Thursday, December 11, 2014

Natalie Denise Sperl

Natalie Denise Sperl gives some love to a dog up for adoption at Santa Monica Animal Shelter


At Santa Monica Animal Shelter
1640 Ninth Street, Santa Monica (310) 459-8594

Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis are the actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age whose performances immediately come to mind when I see the word ‘coquette.’ While Natalie Denise Sperl – the model, actress and singer-songwriter at the helm of Los Angeles’ Kill My Coquette – certainly has the striking looks and acting chops to portray a classic coquette with the best of them, she also possesses the spirit that embodies a true punk-rock frontwoman. With influences like Jack White, Lou Reed and Joan Jett, it’s no wonder Natalie  brings edgy, in-your-face attitude to all of her musical endeavors.

“I like performing music live because it’s similar to theater. You get an instant reaction that you can feel; It’s not like when you do a take and go home without knowing what people think,” she says. “You always have to be on your game because you don’t want a bottle to come flying at your head. Rock ’n’ roll is a lot dirtier than theater.”

Natalie fills me in on the impact music has had on her from childhood, throughout her career as a model/actress and now as a musician when we meet up at one of her favorite places in the city, the Santa Monica Animal Shelter. She has volunteered at the shelter at least once a week for almost two years, spending time petting, walking or playing with the animals that are up for adoption. 

“I would have auditions around here, and whenever I had time to kill before or after the auditions I would find myself here petting the cats. I couldn’t adopt any more since I already have two (a charcoal grey hairless Sphynx and a rescue named Andy Warhol), so I decided to see if they needed any help and volunteer,” she recalls. “It’s just a good place to be at. Animals are the best thing ever: instant love! We get all kinds of animals – rabbits, ferrets, even a lizard.”

Her affection for the shelter’s animals is evident as she shows me around the various areas and tells me about the massive remodel that’s taking place.

“We got a grant for the remodel, and hopefully it will bring in more traffic so we can adopt more animals out. It’s going to be amazing,” she gushes while we tour the dog pens, community area, veterinary exam area and hospital room, where she relays a story about some recent new feline additions. “There was a lady living in a hotel with 30 cats and four dogs, and they were confiscated because that’s obviously animal cruelty. When they brought them in they were pretty bad off, but now they’re all turned around and we’ve been able to incorporate some of them out with the rest of the population.”

Natalie can usually be found in the newly refurbished cat room where she knows many of the residents by name. Her affinity for cats is something that stems from childhood.

“My dad would never let me get a cat, so I always said I would get a cat someday. He’s a hunter, so he didn’t like any animals that would kill birds,” she informs. “So now I mostly hang out with the cats. Sometimes I walk the dogs, but I’m really the cat lady.”

Although a pet cat was never allowed in the house, music was always a fixture of Natalie’s early life growing up in a small town in Minnesota. Her grandpa played the concertina, and her older brother, a drummer and keyboard player, toured with several bands.

“My dad was a huge music fan; he would crank it up in the morning as we were getting ready for school. There were a lot of country roads where I’m from and driving to get to places to do stuff, so a lot of time was spent in the car listening to music with the windows rolled down. A lot of Bob Dylan and rock ’n’ roll,” she remembers. “He dragged me to my first Dylan concert when I was 7, and it was like, “How does it feeeel, ugh.” I just didn’t get it, but then I started to read up on Dylan, his whole Warhol connection he had with Edie Sedgwick and realized he was actually kind of cool. I’m fascinated by the whole 1960s New York scene, and he supposedly wrote ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ about Edie Sedgwick. Now I listen to him all the time; it came full circle.” 

Natalie’s mom was a fan of 1960’s-era “hippie music,” Janis Joplin, while her brother blasted Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Loud, Anthrax, Skinny Puppy and the Vandals. 

“Everybody in the house would be turning up their stereos, trying to be louder than the others,” she laughs. “It was a very loud environment.”

While young Natalie’s ears were being filled with all sorts of music, she was also bit by the acting bug. She did a lot of local theater and would even put on her own plays based on experiences, like losing a tooth. This passion led to her enrollment at a high school for the performing arts as a theater major. 

It was around this time that Natalie caught the eye of a photographer as he was coming out of an agency, one that eventually signed the 15-year-old to a modeling contract. After doing work for some local campaigns, Natalie moved to London and entered the world of high-fashion modeling.

“I did a lot of runway modeling in London. It was a really cool time to be there. It was very avant-garde at the time, Kate Moss was huge and the art was amazing,” she says. “I also spent time in Paris, Rome and Milan.”

Eventually Natalie felt the pull of Los Angeles, where one of her former classmates had moved from Minnesota and was enjoying doing work as an extra. She moved in with her old high-school roommate in Venice and started breaking into the L.A. modeling and acting world. 

She has since landed the cover of Esquire magazine and roles in shows like “Two and a Half Men,” “How I met Your Mother” and “CSI: Miami,” as well as starring in films such as Succubus Hell Bent.

“With acting you have to be here, New York or London. You have to really be here to get into the game,” she says, before adding, “and, the weather is great!”

Natalie enjoys Los Angeles’ climate by hiking the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, Fryman Canyon, Will Rogers State Historic Park, the Fern Dell trail in Griffith Park, up to the Bronson Caves or Runyon Canyon, which is “a whole scene. You have to have your hair and makeup done because you might get cast in something!” She also loves to do yoga, visit LACMA or MOCA, shoot guns at the firing range and playing Texas hold ‘em.

“I don’t play online, only in person. I’ll go to Commerce Casino with a hat, glasses and my good luck charm (a ring) on,” she tells. “I did a movie called Rock Monster in Bulgaria, and in my off time I wanted to go to the casinos. It was literally a room full of big Bulgarian men and one little American actress. I made $1,700! I cleaned up because they were like, ‘What is she going to do?’ It was great. It took me a while to get that good, though. My grandpa has been teaching me since I was little.”

Aside from her gambling shenanigans, Natalie, of course, loves live music. In fact, it was seeing two specific performers that made her realize that she wanted to become a musician.

“When I saw Courtney Love perform, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool. How does she do that?’ I’ve seen Social Distortion so many times, and once I just thought, ‘I want to really try that,’” she relays. “Guitars are so cool. I’m no guitar virtuoso. Maybe I will be one day, but for now it’s all about the energy and the feel you get when you plug in and turn it up. It lets out some frustration.”

Natalie was so struck by that particular Social D show a couple of years ago that the very next day she went to Guitar Center and bought her first guitar. Since then, she’s been crafting songs with her Kill My Coquette bandmates: lead guitarist Dave Stucken, bassist Mike Evans and drummer Kelly Hagerman.

“I come to them with chord structures, lyrics, and then they bring it to life,” she says. “I got really lucky with the band that I have.”

The foursome is preparing to release a self-titled debut EP produced by Danny McGough (Tom Waits, Social Distortion) on Jan. 20, with plans for a local release celebration show sometime in February. In the meantime, Kill My Coquette performs Dec. 20 at the Three Clubs, and Natalie continues to write new material.

“I’m constantly writing down words, interesting points or cool lines. Anytime I think of something I put it in the Notes section of my phone so I can go back to it. William Burroughs had this technique called the Cut-Up Method where he wrote his thoughts and everything down then went back and literally cut it up, threw it on the floor, took lines and repositioned them. That was how he did the book Naked Lunch, so if you read it you go, ‘What?!’ but somehow the fragmented thoughts all make sense in the end. Sometimes I use that if I can’t think linearly. If verse chorus verse chorus verse bridge chorus is too structured for me,” she confesses. “With acting, I know what I’m doing each time. With writing songs, it’s definitely different. It’s more random. I’m like an antenna waiting to get struck by lightning, always ready with hope that it strikes.”

