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A gift from The Giver’s Lois Lowry

“You’re lucky you don’t have braces,” Lois Lowry remarks when I tell her I’m calling from Isthmus. She says the newspaper’s name is a tongue-twister.

We both chuckle. I remember being a metal-mouth when I was 13, about the same age as Jonas, the protagonist of her Newberry-winning young-adult novel The Giver. It’s hard enough to speak eloquently as an adult, without any dental hardware. I’m thankful I’m not one of the kids in the book, who are punished when they misspeak, whether mispronouncing a word or choosing the “wrong” term for what they’re trying to describe.

This problem is especially troublesome for Jonas, who is chosen to become the Receiver in his orderly dystopian community. No one remembers the distant past, except for the person chosen to “contain” all of the pleasures and horrors of history. This person, the Receiver, is the only one who knows of foreign things like color, animals and even snow. He must experience them, and the feelings they generate, all by himself. Not a soul — except for the few others who’ve held the title — has the slightest notion of what he’s going through.

Jonas often wonders how he’d try to describe the memories of the past he’s begun to contain. They’re transmitted through the touch of the outgoing Receiver, who has grown old and weary. To Jonas, this man is known as the Giver. Through this mentor, Jonas receives his first sled ride and his first rays of sunshine.

“What words could you use that would give another the experience of sunshine?” Jonas wonders. Not that he’s allowed to speak of the memories he’s receiving. Or that anyone would understand or believe him. But he can’t help but ponder.

This question is similar to the ones facing Children’s Theater of Madison as it prepares The Giver for the stage. Lowry will visit Madison on Jan. 31, sharing insights on the book’s transition from the page to the stage to the silver screen in a free presentation at the Central Library. She recently traveled to South Africa, where parts of a movie based on the book were being filmed. Starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and other Hollywood heavyweights, it’s sure to cause a stir when it debuts in August. So is CTM’s stage production, which hits Overture Center’s Playhouse Feb. 15-23. After all, the story is one of the most controversial in Y.A. literature. Parents have tried to ban the book from the curriculum in school districts across the country, often in response to a scene involving euthanasia.

Still, The Giver is a popular novel among teens and tweens. Ask a group of them what they think of the book’s ending, and you’re bound to spark a debate. It’s open to interpretation, to say the least. It’s also incredibly moving, which should help imprint the story on theatergoers’ minds. That’s just how Lowry wants it to be.

Comfort vs. security

I first experienced Lowry’s writing through her series of Anastasia books, which follow the trials and tribulations of a girl “just trying to grow up.” They’re funny and poignant, and I see hints of them in the film Ghost World, the TV show Daria and the comedy of Aubrey Plaza. Lowry gets awkwardness and the angst that often comes with it. These qualities also apply to Jonas in The Giver, but the story is much more chilling.

At first, Jonas’ community seems like a utopia, but it soon becomes clear that much has been sacrificed to prevent risk and pain. Individual differences are frowned upon, for the most part, and sometimes result in death. Adults apply to receive a marriage partner chosen by the town’s leaders, and approved couples can adopt up to two kids, a boy and a girl, rather than creating them the old-fashioned way. Though families must share their feelings with each other daily, in a setting that resembles a support group, they do not experience intense emotions like love and grief. Not unless they’re the Receiver. Elements of Jonas’ community have an Iron Curtain feel, but by and large, the tale’s themes apply just as much today as when the book was released in 1993.

“Teachers love using the book, mostly in grades 7 and 8,” Lowry notes. “It describes a future time in which people have achieved comfort and security by making terrible compromises. Kids can think about questions like ‘What would you give up in order to have something else that matters to you?’ That’s important, because these are the kids who are going to create our future. They’ll be the politicians and the voters and so much more.”

The theme of control appears in many forms in The Giver. Lowry knows that making her story available for theatrical adaptations means diminishing, even relinquishing, much of her control over the story. Fortunately, she’s satisfied with the adaptation playwright Eric Coble debuted in 2006. It has been performed by children’s theater troupes in Milwaukee, Nashville and several other cities.

“I adapted one of my other books for the stage, which is something I’d never done before. I put in all these stage directions, and the director of the theater had to gently tell me, ‘We have other people who take care of that,'” she says with a laugh. “A play depends not only on the script but the other people who have input, like the director and the set designer. It’s always fascinating to see what they do with the story.”

In other words, Lowry knew to keep her distance when she released The Giver‘s film rights more than 15 years ago. Several big movie studios have expressed interest since then, and Bridges spent years advocating for the story, but nothing materialized until 2012, when Australian director Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, Rabbit-Proof Fence) picked up the story and ran with it. Lowry was surprised how many times he and the producers asked for her advice.

