, let me know! =)

Of course, just when I have everything running really smoothly, I have to leave town for a few days for a performance. Then I am squeezed for a few days, catching up on what has happened while I was gone! But it's well worth it - playing live is one of my favorite things on this earth. There is nothing like playing on stage for an audience, getting caught up in the moment, and being totally unaware of where you are, knowing only the music and the instrument. Those are the best moments in life.

So that's what I do, and I love what I do! I love sitting at home playing the piano, both my own music and the classics. I love working with people. Producing other artists is lots of fun, and I especially enjoy working with a rhythm section in the studio - piano, guitar, bass and drums. I think all these things make me a better musician, and a better person.

How about you? What's an average day like for you, Jamie? I'd really like to know, and I bet everyone else would, too.
"I wake up every morning so thankful that I am a musician."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: I guess my days are pretty much similar to your "average" days – all over the map! Varying amounts of playing, writing, different gigs (lately I've been putting on a number of seminars for Apple) and of course business fill up my days. For me, it can be incredibly easy to let business take over and push music to the side. If you're an independent, it's a non-stop sprint to stay on top of your business.

On a pure music level, I play every day and I try to push myself out of my comfort zone. Lately, I've gone back to practicing classical guitar a fair bit and I'm working through the Prelude from Bach's Lute Suite IV. Lots of fun and Bach definitely pushes me out of my comfort zone!

Your comment about "waking up every morning so thankful that I am a musician" is exactly my feeling too -- we truly are very lucky.

Just to change direction for a bit... The engineering on your albums is just beautiful. Have all of your records been recorded at PSI? Can you offer any tips for recording acoustic piano?
Michael First, find a good piano!

Jamie, have you ever been in a guitar shop, just playing different instruments for fun, when you come upon this instrument that you MUST have?! That's what happened to me when I found the Steinway 7-foot grand that we have at the studio. I wasn't even in the market for a new piano at the time, but when I sat down at that piano, the sound and the touch said "Take me, I'm yours!"

That Steinway has been a joy to play, and a great investment, too. It's brought a lot of business to the studio! This summer we had a pianist from Germany here to record, and recently we recorded Philip Wesley's new Christmas CD, Comfort and Joy.

We record the piano with a matched pair of B&K (now DPA) 4006s, through a Millennia preamp and straight to disc at 96K. We found a diagram of the mic set-up used by Artur Rubenstein's producer for RCA, and have modified that for our use. We cut the piano flat, with no EQ; we don't even use the console in the recording stage.

After the performance is recorded and edited, we do process the sound quite a bit. But it all starts with the fundamentals - just get a good sound!

I'm sure that you and I are a lot alike in out approach - always ready to take advantage of something new that will help us in the studio, but hanging on to the tried and true things that work. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Jamie: So true! Knowing when to stop tweaking is such a challenge for me. In the past, I'd always think there was something better right around the corner -- the "perfect" chord, the "ultimate" guitar tone or a new plugin -- that would absolutely change my music for the better. I'm starting to realize there are no "perfects" or "ultimates" in music, but I haven't yet given up on new plugins! : )

I've asked quite a few people about their views on the current state of the music industry. You have a unique perspective in that you're not only an artist and label owner, but have been a sideman and also do commercial production. Where do you feel the industry is headed in general and what specific areas of the business do you feel have growth potential?
Michael: I think the most important development is our business, in our world, in fact, is that we are finally discovering that less is more. Major labels, big recording studios, arena concerts, are all going to be displaced, because they have proved to be restricting and unsatisfying.

The greatest change I see is that now, more than ever, artists and fans are being given more choices. The major labels no longer have a lock on the world. The Internet has made it possible for artists to find an audience, and music lovers can find the music they like.

Artists are getting together via the Internet, and they are forming communities, sharing information, supporting each other. A new day is coming for the indie musician. There are more performance avenues, more revenue streams, more licensing opportunities, more distributors, more fans. I am amazed by it every day, when I get an email from a 16-year old fan in Brazil who loves my music, when someone on Malta buys some sheet music from my website, when a radio station in Israel wants to play my music. It is incredible!

The advent of house concerts is another exciting development. The experience of sharing music up close and in depth with a small audience that really listens is a tremendous experience for everyone involved. The cost of great recording gear continues to come down, and a 1st rate recording is now within the budget of most musicians.

I see a lot of opportunities to make music, get to know other artists (just like we're doing right now), and build a new global audience. I see a future where the control of the industry is taken away from the lawyers and accountants, and put back in the hands of the artists and listeners. That can only be great news for everybody.

What's your take on the future of the music business?
"Major labels, big recording studios, arena concerts, are all going to be displaced, because they have proved to be restricting and unsatisfying."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: Very much the same as yours... I see the business becoming even more defined than ever before. The indie/major label divide seems to be becoming greater every day. Very few indie artists can do lifestyle/personality marketing the way an artist like Jennifer Lopez can. I mean is anybody ever going to buy the new line of Jamie Bonk perfume? : ) Indie and major label artists have a very different business reality.

