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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 Stephen Hill, Jul. 2005
A Conversation with Jeff Bjorck, Jun. 2005
A Conversation With Patrick O'Hearn, Jun. 2005
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Gypsy Soul
June 2007
Some artists have momentum -- an undeniable forward motion, pushing them to something greater. For Gypsy Soul, the duo of vocalist Cilette Swann and multi-instrumentalist/producer Roman Morykit, I see their momentum leading to an exceedingly bright future. Not that their past has been all that shabby. Here's a group that has produced eight CD's (their most recent being Beneath The Covers: A Rediscovery) which have sold more 100,000 copies independently. They've had over 1.5 million downloads on MP3.com garnering ten #1 songs. Their music has been on hit TV shows such as: Providence, Felicity, Roswell, The Young & The Restless, MTV Specials and Movies of the Week. The films Quick Sand (with Michael Kane) and After Sex (with Brooke Shields) both featured Gypsy Soul music. Cilette and Roman also wrote the theme song for Japan's Wow-Wow TV show. And they've opened for Grammy Winners, Larry Klein and Tony Childs and CMA Winner Beth Neilsen-Chapman.

But what's equally impressive to me is the fact this duo has no problem rolling up their sleeves. Check out Cilette's quote from their bio: "For years in the western states, we'd book ourselves at Art and Wines Festivals, set up our booth with a P.A. and just play for 8-10 hours. We made listening stations so people could hear the CD's and everyone just loved that we were out there promoting ourselves." I think the next time a new artist asks me how to get the ball rolling, I'm going to tell them to take a look at Gypsy Soul. They do it right.

The title of Gypsy Soul's latest release, Beneath The Covers: A Rediscovery, pretty much says exactly what this record is about. If you're like me and you're into songs by artists like U2, The Beatles and Daniel Lanois, you'll love BTC:AR. Their cover of "Nights In White Satin" is a real standout - Gypsy Soul truly put their own mark on this Moody Blues classic. But BTC:AR isn't solely about other artist's songs; it's also about Gypsy Soul's own music. In fact, three of the album's ten songs are original tracks that were rediscovered during the recording of the project. It's a testament to the quality of Cilette and Roman's writing that the tracks blend so seamlessly with the covers.

To learn more about Cilette, Roman and Gypsy Soul, please visit GypsySoul.com

Roman Morykit & Cilette Swann (Gypsy Soul)
"We are grateful everyday for our small successes..." - Cilette Swann (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: Your most recent album, Beneath The Covers: A Rediscovery, is a collection of covers songs. Why did you choose to do a cover record? And secondly, what drew you to these particular songs?
Cilette: When we were in the planning stages of our latest CD, we wanted to do something completely different and fresh. As writers, our CDs are usually 95% our own material with the occasional cover. Nearing our 10th year as Gypsy Soul and starting on our 8th CD, we thought it would be rewarding to pay homage to some of the writers and artists who've inspired us along the way.

Initially, it was tough to narrow down the choices until we devised some criteria. We could have easily made Beneath the Covers Vol. 20 as there are so many incredible songs out there. Even a number of our fans sent in amazing and surprising suggestions. However, we decided that in order for this CD to really work, both Roman and I had to have a deep, emotional connection to the songs and/or artists we were choosing. We grew up on different continents with diverse musical influences, but somehow our tastes are strangely similar. Like Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois, U2, Sam Cooke, Eva Cassidy, Led Zeppelin, Cold Play, Emmy Lou Harris, Radio Head, Richard Ashcroft (The Verve) to name a few... we both love these artists.

I was heavily influenced by Celtic and African music as kid of S. African/ Irish background, but I also loved more American styles like Gospel, Blues and Acoustic Singer/Songwriters growing up. Roman was raised in the UK and although drawn to the quirkier British groups/artists including David Bowie, he also had a great affinity for Americana, Blues and Funk. There has always been a common thread in our musical influences and tastes even though we were raised thousands of miles apart. We truly are Gypsy Soul Mates! Our love of music, culture and travel is what bonds us.

