Phone interview conducted by Kelsey
Marvin, a junior Music Business major at Indiana State
University, for a course project exploring living composers and
their effect on music in society today. February 2, 2013.
K: Hi, Joe, this is Kelsey Marvin from Indiana
J: Thank you for calling.
K: No, thank you! I really appreciate
J: Before you start can I ask
you a couple questions?
K: Yeah, absolutely. Please do!
J: So, you’re an undergraduate?
K: Yes, I am a junior music business
J: Ok! So this is for…what class again?
K: It is our music history course and we are in the
second semester so we are exploring, not necessarily contemporary
music, but for this particular project we are interviewing
J: Does everyone in your class have to interview
someone or is everyone doing a different project?
K: Yes, we all chose a different composer, and it
could be any style of music. I know one student was wanting
to do John Cage, and another Eric Whitacre. So, I was
searching the internet for living composers when I came across your
webpage. I became instantly fascinated by your music, and was
hoping I could get in touch to interview you!
J: Ok! I was just curious how you arrived to this
project. I am happy to interview for you, I don’t know how
interesting I am, but am happy to do this for you, so, fire
K: Great. So we will just go off the
questions I sent you, then if there are any follow up questions, we
can stray from the list if we need to.
Now, on your website, I did a little research on
you outside your website, but I was just wondering if you could
give me a little musical background on yourself, as well as how and
when you decided to start composing.
J: Um, well, let’s see. I was a pianist when I was
younger I took piano lessons. I probably was 9 years old when
I started. You know, typical American suburban musical
experience, I did music lessons, then when I got into high school I
started getting into rock, and played guitar. Then I started
getting curious about jazz, and when it came time for me to go to
college I decided to go to Berkelee College of Music in Boston, and
I really wasn’t happy there with the program, so I transferred to
the University of Connecticut where I ended up graduating. I
did a little bit of everything. I was kind of a Jack of all
trades, master of none, I really don’t feel like I was super
talented as a performer or writer or anything like that, I just
loved music. I tried to be a jazz improviser for a while, I wrote
songs, and then right around the time I graduated I started to
focus more on traditional, classical style composition, and I
did that for many years. I wrote choral pieces, and I tried
to write in a real classical style, with sonata form and fugues and
all that. But my growing up was listing to rock and house
music, and music with samples. When I was doing the classical
music, it wasn’t expressing everything I heard in my head, you
know, it was using just instruments, so at some point, I got some
computer software and I started messing around with samples that I
found. Sometimes I would lift sections I found off of
classical records I found. You know, just playing with them,
and something clicked at some point where I got the idea to put my
own piano music, where I put these, I call them sound collages, in
the sound collage. With the found sounds and the samples I
was playing with, I hit on a style, and just kind of went from
there. So it was a lot of experimentation to find a style
that was comfortable for me to express myself in.
K: So how do you choose the sound samples and vocal
tracks that you use with the speaking? Do you have something
in mind when you go to look for them, do you create them yourself?
What’s the process because it’s interesting because it is not
something conventional, to not use vocal tracks that aren’t
singing, it is just voices.
J: For the voices, it started out with me finding
little snippets from anything, radio interviews or movies, anything
I could find. It went on for me to look for specific things,
so toward the later recordings I would ask friends or specific
people to read texts for me. I think the common thing about the
voices is that I think about all my pieces as recorded dreams,
that’s what I usually describe them as. So I like that kind
of soft-spoken, almost hypnotic sound to it. It is more about
the tone of the voice sometimes to me, even over what they are
actually saying. I don’t think that the voices are really, I
don’t think there’s any real meaning. Like people try to find out
what the song means or the piece means. It’s not really about
a narrative meaning, just getting any kind of word or phrase that
will get your mind to a certain place. It’s kind of hard to
explain, I just know it when I hear it.
K: With your music would you say that you
intentionally break boundaries? I know you said that you started
out in the “classical style”, but do you intentionally further your
boundaries and try to break them and see how much farther you can
go against the grain, or do you just do what you feel compelled to
do, and however it turns out is how it sounds?
J: It’s not really intentionally trying to be
different, or trying to push people’s buttons because I don’t think
my music is, it’s experimental, but it’s not provocative really. It
uses tonal harmony; it’s almost easy to listen to. There is a
lot of music that is experimental that is atonal and jarring and
intentionally wants to disturb you a little bit. I don’t
think of myself as cutting edge, in your face that way. For
me it’s when you hit on a style, how deeply you can go into it.
