Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Crown Jwlz

Crown Jwlz at Hollywood Forever Cemetery


At Hollywood Forever Cemetery
6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

If you’ve never visited Hollywood Forever, you probably find it a bit strange that singer-songwriter Crown Jwlz calls the cemetery her favorite place in Los Angeles. After spending even a little time at the Hollywood landmark, you might feel exactly the same way.

“This is the perfect place to come and reboot,” says the L.A.-based rock artist. “Hollywood Forever has that dark energy, but it really depends on how you look at death. Death to me is not a finite ending, so I don’t see it as a negative.”

It’s hard to be very negative when you’re surrounded by lush, green grass, tall palm trees, a serene lake and gorgeous monuments to people’s family members and celebrities like Mickey Rooney, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and even the dog that played Toto in The Wizard of Oz. As we take a seat across from a statue of Johnny Ramone, Jwlz tells me that she grew up loving punk music, especially the Ramones, in her native Dallas, Texas. This transitions into a conversation that touches on her musical upbringing, influences and debut EP, California King, which is set to be released next month.

“I remember being about 6 when I started to notice that I was musical. My friend Amanda and I wrote this cheesy song about being best friends on a little keyboard. It reminds me of that Zack Attack song, ‘Friends Forever,’ from ‘Saved by the Bell’ – on that kind of level,” she laughs. “I would always write stories and was strong in English in school. I had a knack for words, rhyming and rhythm since I danced from when I was 2 – ballet, tap, jazz, modern – until I was 19. Tap was always my favorite because it was so rhythmic.”

Throughout our interview, Jwlz is quick to smile and laugh, even at her own expense. She recalls being a step behind the rest of her class on old recital videos since she was a year younger than everyone else and eventually using that dance background to her advantage as her cheerleading squad competed against other schools.

“I went to an all-girls Catholic private school, so we cheered for the girl volleyball and basketball players. It was athletic, we were serious and it wasn’t a joke,” she remembers, before adding, “We were the punk rock cheerleading squad, thought, getting in trouble for dyeing our hair and getting piercings!”

While her mother was responsible for pushing Jwlz into dance at a young age, her father was the one who provided her early musical education.

“The first concert I ever went to was Bon Jovi after that ‘Shot through the heart’ [‘You Give Love a Bad Name’] phase because of my dad. He took me and my sisters to see ZZ Top and Carlos Santana at the Texas State Fair. We were going on rides, then and he said, ‘OK, girls, we’re going to pause the rides now because you have to see these musicians.’ We were so annoyed with him, but it ended up being amazing. ZZ Top are from Texas. [Their drummer, Frank Beard] went to Irving High and was one of the first people to get kicked out for having long hair,” she proudly informs. “My dad has amazing music taste. He may not be a rock star, but he’s such a rock star. He gave me roots in classic rock, which definitely feeds into what I’m doing now.”

As she began to form her own likes and dislikes, a few artists stood out from the others.

“Thom Yorke from Radiohead, for his songwriting ability and his innate sense of musicality, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury for the same reasons and also their level of theatrics, presentation, showmanship – I connect to all three of them a lot,” she shares. “I also remember Gwen Stefani when I was younger, seeing her in her sports bra and track pants in the ‘Just A Girl’ video and thinking, ‘This is the first girl I’ve seen in a long time – other than  Pat Benatar, Blondie, Joan Jett, Janis Joplin who are amazing examples of strong women in rock – who was not over sexualizing herself. There’s nothing wrong with that, everybody has their own way of presenting their art, but as a rock musician, a tough punk rocker and somewhat of a tomboy at the time (Especially with a very traditional South African mother of four daughters, who made me wear everything pink. It was very much: Be a girl. I’m girly, but I’m a tough girl.). Seeing Gwen rocking out, not giving an F about anything I was like, ‘Whoa, I haven’t seen a girl do this in a while with this level of strength, commanding the stage in front of these men and owning it in such a masculine yet feminine way. I respected it so much.”

While her sisters took piano lessons, Jwlz never did. Yet her desire to play music was evident at an early age.

“We had a grand piano growing up, and when I was 7 or 8, I would sit in front of it at Christmastime and teach myself songs like ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ by ear,” she says. “I’ve always had a really spot-on ear, which made it easier once I began studying music theory.” 

After graduating high school, Jwlz studied music and business (“because I have a crazy smart Italian businessman father who always ingrained the importance of balancing both sides in my head, and I love that he gave me that influence”) at the University of North Texas. At that point, she was already planning on making the move to Los Angeles to pursue her musical career.

“Having really big voice and coming from a classical and somewhat of a jazz background, a lot of the vocal coaches and teachers that I had been studying with were pushing for me to go to New York, so I was always planning for that. Then I backup sang in a punk band in high school once at a show and once for a recording they did in their garage, and that kind of changed everything for me. I decided that since wanted to write my own words as opposed to singing somebody else’s words, I was going to L.A.”

After arriving in Los Angeles, she knew it was the right move for her.

“When I got to California, it was like everything makes sense now. It’s so liberal, free, diverse, with so much going on culturally with art. I was lucky when I got out here to meet a lot of visual artists. I went to museums and found out about different visual and street artists, fashion, and those things started to feed into and influence my music. All art feeds other art. Anytime I’m feeling stuck in my own art, I look to other mediums to break any block I have,” she reveals. “The more you practice your creative muscle, the more your juices will flow. People who are having a block should force themselves to write, draw, paint literally anything they see. Work that creative muscle, and eventually something is going to be good. Look at rap artists, they create so much content, cut 20 songs and 17 aren’t even used. The three that are, are amazing.”

Jwlz went on to graduate from the Musicians Institute in Hollywood and eventually assembled a group of support musicians that she dubbed “The Royal Court.”

“I wouldn’t call myself a pianist or guitarist by any means. I can play chords on guitar and piano to write my music and come up with melodies, but I work with musicians who do their jobs very well,” she says. “There may come a time I play rhythm on stage – a little piano or synth here and there – but I work with Nick Annis, my guitarist and music director. He’s incredible and also plays with Scavenger Hunt and Kesha. My drummer Zak St. John (Stevie Wonder, the B52s) is amazing. Gabe Rudner plays keys and synth, Eliot Lorango is on bass, the girls that sing backup are Nikki Wilkins and Lorelei Sinco – they are all incredible.”

Crown Jwlz is backed by the sextet on her upcoming EP, which also has a royally themed name: California King, and was produced by Max Coane (Jack’s Mannequin), Maxwell Moon (Macy Gray) and Erik Belz (, Juicy J), mixed by Noah Georgsson (The Strokes, Little Joy) and mastered by Ted Jensen (Muse, Florence + The Machine). The moniker pokes at the idea that only a man can be supreme ruler and is a hint to the powerful and fiery sentiments found within songs like the release’s first single, “Without You” and “Party Past the Sunrise.”

“My last band had this crazy house where we all lived, and ‘Party Past the Sunrise’ was literally written about that house. My friends and I will be out somewhere until 1:30 a.m. then head to one of the multiple after-hours in Los Angeles or a house party in the Hills to watch the sunrise while in a hot tub with a glass of champagne. It’s L.A., so that stuff happens,” she grins. “‘Party Past the Sunrise’ was written about those moments when the sun rises, and you say, ‘Wait, we’re having too much fun. We should go to Venice, spend the day at the beach, have a Bloody Mary and keep going.” 

Jwlz is all about being independent and female empowerment, but she is also about having fun. She loves to travel to the homeland of her paternal side of the family and recently spent a month in the Philippines. 

