Cosmic Stepping Stones
album reviews and Leah Pinnavaia interview
The Dreaming: Shadow Days (2004)
The Dreaming: Live at the Tralf (2004)
|Joseph Pinnavaia||John Caruso||Leah Pinnavaia|
Regular visitors to Musical Discoveries will have browsed our reviews of three albums--including most their 2004 album Shadow Days (review)--by The Dreaming, a progressive band from Buffalo, New York. The Dreaming now feature two lead singers: Ann Janish-Schieder, one of the founding members, and Leah Pinnavaia, who sings lead vocals on Shadow Days' standout track "Useful Vagueness" and backs Ann in many of the album's other tracks.
Visitors will also want to check out our review of The Dreaming Live at the Tralf in Buffalo, NY supporting The Acoustic Strawbs. As guests of The Dreaming, we had ample opportunity after the show to chat with the artists--including Leah Pinnavaia and John Caruso--about their music, backgrounds, influences and new projects.
Leah has become a well-respected singer songwriter in Western New York. She was voted top original female vocalist in the Buffalo Music Awards in both 1999 and 2000. Leah has a powerful 6½ octave vocal range and has studied music since childhood (voice, clarinet, keyboards). Still working extensively with The Dreaming, Leah's voice is the centrepiece of Cosmic Stepping Stones. This article focuses on her work.
Image © Muse Medley 1994
Image © Muse Medley 1995
In the mid-1990s Leah Pinnavaia and her brother Joseph (guitar) teamed with James Wynn (bass) and Kirk Beers (drums) to form Muse, a jazz-oriented fusion group that played experimental music. Guitarist Joeseph Pinnavaia has an impressive style developed through receiving his BA in music from the University of Buffalo and AAS in music from Villa Maria College.
Joe and Leah had been part of a five piece project called Toxic Love earlier. The band played a combination of covers and original songs, won Top Original Rock Band in the 1994 Buffalo Music Awards and actually released an album with ten of their own tracks.
The first Muse release Symbiotica (Muse Medley (USA) MU 9501-2, 1995) met with critical acclaim especially in Western New York where the band toured extensively. Although the eight track album is presently out of print, second hand copies occasionally become available and demand an unusually high price.
A second and more accessible album entitled Garden (Muse Medley (USA) 12497, 1997) emerged two years later from the same lineup. Although the experimental roots remained in their music, the band achieved further acclaim in critical reviews with Garden than their first release.
A dispute over the band name with two other groups led the Buffalo-based artists to rename their band Cosmic Stepping Stones. Their first two albums are now sold with Cosmic Stepping Stones labels pasted over the Muse logo on the accompanying booklets, yet their Muse heritage remains elsewhere in the artwork accompanying the CDs. In 1999 CSS were voted top original rock band in Buffalo, NY.
Joseph and Leah Pinnavaia
Image © Cosmic Stepping Stones 2004
Cosmic Stepping Stones' 2002 self-titled release demonstrates continued growth and leaves their jazz fusion roots further behind. Still fronted by Leah and Joseph, the lineup is completed by Kirk Beers (drums, percussion) and newcomers Matt Castronova (bass) and Dan Janak (guitar). Jessika Schreiber provides additional backing vocals on three tracks while Jim Wynne lends keyboards and bass on one of the tracks. The thirteen-track collection includes a different arrangement of the familiar "Elijah" from Garden as well as several tracks that achieved good airplay in the months following the album's release.
A new Cosmic Stepping Stones album recorded during 2003-2004 is slated for 2005 release. Leah and Joseph also collaborated with Jeff "Todd" Plewinski on an album before his death in 2004. Leah has informed Musical Discoveries that a 2005 release is planned. She is very passionate about this project and it therefore promises to delight her fans.
Today Cosmic Stepping Stones primary members are Leah (lead vocals, backing vocals, keyboards), Joseph Pinnavaia (guitar) and John Caruso (bass). John has been with the band for a while in various aspects of the creative process. He also mixed all of the tracks on the band's self-titled album at the BFT Tapehouse and also tracked the latest version of their song "Winter on the Sun," the CSS track that has gotten the most radio play thusfar.
Not having a full time drummer coupled with the three central artists' busy day jobs make band's desire to tour more extensively a difficult dream to attain. We review Symbiotica, Garden and Cosmic Stepping Stones following our interview with Leah. The interview is a collaboration with Daniel Haskin (The Dreaming) and Musical Discoveries' editorial staff.
How is it working in both the Dreaming and Cosmic Stepping Stones (CSS)?