Have you listened to Phillip Glass at all?
K: Yes, a little bit.
J: So if you listen to any Phillip Glass, even his
early stuff (he’s had a long career), but you know it’s him from
the first five seconds of the music. Even though it isn’t
always exactly the same- his style has developed- but he has taken
this one little idea and just gone as deeply as he could into it,
and made this whole world just out of this one style. It has
always been an inspiration for me to just see how far I can go into
this one approach without getting boring. Just see how many
places I can go with this one thing.
K: Yeah, and you mentioned that your music, you
described it as kind of like a dream. Is that consistent with all
the projects, albums, and CDs you’ve produced? Or is that
something that you’ve newly developed and are sticking with? Do you
have different themes for each project? I know you’ve been
working on the
Dolls Come To Life project. Does that coincide with
the dream theory in your music or is that totally
J: I think it’s all the same. At this point I
have 12 CDs and I’ve been doing this for 6 or 7 years. I’m at
the point now where it isn’t even intentional. I kind of just
feel what I am doing. I think if I stopped to think about it,
I don’t see the new album to be anything dramatically different
from the first one as far as the dream approach goes. And it
can be more than just dreams, I’m interest in memory, subconscious,
anything that is fleeting through your mind but you can’t get a
K: Do you use your own dreams as a reference point?
Do you have a certain dream and realize that you need to compose a
song about it and describe how it made you feel or emotionally how
it affected you?
J: Actually no. That’s an interesting
question because I’m not really targeted that way. Some
people do a really good job of pre-sketching, of getting an idea,
say they want to write a piece about earthquakes or birds or a
dream they had, and they just put it together. Even other types of
artists, like painters or novelists, they say "I’m going to do this
this and this" and they bang it out. For me it's more a
process of discovery. I get a small kernel of an idea that
sounds evocative to me, and I just put it up there, kind of like on
a canvas. I see what it suggests to me and I just follow
it. So the material suggests where it goes rather than me
imposing a direction on it.
K: So in that respect do you hope the listeners
will create their own message and their own connection with the
J: Yes exactly. I’m sure that I lead it in my own
way in the choices that I make, but I hope not to make it too
specific that their imagination can’t kick in and finish it off in
K: So in a sense it’s almost like modern art, where
if you go to an art museum, and when they look at an obscure piece
of art, and each person that sees it can walk away from it with an
entirely different impression. That’s kind of the beauty in it,
right that the music changes to each ear and adapts to their own
J: Yes I agree. There might be a slight
difference depending on what artist you are talking about. I think
there is some music out there that I think is very abstract.
So abstract that the listener is almost starting from zero.
They have to build up the entire meaning for themselves, whereas I
think I help people along a little more with the voices and the
tone of the music. I think it’s about halfway there. If you
think of some really avant-garde music, often when I listen to
really experimental music, there is no reference point, it’s like
“where am I?” You’re kind of in the dark almost. Mine at
least starts you off in some direction.
K: Do you have specific composers or people in your
life that influence your music?
J: Well I listened to a lot of Philip Glass when I
was a teenager and in college. I like him. I like Michael
Nyman. Like I said, I listened to a lot of rock music growing
up. I liked Pink Floyd all that stuff, Peter Gabriel.
More avant-garde or experimental rock. If you’ve read
anything I’ve said before, I always mention Kate Bush because her
albums are very important to me. She did some very
experimental work in the 80’s with a lot of samples and sound
effects and those type of things, so that’s another one. But
people ask me that a lot, when they ask me who influenced me, they
ask me “Who are you trying to sound like?” But I think the
influences are more in the back of my mind rather than consciously
trying to fit a style.
K: As I was researching online I found a
quote. It wasn’t from your website it was from somewhere
else, I don’t know if it was from Wikipedia or something when I was
researching you. But I found a quote, and I would like to ask
what your take is, and if you agree what it says.
J: is this the disposable culture
K: Yes. Just for the sake of the recording
I’ll read it out loud, it says: “He believes that one man’s earnest
pursuit of intelligent art may offer an antidote to the ravages of
a disposable culture.” I thought that was a very profound and
interesting statement and I wanted to see what you thought about
J: Well, you may want to scratch this from the
interview, but I almost wish I didn’t say that. I think I put
that out there in a press release or something in 2006.