“My best friend from high school, Nicole, is an intuitive body worker and healer and studies with a teacher in the Philippines that she had met on a trek in Nepal. He had a vision while doing a reading on her, and in the reading, I came up. A year later she visited him again, and he said, ‘This girl is popping up again like a bouncy ball. I have to meet this amazing energy,” she relays. “So I went for six weeks. I meditated did yoga, surfed and ate super healthy every day. Doing all these fun things and working with this spiritual healer, I wrote the majority of the EP there. It was healing, cleansing, inspiring, invigorating – exactly what I needed.”

Sometimes we all need to have our cup refilled, to refresh our creativity. Jwlz feels like living in Los Angeles and going to places like Hollywood Forever definitely refuels her creative fire. The city has definitely become her home.

“I love Los Angeles. It’s a place where you’re allowed to express yourself and take it as far as you want. I’m not trying to talk trash about Texas, but it’s not exactly the pinnacle of individuality. I’m lucky to live in a place that’s diverse, accepting and with so much going on. Whatever you want to discover on any given night – if you want to go to this type of show with this type of artist, a fashion show or even just a movie – it’s amazing what you can do here,” she concludes. “I don’t think people who grew up here understand how incredible it is coming from somewhere that’s completely flat to where you know that you can go to the mountains and the beach in the same day. Los Angeles is a breath of fresh air; it just feels like peace and home.”

California King releases in February. Crown Jwlz performs Jan. 21 at the Viper Room. For more information, visit

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Rilan on Melrose Avenue


At Flasher Melrose
7609 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles

“Growing up in the South people didn’t throw out names like the Viper Room or the Roxy, so when I came here I wondered, ‘Are they really a thing?’ Then I played them and realized, ‘Wow, look at who has played here before.’ I got it,” admits New Orleans transplant Rilan Roppolo. “I’m obsessed with the new season of ‘American Horror Story,’ and there was a flashback of Lady Gaga’s character in 1984 saying, ‘Let’s put on some makeup and go to the Roxy,’ and I was like, ‘The Roxy!’ People understand what it is, and now that I’ve done it, I can say that I’ve really played my hometown. L.A. is where I launched my career, so it is my hometown.”

To say that the 20-year-old singer-songwriter, dancer and actor is on the rise would be no exaggeration. Rilan has not only played venues like the Sayers Club, Viper Room and Roxy, he just released his debut EP, Chemicals, produced by Dallas Austin who has worked with everyone from Lady Gaga and Pink to Grace Jones and Madonna.

“A co-writer on all of my stuff, Naz Tokio, was Dallas’ writing partner for several years, so she would talk about him, thought we would work well together and he came to two of my shows in 2013. I did a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Starman,’ and Dallas loved it,” Rilan remembers. “Three days later, we went into the studio and did our first song, ‘Abandon My Angels’ (the first track on the EP), and to be honest, it was magical. That sounds cheesy and clichĂ©, but it’s true. Like Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, who just clicked and ended up developing a sound together. Not that I’m anything like them, forgive me for using that as a reference! [Dallas and I] just made sense. The best part about it was he just completely understood what I wanted. The fact that someone of his caliber and success responded to what I naturally do is encouraging.”
Rilan at Flasher Melrose

Ever since childhood, Rilan has been a natural performer. He began acting and singing in musical theater at age 6. Though his dad played in a garage band in high school, his family isn’t particularly musical. However, it was the music that Rilan’s mom had playing in her walkman that ended up being his biggest influence.

“I grew up with my mom’s walkman as opposed to a CD player or iPod. On it was Madonna, David Bowie – that’s who I listened to. I was a decade or two behind, but I thought it was cool. I would walk around and pretend I could dance. The coffee table was my stage,” he laughs, before explaining how watching performances from the two artists was a catalyst for him deciding to pursue a career in music. “It was a combination of Madonna and David Bowie, seeing people who were so unapologetically themselves on stage where they could be free and exploit everything that was taboo: Bowie with his androgyny and Madonna with ‘I have sex all the time.’ They were people who took a risk, and it paid off; that really resonated with me.” 

The city of New Orleans also had an impact on Rilan’s musical development.

“New Orleans is a metropolitan city, so we got big acts all the time; I saw Lady Gaga twice. House of Blues had their smaller Foundation Room where they brought a lot of indie artists, so that’s where I would go a lot. I saw Lights there, and I loved her,” he gushes. “If you walk around the French Quarter or Downtown, there are people tap dancing and playing music all the time. It’s totally different than what I do – jazz, blues and a fusion of African-influenced music – but it was really cool to be surrounded by different styles. Being surrounded by people’s different inspirations is inspiring. That creative energy is a positive atmosphere that makes everything better.”

Rilan shows off all the different sides of himself as an artist in a five-part video series to promote Chemicals entitled "iAm." Every video represents a different word that begins with each letter of his name: RebelIdealistLoverAlchemistNecromancer

You can tell from the clips that fashion is a big part of Rilan’s persona, so we meet each other on Melrose Avenue to do some shopping at one of his favorite clothing stores, Flasher.

“I’m now friends with the owner of Flasher because I think I pay their rent with all of the stuff that I buy,” he jokes. 

Scott, the shop’s Creative Director and Manager, greets us warmly at the door and immediately has several items to show Rilan. Flasher is full of cutting-edge streetwear and outfits that are perfect for a red-carpet event or concert performance from designers like L.A.-based David Giampiccolo, a contestant on the latest season of “Project Runway.” Rilan tries on one of Giampiccolo’s pieces, a long quilted puffy coat in white.

“I went to a private prep school from Pre-K all the way to 12th grade. In elementary school we had a uniform, in middle school we could wear what we wanted but under certain guidelines that seemed to suit the preppy kids’ style so much it made me rebel. I discovered Hot Topic and was a total emo kid. I would straighten my hair, wear eyeliner,” he recalls. “I didn’t understand why everyone wanted to fit in a mold and look like everybody else, that’s so boring. I found ways to make that collared school shirt interesting! It was not easy, but it developed into the crazy stuff I like now.”

Some of the clothes at Flasher are indeed outlandish, but promote the idea of fashion as wearable art. There are also several bold art pieces that adorn the boutique’s walls, which makes the shop fit right in with the overall vibe of Melrose Avenue.

“I live about five minutes away, and Melrose is where I hang out. It has all these little boutiques that you don’t find everywhere. Each store has its own personality,” Rilan tells. “Melrose looks like what the ‘80s would have been to me with album posters at the corner all overlaid on top of each other. I feel like I’m where I always wanted to be, surrounded by creativity.”

Rilan has always been in touch with his own creative side.

“I took piano lessons when I was 8, but I hated it and only lasted two years. When I was 13 I played around on a keyboard we had at home and ended up loving it. I taught myself chords, scales and attempted to write. I was 15 when I went into the studio for the first time and recorded some terrible songs,” he laughs. “I sounded like I was singing musical theater because that’s all I knew how to sing. It was definitely a process, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I tried to look at who I admired and emulate without copying. That’s where I developed this whole ‘80s synth-pop dark sound.”

Around the time that he found his way back to piano and writing songs, Rilan discovered what would be his other great passion in life.

“As I progressed into community theater from school theater, I was surrounded by classically trained dancers. One of my friends was in musical theater dance class and asked me to come because they needed more boys. I went and thought it was amazing. I started with jazz and broadway, then tap, ballet, contemporary and hip hop,” he says. “I found dance later than most, but it became the most important part of my life. You don’t have to speak a language to understand what someone is trying to say, dance is so universal.”

Eventually, Rilan attended a convention where choreographers from the commercial music industry taught workshops, and he discovered that he could take his theatrical background and apply it to a career in commercial pop music. He enrolled in a songwriting program at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., but after half a semester he decided to take up an offer from a dance agency and make the move to Los Angeles.

His musical theater training was definitely key in nabbing a role as a Dalton Academy Warbler in the final season of “Glee.”