We also thought it would be very entertaining to record only male vocally orientated songs. Although we did record Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" (okay, she has a boy's name, so that was close) it did not make the cut for the North American release (we'll save it for iTunes or the like). So in the end, all the cover songs on the CD were originally sung by men. I especially loved the challenge of communicating the emotion and soul of these songs from a female (vocal) perspective.

While reworking all of these artist's songs, we started to think about our own songs in a different way. While touring we starting playing around with the arrangements of our older songs and ended up re-recording Lovin Me that made the CD. We were also encouraged to add a couple of our brand new songs, "Silver Lining" and "One Thing".... both about rediscovering one's self and one's spirit.
"..we thought it would be rewarding to pay homage to some of the writers and artists who've inspired us along the way."

- Cilette Swann (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: I can definitely hear a "deep, emotional connection" to the tunes you chose for Beneath The Covers: A Rediscovery. What I can also hear is your own unique take on the those songs. Was it a challenge for you to retain your own identity working with such strong material?
Cilette: Roman's approach when re-arranging a cover is quite interesting. He will only listen to the original once or sometimes not at all and just go from memory. It is pretty amazing really. You can play something to him once and he's pretty much got it down. We never want to be too influenced by the original. We want to tap into the essence of the song but create our own vibe and own interpretation. Sometimes, Roman will hint at a familiar lick or theme, but he always takes that arrangement/production to a different place. It is a fine balance for us trying to respect the original song's integrity, yet wanting to communicate our own emotions about the song.

I will usually see where Roman has taken the song and go from there as far as my vocal melodies. When I approach a cover, I will try to retain familiarity for the audiences who love the melody, but float, twist and bend the lines in a way I feel I can best express the writerís sentiments. You still want people to be able to sing along, but half the fun of covering a well-known song is adding some of your spice and personality to the mix. After all, isn't the creative life all about individuality and expression? Often times we might even add a new intro or a little section that didn't exist in the original, as on "Blackbird" and "Don't Give Up".

The material we chose was most certainly strong, even epic. Initially, we were a little apprehensive that people might not understand this CD. But for us the purpose was to pay homage to artists/writers/songs that have become a part of us and from them, we've grown as artists. We just wanted to share that admiration with our audience. We've absolutely been thrilled with the reactions so far. Hopefully, BTC:AR will be embraced by an international audience who appreciate what we've done.
"You still want people to be able to sing along, but half the fun of covering a well-known song is adding some of your spice and personality to the mix."

- Cilette Swann (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: In listening to both Beneath The Covers: A Rediscovery and your previous album, Superstition Highway, I find the way you approach your vocal lines and manner in which Roman produces are perfectly matched and clear. To my ears, you never step on each other's musical toes! Is this ability to blend something that comes easily to you two?
Roman: Thank you for the compliment!

Actually, it has always been something that we have done which was one of the reasons that we started working together. My approach to production has always been to showcase the vocal lines and voice and I always try to arrange the instruments to achieve that. When you have a voice as strong as Cilette's, you want it to be up in the mix so people can hear it. But by the same token, to also add interesting textures with the instruments to create the landscape upon which Cilette's voice is the feature. When we are first working on a song, we play them out live as much as possible to get the blend just right, even though one tends to play more in a live environment. When we get to the studio, you always have to simplify the parts but the feel is now established and I go about reinforcing that with the choice of arrangement and instruments.
Jamie: And I was just going to ask you about the connection between your records and your live show! One of the things that strikes me when listening to your albums is how well I feel the arrangements would work in a live setting. From looking at your extensive performance schedule, clearly live music is important to Gypsy Soul as a band and, as you say, helps to define the production of your records. Do you feel the inverse is also true? Does your recorded music change the way you approach your live show?
Roman: Our live performances are the most integral part of what is Gypsy Soul. We LOVE to play live and it really is where you can hear the essence of who we are as performers. The challenge in the studio is to capture that energy onto record. For the most part, all the performances that you hear on the record, are one take. Even though I'm working in a medium where one can piece together a performance from multiple takes as is the case with Pro Tools, I rarely do so with Gypsy Soul. Cilette is so good that she can nail the performance in the first or second take. She usually sings the song three to four times and the first or second take is usually the best. I may drop in a couple of lines if I like the way she sung something on another track but for the most part I try to stick to one performance as you can feel the difference in one performance over a track with multiple takes.

