Talks with Happy Rhodes
Building the Colossus
CEV: I was reading your bio up at your website and I was curious about when you got your first guitar.
HR: I think I was about 10 when I got my first guitar. It was a hand-me-down nylon string guitar. It was really beat up too.
CEV: Your bio says you had no desire to learn the instrument the way that everyone else was doing it but wanted to start writing songs immediately. How did you go about learning the guitar and music in general so that you were able to start writing immediately without going the traditional route?
HR: The reason my mother gave me her old guitar, was because there was a music teacher at my school, who was teaching guitar as an intramural, after-school class. I had always plunked on my mom’s guitar whenever I visited her, so she thought I might like to learn for real. The class started with learning how to strum a basic pattern and the first basic chords. I guess I just found it musically boring. I didn’t have any skills or calluses yet, but I just started finger-picking because I thought it sounded more interesting. That year, I won a talent contest in my class for performing “Silent Night” - finger-picking. Anyway, I basically blew off the guitar classes, because I had no interest in learning other people’s songs.
CEV: How did this desire for a musical future age and to learn your music in non traditional ways at an early age set the pattern for how you would approach your music in the years to come?
HR: Well obviously, my lack of respect for the “rules” of music and songwriting was established the second I picked up the guitar. In later years, I did insane things like not having a chorus appear anywhere in a song, writing a song that’s longer than 3 minutes, having no bridges or hooks or lyrical content with which people could identify.
I never thought that I would perform anything I’d written. The main goal for me was always in the music - never in actually being SEEN. I was extremely phobic of social things at that time, so I needed to work up to being in a public place. After doing it a couple of times, the encouragement from the audience and from Lena herself, was instrumental in my pursuing this life direction. Lena wanted me to host an open mic night and I declined because of the aforementioned phobia.
CEV: What kinds of feelings and reactions were generated in regards to performing for an audience?
HR: Well, before performing I never knew the concept of listener-approval. I mean, my mother loved to hear me sing but I didn’t even like to sing in front of her. When the positive responses started coming in, I was pleasantly surprised.
CEV: How did your meeting with Pat Tessitore, co owner of Cathedral Sound Studios, impact your efforts to become a professional musician?
HR: First and most importantly, Pat took me in as an intern, when he didn’t need one and he recorded me for free - FOR YEARS. He was as selfless as they come. As most people know, there’s no greater gift for a musician than having free recording time at a professional studio. It enabled me to record all of my ideas as they came. A lot of times, I didn’t even have any song structure yet - I wouldn’t care. I’d simply record what I had whenever the time was available.
CEV: What was it that Pat was able to teach you about the recording end of the business that you did not know up to that point?
HR: I didn’t know a single thing about recording before I met Pat. The first time I recorded, he sat me in front of the microphone (an AKG 414) stuck some headphones on me and told me to start singing after he gave me the go-ahead. I just sang my song, the way I would’ve at home. I had to have the headphones half on and half off because I wasn’t used to listening to myself singing in anything but a room environment. I still do that today. When I finished the song and came into the control room, he was just gawking at me. That’s when he said, “You are NOT going to be an engineer!” He played the track back with a bit of reverb and I was hooked. I’d never experienced reverb like that on my voice and it instantly opened a universe up to me. Over the years, I obviously learned about the possibilities that multi-tracking and effects provided.
CEV: Are any of the songs that you recorded in those early sessions with Pat still in print on your current CD's?
HR: Just about everything that was recorded with Pat has been released and remains in print.
HR: Absolutely not - simply because there was no Internet yet and there was little opportunity for me to receive any feedback. So what I didn’t know, couldn’t hurt me.
CEV: Do you follow the reviews of your work in the media?
HR: Every once in a while, a friend will prod me to check on what people are writing about me but I can’t really say that I follow any of it. It’s not that I’m disinterested. I just never seem to think of it.
CEV: Was there anything you learned about your music once you started to record it in the studio that you didn't realize before that time?
HR: When I first started recording, it was on a “come in when we call you” basis, because I wasn’t paying for studio time. So oftentimes, I’d come in to record before I actually planned any parts out. I regret that now, because I’ve never really been a simple songwriter at heart.
