Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cheap Seats 7: Alicia Dara Interview

As part of the continuing Cheap Seats series I've conducted a handful of interviews with independent artist friends from the Pacific Northwest and beyond.  So far, this series has focused on my own experiences making and promoting independent music, but the reality is that each artist interacts and responds to the challenges and necessities of the independent music world in his or her own unique way.  In this first interview, conducted in early July, I'm excited to feature Alicia Dara of Seattle-based bands The Volcano Diary (with Gus Palaskas and Dave Bush) and Diamondwolf (with Glen Cooper).  Alicia has been an active independent musician for over 15 years and brings a wide-range of experiences in the music industry to her ever-evolving mission as an independent musician.

Alicia performs with The Volcano Diary

As a musician who's been doing this for a number of years, how have things changed across your career, both in terms of how you make and release your music, and in how you've attempted to promote and advance it?  What are some of the most valuable lessons/tricks you've picked up?


The most awesome, fantastic, and nightmarish event in my career was the advent of the internet. I started way back in 1997, before FB, Twitter, Wikipedia, Reverbnation, and MySpace. There was email and there were websites, which weren't very interactive and tended to crash while listening to MP3's (remember them?) if you stayed on too long. Before that I had been making cassette tapes of my songs in my tiny bathroom on my friend's 8-track recorder. That bathroom was fully tiled and created the best echo/reverb effect ever. I'm still trying to find a plug-in effect that can beat it!

I was raised by classical musicians who never touched a computer in their lives, so I had absolutely zero tech background to draw from as I slogged my way through the maze of the internet, and the various ways that the music business was working to stay one step ahead of it. I had had some radio play locally and on a few stations on the West Coast before internet radio but I was pretty frickin' pleased to discover there was some demand for my music online, on the early stations like

Once took off it was like the gold rush; everybody wanted a piece of the action, and the industry responded accordingly. I started making records on digital recorders in people's home studios, because all that recording equipment was suddenly affordable. I like being in the studio a lot, but I work quickly, and it was tough on my patience back then while everyone was learning these new programs called "Logic" and "QBase."  I was quite grumpy during that era.

These days when you Google my name you can find over 6 million results, which on a good day makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere. But the reality is that since music became "free" I know very few musicians who are able to make a living at it. I am fortunate enough to pay the bills through a combination of teaching, singing session work (adding my vocals to commercials and other people's music projects), and soundtrack work for film, TV, and Internet stuff. Live shows are my passion but they pay so little unless you're in a national touring band. Record labels--contrary to popular belief--are still very much alive, and they are the ones that sign and promote the bands you've heard of in the last 10 years. They also act as filters for music, though in many cases their taste is at best questionable and at worst horrific.

There are 2 things that I've learned over the past decade. The first is my great strength, which is that I can walk away from anything. If you mistreat me, if you disrespect me or my bandmates, if you do not honor the contract I signed or if you change it without informing my lawyer, I will take my toys and go home--and I will never look back. This saves me some headaches.

The second is that I am able to see into the future a bit and know which projects are worth my time and which ones aren't. I value my time.  Granted, I get paid a great big hourly rate to sing on commercials, and I do that even when I don't really want to. But I also know in my soul how short this life truly is, and I (mostly) refuse to spend it on shit that doesn't make me feel sublimely on fire.

What's been the most difficult challenge to overcome?


The biggest challenge to overcome was adjusting to the lifestyle of being an independent artist. It took awhile, and it was a bumpy ride. Making music is its own reward; you have to love it more than being loved. Everyone around me was telling me to go back to school, get a degree, learn a trade or skill that would bring a mountain of cash to my door. But I look around at the world and I see an awful lot of lost souls with fat paychecks. I don't envy them one bit.
I can say this about myself: I know what I was born to do. I just had to get used to doing it!

What's the best way to convert a new fan?  How do you measure your progress--record sales, live show attendance, Facebook "likes," etc.?


The best way to convert a new fan is in person after a live show. Barring that it's a combination of word-of-mouth, Internet exposure (including live footage of your shows and interview footage about your music) and the work of a good press agent to get you in the door. The Volcano Diary hired August Forte, at NOVO Arts in Chicago, to be our ambassador to the world for our debut CD in 2010, and he did a stellar job. I heard about him from a fellow musician who was interviewing me for his blog. I'll never forget the morning I woke up to a Google alert from a music site in Portugal, which had chosen us as one of the best albums of the year! Thanks to August we have fans in Russia, England the UK, Australia, Italy, and many others. THIS is what the Internet has to offer musicians!

