Getting to Know Doug Kwartler
Doug Kwartler is a contemporary singer-songwriter with passion, inspiring lyrics, driving rhythms, and memorable melodies that make one sit up and listen. He’s got the energy of a rocker but the ability to draw in his audience with his elegant quiet tunes as well. Doug has been chosen as one of 24 Emerging Artists at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York. He’ll be hitting the stage on Friday, August 2.
Falcon Ridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary the first weekend in August and the Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).* The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
To hear more about Doug, check out his website.
I was very taken by the way you spin tales within your songs. I feel like I’ve known some of the characters in your songs—like the guy on the train in “Silver Meteor” or the one with wanderlust who hopes his soul will be saved in “Before I Get to Heaven” These kind of songs make me think of Bruce Springsteen’s songs about working class folks. You’ve mentioned that you have been influenced by Bruce Springsteen. Would you say that his story songs are the ones that have made the biggest imprint on the way you construct your songs?
First of all, thanks so much for the interview, I really appreciate it. Funny, my mom always tells me she loves my story songs. I guess every song to me is a story song in some way, but I know what she and you mean, of course. I have a song called “Train Song,” that is on a CD called World Rattles ‘Round, from my first original band, Foundry. It was perhaps my first “story” song. I guess it’s similar to “Silver Meteor” as it’s another tale revolving around a passenger train. Except that song is about a young boy who waits for the train to come every day, basically through his backyard, and is written in the third person. Whereas “Silver Meteor” and “Before I Get to Heaven” are written in the first. I guess I’d have to say Springsteen’s story songs are certainly a huge influence on me yes. If you take the entireNebraska album, you’ve got a lot of what I’ve tried to do in several of my songs.
Do you have any favorite Springsteen songs?
There are just so many, and certain ones rise to the top depending on what’s going on in my life. Right now “Cross My Heart,” from Human Touch is up there.
Along those same lines, you’ve cited Woody Guthrie as a big influence. I can’t help but notice that you’ve written your share of songs about our political and social environment. For instance, in 2011 you wrote a song called “Hang On, Wisconsin” that was aimed at the people who were involved with the Occupy Movement. That song obviously struck the proverbial chord in many people as is evidenced by the number of YouTube hits it got. What were your thoughts when you sat down to write that particular song. Was it one of those WWWW (What Would Woody Write) moments?
I guess one could say the first “Occupy” protest was the occupation of the capital in Madison. The “Hang On Wisconsin” song, (and video), was really about that whole ordeal. The original video got about 8,000 views. I was also flattered as some musicians from Wisconsin were apparently covering/playing the song at some of the protests there. Later I wrote and recorded a song called “Occupy the Street” which was more directly inspired by the New York protests and the “Occupy” movement. I think those types of songs are just a part of what I write as a whole, mixed in with the story songs, the songs about love and struggle and conflict, and whatever else comes out. But sure, without a doubt the “social issue” songs wouldn’t be what they are without Woody, Springsteen, Dylan and such. When I wrote “Occupy the Street” however, it was a little different. The occupy movement had been going on for some time and I hadn’t heard any songs about it or seen any well known artist out there. I think at that time the only one who I saw was Tom Morello. So that song, in-spite of what I just said, was partly written as a kind of a “Lets wake the fuck up!” and “Where is everybody?” song. And yeah, perhaps more of a “What would Woody do?” moment. I’m sure there were plenty of local performers and artists already there.
I’ve also written tribute songs as part of what I do. A couple of years ago Nick Noble, who is a DJ on WICN in Worcester, MA asked me to write a song about a World War II hero named John Vincent Power. He was from Worcester and died heroically in battle. Sacrificing himself to save others. They were having a tribute ceremony for him in front of the Worcester City Hall building where there’s a statue of him. I got to perform the song at the ceremony and also at a reception afterwards. I met some truly inspiring people there. It was one of the highlights of not only my music career but also my life. I’ve also been involved with a film documentary and upcoming tribute concert for the legendary sound man Bill Hanley. I produced, performed and recorded two songs written by the film’s writer, John Kane. I’ll be bringing a full band to play at the tribute concert in Medford, MA on Oct. 19th, 2013.
