album review and artist reflections
review and interview © Russell W Elliot and Jamie Field 2005
photos by Sarah Renard | Kurt Neibuhr | Mark Harris
all images © Terami Hirsch 2005
formatted for 800 x 600 or larger windows
last updated: 28 September 2005
Our interest in singer songwriter Terami Hirsch began during our 2004 season, with a retrospective exploration of her album To The Bone and when articles on Charlotte Martin and Tori Amos were published here. As it is said, "good things come to those who wait" and indeed, with continued correspondence, Terami's interest in Musical Discoveries' format and masthead grew and the foundation for this article was established. We caught up with Terami in the run up to her new album release and captured the results of our dialog in this indepth interview. The photos of this stunning artist presented below were provided for exclusive use in this article.
A native of Los Angeles and interestingly a close colleague of Charlotte Martin (feature), Terami's music also frequently appeals to enthusiasts of Tori Amos and Kate Bush, artists that Terami admires. She has a remarkable life story best read in the biography section of her own website. Terami's third full length album is a 12-track collection entitled Entropy 29 and is released on the heels of the four track EP "Little Light" that was offerred to her online audience free of charge. Read our review of Terami's stunning new album below.
Musical Discoveries: At what age did you know you wanted to be a musician? Did you have any other career ambitions when you were younger?
Terami Hirsch: I began studying piano when I was five years old, so I never thought of myself as not a musician. Though, I didn't know I would be making records until I actually made one.
Living in LA as a teenager, I just wanted to be an actress when I grew up. But once I worked in a few films, I knew I didn't have the talent for that. So I went to art school to become a cinematographer. No talent there either. Photography, poetry, graphic design, a laundry list of failed ambition. All through this, I continued to write my songs. When the dust cleared, music was the only thing left standing.
Did you always have parental support in your musical ambitions or did they see it as teenage rebellion and perhaps something they hoped you'd grow out of?
There was never any struggle against my parents. The best thing they could have done was encourage me, and that's exactly what they did.
You graduated from art school having studied cinematography. Do you perceive your music as visual in any sense?
Not only do I think in visual terms, but I'm very inspired by painting, photography, film, sculpture, and collage. As I was writing the song "Timberline," I kept looking at Lisa Albinger's painting "The Guardian" and expanding the canvas of her scene in my mind. Just beyond her trees, I was standing at the edge of a clearing, looking in to what she was showing me. Art like that can easily be a catalyst for language and sound. I'm like a translator and I hope that people will hear my songs and see what I saw.
How did you find the experience of recording your first album? And how would you compare that to Entropy 29?
All Girl Band was recorded in a precocious, haphazard way. After a few failed attempts working with producers on the album, I reached my boiling point. Everyone wanted to make me The Next Debbie Gibson. I'm not even joking. I didn't know how to explain what I wanted for myself, except to scream from the rafters, "NOT DEBBIE GIBSON!!!"
I left a session one night, totally bummed out. Someone loaned me a book about Andy Kaufman, which I read instead of sleeping. Around 4am, I finished the book and decided that if Andy could make his own rules, then so could I. I didn't know what independent music was, I didn't know how to operate recording equipment, arrange a song, sequence the tracks, or produce my performance, but all of a sudden that didn't matter.
I flicked the switch and started recording. For three days straight I plowed through a list of songs and emerged with an awkward, scrawny project. To me, the travels I had in the three days justified the outcome and I felt the whole experience was worth putting into the world, even if nobody cared to listen.
These days, I've come to relish the process of album creation. I take my time to learn the machines, stretch their boundaries, and tinker with the nuance of each song. What hasn't changed is that I still prefer to work alone. With All Girl Band, I worked alone for three days. On Entropy 29, I worked alone for three years.
Do you find the comparisons of your work to that of Tori Amos and Kate Bush irritating or flattering?
Flattering. Kate Bush and Tori Amos are both visionaries. In recording Entropy 29, I discovered The Dreaming, which has become my favorite Kate Bush record. In fact, I woke up this morning with "Get Out of My House" screaming in my head. It's marvelous and scary, wild and abandoned. I hold Kate Bush on a pedestal of musical achievement. I just listen with my mouth gaping open.
I don't know how much I truly sound like either artist, though. I think we all just sort of fall into a less familiar category of non-mainstream pop/rock with an emphasis on piano and lyrical content. Nevertheless, the fact that my name would make it into a sentence next to theirs--even if the sentence was "Terami Hirsch is Tori Amos' ugly stepsister"--is a tremendous flattery. Except the ugly stepsister part. That bit might send me into a mad tailspin of reconstructive surgery.
Do you think image is important and if so how do you use yours to draw attention to your work?
