This hard-working multi-instrumentalist is more than just a musician. She’s woman who performs in multiple bands, makes amazing photographs, and pursues her creative impulses with an elegance and casual calm that causes photographic artists like me to pause, re-hinge my jaws, and ask “how on earth did she do that?” I first met Serena when I became acquainted with Randall Swindell, the front-man of Ensphere, several years ago.
I photographed Ensphere at their rehearsal/performance space downtown and managed to nab some photographs at a few of their performances at venues down on 4th Avenue, the highlight of which was the record release performance at Plush for their album ‘Corpuscle.’ Serena and Ensphere alum Michael Ludovici share a creative and romantic connection, performing together with Ensphere and with a side project as a duo under the moniker Dyadic.
Randall Swindell has been on the music scene in Tucson for years. I was fortunate enough to meet him several years back when he was the front-man for Ensphere. The ambient/progressive rock team has been through a couple of iterations throughout the years and have recently begun performing again. Randall also began his own solo project, Swindy, in July 2016 after teaming up with drummer Mike Jenney(Alter der Ruine & Assemblage 23) and guitarist Jeff Sargent (vocalist for Industrial Band 51 PEG).
Randall is a consummate performer, having also worked with Flam Chen, a pyrotechnic theater troupe here in Tucson. Swindy has shared the bill with Orgy, Powerman 5000, Trapt, Otep, Dope, Combichrist, William Control, and many others. He is a hard-working performer, an incredibly kind and generous personality, and continues to book shows out for 2017 while working on an upcoming full-length record.
Check out Swindy’s acoustic set of “Reflection” at KFMA below and hit them up on Facebook here.
It’s still hard to put into words when I look back on these two. I met the husband and wife musical duo at a 4th Avenue bar in Tucson, Arizona back in 2005 or 2006. The two were playing music in the bar lounge. It was a week night and there was no cover charge, which is really the only reason my girlfriend and I went out that night; we were both going to university and didn’t have a tremendous amount of spare cash, so free music and cheap happy hour drinks were always a solid draw.
I really enjoyed the music. Amy and Derrick always had magnificent chemistry. They always seemed happy and in love, and that came through in their music. They’d take breaks in between songs and interact with the crowd, ask questions, take requests, and make jokes. It was impossible to walk away and not take some of that joy with you. As relatively broke as I was, I had to buy one of their albums, and it become a regular part of my musical rotation.
Years down the road I secured a job in the old copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. With the mining operation all but shut down, the town had long-ago become a mecca for artists, musicians, drop-outs and various other vagabonds. It’s unique color and history also make it a draw for tourists, which sustain a healthy hospitality industry – restaurants, bars, and hotels abound in Historic Bisbee. As it turned out, Amy and Derrick called Bisbee their home; they played multiple sets at various venues each and every week. My favorite times were Wednesday nights at The Copper Queen saloon where Amy would play solo, seated behind her keyboards, and take requests from anybody who happened to be there – funny, improvised, and ingenious performances. I quickly learned, when dropping by Doug Stanhope’s Super Bowl party, that the couple actually rented a house from the comedian and lived adjacent to the Stanhope compound.
In a small town, everybody seems connected to everybody else in one way or another.
I could never boast a close, personal relationship with Nowhere Man and Whiskey Girl, but I always enjoyed their music and their kind, generous energy.
Amy Ross suffered from lupus and kidney problems. After spending more than a week at the Tucson Medical Center, she passed away at the age of forty. She’d been suffering from a blood infection and died shortly before a scheduled surgery. Derrick shot himself in the head in his home in Bisbee with a firearm he purchased shortly after his wife’s death. Amy’s death was announced on her Facebook page:
“Hey kids! Bad news! I died this morning and Derrick didn’t know how to tell you. I love you all and hope you go out and be nice to someone. Funerals are a bore so hopefully I don’t have one. Give Derrick some alone space…He stinks at this stuff so leave him be for now. Thanks for all the kindness…Please spread it around.
We learned shortly thereafter that the message was penned by Doug Stanhope after receiving permission and password information from Derrick.
It’s hard to tell if anybody had any idea that Derrick would take his own life. He’d mentioned that he might kill himself while speaking on Stanhope’s podcast before Amy’s death, but such a public proclamation – and on a comedy podcast no less – didn’t seem to bend too many ears, especially when speaking with a man known for humor that’s regularly pretty dark.
The whole town, still absorbing the loss of Amy Ross, was in shock after learning about Derrick’s suicide. A gathering of locals descended upon The Grand Hotel Saloon in celebration of the lives of Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl. Local musicians sang songs, covered tunes from the deceased couple, and many glasses were raised. The bar was packed with glassy-eyed locals, and I like to think that it was a decent send-off.
Today’s photograph was taken in the green room at The Bisbee Royale, a short-lived night club that is now home to the local radio station.