The Kill My Coquette EP will be available Jan. 20, 2015. Kill My Coquette performs Dec. 20 at Three Clubs. For more information, visit

Thursday, November 13, 2014

P.F. Sloan

P.F. Sloan at Fromin's Delicatessen & Restaurant

P.F. Sloan 

At Fromin's Delicatessen & Restaurant
1832 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 829-5443

P.F. Sloan’s musical path can be traced to one specific point of origin: the day his father took him to Wallichs Music City, the famous record store formerly located at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, to buy a guitar.

“When I was 12, I met Elvis Presley there, and he gave me a guitar lesson,” the L.A. singer-songwriter remembers. “He took an interest in me right away, gave me a guitar lesson and within six months I was on an R&B label making records at 12 and a half.”

P.F., who has penned such hit singles as “Secret Agent Man” and “Eve of Destruction,” has a life story that is indeed far from ordinary, and he takes some time to share some of his experiences and talk about his first new album in nearly a decade, My Beethoven, with me at one of his neighborhood haunts, Fromin’s Delicatessen & Restaurant. Fromin’s has been serving deli favorites like Corned Beef and Cabbage and Reuben, Pastrami and Brisket sandwiches to Angelenos since the 1970s. P.F., however, has called Los Angeles home since the late 1950s when his family migrated from New York.

“My father was a pharmacist but couldn’t get his license here right away, so he opened up a sundries store in Downtown on Flower and Wilshire. It took a toll on him because he was a professional man, but he had to support his family, so it put a little distance between us,” he admits. 

Although no one in his family was musically inclined, P.F. would pluck out songs at home on a small ukulele that only had one string on it and sing along to music he heard on the radio. That is, until the day he got a guitar and made the acquaintance of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. The R&B label he refers to was Aladdin Records, and by age 16 P.F. joined the songwriting staff and became head of A&R for Screen Gems music publishing.

“[At Aladdin,] they asked if I could write songs. I said, ‘yes,’ came up with four songs that week and went in and recorded them. That was the beginning. Music is divine when it’s done right. It changes people’s lives, as well as your own. First and foremost, it changes you inside. It’s a great life to have except it’s like this [motions up and down], and most people want a life like that [even, flat]. That’s why they find musicians interesting. I found musicians interesting because they all had a great sense of humor, and I really wanted to have that. You’re hanging around musicians who are so open, honest and so funny – it just seems like a great life. I was working with a professional bunch of musicians as a kid, and I got to learn a lot of things, which was great.”

Some of the personalities P.F. met at the time were Steve Barri, who became his songwriting partner, and Screen Gems executive Lou Adler, who hired the duo as backup singers/musicians for a band he managed, Jan and Dean. P.F. and Barri wrote on Jan and Dean’s next albums, composed the theme song for the T.A.M.I. Show and other tracks such as Round Robin’s “Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann.”

“It was all fun. The only pressure I felt was to keep myself from having to become a pharmacist,” confesses P.F. “As soon as they started paying me $10, $15 a week I knew that that was enough money to keep me from going to school.”

P.F. continued working with Adler at Dunhill Records where he wrote hits like “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man,” the Turtles’ “You Baby” and “Let Me Be” and Herman’s Hermits’ “Hold On!” and “A Must to Avoid.” He also created and played the guitar intro for the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”

“You can’t imagine what it was like in those days, we had 60 new records coming out every week – a new Supremes, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. This was week after week, with each getting better and better for two or three years. A catchy two-and-a-half minute song hit all these buttons of emotion within us, and their message was new. There were feel-good songs, but then there were message songs about the state of the world, how a wise person should be dealing with life,” recalls P.F. “First we had Elvis Presley to teach us how to kiss, be kissed and what a man expects from love and life. Then along come these teachers/philosophers like Lennon, Jagger, Dylan. This was a way different idea of what music is supposed to be versus Benny Goodman. It was actually teaching, waking up the consciousness of people that were fast asleep.”

This awakening definitely captured P.F.’s interest and influenced the songs he was writing. But it soon became the reason he would part ways with the music industry for several decades.

“That awakening was something the music business, my label, nobody wanted. They refused to publish anything that I wrote along those lines, and that’s fine. I don’t think any one thing is better than another. A pop song is equal to any folk song per se, but there are outstanding songs such as ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ that are going to live forever,” he explains. “When you’re growing up in music, you don’t think that it’s something you can shoot for, but there is an awakening that became the beginning of all my problems.”

At this point in our conversation at Fromin’s the waitress comes by for our order, and P.F. says he normally gets a bowl of soup and half of a sandwich. I mention that whenever I visit a deli I have to order matzo ball soup, so we both order a bowl. Fromin’s version stands out from others because of its big chunks of chicken, a dough ball the size of a baseball and noodles. 

P.F. informs me that his mom was an extraordinary cook, and he also enjoys cooking. His specialty is his mom’s recipe for tomato sauce that “even Frank Sinatra wanted to buy.”

He currently lives on the West Side, but has lived all over Los Angeles. His family had originally moved to West Hollywood and settled in Mid-City West, and he admits that he has never felt comfortably at home anywhere other than his parents’ house. Yet, he has found one refuge in this world, although it’s literally across the globe.

“India is the place for me. I was blessed to first go in 1986 [to meet his guru], and it transformed my life completely. India is an enchanted place, like no place else on Earth. One can find enlightenment there; the energy is so full of love and charged with positive things,” he describes. “I go there often, and I can get snippets of being there in meditation to keep myself moving and going.”  

It was at the urging of his guru that P.F. returned to music in the early 1990s, and this reemergence also had a lot to do with seeing Beethoven’s music performed for the first time at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“It was like I was hearing music for the first time; it was that beautiful, a religious conversion. Beethoven, to me, is like trying to describe chocolate ice cream to someone who has never tasted it. It’s that good. I was never open to Beethoven before. I was given the talk that Beethoven and Shakespeare were for the nerds, and I was into rock ’n’ roll,” he offers. “But after I had done it all seen it all, I was completely burned out on music. There was no new revelation in pop music, it was just the same hormones, loneliness, angst. Whatever kind of enlightenment they were giving was for a whole new generation of teenagers who hadn’t experienced life yet to know what’s real and what’s not real. So the worst thing in my life happened, I didn’t have music anymore.”

Experiencing the live performance of Beethoven’s pieces renewed P.F.’s passion for music and piqued his curiosity about the composer’s own life.

“All I knew about Beethoven was that he was deaf and grouchy, so I read everything that I could get my hands on about him for the next six years,” he says. “This was before the internet, so I went to every library to find out why he wanted to commit suicide (because I was feeling suicidal) and why didn’t he commit suicide. I just needed to know the answer.”

As he delved further into Beethoven’s history, P.F. discovered that they had much more in common than their shared deep depression. 

“He’s so misunderstood, and I feel misunderstood as well. Who doesn’t? But when you have the world’s greatest talent and he’s still not understood … As a matter of fact, most things that people know of him are lies written by a guy [Anton Schindler] who was basically using him. I found the real Beethoven in a book, Canto [Memories of Beethoven: From the House of the Black-Robed Spaniards], written by the son of Beethoven’s childhood friend,” he begins. “I also found books of his letters and his journals, and there was a lot I had in common with him so I thought we could be friends. He was considered a Mozart wannabe until the day he died, and I was always considered a Bob Dylan wannabe. I was abused as a child, and he was beaten as a child. He played guitar and wrote 400 folk songs. He carried a guitar with him everywhere, taking poems from Robert Burns and writing music to them.”

