RVA Live! Feat. Matthew E. White, Natalie Prass, Tim Barry, Bio Ritmo, Clair Morgan

Matthew E. White

Every record tells a story, a few journeys around the sun before the needle locks into the center and the side is over. A youngish English chanteuse flies across the ocean to hang with a soft-spoken American auteur producer for two weeks at a world-class studio in an unassuming central Virginia neighborhood across the gravel road from a field with some peaceful horses, she soaks up the spring sunshine and the heavy southern air and in this wisecracking den of ace musicians, teaches them a thing or two about how life is lived and music is felt, then they lay down incredible covers both familiar and new, or unfamiliar and old, with an easygoing style that captures the essence of the songs and a bit of the wildness of what it means to be human. The producer has done his homework, she lights fireworks on her first Fourth of July in the USA, the session runs smoothly, lightning is bottled up, and she goes home. And you want to travel with her and you want to travel blind. Alternate title, Flo Meets Matt in America–there’s a good start.

Flo met Matthew in person for the first time at a Lee Hazelwood tribute performance at the Barbican in London in

the fall of 2015, where they both sang Some Velvet Morning, solidified their correspondence into a friendship and discussed a desire to work together in the near future. That desire grew into Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, in some ways a straightforward duets record, of a kind that has fallen out of fashion, two separate entities meeting to record a collection of great songs as a one-off, Marvin & Tammi-style. In other ways it’s a more unique animal, less typical back and forth duets, more subtle and complimentary spotlight sharing. A record like Gentlewoman, Ruby Man might feel inevitable, but it’s a small miracle and a testament to the hard work and natural chemistry of these two artists that they were able to pull it off, to find each other and collaborate on a project of this kind across the ocean and the unsteady 21st century musical landscape.

Both Morrissey and White seem destined to travel beyond genre, though they explored more definable traditions in earlier releases. Morrissey’s Tomorrow Will Be Beautiful (2015) is an honest and beatific affair, a refreshing outlier in a resurging field of folk rock that had fallen into glossy commercialism,

her youthful debut looking back to the early aughts when Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom recorded a slew of exceptional acoustic music. White’s stunning debut Big Inner (2012) and its follow-up Fresh Blood (2015) are two southern soul journeys, engaging and idiosyncratic statements crafted with his family of Richmond collaborators. Gentlewoman, Ruby Man is a little more difficult to categorize, closing with a leftfield, but utterly sublime chant to Lord Krishna. The fact that it actually works, signals what kind of a special universe this project exists in, a universe familiar to anyone who has followed White’s label-cum-production house Spacebomb.

White’s production takes cues from the touchstones of tape that have become recording canon, he flourishes under a benevolent regime of preparation and in-the-moment respect for the musician’s intuition. Feel, what I feel, when I feel, what I feel, when I’m feelin’, in the sunshine. What separates him from the new class of rock producers with magpie access to all the coolest records from all the decades, is his background in jazz and sophisticated understanding of arrangement, in the tradition of a Quincy Jones with more than a few strands of Brian Wilson’s

psychedelic DNA. Morrissey injected a dose of spiritual joy into the process, placing an educated faith in White’s direction and providing her own guiding light in the studio, ready with a studied opinion or an inspired suggestion.

Flo’s ethereal voice, timeless to begin with, has matured and strengthened, bringing a richness and magic core to everything it touches, and she really sings the night out. White’s honeydrop vocal caresses offer a complimentary texture or prowl in the lead. These are big songs tackled with zero insecurity and ego, the band fiery and loose, taking the pressure and throwing away conventionality. An album of covers could have slipped into mindless eclecticism, commercial efforts at popularity or crate digging cred, but White and Morrissey simply picked good, sometimes unexpected songs that they love and feel connected to, from Grease (1978), to a spine-tingling take on the title track from James Blake’s The Colour In Anything (2016). Nine tracks that feed the heart and move the body.

A ruby in the rough and a queen of gentle strength. Gentlewoman, Ruby Man.