For instance, the vocal on "Wicked Game" was the guide vocal, but it was so good that when we came to redo it with the "final version" there was something so special about that take that we just left it alone. The same thing happened with "Superstition". When I am recording my parts, I do the same thing. It's always just easier for me to just play the part in one until it feels right, rather than piece the parts together. I guess I'm old school that way. I'm so used to having to get it right as it was harder to punch in when you were using tape.

As for the recorded music changing our live performances; I would have to say that it probably doesn't. We often re-arrange the songs live differently from the recorded versions. There is still enough of the record there, but we definitely play with the arrangements more.
"We LOVE to play live and it really is where you can hear the essence of who we are as performers."

- Roman Morykit (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: You use a wide range of guitar textures in your arrangements. Everything from acoustics to electrics, slide guitar to what I think is an E-Bow on "Who?". So for the interest of all the guitar geeks out there (myself included!) could you talk a bit about your guitars and how you record them?
Roman: Probably the easiest way to answer this is to run through the guitars that I use. For the acoustic, I have my very favorite guitar which is a Santa Cruz OMPWM. It's design is that of a pre war concert Martin and it's hand made using all antique woods. You really hear it's tone showcased on tracks like "I Still Haven't Found", "Loving Me" and "Superstition". The other acoustic I use is a dreadnought Tacoma. It wasn't a particularly expensive guitar but just has the hugest sound that I have ever heard on an acoustic; lots of bottom end but a really nice clarity too. You can hear it's tone on "Country Roads" and "Still Water". As for the resonator, I have a vintage Dobro which has a nickel plated brass body. I always blend the sound from the DI and Mic with the acoustics and Dobro and use very little eq, only cutting a little of the bottom end and adding some sparkle at 15k. I try and get the sound as close as possible with the mic placement and blending both the DI and mic signals. I always use a high pass filter on the mic at either 80 or 75 hz.

As for the electrics, it will probably amuse you to know that I use an old POD as the "amp"! The thing that I have found that really makes the POD work well is to use a pre-amp before it. I have a cheap DOD pre-amp pedal but it has this great tone knob as well as the level control that adds an incredible depth to the tone. I also really mix and match the amps and cabs in the POD and by the time you have the guitar in the mix, you can't tell that it wasn't recorded using an real amp. Now, if I was recording some really heavy guitar rock, I would definitely use amps as that's a different thing. But for Gypsy Soul it's more about the textures and parts rather than that wall of sound. So it works well. I also do have a VOX AC15 and Fender Pro Junior as well when I need to mic an amp.

My main axes are a 70's Tele Deluxe and a reissue Danelectro with lipstick pickups. I also use an old 80's Japanese Strat with Texas Specials on it for a lot of the glassy parts. And yes, that was an E-Bow on "Who". Love that thing for those high soaring notes! And I also have a 12 string Danelectro that I sometimes use for melody parts. As for the bass, that's a custom made US Masters Guitar Works Fretless that they made for me with some unusual eq settings that are specific to my style as I incorporate a lot of harmonics in the bass lines.

I have the weirdest collection of mic pre's, none of which cost more than $1500.00. I mostly use an old TL Audio where I switched out the tubes with Bell E85's ( I think!?) and a ProVLA tube compressor which I usually use for the Mic. As for mic's: it depends. I usually use large diaphram mic like a Sure KSM27 or a Studio Projects U87. I have a Joe Meek VC1Q channel strip which I often use for the acoustic DI. Love the compressor on that! A couple of Studio Project $200 mic-pre's, a Eureka (mostly for the bass) and a DBX 160 compressor. It all depends on the sound that I'm looking for.

