In My Life
If you dont know who Al Conti is, youre not alone. Although I pride myself on knowing a thing or two about musicians and all styles of music, past and present, until recently I had never heard of him. Had I watched As The World Turns, the soap opera program on CBS, perhaps then I would have seen Al Conti, the actor, but that program has never been on my must see list. Had I been conversant or even acutely aware of the many musicians whose styles can best be described in the New Age genre, then maybe I would have known about Al Conti. But quite frankly his music and knowledge of his existence had until now escaped me.
I was given Als latest album, Poeta by his publicist and asked to review it. I listened to it once and then again in my car as I drove to and from work. After listening to it a number of times I found myself enjoying this self composed, self played, self produced album on the Shadeside label, also owned by the aforementioned, Al Conti. Being a believer in entrepreneurship and a fan of all kinds of music, I decided that instead of writing a review, I would speak with this multi-talented individual who not only is an accomplished actor, but also composes, skillfully plays a host of instruments, both conventional and ethnic and runs his own record company.
Al divides his time between New York City and Vermont. When we introduced ourselves to each other, I told him about jambands.com. He immediately knew about the site since one of his neighbors in Vermont is a member of Phish. He also pointed out that a number of musicians from the 60s and 70s are now actively involved in New Age/World Music.
Al grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His mother was a classical ballerina and his father was a concert pianist. Al told me that as a youngster he would look though his parents record collection and play his favorites. Playing your parents music at a young age was something I did as well and knowing this about Al made me more comfortable as our discussion progressed.
*MG: On the liner notes in the Poeta album, it says that Vermont is your true home, a place that you deeply love. Although I have never been to Buenos Aires, is your love for Vermont because it is similar to your homeland? * AC: Buenos Aires is a large city with heavy European influences so in that respect it is not at all similar to Vermont. On the other hand, the history of Vermont is French-Canadian, which is a very family oriented culture. My friends here are very family oriented and that aspect of closeness to family is similar to the way in which I grew up with in Argentina.
MG: Poeta is your second album. Shadows was your first. What lessons did you learn from the first time when you made Shadows that helped in the making of Poeta?
AC: It was a very enlightening experience. When I came out with Shadows it was a compilation of music I had written over a number of years. With Poeta it was a definite project that came together all in one year. I recorded Poeta here in my studio in Vermont. I did additional recording and mixing in Germany. The reason I had gone there was that I had previously worked with Omegasounds Studios a production company in Kiel, Germany and was very comfortable with them. Ironically, they are now heavily involved in hip-hop. Not only was I comfortable having worked with them in the past, but also the costs there were considerably less than here. By the way, my next album will be produced here in Vermont.
MG: On Poeta you play all the instruments?
AC: Yes, for the most part but on this album there were additional guitars performed by Tarek Krohn who is an amazing musician which was a blessing to have him join me on the album. I also had some vocals recorded in Germany and it was very pleasant to have that and would love to use them on my next project.
My next project will be slightly different. The theme of the album will be more along the lines of the song that opens Poeta which is called Quest for Orpheus. I feel that Poeta is like a bridge between Shadows and the next one which will be called Scheherazade. I feel that we grow as artists, so I think Poeta is like an in-between as to what is coming next.
MG: When I first received Poeta it took me some time to listen to it. On my first listening, I kind of liked it, but I was distracted at the time, didnt feel overly enthused about it, so it sat on my desk for a few weeks after that first time I heard it. I then decided to take it with me in my car on my commute to and from work. Perhaps it was the fact that I wasnt distracted which caused me to pay more attention, but I got to like the album more than the first time I played it. So although this may seem like a backhanded compliment, Poeta grows on you as you listen more often to it. I really got to enjoy the album as I played it more often.
AC: Its really interesting that you say this to me because many people have said to me that this is a great car CD. They have it in the car and what they like about it, as opposed to a lot of other New Age music is that the album is not meditational or music for a massage. Its an in-between of pop, classical and ambient that they can play it in the car without falling asleep. As a result, it ends up staying in peoples cars and that seems all they listen to over and over again.
MG: What differentiates this album from your first is your use of not only the standard instruments, but your use of many ethnic instruments. Can you elaborate on this?
AC: Poeta needed those instruments since its theme is more ethnic than my first album. I can tell you that my next album will be even more ethnic than this one. I bring up the name Loreena McKennitt, who is a Canadian singer, composer, harpist who is well known in New Age music circles. She actually started as an independent and then she signed with Warner Brothers Records and became very famous. Her music is New Age, with very strong Celtic and Middle Eastern themes. She explores those roots very effectively. I guess I would like fall into that same musical category.
MG: Shadowside Records is the label you own and I am intrigued to get your thoughts as a musician on the business of music. As an owner/operator of your own label, is it your strategy to build up your musical catalog and then try to sell the label and publishing rights to a major record company or are you comfortable keeping this for yourself?
