Saturday, June 27, 2015

My first engineer and producer - Kristina Stykos

CD cover photo by John Churchman
What feels like a million years ago, but was in fact 2005, I had this crazy idea to record a CD of stories. I had no idea how to do it and wanted to do it right. I asked a few friends, some of whom said: 'do it yourself, you can do that', but I wanted to set the bar high and have no regrets about what I put out as my first foray into the retail world of CDs – while it lasts!

A friend of mine, Rick Barrows told me about Kristina Stykos who going digital and was a recording engineer. I got in contact with her and the rest, as they say, is history. My first CD is still one of my favourites. Kristina did a brilliant job. Recently Kristina released her own fifth, to my knowledge, CD called Horse Thief. I had Ms. Stykos' first CD, In the Earth's Fading Light (2005) and could not quite get into it. I saw and heard a great songwriter and performer, but for me, there was something missing that I could not put my finger on. Whatever it was, is here in bucketfuls on Horse Thief.

Kristina's songwriting skills, both musically and lyrically are top notch. Her word choices are flawless. The sadness in some of the songs (some heart wrenching) is deep, her lyrics are powerful, have meaning and grit behind them. There is humour too. And bounce! I listen to so much music and these days it is hard to find a great beat and tune, catchy as all heck and good lyrics. It seems that either the words are, quite bluntly, shite and the music is good, or the other way around, or it's all crap. But not here. Oh, no, not here. I grew up listening to master song writers from Paul Simon to Elvis Costello, and Stykos hits the mark on Horse Thief, totally!

The album opens with the crackingly good title track resplendent with slide guitar, passionate fiddle and thumping bass and drums, and of course Kristina's voice. I have to say something about her voice. It is all hers. Some voices out there in the ether sound the same as many others, and but a few stand out. As you wind through the songs on Horse Thief you will hear slight traces of Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and a hint of Marianne Faithful, but it is all Ms. Stykos. Her voice is like a V12 engine, just idling, or cruising along some boardwalk with the wind blowing in your hair. I have not seen Kristina playing live, but will try to, as I want to hear her belt out some song and see what that V12 voice can do!

Photos of Kristina Stykos by Jack Rowell

The second track keeps up the high standard of work (which flows with ease through the whole album) and the music here is complimented with keyboards which I wish there was a little more of. But that's just me – I love the sound Kristina uses on the song and in You'll Never Love Me. The third song, Me, Myself, Moi could have seemed a little out of place, but it is perfectly at home on Horse Thief. For some reason, with no reason, this is one of my favourite tracks. The lyrics are very clever in an unpretentious way. Although a tradition approach to a sort of patter song in it's feel, it is a very topical song with references to our modern digital world:
"I need a 12 step, two step /Quarter sawn fix /Or a savvy zen seduction /I need clickable buttons /And a 1-5 list of simple tips /And how-to instructions." Love it! These are very different lyrics to It's Over where Kristina sings:
"...I threw down my stars /and shouted at the night" - powerful stuff. As If Tears Could Say is one of the most beautiful songs I have heard.

The album jogs along taking you through country, city, and rural Vermont life. This is a great album. Unpretentious, clever, witty, intelligent. Kristina has great insight. The music, played by Stykos (acoustic guitar, banjo, bass, mandola, mandolin and keyboards as well as vocals) is backed up by some great musicians: Bow Thayer, Patrick Ross (the brilliant fiddle in Horse Thief), Alex Abraham, Neal Massa, Steve Mayone, backing vocals on a couple of tracks by Nikki Matheson, and drummers Matt Musty and Jeff Berlin.

The packaging is a treat. I loved album covers when we all used to buy vinyl and some LPs I only bought because of the covers. This might have been one of those albums. The photography throughout the tri-gate digipack and booklet (yes, there is a booklet inside with all the lyrics and players so you can read along!) is stunning and, I think, captures all of Kristina.

I would love to hear an album of Stykos' with more work like the title track. Story songs of floods, old timers, bank robberies, or maple syrup thieves maybe! This album is about love, betrayal and loss, and redemption and done in such a way it is uplifting. I did not want the album to end and when there were some longer pauses after some of the tracks I hoped for more and got it. The 13 titles ends with an instrumental called Remembering and is the perfect ending on a perfect album, like a sigh in the night.

Package designed by Darryl Garland/

Kristina Stykos is a musician and recording engineer/producer. Her websites are:-
For her music:
and her studio, Pepperbox Studios, which is totally off the grid:
And you can buy her music at

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What Are You Packing?

It's summer! There is a lot of traveling, visiting places, staying with family, going on vacation, for a lot of people. But not me. Nor many other performers who work with the library systems, helping children retain their reading level, or raise their reading level over the summer months. But traveling means packing whether it's for holidays or performances.

Steve Blunt at Whipple Hall
Photo by Simon Brooks June 2015
Today (24th June, 2015), I saw Steve Blunt performing for my local library at Whipple Hall in New London, New Hampshire (USA). Being colleagues and friends, we had planned for an ice cream after his show, so I helped, with the library staff, get his gear out of the hall and curbside. He had everything but the kitchen sink, so he said. And it certainly looked like it! The back of his car was FULL! This is the start of the Summer Reading Program Season, so, Steve told me, he had everything - Just In Case! Speakers, PA, brass instruments, drums, shakers, djembes, guitar, uke, a microphone or two, a few harmonicas, books, CDs - all sorts of stuff. As he was packing up his kit, it made me think of what I pack.