On Dec. 24, 2013, Matthew E. White could not fall asleep in his childhood bedroom. The Richmond singer, bandleader and modern soul visionary had returned to his parents' home in Virginia Beach for the holidays. During the previous 18 months, he'd toured Europe and America extensively, played Primavera and Glastonbury, performed at The Hollywood Bowl and the Sydney Opera House, and even staged a live rendition of his surprise-hit debut, Big Inner, with a band of 30 members. Big Inner earned five stars in The Guardian and a spot on its year-end list, plus those of Pitchfork, eMusic and Consequence of Sound. But White hadn't rested or seen his family very much. At last, he was excited to do both.
The insomnia, though, didn't stem from childlike anticipation of early-morning presents. Actually, White hurt too much to sleep. Not long after he arrived in Virginia Beach, he developed a sudden case of shingles, the stresses of the last year-and-a-half rendering themselves in painful physical form. So while his parents visited his grandmother and his sister celebrated with her own family just a few blocks away, White spent Christmas Eve alone in his childhood double bed.
But that was OK, as the break gave him the chance to consider the bizarre turns his life had taken—that is, how he went from making a solo record by accident to embracing a solo career so busy it had made him sick.
"For the first time, I remember thinking, 'What just happened?'" he says, laughing long after the shingles have passed. "I thought about all the places I went, the people I played to, the people who cared about my record and felt moved by it. That was the craziest year of my life by miles and miles—and the hardest and the most exciting, too."
To backtrack, briefly: In 2009, White and a cadre of friends developed the idea of Spacebomb Records, an old-fashioned label and production house meant to turn the tunes of songwriters they liked into grandiose, graceful statements. They had in-house strings and horns and a choir at their behest, too. Collectively, the musicians possessed a wide, working knowledge that could pivot from the gusto of New Orleans to the verve of Detroit, from tube-amp rock to hi-fi pop. Sure, people like to talk about White's past with jazz or his love of classic American songcraft. It's telling, however, that as a high school student, he interned at Master Sound, the hometown studio that Pharrell Williams eventually turned into the epicenter of his empire.
To demonstrate the Spacebomb ideal, White and his wide cast recorded a few songs he'd pieced together, hoping mostly to show other songwriters how the system would work. But those cuts became Big Inner, the record that Uncut termed "one of the great albums of modern Americana" and caused Paste to proclaim that White was one of music's "best new bands." Tours, interviews, photo shoots and, well, the shingles followed.
While White spent Christmas Eve considering what had happened, he already knew what was going to happen next: When the holidays ended, he would begin turning the bits and bobs of song ideas he'd collected on tour into his second album, bolstered by the validation of welcome he'd found in the wider world.
If the first album had been serendipity, every step of this one was to be deliberate, from his co-writing sessions with longtime friend and former bandmate Andy Jenkins to his steady arrangement brainstorms with the trusted Spacebomb house band—bassist Cameron Ralston, drummer Pinson Chanselle and guitarist Trey Pollard, who co-produced the subsequent recording sessions with White. There were timelines and deadlines, detailed discussions about who would mix the music (New York staple Patrick Dillett) and the many stories the songs would share. The result is the audacious, confident and masterful Fresh Blood, a record that feels like the brilliant bloom to Big Inner's striking bud.
Fresh Blood is a bracing, beguiling record and a bold advance for White. Opener "Take Care My Baby" is his step-into-the-light moment, a sophisticated but instantly winning soul number where love becomes a panacea for woe. That enthusiasm crosses over for "Fruit Trees," a smiling, seductive number where White—his voice traced and teased by horns, strings and harmonies—begs for a paramour to "let me sleep in your tent tonight."
Sometimes these situations don't go well, though, which White confesses during "Feeling Good is Good Enough." It's a breakup song in ecstatic pursuit of temporary carnal relief. And while it's got nothing to do with love, lust or leaving, the sassy "Rock & Roll is Cold" radiates the aplomb of an artist who has stumbled into success and taken charge of the circumstances. White's having fun, trading lines with backup singers and saxophones alike, teasing components of the gospel, soul and rock form that shape the very backbone of the music he makes. This is White's party, and he's a most welcoming host.
That same spirit presides during the set of more solemn and pointed songs that serve as Fresh Blood's core. For White, one lesson of Big Inner and the tours that followed was that he wanted to be able to believe in his songs every night, to know that the words he sang were more than vehicles for memorable melodies.
"I didn't like singing 'Steady Pace' every night. It was too light. It didn't age well for me," he says. "My peers and I sometimes have a lack of concern and awareness for the world around us—culturally, politically, socially. We are in danger of being lulled to sleep by our culture's excess. I'm not writing political songs yet, but I've tried to at least write songs that have to do with the variety and reality of our lives."
And so, at the record's center, White delivers a trilogy of beautiful reflections on the world as he sees it. An agitated but elegant excoriation of sexual abuse in the church, "Holy Moly" rages like a missing midpoint between Neil Young's Harvest and Tonight's the Night. "Tranquility" meditates on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a consummate artist whose dual force and frailty has long resonated with White.
And in "Circle 'Round The Sun," a look at the suicide of a dear friend's mother, White finds one of the most exquisite moments of balance in his entire career. It is a love song written from the perspective of the recently departed, calmly exploring a tumult of conflicting loyalties—to Jesus, to family, to life, to death.
"Wading in the water, Lord, keep my son and daughter," White sings, at once gentle and resolved over steady and soft piano and drums. "Put your arms around me, Jesus, tonight."
At the risk of heresy, Fresh Blood feels as comfortable and fraught as those lines and that song. Simultaneously recognizing the trouble and delight that life can bring, these 10 numbers are guides for times of joy, agony and the middle distance where we most often linger. After only two albums, Matthew E. White feels now like an old friend who has seen what we've seen, heard our stories and done his best to make a record that gives them necessary gravity. That way, when we lay awake at night considering our own pain or worry, we've got new anthems to keep us company.
Domino will release Fresh Blood worldwide on CD, LP and digitally March 15, 2015.