You’ve had several of your songs placed on national TV shows. How did those placements come about? And did you like the way the songs were used? (I’ve always thought it must be very cool to have a song playing with some drama happening on screen).
A friend of mine named Chris Luard had told me about a publishing company he had been working with who had got him some song placements. I contacted them. At first the woman who owned the company told me that they weren’t looking for any new artists. But she asked me to send her one song. I sent her “Banjo Eyes” from my last CD All Sides. It’s sort of a Dixieland arranged song about my daughter, Hannah. She’s now 8, but when she was about 2, we were heading out of a pizza place on Long Island where I used to live and this older woman looked at Hannah, who has these gorgeous round big blue eyes, and said to me that in her day they called eyes like that “Banjo Eyes.” So, a song was born. It’s always a crowd favorite. So I sent her “Banjo Eyes” and she loved it and a professional relationship was born. Since then I’ve had a few songs on TV shows including the #1 show NCIS. That was pretty cool. Mostly the songs are used as background music to bar or restaurant scenes. Although one song, “Dreamcatcher” was used as background music to an argument scene on a soap opera. I don’t think too much about how they’re used, but it is cool to hear them on TV. Right now, as long as they’re not used for anything offensive, it helps pay the bills – a bit, at least.
I think overall I’m more concise. I think I’ve become more confident in finding my style and voice in some ways. At the same time that confidence is partly built on comfort, and that’s something I’d like to challenge. I think comfort can be good in some ways, but it’s also something as an artist I want to try to break out of, at least a little. I go back and forth though. For example, lately I’ve been listening to this band called Field Report. This guy Chris Porterfield, the leader and main songwriter of the group is a brilliant lyricist. The music and arrangements are also great. He’s talked in interviews about using instruments in new ways that are uncomfortable to you so that your hand memory will be challenged – so you’re not just picking up a guitar and strumming a G chord all the time. Which I am very guilty of. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot as I try to write new songs. Then again, the other day I was listening to Gram Parsons and bam, the next think I knew I wrote a very cool little country song that I’m pretty happy with.
You have produced many albums in your studio. What would you say are the most important attributes of a producer? What do you bring to each project?
In my role I’m usually also working as the recording engineer, mixer and studio musician(s) as well. So for me I start out with trying to get great sounds down to “tape” or into the computer. If your initial recording is solid, you’re more than 1/2 way there to a great sounding record. Other important things are making the artist feel at home and relaxed, speaking in-depth with the artist to find out if they have any suggestions or pre-conceived ideas, getting to know them if possible. Being spontaneous, listening, listening, listening. Like songwriting, going with techniques you know will work but also trying to stretch out and be creative. Take some chances. Listening to other producers that you admire. I think I bring good ears, a sense of meticulousness, creativity, care, experience and persistence to each project I work on. The best part is meeting and working with all these different artists you get to meet. I’m currently producing records for two artists. Jeremy Gilchrist is a captivating performer who has got this haunting, soaring voice that can give you chills. He’s influenced by artists like Pink Floyd, Dave Matthews and David Gray. The other is Susan Levine, herself a previous Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist Showcase performer. She’s been compared to Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Nancy Griffith. She’s a great writer and performer. I’m excited to work with both of them. I’m also in the middle of mixing a solo record for an artist named Rich Lanahan. Rich is a great country guitarist from Long Island, NY. I’m also mastering a record for a band called “Throwback Busking” from Long Island. When I have the time to really dig into a project I love it. Not as much as writing and performing, but it can be up there.
**The judging panel changes year to year. Many thanks to this year’s panel, Carter Smith, producer of Common Ground Community Concerts in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, Dennis O’Brien, talent buyer for the Newtown Theater in Newtown PA and Kathy Sands-Boehmer, booker for the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead MA now in its 43rd year of presenting great acoustic music.