The Russians have landed!

 

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchiakovsky the news: The Russians have landed!

While recent breakthroughs of controversial Moscow pop duo t.A.T.u. and Grammy nominated country sextet Bering Strait may not be as prevalent as the British invasion that first introduced The Beatles, the message that North America is finally open for business is resonating throughout the former U.S.S.R..

And that gives new hope for Russian artists hoping to tap into a potentially lucrative new market, says Bering Strait’s Ilya Toshinsky.

“Maybe t.A.T.u and Bering Strait will be part of the movement that’s going to change the face of Russian show business,” says Toshinsky, the multi-faceted guitarist and banjo player who grew up with his fellow band members in the scientific community of Obininsk, 60 miles west of Moscow.

“There are a lot of talented artists and writers in Russia who don’t get the chance for exposure. I’d like to help them out eventually. There are a lot of artists there who need to be heard.”

Whether any of those artists — ranging from ‘NSYNC-like popsa hitmakers Na-Na and gender-bending singer Shura to Enrique Iglesias duet partner Alsou and Parliamentarian Josif Kobozo – will be able to navigate the waters of American consumerism is debatable, but the commercial headway made by t.A.T.u. offers plenty of incentive.

Fueled by high-pitched vocals, pounding electric beats and a racy schoolgirl video supporting the classically trained Lena Katina and Julia Volkova’s hit single “All The Things She Said,” t.A.T.u. has taken the world by storm. Its debut album, 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane, is a heartbeat away from gold in the U.S., and has already sold two-and-a-half million copies around the world – including an unprecedented one million in its native Russia.

The brainchild of Ivan Shapovalov, a former child psychiatrist and advertising executive with a gift for exploiting Lolita lesbianism, t.A.T.u. is only the tip of the iceberg in a country whose population numbers 146 million people.

“I think it could be the beginning of a discovery by the West of Russian talent,” admits Interscope’s Martin Kierzenbaum, the A&R executive responsible for tattooing t.A.T.u. to a North American record deal.

“The impressive aspect of t.A.T.u. is that a band is coming out of Russia and traveling across the world is actually appealing to people on a global scale, something that has never, ever happened in rock music.”

Kierzenbaum credits a post-communist era of liberal expression that has allowed the artistic community to “have one foot in the tradition of Russia and the other foot in MTV culture.”

“Julia and Lena are part of the first generation to have grown up after communism, reach out to the West and beckon us to pay attention. They’re able to communicate some of exoticism and the excitement of Russian talent to us in the West because they speak both languages culturally.

“There are a lot of super-talented people in Russia that we may have been closed off to until now.”

Not that there haven’t been previous attempts to crack the West. While such revered composers as Petr Ilich Tchiakovsky, Modest Mussorgsky and Igor Stravinsky had no problems establishing Russian classical music supremacy, pop acts have largely met Iron Curtain resistance from American audiences.  Despite eight albums and three movies, the stylistically outlandish Leningrad Cowboys largely remain cult favorites, while Boris Grebenshikov, the “Russian Bob Dylan” whose album Radio Silence was given a serious push by Sony in the late ‘80s, failed to gain any lasting foothold.

Even Kiev-born supermodel and actress Milla Jovovich has been ineffective in convincing the market to support her music, although her 1994 effort The Divine Comedy received critical acclaim.

 

The only exception has been Ukrainian émigré Dimitry BrillSuper DJ Dimitry – whose tenure in now-defunct New York disco troika Deee-Lite in 1990 landed him a gold Top 10 hit in “Groove Is In The Heart” and a platinum album in World Clique.

Although he applauds the success of artistic comrades t.A.T.u., Ilya Toshinsky says Bering Strait is taking a decidedly more organic approach to global domination.

With “Bearing Straight” receiving a Grammy nomination last month for Best Country Instrumental Performance and the recent release of a new self-titled CD on Universal South, Toshinsky finally feels some vindication for the decision to relocate from Obininsk to Nashville five years ago.

