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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 Robert Smith of Blue Stone
June 2006
I've been listening to a lot of electronic music lately, which I suppose is somewhat odd for a guitar player, but it's where my ears are at right now. So I'm thankful I found Blue Stone, the new duo of Robert Smith (the driving force behind world renowned chillout artist Bella Sonus) and Bill Walters. This is a group that cites such varied musical influences as Pink Floyd, Jan Hammer, William Orbit, Delerium, BT and Afro Celt Sound System. All artists I love. While Blue Stone's debut album Breathe reflects their influences, and more generally the electronic, gothic, worldbeat and classical genres that they draw on, I hear something more. That "something" is, as Blue Stone describes, the "paradox of electro-organic bliss".

To my ears, the "electro-organic bliss" is a combination of synth textures, melodic piano, live percussion and the gorgeous vocals of classically trained Darcy. Breathe also features the vocals of Rick Heal, Leo Rodriguez, Sandy "Slicker" Hurley and Joe Hurteau as well as the executive production of Tom O'Keefe and the creative direction of Troy Kelley. Completing the Breathe "picture" is the outstanding mastering of Michael Sarsfield, the mysterious photography of Frantisek Staud and the eye catching layout/design of CLRH2O.

To learn more about Blue Stone, please visit Blue-Stone.cc, MySpace/bluestonebreathe or Neurodisc Records.

Robert Smith of Blue Stone
"...it's that blend of the electronic and organic worlds that grabs you by the collar and pulls you in." - Robert Smith
Jamie: Collaboration can be one the most satisfying and demanding aspects of music making -- sometimes just finding the "right" people to play with can be a gigantic hurdle! How did you guys meet and did you think Blue Stone would work as successfully as it does?
Robert: I have always found that working with other people makes for better creativity. And, like you said, finding the "right" people is challenging. But, it can be very rewarding.

Bill and I go back several years, into the garage band days. After a while, we grew tired of the band thing and went our own ways. Years later, we met up again and were both looking for a new project. I suggested electronic music, which is what I was doing at the time. And, with a grimace, he said, "What's that?" Coming from a Rock and Blues background, he'd never really paid attention to any of the electronic music that was out there. So, I made him listen to some electronic music and we tried writing together. I think that his un-electronic background really brings innocence to our sound, and that keeps us from sounding just like everyone else.

Our first writing effort was the song "Breathe". Since that seemed to go well, and we both liked the track, we kept going. Twenty songs later, we had more than enough for a CD.

About half way through creating all of those songs, we realized that we were on to something pretty good. But, since it was flowing so easily, we weren't really sure. So, we just kept going with writing and recording. As we progressed, a certain style started to develop, and we just went with it.

Since the CD was released a few months ago, we've been amazed at the success on iTunes and in the stores. Once we got our MySpace.com site set up, the comments and emails just started flying in. We weren't sure what to expect, but we've been happy with it so far.
"I have always found that working with other people makes for better creativity."

- Robert Smith
Jamie: I bet you have been happy -- you guys are doing great on MySpace! Thanks for adding me as one of your friends...

Do you and Bill have defined roles in Blue Stone? Does one of you, for instance, program/play most of the bass parts, while the other handles pad/textural elements or is your relationship less structured?
Robert: There is a lot of overlap in our roles when we're initially setting out on a new song. But, as the song develops and is further refined, our individual strengths start to really play out. For example, when we're writing together or apart, either of us might record the pads and set up the basic tracks. Then, as things progress, I might start adding piano lines and percussion while Bill is writing melodies and words.

That all sounds kind of structured, but sometimes we work independently of each other. Like "New Beginning" (the last track). I sat down at the piano, hit the record button, and played whatever was in my head that night. I sent it to Bill and he created the pads and effects underneath it. On "Break of Dawn" (track 3), he sent me the pianos and pads, and I did all the drumming and bass parts.