Their commonalities began to inspire P.F. to create compositions of his own, but there was one hurdle he had yet to overcome.

“I didn’t know how to play piano, so I began listening to Beethoven’s work played by Glenn Gould, who said that it was his life goal to play every note exactly as Beethoven played it, so when I was listening to Gould, I was listening to Beethoven, hearing a song exactly as he would have played it,” he tells. “I slowly began to learn how to play piano. I worked on one song, ‘Beethoven’s Delight,’ in 1994, but it was horrible, so I spent the next 20 years trying to reach the place where beauty exists in all of us.” 

After years spent researching Beethoven’s life, studying piano, composition and orchestral arrangement, P.F. enlisted musicians from the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra, and My Beethoven began to come together.

“Learning to play the piano took me seven years, and I started getting money to get Pro Tools together to work on one song for eight years. Another thing I found attractive about Beethoven was that he erased everything, he struggled over every note for weeks. The fact that I love to rewrite made me feel like I had a partner, that it was OK to rewrite because that’s where the polish comes from,” he says. “B.B. King once told me, ‘Ninety percent of everything that you write is going to be crap, but most people fall in love with their own crap and can’t tell the difference anymore.’ It’s rare that you can throw away what you think is your best, start from scratch and find another level that’s never been touched by filters. It’s a fantastic process.” 

My Beethoven was finally released in May, and also resulted in a pop opera P.F. created with playwright Steve Feinberg.

“By the time I finished nine songs, Steve Feinberg found me. I took him to my studio, played him the music and he said, ‘This is a play as well!’ We spent the next two years writing a play. I called it ‘Louie Louie.’ The French called him ‘Louis’ [pronounced ‘Louie’], and he loved it, so his close friends would call him Louie,” he says. “Beethoven really has become a dear friend. He transformed my life, filled it with beauty, love and music. I can’t imagine a day without him.”

My Beethoven is currently available. For more information, visit

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Megan Darwin

Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist Megan Darwin (Scout Hebinck,


At Kreation Kafe/Juicery 1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice (310) 314-7778

For the past few years, juice diets like the Master Cleanse have been all the rage, but they often make you feel so lightheaded, dizzy and famished that you want to give up after the first day. With that in mind, Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist, Megan Darwin, has developed her own program called the Juicy Yogi Detox that incorporates traditional principles with modern juicing to give Angelenos the ultimate cleansing experience.

I met up with the L.A. native to talk about growing up in Arcadia, her discovery and training in Ayurveda and the Juicy Yogi Detox at Kreation Kafe/Juicery in Venice Beach. This is where she regularly stops for a bottle of juice on her way to treating clients at Spa Sophia, which is also located on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

Megan Darwin at Kreation Kafe/Juicery
As we take a seat in Kreation’s busy yet comfortable patio, surrounded by wood paneling and live succulents covering sections of the wall, the long list of juice options can be a bit intimidating. They offer several cold pressed juices, like the Green (apple, cucumber, romaine, kale and pear), Trinity Twist (lemon, apple, carrot and beet) and Rosy Aura (rose water and cantaloupe). Megan shares that her favorite of their Premium Detox blends is the Synchronize with dandelion, kale, cilantro, pear, pineapple, jalapeño, fennel, basil, turmeric, mint, cucumber, parsley, celery, spinach, romaine, lemon and Himalayan salt. She is also a fan of the refreshing Limonana (alkaline water, lemon, mint and raw cane sugar) lemonade.

This Abbott Kinney Kreation location also serves a full menu that includes kabobs and wraps, as well as cold and hot tapas. After ordering a Quinoa Chopped Salad and some Synchronize juice, Megan explains that the imbalance people experienced while doing a strictly juice cleanse is one of the factors that inspired her to design the Juicy Yogi Detox, which is also based on techniques she acquired in her five years of studying Ayurveda’s traditional cleansing process of Pancha Karma.

“Ayurveda is an elemental healing paradigm. Everything in the universe is made up of ether, air, fire, water or earth. Your body contains a different ratio of those qualities depending on what you take in, so if you’re only drinking juice it’s easy to get lightheaded or dizzy because you don’t have anything grounding you. In traditional Pancha Karma, you only eat kitchari, which is very nourishing but lacks the fresh, live enzymes you get from juice,” she begins. “Every day in my five-day program, the Juicy Yogi Detox, you get a detoxifying massage with warm herbal therapeutic oils, Shirodhara therapy to clear the mind, Chi Machine therapy, an herbal steam and I provide you with herbs to take every night eating, juices and a mono diet of kitchari – an ayurvedic superfood made with yellow mung beans, basmati rice, vegetables (usually carrots and celery), spices and ghee (clarified butter).”

In Megan’s cleansing detox that supplants traditional practices with modern juicing, your body receives all the nutrients, energy and elemental balance it needs so you’re able to go to work and take your dog for a leisurely walk without feeling completely spent. She encourages minimal physical exercise and the lowest stress-filled environment as possible, because “any energy you’re expending is energy that can’t be used to healed whatever needs to be healed within your body.”

While her life currently revolves around total health and wellness, Megan didn’t always maintain the healthiest of eating habits as a child in the suburb of Arcadia, Calif.

“When I was growing up, I would eat at least one pack of Hostess chocolate donuts every day. Cereal bowls weren’t big enough for me, so I would eat my Lucky Charms out of a big tupperware. When I was sick, it was Rite Aid and Walgreens for Tylenol, Advil and NyQuil,” she remembers. “I went to UCLA and studied political science. After graduating, I took a year off and had a roommate whose mom was very into yoga and natural healing. When we would get sick she would say, ‘Drink this tea with this herb.’ The world of natural healing opened up to me, and I was amazed by it. ‘A tea is going to help me? That’s so cool.’”

Megan began researching different paradigms of natural healing but was a bit overwhelmed by all of the different philosophies: Chinese healing, homeopathy, naturopathy, etc. That is, until she was introduced to Ayurveda.

“I happened upon a book that I got from a friend written by Christy Turlington called Living Yoga with a whole chapter on the basic, fundamental principles of what Ayurveda is, and it totally clicked. It made so much sense to me that I had an emotional response to it; I started to cry,” she recalls. “When that happens you pay attention, so I researched colleges and found the California College of Ayurveda.”

While taking a Pancha Karma training workshop, Megan’s abilities caught the attention of the college’s founder, and she was offered an apprenticeship at a private Ayurvedic retreat center.

(Scout Hebinck,
“I was supposed to intern at the Blue Sage Sanctuary for a year but ended up staying five years,” she exclaims. “From L.A. to studying Ayurveda in San Francisco, there I was on 20 acres of land in Nevada City, it was so grounding. I really needed that time to settle in, learn and get really good with my skills. It was so cool to watch people go through the detox process there away from distractions, because with it comes an emotional detox very often.”

Megan thoroughly enjoyed her time at the center and even returns there each fall to lead people through detoxification, but she always knew she would return to Los Angeles to open her own practice. 

“I love Santa Monica, there’s nowhere else in L.A. that I would like to live. I like the vibe, the culture, and that the beach is so close. San Francisco is a beautiful city, but the weather killed me – having grown up being so blessed with great weather, then having gray cold summers and wearing a sweater in June,” she says. “I love that it’s so health conscious in L.A., it’s fairly clean. I love driving up to Malibu and looking at the blue of the sky. I need sunshine!”