CEV: Did learning about the process of recording change the way that you wrote your music?
HR: Of course. When you know you can have 15 harmony parts to accompany your lead, you tend to take advantage. I was influenced very early by Bach and since I’ve never been an accomplished instrumentalist, I used my voice for orchestration a lot.
CEV: To follow up with a question I asked before about being nervous about having your music critiqued you answered that because there was no Internet to receive feedback what you didn't know couldn't hurt you. Let's zoom ahead a little and ask that same question now that most folks have access to the Internet and blogs are coming out of the woodwork will you still feel the same when you release the CD that you are currently working on?
HR: One still has to go looking for the information. I’m not disinterested in people’s opinions of my work but it’s not the kind of thing I’d seek out. When I go online, it’s usually to research something that I need in the moment. Having written that, I have read negative blurbs about my music in the past and for some reason it doesn’t bother me. Mostly, I’ve agreed with criticisms about my work. It’s not a perfect process you know? Let’s face it…I’ve done some really goofy shit.
CEV: When Warpaint came out what was it about that CD that caused you to think that you were getting your music out there and starting to gain some fans and listeners?
HR: The song “Feed The Fire” was getting heavy play at WXPN in Philly and I was unaware of it until a friend called to me know. That song was eventually voted the number one song of the year by the listeners.
Warpaint was also the first CD release I had. I’d already recorded 4 albums, but they didn’t get released on CD until AFTER Warpaint was out. Up til that point, my music hadn’t been so readily accessible.
CEV: Where does your music come from as far as the inspiration for it is concerned? Is it all personal or do you draw from events happening around you as well?
HR: A great deal of my inspiration has come from my past. I’ve written a lot about that. These days I’m inspired by very different things. Beautiful music always inspired me to create something better than the last thing I did, but surprisingly, I don’t listen to much music now. I can be moved by just about anything - the way a yellow flower looks next to a purple one, an interesting documentary, another person’s sad story. Some might be surprised by this, but I often think if I had to choose between losing my eyesight and losing my hearing, I’d have to choose to lose my hearing. I’d be more devastated if I couldn’t see all the effects of the wind than to not hear the wind itself. I guess what I‘m saying, is that I‘m deeply influenced by things other than music these days.
CEV: Were there any singers and musicians that you listen to that you would credit as influential to the kinds of music that you have written over the years?
HR: Luckily, my father was a music lover and would play a collection of music he’d taped on his reel-to-reel. He also had lots of LP’s and we had music playing almost every weekend. I would sing along with anything that was playing. I remember hearing “Killer Queen” by Queen and waiting for it to come on the radio. Then “Bohemian Rhapsody” came out and I was hooked. When I was old enough to buy records, it was Queen all the way. I couldn’t believe 4 guys to make that much sound and that 3 guys could sing that many parts. They were interesting and complex. Just what I loved. Then I saw Kate Bush on SNL, singing “Them Heavy People.” I was once again, hooked. She was weird, complex and precise. Other artists who inspired me were Yes, David Bowie, Genesis and just about anyone who could sing really well.
Music, art and dance came naturally to me and it was about the only thing for which I was praised. It gave me the sense that it was okay for me to exist on this planet - that I had something of value to give, however small.
CEV: The first time I heard your music I thought I was listening to two different singers doing a duet because of the range that your voice covered. How has having this tremendous vocal range affected the way that you write your music? Do you ever feel like you are writing for two different people?
HR: I have to say it’s nice to be able to sing just about anything, range-wise that is. I do like to take advantage of that because I personally like to be challenged by music. I’m not saying I prefer “difficult listening” music, but I like variety of sound. That includes the human voice. Simplicity is great also and is sometimes the best direction.
I have written for my range quite a lot. I’ve experimented with very low notes. The high ones are not as impressive because plenty of people can sing a lot higher than I can. But there aren’t many women who can reach as low. On my latest CD, there are some sub-sonic notes going on.
CEV: Obviously the Internet has changed the way independent musicians market their music and interact with their fans. How has the internet expanded the reach of your music from the days that you released your first pieces of music on cassette? Any thoughts on MP3's and the rise of music sharing via the Internet?