“‘Glee’ was a funny thing because that was the fourth time I auditioned for the job. While I was in high school, I had a theatrical agent and tried out for roles three times, but it never happened. Then I ended up going to audition as a dancer, but my agency sent me on the wrong audition. Instead of the dance call, they sent me on the acting audition. I showed up ready to dance and move, and everyone else was in suits with their hair all slicked back. I thought,’This is the worst audition yet! It’s not going to happen,’ but I ended up booking it. It was cool to do something so all-encompassing of what I do. Plus everything Ryan Murphy does – that whole world of ‘Nip/Tuck,’ ‘American Horror Story,’ ‘Glee’ – is all uber-stylized, and I find it inspiring because it fits a niche in pop culture. You see an image and know that’s ‘Scream Queens’ or that’s ‘American Horror Story’ because it’s so specific with the styling and the themes. I would love to do anything that involves music and dance in something like ‘American Horror Story’ with a dark aesthetic. Mixing media is how you impact culture, say what you need to say in a way that people actually listen because it’s in a creative outlet.”

Before we part ways, Rilan tells me about his recent trip to do three shows in London and falling in love with the city, specifically Camden Town. Punk rock and alternative culture thrive in the neighborhood where the Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood once haunted the streets.

“There are people there who are still completely goth, mohawks, guys with eyeliner and very specific, stylized stores – a Lolita store, a new rock store with new rock boots. It’s almost like Melrose,” he concludes. “Home is always home. When you go back, it’s the familiarity that makes you feel comfortable. When I go back to New Orleans it feels familiar, but Los Angeles is definitely home because of the memories I’ve made. There are certain scenes that people fall into, but I haven’t found one that I fit into. I think that’s why like it better, I can just do me.”

Rilan’s Chemicals EP is currently available. For more information, visit

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Halo Circus

Halo Circus' Brian Stead, Veronica Bellino, Allison Iraheta and Matthew Hager at Chado Tea Room in Pasadena


At Chado Tea Room 79 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena (626) 431-2832

One of the most interesting aspects of interviewing music groups is finding out how the experiences of each member’s past informs the band’s sound and development as a cohesive unit. Every band has a unique origin story, and the Los Angeles foursome of Halo Circus is no exception.

“Allison has her background, and I have mine. Veronica has played with everyone from Jeff Beck to DMC of Run-DMC. Brian is a really good guitarist; it’s very difficult to find musicians of his caliber. What makes this band unique is that there’s a certain level of professionalism. Other rock bands have a much looser vibe; our vibe is that this band is extremely important to each of us,” begins bassist and producer Matthew Hager. “Starting this project, we knew the impossible odds of doing music professionally. There’s no big misunderstandings. If people like what we do, we’re here to do it.”

“We love what we do, and we do what we love. It just works,” adds guitarist Brian Stead.

The other half of Halo Circus – vocalist Allison Iraheta and drummer Veronica Bellino – are also on hand at one of Allison and Matthew’s favorite spots, Chado Tea Room in Pasadena, to talk about their  debut album, which is set to be unveiled next year, and their Dec. 14 show at the Troubadour that they’ve dubbed “Say It Loud! A Night of Cultural Disruption.”

“This is the first time we’re putting an entire event together; it’s been the hardest, scariest experience. It’s been a gift, but no joke, it’s hard because we don’t want it to be another ‘industry night.’ That’s why we’re having KC Porter and Project N-Fidelikah on the bill,” shares Allison. “We want it to be weird and have a multicultural angle, too. You won’t find that in Hollywood: a night with different sounds, colors and cultural backgrounds united by one thing, music.”

The night of multicultural music includes Halo Circus, Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Porter and his Cruzanderos, Heliotrope (featuring members of Ozomatli and WAR), David Garza and Project N-Fidelikah with Angelo Moore of Fishbone, George Lynch, Chris Moore and Pancho Tomaselli. The night before our interview, Matthew and Allison visited a Project N-Fidelikah videoshoot in North Hollywood.

“Angelo was on fire, taking over the whole club,” says Allison. “It’s fun to see someone like him, who has been doing this for a long time and has been in front of millions of people, go to a place like Skinny’s and have the enthusiasm of someone who was playing for the first time.” 

“You’re not going to get a bigger Fishbone fan than me. I’ve worked with a lot of singers in my career, and there’s an energetic similarity with all of the ones that have made a profound impact, like Angelo,” Matthew remarks. “[With Project N-Fidelikah,] they’ve created this anti-supergroup that’s punk, funk and consciousness-centric. They’re a bunch of people who have worked for a very long time, taking a look at the current landscape of the music industry similar to what we did and saying, ‘Let’s see if we can start something a little different, shake it up a bit. That’s what’s so appealing about them.” 

Before we delve into Halo Circus’ history, our waiter arrives to help us navigate the enormous menu of teas to be had at Chado.

“They have pretty nice-sized teapots, so we can get a few and try different flavors,” informs Allison. “I like this place because you won’t find this in South Central!” 

“You just had some dusty Lipton tea bags growing up in South Central,” jokes Matthew.

“This is so different for me, and I’m obsessed with this place because I like tea,” she adds.

Matthew is also a fan of tea and opts for Chado’s best-selling Mauritius Black Tea from Africa and their signature Chicken Salad. Brian tries the Gyokuro Supreme Japanese green tea and a Souchong Chicken Sandwich. Allison loves brown rice tea, so she gets the Organic Japanese Genmaicha with Matcha powder and her favorite Smoked Salmon Salad, which Veronica also orders. For tea, Veronica and I both want to taste the Coconut Chai.

A whole wall of the room is covered with tins of different tea varietals and adorable teapots for sale. The atmosphere is quite cozy, especially decorated for the holidays.

After ordering, Matthew sums up the concept for Say It Loud.

“What we wanted to do with Say It Loud was to create a night that was forward-thinking, gave artists an opportunity to do what they would do if no one was watching,” he says, “to just blow it out like we’re all 15 years old, playing at a house party with all of our friends – where art was the intention, not commerce.”

The Troubadour was the site of Halo Circus’ first show three years ago, so Say It Loud! is a homecoming of sorts for the band. To commemorate the experience, they’re releasing special “Countdown to Troubadour” videos on their YouTube channel. The first video is Allison singing “Mi Ranchito” on Olvera Street with Brian masked as Donald Trump.

Ranchera songs were a staple in Allison’s home growing up in South Central Los Angeles, yet they are just a tiny sliver in the plethora of music that surrounded her.

“I had Rancheras around me because of my parents and grandma. Growing up with an older sister and brother, as they went through their high school and college years I was going through that with them musically. I would be the little girl in the backseat with all my sister’s friends listening to Biggie. My brother picked up guitar in high school, and when I saw him do that I wanted to, too. He would teach me how to play, listening to Sublime and Metallica. It’s rare to be in a family like that growing up in a place like South Central because my neighbors were listening to banda, that’s it,” she says. “It was very rare for me to have those kind of musical differences. They all became a part of me. I never became one thing growing up, I was many things.” 

Although Allison fondly remembers attending her first concert, a Super Estrella radio festival at the Hollywood Bowl with Julieta Venegas and other Spanish pop/rock groups, she didn’t go to many shows at all. Ever since she was a little girl, Allison literally sang for her supper, performing at a furniture store each week before joining a wedding band at age 10.

“Because I sang, my mom loved taking me to modeling, acting, theater, dance, piano and flamenco lessons. Those were my outlets,” she confesses. “I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play with friends or go to a friend’s house. I couldn’t even sleep over at my cousin’s house. My adventures were when the wedding band did weird gigs.”

When she was 15, Allison moved to Mexico for three months to compete in Telemundo’s “Quinceanera: Mama Quiero Ser Artista” singing competition series, which she went on to win. The following year, she burst onto the world’s radar as a contestant on the eighth season of “American Idol,” eventually coming in fourth place. This led to the release of her debut album, Just Like You, in 2009.

