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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2010/05/29
by Mike Gruenberg

Abby Ahmad

In My Life

The relevance of the music business for those of us who buy the music is that there is always a plethora of available new talent for us to hear and watch. New artists seem to arrive in an endless flow. We are mesmerized by their talent as we look to memorize their songs, understand their individual personas and then be among the first ones to know about the next big musical act before our friends do. And with the advent of home based recording, any person with a reasonable amount of talent and gumption can make a demo or even a finished product while sitting at home for a relatively reasonable cash investment. Whether it’s the latest release from a billion dollar record company or a young musician based in Anytown, USA grinding out an album in their home studio (garage), we certainly have our pick of new music.

Sometimes it seems that all that is needed to make it big in the music business today is the ability to play a musical instrument, then compose a song or two, and be able to perform your creations in front of a sometimes skeptical audience. Soon, when the fans love you, you’re on the road to stardom. Oh, did I mention that you need talent? Got to have that! And did I indicate that you need an incredible amount of patience with the ability to handle rejection frequently? Comes with the territory! Also, to be a success you need to have enormous amount of self confidence? Do you have it? Because if you don’t that and everything else I mentioned, then the odds of success in this arena are greatly diminished. And even if you have talent, great confidence, catchy original tunes and a winning smile, the possibilities of achieving even a small degree of stardom in the music business are slim, at best.

Still, with the odds stacked against them people travel every day from all corners of the world to the music capital cities of New York, London, Los Angeles and Nashville to play their songs and make appointments with record company executives in hopes of landing the elusive contract that will ensure fame and fortune. It is estimated that approximately 27,000 – 35,000 albums (CD and Vinyl) are released by record companies every year. That’s a lot of music performed by a lot of folks chasing their dreams on to our iPods.

Abby Ahmad grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She learned how to play guitar in her early teens and soon began to entertain the locals in coffee houses throughout the city. She went to college in Pittsburgh, majored in theater arts while at the same time continued honing her musical skills and decided that she needed to come to New York to fulfill her dream of being a working musician.

I recently spoke to Abby because I had the pleasure of listening to her latest album, Curriculum in which she is credited as writer, performer and co-producer. At 27 years of age, Abby has taken an incredible step forward to fulfill her musical dreams. Abby credits her five years in Pittsburgh as a good stepping stone/buffer as she made her way from Wilkes-Barre to New York She said that those years in Pittsburgh gave her a good basis of living in an environment that featured diversity and culture which has served her well as she transitioned herself to New York. This August will mark her five year anniversary in the city and she is fully acclimated to New York.

In 2006, Abby released her first album Rearview. I asked Abby how Curriculum differed from the first one that she recorded almost four years ago. “ Curriculum is not so much a departure from Rearview, but more an evolution” she said. “In both cases, I was lucky enough to work with producers who really understood the heart of who I am as a songwriter and based production values around those ideals.” Abby went on to say that the difference between the two albums is “that Curriculum is fully flushed out; it’s fully produced, but not overly produced, which is a very fine balance.” In comparing the two records, it is clear that in Curriculum the production is more “blossomed” than her first record.

Nathan Rosenberg and Mark Marshall were the guiding producers, mixers, engineers and part of the group of participating musicians for the Curriculum sessions. In fact, Nathan also arranged the string section on two of the songs on the album and he owns the studio where the album was recorded. The musical biographies of Mark and Nathan read like a who’s who in the music industry. Their influence, musicianship and guidance on Abby’s work are one of the key reasons for the brilliance of this album. The production and the quality of the songs showcases Abby’s ability to handle a ballad and an up tempo tune with the skill and perfection.

“Star Pupil” is the first song on the album and is my favorite. It has a Janis Joplin feel to it and both Nathan and Mark play key roles as they support a horn section that blends, but does not overshadow the power and clarity of Abby’s voice. In referring to her work with Mark and Nathan, Abby commented that the three of them “meshed musically and collectively and understood what they wanted for this record” As is turns out, Mark is Abby’s musical director for her live shows and she recently performed this song with an 11 piece band at a live concert.

I asked Abby about a line in “Star Pupil” when she says, “I am bruised, not broken”. Her response was that at the time, she had written a number of songs slated to be included in the album and was coming out of the recovery of the ending of a relationship. She said, “’Star Pupil’ is a disclaimer to future relationships. It was kind of like, here’s what I’ve endured and here’s what I’ll bring to the new relationship with the ‘new me’. Instead of wallowing in the sadness and all of that I had experienced, I would learn from the experience and use it as fuel going forward.”