Aside from Kreation, you can often find her grabbing a bite at Golden Mean or taking in a concert at the Santa Monica Pier during the summer since she is an avid music lover. 

In addition to the Juicy Yogi Detox Program, Megan also offers any of her Ayurvedic therapies (herbal massage or steam, Nasya sinus therapy and Shirodhara) as separate or coupled services.

“It’s so cool to see the reactions from people who have never Shirodhara before. Hot oil is poured over your third eye/chakra and flows down your head and over your scalp, inducing a meditative state or you can just fall asleep if you need it,” she explains. “It’s the perfect therapy for stress, anxiety or insomnia.”

Just hearing her describe the relaxing therapy has me ready to make an appointment ASAP. Megan is also planning to host discussions to educate Angelenos about the different ailments that Ayurveda can treat, from cancer and insomnia to sinus and allergy problems, so make sure to check in at her website for updates.

For more information, call (310) 780-5006 or visit

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rob Decoup

Rob Decoup on the Venice Beach Pier


At the Venice Beach Boardwalk 

Whether you’re an Angeleno or visiting tourist, the sights of the Venice Beach Boardwalk – the different street artists and performers, bodybuilders of Muscle Beach, colorful street art, bikini-clad women – are instantly recognizable and representative of Los Angeles. It’s where I regularly take out-of-town visitors and a place that has become special to New York-based music artist Rob Decoup.

“When you come to [Venice Beach], you can spend the whole day looking around at the art, going in the water, taking a walk. It just looks great with the palm trees and the unique buildings,” he describes. “It’s one of those places that, if you’re blindfolded, once the blindfold drops you immediately know where you are. Not everywhere is like that.”

Venice truly is a unique neighborhood, as Rob’s own story is quite special. While in town to rehearse with an L.A.-based band of musicians for a Midwest tour with Saving Abel in support of the January release of his full-length debut, Rays of Sun, he shares these experiences with me as we enjoy the cool ocean air.

“It’s good to be in L.A. when I think that we’re walking right where Jim Morrison once walked. He was so inspired by this place. One of the greatest frontmen of all time, Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, would surf here. That’s the charm of L.A. for me,” he confesses. “I was very influenced by that kind of music, alternative rock, as well as the classic rock of the Doors.”

Music wasn’t the only sound to fill Rob’s childhood, though. Having been born in Iran and spending his early childhood there while the country was at war with Iraq, explosions and sirens filled his 5-year-old ears. It’s a time when his dreams of coming to America were born. Rob remembers his first taste of American music occurring around this time.

“I saw an Elvis Presley movie, and that was my first exposure to rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “I was really into his songs for a long time. That was the beginning.”

After his family relocated to Vienna in the early 1980s, Rob attended an American school where he learned to speak English and German. From the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the aforementioned Doors to Alice Cooper and Megadeth, his love for rock music continued to grow. His path to becoming a musician himself began on his 12th birthday.

“I wouldn’t shut up about getting a guitar so my mom finally got one for my birthday. But she didn’t know much about it and got me an electric guitar without an amp,” he recalls with a laugh. “I thought it was too much to ask for an amp then, so waited a year for my next birthday. I could still play on it, though, quietly. It was good for practicing.”

We begin our Venice Boardwalk afternoon in front of one of my favorite L.A. bookshops, Small World Books, which is located on Ocean Front Walk. A bookstore is fitting since 30 percent of all proceeds from the sale of Rob’s latest single, “War Hero,” is going to the Books for Soldiers Fund Drive that brings books and care packages to deployed American troops. 

Poetry and literature have always played a huge part in Rob’s life. 

“I started writing poetry at a young age, and it was always in English because somehow that was most appealing to me. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare, William Blake, a lot of French poets like Arthur Rimbaud and modern ones like Allen Ginsberg,” he tells. “I loved rhyming and playing with words since I was 9 when I wrote my first poem, so when I learned guitar I started to write melodies and combine the two passions. I loved the idea of writing a song and one day performing it. That seemed like the most gratifying thing to do ever, but it got shelved a little bit since it’s obviously not something that you’re secure in making a living out of. I always knew that I was going to go that way at some point, it just got postponed a little bit.”

The delay actually lasted several years, as Rob began his PhD studies in Political Science at the University of Vienna.

“I thought it was going to be a quick endeavor, but it took me five years. That’s what held me back from diving into music full time. I kept saying to myself, ‘As soon as I finish my PhD, I’m going to do it,’ but it just dragged on.” 

After receiving his PhD, Rob decided to move to New York and begin this new chapter of his life.

“I was writing these songs, wanted to get my music to the world and realized that since I write in English that I should move to America because it’s not just a myth. This country really is the land of dreams, where dreams can come true, just because the mentality is different than Europe. Europe is a bit more old fashioned and the people are not really supportive, whereas people that I’ve come to know in America, I’ve known them for less time than my European friends, but they are much more excited and supportive. They really want to hear my songs,” he admits. “Also, rock music isn’t that big in Europe. You have lots of metal heads in Germany, but in America it’s much more of a culture. You go out to see hard rock band perform, and it doesn’t have to be a huge band it can be an emerging artist. In Europe people only go to see huge bands like Alter Bridge or Metallica and kind of ignore the emerging artists. Here they understand that emerging artists are more real because they’re not tied to a contract with a major label that dictates so much of the songwriting process.”

Rob released his first EP, Pain, last year, and since his music career is something he worked so hard to be able to pursue, self-expression is very important to Rob. He pointedly brings up the subject as we encounter a bright wall mural, a man with a (fake?) boa constrictor wrapped around his neck and a performer about to walk on shards of broken glass.

“I like graffiti artists because of what graffiti represents in general, the idea of street art: expression coming naturally,” he remarks. “That’s why I like Venice, you never know what to expect. Danger is looming everywhere.”

Rob first became acquainted with Venice when he spent a month recording Rays of Sun in Los Angeles last year. He would come to the beach to surf, and as we stand on the Venice Beach Pier watching the waves roll by, he says that he might consider moving to Los Angeles one day.

“For the kind of music I do, hard rock, this is more the scene for it. There are way more musicians here in that field than in New York.” 

In fact, all of the musicians who played on Rays of Sun are based in Los Angeles. Joined by Dan Welby on drums and Phil X on guitar, Creed’s Eric Friedman was on guitar while Marty O’Brien, who also plays with Lita Ford, assumed bass duties. The album was helmed by Mike Plotnikoff (Aerosmith, Drowning Pool), whose work Rob had admired for a while. 

“There was an album that I really liked by Buckcherry. I really liked the production quality of that album, so I was curious and found out that it was Mike behind it. Through my connections I was able to reach him and send him my demos. He liked them and said he would be happy to do it,” he relays. “I’m so happy to have become connected with him because he’s such a great guy, so down to earth and easy to work with.”

Since Rob is so busy preparing for Rays of Sun’s debut, he doesn’t have much time to keep up with recent literary releases. However, this doesn’t mean that he’s out of touch with world events in the least.

“I read a lot of online journals with political analysis, foreign affairs, economics – boring stuff,” he laughs. “When I read those things and try to get a glimpse into a scholar’s or professor’s take on current affairs, I feel my brain start to wake up.” 

Rob is all about waking up others’ brains as well, particularly with the release of Rays of Sun.

