Audio excerpts from an interview recorded on March 16, 2013. Joe Frawley and Michelle Cross discuss the creation of Dolls Come To Life with Joel Krutt on his program Pushing The Envelope, WHUS, 91.7 FM, Storrs, CT.
Phone interview conducted by Kelsey Marvin, a junior Music Business major at Indiana State University, for a course project exploring living composers and their effect on music in society today. February 2, 2013.
K: Hi, Joe, this is Kelsey Marvin from Indiana State University
J: Thank you for calling.
K: No, thank you! I really appreciate this.
J: Before you start can I ask you a couple questions?
K: Yeah, absolutely. Please do!
J: So, you’re an undergraduate?
K: Yes, I am a junior music business major.
J: Ok! So this is for…what class again?
K: It is our music history course and we are in the second semester so we are exploring, not necessarily contemporary music, but for this particular project we are interviewing contemporary composers.
J: Does everyone in your class have to interview someone or is everyone doing a different project?
K: Yes, we all chose a different composer, and it could be any style of music. I know one student was wanting to do John Cage, and another Eric Whitacre. So, I was searching the internet for living composers when I came across your webpage. I became instantly fascinated by your music, and was hoping I could get in touch to interview you!
J: Ok! I was just curious how you arrived to this project. I am happy to interview for you, I don’t know how interesting I am, but am happy to do this for you, so, fire away.
K: Great. So we will just go off the questions I sent you, then if there are any follow up questions, we can stray from the list if we need to.
Now, on your website, I did a little research on you outside your website, but I was just wondering if you could give me a little musical background on yourself, as well as how and when you decided to start composing.
J: Um, well, let’s see. I was a pianist when I was younger I took piano lessons. I probably was 9 years old when I started. You know, typical American suburban musical experience, I did music lessons, then when I got into high school I started getting into rock, and played guitar. Then I started getting curious about jazz, and when it came time for me to go to college I decided to go to Berkelee College of Music in Boston, and I really wasn’t happy there with the program, so I transferred to the University of Connecticut where I ended up graduating. I did a little bit of everything. I was kind of a Jack of all trades, master of none, I really don’t feel like I was super talented as a performer or writer or anything like that, I just loved music. I tried to be a jazz improviser for a while, I wrote songs, and then right around the time I graduated I started to focus more on traditional, classical style composition, and I did that for many years. I wrote choral pieces, and I tried to write in a real classical style, with sonata form and fugues and all that. But my growing up was listing to rock and house music, and music with samples. When I was doing the classical music, it wasn’t expressing everything I heard in my head, you know, it was using just instruments, so at some point, I got some computer software and I started messing around with samples that I found. Sometimes I would lift sections I found off of classical records I found. You know, just playing with them, and something clicked at some point where I got the idea to put my own piano music, where I put these, I call them sound collages, in the sound collage. With the found sounds and the samples I was playing with, I hit on a style, and just kind of went from there. So it was a lot of experimentation to find a style that was comfortable for me to express myself in.
K: So how do you choose the sound samples and vocal tracks that you use with the speaking? Do you have something in mind when you go to look for them, do you create them yourself? What’s the process because it’s interesting because it is not something conventional, to not use vocal tracks that aren’t singing, it is just voices.
J: For the voices, it started out with me finding little snippets from anything, radio interviews or movies, anything I could find. It went on for me to look for specific things, so toward the later recordings I would ask friends or specific people to read texts for me. I think the common thing about the voices is that I think about all my pieces as recorded dreams, that’s what I usually describe them as. So I like that kind of soft-spoken, almost hypnotic sound to it. It is more about the tone of the voice sometimes to me, even over what they are actually saying. I don’t think that the voices are really, I don’t think there’s any real meaning. Like people try to find out what the song means or the piece means. It’s not really about a narrative meaning, just getting any kind of word or phrase that will get your mind to a certain place. It’s kind of hard to explain, I just know it when I hear it.
K: With your music would you say that you intentionally break boundaries? I know you said that you started out in the “classical style”, but do you intentionally further your boundaries and try to break them and see how much farther you can go against the grain, or do you just do what you feel compelled to do, and however it turns out is how it sounds?