Meanwhile, her future husband and collaborator, Matthew, grew up in Texas – in a house where “Miles Davis was just as important as Fishbone, Billy Joel and Billie Holiday.” He played the piano and violin, which later enabled him to pick up guitar and bass without lessons, and after graduating from Berklee College of Music had to make the choice of where to move next.

“It was a choice between New York and L.A., and at the time there was a very different sound and scene to each one. New York was a lot more aggressive, L.A. was more laid back. I like really aggressive music but I like really nice weather, so I decided to come out here and do really aggressive music,” he declares with a smile. 

His classical education and interest in diverse musical styles proved to be key in his successful career as a songwriter and music producer for the likes of Duran Duran, Scott Weiland, Simply Red, Mandy Moore and Mindi Abair.

When Brian decided to move from his native Michigan to pursue music, he also chose between two cities: Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I’m from Michigan, a little town called Haslett, and had never even been west of Chicago,” he admits. “Driving out here was the greatest experience of my life.”

As a child, Brian remembers his dad playing a lot of Tom Petty and Neil Young, while his mom was really into the Police. In middle school, he started teaching himself guitar to Metallica and Nirvana songs.

“It engulfed me and was all I did,” he says. “When Sugar Ray had that huge song ‘Fly,’ I had their album, Floored. There are actually some really heavy songs on it, and I remember having my headphones on, listening to the guitar and saying, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’ I went to school the next day and told my friends that we should start a band. Everyone laughed because none of us played instruments, but my next door neighbor, Jim, bought a drum set and I bought an electric guitar, and we just went for it.”

Veronica – whose earliest musical memory is singing along to every track on the Meet the Beatles! album with her parents when she was 4 or 5 – also remembers going through a distinct period when she realized she wanted to become a professional musician.

“I learned guitar and drums around age 11. I used to go to Ozzfest, to see Nine Inch Nails and to a lot of local hardcore shows in Long Island where I grew up. At around 13, I would watch those local bands and wish I could play in one,” she recalls. “I was always a little shy because it was a very new thing to have a female playing drums. I always wondered if people would judge me or really analyze me more. My first real band played a show when I was 16, and I actually had my drum set turned to the side so I was looking at the wall and not the crowd. I was so nervous.”

“To go from that to Jeff Beck, I mean, nobody deserves to have her own band more than Veronica,” Matthew gushes.

“Yeah, that was pretty fun, too,” she replies about playing with Jeff Beck.

Five years ago Veronica moved to Los Angeles and eventually joined Halo Circus.

Our pots of tea arrive, adorned with precious stoppers that are porcelain kittens. I nibble on a fresh-from-the oven blueberry scone and sip the aromatic Coconut Chai, as Matthew and Allison describe their initial meeting and formation of the band in 2013. 

“I had just come off of a period when I was pretty disillusioned with music. I had done everything I wanted to do in jazz, rock, pop, and the music business was falling apart so I was debating doing something else with my life. Then Allison walked into my studio. She started singing, and within two notes I knew,” he begins. “As a musician, the amount of time and energy it takes to start something new is crazy. So when I first heard her sing, it was a combination of oh my god and uh oh.” 

“I was going through the same thing, except I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do. I didn’t know it was possible to do what I wanted to do because 1) I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do and 2) everything I had gone through before was so technical, and I’m not a very technical person, so it just didn’t work. I was pretty pessimistic about music; there were times when I didn’t want to sing anymore,” reveals Allison. “David Immerman, the guitarist on my Just Like You Tour had written a song with Matthew, and I came in to do a vocal demo. There was freedom, love for music and a foundation I felt. I had never been giving a starting point before. To start from scratch was a challenge to do what felt right to me. It was great.”

“I didn’t watch ‘Idol’ but had heard her name, knew of her album and that she was the ’red-haired rocker chick.’ When I first heard her sing, I was confused because I didn’t hear that. I heard ranchera, soul, Etta James like a motherfucker. It was so loud and pronounced, like smoke or spirits coming from the ground,” Matthew exclaims. “After we talked for five minutes, it was apparent that she was intelligent, thoughtful and knew a lot about music. It was really about either evolving into her second record or starting a band, letting her artistry dictate where she wanted to go and just follow it. Her musical interests were so broad that it needed to be a band, a bunch of musicians with different input and perspectives – a big pot of gumbo.”

Taking Allison’s cultural identity – as well as Matthew, Veronica and Brian’s diverse musical backgrounds – into account, Halo Circus evolved into the bilingual alternative rock band it is today. They are set to release their debut album that was mixed by Craig Bauer (Kanye West, Ed Sheeran, Smashing Pumpkins) in 2016, and Matthew wonders why anyone who has heard of the concept behind it would not want to give it a listen.

“The album lyrically is a concept album from Allison’s perspective,” he says. “The more you get to know her past  – that she grew up in South Central with parents from El Salvador (one legal and one not), made a living as a singer in second/third grade, lived in Mexico for three months and won a television show, did really good on another talent contest show and went on to have a solo album that sold 35,000 units in the first week – how could you not want to hear her perspective, the dichotomy of her existence? 

The band just released a music video for one track from the album, a cover of Duran Duran’s “Do You Believe in Shame?” A stuffed bunny and its menacing alter ego appear frequently in the clip. A bunny is also the Halo Circus logo, so I ask them, What’s so special about bunnies?”

“The explanation will make me sound like I do a lot of drugs, but I don’t – anymore,” Allison jokes. “Early on when we started writing, I started seeing bunnies everywhere. Real ones, fake ones – I noticed them everywhere: when I was driving in the ‘hood to my parents’ house, on pictures in bathrooms. So I looked up what a bunny represents online, and it had a lot in common with our writing, what I was feeling and how I was viewing the world. Bunnies are these cute little creatures, yet they are prey to be eaten. They have these tails which are targets for hawks to see, and that’s who we are. The prettier, the more out there we are, the more we are a target.” 

“You can’t help but smile when you see a bunny’s tail. The fact is, that tail was designed in order for giant hawks to see them; the cutest part of the animal is the part that ultimately poses the most danger. The duality of that seemed like a no-brainer,” adds Matthew.

“It all ties in with the name Halo Circus,” agrees Brian, “the yin and yang, the beauty and the chaos.”

Allison concludes, “That’s exactly it.”

Halo Circus perform Dec. 14 at the Troubadour. For more information, visit

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Flights Over Phoenix

Mark McKee, Keith Longo and Chris Santillo of Flights Over Phoenix at Basin 141 in Montrose


At Basin 141
2265 Honolulu Ave., Montrose (818) 236-4810

I hadn’t met a music group who initially came together through Craigslist and possessed the talent, natural chemistry and genuine affinity for one another to actually form a lasting partnership. That changed after meeting Los Angeles-based trio Flights Over Phoenix.

“I was in a different band when I met Keith [Longo, singer-songwriter] via Craigslist. We jammed, and the music he was doing fit what I like and what I wanted to do better, so I quit the other band and went full force with him,” shares guitarist Chris Santillo. “Everything just felt right, and that was two years ago.” 

“I moved here in 2013 as a freelance musician/producer and spent the first year working with lots of different artists. Keith and I first connected via Craigslist then played phone tag for a long time. Three or four months had gone by, his music had stuck in my head and I wondered if he was still looking for another band member, so I hit him up,” recalls keyboardist Mark McKee. “Their keyboard player had just quit, so that’s how it all started.”

“I remember thinking about my favorite bands, how they all started as high school friends. They had this relationship already, grew as musicians together, and I felt that translated to their sound. I always wanted that but when I moved out here I was 26, so it was pretty late for that to happen. But it’s funny because when Chris started to come over to jam, we became pretty quick friends. Then when we finally started jamming with Mark, it all happened so organically. We would jam and write, and I don’t think we even said, ‘OK, we’re a band. So maybe technically we’re not even a band yet,” laughs Keith, who moved to Los Angeles from Boston on a whim three years ago.