We don't measure our success by Facebook "likes", we measure it by how our fans track us and what their online feedback is, and also what they tell us at shows. Right now The Volcano Diary has been playing a set of entirely brand-new music in preparation for our upcoming second CD. The new songs rock much harder because I play mostly my hollowbody electric on them, and I play a little bottle-neck slide as well. We weren't sure if our fans would follow us into that side of the dynamic spectrum, because our first record is stripped down and acoustic, but the feedback on our new songs has been off the charts, so we're psyched to get back into the studio with our man Steve Fisk and make our new record.

In your experience, what does it take to break beyond a fanbase of friends and family to one populated by people solely interested in the music?


In my experience it takes some outside help to catapult you outside of the usual base of friends and family. Find someone you trust, pay them well to help you, and get your money's worth from them. And don't forget to connect with other bands, ones that have label reps and press agents. Write to big venues in your town and ask if you can jump onstage and pay a quick 20 minute set on a Friday night before the ticketed show starts--make them an offer they can't refuse.

Take a chance and send out your record to all the music bloggers and journalists you admire. Finding your way through one of those filtration systems will help a lot. Our press agent August Forte got our song "Freezerburn" included on The Hype Machine blog, which helped us stand out in a big way.

How would you describe the Seattle music scene?  How do you book your shows? At this point, would you say you're most successful regionally or online/globally?


I do most of the booking for our shows, because I've been in the business longer than my bandmates and I kinda know a lot of people. We consider ourselves to be a regional band with an international following. The Seattle music scene is incredibly diverse and generally made of quality stuff. In the past decade a bunch of local indie record labels (and our KEXP radio station) have become internationally known, which has brought a ton of industry to our town, the first big surge since the mid-90's grunge era. It's hard to break into the top of it without some serious hype behind you. The Volcano Diary has not yet cracked that ceiling but we're having such a good time it's kinda hard to care! We know who our fans are and we play for them. When they're ready to share us with a wider audience we'll be ready right back.

What does it take to sell an album?  What sells most for you, physical media or downloads?  For you, are recording sales the goal, or are recordings more a piece of the overall puzzle in terms of promoting the music?  Have you reached a point where the recordings pay for themselves, or are they a necessity you're willing to support yourselves?  Are people actually willing to pay for the music, or do they expect it to be free?


We've done mostly crowdsourcing to fund our recordings, and we've found it to be the perfect system for our particular fans, who like to be kept aware of what we're doing and how we're progressing. They know that what we do isn't free, that we work hard at it, and they expect to receive a quality product when they pre-purchase the record. It's a win-win for obvious reasons. Most of our sales have come from downloads, and lately we've been talking about not creating an actual physical CD for our next record, but just releasing it online through Tunecore and other sites. Seems to me that as long as you've got a barcode (which Tunecore adds) your record sales can be tracked.

How important are production values when it comes to your recordings?  You worked with producer Steve Fisk on The Volcano Diary's first album--will you be using a similar approach next time?  Do you think it's important to fans to have a polished, professional product, or are they willing to sacrifice production values for quality content?  Does the cost of a professional producer manifest itself in the finished product?


Production value is of paramount importance to me, but I also believe in this thing called "vibes." My two best recording experiences were on my 2008 solo CD The Secret Dream of Tigers, which was recorded and produced by Jason Stazek at the now-defunct (and much much-missed) Chromasound label, and on The Volcano Diary's CD we made with Steve at his home studio in 2010. Those were two different recording scenarios but in both cases the guys cared enough about production values to take their time with everything, and to throw out what didn't meet their quality standards. Ultimately the quality of a recording is the responsibility of the entire team: producer, engineer, and band. The whole thing has to be expertly guided, so that no time is wasted. The band (or artists) has to be well rehearsed and ready to go, and the producer has to be able to see ten steps ahead, and keep order in the chaos. Both Jason and Steve are masters of this art. I have been extremely fortunate to learn from these guys!

Music is consumed faster than ever now, and we try not to think too much about that, because it'll break your heart if you let it. But I think fans respond to the same things that they always have: enough passion in the song, and enough volume and clarity in the mix to take it all in.

When it comes to promoting an album, what avenues seem the most successful in getting the music heard?


As far as promotion goes, I would say it is best to be completely open to everything, while still keeping your wits about you so you don't get scammed. Plenty of people tell you they can take you far in this business but without a solid track record and quantifiable results they should not be trusted. Do what we're supposed to do: harness the power of social media, collect a good group of fans, and treat them like gold! Give them free stuff, keep them informed every moth, and encourage them to interact with you. When they reach out to you for anything, whether it's a song request or a different t-shirt size or just to say 'hi', respond quickly and be authentic. Surprise them, too.