Rays of Sun is about the idea of hope. Even though things might seem to be going wrong, and the standard of life is diminishing. Corporations are getting richer, profits are soaring, but the majority of the wealth has been concentrated in a minority, one percent. That exploitation of people is a reality, but there is still hope,” he says. “The idea behind the title of Rays of Sun is that if we get together we can make real change happen.” 

Rays of Sun will be available Jan. 27, 2015. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Black Belt Karate

Ryan Hanifl, Ryan Brown, Jason Achilles Mezilis and Harry Anthony Ostrem of Black Belt Karate at the Iliad Bookshop


At The Iliad Bookshop
5400 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood (818) 509-2665

There’s something magical about used bookstores. Every time you visit, there are new treasures to be found on its shelves. The same could be said for a good song. You can take away different meanings from a single lyric or discover a section of the melody that excites you with each listen.

The four musicians of Los Angeles-based Black Belt Karate share my love of used bookstores and take me on an adventure at their favorite in North Hollywood, the Iliad Bookshop.

“New bookstores have no soul. Old, used bookstores are awesome,” says guitarist Jason Achilles Mezilis. “I love this place because you can find all kinds of rare and out-of-print books here.”

Originally located next to Odyssey Video, the Iliad took its name as a literary joke and sustains the Greek mythology tradition with its two kitten mascots, Apollo and Zeus, who are often found playing near the register.

While Jason, vocalist Ryan Hanifl and drummer Ryan Brown all reside nearby in the Valley, bassist Harry Anthony Ostrem lives in Westchester, so Jason shares that when the band members do get together it’s to work in the studio or hang out on his front porch.

“What are you talking about, we always hang out here,” jokes Ryan B. “We’re a very well-read band.”

His statement isn’t that far off, though. Ryan B. is an avid fan of Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom series, and Ryan H. reads everything that Richard Russo puts out. Jason loves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and science fiction.

“If I’m going to read fiction, it’s going to be sci-fi. The two best sci-fi books are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Dune. They’re ridiculous. I like the MythAdventures fantasy series by Robert Lynn Asprin and James Blish’s adaptation of the original ’Star Trek’ series,” he reveals. “They were based off the scripts, but some things would be a little different from what happened on the show. People give the original ‘Star Trek’ a hard time because it was campy, but if you read the stories they’re really great. I have a book that I found here about the making-of the TV series with all the memos that the different departments would send each other and stories of Roddenberry freaking out about somebody putting the wrong color rock in a scene.”

Harry actually studied English and history in college; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is one of his favorites.

“I’m reading a book right now called Shantaram, which is amazing. It’s [reportedly] a true-life story about a guy who escaped prison in New Zealand and ended up in Mumbai. It’s about his experiences there, falling in love with the country and being forced back into a life of crime,” he shares. “Whenever I see a store like the Iliad, it gives me hope that at least there are still books out there. I’m not against e-books, but the environment, the vibe, the whole experience of going through a used bookstore is like exploring mom’s attic. When I was a kid I would go to places like this to find vinyl or old Creem and Rolling Stone magazines.”

Music is indeed the first love of the Black Belt Karate quartet, especially Jason, who is from the Midwest but was primarily raised in Northern California.

“Relatives and family friends that knew me before I had cognitive memories say that they would put on music and I would sit in front of the speakers and not move for hours, and it’s not very often that I don’t move. The first thing I remember was always watching ‘The Muppet Show’ on this little black-and-white TV we had,” he recalls, as Ryan H. chimes in with, “Ha! He always reminds me of a Muppet.”

“There was a classical pianist I saw when I was 5, Vladimir Horowitz. His hands were hitting the piano so hard; the sound was huge. I had never ever seen a piano in person, but when I heard what was happening I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do,’” Jason continues. “When we moved to California my parents told me I had to learn an instrument, so I picked the piano and started lessons when I was 8. My father is a musician. He played classical guitar so well that it just looked impossible and that actually steered me away from guitar for years. I didn’t pick up guitar until my nuts dropped and I hit puberty.”

“We’re sitting in the children’s section and Jason just used the ‘F’ word three times and just said ‘nuts dropped’ while little kids are walking by with their parents,” notes Harry.

Ryan B. also started playing instruments at an early age in Denver, Colo.

“I got a drum for my first Christmas when I was 6 months old because my mom’s brother got it just to piss her off as a joke. Then, I got a little Sears drum kit when I was 3. My mom plays ragtime piano, so I would play along on the drums to her. I started playing piano when I was 6, trumpet when I was 9 and then I got braces and couldn’t play anymore. The bandleader brought in a snare drum and I said, ‘Oh, I have to play that.’” he remembers. “A big moment for me was in January 1989 when I saw Gregg Bissonette give a drum clinic. I sat there watching the whole thing thinking, ‘I want to be that guy.’”

Ryan B. has played with the likes of Zappa Plays Zappa and Sex Tapes, and is also a teacher at Musicians Institute where he has the opportunity to touch the lives of many other aspiring drummers, just as Bissonette did his. Harry is also a teacher, but he came a bit late to the music game.

“I didn’t start playing bass until eighth grade, then I quit and eventually started playing again. All three of the other guys are schooled in music, know music theory and went to school for music. I went to school for history and english, but I always used music as an outlet. I played in some cover bands and realized I don’t want to live in small town,” says the Montana native, who spent time in Spokane, Wash. before moving to Los Angeles to play music in 2005. “I substitute teach and tutor now, and it’s fun working with kids. You really don’t know how you shape their future, as cheesy as that sounds, you can’t measure it by a paycheck.”

Harry goes on to mention a former student who is now a professional bass player and huge Rush fan, triggering Ryan B. to leap from his seat and grab a copy of Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night – also the title of Rush’s 1975 album, their first with the legendary Neil Peart – from a shelf behind me. 

“I’ve been staring at it the whole time,” he admits.

While many songwriters become interested in words through books or poems, Ryan H.’s creativity was sparked by a musical genre.

“Fascination with wordplay came with rap for me. When I was in high school I listened strictly to gangsta rap. I didn’t really take an interest in it until – as cliche as it may sound – I heard Bob Dylan. Country music, too, because where I’m from [Minnesota], everyone either listened to country or rap. Garth Brooks was huge, and I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Yoakam,” he confesses. “I didn’t get into being a musician until I was 19; before that I really didn’t pay attention to music. My dad always had the oldies channel on so there was a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ I was a into grunge and late-‘80s Seattle bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Some of my favorite bands of the last 10 years are Sigur Rós and Radiohead.”

“There’s basically a period of time between 1989 and 1991 where my music appreciation stops and his begins,” interrupts Jason.

“The reason why I respect Harry is he knows The Bends by Radiohead, which is the be-all, end-all of modern rock guitar songs from a songwriting point of view. He thinks it’s one of the best albums of that decade, and I agree. The other two [Jason and Ryan B.], I’m very suspect of,” laughs Ryan H. “I was also big into the Doors in high school because that movie came out and I started fooling around with alcohol and weed. Pink Floyd, too. My favorite music to listen to is classical music. I have it on all of the time, call me pretentious.”

“Well, those are two separate issues,” grins Jason.

Everyone in Black Belt Karate likes to make playful gibes at one another, particularly Ryan H. and Jason since they’ve known each other for over a decade. They were both part of Your Horrible Smile until that band parted ways in 2006.

“We didn’t talk for a few years. We had some unfinished music, and I had been pulling his ear saying we should finish some of the old demos just purely for licensing. We did some stuff at my house and then went to see his friend play with Sabrosa Purr around that time. It was exciting, we had fun and I sort of missed doing the rock thing because I had primarily been the Rufus Wainwright thing for a few years,” says Ryan H., who also composes music for television shows and commercials. “Then we ran into Ryan Brown that fall.”