“Maybe this interview is the official document. Are you a notary public?” Mark asks me, and I realize I’m in for a fun evening.

We’re gathered at one of Chris’ neighborhood haunts, Basin 141, a busy gastropub along Montrose’s quaint main street, Honolulu Avenue, offering standard bar fare but with a modern edge. There’s Fish & Chips, Fried Chicken & Waffles and Steak Frites but also Braised Short Rib Tacos, Truffle Mac N’ Cheese and a Pan-Seared Shrimp Wrap on the menu. Brews from Craftsman, Angel City, Smog City and Modern Times are on tap, and specialty cocktails range from the Olvera (Grey Goose Pear, cranberry, lime and simple syrup) and the East Los (209 Gin, cucumber, mint, lime, simple syrup and soda) to twists on a mint julep and margarita.

I order a Strawberry Fields (Nolet’s Dry Gin, house-made strawberry cordial, lemon and sparkling wine), while Keith gets an Old Fashioned, and it’s vodka-sodas for Mark and Chris.

“I usually get a vodka-soda or whiskey neat. I live within walking distance, so this is my go-to place,” says Chris, an L.A. native who grew up in the area. “I’m lame because I don’t like driving anywhere else because of traffic and having to find parking, so I just walk here. In The Wedding Singer there are some bar scenes, and Avignone’s, which is down the street, is where they filmed them. It’s a dive bar, and I probably go there more than I should.”

He is happy to add that he is moving to Keith’s area, Eagle Rock, soon. Mark, who lives in the Valley, admits to being an avid craft beer lover and frequent patron of Golden Road.

“I live in the Valley, but I’m out this way a lot,” he says. “I love Golden Road – where I’m from, North Carolina, beer culture is so healthy there. Before I moved here, there would be a new brewery opening up every month. We’d go and try all the new beers.”

We sip our drinks as the three members of Flights Over Phoenix talk about their unique backgrounds and eventually coming together to create their debut EP, Runaway California.

“None of my family or friends are musical or really into music, I was the only one, so I never went to shows,” replies Chris when I ask if he went to many concerts growing up. “I don’t really go to shows that much now, either. We played the Whisky a while ago, and it was the first time I’d ever been there.”

“I probably know Hollywood better than he does,” adds Keith.

“Guitar is my first and one and only instrument. In sixth grade every guy was taking guitar lessons, so I wanted to, too, but I stopped two years later. When I graduated high school, I wanted to be a firefighter. I was a Fire Explorer for two years, and before that I was a Sheriff’s Explorer. I went to the academy, visited jail and realized how much that would not be fun at all. I didn’t go to four-year college and party, but I somehow wanted to still have fun,” Chris says with a grin. “I ended up getting back into guitar. It was fun again, and I just wanted to try and fulfill my dreams. I thought I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t try and do something I was really passionate about.”

Everyone laughs as Keith deadpans, “You picked the stable job of being a guitar player.”

“I wanted to be a piano tuner,” interjects Mark.

“That’s thrilling,” replies Keith sarcastically.

“I know, that’s why it only lasted a month,” laughs Mark, before adding, “Both of my parents are music teachers, and my brother is a drummer in a band so we grew up playing music together. I took violin for eight years, but I always played piano. I kind of dropped off for a while, played guitar for a lot of years, moved back to keyboards then did both. I sang a little bit. I was the frontperson for a band for a little while, but I never felt like a singer. I’ve always been a multi-instrumentalist, but when I moved out here I started playing keyboards. I have more of an intimate relationship with that instrument than I did before. 

“I grew up playing in bands and going to shows – that was my whole life. Even out here, 90 percent of my friends are musicians,” he continues. “Growing up, all of my friends in the neighborhood and I were terrible at sports, so we started bands. It was like the movie The Sandlot but with bands. Our house was the central house, everyone would come over, and my poor parents had to listen to this racket for years – terrible Green Day covers!”

“They loved it,” interrupts Keith.

“Yeah, my mom always laughs about it now. She could always see the future better than I could, my brother and I doing music full time. That’s what all that racket ended up becoming. I’m definitely indebted to my parents for having that background. They forced me to practice. It was a little rigorous, but at the end of the day I was still in love with music. I owe a lot of my musical work ethic to that,” admits Mark. “Both my parents are classical musicians, so it was always on in the house. My dad was a big Beatles fan as well, so I learned about the Beatles from him. Keith and I both have an older brother, so we always wanted to listen to what they listened to.”

“I’ve always loved music and singing – I sang Disney songs when I was a kid – but I didn’t come from a musical background. My older brother played piano and was into music, but I grew up playing sports. Then in fifth grade you had to pick an instrument, and I picked drums. I had a couple of friends who were drummers, and we got into rock and my brother’s music – Nirvana, REM, ‘90s bands – I would drum along to those, but it was just a hobby for me. I played hockey, and that was my whole life until my early 20s,” Keith reveals. “In college all of my friends would be in the hockey house partying, and I would be out in my car singing along, doing vocal exercises. I didn’t know why, but I remember hearing this quote: ‘You should do what you wake up feeling you have to do every day.’ I had this drive to sing and write, but I wasn’t very good at it to be honest, so I would just do it on the side. Then I reached a point where hockey had come to an end, and I wasn’t ready to get a normal job, so I threw myself into music. It was something I always wanted to do, but I never owned it. I wouldn’t hang out with music kids because I would feel inferior. They played music, and I kind of played music. But I definitely feel like what I missed in musical education I made up for in what I learned in hockey, which was work ethic, drive. Things I consider my strengths actually came through life experiences and not music lessons.”

“It took me a while to get right in the head with, ‘You’re good enough to hit these people up with your music. I would respond to ads online just to see if they would get back to me, not because I actually wanted to form a band. I just wanted to see if people that weren’t my friends thought I was good. After some time I joined some cover bands back in Boston,” he remembers. “Those experiences of having people that don’t know me say, ‘You’re good enough to play with,’ then getting that playing experience gave me the confidence to move out here and try it. Chris was in a similar spot where he was like, ‘I do this, but I don’t really do this,’ and I think Mark just liked the material I showed him. He was probably like, ‘You guys are rough around the edges, but there’s something there.’”

“The North Star for me with anything is: It’s already really good, but I want to help make it better, be a part of it,” agrees Mark. “Producing, my job was taking something that wasn’t very good at all and making it presentable, but if something was pretty good I could make it really good. When I heard this music, I knew immediately where I could fit in, where my strengths fit.”

“I write songs, but I knew couldn’t do it on my own,” adds Keith. “Everyone brings something to the table that makes Flights Over Phoenix what it is.”

“Keith was a captain without a ship, and I was a ship without a captain,” says Mark. “I had these resources and abilities, but no ‘hey, here’s what we’re doing’ – I’m not an artist in that regard. In a band situation, that’s where it thrives.” 

Although it took a bit for Keith to grow the confidence to sing at the front of Flights Over Phoenix, listening to the band’s Runaway California EP there’s no doubt that he has an incredible set of pipes. In fact, Disney selected him to record vocals for “Live the Magic,” the theme for Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary that plays every night in the park.

“It’s funny that those were the songs I would sing when I was little – ‘A Whole New World,’ ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ – and here I am singing for Disney,” he reflects. “I just went down to the park for the first time to listen to it, and it was surreal.”

Escaping the mundane monotony of his old life in Boston is what originally lured Keith to pack up his car and move to Los Angeles, and it seems like all three musicians eventually found a place where their talent could flourish together in the City of Angels. 