I’ve known Jessica Fleet Smith for a few years now. I’d always see her and her husband at Mimosa Market, a small bodega up brewery gulch in Bisbee, Arizona – one of those places tucked just far enough away that few tourists ever find it. She’s a unique creature, light-hearted and quick to smile, and always seemed rather shy. That’s part of what makes her so intriguing, I think. Effortlessly beautiful but secure in her relationship, appearing shy but absolutely confident enough to stand behind the microphone and perform in front of a gathered crowd. She’s a very genuine person, reserved and gutsy at the same time.
Today’s image is an unconventional one. I shared it on Facebook a few years ago after she performed with a group called Chasing Light at the Sidepony Express music festival. The classroom, news publications, critiques, and art critics drill into photographers that if the image isn’t tack-sharp, it isn’t worth looking at. This convention of “the image must be technically perfect” robs the photographer of so many opportunities. I’m a fan of atmosphere, of motion-blur, of selective focus – of the certain kind of mood that can be established using these tools. I think there’s something emotional and ethereal about images like this, taken from the crowd, imperfect and out of focus, and let’s face it – I’m no longer in the classroom, no longer pressured to make somebody else’s idea of the perfect picture.
I think this image captures Jessica’s bravery (and her distance) quite well.
Out of the Blue, the group Jessica is currently working with, doesn’t stray from Bisbee very often. But if you’re taking a trip down to the copper town that once was – if the fake, theme-park atmosphere of Tombstone doesn’t distract you from heading further south – I’d be sure to look ’em up. You can follow Out of the Blue on Facebook here.
Lifted from their website, I couldn’t say it better myself:
‘Ghost Town Gospel is straight out of Oakland, blending traditional American folk influences with elements of punk, pop, and protest music driven to create a candid portrait of life in a broken America. Relentless touring musicians, you’ll be sure to find Ghost Town Gospel at a music hall, festival, dive bar or sidewalk near you.’
I had the pleasure of connecting with this group a few years ago, just before New Years Eve. One of their band-mates was an old college friend of mine, and they played a set at The Bisbee Grand Saloon before crawling up the mountain to unpack their gear at my hilltop home. A booze-fueled evening of living-room jams, huddles around laptops watching videos, telling stories and pouring beverages ensued, until that sun came up.There’s nothing like connecting with energetic creative folks, and there’s nothing like live music. If you ever get the chance, this is a group of people worth looking into.
Flip Cassidy and the Junkyard Gospel:
“Raw, rusty Americana folk-punk perfect for driving on long desert highways. Pairs well with whiskey.”
“The Reverend Flip Cassidy is a rusty man who plays rusty songs on rusty guitars. The Junkyard Gospel is a howling, raging acoustic sound bellowed forth with a voice like a rusty saw blade. His solo performances are known to be highly energetic and infectious, surprisingly loud, and have even caused rippling, whiskey-induced fervors in audiences, fellow performers and bartenders alike.”
Living in a celebrity-obsessed culture, I genuinely believe that a distinction must be made between pop stars and musicians. Pop stars are, in so many ways, packaged products, manufactured for mass-consumption. Pop stars are the Skittles® and soda of music. There’s certainly showmanship, charisma, and skill in the celebrity circuit, but the salt-of-the-earth musician is an entirely different animal. Traveling from town-to-town – drawing people together in parks, at farmers markets, saloons, and theaters – there’s an army of talented folk out there.
Musicians connect with people, hang out and have a beer after their set, tell you about the road, and occasionally crash on your couch. Pop stars have a celebrity that renders them inaccessible, walled-off by security, by entourage, by wealth. Going out to your local pub and watching people make music right before your eyes is a magical experience. Everyone should go out to see live music more often. These guys live out of their cars, on buses, in cheap motor lodges – they have stories, passion, and a measure of honesty and bravery.
Flip Cassidy blew through town and drew one helluva crowd. Not only is this wandering poet a musician, but an insanely talented photographer – naturally we had a lot to talk about. When he rolled through town a year later, I bought his old twelve-string guitar. It’s currently resting on the corner of my study. I highly recommend you take a look at his music and his artwork. This guy is always making something, and he produces really amazing work. Check out the Junk Yard Gospel Check out Flip Cassidy Photography
A ran across this character in Arizona several years ago at a saloon. He and his crew were all very gracious and made some great music. It almost sounds deceptive to apply the term “country” to these guys, but that’s what they insist they absolutely are, eschewing all of the confusing classifications of music in this modern age. I can dig that. But this isn’t the kind of country you might imagine, what with pop country, americana, and other folk sub-genres . JP Harris has an edge, and I think it’s pretty apparent when you look at him.
A while after I met him, I was foolishly angered when one of my Facebook photographs – today’s photograph, in fact – wound up in an article without my permission. I was pretty hot-headed back then and didn’t react kindly, but I’m hoping there isn’t too much love lost (but hey, it’s difficult to tell). It’s hard to accept how little currency a photograph carries these days, but in a world where everybody is in the picture-making business – in a world where everybody has a camera in their pocket, on their phone – it’s just one of those things.
