Chesky Records' release of Carla Lother's Ephemera (Chesky JD-183, 1999) earlier this summer is a stunning vocal-oriented album of extraordinary depth and balance, with tremendous quality, crystal clear clarity and astounding acoustic imaging. Standing head and shoulders above most other labels' products, this state of the art album incorporates Chesky's legendary 96-kHz/24-bit high resolution technology and was recorded in natural surround sound—and the difference is clearly evident to the most casual listener throughout. While the album was recorded in St. Peter's Episcopal Church in NYC, an extraordinary studio sound created in post-initial recording production is evident in the finished album.
A Canadian native, ultimately trained at Julliard and and Mannes College of Music, Carla Lother became a well established figure in classical music credited with over 60 awards for her work on piano, voice and flute. She obtained a Masters degree in Piano performance and a Professional Studies diploma in voice and has also performed professionally in North America, Europe and Asia. While she rose to success with the piano, Carla developed her craft as a singer/songwriter, learned all the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Police and Todd Rungren, and sang in several downtown New York rock bands with future associates of Philip Glass and Luscious Jackson. She clearly demonstrates her early influences and rare ability to effectively mix pop, traditional folk, New Age and classical music in Ephemera.
We asked Carla about her background and to tell her a little bit about herself in her own words. She told us, "I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada with a family of musicians. My mom was a classical pianist and my dad was a cabaret/jazz singer. I studied classical piano very seriously competing in festivals, traveling and studying in summer workshops with hotshot teachers." She continues, "At 15 years my brother invited me to sing in his rock band. I had discovered my passion. By then I was quite a good pianist - playing very advanced repertoire. I know my mom was sweating bullets over the band, but she never forbid my participation in it. As much as I wanted to sing, my ticket to New York came from my piano chops. I needed a visa as a Canadian, so I needed to be in school. I was good enough to get a scholarship and finish a masters degree at Mannes College of Music, but I felt as though I was biding time. I drove my teacher nuts. (We are still friends). I was also BROKE!"
Carla's adventure continued. She told us, "I hitchhiked to New York from Banff Alberta with zero money. I got a job cleaning bathrooms at my school - which I proposed to the Dean after being rejected from every other job. By the time I graduated, I was appointed Director of Continuing Education at Mannes - a new bandaid for the visa problem! I was only 25 then. Thank God I was fired! I was visa-less, depressed and broke again."
Thinking, "What better time could there be for songwriting," Carla borrowed two thousand dollars and made a demo in a studio with a real producer." She told us, "My students' mother suggested I speak to her friend David Chesky and ask for advice about my demo. I had no expectation whatsoever, and so I was relaxed as we talked and listened to the music. He hooked me up with Joel Goodman - my current producer, and the next thing I knew ...lawyer, contract, recording, great fun! That's about it."
Carla's lead vocals are supported by strings—cellos, violins, bass and guitar—flute, light percussion and synthesizer and, with only light backing vocals, the twelve average length tracks flow from one to the next without abrupt style shifts to develop the album's sound. Perhaps best categorized as a classical crossover album from the delicate instrumentals and soaring vocal excursions, it could equally find itself in folk or New Age.
Carla's vocal work is most reminscent of Mae McKenna's—especially in Nightfallers (review) and Mirage and Reality (review)—yet she might be equally compared to a musical cross between Loreena McKennitt and Kate Bush. Carla's classical training is evident in every track and her vocal work certainly carries the album.
Ephemera begins slow and soft with light folky sounding tracks that build upon each other. From the opening title track, it's clear that this is a vocal-oriented work, with the lead way up—in your face—yet completely pristine and crystal clear. The production quality is evident in the imaging from the highest piano string to the thunder of the bass drum. Like a finely prepared dish where each individual element is evident to the tongue, when listening to Ephemera, the ears are treated to Carla's vocal work and the individual sounds of each instrument without any one sound overshadowing another.
The album's wonderful ballads, with their vast vocal excursions and mainly light piano accompanyment include "Ephemera," "The Song Of The Wandering Angus," "Flow My Tears" and "Sweet Dancer." Of the four, "Sweet Dancer," which concludes the album, is most reminscent of a Kate Bush sound with Carla's vocal range and overall power.
We were very interested to learn about the development of Carla's vocal style. She told us, I took a few classical voice lessons and knew I didn't want to sing that way. My singing is really about my phrasing. It came from the piano lessons. I had this great piano teacher who taught me how to pull the time in one hand while keeping the time steady in the other hand. Ultimately you had to end up in the same place. That's really how I sing. My band has learned that they are responsible for the time because if they wait for me, it might not happen. I want to be free."
Arranged with a lush orchestral sound and more extensive backing vocals, "Don't Look Back" and "Black Is The Colour" each provide a different perspective of Carla's songwriting talent painting a richer soundscape in their depth and overall lustre. While "Don't Look Back" is upbeat and positively catchy in its style, "Black Is The Colour" is darker and more mysterious.