“Keith was talking about how he was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough. Oh, I am!’ For me, it was, ‘I thought I was good enough then I moved here and got my ass whooped.’ In North Carolina I played with everybody, had tons of gigs and felt like I could hang in L.A. Moving out here, going to shows and seeing the stuff other musicians would do so effortlessly, it was a big rude awakening – in a good way. Being around greatness creates new ways of challenging yourself,” begins Mark. “Living in a big city where there’s a lot going on, you get to see excellence in every way. I love being around innovation, but there’s also a weird, ambiguous side when it comes to the entertainment industry. I love people from California not in the entertainment industry because you get to live in a really great place with amazing weather and don’t have to deal with all of this nonsense. My relationship with L.A. is like a marriage. In any relationship at first it’s amazing, full of fire, then it’s like, ‘What you want to do tonight, watch Netflix?’ I still love the mystery of the city. I’m obsessed with Hollywood lore from the 1920s, when show business was first starting. I still love the city wholeheartedly, and I’m never going to leave”

“When I go on vacation, I just look forward to getting back to L.A. You can go to the beach in 40 minutes and the mountains in 40 minutes, and there’s a whole different vibe in L.A. I’m a homebody, I guess,” says Chris. “I’m not in the thick of the hustle and bustle in Montrose, hanging out in lonely dive bars. I’m sure if I lived in Hollywood I would be over it.”

“Hollywood is so overrated,” interjects Mark. “At first I wanted to move to Hollywood, but when I actually hung out in Hollywood I was so glad I didn’t live there.”

“It’s sad when people move to Hollywood thinking it’s so glamorous and wind up having horror stories of how dirty it is,” agrees Chris. “Everyone has this idea of what Hollywood is.”

“I definitely see the underbelly of Hollywood, but at the same time I love it. I wouldn’t want to live in the heart of Hollywood, but there’s an energy there, being around other artistic people who are pursuing their dreams. Someone could be 48 and say, ‘I’m an aspiring actor.’ You just don’t get that everywhere,” argues Keith. “I’ve always been a dreamer. I love my family and friends in Boston, but when I come back from visiting, I feel like I’m home.”

“It happens after a couple of years,” says Mark, “you go home to visit, and when you’re flying back in, you realize, ‘Oh, I live in L.A. This is pretty sweet!’”

“I was at the gym that Keith works at in West Hollywood,” tells Chris, “There’s a huge window, and up on the hills are these beautiful houses where some of his clients live. It’s inspiring to me to see that.”

“It’s more attainable because you see those houses on the hill, you see an actor from TV at Starbucks, and you feel like dreams are more attainable,” replies Keith. “Before you move here you put those people on a pedestal, they’re untouchable. Then you move here and realize they’re just people doing their jobs. You say, ‘Oh, that could be me.’”

The Runaway California EP is currently available. Flights Over Phoenix perform Dec. 8 at the Hotel Café. For more information, visit

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fiona Grey

Fiona Grey at Du-par's in Studio City


At Du-par’s Restaurant & Bakery

12036 Ventura Blvd., Studio City

One might not expect a nearly 70-year-old diner to be the usual haunt of an L.A.-based singer-songwriter, model and actress who is just barely out of her teens, but Du-par’s being Fiona Grey’s favorite place in the city isn’t the only surprise the on-the-rise performer has up her sleeve. 

“I love things that are kind of grimy and dirty but also really classic. If I was restaurant, I would be a diner,” she says. “The best kind have been there for so long, have so much history. You feel at home, it’s safe, there’s no judgment. It’s come one, come all – a mixture of a lot of lost people.”

The Studio City Du-par’s – where David Lynch came up with the idea for “Twin Peaks” and scenes for 1983’s Valley Girl were filmed – is certainly always an interesting mix of patrons, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Fiona usually comes here late at night, though.

“I come here after shows, or my friend [photographer Chase R. McCurdy] and I will do photoshoots together and come to Du-par’s after. We shoot more at Du-par’s and end up only liking the photos from here. I have a lot of photos on that stairway and in my booth, which is way in the back because it’s where I draw the least amount of attention because I’m always doing something absurd,” she laughs. “It has that old-school diner vibe and is one of the few places that’s open 24 hours. I like consistently going to places where I feel comfortable and know the people. I know all of the graveyard shift staff here; it’s nice to see friendly faces at the end of a night.” 

While the 20-year-old indie pop songstress is as fun and quick to smile as her latest single, the infectious and highly danceable “What You Want,” would lead you to believe, she also exudes a confidence, eloquence and wisdom of someone far beyond her age. Perhaps this maturity is a result of having spent the better part of the past decade dividing her time between Los Angeles and her native Chicago.

“I’ve been here a little over 10 years. My parents are based in Chicago, so I always went back and forth a lot and feel like I’m equal parts Chicago and L.A. I feel like the Midwest girl in L.A., but when I’m in Chicago, I feel like the L.A. girl,” she says. “The nice thing about not coming to L.A. as an adult is the things that would be terrifying aren’t. I give people who graduate from high school and then move to L.A. a lot of credit because they don’t have the foundation I’m so blessed to already have. Obviously I’m still growing and learning but to start establishing myself before I was an adult was less daunting. No matter what it’s daunting, but less daunting for sure. I’m thankful for that.”

Growing up with two parents working in the arts (Her dad, Ralph Covert, is a Grammy-nominated musician and frontman of the Bad Examples, while her mom, Cathy Schenkelberg, is an established actress and voice-actress.) opened Fiona’s eyes to the good and bad of the industry.

“Both my parents have gone through the highs and lows of being an artist. Watching what they did, I would have never gotten into this industry, but I watched it and loved it enough to say that I can put up with all the crap. Nothing was easy, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I work for success and longevity – I don’t work for fleeting fame. I want to be able to send my kids to college on the money I make from music. This is fun and I love it, but it’s a job, a job that I’m passionate about. If anything, my parents were like, ‘Love what you do, but don’t love it like you would a hobby. And, know what you’re getting yourself into, be prepared for the highs and lows,” she says. “That’s the most important thing because I know so many people that expect. The best songwriters and artists are locked up in their rooms writing the best songs that we’ll never hear, but I don’t want to be them. I want to work on my craft but be smart enough to find ways to get my music out there, to build it as a business – that’s what my parents taught me.”

Naturally, the arts were a constant in Fiona’s childhood, but she wasn’t raised on your typical Disney fare. Rather, she grew up watching Sabrina, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. She dressed up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween and thought every girl wanted to be Jane Russell when she grew up. 

She began writing songs quite early on, becoming an ASCAP member at age 7, yet she only shared her music within the comfort of her own home until she found a safe haven at L.A. County High School for the Arts (LACHSA).

“Like any high schooler or middle schooler knows, you spend a lot of time just trying to somehow fit in, and when you don’t, there’s usually a reason. It’s not because you suck, you’re just different than the other kids,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was in arts school, where it was cool to be different, that I felt comfortable enough to be my own artist.”

It was around age 17 when Fiona released her first EP, Striped Heart, and started playing shows in and around Los Angeles. When she asks me where I’m from, she is excited to hear “Orange County” since Laguna Beach was one of the first places she performed.

“I did a Sunset Serenade in Laguna Beach, and there must have been 150 people because all the locals come. People in Laguna have so much respect for music compared to L.A. where we’re a bit oversaturated. It was such fun, playing for a crowd that I had to win over,” she recalls. “Playing for 150 people who love you is great, but it’s not as much work. I much prefer playing for new crowds, that’s why I love opening for bands. It’s a chance for you to freak out their fans. Either they love it or they’re like, ‘This isn’t for me,’ but how else do you grow your fanbase unless you get out in front of new faces?”

Fiona had the chance to open for the likes of Charlie XCX, Foals and Liz on tour as a backing vocalist for L.A. indie rockers Kitten last year. 