It's so easy to get caught up in the equipment and wanting to buy and upgrade to the most current "new thing", and I have been guilty of that in the past. It's a cliche, but I've found that if the songs and/or parts aren't there or the performances suck, it doesn't make any difference how expensive the equipment is that you record it on; it'll will only ever sound like expensive crap. Of course, there's definitely an expectation these days for the overall quality of the recording being good, but even that can be achieved by using ProTools Digi 002 (which is what I use) instead of ProTools HD. All that being said, it still always comes down to the songs and the performances. Always.
"...it still always comes down to the songs and the performances. Always."

- Roman Morykit (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: Couldn't agree more... I have to be honest, I'm surprised by your gear list. I thought for sure you were recording on some seriously high end equipment -- your records sound completely top-notch. I guess the old saying about it not being about what you have but how you use it applies here. And by the way, I love the POD, so I'm going to have to try your suggestion of using a preamp before it.

I'd like to ask you about your writing/composing process. Do you have a set way or manner of writing (i.e. music first/lyrics first)? Do you, for instance, set aside a specific time for composing?
Roman: The songs usually start with the music first and then the lyrics. We are also both writing all the time and have a catalogue of ideas that we're adding to. For me, it usually starts when I'm just sitting down to play the guitar or bass. Sometimes I'm inspired and a bunch of ideas and themes come to me which I then will develop into some kind of "structure" and if I like that, I will play it for Cilette. If she's inspired by it, an idea for a lyrical theme may come to her, or she may go into her "idea box" and pull out a lyric that she's started that may work with the musical feel. We've written a lot of songs that way. More often these days, I'll be playing the guitar and Cilette will come over to me because something catches her ear, and we'll work on an idea together, and that's the best. For example, we wrote "One More Day" like that. On a few occasions, Cilette will have a lyric that I then put music to. We have a writing rule though. After we have worked on a song idea it has to pass "The Morning After Test", which basically means it has to make you feel the same way the next day as it did when you were caught up in the high of the idea process.

I always know when I've hit on something because I'll be playing an idea and suddenly the whole feel of the song will come into my head including the parts. I arrange the tracks in my head before I even record the first note, as it's a very visual process for me. I see the songs as landscapes. I may have some of the parts and themes done but I also know what I want the feel of the other parts to be, if not all of the notes. Then, when I'm playing along with the recorded tracks I know what I'm looking for until I hit that "thing" that just makes you lose yourself.

Cilette nearly always starts with her vocal melody and as she's working on that, she may have an idea for a theme for the lyric. Then she'll just let's it sit in the back of her mind, or I will record a basic guitar track for her, and she'll listen and sing along with it until it gets under her skin. Then most or all of the lyric will just come to her. She'll usually have to refine it as she fits it to the vocal melody or song. And often we'll be working on an idea together and whole chunks of a lyric will come to her.
"I see the songs as landscapes."

- Roman Morykit (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: With eight records (I'm guessing 80 + songs) under your belt you certainly have a lot of leeway in terms of your set lists. How do you choose which songs to play live? How many songs do you keep in your active repertoire?
Roman: We have about 44-55 in our active repertoire, depending on what time of year it is, as we have a couple of Holiday CDs too. There are some songs that we always play like, "Who", "One More Day" and strangely enough, "Amazing Grace". These and others are staples that fans expect us to play at virtually every show. Then we'll chose others depending on the type and energy of the event. We usually have a rough idea of a set list and we really decide on the songs that we are going to play on the fly, depending on how the energy of the audience feels to us. As I may have already mentioned, we really like to play around with the live arrangements so even if we are playing a familiar song, it's probably going to be different from a previous gig where someone heard the same song! We also decide on which ones we are going to play depending how many players we have with us as some songs sound better with a band than with just the duo.
Jamie: I was just looking at your "live in concert" photos. From the looks of it, your band is always evolving. At times, you have a drummer with you, at other times a percussionist. Sometimes there's a trumpet player or a second guitarist. And you seem to be switching up instruments (moving between guitar and bass) too. What draws you to playing in so many different configurations?
Roman: Keeping the live shows as interesting for both the audience and ourselves, as we can! We never want to become one of those artists that "mail in" a performance. It's incredibly important to us to give a great show and to make it interesting for the audience and to show our appreciation to them for coming out to support us! We are quite different live than we are on record and that's how we want to keep it. If you just want to hear a carbon copy of the record when we play live, then stay at home and listen to the record. It's going to sound different, and hopefully just as good or better. Most people say that they prefer the live experience as there is a different energy. When it's just the two of us, we'll break down songs to just guitar and voice or fretless bass and voice. I also use a loop station and make rhythm tracks that I then play along with. And if we have have other musicians with us, we'll do different arrangements to fit with the instruments that we have. As for me switching instruments; the fretless bass is really my first instrument, so any chance that I get, I try to arrange a tune so that I can play it! "We are quite different live than we are on record and that's how we want to keep it."