Figure out who you are as a band, translate that into your live show, and deliver it consistently. The Volcano Diary is an electro-acoustic indie band with melodic vocals and a wide dynamic spectrum. Our live presence has been called "sensual", "passionate", "spellbinding" and "dynamic". We are by no means the loudest band but we play our songs like it's the last night on earth. Our fan base keeps growing so I'm pretty sure we're doing something right.

When do you decide it's time to head back into the studio? When you've got all the songs written...when it feels right creatively...when you've got ideas but not necessarily songs?


Our first record was fully written before we went into the studio, but we wove the arrangements together as we went along. This time around we'll be going in with 14 songs, fully arranged, ready to play, and we'll probably pick 12 of them to release. We've been beta-testing them for our fans this spring and we're psyched to finish the writing and lay them down on tape! But we won't go into the studio without 14 good ones, and so far we're at 9. We're working on a theme for this record, and it's all about mythology and legends of the sea. Not just the Odyssey but also Japanese, Norse Celtic, and Russian traditions and myths. This stuff has influenced the guitar effects we use (which are alternately watery, stormy, and salty) and the way we sing our vocals (which are sometimes dreamy and sometimes brittle). We're allowing ourselves to swim out into the current and see where it takes us, so to speak!

What keeps you going in the tough row-to-hoe that is the independent music world?  Where's your inspiration coming from right now? 


The thing that keeps me going in the music world is remembering that I am incredibly lucky to do what I do! I wanted this life and I've worked hard every single day to make it happen. I've never drifted, and I'm never bored. I literally bounce out of bed in the morning... it's crazy! My inspiration comes from all the amazing songs of other artists that find me, and the songs yet unwritten that are waiting to be discovered and explored. All my biggest influences are lifetime artists with amazing song catalogues. Songs are my religion. I live for them. Quality over quantity is what's right for me. I want to write some truly sublime songs before they burn my body.

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?


Four things: 1. Learn how to save your money! 2. Practice your instrument every single day, and finish every song you start. 3. Remember that in order to keep your creativity flowing you have to keep it balanced. Do something creative that is not musical. and read a lot. 4. Become politically active and civicly engaged. Take part in what's going on in your community. Don't react... respond...and vote vote vote! Speak up for yourself and the things you believe in.

What have you been listening to this week?  How do you seek out new music?


I've been making a ton of Spotify playlists for my friends this week. Fiona Apple's new CD "The Idler Wheel" just came out, and I'm also obsessed with Joan as Police Woman's CD "The Deep Field" which came out last year. Meshell Ndegeocello's new record "Weather" is amazing, and Mark Lanegan's "Blues Funeral" is on constant rotation. I just discovered a guy named Sanders Bohlke who blows my mind, and I'm waiting for new CD's by The Black Angels, BRMC, The National, Bettye LaVette, and Bat for Lashes. New music usually comes to me though friends and fellow musicians. My taste is known cause I've curated a couple of CD compilations, including the one I did for Planned Parenthood last year, which features 18 Northwest bands and artists. The Volcano Diary's new single "Silver Tongue" is available on it as well.

I currently serve on the Board of Advocates of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, by the way. They call me their "resident musician"!

Alicia and Glen Cooper perform as Diamondwolf.

What's on the horizon for you musically?  What's up with your new project, Diamondwolf--anything else coming up? 


I think I've never been busier! Currently The Volcano Diary is writing our new CD and looking for a new bassist. We've been playing some shows (featuring our set of all-new music) with our stunt bass player but we're taking some time off this summer to continue writing and concentrate on finding an official, committed fourth band member. I'm also stealthily working on a new solo EP, which I plan to give away to everyone who pledges during The Volcano Diary's Kickstarter campaign this winter. In addition I am also singing, writing, and playing in a brand-new project called Diamondwolf with my longtime friend Glen Cooper, an amazing local singer-songwriter. The Diamondwolf aesthetic is sexy, strummy, dark and dreamy. We're recording this summer and have been working on some songs for film soundtracks, which is our intention with this music. We collaborate with different producers so the tracks have an electic feel. We'll play our first live shows this fall and most likely release an EP this winter.

Other than that I'm continuing my pro-choice activism, and the volunteering I do for Planned Parenthood. This is an election year so the stakes are high. There's never been a better time to get involved and vote the shit outta this country!

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Association of America, endorses the benefit CD, Sex Positive: A Benefit Compilation for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, a compilation of 18 Northwest bands and artists created by Alicia Dara. 100% of the proceeds go to the cause. Available now on iTunes and Amazon.

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident 
Cheap Seats Part 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir 
Cheap Seats Part 6: Kickstarter Campaign

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