“If we stayed in Russia to play country music — which was considered exotic — we’d be bound to Moscow bars and restaurants for the rest of our lives,” notes Toshinsky, who co-founded Bering Strait as an instrumental bluegrass band in 1988 before going the country route.

Speaking on behalf of singer Natasha Borzilova, keyboardist Lydia Salnikova, steel guitarist Sasha Ostrovsky, drummer Alexander Arzamastsev and bass player Sergei “Spooky” Olkhovsky, Toshinsky admits Bering Strait’s street of dreams was almost the road to ruin.

After signing with Arista Nashville, Bering Strait decided to follow label president Tim DuBois to his next venture after a downsizing prompted the executive’s departure. It took DuBois five years to land at Universal South, and through the transitional phase Bering Strait signed four contracts.

“For awhile, I didn’t believe the record was ever going to come out,” said Toshinsky, who became infatuated with the banjo at the age of 10 after hearing an Earl Scruggs recording of “Cumberland Gap.”

“ Some of our families started losing faith. And now with the Grammy nomination, and a huge push in Russian media, now they can see what it can be. I think they believe again.”

He’s also happy that band members have a chance to earn a living again.

“The worst time for us was a few months before the MCA deal,” Toshinsky explains. “The money was extremely tight, and with the visa situation  we could only work in the music business. We couldn’t work at K-Mart or Burger King and make any extra money. It got really tough. It was discouraging.”

But with recent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and a favorable slot on 60 Minutes, Toshinsky is much more optimistic.

“We’re still not making too much money because people in Russia think that with the Grammy nomination, we’re now millionaires,” he says. “Hopefully it will lead to wonderful things.”

Even though t.A.T.u. and Bering Strait are exploring new commercial frontiers, not everyone from the homeland is convinced U.S. success is a good thing.

“The Russian music scene is generally horrendous, just second-rate derivative American pop,” says Mark Ames, editor of eXile, a Moscow-based alternative weekly.

“The only lesson learned is that if you use under-aged lesbian sluts to Trojan Horse your shitty pop music, then you might make it in America.”

 

 

Postmodern Jukebox turns back the clock on pop hits

Postmodern Jukebox turns back the clock on pop hits

Scott Bradlee and his rotating cast of singers and musicians redo current songs — from Radiohead to Katy Perry — for a bygone era.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Nov 16 2015

Shaken, not stirred.

No, we’re not talking about James Bond martinis, but the entertaining and imaginatively radical rearrangements of prevailing pop, rock and rap classics by New Jersey-raised pianist Scott Bradlee and musical combo Postmodern Jukebox, appearing at Massey Hall on Monday.

Musically speaking, Bradlee applies the same principle to his renditions of famous tunes that 007 does to his celebrated drink: throws all the ingredients into a metaphorical tumbler, tosses them into a bygone era, and then serves them up with a rotating cast of 60 singers and musicians, ranging from American Idol finalists Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams to Puddles, a six-foot-eight baritone cabaret singer in full clown costume.

Imagine Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” rearranged as a breathless, banjo-infested ragtime-era hoedown, or Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” reworked as a ’50s doo-wop number. Sometimes Bradlee switches up time signatures or inserts a few bars of another tune in the middle of a song, as he did with Wham!’s “Careless Whisper,” speeding up its tempo and briefly detouring into Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and “Message In a Bottle” by the Police.

You can hear and see them — along with 159 other revamped tunes — on Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox YouTube channel, which boasts 1.6 million subscribers and is updated Thursdays.

Bradlee, 34, says he can retrofit practically any song or style. Witness the first five songs PMJ performed at the Great Hall in Toronto in June 2014, their first live show ever: Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop,” Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child,” Kesha’s “Die Young” and the “Gummi Bears Theme Song.”

“Basically, the process involves picking out a song for its lyrics,” Bradlee explains. “I pick apart the lyrics and the structure of the song to see if there’s anything that would suggest it being recorded in an earlier era.
“For instance, ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ everybody knows it from the movie Titanic; it’s a Céline Dion song. But if you look at the lyrics, it’s essentially a ’50s song: it has that flowery language of “my heart will go on” and that’s something you can definitely hear sung by somebody like Jackie Wilson.
“So you’re hearing something familiar in a completely different context and it still works.”