- Roman Morykit (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: Knowing that the fretless bass is your first instrument makes me feel a little better. I'm trying to get my head and hands around a fretless guitar I picked up a little while ago called a Glissentar. It's an 11 string fretless nylon guitar made by Godin. It's a great instrument, but still haven't totally got the pitch/intonation down. How the heck do you stay so in tune? Any tips you could give me?
Roman: Fretless guitar.. wow!! That's entirely too many strings to keep track of!... and 11 of them at that! You're a braver man than I! I'm a traditionalist and only play a four string, mainly because I can't count past four.

I can sum it up in one word; practice. There's no easy way to do it. I think that you have to really become familiar with the instrument, but, treat it like a completely NEW instrument. I play fretless bass not bass. They are very different instruments with different approaches. Just because you play bass, doesn't mean you can play fretless bass, and vice versa. You have to "feel" the notes with a fretless, and not get completely paranoid about tuning, but at the same time, it does have to be in tune. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but that's the best way that I can describe the process. For that reason, I don't like fretless basses with lines (or "training wheels", as a good friend describes them) as you spend your time fixated on keeping your fingers exactly on the lines, with the occasional slide, which ends up sounding like a fretted bass. They're supposed to sound wide; that's what gives them character. But they're still supposed to be in tune. Now, when you've got that under control, then start adding more notes for chords.. Then the fun really starts!
Jamie: Oh, the dreaded "P" word. I guess it really does always come back to that... Thanks for giving me a few ideas to try out. I think you're absolutely right about fretless instruments -- I'm going to start trying to think of my fretless guitar as a completely unique instrument.

So what's next for Gypsy Soul? Do you guys have any long term goals for the band?
Cilette: Long term goals...hummm. Thatís a potent question!

We plan to keep making the best music we can in hopes of reaching global audiences. We want to perform in the most beautiful places in the world with a diverse line up of the most gifted musicians we can find. We both have a deep affinity for travel and embracing different cultures. So the possibility of expanding our international touring to places like South Africa, more of Europe and Asia is extremely exciting for us. As our foreign licensing opportunities grow over the next few years, it will allow us the freedom to tour in countries where the promotional ground-work has been laid and audiences have some familiarity with our work.

In addition, we both feel that one can always improve at their craft and speaking for myself, I intend to broaden my lyrical scope and am always searching for new methods to strengthen my voice and body for longevity. We both also love giving workshops for music and art students at colleges and universities. Not having kids of our own (at least not the two legged kind) doing the seminars/workshops is incredibly gratifying. It is amazing how much we learn from the students. We try to impart a real sense of possibility knowing that when you're just starting out in the music business, there are a lot of pitfalls and heartaches. We hope in sharing our experiences that perhaps we can help to inspire some creative and exciting approaches and help the students to avoid as much anguish as possible.

We are grateful everyday for our small successes and being able to make our living solely from music for the last decade as Gypsy Soul. It certainly would be lovely to believe that the next ten and twenty years will continue to bring more opportunities to share our music globally, to participate in innovative new collaborations and to choose music and film projects that deeply inspire us. There's never a shortage of ideas or desires between us. The challenge is trying to fit it all into the 24 hours we've been given each day and learning to strike a healthy balance between our creative time, the daily business, touring and personal time. Now, that's the hard part.
"We plan to keep making the best music we can in hopes of reaching global audiences."

- Cilette Swann (Gypsy Soul)
Jamie: Thanks Cilette and Roman -- this has been a great conversation! Best of luck in the future and let's stay in touch!
 
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