It all comes down to getting the music out of our heads and into your ears. It doesn't matter who does it or how it's done.
Jamie: Vocals are central to many of your songs. At times vocals are treated like an instrument and convey a sense of texture. At other times, like in "Only One" (one of my favourite songs on the record!), vocals are used not only texturally, but also in a more traditional, song-like manner. How early in the development and refining stage of a song do you decide to work with vocals?
Robert: We try to let the song develop by itself. Once the song seems strong enough to stand on its own, we think about how it would sound with vocals on it. Sometimes, the song is just screaming for vocals like it would be a natural fit. Or we may feel that the song sounds good without messing with it too much.

One of our biggest challenges is to know when to stop tweaking and working. If we keep beating the song to death, then we squash all of the creativity and rawness out of it, or we fill it up to the point that there's no room for a vocal. So we try to find that stopping point where the song is strong, but not overdone. That way we can try out a vocal on it, whether that's a verse/chorus type or as a supporting instrument.

The vocal parts are very important to our overall sound - it adds an organic element to the electronic nature of the music. It's the unpredictable ingredient that gives the music life, I think. When you have all of these electronic pads and noises, the one thing that links it back to the human aspect is the vocal. That's why we always try to incorporate the human voice in almost all of our songs.

It's not about showcasing the vocalist or showing off her acrobatics. Our rule of thumb for adding a vocal is that it needs to add support to the song and mood.
"It's the unpredictable ingredient that gives the music life..."

- Robert Smith
Jamie: Since we're talking about vocals... I think vocals on Breathe are uniformly excellent! What do you look for in a vocalist? And how did you end up working with the singers on Breathe?
Robert: Thanks for the compliment! We wanted the singer's voice to contribute to the overall mood of the music, so we needed something more than a good technical singer. There are a lot of good singers around, but we look for that special quality that transports us beyond the melody. Luckily, we've been fortunate to find a few singers that fit that description. In our experiences with working with the singers for Breathe, as well as our new music, we've found that the common thread between all of them is that their acting ability. I believe that their acting talents add that extra bit of character into their voice, making it more dramatic and theatrical. Without that element, I'm not sure that it would work as well.

As we were first developing our sound, we tried out a few different people in the more textural parts of the music. We still weren't sure how far we wanted to go vocally. Then we heard Darcy sing on stage. Unexpectedly, we realized what we wanted. We first tried her out on the song "Breathe", and it fit perfectly. Then we tried out a more structured verse/chorus approach and we were blown away. All of a sudden, we saw all these possibilities for the music open up to us. From there, we used her on the rest of the lead vocal tracks.

For the next CD, we want to continue with a similar mix of textural and lead vocal elements. Some songs will have verse/chorus, some not. Another twist that we're adding is that we're using a few different singers - sometimes on the same song. Our palette of vocal colors has broadened for the next CD. We're really very excited about it!
"There are a lot of good singers around, but we look for that special quality that transports us beyond the melody."

- Robert Smith
Jamie: Besides the vocal elements, for me a defining aspect to the Blue Stone "sound" is your combination of electronic and acoustic (or acoustic-like) sounds. "The River" is a good example of what I'm thinking about. You beautifully meld drum programming, synth bass, an ambient pad, acoustic piano, a melodic synth line and, what sounds like to my ears, a treated vocal texture, to create a cohesive whole. This is not an easy thing to do. So where did you start with "The River"? Did you begin with the piano part and build the arrangement from that? Did the electronic elements come first?
Robert: "The River" is one of those lucky songs that came together so quickly and with very little effort - which I think makes it a very honest work. We began with the drums, and then the bass line just kind of oozed out and drove the rest of the song. Once we found that groove, the pads and percussion were there just to support it. To give the song some other movement, we added the piano and synth melodies. We started with such a strong groove that the rest of it just fell into place.