Bradlee admits that some songs have him stymied.

“We never did a cover of ‘Uptown Funk’ because it already has the classic feel of ’70s funk. Mark Ronson is such a brilliant producer and Bruno Mars is a great vocalist; how do you write something new with that? It’s already classic.”

For Massey Hall, the show will feature “four or five vocalists,” a horn section and a tap dancer.

“If you were to go back in time to the Golden Age of Hollywood and you’re going to a New Year’s Eve party, it’s the kind of party that Frank Sinatra would go to,” Bradlee says.

 

Postmodern Jukebox turns back the clock on pop hits | Toronto Star

Postscript: Ironically, Scott Bradlee was the one person missing from the Postmodern Jukebox appearance at Massey Hall that featured Haley Reinhart, Casey Abrams and others. Franchise experimentation, perhaps?

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career
He’s helped launch the careers of Loreena McKennitt and k.d. lang. At 80, he’s finally agreed to slow down his famously tireless pace.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Jun 27 2014

Now that he’s turned 80, Richard Flohil swears he’s going to slow the pace a bit.

What that actually means is anybody’s guess, because those who know the publicist and promoter extraordinaire — a master raconteur who corners the market on British charm and has helped the likes of Loreena McKennitt, k.d. lang and many others achieve global stardom — are flabbergasted by his tireless work ethic that includes a five-night-a-week commitment to hearing live music.

In a personal note distributed via email to colleagues last week, Flohil said he was “beginning to pull back a little,” but would stay involved “especially with special projects that inspire and/or amuse me.”

At this point, those projects include finishing a crowdfunded book he’s tentatively titled Louis Armstrong’s Laxative and 100 Other Mostly True Stories About a Life In Music and actively promoting up to 15 shows a year (Hugh’s Room is a favourite venue) with fellow promoter Tom Dertinger. Flohil also travels across Canada to attend folk festivals and mentors his own publicity clients in ways that exceed his job description.

So if he is contemplating some relaxation, there’s a strong possibility the public at large won’t notice it: music is clearly Flohil’s elixir of youth.

“I wish I knew who I’d stolen this from,” he says, his eyes twinkling as he quaffs a pint of ale at a Roncesvalles watering hole one recent sunny afternoon.

“But the age you go into music is the age you stay forever.

“I’m 34,” he grins.

His unbridled enthusiasm for the art form is no less diminished from the days of his early fascination with American jazz and blues. If anything, it’s grown exponentially, fueled in part by an eye-opening visit to the Mariposa folk festival in 1965, where he met Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Ste. Marie, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and The Staple Singers, acts he said “widened my head and almost made me evangelical.”

That passion has played an integral role in the formative years of many Canadian and U.S. acts, some who have gone on to become global superstars: McKennitt, lang, the Downchild Blues Band, Serena Ryder, Ani DiFranco, Laura Smith . . . the list is impressive.

“I think he has a particular talent for nurturing young artists, particularly when they’re starting out,” says Juno Award winner Loreena McKennitt, who has sold more than 14 million copies of her unique brand of world music.

“I think he’s got a good ear, and he’s very enthusiastic, which may sound kind of trite but being enthusiastic is a large part of developing enough confidence to move forward. And he’s very familiar with setting up the right circumstance for someone starting out. I think that takes a very particular nurturing hand and mind.”

And those nurtured artists have loved him back.

One need only to glance at the lineup that’s rocking the Horseshoe Tavern stage this Friday night to fete “Flo” into his ninth decade to realize how warmly and affectionately he’s regarded: Tom Wilson, Alejandra Ribera, Roxanne Potvin, Scarlett Jane, Ariana Gillis, Paul Reddick, Shakura S’Aida and others are volunteering their time to pay tribute to their champion, who in turn is transforming his birthday bash into a fundraiser for the Unison Benevolent Fund, which provides counseling, emergency relief and benefit programs for the Canadian music community.

“I like being part of the music community — they’re all really good people,” repeats the founder of publicity and promotion firm Richard Flohil and Associates, a few times over the course of the next 90 minutes.