Hearing it right now makes it sounds kind of snobby. Like my music
is what people should be listening to instead of disposable
culture. I probably meant it at the time, but I don’t think I
would say that today. It’s kind of on the surface what it
means, there’s a lot of garbage in pop culture. I have this
crazy idea that the kind of music I make without a beat and that is
kind of floaty, but a little bit challenging, I don’t see why that
can't that be popular. Why does it have to be 4/4 and
verse/chorus/verse. In my dream world, music would evolve so
that this music can be heard by more people. But I don’t know why
that doesn’t happen.
K: I’ve been developing a habit lately with the
music I listen to. If it’s a song that I’m hearing for the
first time, if I can predict how a line is going to go or a change
in a song, if I can predict what is going to happen next while
hearing it for the first time, I will turn it off. That’s
what I go after really, is stuff that isn’t popularized because it
is what everyone is used to, and I think that especially now, a lot
of popularized music has no regard for quality.
J: It depends on what you listen to. If you listen
to the radio, it’s such a business, it’s all formula, it’s based on
the hit song that came before. So there’s really no room for
innovation and it’s really sad. Pop music has always been
like that. But there was a time, not to sound like the old
guy talking about the glory days, but when I grew up, pop music
during the 80’s, like the new wave period. And everything was
verse/chorus/verse, but within that there was so much creativity
and different approaches to the song. Now it’s just so cookie
K: We talked on how your music is somewhere between
completely obscure and something along the lines of
classical. When you create your music, do you intend for it
to be very different from anything the listener has heard
before? Is it created so people have something different to
J: I would say that I want people, when they
listen, to have a unique experience. I want to be the owner
of that space. I want Joe Frawley Music to be a world into
itself that you can go into, and it has its own unique properties
that you can’t get in any other place. I guess that goes back
to staying true to your vision and style and really respecting and
honoring it. Not veering off into other crazy
sidelines. I like to think that there is consistency.
And that it’s unique; it is different.
K: Because of that, regarding reviews in your
music, have you ever had trouble with people that stick to the
classical guns…have you ever had anyone approached you with that
J: Actually no, but it’s more because wherever I
get talked about, they haven’t yet been really classically
based. I would assume though, if I ever got into comparisons
with modern classical music, it’s like apples and oranges. I
don’t consider myself a composer in that sense. There are
people out there today who are carrying out the tradition. They are
doing symphonies and real European style composing, but I consider
myself to be more in the review category of ambient music. I
hate that word, ambient, but that’s the genre I tend to fall
K: Well I know you don’t like the word ambient, but
what’s it like to be involved in that world? Really, I don’t
know a ton about composing…our university actually has an event
every year called Contemporary Music Festival where we have
different composers come in and the students and staff play their
music, in contemporary modern styles all over the spectrum.
What’s it like being a composer in the industry and getting your
music out there, especially in the computer age. I know that
you offer all your music online, and for free, which I think is an
interesting point and something else to ask you about. What
brought you to make that decision to offer your music for
J: Well I should let you know that this isn’t my
profession. I don’t live off this at all. I actually have a
real full time job. So it isn’t really a career, but more a
passionate hobby. You’re about to graduate in the next couple
years, musicians usually have to work with something else unless
they can hit on something that can support their lives. But I
do a lot of promotion, I do a lot of it myself.
I’d have to say that the times we’re living in with online
distribution, it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. Everyone’s
doing it, right? Because everyone can publish a song on Bandcamp,
so you just put it out there, so there’s a lot of noise in the
system. So that’s a bad thing because you are competing with
so many others. On the other hand I couldn’t be doing what
I’m doing without the internet. 20 years ago, the cost even
just to make an LP, you’d have to save up your salary for three
years just to get a recording studio to record your album. So I’m
grateful because I can get my stuff out there. So like I said
before it is a blessing and curse. But about the free that
you were asking about…
K: Yes, I thought that was interesting.
J: Not all my stuff is for free, some of it
is. What I’ve recently found to be the happy medium for
releasing music is this payment optional thing. If people
like your stuff, not everyone is going to pay for it even if they
really like it. There is a certain expectation of freeness.
Which is unfortunate on one hand, but at least your music is
getting out. What I’ve done in the last couple of CDs I’ve
put out, I sell the CD if it’s physical because it costs me money
to make. But for downloads, it’s payment optional. So you can
have it free if you want, you have to at least give me your email
address, you have to at least let me know who you are, I think
that’s fair. But other than that, I give a suggested
amount. So it's like when you go to a concert in a library or
a park where it says “suggested donation $5” or something. So
I say “suggested amount $5”, you can pay more if you want, or you
can have it for free. It ends up kind of equaling out.