“I’ve given my suggestions, and they’ve often taken them and just as often ignored them, as they should,” she says. “I’ve never made or written a movie, and I’m not conversant enough with the changes that are necessary to make The Giver into a film.”

Lowry says one of the biggest adaptation challenges is turning thoughts into actions. She’s likely to discuss this topic at the Jan. 31 event, where she’ll read a portion of the book and then invite actors from the CTM production to read lines from the same scenes in the play.

“This is an introspective book. The dialogue is relatively unimportant, and there’s not a lot of action,” she says. “There need to be visually exciting things to watch, and I would be too locked into what I put in the book. I’ve been excited to see how meticulously directors and designers create the visuals.”

‘The Dude of CTM’

So how will CTM bring Jonas’ thoughts to life on stage? Artistic director Roseann Sheridan says the troupe’s approach centers on “essential experiences” Jonas has in the book.

“The playwright sets up Jonas’ family relationship and the ceremony where Jonas becomes the Receiver and then the experience of going to the Giver for training,” she says. “It’s not embellished with a lot of narration or asides to the audience. It’s more about how the two main actors are reacting visually and emotionally to the events that happen as the story unfolds.”

While CTM hasn’t unveiled the entire cast list, Sheridan knew from the start that she wanted American Players Theatre’s Paul Bentzen to play the Giver.

Though he hadn’t read the book, Bentzen fell in love with the character while reading the script.

“There’s nothing histrionic about the part, and there’s almost a cinematic quality to it,” he says. “Jeff Bridges is playing the role in the movie, so I’m basically the Dude of CTM.”

But the story’s biggest appeal is its humanity, Bentzen says.

“Sometimes you can only appreciate a thing by embracing its opposite, like how it takes pain to know pleasure or death to experience life more fully,” he says. “The overarching theme is love, and how life, love and humanity can be swept away in favor of ideals that turn out not to be so ideal. These are important lessons for everybody.”

Communicating these ideals — and their shortcomings — is one of the production’s steepest hurdles. Jonas realizes his community discourages choices when he discovers color. Though people can no longer experience rainbows, they no longer start wars over racial differences. Sheridan points to a key scene from the book, in which Jonas sees red for the first time, when tossing an apple to a friend.

“You have to figure out how to deal with an apple that’s gray one minute, and then red, and then gray again,” she says. “Sometimes we’re able to do that with an effect like lighting, and other times, we just say, ‘This is Jonas’ story, and everything on stage is seen through his eyes, so how do we get that across?'”

Sheridan and director Patrick Holland discussed adding projected images to the production but ultimately decided on a simpler mode of storytelling. She describes designer Mike Lawler’s set as “a lot of monolithic and dark” elements, with a few familiar objects such as bicycles.

“It has an architecture that suggests the type of future you read about in the book, where there’s not much in the way of colors and defined shapes,” she says. “It’s not decorative, but it’s functional.”

Bentzen is curious to see how the play’s setting differs from the ways young readers have imagined the setting of the book. He and Sheridan are also eager to watch them ask questions about the story’s most difficult and controversial moments.

Fielding such questions has become a way of life for Lowry, who writes letters to readers who assume The Giver‘s depiction of euthanasia is an endorsement of the practice.

“This interpretation has always puzzled me,” she says. “I think of The Giver as a highly moral book. My protagonists always come to my imagination with a name attached, along with a few defining characteristics. It’s almost always a kid who’s introspective and who has great integrity. That’s what I value most in a character, and I also value that in real people. You develop these qualities by reading and thinking through problems, and by imagining what might make the world a better place.”

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Six tales of improbability in six days

Tony Trout doesn’t believe in fate. Despite this, the impresario of Are We Delicious? Ensemble Theatre chose to helm a production about magic and the uncanny ability to defy human logic. It’s called Musical Fantasy, and its concept sounds slightly nuts: Six actors who can write and sing team up with six musicians who can compose and teach, and together they create a half-dozen mini-musicals in less than a week. Writing began on April 24, and performances take place at the Brink Lounge on May 1 and 2.

The thing is, Trout does believe in trust and the power of the creative process. Along with a team of associates, he hand-picks the stars of Delicious shows, creating a who’s who of local talent for each cast. Though he’s led about 10 of these whirlwind productions since 2012, music has never been part of the mix until now. But he revels in the dance with danger, the possibility of failure that drives these shows to be great.