Leah: Both bands are pretty choosy about where they play. As a result the schedule is more manageable. So far it has worked out well. But I do have to be careful not to get myself into a conflict. Basically, once one band has something booked I let the other know right away so a conflict does not occur. My role in either band has been very different and so as a result, both projects have helped me to feel more fulfilled with music in general.
Image © Cosmic Stepping Stones 2004
In CSS I am the lead vocalist and so my role is quite demanding. In the Dreaming I sing primarily backups with Ann Janish-Schieder singing most of the leads. But it is incredibly fulfilling doing that because I can weave vocals in an out of the mix and use the upper end of my vocal range more than I normally would. I really like the challenge of both projects and I think it has helped me develop my voice even more.
As far as frquency of performing goes, I think it is important not to wear out your welcome in Western New York which unfortunately happens to a lot of bands in this area. Unless you are a party band where drinking people are ready and willing to hear the same thing from you week after week, most people won't come out to see you every week in the same area. As a result, the Cosmic Stepping Stones play out of town periodically and The Dreaming is also starting to branch out in that direction as well.
I believe that playing in the same area week after week is a method for burnout and usually does not result in your band being successful. You need to play in a variety of areas and decrease the frequency of performances in the same area in order to have a better chance at drawing a decent sized audience. Yes, we've learned that the hard way!
You seem to have a very eclectic background. What are your musical influences?
When I was young, starting at age nine, I played clarinet and was exposed to a lot of classical and big band music. My first exposure to rock'n'roll bands was listening to my father's Beatles, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley 45 rpm records. Can you believe he sold them in a garage sale!
Then, my brother, who plays guitar in CSS, introduced me to FM radio. It's pretty pathetic that I needed my brother to point that out to me!! When I started singing in bands that played out in Western New York I began in hard rock bands and would sing covers from bands like Van Halen, Scorpions, Heart, Pat Benetar, Led Zeppelin, STP, Metallica, Kim Mitchell, etc. I was determined to not be restricted to singing songs only sung by women and I knew that I could be just as powerful as a male rock singer.
So what did you do about that?
I started branching into a more alternative rock or progressive rock vein because my original music was in that category. I also enjoyed taking classic rock songs and re-vamping them. So I started doing covers by U2, The Police, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, The Cranberries, The Beatles, Peter Gabrielle, Genesis, Poe, Prince, The Rolling Stones, Audioslave, Radiohead, etc. And the list goes on.
Can you tell us about your experiences with Toxic Love?
It was equivalent to the "Tori Can Spell" band before Tori Amos went on her own. It was a hard rock band and I sang very much like a rocker on those recordings. We were featured on a local band show that aired on 103.3 The Fox in Buffalo and also played on "Disturbing the Peace" which was an evening break in radio rotation to showcase original music of local bands from Buffalo. We seemed to be favorites on that for a while.
And how has your background influenced what you are doing today?
Now, I have more of an interest in acoustic, contemporary blue grass, and folk music. I'd like to combine these new influences with the progressive and alternative music I have been doing. I also want to continue writing songs, recording and performing original music. I have performed as an opening artist for a few national acts which include Vinnie Moore, Universal Honey, Sally Taylor and The Acoustic Strawbs. I would like to do more of that also, then again, who wouldn't?
Pardon me, but . . . what is your vocal range?
Image © Cosmic Stepping Stones 2004
Well, when I was in Muse with Jim Wynne, he helped me figure out how many octaves I could cover with my voice. We came up with 7½. This seems pretty unbelievable to me. So recently I tested this again and it didn't cover the 7½ octaves well. It was more like a strong 6½ octaves and the other notes were so low that my voice sounded yucky in my opinion.
Also, over the years, the music that I've been doing has changed. I don't do Hard Rock music anymore so the lower end of my voice range has shifted upward. So my usable voice range is 6½ octaves which means that anything on the lower end between 6½ and 7½ octaves would not be pleasing to anyone even though I can technically hit the notes!
Many independent artists find it hard to balance the art with the business. Do you find it difficult marketing your original music?
Selling CDs seems to be more viable in acoustic settings such as coffee houses or media stores where people have a genuine interest in listening to new music. CSS has had their music played all over the US and been included on College Music Journal (CMJ) compilations. Radio stations we have been played on vary in terms of their status and outreach. We tended to do best in some of the Midwestern and Southern States and also Southern California. We have done pretty well in Pennsylvania and Ohio. We were reviewed very positively in CMJ in the summer of 2003. So there has been some definite interest outside of WNY.
I am perfectly happy selling my music in the Indie music market and on line, which is where CSS has had most of its success. If you want to view our radio play list or see reviews, listen to soundbites and see what CDs we have put out, you can visit our website. We are going to release some new CSS music this year. Visiting our website periodically will be the best way of keeping track of when.
