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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation With Robert Smith of Blue Stone, Jun. 2006
A Conversation With Michael Manring, Apr. 2006
A Conversation With John Michael Zorko, Feb. 2006
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation With John Michael Zorko
February 2006
Multi-instrumentalist/composer/producer John Michael Zorko's e-mail "signature" says it all: "Falling You - exploring the beauty of voice and sound". The explorations on Touch, Falling You's latest release, are clearly a success on many levels: listeners have responded by making Touch the best selling ambient album on Magnatune; the industry has responded with voting Touch the Best Vocal Album (NAR 2005). And John is planning even bigger things for Human, the record he is currently completing!

Falling You is, in John's words, a "collaborative project... each piece is equal parts me and the vocalist". And he's chosen his collaborators well. The vocalist/collaborator/magicians (more on this later) on Touch include Dru Allen, Sara Ayers, Jennifer McPeak, Victoria Lloyd, Erica Mulkey (Erica also plays cello on one track) and Aimee Page. Electronic artist, Robert Rich did the outstanding mastering for the album -- if you're like me and you like great sound, you'll love Touch. And lastly, though I rarely notice an album's packaging, I was immediately struck by the dark beauty of Touch's artwork. The photography by Elisa Lazo de Valdez and the graphic design by Michael Riddick subtly set the stage to explore "the beauty of voice and sound."

To learn more about John and Falling You, please visit

John Michael Zorko
"Falling You is very much a collaborative project..." - John Michael Zorko
Jamie: With six strong, distinctive vocalists was it a challenge, from a production perspective, to create an album as unified as Touch?
John: Yes, it was at first, but it gets easier as I do it. Some of the vocalists sound better with different production techniques applied, and sometimes the music itself suggests a different way of handling the vocals, and sometimes I just want to try something different and see what happens. A lot of it is also an educational experience for me, insofar as not just having a wide palette of sonic hues and a set of software and hardware tools, but knowing how to use the tool in a given context, and what works well with the sonics. There is a lot of tweaking of parameters once a piece is initially recorded, which translates to a lot of time spent in front of the Mac, making a lot of subtle, small adjustments here and there. One of the coolest things about doing music in this way is that every piece is a learning experience, every song represents some new thing (or set of things) that I did, some new idea that the magician involved and I had, some new way of looking at the music.
Jamie: Maybe we could talk about how your approach to production changes according to the song and/or vocalist by looking at a couple specific tracks. Two pieces that might be interesting to compare are "the light between" and "reading the leaves (by moonlight)". Both are top-notch compositions that, to my ears, frame the vocal performances in very different ways. Could you walk through the similarities and differences in terms of production between these two pieces?
John: Sure ... and it's interesting that you picked these two, as they are in many ways so opposite one another. "the light between us" is easily the most active piece on Touch, while "reading the leaves" is likely the most ambient piece, and the other pieces in a lot of ways occupy spaces somewhere in the spectrum defined by these two endpoints.

Firstly, I like to give the magician a lot of room, so I almost always let them come up with lyrics and vocal melodies themselves. I want them to be in the music, not on top of it, so I like to give them a piece in a somewhat nascent state, let them do their magic, and alter/add a bit more to the piece with ideas I had while listening to what they did. In these ways the production techniques are the same, as I really do like to involve the people I'm fortunate enough to work with.

How/where the techniques differ, however, is based on a lot of things. A lot of it is just plain mood e.g. if I'm feeling moodier (than usual, anyway ) it usually comes out in the music e.g. slower, darker, maybe a bit more dissonant. Often I'm just inspired by the world around me and how we humans affect (and are affected) by it. A full or crescent moon on a clear night will often inspire me (as it did with "reading the leaves"), as will a particularly potent part of the human condition ("the light between us"), and all of this manifests itself in the music at composition as well as production time, and I try to choose processing such that it satisfies some longing that the song seems to have. For "reading the leaves", the song wanted to be an ambient piece, so the vocals are more in the background and are processed in weird ways, while "the light between us" had a certain urgency to it that I wanted to keep. Also, the character of the magician's voice itself plays a part assuredly, though I try not to pigeonhole certain effects-chains with certain people.
"...I really do like to involve the people I'm fortunate enough to work with."