HR: I used to be not really thrilled about the sharing thing, but I think it’s great now. MP3’s sound like shit as a rule and that never makes me happy but I remember when I had a shitty little AM/FM radio, listening to Elton John singing “Harmony”, I didn’t complain then. The Internet made my career. Period. The coolest thing about it is it’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of medium. Once you’re out there, if what you’re doing strikes any kind of a chord with anyone, it’s going to multiply whether you like it or not. The Internet is Momentum. In my particular case, no one has been more instrumental in my Internet presence than Vickie Mapes, who started the ball rolling and continues to spread the word about my music. She keeps me in the public ear.
CEV: You have a particularly loyal group of fans who formed a newsgroup called ECTO to help promote your music and share information about your career. What kind of relationship do you as an artist have with ECTO and how important is this kind of grass roots promotion for an independent artist such as yourself?
HR: I think it goes without saying that grass roots are vital for people like me. I was incredibly lucky to have a bunch of people who cared enough about what I was doing that they took it upon themselves to start an active discussion group about it. I have the coolest fans in the world really. And unfortunately, if my career were left solely up to me, no one would ever hear my music. I despise self promotion and without outside interference,
CEV: I've recently heard your vocals on a compilation called Heart of Innocence and on another project that you did backing vocals for Bob Holroyd for a song on his CD called Without Within. How did these two projects come your way, what is it like working on a song where you work in conjunction with another artist and are you open to other projects like this in the future?
HR: The Heart of Innocence project was a compilation CD. The track that I appear on is from Will Ackerman's CD, "Hearing Voices." I've done a lot of work with Will over the years. He's been kind enough to ask me to join in some projects and I've done so happily. I genuinely like the guy.
The Bob Holroyd thing came about from a friend Bob Duskis, who is the co-founder of Six Degrees Records among other things. He told me about Holroyd's upcoming project and said he wanted to branch into vocals more. I was sent about 4 instrumental tracks, to which I wrote vocals. One of them was "Games Without Frontiers", a Peter Gabriel cover. At that time, I was to sing all of the tracks. Eventually, Holroyd decided he wanted to take a different direction for his CD and all of my songs were scrapped except "Games." Then he decided to sing the lead part. So I became Holroyd's back-up singer for a tune. It received radio airplay for a bit. I always felt the change was a shame because I rather liked the songs I'd worked on.
CEV: Over the years when your fans describe your music they will inevitably invoke the comparison with Kate Bush, rightly so, but how do you personally feel about being compared to Kate Bush?
HR: I feel fine about it. I mean it really is the closest comparison one can make. It's funny though, because through the years, I've read many people being compared to Kate Bush, who I thought sounded NOTHING like her. I tell you, it's an honor to be compared to accomplished writers.
CEV: With technological advances in recording allowing many artists to do at home what used to require a studio, do you foresee changes in how you record your music over the next few years?
HR: I've already recorded the bulk of my work at home. The new CD, "Find Me" was mostly recorded in a professional studio, but I did a lot of vocal tracks myself at my house. Before that, "Many Worlds" was done at home, as was most of "Colossus." The difference is, many people are now mixing and mastering at home and that's difficult to do well without some incredible expensive equipment. You can always mix anywhere, assuming you know how your room sounds and you have at least two different, good sets of speakers for reference. Mastering is another thing. A lot of people think they can master a record. Not many can do it well. And I believe mastering is highly crucial in the overall sound quality of a final mix. To answer your question, nothing in my recording technique will change. All of my "demos" at home have a way of becoming my actual tracks.
I wouldn't say it's always the best thing for an artist to produce themselves, but I needed to do that at that time in my life. In stark contrast, my newest CD was produced by Bob Muller and I stayed out of it. That was what I needed at that time in my life. With "Many Worlds" I also just wrote exactly what I wanted and didn't let radio considerations enter into the process at all. I didn't care about choruses, bridges or anything. The songs were what they were and I liked them. I like that CD because it's dreamy. I was allowed to be dreamy.
CEV: In the course of the last few years have you done a lot of live performances?