Image? IMAGE?? We're not supposed to talk about these things! Image is something that major artists use to manipulate their popularity.
Oh, but, ok. Sadly, image is a part of all things that receive focus in the media. So, I admit, I have mine. Or I try to have mine. Because, really, I don't have enough visibility in the media to have a defined image. I'm a girl who is a bit of a reject, making unpopular music in a ghetto home studio. And if that sells you on my work, then you're my kind of people.
What's it like being an independent female artist these days?
Independent artists are not immune to packaging their visibility. Male or female, we're all trying to give you a piece of who we are. It's an empowering time we're working in. I can set up a flimsy studio, sequester myself for three years, write about it in a blog, and call myself an artist. None of that makes a difference.
The only thing that matters, signed, unsigned, famous or obscure is the process of expression that we go through in order to produce our records. I think more people should embrace the art they make and worry less about the success, visibility, acceptance or influence of their work.
You spent some time in Galway in Ireland which is certainly very different from where you were raised. What provoked that move? And did the stay influence your music in any way?
I used to study the tarot. At the end of each lesson, my teacher would give me a reading. One night she told me that I had great vision, but a heart that resisted its dreams. I had recently lost a young family member who died unexpectedly, and that loss was festering inside me. When I woke up the morning after my reading, the only thought in mind was that I had to see Ireland before I died. I had to do something that revived the importance of my heart.
At 9:00 am, I visited the library to learn a little about the geography of Ireland. I recognized a picture of Kylemore Abbey from a poster I had hanging in my room. Underneath the photo was a caption with the location "Connemara, Galway, Ireland." So I decided to move there because of the photo.
By 10:00 am, I had a ticket in hand. After noon, I told my parents I was moving. There was nothing they could do to alter my plans. Two months later, I flew out of LAX to Shannon, not knowing a single soul in the country.
I spent my time there writing and grieving. I would visit hotels and beg to use their pianos. Sometimes they would let me play, but most times I would buy dinner, drink a little stout and cozy up to the resident piano player to get some time alone with the keys.
Finally, I moved to Limerick to work as an au pair. My payment was use of the piano when the family was out of the house. It was a short lived situation, but very gratifying to finally have privacy with my songs. In the long term, I think Ireland reconnected me with my heart, what I dream of for myself, what inspires me, what empowers me, what motivates me, and how I want to spend my life.
Do you have a set method for writing songs, or does each song demand a different approach from you?
Songwriting is pretty emotional for me. Usually I let my fingers doodle around on the keyboard until I strike a melody that resonates with me. The lyrics come after that. Unfortunately, I'm a slave to my ever-changing moods.
Where do you draw on inspiration for your music and lyrics?
In earlier songs, my inspiration came from relationships and personal dramas. If I was feeling angry or unexpressed, I'd lash it out. On Entropy 29, I took a more refined path. I let my imagination guide me. Perhaps the most temperamental and imaginative song is "When it's Dark." I woke up in the middle of the night and opened the window above the head of my bed. I looked out into my cricketed and howling backyard--part of a hill in Topanga Canyon--and let my mental self run wild. Writing that song was a catalyst for me. I scrapped a bunch of earlier writings at that point to focus on the world I was inventing whenever the rest of the neighborhood fell asleep.
Does your childhood alter-ego Bob ever influence the material at this point?
Bob! Wow. No. Not ever. Bob was never the most gracious part of me. He was a comedian who nobody found to be funny. A misanthrope at heart who liked to silently revel in observing the horridness of teenage life, he was how I allowed myself to be rude and disconnected. I don't need to hide behind him anymore. But in my yearbook, my senior quote says, "I'm Bob."
As part of the promo for the new album you've had 1600 EPs manufactured which you've issued free and with postage waived. If I've got this right you're doing this instead of making mp3s available? This is certainly an interesting move. Could you tell us the thinking behind it?
It's boring business thoughts, really. But one morning I thought "I have $X.XX amount of money. Do I want to to do a radio promotion to introduce people to my new music? Or can I be more creative than that?" I took a little heat for my decision because some people didn't understand why I wouldn't just post mp3s on MySpace.
But there's nothing I love more than getting fun mail. It makes me excited, and it entertains me. Email doesn't do that in the same way. mp3s don't do that in the same way. So I wanted to extend a gift--risking that some people wouldn't appreciate it--in order to invite a connection with the people who would get it. And for me, it was completely worth it.
Contrast Entropy 29 to your prior releases. What will listeners be familiar with and what will be the major differences?