“Being behind the frontwoman as a part of the band and not being the star was a chance for me to be on the sidelines and observe. I was in the environment that I wanted to be in, learning and seeing what actually happens. It was important for me to experience,” she says. “When I was a kid I would go on tours with my dad, so that was another chance to get as much inside information as I could. You can read a million books on touring, but until you’re on the road, you don’t really know what goes on.”

Fiona released her sophomore EP, Belladonna, in 2014 as well. It was a year that she really came into her own as an artist.

“The thing about touring and the timing of it was that it came two months after my deferred year. When you’re the most unhappy and confused, you try to do too much to distract yourself. I was taking too many classes in film, acting, music – nothing was focused. I was keeping myself busy so I wouldn’t realize how miserable I was. I went on the Kitten tour, and the best part was that I had to sit with myself for eight to 10 hours as we drove to different venues. I would just look out the window thinking, ‘What are you doing? This is where you want to be.’ I had tons of pots boiling, and once I saw one boiling faster than the others I said, ‘I’m going to put these on low simmer and put my energy in the one pot. I’ll have a chance to do the other things,’ and I have. With music, I go out on auditions and book things. It’s awesome.” 

One of those jobs she booked was a role on ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth,” which she filmed over the summer. For now, though, her main focus is music. Fiona really feels like it was blessing when she realized that she could actually incorporate all of the art forms she loved into her music career.

“I wanted to be a musical theater performer and an actor. I’ve written screenplays and produced short films. I realized as an independent pop artist I could do all of these things: produce my own music videos, my performances could feel like musical theater shows with dancers and costumes [that she designs],” she says. “I incorporate all of my loves into this one thing that is me. It was such a turning point in my life. You don’t have to choose, just put them all into a blender and mix it all up.”

Fiona has a fabulous sense of style, as illustrated in her performances, music videos and Instagram, so I, of course, have to ask her about her favorite places to shop in Los Angeles.

“I love Melrose flea market. I’m a big believer in not spending more than $5 on anything except for staple items. I save up and spend money on all the statement pieces I have, but the fun thing about thrifting is that you’re finding something for a really good deal. It’s less about name brands and more about how clothes fit you. I like finding pieces that people wouldn’t like and making them my own. There are a lot of simple pieces that you can buy and embellish,” she offers. “As far as specific shops: St. Vincent’s is a good one; you can find good things at Wasteland, but sometimes it’s too expensive; and any Jewish Council Thrift Shop is great. I love eBay, too. I just bought this crazy leopard jacket for 99 cents.”

Our waiter brings some coffee and a piece of boysenberry pie to share, and Fiona describes her usual order with me. 

“Du-par’s is definitely my place to go have a coffee and pie at 2 a.m., so I feel like home right now. I’m a berry girl. I can’t really eat gluten, but I do it. They have the best Corned Beef Hash here, too. I love food,” she confesses with a laugh. “I want to be on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.’ I want to go with him [Guy Fieri] into all the kitchens!” 

She loves diners so much that she would love to do some pop-up shows in diners across the nation. She actually just did one at the Peppermill in Las Vegas.

“Each diner has its own personality. I love Canter’s and Swingers, but I always come to this Du-par’s since it’s close to my house. The likelihood of me doing a pop-up show here is very high,” she says with a mischievous grin. “I like to freak people out a little too much. I have no problem with just belting out when no one expects me to, and I love the unknown of ‘are they going to stop me?’ I was prepared to get dragged out of Peppermill, but they didn’t. At the very end of our second song they said, ‘We can’t have you doing that,’ so I said, ‘OK, we finished our two songs!’ In a dreamworld, if I was on tour, I would play the shows then pop up somewhere at 2 a.m., do two acoustic songs and then all my friends, family, fans and I could just eat breakfast food, pie and coffee.” 

After spending so much time in Los Angeles over the past 10 years, Fiona has come to love her second hometown for all it is.

“In California, we have so many powerful, kickass women, and you don’t see that everywhere you go. You do not see as many women who create empires as you do here; that’s so inspiring to me,” she says. “Most of things that people hate about L.A., I think are the funniest and the best. Traffic sucks, but there’s something to be said for having quiet time. I like to twist everything, because it could be worse.”

It’s that positivity and upbeat attitude that make me believe that Fiona has exactly what it takes to succeed in whatever field she pursues. She is releasing another single in a couple of months, and it promises to reveal yet another layer of the young artist.

“I’m really excited about the next single. There are two different sides to me: the side that wants to dance around and sing pop songs with you, and then there’s the cinematic storyteller. They intertwine a lot, but one is more mellow, darker. This song is a synth-y pop song about excess, money and falling in love with money,” she says. “If it was a photo, I would want it to be a highly specific Helmut Newton photo that I love and was highly inspired by. The photo suggests so much, but there’s still a lot that is unknown about what’s going on. The song’s coming out in a few months, and we’re doing the music video for it now.” 

She says that an EP and a tour are also in store for 2016. So next time you’re enjoying a post-concert cup of coffee and piece of pie at your local diner, be on the lookout for Fiona Grey.

"What You Want" is currently available. Fiona Grey performs Nov. 16 at Hunnypot Radio’s 10th Anniversary at the Mint. For more information, visit

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ryan Gregory Phillips

Filmmaker Ryan Gregory Phillips at El Cid Restaurant 


At El Cid Restaurant
4212 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (Silver Lake)

It’s astonishing how often characteristics of the location an artist chooses to have his Jigsaw interview at so perfectly aligns with attributes of his own personality because, most of the time, picking a venue is as simple as naming the first place that pops into his head. It’s obvious a filmmaker like Ryan Gregory Phillips would select a a place with ties to Los Angeles’ rich cinematic history such as El Cid, which stands next the former site of cornfields used in scenes from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. However, the commonalities between Ryan and El Cid go much deeper than that.

Designed to resemble a prison with a long stone wall guarding an entrance that resembles the facade of the Alamo, El Cid originally opened in 1925 as Jail Cafe, a speakeasy complete with VIP cells and waiters dressed in jail guard uniforms. Seven years later it was converted to a playhouse, hence the stage adorned with velvet red curtains that sits in the heart of the building, and in 1963 it was transformed into the supper club, music venue and bar it is today. Now if you ask most Angelenos where to catch a live flamenco show, the top answer is El Cid.

Passionate is the adjective that is commonly used to describe flamenco, and after getting to know Ryan, it’s the one word I would say encapsulates him most.

“I just got a house in the hills right behind the Hollywood Bowl, but when I first moved to L.A. six years ago I lived in Downtown and used to come here and drink all of the time,” he shares. “I’ve been in Hollywood or West Hollywood so much the last four years that it’s cool to get over here. My buddy had a film shown here the other night, and I was like, ‘I totally forgot about this place!’ I came here again the other night, posted up at a spot over there on the patio to break down the script for a movie that I’m doing and ended up watching people. I like to study couples on first dates, what they’re talking about because their crazy scenarios often help script breakdowns.”

El Cid’s stone-paved patio is indeed inviting. There’s usually an old black-and-white movie being projected on a wall, it’s easy to just slip into a booth with a glass of their famous sangria and just chill or people watch beneath the canopy of trees. As we sit and watch the patio bartender in action, I ask Ryan – who used to tend bar himself – what ingredients would go into his own signature cocktail.
Ryan's Bloody Mary concoction

“When I was bartending, I used to do this chili-infused Herradura tequila, so maybe it would be a shot of that with some sugar and Sriracha on the rim of the glass and garnished with a slice of lemon. It would be sweet and spicy, like a Lemon Drop on crack,” he replies with a grin. “My favorite drink is a Bloody Mary though, so maybe my signature cocktail would be a Bloody Mary with some ridiculous garnish like a mini hamburger or bacon. I actually won a contest at Open Air Kitchen + Bar in West Hollywood. I have to show you a picture because I’m so proud of this thing. There’s a taquito and a mini burger in it.” 