- John Michael Zorko
Jamie: I was just going to ask you about the amount of freedom you give the vocalists!

I'm particularly impressed by your use of what I consider counterpoint in your arrangements. For instance, in "something about eve", you create an evolving atmosphere and then punctuate it with a percussive, arrhythmic sound that contrasts the dominant texture. Similarly in "less likely to believe" you use a number of arrhythmic, electronic sounds which contrast the main mood/groove. And you make it sound totally natural! The challenge, I would imagine, is to not step on the vocalist's musical toes when introducing secondary elements. Do you generally add counterpoint sound design after recording the vocals? Or do the vocalists prefer to sing to a "finished" track?
John: Dig, one of my all-time favorite pieces of music is Alan Lamb's Primal Image, which came out in the mid/late 90s I think on the Australian Dorobo label. It's music made by placing small microphones on telegraph wires and recording the sounds they make as the elements have their way with them. It moved me beyond words, and I was struck by how incredibly beautiful -- ranging from serene to violent -- these sounds are. Richard Lerman also made an album called Within Earshot (I think) that used similar techniques (small contact mics) to record the sounds of everyday objects -- sounds that are often to faint or subtle for us to hear or notice. I've also had this dream of building a dish-array radio telescope in my backyard for a while, so I can tune in to the sounds of the cosmos. There are whole other worlds of sound all around us!

To address your question, though (finally ), I'm a real big fan of texture as well as contrast, which I often think as complementary e.g. some of the sonic treatments you speak of actually point out the beauty of the vocal, while the beauty of the vocal often points out the interesting textures just underneath it. I definitely think that there is a certain beauty in noise and randomness, though it is definitely a balancing act. I often put those in before recording the vocals, but sometimes change them afterwards, depending on what the magician contributed. They may have thought of this brilliant chorus where I wouldn't have imagined one, so I try to be respectful of that. Sometimes, though, I put them in afterwards ... after all, they may have thought of this brilliant chorus where I wouldn't have imagined one, so I want to be respectful of that :-)

Regarding the preferences of the vocalists, some of them like to be involved earlier, while some of them like a more incubated piece to work with. I'm generally cool with either approach, so I try to give them pieces that are developed enough for them, while leaving room for them to do their magic and me to embellish here and there if the song seems to want it.
"There are whole other worlds of sound all around us!"

- John Michael Zorko
Jamie: I have a sense that from your mention of magic and your love of unstructured sound that mystery and chaos play a role in how you conceive of music. Touch's artistic context would seem to demand a high degree of sensitivity and understanding from the artists that you collaborate with. Was it a challenge relating your aesthetic to the vocalist/magicians? And secondly, what did you learn from this collaborative process?
John Falling You is very much a collaborative project -- though the vocalists rotate and the pool changes, each piece is equal parts me and the vocalist (I often call them magicians, because in my view they make magic). So, while I had a concept for the album, those ideas were further developed by the people I worked with, by virtue of their lyrics and vocals, so the aesthetic really is a result of everyone involved. Regarding sensitivity and understanding, these styles of music (electronic/ambient/ethereal/new-age/trip-hop) often draw people with those qualities, not to mention that I chose many of the vocalists because I was familiar with (and a fan of) a lot of their work and thought it would mesh well with mine.

I always learn something from collaborating :-) Many of the lessons are common to musicians in other bands e.g. participate while being respectful to others, give people room to be themselves, and remember it's all about the music, that being what we make together. Many of the vocalists make music with others or are in other projects, not to mention live all over the country (and sometimes in other countries) so some of the lessons had to do with patience, while others had to do with making promises to yourself and keeping to them. For instance, Touch was released on Magnatune more than 5 years after the first Falling You record, and that was basically waaaaay too long. I had to make a promise to myself that I wouldn't let that feature-creep-postpone-release happen again, that I would believe in and trust myself a bit more, so I've had to learn to walk the line between giving people a lot of room (spatially and temporally) and making sure that the album is finished by such-and-such a date. This lesson was one of the more difficult ones, but it's worth it :-)
"...I've had to learn to walk the line between giving people a lot of room (spatially and temporally) and making sure that the album is finished by such-and-such a date."

