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Interview with Todd Boston
Master Seven Interview by Tom Beninate
Copy Editor: Susan Castellano
Did you sit down and write the loops for the songs on this record or were some created while improvising?
Good question. I would say the majority of the material … were compositions that I wanted to bring into that framework of looping compositions -- songs that had enough substance to them, that translated into the looping technology. I would say the last track is one that jumped out as maybe more improvisational by nature. It has that type of a feel. It’s an interpretation of a particular Indian raga that I learned through a great teacher here in California named Ali Akbar Khan.
How has Ali Akbar Khan influenced your style of music?
Well Ali Akbar Khan was a master … who brought North Indian classical music to the United States in a big way. As a teacher here for over 40 years, he really brought to so many people this style of music. My music before tended towards folk and American roots. It is still a component of what I do very much. But I learned a tremendous amount about … what melody is. The Indian system tends towards single lines. It tends to be a singer or an instrumentalist who plays more single notes. There are not a lot of chordal changes in Indian music. It’s modal music. [It’s] a drone and the melody over top. The stacking of harmonies which we do a lot of in western music isn’t done as much. It’s a more minimalistic approach in that way where the individual note holds a lot of weight and holds a lot of expression for the emotion of the music. Also, there’s a very in-depth study of rhythm in that style of music. I think that it really helped me to grow melodically and also rhythmically as a musician in a tremendous way.
I know some of your inspirations growing up were Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Bela Fleck. Do you try to incorporate Ali Akbar Khan’s influence into your music style or gravitate towards his type of music?
For me, I try to play the type of music that comes to my heart most naturally. And I’ve found that …that gets the most positive response from people that are listening to the music. Most people appreciate an authentic expression from an artist, whatever that may be. For me [that expression] is definitely a fusion or conglomeration of any influences that I’ve grown up with [such as] the early influences from Led Zeppelin and Jimi Page, Jimi Hendrix, various artists from classic rock and then going back into the early blues music … and also American folk music like Paul Simon and James Taylor. I love their guitar playing and also their lyrical phrasing. With Ali Akbar Khan … I have a tremendous amount of respect for the musicians that dedicate their life to that style of music. It’s probably some of the most difficult music stylistically in the world. It’s very complex even though it’s improvisational and [there is] a lot of freedom there. There is a lot of structure as well. And so in my expression in music, I found that any little nugget that I learn from that lineage is like gold. There is so much depth to that style of music. And I just try to honor it in the best way that I can and keep the inspiration coming through.…. I don’t try to play North Indian classical music. It’s really a lifetime pursuit. Ali Akbar Khan was a master of that style of music. He grew up … playing it. His father was a master teacher. He studied it many, many hours for every day of his life to be at the level he was.
In listening to your Alive record you can actually hear that you have absorbed those different inspirations that you mentioned. Additionally, the fifth song stood out to me as having a slight Allman Brothers influence. I thought your song title “Just the Beginning” was an indication of that. What are your thoughts on that?
Good observation! Duanne Allman and Dicky Betts were and continue to be huge influences on my musical life. I love the Allman Brothers and really found them when I was in college. One of my college roommates was a big fan of the Allman Brothers…. I thought in my listening experiences in music they really accomplished something that had a sweetness to it and also a rawness and an edge to it. But their melodies were very memorable. They really brought a sense of a lyrical quality into their guitar phrasing that was really brilliant. Sometimes their guitar lines were more memorable than lyrical. A number of instrumental songs of course were very memorable melodically. I really appreciated that. I love the way they combined two guitar players together harmonically. They would play harmonies together that were really interesting and unique. There are not many other bands, even great bands like Lynrd Skynrd and The Eagles who have these multiple guitar players [that can do that]. I think the Allman Brothers have a superiority in how they brought multiple guitar players together melodically. Oftentimes the roles that the rhythm guitar player and the lead played … blurred those lines and created a melodic and harmonic presence in their music that was really unique.
Todd, speaking of Windham Hill, I understand that Will Ackerman is producing the record that you are currently working on.
Yeah. It’s funny in life how things come full circle. I grew up in Philadelphia. We have a great radio station … called WSPN.
Yes, I’m familiar with it.
Are you on the East Coast Tom?
Yes. I grew up in central New Jersey. We had good reception to the New York City and Philadelphia radio stations.