Because our musical backgrounds are rooted in acoustic music, we tend to add a lot of those acoustic elements instinctively. Honestly, we always start out trying to make an electronic-sounding song. We may start out using all the cool sounding electronic noises and sounds, but at the end of the day, the music has to have that organic feel before we're happy with it. The song might groove and sound good without it, but it's that blend of the electronic and organic worlds that grabs you by the collar and pulls you in.
Jamie: Totally agree! I think part of why you're so successful in creating a blend of acoustic and electronic textures is your choice of sounds. I can kinda, sorta get a glimpse of your studio on the "gallery" page on the Blue Stone website. Looks like you and Bill use a fair bit of outboard gear, but maybe the keyboards are simply controllers for softsynths/ samplers... What's your (and Bill's) setup like? Any one piece of gear you couldn't do without?
Robert: Both of our studios have a reasonable amount of gear, but not too much. There's always room for more! We use a combination of soft/hard synths. The plugins are really easy and convenient to use, but the hardware synths sound better to me. I'm sure you've heard arguments over that before.

The only outboard stuff we use are sound modules and a couple of cheap compressors. All of the effects are from software plugins, which are used mostly on the vocal tracks during a mix. When we're tracking the vocal parts, we don't use any effects because it hides any "mistakes" or other things we want to avoid. If we can get the vocal part sounding good when it's dry, we know it will sound great when we mix.

The one piece of gear we couldn't do without is the computer. It's the hub for everything in the studio. It's used for every song from start to finish. There's always something new at the store that you just need to get, and there's a fine line between "need" and "want". A lot of the hardware equipment in my studio is older stuff that I don't use very much. But as long as the little lights work, I keep it plugged in. It looks cool.

After manually programming the basic drum beats, we use loops to glue it all together and support it. When it comes to the hand percussion, though, we avoid depending on loops. There are a ton of samples available out there for percussion parts, but it's really hard to get the primal vibe going with those. They're too perfect. That's why we chose to skip the convenience of samples and muddle our way through playing our own percussion parts. It's that flawed performance that gets your attention and says, "this feels real" which is what the primal vibe is all about. Hey, it works for reality TV! Now we have a cool little collection of world percussion instruments - it goes with the lights.
"It's that flawed performance that gets your attention and says, 'this feels real'..."

- Robert Smith
Jamie: Man, you have to show me that line between "need" and "want" someday... I keep thinking that I've finally completed my setup, that I'll never have to buy another piece of gear again and, of course, the very next day I have my eye on a new piece of equipment. The pattern never seems to stop and I'm not sure I'd ever want it to...

Breathe was released on Neurodisc Records and features the executive production of Neurodisc's Tom O'Keefe and the creative direction of Neurodisc's Troy Kelley. Could you talk about your working relationship with Tom and Troy and how they impacted the sound of Breathe? And secondly, what advantage do you see in releasing a record through a label versus independently?
Robert: Aside from the obvious role of the label in getting the music out there, the folks at Neurodisc are very hands-on and particular about the music they release. I've known Tom for years, and he's brutally honest with what he thinks about the music. I expect that from him. Neither one of us wants to put something out there that's mediocre.

While Bill and I were working on Blue Stone, we decided to hold off on showing anyone the songs until all the songs were completed. We were hoping to make an impact by delivering the finished product. When I finally went to play the CD for Neurodisc, they loved it. After listening to it for another week or so, Tom came back with some great suggestions to tweak the mixes. I think this kind of perfectionism really shows in the final product.

Once the mixes were solid and the mastering was underway, Troy and Tom worked with us extensively in developing the artwork and packaging concepts. There was a lot of effort and communication between all of us, and a lot of good ideas were emerging. The ultimate goal was to have the artwork and the music be a perfect match. I think we did that.

Releasing a record independently seems like it would be a lot of work, requiring a lot of relationships and connections that we don't have. Neurodisc has the resources to do it right, and that lets us concentrate on the music. I know there are a lot of artists that want to handle it all themselves so they won't have to give up anything, and some of them are good at it. But, I know my weaknesses and my strengths, and what interests me is the music.