- John Michael Zorko
Jamie: I'd definitely say it's worth it! And I absolutely hear you on "making promises to yourself and keeping to them" -- I'm just terrible at hitting release dates on my own music...

With the singers living all over the country exactly how did you co-ordinate the recording of Touch? Were you sending files back and forth via the Internet? Getting together for sessions at your studio?
John: Yes, we do use the internet quite a lot -- I'll post an mp3 of a piece of music I'm working on to a website I control, then email the vocalist I've in mind to see if it's something that they can see themselves working with. If so, then they download the mp3, put it on their iPod, and work with it. When they're ready to record, I either bring them to me in San Francisco, or go to them wherever (have PowerBook, MOTU firewire interface and decent mic, will travel!), and we get together, laugh and catch up (I'm privileged to be good friends with these people), then get to work and record. Occasionally, if they're set up for it, they'll record their vocals themselves and send me a CDR with the files, but I prefer the earlier method (as I get to see and interface with them).

Afterwards, I'll give them a rough mix, then work on it and post mp3s of the piece as it's progressing, to get their feedback.
Jamie: Today an artist or label has more possibilities to market and sell a record than ever before. From traditional avenues such as radio, print and live music to newer mediums such as the net, satellite and ring tones. Looking at the Falling You website I can see you've pursued many different ways to let listeners sample and purchase your music. One of the more interesting outlets you've chosen is Magnatune. Touch, in its entirety, can be streamed from the Magnatune site, giving listeners what I feel is a fantastic opportunity to listen before they purchase. How do you feel allowing for this degree of openness has affected both the marketing of and sales for Touch?
John: Yes, these are interesting times we live in, but I think that all times are interesting times -- the only constant is change, and things are always changing. It's not always comfortable, but I vastly prefer a changing world to a stagnant one. I'm pretty happy with the reception that Touch has had, but I'm going to make the next Falling You album even bigger. There is a whole world out there, full of experiences, full of people who may really like what we do.

Magnatune has been great -- I really believe in what they (and the Creative Commons folks) are trying to do. From a marketing perspective, more people can hear our music before buying, and I tend to think that makes for an appreciative fan. From a licensing perspective, Magnatune has helped our music appear in independent films, art/photography exhibits, even commercial endeavors. They are super-cool people (I've lunched with them a few times), they are honest and pay royalties regularly, they believe in Falling You, and it's reciprocated :-) From a sales perspective, Touch is one of their most popular titles, and they're growing, so I think their model has legs :-)
"I'm pretty happy with the reception that Touch has had, but I'm going to make the next Falling You album even bigger."

- John Michael Zorko
Jamie: HaHaHa -- that's great! : )

I've always been drawn to records that display excellence in sound quality. For me, the quality of sound directly impacts my response to a record -- particularly on an emotional level. Touch has, what I consider, first-rate sound quality -- truly beautiful engineering! Could you talk about how you get such great sound? Any tips you could pass along?
John: Wow, thanks for the compliments :-) A lot of credit I think goes to the person doing the mastering, Robert Rich in this case. I get the sound as close to perfect as I can, but having another set of ears -- without the preconceptions that I may have and able to hear the record as a listener and not a producer -- I think really helps. He plays the music on about a bazillion different monitors, while I play it on my home monitors, in my car, on my iPod. Plus, he can tell me "John, I think it would be better if you mixed this again, and this time be careful of X and Y" and I'll listen :-)

That being said, I do work really hard on getting things to sound the best that I can. Lots of careful use of EQ, lots of attention aimed at getting the best source recording I can, lots of attention to effects, and if a particular treatment adds to the piece or not. Adding noise/abstract elements sometimes puts additional demands on the engineering of the piece, because some noise treatments work against the other tracks/processing. I dunno -- I just do the best that I can, and trust others to give me their honest input.
Jamie: So what's up next for Falling You? Any new recordings? Upcoming gigs?
John: We've done all of the recording for the next album, which we're calling Human, and will release it through Magnatune probably by March/April (and since Magnatune is not exclusive, perhaps others by June/July). I just need to tweak some things, fix some small issues with certain tracks, then get it mastered. We'll likely start gigging again around then :-)
Jamie: That's fantastic -- can't wait to hear the new material! And if at all possible, please bring your show to Toronto. Best of luck in the future and please stay in touch!
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