I grew up, late at night falling asleep with my clock radio listening to Echos with John Diliberto. That is … a legendary show for a lot of us that had access to it. Of course a lot of the Windham Hill music ended up being played on that show. Interestingly, that whole experience has come full circle. Years later, my first record that I recorded called Urban Nature Coming Home which was a bit more of a collaborative record with a percussionist named Ramesh Kannan, [was released]. Ramesh is a great tabla player and world percussionist. We produced that record together. On a whim we sent it to John Diliberto because I had a friend whose music was being played on the station. I wrote John a letter and told him how Ramesh and I grew up listening to Echos and how it was a big influence. I sent it not knowing what would come out of it. He ended up loving the music and we did a whole interview with him on air and [did] one of his living room concerts. We were put in his top 25 rotation for at least six months. I also sent to him Todd Boston Alive … and got a lot of radio play and recognition from him. The experience continued to come full circle when I met Will Ackerman through a friend who introduced me to him during a recording session in Los Angeles. My friend whose name is Shambhu worked with Will on an album last year. [He] basically said to me, “Will has got to hear your music. He’s going to love it.” At the time I thought, “Wow, even if I could meet Will Ackerman that would be a great experience and that if he listened to my music that would be an honor. That would be fabulous.” And so I went to the recording session and at the end I gave Will my CDs and kind of said goodbye. I really didn’t think much of it. A few weeks later I got an email and he said, “I love this music and I feel like I can help you.” It started this process of working on a record together. It has been really incredible. We started production in March and it is nearly finished. At this point we are looking to release it in spring of 2012. It’s an incredible piece of music. I feel really positive about the entire experience [of] working with Will Ackerman…. I listened to [him as a guitar player] since I was very young … and was influenced by a lot of what he did. So it’s been a huge gift for me to be able to work with him. He is a master at doing what he does. He is really an exceptional producer and has really brought the best out of me as a musician.
Yes, he is one of the best. You produced your Alive album. How would you compare the experience of producing your own record to working with the renowned Will Ackerman.
There are a lot of differences for sure. The first thing comes to mind when you ask me [that question] is how much fun it was working with Will. He’s just a fun person to be around. You know, there is tremendous amount of pressure because there is a very significant difference in budget. The budget is probably ten times what it was for me producing my own album…. Every moment counts. It’s an expensive venture to be in a studio of that caliber and work with a producer and engineer…. When you are performing as a musician, engineer, and producer, you have to wear a lot of hats. It’s [a different type] … of pressure. You are trying to get the sound right…. You are then judging whether or not that was the right performance, which is the producer’s role of course. The producer makes sure that the musician is delivering the best takes as possible and the best tracks. And so it was a lot of fun to work with Will because that pressure was off. I could just be a musician. I just sat out in a chair and played my heart out. When somebody else says, “That was it!” or “Do it again,” it gives you the freedom to play your heart out and go for it in a different way. And that was really great for me to experience. Will’s recording studio, Imaginary Road Studio in Vermont, is a million dollar facility. It’s got some of the best microphones in the world. I was able to play some of his guitars on the record which are an incredible quality of instruments…. It’s on 300 acres out in the woods of Vermont…. The entire experience was very different than my home studio which is in a great location and a great space. I have good gear to get the job done, but … it’s a different level than what Will was able to bring to it. In addition to that there’s his network of thirty plus years. He has recorded platinum and gold records. He’s a Grammy winner. That gives him access to a network of musicians … on a level that I just don’t have access to on my own. We’ve had Grammy winning celloist Eugene Freisen on the album, who I believe you are very familiar with…. [We also had] the great bass player Tony Levin, the legendary bass player with Peter Gabriel and many other artists and a great session player. He joined us on a few tracks. I believe we have five Grammy winners who contributed to the album in some way or another. That’s a really big honor for me as an artist to be able to be surrounded with people that are at that caliber. That’s what I aspire for in my career…. That experience allowed us to bring the music to a very high level which is what you want as an artist….
Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Todd Boston has brought together world music and folk music and presents it in his unique way of live onstage looping. He has carved out a niche by accompanying yoga classes across the United States with his project Live Music Yoga Flow. He surrounds himself with top-level players and is working to complete his latest album with Grammy Award winner Will Ackerman as producer.
People familiar with Will’s work know that he uses quite a bit of non-standard guitar tunings. Did he suggest any tunings that you don’t normally use?