Natalie Prass

Natalie Prass is the kind of artist Spacebomb was created for–a songwriter’s songwriter and performer’s performer blessed with a golden voice and universal appeal–a singer who understands the vision and brings an undeniable talent to the process. She’s a joy for any listener to discover–a lover and a fighter and old-soul trader in genuine energy, aiming straight for the heart. Prass turns a sly eye to the pageantry of emotion, the drama of love and the mysteries of everyday life with a disarming mixture of sincerity and cosmic insolence, unapologetically romantic, spinning golden threads of lyric and melody, each inflection and melisma planned and considered, each word tailored for meaning and effect–the pop gesture as artform. She delivers it all with carefree charm and nearly divine intuition. Her voice, at times so ethereal, is shot through by strength and sinew and just a hint of transient grit. The feeling is soft, but it cuts so deep, leaving any listener with a trace of a soul, thunderstruck and enchanted.

Born in Cleveland, in the heart of the 1980s, Prass entered the teenage slipstream back on the east coast, past the haunted houses, surf shops, and burger joints of Virginia Beach, a mid-tier, rough-around-the-edges resort town. There is an inevitability to every biography, a myriad of strange narrative palm lines that twist and intersect, and she followed hers bravely to a seam of alternative beach culture, living close to the Atlantic Ocean but studying a less bronzed way of life. With her pet bird on her shoulder, she took intensive music and visual art courses all through high school. Going to a good music school was the next logical step, but after a year in cold, snowy Boston, Prass dropped out of Berklee and returned to the beach. She spent a spell working and playing shows in boardwalk clubs before moving out to Nashville where she has spent close to the last decade developing her craft, collaborating with some of the better characters on the edges of Music City culture, building a reputation with her radiant voice, unique performances, and for being a bit of an iconoclast. Prass has carefully avoided the glossy singer-songwriter scene, reaching for something more interesting, more exciting.For her debut performance at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium, she surprised fans by pulling off a guileless reggae set in front of an Isaac Hayes poster she had displayed behind her band.

When the time came to record a full length, Prass returned to Virginia to work with Spacebomb Records, a label able to realize big visions and lush productions within the rustic charm of its attic studio. The match made sense musically and her ties to Matthew E. White go back to playing in rock bands in their high school days. The two worked together, selecting nine tracks to run through Spacebomb’s creative machine. With hard work and the alchemy of circumstance, they crafted an unassuming masterpiece–a real stunner that sounds both thoroughly out-of-time and impossibly fresh.

Prass is a powerful, beguiling performer and cunning pop composer–one for the moment and one for the ages.

Tim Barry

An American singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He is the former lead singer of the Richmond, Virginia-based punk rock band Avail. In addition to performing with Avail, he was the bass guitarist in the Richmond-based folk punk band (Young) Pioneers from 1994-1995. Barry has been performing folk music on his own since 2004.

Bio Ritmo

La Exelencia, Grupo Fantasma, Jose Conde y la Fresca, Alex Wilson, Sergent Garcia, and Ricardo Lemvo have all produced excellent samples of contemporary salsa, but surely one of the best original and longest running must be Bio Ritmo. Since their founding in 1991, this Richmond, Virginia-based orchestra has fearlessly carried on the spirit of tradition/innovation that once was so prevalent in the 1970s but is rarer today. These self-produced, veteran indie-label warriors are all accomplished musicians in their own right, coming originally from disparate musical backgrounds outside the realm of salsa-reggae, punk, classical, and modern jazz.

In 2012, Morgan released his debut full-length entitled No Notes. A release that featured Morgan performing a majority of songs written over the span of several years. After several lineup shifts, he has settled into a groove with this current incarnation. In 2016, Richmond label Egghunt Records will be putting out the group’s second LP entitled New Lions and The Not Good Night. This new album was recorded in Arlington, Virginia at the legendary Inner Ear Studios and was mixed and mastered by Engineer TJ Lipple.

"It should be understood that I'm impressed with Clair Morgan as well these days. The recent release of "Rogue Island," the first single from his/their forthcoming second LP, New Lions And The Not Good Night (out May 6 on Egghunt!). I love everything about this new song, from the tangly yet beautiful guitar leads to the part two-thirds of the way through where Morgan's vocals are replaced by some beautiful femme crooning. I can't wait to hear more from the new LP" - Drew Necci - RVA MAG



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