AC: I am not that interested in being acquired by a major label and think a lot of people in my position feel the same. Where it would be nice to be licensed by a major label, I believe in independent decisions. I kind of liken that to my experience as an actor working in independent films which was fine for a while until the big studios took that over. Many of the mainstream actors who got rich have now returned to independent films because it allows them a certain amount of freedom and they can afford to do so. With music, independent musicians have the freedom to be able to say, Heres all my artistic ability; heres all my passion and be actually able to do something with all that without having to sell a million albums. Smaller labels can get by on 20,000 albums sold and be very happy whereas large record companies would consider that amount of sales as a failure.
MG: We see many big-time artists disregarding the big record companies as the Radiohead example clearly shows. That band certainly has great power and wealth behind them, but given the direction of the music business today, I was wondering about your goals as a business person/musician?
AC: One of the reasons I brought up Loreena McKennitt was because she began selling music out of her kitchen and by the time Warners contacted her, she was grossing $100K a year. In some ways she maintained her independence since she was quite comfortable before they met. She didnt have the hopes of being a major label product. From an artistic perspective, I would like to be true to myself and whatever comes out is fine for me and also I want to take my time. Another New Age artist, Enya comes out with an album every five years because she does what she wants to do. Of course now she can afford it, but even early on it would take her two to three years to complete an album. You will notice with other artists like Yanni who began on a small label, releasing music slowly, but when Linda Evans came into his life, she catapulted him to fame and he became an overnight household name. They continually released compilation album after compilation album of his works. As an artist, theres only so much you can put out and some days are not as creative as others. I want to be able to say that I am tired today and whats coming out is not great so I will wait for another day when I am feeling more creative. Id rather not be told to produce by a certain date.
MG: The musical production in Poeta is quite extraordinary. There is significant layering of sounds. When you go out to perform this music, how are you able to recreate the sound from the record to the concert hall?
AC: Whats interesting is that I am not a performing musician, I am a recording artist. Composing and working with my music has become such a personal thing. Its kind of like my sacred space. I have never felt the need to be out there in public. I share with people through the CD and digital downloads, but I havent had the need to go out there and perform my music. Even as an actor, I was more comfortable performing on TV and films as opposed to live theater. I am now working 100% with music and not acting at all.
As you know, I was an actor on As the World Turns and then the music part of my life began taking over so much of my time both from a creative and business aspect. As an actor, you have to be ready to perform at a moments notice. For example, my manager’s office would call on one day and say we have something for you tomorrow at 4:00, which meant that I would have to drop everything to be ready and prepared for the acting job the next day. I just could not do that anymore which is why music occupies my life now.
MG: Im sure when you made the decision to turn away from acting in favor of being a full-time musician; it must have been a difficult decision. Are you now comfortable with that decision?
AC: Yes, but when I was three years old, I announced to my family that I was going to be an actor and Ive been in that role for so many years. With all the different parts of my music career, I really dont have the time to think about what I am missing by not being an actor.
MG: There are two vastly different skill sets in managing a label and managing your musical creative side. With this in mind, how do you partition your time to be both a creative musician and a businessman?
AC: Its tough, but I also have help. One of the reasons I created this publishing company was that I wanted my family to have the rights to my music should anything ever happen to me and that evolved into the label. So some members of my family are involved in the business. I have marketing help, so I am not entirely alone in this venture.
MG: Poeta was inspired by the late Spanish poet Ramon Sampedro and you dedicated it to his memory.
AC: The album isnt so much based on him but more based on the poetry of music which is more the overriding theme of the album. It is interesting how poets express themselves with words and how my music does not have words. Music itself has such poetry and can convey so many emotions like actual poetry can. *****
Speaking with Al had a profound effect on me. Heres an obviously talented individual who has seen great success as an actor and decided to change the direction of his life for his belief in not only his music, but in himself. Change is an inevitable occurrence in all our lives. Most of us dont like to change and as a result we stay in boring jobs and disastrous relationships simply because we cannot stand the thought of taking on new challenges.
Its impressive to meet a person with such self-confidence that he is willing to give up a lucrative career and chart a new direction in a very difficult business environment especially given the current state of the music industry. However, given that state, someone like Al can surely thrive by selling his music on the internet and in doing so bypass the major record companies. He is a very private and loyal individual. In his bio, it was mentioned that he had a life altering experience. When I questioned him about it he did not go into detail, but just said that the experience changed his life for the better.
The album is pleasant, easy to listen to and clearly showcases many of the musical strengths of this multi-talented individual. There is a definite storytelling aspect to his music. If you listen closely, you can imagine a story or multiple stories unfolding. Given his acting background, it is easy to understand why the listener can associate the music with a story played out by actors even though there are no words to the songs.
It has always amazed me how music has its own poetry and I want to express that in my work. Al Conti