We asked Carla about her writing influences and she told us, "As a kid, I sang in tons of choirs. That was the thing to do in Winnipeg. That choral background greatly influences me to this day as far as my harmony writing - the a cappella Geordie verse, Captain Courageous' chorus, Jonathan Jones." She continued, "I recall being caught air-singing Linda Ronstadt, Barbra Streisand and Heart (Ann and Nancy Wilson) I sang all the Zeppelin, Rush and Blondie covers in our band." Carla listens to and loves almost all music but she writes for her own etheral sounding voice. She continued, "Sadly, I am not my favorite singer!! I've always loved the power voices - the female contraltos, dramatic sopranos from Verdi operas, the Etheridge-like rockers. My voice is rather ethereal sounding, and so it must be treated accordingly. I write delicate sparse instrumental parts. I collaborate with my producer (Joel Goodman), but we write separately." She told us about the writing process, "We'll share our ideas and send each other home with homework. Recently I've begun writing with my keyboard player Gordon Minette. We actually hang out together and go for it. It's really fun."
Both "Captain Courageous" and "Jonathan Jones" with their vocal harmonies, ethnic instrumentation and percussive components are instantly reminiscent of Mae McKenna's earlier work ("The Chosen One") where the blending of different ethnic musical styles and an unusual combination of traditional, acoustic and up to the minute electronic instrumentation proved to be highly successful.
Carla listens to a wide variety of music. She told us, "I listen to a lot of classical music - Beethoven piano sonatas and Bach Well Tempered Klavier. I'm married to an avant garde alto sax player and so I am exposed to everything from Xenakis and John Cage to free jazz giants like Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Lyons. I clean the house to Earth Wind and Fire. I travel in the car to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. I adore Sarah McLachlin and love all the current female singer/writers. I love Dolly Parton and James Taylor and Dionne Warwick singing Bacharach. I attend concerts and opera, and listen to bands all over New York in small venues. If I haven't heard it, I surely would like to!"
Set in a style between the lovely ballads and the other tracks on the album are the two aoustically folky songs entitled "The Lake" and "Geordie." These two tracks will certainly strike enthusiasts of the Blackmore's Night Renaissance Faire sound characterised by Ritchie's acoustic or spanish guitar. Carla's vocals suit this style quite well.
One of our initial favorites is the Celtic-oriented track "Jaelish" which will certainly appeal to Enya, Loreena McKennitt and Kate Bush enthusiasts. More heavily instrumented and intensely rhythmic than others on the album the song has a highly memorable chorus and is certainly one of several on the album accessible enough for radio airplay.
The album builds to a crescendo with the track "Roll Away" building upon the ballad, orchestral, acoustic folk and even the Celtic-feel of the album's earlier tracks to deliver a song of highly memorable depth, power and range. The lead vocals of each verse are as memorable as the richly backed chorus and the light acoustic guitar instrumental bridges. Certainly one of the most accessible songs on the album, it is highly suitable for radio airplay must be heard to be appreciated.
Chesky's recording process is unique and the results are often astounding. We asked Carla to explain the details to us and she said, "Chesky only records live. The producer and I worked together on tunes for several months. We wrote and arranged, and then decided if any songs needed layers, or if I was to sing any pre-recorded harmonies. That first studio session just prepared us for the church recording. The Chesky's really know their craft." She then explained the final recording sessions, "I stood in a little booth and sang live with the musicians for 5 days. I could not play piano on the recording because of the set-up in that little booth. It was more difficult than recording in a studio because of the lack of vocal effects and reverb which make you think your voice is more agile and bouncy. It felt dry to me in that booth! But it came out very well I thought. It was a privilege to work with such fine musicians and a first rate crew."
Carla has toured the world as a pianist, but has only recently begun touring with her own band. She told us, "We traveled to Canada and performed and did some television interviews. I have been at the Bottom Line in New York several times. On June 8th (2000) we will be the headlining act - a first for us. We have always opened for other bands. My hope is that we will get a good booking agent soon. I am ready to hit the road and tour."
Carla is finding the internet a growing medium and is making new contacts via e-mail. She does not have a career outside of music and told us, "I am a hopeless case without music. I have a few students and do session work for other people. I recorded a piano work on a CRI recording, sang and recorded with a fabulous jazz Big Band, have done back-ups and recently did a Maxwell House commercial jingle. I have directed musical theater in the South Bronx for ASPIRA, an organization that places at-risk students with arts professionals." She added, "I am preparing to record the second CD for Chesky." We are planning to review it here!
With its tender ballads, light acoustic folk songs, warm orchestral tracks and moving Celtic-influenced tunes, Ephemera is a work of earth reaching proportions, outstanding quality and a testament to an award-winning and rising singing/songwriting talent. While the Chesky high resolution treatment could improve the recorded work of more popular and significantly less talented artists, such an effort would be wasted. Instead, they have worked with Carla Lother—a highly gifted and truly enduring singing and songwriting talent—to turn what would have otherwise been only a great recording into a masterpiece. With songs that will appeal to the broadest of female vocal enthusiasts, this extremely well produced album is clearly a must listen.
You can listen to soundbites from Ephemera at the Chesky Records website and other online sources. The CD is currently available from the label via their website, your local dealer or at CDNow and other on-line shops. While visiting Chesky's website, check out their other artists; female vocalist fans may want to further explore Rebecca Pidgeon's albums which we hope to review here soon. Enthusiasts of new age instrumental work may particularly enjoy the extremely well produced natural surruond sound (recorded with high resolution technology incorporating 128x oversampling) album by I. Ching entitled Of The Marsh And The Moon (review).
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