No. Well, obviously I use a lot of alternative tunings. In fact, between the Alive album and this new album that we are working on there are no tracks that are standard tuned. Everything is in an alternative tuning. Will is a very unique musician in that he plays so much from the approach of how it feels. He once told me that he only has two songs that share the same guitar tuning. Every other song he has written has a completely unique guitar tuning. Oftentimes his approach is that he’ll just start tuning the guitar until it sounds good to him and then he’ll start playing. And then a song will come out of that. That’s a pretty unique approach that is unique to Will I think. He doesn’t approach music from a very theoretical standpoint where he says that a G tuning, you should try to add a fourth [note] to that. I definitely come from that direction a little bit. I have studied a lot of theory in music and studied a lot with the Indian classical music and it has a definite theoretical component. So Will might suggest to explore something emotionally in the music but he’s not really the type of producer or musician that is going to say, “Hey, let’s try to change the tuning and add a seventh note or add a fourth note” or even say, “Hey, I have this tuning, do you want to try it?” He is a unique musician in many ways.
Did he take part in any of the arrangements?
I would say he definitely inspired some of the arrangements. There were certain pieces that we were co-creating in a little bit of a preproduction aspect. In other words, the way we would work on a song Will would say, “Okay. Let me hear what you got.” And we would go sit in the control room together and I would start playing through the song. He has a very unique way of mapping out the song for him production wise. He can make sure that every part of the song that we are going for was executed to the highest level so that it gets where it needs to sit emotionally but also technically on the record. We would sit down and he would write out his map and I would go through the parts. There was enough flexibility with the composition that if something really wasn’t happening or working and if he wasn’t responding with a lot of enthusiasm I was quick to offer another idea until it got a really positive response from him. When it got to the point that he got excited about something I knew we were on the right track…. A big part of the arrangement was me throwing ideas out and seeing what stuck … so he definitely influenced the arrangements to a large degree, I would say.
Todd, do you have a new marketing strategy for this upcoming album or will you be going through the same routes as your previous releases?
Up to this point I’ve been an independent artist. I’ve never worked with a record label up to this point in my career…. I am open to … working with maybe an independent label that was interested in helping me to distribute [my music].... Whether that happens or not my approach is to study to the best of my abilities how the record labels release their recordings. The formula that I’ve come across is that you need marketing people and a publicist and various people that can play certain roles. Fortunately with the way the music industry is now people are out there and they are accessible to people like myself as an independent artist. It all comes down to money of course. Everybody needs to get paid. If you can pull together resources and there are many ways that you can do that these days then you can hire the right people to do the right job. That’s what I am doing with this album. It’s just getting the right people involved that can help to set up the right interviews and get the right radio air play and get the right placement and distribution for this record so that it has a great opportunity to reach a large audience. Of course a huge part of this is getting out and playing in front of audiences and touring. That’s something that I’ll be looking at doing next year as well. One interesting side note for this record when we’re talking about raising resources … is this platform that’s out there for independent artists of which the most popular one at this point is called Kickstarter. [This is a type of] crowd funding. We actually raised $25,000 towards the recording of this project through the website Kickstarter. This is basically a few hundred people making smaller contributions and purchasing the album ahead of time. It created a community of people that helped to create the record. That’s a really interesting part of this journey – doing the fund raising component to actually get this record done.
It sounds like you are putting a lot of behind-the-scenes resources, time, and effort into this project. Are you also working on any other projects?
Well at this time it’s taking everything to the next level like you said. I’ll be looking to do some touring following the release of the record in 2012. For now it’s really finishing the production and really trying to continue to grow and to offer music. I continue to record and to produce work at my house right now and continue to share music with people. I’m finding new ways to do that through video and through offering some smaller releases through downloads that aren’t fully produced records. The key right now which the unique part of social media has brought to it is how to just keep creating and offering that to people and keeping a flow of material coming out. The Internet offers a really unique opportunity for an artist to do that…. I’ll be just playing music because I love it so much. Music is a huge part of my everyday life and it is definitely something that I can’t imagine living life without.
Todd, you spoke of a number of points that would be helpful to people who are trying to figure out this music business. I want to wish you continued success and thank you for taking time from your day to participate in this interview.
Great. Thank you Tom. It was an enjoyable interview and I appreciate your questions and connecting with you.
You can buy Todd Boston's Alive CD at:
CD Baby: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/toddboston2
See Todd Boston's update to this interview
I enjoyed listening to your Alive CD very much. Tell us how you put this record together and what audiences you try to reach with it.