Flohil says he loves hearing and working with musicians so much that he would jump on stage if he could. But he figures the public would fare better with him remaining behind the scenes.

“The reason I’m on the business side is because I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument and I dance like a pregnant elephant. Not a pretty sight and not to be done in public.”

The Richard Flohil story begins back in Selby, Yorkshire where he was born to Dutch and English parents. He attended private school and eventually apprenticed as a reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Press, moving on to work at three other papers.

When he hit 20, he tried his hand at publicity: his first client, future James Bond theme composer John Barry.

But he wanted out of Britain.

“I wanted to rediscover American jazz and blues musicians, because in the ’50s they weren’t allowed to come to Britain very often,” Flohil admits.

“Occasionally Louis Armstrong came and Lonnie Johnson came, and I met Big Bill Broonzy, but by and large the British Musicians Union wasn’t going to let American musicians come to Britain unless British musicians were allowed to come to America.”

In 1957, he arrived in Toronto with $300 in his pocket, and was instantly smitten by the thriving music scene.

“The first afternoon I walked down Yonge Street and I saw a sign saying, ‘All this week: Earl Hines and his All-Stars,’” Flohil recalls. “I walked in the bar and I said, ‘Earl Hines is playing here? The same Earl Hines who played with Louis Armstrong in the ’20s? How much is it to get in?’

“The bartender said, ‘It’s free, but you must buy two drinks.’ And I thought, ‘this must be the Promised Land.’

“The next night I found a New Orleans jazz club, and the night after that I wandered down to King Street East, and the Town Tavern. It was April ’57, and on stage underneath this silent black and white television airing a hockey playoff game is this rotund black pianist from Montreal called Oscar Peterson, who I never heard of. Blew my lights out.

“Then I went to Maple Leaf Gardens, the Irving Feld Parade of Stars, for $2.50, featuring the 16-year-old boy wonder from Ottawa, Canada:  Paul Anka, and Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, LaVerne Baker and Clyde McPhatter.”

After a series of jobs editing trade magazines, Flohil eventually branched out into publicity and also landed a gig as the editor of CAPAC’s (a forerunner of SOCAN) membership music magazine, keeping that gig for 20 years.

When he decided to move into concert promotion, Flohil capitalized on the Chicago blues sojourns he had made while living in England.

“If I have a claim to fame, I’m the guy who was involved in bringing Buddy Guy here for the first time, lesser known artists like Robert Nighthawk and Sleepy John Estes, and later on B.B. King and Bobby Bland. So that got me into small level promotions.

“I was also involved with bigger shows — Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, the Chieftains — with mixed results, but that seed has become the preserve of giant companies who have endless resources. And I couldn’t compete with that. “

In 1980, he co-founded respected music industry trade magazine The Record, handling reviews but still entrenched in publicity, and in 2002 became editor of Applaud, a magazine aimed at promoting Canadian music outside Canada, that lasted five years.

As much as he loves music and the people that make it, Flohil does have criteria when it comes to taking on clients (“good songs, a distinctive voice, ambition”), as well hearing music that emotionally touches him.

“To me, music has to hit two parts of the following four parts of your body: head, heart, groin, feet,” says Flohil, whose numerous accolades include the Estelle Klein Lifetime Achievement Award and SOCAN’s Special Achievement Award.

“Any two of those — if it’s just one, it won’t work for me.”
As for secrets to his success, Richard Flohil says his personal catalyst is anticipation.

“I think the key, apart from listening to lots and lots of music (he boasts a music collection of 12,000 discs) is to have something to look forward to,” says Flohil, who is tentatively planning a trip to India in 2015.

“I still want to do intriguing special projects. For example, Stony Plain Records, who I’ve worked with forever, has a 40th anniversary coming next year. I want to be involved in that, and if there’s a CD, I want to help choose the music and write the liner notes.”

While Flohil laments that he’s never “made very much money at” his career, his days have been filled with entertaining memories.

“I’ve had this amazing life with all these people, these stories and adventures and misadventures. So I just keep going.”

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career | Toronto Star