“The night was Oct. 17, 2011,” begins Ryan B., and everyone starts laughing thinking he’s joking about the exact date. “The reason I know the date is because my daughter was born three days later. I went to see Jason play with a band I was in called Owl at the Viper Room, and Ryan and I hung out.”

“At one point I saw those two talking to each other and was thought, ‘yeah, that looks right,” recalls Jason.

“I actually was working at the Viper Room as a custodian that night,” Harry jokingly interjects to everyone’s amusement. “They didn’t know me then, but our worlds would merge later.”

“So we moved forward making music, but it didn’t cement since Ryan B. obviously had his hands full for a little while. We started working on the initial material for the band and shot a video. If you see our first video, Ryan B. and Harry aren’t in it, there’s actually not a bass player in it. Then we met Harry in then middle of the next year.”

“When I first got the call ,I knew Jason had a house that was in the Hills-esque, above the low level where all the common people live. I heard the first couple of songs, which sounded really good. They weren’t amateur, crappy demos like with most bands you audition for, so I thought he was loaded with a lot of money, which hasn’t been the case, but it’s been loaded with many other things as equally as valuable as money. The music, in my humble estimation, is what it’s all about anyway. That’s what drew me in because I’ve auditioned for bands with a big budget, but the music was awful,” admits Harry. “This band is a blessing. My old band was together for a long time, so I was devastated when it broke up. Then this band came along, and it’s been really healthy and good.”

“I love that we describe this band as ‘healthy.’ That makes me happy,” chuckles Jason.

“It’s just like a romantic relationship. We can disagree and have arguments, but we respect each other as people. That’s the key,” says Harry.

Black Belt Karate released their first EP, Volume 1, last year, and plan to put out another EP next year. They began 2014 by unveiling a new single each month and just released a video for the latest one, “Transformer.” Although, they hail from distinctly different cities across the nation, it seems they were always fated to come together as BBK in Los Angeles.

“I moved here with $30, and while nothing has transpired the way I wanted it to, a lot of really cool stuff has transpired. I’ve played with some really famous people, I get to make music with these guys that I’m really proud of and I’m a way better player than I used to be. That wouldn’t have happened playing covers in Spokane, Wash.,” Harry says.

“There are so many opportunities in Los Angeles. Things can and will happen here that would no way happen in Denver, Montana, Minnesota, Chicago, Michigan or Northern California,” adds Ryan B. “There are a million things that will happen, but you have to be here for them to happen.

“The other day, I was telling one of the artists I produce how happy I was to be home after a trip I went on, and he said, ’Ninety-five percent of the people that come to Los Angeles get really upset and leave. You’re one of the five percent, one of the people who comes here with their dreams, who has made it work,’” Jason tells. “L.A. is amazing, I absolutely love it here. Anything we need for what we do for a living is here, whether it’s on the business side (managers, labels, lawyers), resources (recording studios) or musicians. Los Angeles is like a big toolbox. Nobody moves here because it’s an aesthetically beautiful city, but the fact that everything’s available here for me to be able to realize my dreams makes it a beautiful place.”

Black Belt Karate performs Oct. 21 at the Satellite, Oct. 26 at Lucky Strike Hollywood and Dec. 11 at the Satellite. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ruthann Friedman

Ruthann Friedman at the Marina Del Rey Jetty


At Marina Del Rey Jetty on Via Marina and Pacific Avenue, Marina del Rey

Whenever Angelenos say, “Oh, I never even go to the beach,” they’re just trying to be cool or there’s clearly something wrong with them. Being so close to the ocean is one of the best traits of this city. This is a sentiment that singer-songwriter Ruthann Friedman (primarily known for penning the Association’s 1967 hit single “Windy”) definitely agrees with.

“How can you get any better than this?” she asks as we walk along the water at her favorite spot, the Marina Del Rey Jetty. “Watching the power of the ocean, the tides, it puts things into perspective.”

As a 40-year resident of nearby Venice Beach, Ruthann first discovered this haven when she owned a little boat and would go sailing for fun.

“I used to go up the channel and out until the houses were just this big. I had to stay in view of the houses because I don’t know how to navigate. I would let the sails go, sit out there and it was almost like being on another planet,” she remembers. “When I was pregnant, my husband and I used to walk down here – me and my big belly. This is also the place where my youngest daughter and I used to come all the time. Even on a crowded beach day, nobody comes to this beach and it’s beautiful. When it’s a clear day you can see the mountains and the view is just extraordinary.”

She continues to visit the jetty on a regular basis just to soak in the nature that inhabits the area.

“I always hear a seal but rarely see it. Sometimes I think it’s just a record, like the recordings of dogs barking that people play at their houses to chase burglars away, because I try to find it but never see it,” she says with a chuckle. “There are lots of heron, egrets and sandpipers eating little crabs. I’ve seen hundreds of pelicans on the wall of rocks, taking turns getting fish. There is the Least Tern nesting area [pointing]. They put a fence around it so that the birds could nest, but what they didn’t figure on was cats! Cats didn’t care that they had a fence.”

Ruthann spent four decades in retirement from music, dedicating her life to raising her two daughters and earning her college degree (She graduated magna cum laude from UCLA in 2007.). However, when her 1970 debut album, Constant Companion, was reissued eight years ago, it sparked renewed interest in her talent, catalog and overall mark on the folk movement. Artists such as Devendra Banhart sang her praises, compilations of unreleased rarities she wrote from the 1960s through 1971 called Hurried Life and The Ruthann Friedman Songbook were released and Ruthann once again started creating songs. She just released Chinatown, her first new recordings in over 40 years, over the summer. 

When asked if she had spent any of those years writing, Ruthann quickly replies, “Nope, I was raising my kids! I’ve always kept journals, though, which is probably why I still had my writing chops when I started writing songs again. After being an English major I became much more critical of my own lyrics, so now writing a song takes me a lot longer than it used to. I like metaphors a lot – who doesn’t like a good metaphor? – but it really has to mean something.”

While Ruthann became known for her songwriting, she didn’t actually start composing until she was in her late teens. Most of her childhood was spent getting lost in books and the songs of others.

“I loved it all. I read every Grimm’s and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, all the Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh books. Reading, playing the guitar and learning songs were my escapes,” she confesses. “When I came to L.A., my teacher was a jazz guitarist. He taught me technique, chords and how to read music. Then I played the upright bass in the junior high orchestra because I was the biggest girl. That was a lot of fun.” 

Having been born and raised in the Bronx until age 10, the Pacific Ocean and shimmering swimming pools of Southern California were wondrous to the young Ruthann.

“My brother was just starting UCLA, and we rented a house in North Hollywood for a year that had a big swimming pool. It was so great because you don’t have swimming pools in the Bronx, then we bought a house in Sherman Oaks,” she recalls. “But as soon as I was able, I went over the hill. My dad was not a happy man. My whole family has a tendency towards depression, but thank god for antidepressants.”

While her brother and sister both went to the University of Chicago, Ruthann “just smoked dope and got in trouble” as the hippie movement was coming to life around her.

“My sister was 10 years older and my brother seven years older, so the times were a-changin.’ I had a lot of fun, but I also had a lot of problems,” she admits. “There were good people and bad people, but as far as social norms, it was a revolutionary time for women and minorities.”