With the Alive album, my intention was to bring components of the live performance into the studio and translate that into a record. I do a lot of live looping in my performances. The Alive album has a component of that. All of those compositions were actually recorded using looping technology in the studio. I do a lot of solo and duo work. I [also] … play in some larger ensembles. People would approach me after a performance and say, “Is this what your album sounds like?” The Alive album is that. I can say, “Yeah, this is what it sounds like.”
A lot of musicians use looping on their records but you seem to have a unique approach to it. Tell us how you work with looping technology.
I tend to be a compositional guitar player…. The compositions oftentimes are created in various settings. Then I attempt to apply the looping technology to the composition. I say [to myself], “If I don’t have multiple musicians to accompany the music, how can I express the best of the composition live?” Looping technology allows for that because it becomes a multi-track recording machine live in essence. The key … is to really be able to keep it musical and keep it interesting and keep it compositional…. It could become monotonous and repetitive if you are not careful with it…. First and foremost, is it music that feels and sounds good? If I’m losing that somewhere in the technology then I’ve lost something and I have to go back … to the composition….
The Allman Brothers were able to compete with the great improvising bands and bands that wrote great songs with vocals. “Elizabeth Reed” and “Dreams” are two good examples of this.
That’s very true. In fact the solo section of the song you had just mentioned, “Just the Beginning,” is influenced by the Allman Brothers. I guess there are a few songs where they use a similar lick with double guitars but I think of the song “Blue Sky” as probably a telltale song where that lick came from. That was a great combination of the lyrical component. But they go to a long instrumental break that’s just gorgeous in that song.
Todd, you have an interesting CD cover. It also reminds of my Organic Jam album cover which features a tree, musical notes, and a guitar fret board as part of the tree trunk. What made you think of this artwork and how does it relate to the music on your album?
That’s a good question. I love album artwork. It’s definitely an important component…. This particular cover really speaks to the nature lover in me. As a child I grew up and spent a lot of time out in nature. It was a huge influence on my early life. I live in northern California, north of San Francisco, in Marin County. Actually I live out more in west Marin County. It’s very rural out here. There are a number of small towns. We have a lot of wildlife and a lot of open land. I live on a nice little five-acre property in the forest with the redwoods. I have a little creek in the backyard here. Nature is a huge part of my everyday life. Also, as well as being a guitar player, I also play bamboo flute. A common part of my day is going out under the tree by the creek and playing some flute. And so the sounds of nature weave into the music. I hear the sounds of nature in the music and so there is a lot of field recording and I infuse that into the music as well. All of the nature sounds that are infused into this record were recorded by me in different times of my life and in different places. There are some recordings that I took from a trip to Costa Rica. The track “The Brightest Night” is a recording from a beach that I was visiting in the Bahamas. There was a unique night that I was there with the sounds of the crickets on the path; the light waves rolling in on the beach was a very special sound. I listen for those types of things in nature and love to record them. So oftentimes they will make their way back into a recording…. So the cover really expresses the connection of nature and music because they are one in the same. I don’t think there is any separation….
It seems like those classes are a good niche for your type of music. Is it also a good outlet for selling CDs and downloads?
Yeah, very much. I’m pretty heavily influenced from the days of the Windham Hill Records and that style of music that came out. It was solo instrumental music [featuring] a guitar player or piano player. All of that music seemed to me to be influenced by nature. It fits into people’s lives in a way that was helping them to feel good. In other words it was positive music, mostly instrumental and it was brought into the world of the healing arts. It could be people that are getting a massage with that music being played in the background or a yoga class or they are just at home and they want to relax after a long day of work. So you put on a George Winston or Michael Hedges album, or Will Ackerman. It puts you in a certain way, a certain frame of mind that is very relaxing and soothing. I just … tended to create music that fits into that genre, that niche. Right now there’s a very strong niche presence there in the yoga community where this kind of music really does fit in well. It’s been very supportive for my career and definitely a huge component of how I make a living as a musician. I’ve been really grateful and impressed with how much that has grown because that has been somewhat unexpected for me. It wasn’t really what I set out to do. But the yoga community continues to support my music in a really big way.
Of course Eugene Freisen is also a member of Trio Globo along with Glen Velez and Howard Levy. In my recent conversation with Howard Levy, he mentioned the synergies of associating with the top level people in the music business. How did Will Ackerman influence the particular tracks that you initially brought to the project?