In the final analysis, “Facebook” means “free to all.” I don’t have to like it – just as musicians, I’m sure, have to suck it up when dealing with digital distribution and file sharing – but I guess that only means that I have to continue to adapt and try to find new ways of building value in the images I make.
JP Harris was born only a couple of weeks after me, in the year of our lord 1993. According to the bio I found on his website, “he left home on foot at the age of 14, traveling via thumb and freight train, living the next 4 years mostly from a backpack, a tarp, a bedroll. Eventually landing in the northeast, he worked as a farm laborer, equipment operator, lumberjack, luthier, and carpenter.”
It ain’t about the age of the model – it’s all about the mileage. And JP Harris has lived at least a couple of lifetimes in his thirty-four years.
His first all-original album, “I’ll Keep Calling,” won “Best Country Album of 2012” in the Nashville Scene. He won the same honor at the Independent Music Awards, landed a cameo on NPR’s ‘American Routes,’ and collected accolades in various print publications. Rolling Stone has named JP Harris one of 2014’s “Country Tours Not To Miss,” as well as one of “21 Must-See Country Acts at SXSW 2015.”
There really isn’t much that I have to say about All Souls. For anybody who has lived in Southern Arizona, you already know about it. For everybody else, the All Souls Procession is a Tucson tradition that culminates in a community-wide procession through the downtown area, ending with a grand finale of pyrotechnic theater, live music, and acrobatics. The event first began in 1990 by a local artist, Susan Kay Johnson, who wished to express her sadness over the loss of her father; she wanted to ritualize her grief and create an event, much like Dia de los Muertos, to honor the dead.
Tens of thousands participate every year. People start to gather along 4th and 6th avenues before sun-down, arriving in costume, tailgating and helping paint each other’s faces in a fashion reminiscent of Day of the Dead. Jugglers and street performers, musicians and stilt-walkers weave through the throngs of people. Participants are encouraged to write notes to the dead on pieces of paper and deposit them into a giant urn that leads the procession – once the urn reaches the end of the procession, it is elevated above the crowd and set ablaze.
I have never seen a not-for-profit, grass-roots community event like this anywhere else. It’s an amazing thing to see.
Living in Tucson for a majority of the past fifteen years, I saw a lot of bands come and go. Many of my college buddies had garage bands and a few of them had it in them to hit the downtown music scene. Most of them have scattered to the wind these past few years as degrees were earned, families begun and careers established. There are some,though, who have had some serious staying power here in Arizona, and Carlos Arzate is one of them.
Carlos Arzate is a singer-songwriter, native to Tucson, whose songs draw inspiration from his personal life growing up in the Sonoran Desert. I believe I read an article in The Tucson Weekly that described his style as “Sonoran Soul.” It’s got a ring to it, but it implies a softness that, while present in many of his songs, doesn’t communicate the dynamism of his work.
Arzate is just as expressive and kind in person as he is on stage, and he’s deeply anchored in the music scene, collaborating with other prominent musicians. I have enjoyed every performance and would absolutely recommend checking out Carlos Arzate & The Kind Souls. The songs tell a story, communicate an emotion and paint atmospheric pictures.
This is one of my favorites, written as a first person narrative of a laborer who chooses to risk the dangerous journey across the desert to the United States in search of a better life.
Lifted from his website, Logan Phillips explains what he’s all about in words more eloquent than I could conjure. Suffice it to say, being in the room while this man speaks is an experience; I have never been moved by spoken word or poetry, ever in my life, until I met this man. I’ve been moved to tears by Steinbeck and been affected by Virgil’s “Aeneid,” had my mind twisted and perplexed by Hume, questioned my reality because of Descartes and questioned my morality because of Kant, but I had never been struck, emotionally, by spoken word poetry. I had never seen an artist so skillfully weave his stories.
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“Poetry is holding the center, not hiding in the margins: we construct our world through words. Poetry is the art of putting into words all that which is otherwise unsayable, of constructing other ways of knowing.
No matter where I’m working––the DJ booth, the classroom, the art studio, the stage––I’m creating a poem; stringing together disparate elements to say something new, creating connections in collaboration with everyone in the room––
E.E. Cummings said he was ‘overly fond of that precision which creates movement.’ Poetry is word precision, poetry moves the world forward.”
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A lot of people immediately disregard poetry as something that just isn’t for them. The word itself, ‘poetry,’ elicits the trauma of under-enthusiastic English teachers and classmates murmuring, passionless, one after the other, lines of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost in sterile high school classrooms. Many of us have a negative association with all kinds of art specifically because they were taught so poorly. Logan’s mission is to illustrate that poetry can be meaningful and moving, that it’s accessible and culturally significant. He participates in education programs and seeks to inspire creative passion in our youth, which is no small task.
I’ve enjoyed sitting-in during several of his readings, and encourage you to take a look at his work. You can learn more about him at his own website here.