Despite all of the ups and downs of being an independent artist, I have been very blessed with the projects I have been in because I know they have been of a high musical quality and standard. I also have enjoyed playing with many other musicians who are great people as well as being talented musicians. Of course, I met some amazing music aficionado's in the audience who have also broadened my view of music as well. I really appreciate when a fan talks to me about their favorite bands and music. It helps me not get stuck in my own little world.
How did the band name change from Muse to Cosmic Stepping Stones?
Garden was obviously released when we were still called Muse. We were in a trademark dispute with a band signed to Atlantic Record bearing the same name around the time it was released. They came to Buffalo and opened for Creed. When they received a bad review on our Buffalo News, many people asked if it was us. That is how we found out about them.
Image © Cosmic Stepping Stones 2004
Of course we tried to clarify it immediately. I contacted them and told them that we were also named Muse. Since they were signed to Atlantic Records, we offerred to change our band name if they would bay for the advertising. I sent them a proposal for how much it would cost which was reasonable. They laughed it off and ignored us. So we got an entertainment lawyer and entered a trademark dispute.
After a little over a year into the dispute--it was looking as if we were able to establish first use and may actually win the trademark--a band from Europe also named Muse wanted to break into the States. They were played frequently on radio stations in Europe. They offerred to buy the name.
Although it didn't start out as such, an equitable arrangement was reached amongst us all which left us some money to invest into our recordings, including an unreleased album that was produced by Jim Huff. He produced bands such as I Mother Earth, The Headstones and he wrote a song for Triumph. These songs will be released soon.
The valuable lesson we learned from all of this is that even independent artists should trademark their name before recordings are released and marketing begins. It really does affect who is aware of you and who follows your live shows. Luckily we moved on and made up the ground we lost pretty quickly. I like the name Cosmic Stepping Stones thought. It means "Satellite." Writing music puts me in a good place sort of beyond this world. So I think it is fitting for us. If you do an internet search, there is another band from California named The Dreaming. It can get confusing.
The booklet accompanying Garden is an unusual size. Can you tell us about it?
The Garden CD insert was designed by Brian Grunart who does the artwork for Ani Difranco. He is a very talented guy and really sat down and listened to our music before he designed the booklet. He also took the time to sit down with me and find out what each song was about. He also did the artwork for our self-titled CD. I don't think he did as good of a job on that one. But his wife was expecting and certainly that is a really good excuse.
Who are some of your favorite artists these days?
Sarah Harmer, Sarah McLachlan, Allison Krauss, Nickle Creek, Bruce Cocburn, Fleetwood Mac, Tori Amos, New Grass Revival, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Heart, Pat Benetar, Led Zepplin. Check Sarah Harmer, she's great!
Leah Pinnavaia and Jeff Plewinski
Image © Cosmic Stepping Stones 2004
Cosmic Stepping Stones has really picked up quite a following in Western New York.
We were the featured band on 97 Rock in Buffalo on their "homegrown" show during October and November 2004. We have been on numerous compilation CDs, including the TRS Music Deadly Sampler and CMJ featured "Disco." We were on Siberia Records No Moss CD and did a version of "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones. We were also on a Hey Day Records compilation CD last year with "Mediocrity" and we have been on all of the Buffalo Music Collective Compilation CDs.
What are some of your future goals with music?
Basically I want to revisit what music is all about which is sharing it with other people and musicians. I want to get to know our audience and people who come to see our music. Unfortunately, because of the nature of competitiveness in the music business, too many musicians try to hold on to their tiny slice of the pie and guard it with their life! I don't want to be like that.
I have many ideas and thoughts and I convey them in my songs. Some are about religion, social issues, imagery, relationships or revolve around a past experience or future hopes. I have been working with different projects including CSS and The Dreaming.
I want to do shows with other musicians who want to share the experience. I really enjoy the Blue Cactus showcases done by Emery Nash who plays once a month at St. Matthias church in East Aurora, NY (website). They showcase a different band every month and instead of just promoting themselves, they promote other artists as well.
In my opinion, this is how music should be. It should be a shared experience, artistic and a celebration of the moment. Life is too short for it to be anything else.
What kind of things set you aside from other performing artists?
I have been working on using the clarinet in a non-traditional way in alternative music and using my keyboard more often with live shows and recordings. Basically, music is important for me as a means of expression and sharing experiences with others. I want to continue to grow as a musician all the time. I also want to explore playing in different types of venues, not just clubs but other places as well where there are people looking for something different and who really appreciate music. I want to get to know other musicians and share performances.