Sixteen-year-old Ruthann started playing Bob Dylan songs, old blues covers and some of her own compositions at places like Barney’s Beanery and “Hoot Nights” at the Troubadour. She spent time venturing up to Big Sur and San Francisco, befriending the likes of Janis Joplin, Country Joe and Jefferson Airplane, before returning to Los Angeles where her friendship with Van Dyke Parks eventually led to an introduction to the Association.

“I met Van Dyke through guitarist Steve Mann when I was still living in the Valley. [Van Dyke and her] were kids together, having lots of fun. We walked around the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire on psychedelics,” she laughs. “Then, during the Watts Riots, I was living with the Association near Western and Melrose on the edge of it all. That was scary.” 

Ruthann’s stories about life in the L.A. area could fill an extra large tome. She actually wrote “Windy” while living in David Crosby’s basement in Beverly Glen. She’s lived in Palm Springs and Laurel Canyon, but Venice is her favorite neighborhood of all. 

“It makes me claustrophobic being in the city now. I like to feel cozy in a spot, like the jetty where I can get to the water. On Wednesday nights they have a sailboat race, and I come to watch them,” she says. “There’s a great little club over there [points to the marina] that my friend plays at some nights called Whiskey Red’s. My youngest daughter, who is a doctor now, would go to Santa Monica Playhouse, a professional group over on 4th Street that put on children’s workshops and productions. When she was fourth grade, she ran for student body president, and out of 1,000 kids they elected this fourth grader as president. At an event she was up at the podium making a speech and was totally fearless. Her energy and enthusiasm, I attribute it to the Santa Monica Playhouse.”

Bidding adieu to the ocean, we get in the car to grab some lunch at Ruthann’s favorite local restaurant, Tlapazola Grill, and she tells me about her feelings for the city.

“I was 10 when I came here, so Los Angeles is my hometown. Trafffic – I can get from Downtown to here using all the side streets because I know the city so well. I love it, and I hate it,” she admits. “I go up and visit my friends in Northern California, and it’s so beautiful up there, but this is my home.” 

We order two bowls of Ruthann’s usual, the Lemon Chicken Tortilla Soup, with big chunks of lemony chicken, queso fresco and diced avocado, and I ask her if Los Angeles’ Chinatown is the one that inspired the name of her new album.

“Whichever Chinatown you’re in, there’s always a mystery about it,” she replies. “I’ve been reading a lot of novels about Shanghai and how the Chinese came to America, Los Angeles especially, and what the community was like. The culture was so different, and that’s the mystery, interacting with a different culture in this country with so many cultures together, being able to retain your culture and still be a part of a different culture. Maybe we’ll make this a culture that includes all cultures, not a stew but a salad where everybody can get along. In a salad you can still taste a tomato as a tomato, but it goes very nicely with the green onion.”

Relationships with musicians of all genres is something that Ruthann has maintained even throughout her years away from the scene. Chinatown is evidence of that.

“Making the album was such a fun experience. It’s different hiring someone to play than having them say, ‘I want to play on this,’ and that’s what happened here,” she tells. “In fact, Aaron Robinson said, ‘I want to play on that,’ so he and Yvette Dudoit drove up with me to [Chinatown producer] John Muller’s house in San Jose to record. Aaron plays guitar, banjo and lap steel mandolin; my bass player is David Jenkins; David Goldstein added some drums; then I called Van Dyke and said, ‘I really need your style,’ so he came in and played piano on two and accordion on one.”

The album – mixed at the studio of another of her longtime friends, Jackson Browne – is a mix of many sounds, from jazz to folk, and features one cover, “Springhill Mine Disaster” written by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, that was inspired by recent global coal mine disasters. We have a bit of a laugh over one of Ruthann’s original tracks on Chinatown, “iPod.”

“I wrote that song before the advent of the Kindle. My husband had bought a Kindle, and I scoffed at it. But now I read on the Kindle,” laughs the lifelong bookworm. “I would read anything that was handed to me, and I still do now. I get lost in them; they were my escape when I was young because you never knew what was going to come through the door with my dad. I just reread Galapagos because I love Kurt Vonnegut. I love Margaret Atwood. I read a historical novel about John Wilkes Booth that was great and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I just read the Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd who wrote The Secret Life of Bees. It’s a wonderful book based on a real woman.” 

Aside from filling her Kindle with new titles to read, Ruthann is already working on another album.

Chinatown has so many different genres squished together, so I’m trying to have this album go in one direction. I’m going back to my roots a little more with fingerpicking, bluesy kind of stuff,” she reveals. “I get lost playing the guitar, something strikes me and I play it more to see where it leads. That’s how I write songs, and then the lyrics come out of that generally.”

While she laments how certain L.A. venues have changed over the years and the “same old, same old” homogenized sound of popular music today, Ruthann Friedman is completely happy with her place in the grand scheme of it all.

“I appeal to a certain segment of the population; not everybody is going to love my music or lyrics, and that’s OK with me. I have long since lost any desire to be a big star. I’m quite happy to just do what I do, to get to record and play. I’m content with my life,” she says. “So many people want to be the star, and so very few people get to be the star. At a certain age you either have to be content with your life and happy with who you are, or you’re just going to be miserable because you didn’t get to be a star. I know a bunch of people who became stars, and although it’s cool that they have lots of money and can do whatever they want, I wouldn’t want their life. I’m sort of reclusive, I like to read and I wouldn’t want to be traveling all over the place all of the time. I’m happy with my life, and I have good friends – people who encourage my creativity rather than squelch it.”

Chinatown is currently available. For more information, visit

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mia Doi Todd

Mia Doi Todd at the Trails Café in Griffith Park


At Griffith Park 

Having first heard of Mia Doi Todd upon the release of her fifth album (Manzanita) in 2005, the singer-songwriter has been on my radar for almost 10 years. She has continued to create beautiful songs that showcase her uniquely soft yet powerful voice on four additional full lengths, making appearances on numerous compilations and soundtracks for films like Mood Indigo, the latest from Michel Gondry, who directed Mia’s colorful video for “Open Your Heart” in 2010.

I’ve always felt a little kinship with the L.A. native since she is also half-Japanese and has a keen fondness for nature, so it wasn’t that surprising when she happened to pick one of the places that I love most in the city as her own favorite, Griffith Park. We meet just south of Griffith Observatory at the Trails Café on Fern Dell Drive, order a biscuit with honey for her and her 2-year-old daughter Ynez and a strawberry lemonade for me and begin to talk about growing up in Los Angeles and Mia’s upcoming album, Floresta, which releases next week and was inspired by Brazilian music and culture.

“I grew up in Silver Lake, so I’ve been coming to Griffith Park since I was little,” Mia shares. “[Riding the train and carousel], that’s what we would do for my birthday.” 

At this, Ynez reminds her mom that she would like to ride on the ponies later on their way home to Glendale. It’s quite heartwarming to see the two ladies interact, and I’m sure that Mia feels quite fortunate to be able to share the places where many of her own childhood memories occurred with her daughter. She also considers herself fortunate to have been able to expose Ynez to the person she looked up to most in life, her grandmother.

“Luckily my grandmother was alive when Ynez was born, so she was able to meet her bachan, her great-grandmother before she passed away. My grandmother was my idol; she was such a hardworking, gentle lady,” Mia reflects. “She was a seamstress for a living, so she taught me to sew when I was 4 or 5. She worked at a lingerie factory with silk and lace – the hardest materials – so she could sew anything, doing very detailed and beautiful work. My mother and aunt had the most beautiful prom dresses when they were in high school because of my grandmother.

