Interesting sounds can come from the most unexpected of places. Not long ago, I received an email from Jenn Grauer, a producer at HBO, inviting me to check out some music she had just released. To be honest, I didn’t expect a whole lot; I’ve known and encountered lots of people who made a living doing one thing and made music on the side—a banker, an office supervisor, teachers, several computer technicians (lots of computer technicians, now that I think about it). Hell, for a while I’d done it, too, in a long-running musical partnership with a dude who’s a deputy chief of staff for a member of the PA House of Representatives. We rocked, too, on our best nights; can’t say much for the rest of them. Suffice to say my expectations were not very high for Ms. Grauer.
My expectations need to be put in their place from time to time, and they were, once I heard Grauer’s music. Her 2011 record A Million Fires is a solid, often beautiful affair, showcasing her distinctive, soulful voice (think late-Eighties Natalie Merchant, with a touch of Norah Jones) in a variety of settings, most built around her plaintive piano. I highly recommend checking out the stream on her Web site, then firing up iTunes to buy it; it’s seriously affecting stuff, and Grauer is following it up with an EP by The Black Moon Project, a collaboration with musicians from the roots label Old Boy Records. The first single, “Do You Call This Love,” was released last week.
I corresponded with Grauer via email about her music, her HBO work, and other artistic pursuits in which she is engaged.
You mention in your Web bio that you had classical piano training. Tell me a bit about growing up—was music your first love? What did you listen to?
My first love was actually ballet and classical music. I used to fall asleep listening to “Swan Lake” every night when I was little. Growing up, there was always live accompaniment in my ballet classes. That was my first exposure to live music. I started taking piano lessons when I was 8 years old and took a lesson every week for 10 years. Those lessons showed me how to take music into my own hands. I started playing and just never stopped.
You’re also a producer at HBO. Tell me how you got that gig; do you have a visual arts or film background?
It was a bit of an unconventional path, but I majored in French Literature, which got me interested in Film and then Visual Studies, which is all about imagery and how we see. A family friend who works at HBO helped me get an interview and that was the start of my career as a producer. It’s become a way for me to combine my love of images and music.
Discuss a bit, if you will, about your songwriting process. Do you have strong images in mind as you write songs? Conversely, as you’re shooting and producing and editing visual material, is there also accompanying music on your mind?
When I’m produce something visual, I usually pick the music first — it’s the thread that helps me weave images together. When I write songs, it’s more about finding the words and melodies to express certain experiences or emotions. It’s about capturing a feeling for me. The imagery of my songs actually takes on new meaning when I perform them.
Who’s playing with you on A Million Fires? The bass playing on “Round and Round” and violin on “A Million Fires,” in particular, are pretty striking.
The string accompaniment on the album is all Rubin Kodheli, an extremely talented and versatile musician who I was fortunate enough to work with on this project. When we were in the studio, he played that cello like a violin, a bass, a guitar, a string section, whatever the song called for. It allowed us to keep the songs stripped down and honest but layered and varied at the same time.
You say these songs emanated from time you spent in Europe, busking with a group called The Crooners. What elements from that experience made it into the songs—was it restlessness? A relationship? Other things?
Ha, all of the above.
The song “A Million Fires” is, of course, quite central to the album. You begin it with the lines, “Mama did you think that I’d ever cross over to the dark side? / Papa did you think that I’d ever leave all that I’d left behind?” Assuming your own experience informs those lines, what “dark side” did you fall into?
At the time I wrote “A Million Fires,” I had been working on the True Blood campaign for months. The imagery from that show, which is really dark in nature, was imbedded in my mind. I wrote that verse with one particular character in mind who leaves her past behind and enters into this dark vampiric world. I think anytime we do something that goes against what society or family expects of us, there is a dark place we have to cross through.
You also have a music production company (Free Man Music), and are, through that endeavor, working on something called The Black Moon Project. What is that project all about?
Free Man Music is a music production company that creates original music for TV and Film. In 2009, my song ”Soldier Song” was licensed for an HBO promo and that’s what got me interested in working on more music for media. Because I work so closely with musicians and producers, it was a natural extension of what I love to do. The Black Moon Project is the first collaboration between Free Man Music and a group of musicians on Old Boy Records, an American roots label founded by Chris Merkley. It’s the first chapter of an ongoing project that we’ll be releasing this fall.
Talk about your new single, “Do You Call This Love.” There are lots of interesting voices on it, and some pretty terrific harmonica work—it’s very moody and sexy. What’s the story behind the song?
“Do You Call This Love” is one of the songs on the Black Moon EP. I wrote it last year when I was driving through the hot sultry desert of California. The voices additional voices are Anderson East, Gabe Cummins, and Chris Merkley who also plays that mean harmonica. The single is now available on iTunes.
You’re an independent musician; how difficult is it to make, distribute, and market your music without a “machine” like a record company behind you?
The music industry is changing so much that you can really be your own machine. I’ve been so lucky to work with such talented musicians, composers, creative directors, producers — I just keep applying everything I’ve learned at HBO to my own projects — from marketing to branding to producing a product you hope people love as much as you have enjoyed creating.
You’re involved in a lot of different things—do you ever get concerned about stretching yourself too thin—creatively, physically, and/or emotionally—by doing so much?
Not really — I try to approach everything I do as a sphere, instead of a line. It helps me connect the dots.
What else would you like folks to know about you?
I’ve been working with friend and Director Souzan Alavi on the music video for the title track ”A Million Fires,” due for release this fall. It’s been amazing to work with her and bring this song to life. The video captures the essence of what A Million Fires is all about.