Image © Muse Medley 1995
Symbiotica. The first album by Muse from 1995 is comprised of eight jazz fusion numbers and runs almost 38 minutes. Full of experimentally oriented guitar riffs by Joe Pinnavaia, it also clearly illustrates the range and power of Leah's vocals in both lead and harmony parts.
"Hear Me" is a rich fusion number that serves to introduce Leah's lead vocal range and power, alternating left to right and back again between the speakers, further vocalise and lush backing vocals. A rapidfire guitar solo also adorns the track. The album continues with "Ceilings," a lush fusion number with Leah's lead vocal soaring above vast guitar excursions that immediately illustrate Joe's virtousity on the instrument. "You Just Take" begins with powerful jazzy electric guitar riffs before Leah's venomous lead vocal enters the fray.
While guitar and bass solos continue to explore the jazz fusion regime, the vocal work in "Leave A Light On" is somewhat more traditional, Leah's evocative lead vocal climbing to the edge of her range with tremendous power while further harmony layers underscore the theme in the memorable chorus.
"One And Trip" continues to build the jazz fusion edge of the album. Leah's lead and alternating harmony vocal contrast each other and also the superbly played electrifying guitar solos that have been built into the arrangement. "Mold" is a more challenging number that is full of guitar and bass riffs that are complimented by several layers of vocals.
The most accessible track on the album is "Winter On The Sun." The verses are clearly rooted in jazz fusion and delivered with conviction and style but are contrasted by brief lushly arranged choruses and soaring vocal passages throughout the number. Guitar and bass riffs don't leave the arrangement for long and are further featured in stunning excursions during in the song's midsection. We continue to explore Leah's emotional vocal delivery and Joe's rapidfire guitar playing in the track "Here In My Head" that concludes the album.
Symbiotica is not the most accessible album of the group's lot, but repeated listens will reveal the artists' musical underpinning and tremendous virtuousity. It's clear why they turned heads with the album in 1995. The album provides a great introduction to Leah's stunning vocal work. If for no other reason, listen to the album to appreciate her extensive range and tremendous power.
Image © Muse Medley 1997-1998
Garden. The first thing to notice on the second album from 1997 by Muse--or first by Cosmic Stepping Stones, depending on your point of origin--is a departure from jazz fusion into a more accessible sound of alternative and progessive rock. The album runs almost a full 70 minutes! The instrumental virtuousity remains but the songs are more rhythmic and therefor accessible, with Leah's extensive vocal range, tremendous power and highly charged emotional delivery continiuing that immediately draw the listener into their music. Such is the case with "Only If You Feel," the stunning opening number for the band's second release. In the funky "One Dog, One Bone" Leah's lead and harmony vocals are complelemented by a lush arrangement featuring keys, guitars and crisp percussion. Her soaring vocalise layers work well against the mid-section's instrumentals.
The band's signature number "Elijah" begins includes a brief vocalise introduction (that also appears as a hidden reprise in the album's final track) and then opens into a glorious piano-backed ballad that explores Leah's full vocal range, demonstrates significant maturity from the band's first release and features one of her most emotional deliveries. Further instrumentation, a lovely guitar solo and tender backing harmonies add great texture to the number. It is no wonder that the band elected to offer a new and improved arrangement on their self-titled album four years later.
The standout tracks "Superflous Illumination" is a song-based progressive rock numbers that alternates style and tempo between a jazz fusion based verse and a memorably rocking chorus. Vast guitar and powerfully complementing vocal excursions seem to echo each other and add further depth to the arrangement. Sung across Leah's vast range, "Cover Me" is a bluesy yet melodic track; the power comes in the thickly arranged chorus with instrumentals and harmony layers blending energetically and in the guitar riffs between them.
Leah's stunning and evocatively delivered vocals are mixed way up in the extended ballad "Bell On The Wall." Ample instrumental breaks during the gaps between verses give the singer an opportunity to build tension as the song develops and release it in each chorus. Leah's dramatic vocal performance is simply superb. "Dis-co" is an upbeat number rooted in jazz fusion but is more song-based. Layers of vocals are complemented by rhythmic arrangements.
Image © Muse Medley 1998
"Level One" is a progressive rock number. The powerful electric guitar solo during the song's midsection further demonstrate Joe's tremendous virtuousity with the instrument. The evocative ballad "Emotion" mates perfectly to "Level One" with harmony vocals and thick bass adding a lush texture to the arrangement. Leah's vocals climb in power and soar well above the instrumentals and backing harmonies as the track progresses towards its dramatic conclusion. The song-based style of "Constant Hum" makes it instantly appealing to a broad audience. We especially liked the mid-song instrumental and the jazzy improvisation that returns one more time as the song finishes. The album concludes with a downtempo track called "Surreal." Layers of harmony vocals and dynamically varied instrumentals, especially during the song's extended mid-section, complement Leah's powerful lead. A reprise of the "Elijah" introduction returns after a gap to conclude the track.