Mia continues to sew a lot of her own clothes and even some dolls for Ynez. One of the fabric stores she often frequents is in Downtown’s Garment District, Michael Levine, Inc. As a result of her father being a sculptor and painter, both Mia and Ynez love to draw and paint.

“[Growing up,] I was always drawing, sewing and doing crafty things in my room. I wasn’t very athletic, but I was really into school,” she says. “There was a lot of music in my grammar school, which was awesome. My teacher played guitar and sang. We would go around the room and get to choose our favorite song from a songbook to sing. That was really my first experience with singing.” 

At around 8 or 9, Mia’s mother – who is an Associate Justice for the state of California (She was the first female Asian-American judge in the country.) – took her to her first concert, Michael Jackson at Dodger Stadium.

“It was raining that night, and the show was so scary because it was the Thriller tour. I was totally freaked out,” she laughs. “I don’t know if I had ever been in such a big crowd. After that, the first concert I chose to go to that I got my mom to take me and some friends to was the Cure in 1989, also at Dodger Stadium.”

Mia’s own voice training began around this time. The family’s next-door neighbor was an opera singer and gave her private vocal lessons in his living room throughout her teenage years.

“That’s where the tone of my voice comes from,” she offers. “I started dancing in high school, too. We could take dance instead of P.E., so I did that.”

Although she didn’t start dancing until adolescence, her interest in dance and theater was sparked by her immersion in Japanese culture from a young age.

“My mother was on the board of the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC), so we went to a lot of performances and art shows there. We went to see kabuki and Noh there,” she recalls. “My interest in Japanese culture definitely stemmed from all of that.” 

Mia was so taken with the culture that she went on to major in Asian Studies (with a focus on Japan) at Yale University, becoming immersed in the country’s history, religion and art. She was especially drawn to Butoh, Japanese dance theater and eventually received a grant from Yale to study the art form in Japan.

“When I was back east, I saw Kazuo Ohno perform at Amherst College. I had already been into Butoh, but seeing him live really heightened my interest in it. He was already 92 or 93 when I was studying under him in Tokyo; he was there, but his son, Yoshito, was leading a lot of the workshops,” she remembers. “I also studied with Min Tanaka, whom I consider a great teacher, during my year in Japan.”

Going away to college and then traveling to Japan were the first experiences Mia had away from Los Angeles, and this definitely had an impact on her. 

“I wrote my first song at the end of high school, and by the time I was in college, I was writing a lot of songs. There’s the whole first generation of songs that I only have on a tape, and they’re really funny,” she laughs. “Then there’s the second generation of songs that were recorded in 1996 and released on my first record, The Ewe & the Eye. Those were written around when I was 20 years old.”

“Going to the East Coast I could definitely see myself as a Californian more because it’s not until you go away that you see where you’re coming from, what’s behind you. I found out I was definitely a California girl, I didn’t know until,” she continues with a smile. “There are other places I would like to live but I have such a strong community here, roots, family and friends. It’s so hard to leave. We have such beautiful parks in Malibu, here at Griffith Park and we live really close to Angeles Crest at the top of Glendale. I find great comfort in nature and am always trying to find it.” 

Nature has always figured greatly in Mia’s work, and she feels that it relates to the fact that growing up in the city, she was constantly surrounded by asphalt. A longing to be in nature is always inside of her, it manifests itself even in the title of her albums. Her latest effort is called Floresta, which is Portuguese for ‘forest.’

Flore is flower, so in Portuguese floresta mentions the flowers of the forest not just the trees. The rainforest in Brazil is so rich, abundant and teeming with life, so Floresta captures that feeling,” she tells. “We made a video for ‘Cais,’ the last track on the album, in France, and it’s about nature being our path to salvation. That characterizes the whole message of the album. I’ve found so much solace in nature.” 

Mia has also found much comfort in Brazilian music. She was originally introduced to the genre via a compilation put together by David Byrne, Beleza Tropical.

“Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, a lot of huge Brailian stars are represented on that compilation; hearing that for the first time was like discovering the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. I listened to that CD for years and gradually became more familiar with all the different artists on it,” she says. “Over time, Brazilian music became more popular in the states, and a lot of my DJ friends collect the original vinyl, so I got to hear the albums that the singles came from – so much amazing music. My love of Brazilian music has just continued to grow.” 

As her fascination with Brazilian music and culture flourished, she decided to travel to the country to play some shows and became acquainted with drummer and percussionist Mauricio Takara.

“I got to play at Circo Voador, this amazing venue in Rio opening for Marcelo Camelo who is like the Beck of Brazil just by chance. Immediately, I was so accepted by all the people I met in Mauricio’s community. They would be surprised that I wasn’t from São Paulo, while here in Los Angeles, it’s the opposite. People are always asking me where I’m from,” she laughs. “I felt so accepted in Brazil, and it started to be less of the ‘other.’ I spent six weeks there, went back later that year and made lifelong friends.”

Upon returning from that first trip to Brazil in 2009, Mia began working on material inspired by the culture with guitarist and arranger Fabiano do Nascimento. After going back to Brazil last November to work on a track, “Jardim do Amor,” with Takara for the Red Hot + Bach compilation that released this summer, Mia finally found the perfect place to record the songs she and do Nascimento had been putting together for the past four years.

“Mauricio’s family had moved their studio into an amazing new location that was built in the ‘80s by an Argentinian architect. It’s the most beautiful studio that I’ve ever been in with lots of Brazilian hardwoods, paneling all over, modern architecture,” she gushes. “I had been wanting to make this record, Fabiano and I had been working on this material for four years, and it was getting to the point here we need to record it, capture it or else just move on. Once I found that studio, I said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it!’” 

Floresta is comprised of compositions by some of the Brazilian masters who first inspired her, Nascimento and Veloso, as well as Joyce, Tom Zé, Cadeia, Tom Jobim, Dorival Caymmi and Dércio Marques. There was just one hurdle that Mia had yet to overcome: All of these songs have lyrics composed n Portuguese, and she doesn’t speak the language at all.

“In order to learn the songs I had to know what I was singing, so I do understand all the lyrics. The way I chose the songs had a lot to do with the lyrical content, so I just have to convey the emotion of the songs, the feeling of them, through the music for the listeners in the states,” she admits. “A lot of the interpretations of Brazilian music that get to us in the U.S. are more club oriented, lounge music or jazz with a lot of production, that are more slick. I approached the songs like folk songs. I was aiming for a more roots-y album; that’s what I could bring to it. There are way better singers who could perform these songs in a super fabulous way, but I wanted to go to the core of them because they’re just beautiful songs.”

While several of the songs deal with sad subjects, Mia says that transforming that sadness into something sublime is “the joy that pierces through the cloud.” Beauty can be found in even the saddest of places. Music gives many people solace, a diversion from their troubles. Throughout the recording of Floresta, Mia had her own doubts about being worthy of recording songs by such legendary musicians, but the power of the music itself was undeniable.

“As a songwriter I just love Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso, so I grappled for a long time, 'why should I be doing this,' 'can I do them justice?' Even while we were recording, I was still wondering, ’why am I doing this,'” she says. “But I learned so much, it was so fun. I love these songs, and to be able to play them, sing them is just a dream. I hope that joy is contagious in the songs. And for me, on my path of growing as a musician and songwriter, digesting this material fuels my own songwriting.”

I can’t wait to see what’s going to come next from Mia Doi Todd.

Floresta will be available Sept. 16. Mia Doi Todd performs at Floresta’s release party Sept. 15 at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. For more information, visit