Entropy 29 is much more imaginative, lyrically and musically, to what I've been able produce in the past. A lot of my time was spent hunting down inspiration. I started reading Louise Glück and Jack Gilbert, both of whom blew my mind wide open in terms of language and the flexibility of relating memory through storytelling. I also heard Noe Venable when I was almost finished with the writing process, and her melodic approach encouraged me to really push to find less obvious angles in my songs. Less was created from on-spot experiences and more was mined from letting my mind wander.
In terms of similarity, I think people will still recognize my sense of storytelling. I don't usually write about straight-up relationships or very direct subjects, even though my lyrics can be confrontational. In the end, the songs have a way of becoming something more observant, emotional, and canted. At least, I hope so.
Also, Entropy 29 is more cohesive, thematically. I've always tried to bundle together songs that "fit," but this time, the album creation was an obsessive process.
What would you like us to know about the people that worked with you in the various stages of the project?
I worked with some incredible people. Emily Spaude flew out from Chicago for whirlwind couple of days. We went wild with the violin. I made massive swooping gestures to make up for my lack of string instrument vocabulary, and she walked around my halls and rooms, pulling melodies out of the air. Because I became such an expert at string vocabulary after Em, I felt brave enough to enlist Carter Dewberry on cello several months later. She has a Ph.D. in Chamber Music Performance, which makes my knuckles sweat. Her performance on my songs is nothing short of a gift.
On alternate days with Carter, I brought in Hector Ferreiro, who I know from his work with my friend Charlotte Martin. He kicks butt as a live bassist, but with me in the studio, I could have wept. He has vision! And passion! The bossa nova bassline in "Little Light" is all Hector.
I intended to mix the full album myself, and if it wasn't through the grace of good fortune, I would have bungled the whole thing. Luckily, my friend John Norten offered to mix a couple songs to repay me for a website I made for him a few years ago. I agreed, but quickly realized my amateur mixes wouldn't stand up well next to his, back to back on the album. So I hired him to do the whole thing. Then, Jean-Marie Horvat donated a room at Oz Studios, without which my boat would have sunk.
There's so much I don't know. But because of these patient and talented people, I feel more tuned in to my own process. I still do as much by myself as humanly possible, but I would be remiss if I didn't say how grateful I am to have these artists on board.
Speaking about the various stages, please tell us about the keyboard and bathroom in your own words.
Well, the keyboard I wrote most of the songs on is a dumpy consumer-level 76 key disaster. No weighted keys. Its lightweight nature forced me to write delicate fingerings and emphasize melody instead of heavier chord movements which is what I wanted for this album.
The bathroom converted to an echo-y booth for about six weeks while I did vocals. Kevin engineered the sessions from my studio and ran the cables out of the room and across the hallway to my little ice box. It was uncomfortable and the floor was creaky. If I moved while attempting to emote during a song, the squeaking noises would ruin the take. So I stood still and tried my hardest to not sound like a statue attempting to sing.
You seem to tour extensively. What are your upcoming tour plans? And do you have any plans to tour abroad, and are there any cities / countries / continents you'd especially like to play in?
I love touring. It's an incredible experience. I'd like to tour more. Right now, I don't have any plans to leave Los Angeles for shows. I'm trying to figure out how to travel in the spring, but I don't know how it's going to happen yet. My big desire is to travel back to Ireland to perform and certainly visit England and Scotland for some shows. And while I'm out there, I need to visit Patrick and Ivar in France. Even if they're the only two Frenchmen who know who I am good enough.
Can you tell us about the transformation from studio artist to the on-stage act?
For me, it's a very hard change. In the studio, I'm in control. I spaz, I swear, I wear my pajamas. And nobody witnesses the fatalities. On stage, after all these years, I still consider myself a beginner. I get so stupid happy, I don't know what will come out of my mouth.
How do the audiences react to your persona?
I don't know how to answer this question, really. When I'm on stage, energy is everything. There's no explaining it --either it's there, or it isn't. Usually people are receptive, warm, appreciative and enthusiastic--and other times it's like I'm singing to a room of cats, unimpressed.
What differences are there between the records and your live performance in front of an audience?
The recent records are more produced. Live, I'm usually solo or with Carter on cello. It's more stripped down in front of an audience.
What gigs and venues that stick out in your mind? Are there any artists that you particularly enjoyed performing on stage with or on the same bill with?
In my small resume of shows, I've had some amazing experiences. The one that sticks out in my mind the most was the RAINN benefit concert in Philly (2003). Opening the show was Happy Rhodes. I was second. Then Emm Gryner closed. I shared a bill with Emm the year before and always enjoyed her shows when she came through Los Angeles. But I had never seen Happy live. It was selfish on my part, but when the RAINN organizers asked me to suggest a third artist to add to the bill, I said, "Happy Rhodes, Happy Rhodes, Happy Rhodes. Oh, pretty please, get Happy Rhodes." When they did, I screamed for about 20 minutes.