J: It’s not really intentionally trying to be different, or trying to push people’s buttons because I don’t think my music is, it’s experimental, but it’s not provocative really. It uses tonal harmony; it’s almost easy to listen to. There is a lot of music that is experimental that is atonal and jarring and intentionally wants to disturb you a little bit. I don’t think of myself as cutting edge, in your face that way. For me it’s when you hit on a style, how deeply you can go into it. Have you listened to Phillip Glass at all?
K: Yes, a little bit.
J: So if you listen to any Phillip Glass, even his early stuff (he’s had a long career), but you know it’s him from the first five seconds of the music. Even though it isn’t always exactly the same- his style has developed- but he has taken this one little idea and just gone as deeply as he could into it, and made this whole world just out of this one style. It has always been an inspiration for me to just see how far I can go into this one approach without getting boring. Just see how many places I can go with this one thing.
K: Yeah, and you mentioned that your music, you described it as kind of like a dream. Is that consistent with all the projects, albums, and CDs you’ve produced? Or is that something that you’ve newly developed and are sticking with? Do you have different themes for each project? I know you’ve been working on the Dolls Come To Life project. Does that coincide with the dream theory in your music or is that totally different?
J: I think it’s all the same. At this point I have 12 CDs and I’ve been doing this for 6 or 7 years. I’m at the point now where it isn’t even intentional. I kind of just feel what I am doing. I think if I stopped to think about it, I don’t see the new album to be anything dramatically different from the first one as far as the dream approach goes. And it can be more than just dreams, I’m interest in memory, subconscious, anything that is fleeting through your mind but you can’t get a grasp on.
K: Do you use your own dreams as a reference point? Do you have a certain dream and realize that you need to compose a song about it and describe how it made you feel or emotionally how it affected you?
J: Actually no. That’s an interesting question because I’m not really targeted that way. Some people do a really good job of pre-sketching, of getting an idea, say they want to write a piece about earthquakes or birds or a dream they had, and they just put it together. Even other types of artists, like painters or novelists, they say "I’m going to do this this and this" and they bang it out. For me it's more a process of discovery. I get a small kernel of an idea that sounds evocative to me, and I just put it up there, kind of like on a canvas. I see what it suggests to me and I just follow it. So the material suggests where it goes rather than me imposing a direction on it.
K: So in that respect do you hope the listeners will create their own message and their own connection with the music?
J: Yes exactly. I’m sure that I lead it in my own way in the choices that I make, but I hope not to make it too specific that their imagination can’t kick in and finish it off in a way.
K: So in a sense it’s almost like modern art, where if you go to an art museum, and when they look at an obscure piece of art, and each person that sees it can walk away from it with an entirely different impression. That’s kind of the beauty in it, right that the music changes to each ear and adapts to their own experiences.
J: Yes I agree. There might be a slight difference depending on what artist you are talking about. I think there is some music out there that I think is very abstract. So abstract that the listener is almost starting from zero. They have to build up the entire meaning for themselves, whereas I think I help people along a little more with the voices and the tone of the music. I think it’s about halfway there. If you think of some really avant-garde music, often when I listen to really experimental music, there is no reference point, it’s like “where am I?” You’re kind of in the dark almost. Mine at least starts you off in some direction.
K: Do you have specific composers or people in your life that influence your music?
J: Well I listened to a lot of Philip Glass when I was a teenager and in college. I like him. I like Michael Nyman. Like I said, I listened to a lot of rock music growing up. I liked Pink Floyd all that stuff, Peter Gabriel. More avant-garde or experimental rock. If you’ve read anything I’ve said before, I always mention Kate Bush because her albums are very important to me. She did some very experimental work in the 80’s with a lot of samples and sound effects and those type of things, so that’s another one. But people ask me that a lot, when they ask me who influenced me, they ask me “Who are you trying to sound like?” But I think the influences are more in the back of my mind rather than consciously trying to fit a style.
K: As I was researching online I found a quote. It wasn’t from your website it was from somewhere else, I don’t know if it was from Wikipedia or something when I was researching you. But I found a quote, and I would like to ask what your take is, and if you agree what it says.
J: is this the disposable culture quote?
K: Yes. Just for the sake of the recording I’ll read it out loud, it says: “He believes that one man’s earnest pursuit of intelligent art may offer an antidote to the ravages of a disposable culture.” I thought that was a very profound and interesting statement and I wanted to see what you thought about it.