Garden represents a turning point for Cosmic Stepping Stones. As such, with its broad range of styles and textures, it has become John Caruso's favorite album by the band. Others will find it a great introduction to what CSS have yet to offer in their self-titled album reviewed below.
Image © Pinnavaia BMI 2002
Cosmic Stepping Stones. Almost four years after Garden and a band name and lineup change later, Cosmic Stepping Stones released their self-titled album. The album features eleven all new tracks, a new arrangement of "Winter On The Sun" from Symbiotica and a new arrangement of their classic "Elijah." While the earlier releases by the band had a dose of jazz fusion in them, the CSS album is clearly a rock album.
The substantial improvement in vocal production over the earlier releases is evident from first spin. Leah's lead and harmony vocal arrangements are particularly well imaged. Listeners will find themselves in the recording booth with her. Production of the instrumentals, especially bass guitar, has been warmly enhanced as well.
The album opens with the upbeat rocker "Mediocrity." Leah's powerful and wide ranging vocals jump off the track and the chorus will stun the listener immediately. Great guitar playing and lush backing harmonies add to the accessibility of the track. Vocalise that wraps up the song is simply spine-tingling.
"Weatherman," clearly one of the album's standouts, has gotten lots of air time since the initial release of the album. Rich electric guitar and bass provide the foundation for Leah's tenderly delivered verse and instrumentals build with layers of harmony vocals in the highly memorable chorus. Equally enjoyable is the memorable rearrangement of "Winter On The Sun" (from Symbiotica). Leah's lead vocal is supported by lush piano- and guitar-based rock instrumentals and underscored by her own light vocal harmonies.
The powerful rhythm section--especially the lush bass guitar--in "Graceful" is especially notable. It blends well with Joe's funky guitar excursions and provides a great foundation for Leah's vocals, delivered with incredible conviction and further supported with light backing harmonies. The new version of "Elijah" has been produced with more harmony layers and an especially rich rhythm section building on "Graceful." Leah's delivery of the lead vocal is more emotionally wrenching than the original version. Instrumentals are more clearly articulated with percussion clearly punctuating every note in the piece.
Another album standout is the progressive rock number "Somewhere To Fall." While the verses are superb, the production of the two-part tempo-changing chorus is spine-tingling, the lead vocal powerfully exploring Leah's vast vocal range. A lovely guitar solo graces the song's mid-section. The final multi-layered chorus clearly illustrates the development of the band since their previous album. The upbeat rock number "Inside Out," with its crunching electric guitar parts, continues to develop the album's sound and demonstrates the high production quality of this recording. The many harmony layers of vocals in "Circles" define the track.
photo by Bob Rushok
Image © Cosmic Stepping Stones 2004
The upbeat and highly accessible rocker "Blame" joins "Weatherman" and "Somewhere To Fall" as an album standout. Led by electric guitar and powerful bass, Leah's lead and the lushest of harmony vocals on the album work together to produce a track with a tremendous hook. During the song's mid-section the instrumentals are dropped way back and Leah's vocals take over atop bass only. The guitar returns at the end working with vocals to deliver a great climax.
"Wake Me Up" is a great bookend to "Blame" with bass continuing to carry the rhythm and layers of Leah's vocals producing a straight up rocker. The lush guitar arrangement certain to delight listeners. The combination of guitar and bass in "Bond" continue to build the CSS sound from "Blame." Leah delivers the lead vocal with tremendous power; her harmony layers add great texture to this powerful rocker. Guitar and bass parts as well as soaring vocalise during the song's mid-section adds intensity to the number.
The down tempo "Laughter" offers a somewhat starker, but equally strong, vocal arrangement than the album's standup rockers. Lush harmonies and extendedguitar riffs provide ample contrast within the number. The album concludes with the funky track "Feel Better." Rhythmic bass and percussion underscore layers of Leah's soaring vocals and Joe's electric guitar excursions.
It is no wonder that Cosmic Stepping Stones has received critical acclaim from the music press. The album demonstrates significant growth of the artists, especially in guitar and bass arrangements, from their earliest beginnings and continues to illustrate the power and range of Leah Pinnavaia's vocal skills. It is truly a superb album. We can't wait to see what the band have in store for the next one!
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