I don't recall the performance being my best, by any stretch. I was far too nervous. But when I went back to my hotel that night, I cried into my pillow until my eyes were dry because I was so overwhelmed that I shared the stage with two strong, independent women who I truly admire.
Do you generally find other artists supportive or is there a sense of competition among you?
I have a good--and growing--group of artist friends. They keep me sane. Especially Charlotte [Martin], since she and I have helped each other along for so many years. She's sort of set a standard for me in terms of how artists should treat each other. Competition isn't my thing because that forces a winner and a loser. Instead, between friends, it should always be about getting and giving inspiration. Short of that--zip. I don't want to be part of it.
How do you think the internet has influenced your musical career? Do you think it holds promise for your future?
I enjoy the internet most as a music fan. There's so much music waiting for my ears! Without the internet, I wouldn't have heard of Noe Venable, Eric Metzgar, Happy Rhodes, Jennifer Terran, Sarah Slean, Michelle Cross, or my latest musical love, Patrick Wolf.
In the end, I hope by putting my music online, someone--somewhere--will stumble on my work and feel a similar sense of relief that their ears found me.
When you think about the next year, what are your musical hopes and dreams?
I really hope to tour in 2006. Other than that, it's just slow and steady. Keep writing. Keep producing. Keep discovering music and literary geniuses to fill my insatiable need for inspiration.
Terami, we've both waited a long time for this interview. Before we close, is there anything you'd like to say to Musical Discoveries' readers?
It's been a pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity to introduce myself to the people who scour the internet like me, hoping to find new music to connect with.
Entropy 29 (Madstone Records (USA) 040605-07, 2005) is the third, and most richly produced, album by Los Angeles-based singer songwriter Terami Hirsch. The three-year-in-the-making project follows the artist's issue of the four-track "Little Light" EP that contains two tracks from Entropy 29, a remix and a bonus b-side as well as three earlier full length albums: To The Bone (2002) and All Girl Band. Terami also previously issued three additional EPs entitled respectively "3 of X" (2003), "Stickfigures" (2002) and "Stained Sampler" (2002). Note that Entropy 29 is scheduled for release in November 2005.
Although the project was produced with all of the heart wrenching emotion and musical ambiance of her former projects, Terami brought in guest artists to contribute to the project, including: Hector Ferreiro (Bass), Carter Dewberry (Cello), Emily Spaude (Violin), Kevin Benson (Mr. Tambourine Man). A striking similarity to the material of Tori Amos is immediately drawn from the piano-based arrangements. Terami's vocals are emotive and evocative, and are layered at times, soaring above the arrangements providing wonderful backing harmonies. That she put the vocal tracks down in the bathroom of her southern California home is certainly not evident in the final production. The vocalise and backing harmonies in "Drifting" are equisitely performed and beautifully recorded.
Entropy 29 shows a continuing development from her previous albums. It is, she says "the first project that has consumed my life," and listening to the album one can appreciate how this might well have been the case as it's a far more ambitious work than anything she's released before, not only lyrically and musically, but also conceptually.
Her clever use of simple piano motiffs as introductions to a number of tracks--although each is slightly different--helps to give the album a cohesive feel, and whilst the listener can decide for themselves whether on not to consider Entropy 29 a concept album, there are certainly ideas and themes that reappear throughout the work. In an interview on fan site Sky Bleeds Scorpio, Terami lists these as "Time travel. Space travel. Ghosts. Lucid Dreaming. Parallel realities." The site itself summarizes the album as – "an inner journey, weaving stories of loss and childhood through a backdrop of science fiction." So we're all a lot clearer now, right?
While the inevitable comparisons with Tori Amos's style are bound to continue, they're much less evident on this outing than on To The Bone. The use of guest musicians and more imaginative arrangements have given Terami a lot more scope to experiment. There's also a growing Kate Bush influence on a number of the tracks,notably "When It's Dark," "Anywhere But Here," and perhaps most obviously on "Love." Followers of Jennifer Terran, Lisa Germano and even Bjork--listen to the opening 45 seconds of the closing track "Timberline" for example--are also going find much here to please them.
Maybe in all this talk of concepts, there's a danger of looking too hard for connections and actually missing the fact that, whatever the genesis of the pieces or the album's raison d'etre, this is a gorgeous, if notably dark, collection of songs. Three years of hard work has paid off--it is a tremendous project, worthy of exploration entirely in its own right without comparison to other artists. The world eagerly awaits the November, 2005 release!--Russ Elliot in New York and Jamie Field in Kington, Herefordshire
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