HR: I've not performed anywhere near what would be considered normal for an artist. There are so many people who bust their humps to play live anytime, anyplace and anyway they can. I admire them in fact. But I've never striven for that kind of life. My first love is writing. Having said that, the little that I have performed in the last few years has been a joy. It's good to break out of your comfort zone once in a while. And it's fun to just go out and sing.
CEV: Now that you have some experience under your belt compared the open mic nights how do you feel about your performances these days compared to what you felt when you were just starting out?
HR: I was always frustrated back then because I didn't consider myself a folk artist, yet here I was a girl, playing out with a single guitar. I knew that my music was something other than folk. Later, when I was able to play with a band, it opened up a lot of possibilities. But playing with a band is also challenging because you have to deal with personality management. And if all the musicians in a band are not on an equal level skill-wise, then music can suffer. The last tour I did was a living room concert tour and I had Hansford Rowe on bass, Bon Lozaga on guitar and Bob Muller on drums and hand drums. I of course, played guitar. It was a very simple setup and it worked wonderfully I thought.
CEV: What have you learned about being on stage and relating to your fans in a live setting over the years?
HR: It's weird but I'm extremely reclusive by nature. I have few friends and the ones I have, I never see. I like to be alone I think maybe more than most people. But when I get on stage, I thrive on being surrounded by people. I genuinely like people and am interested to know about them. Consequently, when I perform live and then meet and greet afterward, I'm completely spent. It's as though I take in too much information, and then I have to rest for three months. I also learned that people can be extremely forgiving and that's a good thing.
CEV: I guess the next question is inevitable but what have you been up to since 1998 when Many Worlds Are Born Tonight was released? Are you always writing songs even when you don't have a pending project that you are writing to finish?
HR: Again, I'm assuming that I'm unlike a great many other artists in that I really have no desire to write unless I know I'll be releasing a CD. It hasn't always been like that. When I was younger, I'd write as a form of escape and didn't think about whether it would become a song on an album. But my agenda was so very different back then. I don't have anything to prove now, so I start writing when I begin to feel ideas creeping into my head bit by bit. Now is a good example...I wrote a great deal of songs in preparation for "Find Me", which hasn't been released yet. Once it was all recorded, I stopped writing. I haven't written one note of music since then, (other than collaborative works) but lately, certain ideas and feelings have been surfacing, which tells me that I'll be writing for another CD soon. The next project will be another self-produced one.
As for the rest of my life, many personal changes have been taking place and I've really needed to just live my life and not worry about how much music I was putting out. Consequently, my new CD is not released yet and gathering dust. But not to worry. It ain't over yet. I just need to master it and get the artwork done and it'll be ready for release.
CEV: You also hinted at writing for a new CD even beyond Find Me but you use the word "different" to describe what shape that music might take. Care to elaborate on that statement or is it too soon to say at this point?
HR: I've been feeling a bit like doing some music that's not song-oriented with lyrics and such. Vocals yes, but not necessarily intelligible lyrics. I feel like getting weird....er. I will probably include song straight ahead song material because I won't be able to help myself, and I don't want to make a "theme" album.
CEV: Who came up with the name Auntie Social Music for your domain name and is that how you view your music or was it just an interesting play on words?
HR: Well I am anti-social as a matter of fact, and when my brother and his wife started having kids, I told them I'd be called "Auntie Social." It was a joke then, but I decided it'd be a good company name.
CEV: As this interview draws to a close do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share with your listeners about your music and what lies ahead for Happy Rhodes?
HR: My music has historically come about through an intense need I had as a child, to gain some sense of worth in this world. I wrote music to fight back at all the people who told me I was nothing. It really was a battle. But I've won now and there's not really any war to fight anymore. So my music comes from a different place now. Not quite sure what that place is actually, but it's not a bad place. I believe I still have something to say musically speaking, but I'm not interested in putting any pressures on myself about it. When I think about the people who've bought my music and come to my shows, I get pretty humble. The world has embraced me and let me know I deserve to be here and I'm eternally grateful.
CEV: I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me and after hearing your answers about how much you dislike self promotion I'm glad that you decided to talk to me at all. :) I'm sure your new project Find Me and projects beyond that will always be as well received and eagerly sought after by your fans as all of your CD's currently are. Good luck with whatever you set your heart and mind to do.