After Ryan shows me the photo of his creation, he shares that he is actually working on a memoir that weaves his ratings for Bloody Marys at different bars with stories about his crazy adventures in the city. All of those Hollywood nights are a far cry from the rural upbringing Ryan experienced on his family’s dairy farm in Upstate New York.

“All of my family’s from the farm; I’m the only one that has left. Growing up, my mom had a hair salon that they built onto the side of the farm. My dad would be working on the farm or for the state, my mom would be doing hairdressing and I stayed at home, watching movies 24-7. When my parents would go out, they would drop me off at my grandparents’ house next door, and my grandfather would put on crazy horror movies like Child’s Play and this one where a man is in the kitchen, and he turns around and a mummy is there. The mummy grabs him by the throat and sticks a clothes hanger with an end bent like a hook up his nose, and brains go everywhere [I think it might be the "Lot 249" segment from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990).]. I’m still so fucked up from this!” he shares. “My grandma on the other side of the family was hilarious. I would give her lame excuses so she would let me rent R-rated videos, crazy dinosaur movies where people would get their heads bitten off. I thank them all for letting me be so uncensored at such a young age, it really got my imagination turning.”

After his parents bought a golf cart for the farm and Jurassic Park came out, Ryan transformed the cart into a ‘jeep’ and began his first business venture: charging his mom’s salon customers’ children $1 to go on a 'Jurassic Park Tour.' He built a giant raptor dinosaur in the barn, threw ketchup everywhere and terrorized the kids, who would end up screaming and crying. Eventually his parents got a little handheld camera that he would use to film stories using toy dinosaurs and Barbies.

“Looking back, film always been there. Without my family, I don’t know where I would be. My parents were always super supportive of what I wanted to do, but I was never given anything, I had to work for it,” he recalls. “If I wanted something, the only way to get it was to work. So I mowed on the farm, helped with the cows or sold sweet corn during the summer. I was raised with a very good moral mindset that if you want something done, you have to work for it.”

A film playing on the patio at El Cid
Pursuing film as a career wasn’t something Ryan ever even imagined, until a high-school teacher set him on that path. Grammar has never been his thing, so when his English teacher, Keith Childs, encouraged him to submit a short to local film festival to better his grade in the class, Ryan jumped at the opportunity. He teamed with a friend, Tony Mancilla, and their film ended up winning the fest. The experience led to Ryan earning a scholarship to Long Island University’s film program.

“After that I decided I wanted to be a personal trainer and enrolled at the University of South Carolina. Film’s such a hard thing to put on not only yourself, but on your family and friends. Everybody else had businesses they were going to start or were a part of already, so I was going to do a ‘real’ job,” he remembers. ”Six months later I realized it wasn’t me. Eventually I received my second degree at South Carolina, in media arts.”

It just so happened that as he was finding his way back to film, David O’Russell began shooting a film in South Carolina. Ryan started interning on the set as a PA in Props for the Art Department, having to do things like guard equipment in a park for nine hours straight, not exactly his cup of tea. Then he encountered O’Russell one day, and after a quick exchange of “you want to be a director, then why the fuck are you in the art department,” Ryan found himself getting to observe the director up close and personal and the mechanics of making a film for the rest his days on that set.

“[O’Russell] is known for fighting George Clooney on Three Kings, [during the filming of I Heart Huckabees O'Russell] and Lily Tomlin got into a screaming match and the same thing happened on this set with [O’Russell] and Jake Gyllenhaal going at it, but he’s a genius. I realize more and more that I am like him: I have a crazy temper. I’m out of my mind, but it’s because I care too much about getting my point across ,making sure everything goes right, and that’s how he is. He’s very under appreciated in that way,” Ryan says. “You don’t have to be liked by everyone, you probably aren’t going to be. For a man who was so badly talked about, when he got in that groove and directed, magic happened. I saw that and was knew that’s what I wanted for myself.”

Once his romance with filmmaking was rekindled, there was no stopping Ryan’s quest to make magic of his own. Over the next few years, his short films picked up awards and accolades at over 15 national and international festivals, and he eventually decided to move to Los Angeles.

“When I first moved here, I despised L.A. Coming off a stint of short films that won so many awards and recognition, having earned two degrees, to come here and have people toss it all aside and say, ‘Well, who do you know?’ There were points when I sat on the subway back home, bawling my eyes out, ‘Don’t make me go back to L.A.!’ I’ve been to the point where I’ve had bags packed, but something always stopped me. Then I remember I was flying back from Christmas my third year out here, seeing the city lights of L.A. and saying, ‘This is amazing.’ It’s one of those places where it’s such a melting pot that you’re free to be whatever you want, and people don’t care. I rocked sweatpants for six months just because I wanted to,” he laughs. “You’re free to be who you want here. You can also jump forward years in just a matter of days in terms of your career, and age has no restriction. If you have the talent, drive and motivation, people will get involved.”

While his first few years in the city were full of struggle: bartending, personal assisting, working at deli and taking bit parts in shows like “90210” and “Cougartown” and films such as Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar just to shop at the dollar store. His third year in Los Angeles was definitely a pivotal one, though. It was the year that he filmed his first feature, a romantic comedy called Southern Comfort. The film, which was picked up for international distribution by Green Apple Entertainment, is set for release next summer. 

Ryan helmed a commercial for Kahlua, featuring Jeff Bridges, and also began directing and producing music videos for artists like Neon Hitch, Radical Something and Eriel Indigo. Throughout this time he was developing an idea for an artist collective, one he eventually founded with entertainment lawyer Robert N. Klieger and dubbed the Paradise Collective.

“Every good idea I have comes to me in the shower, to the point that I keep a notebook wrapped in plastic in there, and the collective came to me in the shower. I wanted to create a place where people could bring their talents and grow together,” he begins. “I get so angry when I see young artists getting taken advantage of, being paid such small amounts. Yes, they do it for the love of their art, but there is a way to do it and make enough to live comfortably. If you don’t understand how, the collective can help you understand. Also, maybe you’re a writer and could come partner with a musician in the collective to help them with lyrics. They in turn could help you score a short film you’ve written. It’s all about reciprocation. We own all of our production equipment, so everything on a production can be done in-house. Everyone gives a certain percentage from a project back to the collective, and the money is used in different areas to help everyone. If you can make one artist blow up, everyone else is going to succeed along the way. At the core, it’s a safe place for artists to create.”

The Paradise Collective is based out of the house Ryan is renting in the Hollywood Hills, and it has really become a haven for everyone to create.

“I go home every night thinking, ‘I don’t know who’s going to be at the house, but I know something cool is going to be happening. Filming happens there, we throw parties and impromptu concerts with our music artists like Kyle Bradley, it’s definitely a creative sanctuary and paradise,” he says. “I haven’t had a vacation in six years, but eventually I’ll find an actual paradise. Right now paradise to me is wherever I can create, and that place is the house.”

When he speaks of Kyle Bradley, he admits that he’s always had the desire to learn music – to be a country singer in specific.

“Country music keeps me grounded, brings me back to my roots,” he admits. “One of these days I’ll sit down with a guitar and do it so that I can at least get up on a stage and play. My goal is to play an open-mic night.”

It’s fitting that the night of our interview just happens to be open-mic night at El Cid. I don’t have a hard time picturing Ryan up on stage at the same place in the next year or so because it seems that everything he puts his mind to – whether it be learning how to play the guitar, perfecting his own Bloody Mary recipe or taking Hollywood by storm – he achieves.

Next up for Ryan is beginning production on his second feature, a psychological thriller/horror film that they’re filming at the Hollywood Hills house, of course. He’s planning to finish the film in time to submit it to the 2016 South By Southwest Film Festival.

“As soon as we’re done with that, I have another film to finish that I wrote and actually acted in,” he concludes. “By my birthday in December, we’ll have two features cut – and then I can take an actual vacation.”

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