J: Well, you may want to scratch this from the interview, but I almost wish I didn’t say that. I think I put that out there in a press release or something in 2006. Hearing it right now makes it sounds kind of snobby. Like my music is what people should be listening to instead of disposable culture. I probably meant it at the time, but I don’t think I would say that today. It’s kind of on the surface what it means, there’s a lot of garbage in pop culture. I have this crazy idea that the kind of music I make without a beat and that is kind of floaty, but a little bit challenging, I don’t see why that can't that be popular. Why does it have to be 4/4 and verse/chorus/verse. In my dream world, music would evolve so that this music can be heard by more people. But I don’t know why that doesn’t happen.
K: I’ve been developing a habit lately with the music I listen to. If it’s a song that I’m hearing for the first time, if I can predict how a line is going to go or a change in a song, if I can predict what is going to happen next while hearing it for the first time, I will turn it off. That’s what I go after really, is stuff that isn’t popularized because it is what everyone is used to, and I think that especially now, a lot of popularized music has no regard for quality.
J: It depends on what you listen to. If you listen to the radio, it’s such a business, it’s all formula, it’s based on the hit song that came before. So there’s really no room for innovation and it’s really sad. Pop music has always been like that. But there was a time, not to sound like the old guy talking about the glory days, but when I grew up, pop music during the 80’s, like the new wave period. And everything was verse/chorus/verse, but within that there was so much creativity and different approaches to the song. Now it’s just so cookie cutter.
K: We talked on how your music is somewhere between completely obscure and something along the lines of classical. When you create your music, do you intend for it to be very different from anything the listener has heard before? Is it created so people have something different to listen to?
J: I would say that I want people, when they listen, to have a unique experience. I want to be the owner of that space. I want Joe Frawley Music to be a world into itself that you can go into, and it has its own unique properties that you can’t get in any other place. I guess that goes back to staying true to your vision and style and really respecting and honoring it. Not veering off into other crazy sidelines. I like to think that there is consistency. And that it’s unique; it is different.
K: Because of that, regarding reviews in your music, have you ever had trouble with people that stick to the classical guns…have you ever had anyone approached you with that before?
J: Actually no, but it’s more because wherever I get talked about, they haven’t yet been really classically based. I would assume though, if I ever got into comparisons with modern classical music, it’s like apples and oranges. I don’t consider myself a composer in that sense. There are people out there today who are carrying out the tradition. They are doing symphonies and real European style composing, but I consider myself to be more in the review category of ambient music. I hate that word, ambient, but that’s the genre I tend to fall into.
K: Well I know you don’t like the word ambient, but what’s it like to be involved in that world? Really, I don’t know a ton about composing…our university actually has an event every year called Contemporary Music Festival where we have different composers come in and the students and staff play their music, in contemporary modern styles all over the spectrum. What’s it like being a composer in the industry and getting your music out there, especially in the computer age. I know that you offer all your music online, and for free, which I think is an interesting point and something else to ask you about. What brought you to make that decision to offer your music for free?
J: Well I should let you know that this isn’t my profession. I don’t live off this at all. I actually have a real full time job. So it isn’t really a career, but more a passionate hobby. You’re about to graduate in the next couple years, musicians usually have to work with something else unless they can hit on something that can support their lives. But I do a lot of promotion, I do a lot of it myself. I’d have to say that the times we’re living in with online distribution, it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. Everyone’s doing it, right? Because everyone can publish a song on Bandcamp, so you just put it out there, so there’s a lot of noise in the system. So that’s a bad thing because you are competing with so many others. On the other hand I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the internet. 20 years ago, the cost even just to make an LP, you’d have to save up your salary for three years just to get a recording studio to record your album. So I’m grateful because I can get my stuff out there. So like I said before it is a blessing and curse. But about the free that you were asking about…
K: Yes, I thought that was interesting.
J: Not all my stuff is for free, some of it is. What I’ve recently found to be the happy medium for releasing music is this payment optional thing. If people like your stuff, not everyone is going to pay for it even if they really like it. There is a certain expectation of freeness. Which is unfortunate on one hand, but at least your music is getting out. What I’ve done in the last couple of CDs I’ve put out, I sell the CD if it’s physical because it costs me money to make. But for downloads, it’s payment optional. So you can have it free if you want, you have to at least give me your email address, you have to at least let me know who you are, I think that’s fair. But other than that, I give a suggested amount. So it's like when you go to a concert in a library or a park where it says “suggested donation $5” or something. So I say “suggested amount $5”, you can pay more if you want, or you can have it for free. It ends up kind of equaling out. Many people take it for free, and that’s fine. Many pay the five, and if people are really enthusiastic about it they will give you $10 or $20. So at this point for me right now I think this is the best way to try to do it. I consider myself lucky if I don’t lose money. So if I can break even on the CD to make the next one, then I feel like I‘m staying on top of things. That’s what tends to happen.
