Wednesday 4 March 2020

Sweet Megg: "To the Moon and Back" [Interview]

In our recent feature on Megg's Dala Records label mate, Kyle Lacy, we mentioned the label's extraordinary ability to gift their artists the freedom to try something completely new and unfamiliar to what they have become accustomed to - Lacy was able to evolve his rockabilly aesthetic towards a more classic soul one and Antibalas trombonist Ray Mason was able to release two rock-inspired singles again completely subverting any expectations there may have been for him regarding a solo project.  The release of Sweet Megg's 'Under the Moonlight', however, potentially afforded Dala that same freedom by providing the label with an opportunity to once again subvert any expectations fans may have come to place on Dala themselves by aligning with Sweet Megg & The Wayfarers and their distinct presentation of jazz.

Born and raised in New York City, Sweet Megg's approach throughout 'Under the Moonlight' has genuinely been a fascinating one.  Having found boundless inspiration from artists that served as her introduction to jazz, like Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith, the intention now is to redefine what makes jazz, jazz.  Packaging her own sound with further genres and styles, there's a playful approach employed amongst these compositions designed, successfully, to build upon the personalities of herself and her Wayfarers collective. 

Comprised of members Ryan Weisheit (saxophone), Sam Chess (trombone), Thor Jensen (guitar), Rob Adkins (bass) and Chris Gelb (drums), The Wayfarers paint an exciting and dynamic soundscape to introduce themselves and their sound as they all elegantly skip between jazz, blues and folk capturing the eloquent essence of each and showcasing their own abilities through a variety of excellent solos throughout the project.  While 'High on the Mountain' introduced elements of folk and bluegrass, 'My Man' finds itself completely at ease immersed within Édith Piaf territory and then there's the album highlight which masterfully lures your imagination to the smoky jazz club ambience with 'Sweet and Slow'.

As a live act, Sweet Megg & The Wayfarers translate their infectious energy from the studio to the stage effortlessly having developed a strong name for themselves in their New York home as well as having graced stages in Paris and Moscow.  There's every hope now that 'Under the Moonlight' will see them able to carry their message even further in the near future - theirs is a refreshing and distinctive style built around genuine artistry that make Sweet Megg & The Wayfarers an incredible collective to watch bloom going forward.

Blue-in-Green:RADIO is incredibly excited to have secured time with Sweet Megg to discuss the new project and how The Wayfarers came together.

Congratulations on the release of 'Under the Moonlight': has this project been a long time coming for you?
It has been recorded since October but it kind of came about quickly.  I was offered a tour through Russia and I realized quickly that I hadn't recorded an album in years.  I was going to get to play philharmonic and jazz festivals and I thought I should have something to sell that really represents our sound.  I also realized it was a great opportunity to get the band more organized before getting on the road.  So I got each member to arrange one piece for the record and we banged it out in two days at Hive Mind studios in Bushwick.  When we were mixing, Billy [Aukstik] the engineer, invited us to release the record on Dala Records which is his lane.  So it all happened pretty quick.

What are some of your earliest memories of music growing up?
Mmm probably my parents tapes of 'Let it Be' and 'Riders of the Storm'.  They would play them all the time to chill me out.

How did you initially meet members of The Wayfarers and start playing together?
Most of them I met at a jam session downtown at Mona's but each at different times.  Ryan Weisheit and I met there and we started the band together six years ago.  We had a different cast of musicians then.  Chris Gelb, I met when he subbed for my drummer, another singer friend of mine recommended him.  I pretty quickly was hooked on his playing and he's been our first call since.  That was about three years ago.  Rob Adkins, I've known for many many years as he is a regular in the old time jazz scene.  I always thought he was so cool and was honestly too intimidated to call him for a while.  Slowly I started calling him more and more and then when we were offered this opportunity, I thought, well he's literally the best bass player I know so why would I work with anyone else!  Sam chess joined the band about a year ago.  I had a tour booked through the south and needed a horn player for the road cause Ryan couldn't do it.  I didn't know who to ask and I barely knew Sam.  He was playing at the jam session and we chatted and I thought "why not, he's a great player and seems fun".  So he went on tour with us and I immediately fell in love with his playing and his energy.  He's the youngest member of the band and honestly brings a smile to all of our faces constantly.  Thor is another musician I've known for years but we always orbited different realms of the scene.  I started calling him sporadically for gigs a year or so ago.  Then he started bringing pedals and getting a bit wild with me on gigs and I quickly realized he was the guitar player for me.  He brings the more modern rock and roll sound to the band yet he is also killllling at jazz.

How does the process of writing and creating new music usually work for you?
Well, in this case, most of the tunes are Standards that we arranged but the two originals both came pretty quickly.  For jazz originals, I find it much different than writing a folk or country song.  A jazz head needs to be short and concise.  One singular idea that is deep enough to carry a song but quick enough to fit into a 32 bar form.  I have way less jazz tunes because they are so much harder to write.  I need that one clear idea rather than letting it evolve in verses.  So 'When the Moon Covers Up the Sun', I wrote after we had the eclipse.  Someone had said the birds will sing their night songs and I thought to myself, "well that sounds like lyrics from an old time jazz song" so it pretty much flowed after that.

What was the process of putting 'Under the Moonlight' together like?
First, I assigned everyone a song to arrange.  I gave Chris Gelb 'My Man', Ryan Weisheit 'Sweet and Slow', Rob Adkins 'My Melancholy Baby', Thor 'Why' and Sam Chess did the two originals 'When the Moon Covers Up the Sun' and 'Under the Moonlight'.  I gave them a few weeks to work on it and then I organized two rehearsals.  We used the first rehearsal to play through the arrangements and give everyone a chance to take some notes on what may need adjusting after hearing it in context with the band.  Then with the rest of the first rehearsal we hashed out all the other tunes on the record.  The ones that will be played a bit more improvisational, 'I Cried For You', 'Who Walks in When I Walk Out', 'Devil's Gonna Get You', 'High on the Mountain' - those ones we had arrangements from playing them live and we just sort of created road maps for them.
The second rehearsal we solidified the arranged tunes and got them ready to record.  Then we went to the studio with Billy and set it all up and recorded in two full day sessions.  I was in the control room with my guitar and vocal mic so that I could be a bit isolated and the guys were all in the live room playing.  It was rather tight for them but they made it work.  Then I spend a day mixing with Billy and then we left for Russia a few weeks later.  When we returned I went into full speed on organizing the actual release of everyone. 

There's a great quote of you saying "jazz should be the most relatable form of music": can you expand on that?
Well, I think because it is improvisational therefore it reflects human emotion in real time.  There is very little art that is able to capture human existence in real time.  A soloist is speaking their truth and that truth may be what's going on inside or what's going on in the venue around them or more than likely both.  Jazz musicians are trained to reflect their surrounding really.  I mean, of course, within the language of jazz but nonetheless it is a reflection of the now at all times.  I guess that is what I mean.  Human existence is now and so the most relatable art form is one that reflects human existence as it is standing in front of us now.

Is there a song (by another artist) you wish you'd written?
There are millions.  'Stardust' by Hoagy Carmichael is probably one of the greatest songs every written, I definitely wish I could be anywhere near as good as him some day.

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