A unique aspect to the album is the diversity in the musical style of each song. Whether it’s a jazz, folk or rock influence or a combination thereof, Abby and her collaborators have crafted a unique collection of songs that speak to many different styles of music. I asked her if that was a conscious effort on her part or that it just turned out that way.

“In terms of my musical influences, I have a plethora of different styles and genres that have influenced me over the years. Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell….I was raised on the Beatles. As I got older, I began to have an appreciation for Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Bjork. Then later in life getting into hip-hop, getting into country and all different types of music. Stylistically, I write in different ways and as such, we wanted to express the music in different ways. What’s great about the album is that while each of the songs has a distinctly different sound, they all belong under the same umbrella and they all match as a collection. From start to finish, even the song order was carefully decided because we wanted it to have a systematic story to tell.”

I pointed out to her than on Landing Gear” she used the same musicians as “Star Pupil” and yet the two songs are completely different from one another. “Landing Gear” is more a jazz, improvisational style than the other. Abby said that “We were very blessed to have the horn section that works with Levon Helm on that session” she said. “Erik Lawrence, Steve Bernstein and Clark Gayton arrived on one of the hottest days of the year in New York in July of 2008 and we set up on the rooftop of the Dog House (Nathan’s studio). Metaphorically what I based that song on was about when I moved to New York, it coincided with Hurricane Katrina, so I felt a lot of the uncertainty that we were feeling as a nation, as in what’s coming next, where do we belong, who’s going to help us? I felt very similarly on a personal level being this new New Yorker and so I wanted that song bridge to be like an explosion of sounds, very chaotic and kind of crazy. So we translated that idea to the guys and said ‘let it break free.’”

“Picket Lines” is just Abby and Mark. It struck me that this lady who thrived with tunes backed by horn and string sections could also perform quite well with just one other person accompanying her. In speaking to whether she prefers a duo as opposed to a multi-piece band, she brought up an interesting point about the difference between working in a studio and performing as a live act. “The studio is a completely different beast than a live performance,” she said. “Some of the songs we began, we didn’t know where they would end up. So we had many ideas for these songs but the net result often turned out different than what we had envisioned. And while ‘Picket Lines” was just Mark and I; it has a big sound, a fully realized track”. She went to say “that it was interesting to work with Mark because we operated as though we were in a greenhouse in the studio; we got to nurture these songs, give them a little bit of water, a little bit of sunlight and then say to ourselves, ‘what else does this need?’ ‘How do we accentuate?’ ‘How do we pullback?” She said that this process worked particularly well with “Picket Lines” since it was a brand new song that she literally finished writing it at the studio.

Curriculum was a 2 ½ year process to the time it was actually released from the time they began to write and record the album. She told me that she and Mark had been performing many of the tunes live together for about three years before they began to record. That time together gave them both an understanding of musically working with each other. “Mark is a brilliant producer. He started off as a songwriter. He knows how to enhance the message behind the story with sound” she said.

One of the aspects of the album that Abby admitted was that there were a number of imperfections that the production team decided to leave on the album as opposed to edit them out. “We kept in some of the imperfections that some people might call ‘mistakes’” she said. “There’s a door slamming on one track; there’s a cell phone (Mark’s) that actually goes off while we recording on another track, but that was the magical track regardless of the flaw and the flaw turned out to be beautiful because it was actually in key with the song”. Listen carefully to “Lost on Me” and you’ll hear Mark’s cell phone blend harmoniously with Abby’s composition.

One of the reasons for the depth and character of this album is the people assembled by the production team to support Abby. For example, in “Borders” the horn arrangements are done by Michael Leonhart. He also arranged the horns for two other songs, “Up and Through” and “Going Gone.” Michael holds the distinction of being the youngest person ever to win a Grammy when he won one at age 17. His musical credentials, much like Nathan and Mark could fill many pages as he has worked with such luminaries as Steely Dan, Bonnie Raitt, Wynton Marsalis, Yoko Ono, etc. Abby spoke with great reverence about Michael when she said “Working with Michael was phenomenal…he has such a sensitive ear and stylistically he understood in a very short period of time what was best to showcase the horns tastefully, but still have it be interesting and unique.”

Given Abby’s talent and cast of musicians that have been assembled to support her efforts, Curriculum stands as an important next step in her career. It is intelligent, well written and appealing. It will cause you think, it will cause you to reflect and probably make you smile a few times, as well. She continues to write new songs and will be touring this summer. My conversation with her showed her to be introspective and honest about herself and her music. She is grateful for the supporting musicians on Curriculum and clearly has the talent to hold her own in a crowd of very talented people.

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