One of the things that he really felt in working with me was that there was much more room for dynamics in the music than what I had brought forth on the past recordings. He felt like we could get a lot more dynamics out of the music. When I chose some of the cuts … I was thinking in that way…. I … went into that project with a great sense of surrender. This might sound a little esoteric but I truly believe that the music has the highest wisdom … [and] the music seems to come through very naturally…. I was really tuned into just listening to what the music wanted to do and let the music guide us, then we could create something really special. There are a few pieces that were really written in the studio, a few pieces that just happened on the spot. Some were basic ideas that were really composed in the studio to where they are at now. I think that type of approach oftentimes allows for something else to happen. Of course the composer brings their ideas and compositions but there is something special about being in the moment and creating in the moment. Will Ackerman is very much an artist who has done that a lot in his career. I wanted to be open to that and bring that kind of approach to the project as well.
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In today’s fast-paced world, especially with downloads, people often don’t take the time to look at artwork. Your cover is a great design. Of course your tree begins with a G clef, has the five lines of a music staff, and is populated with music notes instead of leaves. As you listen to the record you can look at the artwork and see how it connects to the music.
A lot of people will look at this cover and maybe look right past the fact that the leaves are notes….
What has been your experience in selling downloads versus CDs and what do you think will pan out in the future?
Well, I think there is an inevitability to the whole movement of the record industry. Anyone who is involved with it knows how much it has transformed in the last ten years. You know, I think there is something to be said for people to bring home a piece of art in their hands and I think that will live on in someway. I don’t know if that will be through the CD or actual records will continue to make a resurgence because that’s happening right now as well. You can go into Best Buy and buy record players because people are actually out there buying vinyl these days. They are not on the level that they once were but it is still technology that is delivering music into consumers’ hands. I think that the download technology is here to stay. My best sense is that as phones get faster and bigger with memory and smarter that that’s going to be the primary technology that people receive music from. I have an iPhone and it reads bar codes. I think that is going to be a component. When people are at your concert they can scan a barcode on your sign and the .wav file will be immediately transferred into their phone … as WIFI connections become more readily available. I read an article that said they just approved technology so that a WIFI base station will be able to cover 64 square miles….
Clearly that is a trend. But do you personally feel that in addition to downloads you would want to buy and own certain CDs, especially some of the great ones?
I think I’ve moved on with the technology to a large degree. I still do value having the art and a CD, but it’s a very limited experience. In other words, I do get the CD and open it and look at it. But once the music is in rotation the artwork becomes an afterthought. It’s a kind of one-time experience for me. Then it becomes something else sitting on my shelf that I have to recycle out at some point in time. Now because of the technology, the music is in my computer and on the iPhone. Although I still do listen to CDs in my car and that’s kind of an important component to it. But with iTunes you can burn a CD and play it in your car….
Todd, tell us about your show, Live Music Yoga Flow, where you accompany yoga classes across the United States.
There’s an interesting thing that’s happening in America right now. There’s a huge movement where people are looking for new ways of getting together as a community and connecting to each other and staying physically in good shape and also finding something that offers a teaching or an inspiration. So yoga seems to really bring that to people in our communities in America. Yoga studios are opening in every community in America. Maybe 15 or 20 years ago it was just in California and a few other select places, but every town you go to now pretty much has yoga studios. And there’s actually a significant connection with that trend and how music fits into that. I’ve been doing music in yoga classes for about ten years. I have some friends that were yoga teachers and we just started experimenting with it. There’s a very natural connection that happens because it is a dance. There’s a choreography that’s happening. And so it’s as if a live musician is in a dance class and accompanying the dancers…. [It] has much more impact than recorded music because you can respond to the energy and to the movement as it’s happening. There’s this really neat synergy between the musician and the yoga practitioner that happens in those classes and I really love it. It’s a great venue for music in a lot of ways. The music that I tended to play in the last few years of my life fits rather easily into that place. A lot of the music that I’ve written in the last few years has come from ideas from yoga classes. In other words a composition may have come out of improvisation that I did during class. I think it is something that will continue to grow. There is a really great fit. In fact I was just at a really great festival … called the Wanderlust. They did one in Vermont and also one in Lake Tahoe this year. I was able to work with a teacher … named John Friend who founded Anusara Yoga. He founded this large tradition of yoga in America. We did a class at this festival a few weeks ago and there were 650 people in the class. We had live music and everybody just had a great time. It was such an incredible energy to work with basically 600 plus people that are weaving and dancing with their bodies and doing something that feels real good to them. They are enjoying the experience as an audience as well….