K: Well one of the things that drew me so much to you, and made me want to listen to your music was your website. I know this isn’t exactly music related, but not only that but your album art as well. How do you choose the images? Your choices of art on your websites and albums, is interesting in the way that it correlates with your music. I was just curious if there was a specific way that you hold those decisions.
J: That’s so cool to hear because I put a lot of thought into it. I always wonder if people are getting that. I do have to say in full disclosure that about half of the artwork I design and draw myself, and about the other half friends of mine have done or I’ve asked talented people to help me with. So it’s kind of a mixture, but I usually give them some direction. As kind of a side hobby I do some photography and dabble in visual arts. So anything that I have done myself is the best I’ve done and is good enough to put on the album cover. You can ask about specific albums if you want, but some friends have done the work. I like to have a theme, I like to put a sleeping girl on there a lot of times. I feel like that’s nice. It’s not a logo or anything, it just seems to be a good visual. Someone with their eyes closed, and you can already imagine what’s going on in their mind. So it’s not random, it’s definitely thought out.
K: So, I’m not a composer. I write music, but it is just more singer/songwriter stuff. But if you were to speak to an aspiring composer with similar musical styles as yourself, what advice would you give them? About how you obviously have your set style, and you have your own boundaries you go off of and how you base your music. So how would you help someone to kind of find their niche and their exact style they want to portray when writing their music.
J: What works for me, and this might not work for everybody, but I would say that you should leave room for accidents to happen. Don’t be so stuck on your own intentions. Let it be more of a discovery process. Like we were saying before, rather than being some sort of dictator. That was a big creative moment for me when I just let go and realized I wasn't in control of it. I allowed myself to find the work as it goes along. Often you try to force your hand on the creative process- that's a mistake. You can find such amazing things, like "happy accidents" I call them, if you just let go of a little bit of control. To me that’s the one best piece of advice I think I can give.
K: Can you tell me a little bit about your Dolls Come to Life project that you’ve recently worked on with Michelle Cross? I know it just released yesterday, and was wondering if you could just give me an idea of how that came to life, and what it was like working with another person in your compositions?
J: Yeah. It was incredible in a way because at first I started off as more of a fan of her music, and the great thing about Facebook is everyone has a page and you can start a conversation with them. That’s how we met through Facebook, and that kind of blows my mind. But, she was very open to just talking with people who listen her music. We started talking before I even told her I was a musician. We mentioned Kate Bush earlier and something just came up between us, and we started talking about the 80’s Kate Bush albums and how unique they were and how creative they were. And she started talking about how she’s done all this rock stuff, but really wanted to start doing something with no drums and no guitars, you know, something a little bit more experimental but still where you could have songs, but the songs develop in a different way than they would on a rock record. So we decided to give it a try. She heard some of my stuff, which is much different from hers, but I think on a kind of leap of faith we decided to try and make something work. I’m so surprised it turned out as good as it did. I mean, if I can say that, I know I was involved in it. I was expecting it to be more of an experiment, but it really seemed to gel in nice ways, so we’re actually doing another one.
K: Oh fantastic! That’s great, so cool. And I’m assuming that the art that is provided on your website. But the album art for the album is fascinating and kind of sparks your interest and fuels a lot of suggestion for the music.
J: I love that cover. I describe it as a doll contemplating human mortality. Even though I had nothing to do with it. That was a friend of Michelle’s named Brandy Pudzis who did that drawing, but yeah, thank you very much.
K: I don’t really have any more questions, but was there anything you wanted to touch on? I mean you can ask questions too if you want.
J: Well, I just wanted to know about you and where you were coming from, but that’s great that you contacted me. If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a copy of this.
K: Oh absolutely!
(Discussion on converting wav. file to MP3)
…And thank you again so much for the quick responses and being able to do this interview. And listening to your music is really a pleasure.
J: Thanks for saying that, and thanks for doing this.
K: You’re very welcome! Bye bye.
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