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