Working with Neurodisc has been more than just submitting a final CD and filling out paperwork. They really work with us to complete the big picture. Integrity of the music is extremely important to them as well, and I'm sure that we'll have to work even harder to impress them again on the next record.
"...I know my weaknesses and my strengths, and what interests me is the music."

- Robert Smith
Jamie: Well, they're worth impressing. They're a strong label with a fantastic artist roster -- you're in some good company!

You mentioned earlier that you were going to be adding some more vocal colours to your next album. Any other new directions that you want to pursue? How about live gigs?
Robert: With this type of music, you have so much freedom with the vocals. They can be as complex or as simple as you want. It really makes for a creative medium. On Breathe, we borrowed a lot of influences from opera and classical stylings, and we'll continue to keep that theatrical feel.

But, we also have a lot of new ideas that we're trying for the next CD. The same elements will be there, of course, but we're going to present them a little differently. This time around, we're using several different singers and finding that the infusion of new and varied voices really keeps the creativity flowing. Because each singer has their own strengths, it really keeps us out of the rut of writing a certain way.

Other things we're trying are different layering techniques with the vocals. For instance, I grew up listening to Yes, and their vocal layering is what always fascinated me. Stuff like that is what we're experimenting with right now. And, we're working with some tremendously talented vocalists that are open to doing this.

As for new directions? We're always writing and recording and experimenting - which means that we're coming up with a bunch of stuff that we're not sure what to do with. As we're working with these other vocalists, the songs occasionally deviate from the Blue Stone sound, so we're just putting those aside for now. But you never know ...

We've kicked around the idea of performing live. And, since so much of our sound is the integration of electronic and organic sounds, we'd have to be true to that primal feel. To do it right, we would need to incorporate a small army of people, including a drum circle, etc. So for right now, playing live is in the distance - but we do think about it from time to time.
Jamie: Well, I sure hope you do put together a live show -- I think it would sound great!

There seems to be so many new ways to reach listeners today. Podcasts, Internet and satellite radio and sites like MySpace have greatly increased the number of opportunities for an artist to connect with his or her audience. Listeners, and particularly new listeners, however, can find all of these new outlets overwhelming. There's just so much music for them to search through -- at times, literally a needle in a haystack. How can we as artists make it easier for the listener to find our music?
Robert We've been learning how important it is to reach out to the public, rather than waiting for them to find you. We set up a traditional website (www.blue-ston.cc), and we get some visitors there. But, the biggest success for us has been our MySpace site. I think any new artist needs to delve deep into all of these tools to get the word out. The more opportunity you provide, the bigger the chance that listeners will find you.

I still don't understand it all, but here's an example. Neurodisc pre-released Breathe on iTunes about three months before the release date. We didn't have any banners or ads on iTunes, and we were a brand new artist starting from zero. Somehow, we started charting on the iTunes electronic charts and kept climbing. I can only guess that people were stumbling on it by themselves and liking it.

It just amazes me how many opportunities are provided through the Internet. It's not just great for marketing purposes but for getting feedback as well. Bill has been maintaining our MySpace site, and he's immersed himself into that world. He sends out messages and replies just about every night, getting all kinds of great comments on the music and our sound. Some people want us to use more vocals. Others want us to have more instrumentals. It really gives you the chance to communicate with the listeners. Sites like MySpace let you do the electronic equivalent of grabbing random people on the street and saying "Hi, nice to meet you. Please listen to my stuff."
"We've been learning how important it is to reach out to the public, rather than waiting for them to find you."

- Robert Smith
Jamie: It sure looks like you have quite a few people who are happy to have met you and to have listened to your music! One last question... Anything else you'd like people to know about Blue Stone?
Robert: We love to hear from our listeners, so visit our Myspace site and drop us a line!
 
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