You're absolutely right about technology enabling artists to create top-notch recording for relatively little money. The sound quality of indie projects has gone up tremendously in the last ten years, and I've certainly benefited from all of the advancements in studio gear. But what I find equally, or even more, empowering is the ability to collaborate with artists via the Internet. There really is so much potential, so many possibilities...

You brought up a great point about how the Internet has made a great change in how artists and listeners connect. What are your thoughts about technologies like podcasting and P2P networks?
Michael: I just got a new iPod Nano, and I love it. I think everyone will be podcasting both audio and video in the very near future. I can see great opportunities for artists to market themselves, like offering special podcasts of live shows to your special fans, or even selling tickets to those who can't make it to the show. Hooking up an iPod to the plasma screen can't be too far away. I know there are lots of applications that I haven't even begun to think about. What do you see coming up with podcasting?

With regard to P2P, I'm not sure what's gonna happen with that. The big labels still have a lot to protect, and they still have a lot of legal muscle. I lean toward the Phish approach - i.e., I don't think you can be hurt by having fans who like your music enough to share it! What's your feeling about this? I get the feeling that you have given these two things a lot of thought.

Both of these technologies hold immense positive AND negative possibilities. And there are still a lot of legal issues yet to be encountered and solved.

I do have one serious concern about all this connectivity. You've seen the Cingular Wireless ad, "Silence is weird", haven't you? We all need to make sure that we take time for silence, that we INSIST on it sometimes. Music is becoming like OXYGEN - you hear it at the mall, in the elevator, in the doctor's office, you can't go to the bathroom without hearing music! Believe it or not, there is a Disklavier in the lobby of my mom's hospital, constantly playing music. When you hear music everywhere, all the time, you cease to hear it as music, and it becomes like the air you breathe. You take it for granted. You don't realize what a miracle it is. When that happens, you have lost a very important part of yourself...

One of the most profound statements about music I've ever heard is that, for music to be MUSIC, it has to emerge from silence and recede into silence.

Imagine going to a museum and seeing every kind of painting in a room, every painting touching the one next to it. Every inch of the walls are covered with paintings, Van Gogh next to Dali next to Edward Hopper next to Jackson Pollack next to Roy Lichtenstein next to Miro next to Monet. AND THERE ARE NO FRAMES. It would be absolutely MADDENING, wouldn't it?

I think we all need to remember that, in music, silence is the frame.
"We all need to make sure that we take time for silence, that we INSIST on it sometimes."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: Your point about continuous music becoming like the air we breathe hits home for me. There really are only so many hours a day that I can listen to music (or sound) with an active mind/ear. Right now I can hear the bass drum from a dance tune playing somewhere in my building, tons of traffic noise, the high pitch whirl of my computer, construction and lots more. For the most part, I shut (or try to shut) all of those sounds off in my head in order to work, but I'm sure they affect my music and my life.

So what do I think of podcasting and P2P networks? I think I like them! That said, I still like getting paid for my music too, so I hope the artist doesn't get lost in this move toward digital distribution. For me, ultimately, with podcasting and P2P networks it comes down to intent. If the intent is, as with the Phish fan example you gave, to share music to help the band create new fans, then I'm definitely all for it. Of course there's a darker side to many of the newer technologies, but overall I am, as the old saying goes, cautiously optimistic.

So what's next for you? Any long-term goals for your music?
Michael: My primary focus will always be to improve as a player and as a writer. But in the "professional" world, I'm in a building phase, for sure. Build the business, build the CD catalog, build an audience for my music. I really don't care about being famous or rich, but I do want to have more time for creative work. And I think you have to reach a certain level of success to make that happen.

Right now, though, and precisely because of the opportunities that we've been talking about, life keeps getting more complex, when all I really want to do is simplify - just sit at the piano, play and write.

Music really IS an adventure - how do you know that you won't hear a new harmony tomorrow that will change the whole direction of your music?! The whole long-range plan centers around getting to a place where I have more time for creative work.

One thing that I definitely plan to do is find a way for the two of us to work together on a project! Now THAT would be big fun!

How about you? Where are you in the long-range planning department?
"Music really IS an adventure."

- Michael Dulin
Jamie: To keep doing what I'm doing and retain the same level of enthusiasm for music that I have now. That's tough to do though. I've seen lots of older musicians lose their belief in the beauty of music and ultimately lose their sense of play. I'm trying my best not to go down the seen-it-all, done-it-all route...

Michael, this has been a fantastic artist-to-artist conversation! I really feel like I've gotten to know you. Best of luck with Christmas At Our House and please stay in touch!
 
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