Many people take it for free, and that’s fine. Many pay the five,
and if people are really enthusiastic about it they will give you
$10 or $20. So at this point for me right now I think this is
the best way to try to do it. I consider myself lucky if I
don’t lose money. So if I can break even on the CD to make the next
one, then I feel like I‘m staying on top of things. That’s what
tends to happen.
K: Well one of the things that drew me so much to
you, and made me want to listen to your music was your
website. I know this isn’t exactly music related, but not
only that but your album art as well. How do you choose the
images? Your choices of art on your websites and albums, is
interesting in the way that it correlates with your music. I
was just curious if there was a specific way that you hold those
J: That’s so cool to hear because I put a lot of
thought into it. I always wonder if people are getting
that. I do have to say in full disclosure that about half of
the artwork I design and draw myself, and about the other half
friends of mine have done or I’ve asked talented people to help me
with. So it’s kind of a mixture, but I usually give them some
direction. As kind of a side hobby I do some photography and dabble
in visual arts. So anything that I have done myself is the
best I’ve done and is good enough to put on the album cover.
You can ask about specific albums if you want, but some friends
have done the work. I like to have a theme, I like to put a
sleeping girl on there a lot of times. I feel like that’s
nice. It’s not a logo or anything, it just seems to be a good
visual. Someone with their eyes closed, and you can already
imagine what’s going on in their mind. So it’s not random,
it’s definitely thought out.
K: So, I’m not a composer. I write music, but
it is just more singer/songwriter stuff. But if you were to speak
to an aspiring composer with similar musical styles as yourself,
what advice would you give them? About how you obviously have
your set style, and you have your own boundaries you go off of and
how you base your music. So how would you help someone to
kind of find their niche and their exact style they want to portray
when writing their music.
J: What works for me, and this might not work for
everybody, but I would say that you should leave room for accidents
to happen. Don’t be so stuck on your own intentions.
Let it be more of a discovery process. Like we were saying
before, rather than being some sort of dictator. That was a
big creative moment for me when I just let go and realized I wasn't
in control of it. I allowed myself to find the work as it
goes along. Often you try to force your hand on the creative
process- that's a mistake. You can find such amazing things, like
"happy accidents" I call them, if you just let go of a little bit
of control. To me that’s the one best piece of advice I think I can
K: Can you tell me a little bit about your
Dolls Come to Life project that you’ve recently worked on
with Michelle Cross? I know it just released yesterday, and
was wondering if you could just give me an idea of how that came to
life, and what it was like working with another person in your
J: Yeah. It was incredible in a way because at
first I started off as more of a fan of her music, and the great
thing about Facebook is everyone has a page and you can start a
conversation with them. That’s how we met through Facebook,
and that kind of blows my mind. But, she was very open to
just talking with people who listen her music. We started
talking before I even told her I was a musician. We mentioned
Kate Bush earlier and something just came up between us, and we
started talking about the 80’s Kate Bush albums and how unique they
were and how creative they were. And she started talking about how
she’s done all this rock stuff, but really wanted to start doing
something with no drums and no guitars, you know, something a
little bit more experimental but still where you could have songs,
but the songs develop in a different way than they would on a rock
record. So we decided to give it a try. She heard some of my stuff,
which is much different from hers, but I think on a kind of leap of
faith we decided to try and make something work. I’m so
surprised it turned out as good as it did. I mean, if I can
say that, I know I was involved in it. I was expecting it to be
more of an experiment, but it really seemed to gel in nice ways, so
we’re actually doing another one.
K: Oh fantastic! That’s great, so cool. And
I’m assuming that the art that is provided on your website.
But the album art for the album is fascinating and kind of sparks
your interest and fuels a lot of suggestion for the
J: I love that cover. I describe it as a doll
contemplating human mortality. Even though I had nothing to
do with it. That was a friend of Michelle’s named Brandy
Pudzis who did that drawing, but yeah, thank you very
K: I don’t really have any more questions, but was
there anything you wanted to touch on? I mean you can ask questions
too if you want.
J: Well, I just wanted to know about you and where
you were coming from, but that’s great that you contacted me.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a copy of this.
K: Oh absolutely!
(Discussion on converting wav. file to
…And thank you again so much for the quick
responses and being able to do this interview. And listening to
your music is really a pleasure.
J: Thanks for saying that, and thanks for doing
K: You’re very welcome! Bye bye.