There is this new phase going round for something as old as pockets! EDC. No, it's not medical. Well, for some it might be! EveryDay Carry. Some storyteller I know carry nothing but the stories in their heads. Some have recorders, like Papa Joe. Others, like Odds Bodkin might be carrying around a harp, and guitar. EDC is what we carry, apparently, everyday. Things which are indispensable, or not, yet things we believe we absolutely need. Most teens these days have their keys and phone and maybe a ten dollar bill which they travel with. Parents have band-aids and boo-boo cream, and wipes or tissues, spare cash and credit cards, and maybe a Leatherman in case of loose teeth. I do! Bikers might have sunglasses, and gloves, toothpicks and combs to get bugs from their beards and teeth! Well, the guys anyway!

Summer, for me, requires a different kit than in winter, simply because of the amount of travel and work I am doing. So, what am I packing this summer?

I have my apple crate which contains:
  • My throne (old, and loved drum stool)
  • Duct tape and gaffer tape (always handy)
  • String (to tie my backdrop to a tree or post, if needed outdoors)
  • A basket for fliers and bookmarks
  • Spare fliers
  • CDs
  • Pens and mostly pencils for the newsletter sign-up
  • Newsletter sign-up sheet
  • My small bag of 'stuff' - mini props
  • Sometimes my singing bowl
  • My notebook of stories (contains lists of what I have told and where, as well as an incomplete list of the stories I tell)
  • My steel water bottle and sometimes an extra
I have my backdrop and its stand
My bodhrán and a number of tippers or sticks
My bull roarer and a couple of finger shakers
A Swiss Army knife (to cut the string, tighten screws on stands and such)

Most often in the summer I also carry my:
  • Powered speaker/PA
  • Speaker stand
  • My mic and a spare
  • A microphone stand
  • Cables, including a spare
  • Spare batteries
  • Spare shirt and undershirt, spare socks and spare sneakers (in the summer, nothing is better, after a couple of hard working gigs, than to slip on a new, cool and dry pair of socks and shoes!)
  • And a CLiF banner!
And everything fits in my trunk/boot, apart from the backdrop which is too long, so sits in the back!

I usually have a point and shoot camera with me in case I see something cool to photograph on the way, if I have time, or on the way between two gigs or on the way back home! Oh, and the camera is there if I remember to ask someone to take photos of me working my trade for possible future website shots!

Sometimes I have my kids with me. Sometimes I don't I don't

So what do are YOU packing this summer?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Great children's literature, for adults (summer reading, anyone?)

Kid's cover, UK
I have always read children's books, from picture books to chapter books and juvenile fiction and, occasionally, juvie non-fiction. From when I was a kid, through my teens, to my 20's, you get the idea! When the first Harry Potter book came out I bought a copy from the U.K. where I first came across it. It had a different cover on it from the kid's version. The children's book of The Philosopher's Stone, had a children's cover (see left) but so many adults were reading it in Britain that the publishers put out a copy of the book, sans illustrations and with an adult looking cover on it (see below). I loved the story (and the black & white photo of the steam train which makes me think of the original Ladykillers movie). Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was new and exciting, and well told and well written. Better written, I thought, than some adult books I had recently read.

Adult's cover, UK
A number of years ago, I discovered a writer called Leon Garfield. It was ironic that I discovered this English writer only after I had moved to the United States and already had my own children! How did I miss this? Apparently his first book, Jack Holburn (1964), was written for adults but the publishers asked him to re-write it for a younger audience, which he did. His second novel for young readers, released in 1966, won the Guardian Prize.  I first read his fifth book, Black Jack (1968). After reading this story of a hung murderer who forces a young boy to help him (his life was saved by a pipe the villain had inserted down his own throat prior to his hanging), I read his third novel, Smith (1967) and got hold of other books of Garfield's to read.

Although it's a while since I read the aforementioned books, I have recently re-read Smith (Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, winner of the Phoenix Award, and a Carnegie Honor Book), finishing the book last night after two sittings, and read John Diamond (1980) for the first time last week. If you or your teens are looking for a bloody good read this summer, then I ask that you give Leon Garfield a try. Some libraries still have his books, they were re-issued, very wisely, by Sunburst Books, Farrar, Straus, Giroux in 2000, and on looking around the web, it appears they were re-re-released in 2013 by New York Review Children's Collection.

Cover by Brett Helquist, 2000
Garfield's writing is wonderful. The language he uses in Black Jack is deliciously rich. I don't often, or like to call writers storytellers, but really Garfield is. The choice of his words creates an atmosphere for the story to hang in, much the same way a set designer will create a scene for a play or movie; Garfield's words allow your mind to see what he saw when writing. His descriptions taste like honey as they move over your tongue. His dialogue is biting, witty, pithy, caring, loving - depending on who is speaking. The pacing of his books is incredible. Relentless, action-packed, but never rushed. You are given rests, breathers where you can relax and take in what happened before Garfield leads you willingly on to the next part of the adventure. You begin to love even the darkest of characters as he shows their depth and detail. His characters are not two dimensional  so often found in modern fiction, but characters, who, within the first few pages, grab. You want to understand and see these people, who you want to meet to get to know better long after the book is over. Some of the characters you least expect, or maybe you do really, show an unexpected side which shocks you!

Smith is a 12 year old pick pocket, who sees his last victim murdered immediately after he has lifted, not money, but a document. Smith cannot read, and being part of the lower life of London, finds it hard to trust anyone to read it for him so as to know it's value. Soon he finds that he is being hunted down for the document, and his life is in danger. The sisters who he lives with are seamstresses trying to survive on what they make. Smith's best friend is a highwayman who knew and learned from the infamous Dick Turpin. But everyone he has contact with is put in danger.

If you are looking for a book to read over the summer for yourself or your teenager, or something to read together, do yourself a favour and grab one of Garfield's books. Try Smith, or Black Jack to start with, and see if, like me, you cannot put his books down, and find yourself reaching for another! Tonight I will begin Jack Holburn. It looks like there might be pirates in this one!
Can't wait!