“We’re trying to perfect the process,” Trout explains. “We believe we can make a great show in a week, or that people can. We want to be those people.”

Epic stories

Creating an entire production in a few days is an enormous challenge, so it makes sense that the creators have epic stories on their minds when they enter Central Library for the first writing session. There’s talk about fairy tales and fables, and sci-fi adventures like Star Wars, a series that’s changed the lives of many cast members.

Several of the writer-actors, including Matt Sloan, Brad Knight and Karen Moeller, have ties to Blame Society Productions, best known for the web video series Chad Vader. Its comic tales about Darth Vader’s less-famous brother helped Sloan become the voice of Darth for Disney. In addition to appearing on Chad Vader, Knight leads local improv troupe Monkey Business Institute and Moeller serves as an artistic associate for Forward Theater Company. Other familiar faces include Kelly Maxwell, who starred in Mercury Players and OUT!Cast Theatre’s Xanadu; Dave Durbin from Strollers’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and Sarah Streich, the leading lady from Four Seasons’ My Fair Lady.

Writing begins in a glass-walled room nestled in the back of the library, after Trout delivers a motivational speech about risk-taking.

“I believe in you,” he says earnestly. “Let’s go for it.”

The six playwrights gather around a table with a few other collaborators, such as assistant producer Autumn Shiley and music director Andrew Rohn. Two stage managers linger nearby. Surrounding the group are props and costumes, which remain cloaked until the writers have completed their warmup activities. Each writer has contributed one costume and one prop to the collection, whose contents range from faux chain mail to a small, squeezable orb aptly named “the blue boobie.” But in the beginning, all the writers have is the thing they dread most: a blank page.

Giving good prompts is essential to guiding the writers toward their five-minute tales. Trout clearly adores being a story sherpa. He and Shiley pose questions, the type one might hear in a creative writing class or improv workshop. Some are whimsical (What’s a real place you found magical?), and some are inspirational (What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done?). Some encourage the group to ponder personal shortcomings (What’s one thing about yourself you wish you could change?), while others explore morality and social justice (What is standing in the way of the world’s growth and freedom? What’s a curse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy?).

Lists of answers are passed around the room. The richest story seeds are then plucked from them and distributed to the writers. Through an elaborate card game of sorts, each actor gets cast in the lead role of another writer’s play. One writer gets to star in her own play.

“This is so confusing and crazy!” Shiley squeals, grinning. She’s helping Trout keep track of the details. Though his idea-generation process is meticulously organized, things feel chaotic at the moment.

Several writers giggle at an answer to the curse question: “It must be a play about Vietnam.” This comes from Moeller, who acted in such a play with Trout, her husband, when they both lived in New York City.

Then the props and costumes are unveiled, adding more constraints to the writing process. Each item comes with a backstory. A sword is “endowed with an indomitable will and a desire to sing.” The chain mail once helped a gardener save his neighbors from vicious birds. A flowered raincoat “makes its wearer impossible to overlook.” It can help a shy person face her fear of standing out in a crowd, but it can also be used to drive her insane. Add to this a chimera statue, an olive-oil sprayer that teleports its user, and a wish catcher resembling a deep-fryer basket, and the writers have plenty of material for crafting fantastical tales.

With one source of anxiety out of the way, the writers start worrying how the music will fit into their plays. Should they pen lyrics or propose spots in the script for songs?

“No,” Trout says. “Think of the musicians as magical people who show up and give your play another dimension.”

He compares the composers to characters in a cartoon he watched as a kid. Elves snuck into a home late one night and cobbled shoes for the family living there. Everyone laughs. This kind of image would be a blast to bring to life onstage.

Now for the music

As the playwrights work their way through a few drafts of their scripts, the musicians begin their writing process. Each composer gets paired with one script. Any style of music is acceptable, from ballads with bawdy lyrics to something more subtle, like an ambient soundtrack. But the inspiration must come from the writers’ words. After receiving their assignments, the musicians disperse to tackle their tasks as they see fit.

For Meghan Rose, the best route leads home, where she can concentrate quietly. Serendipitously, she’s been paired with Maxwell, her bandmate in local rock act Little Red Wolf.

“In Delicious, a lot of people err toward comedy, but Kelly chose to do a serious piece, which provides a nice change of pace,” Rose says. “It’s about a sorceress…who needs to sacrifice herself, so I knew I needed to add a tragic song at a moment of high emotion. I had to try to make people cry.”

A pianist since age 4, Rose has long loved grand melodies from Broadway hits like Phantom of the Opera. She used Andrew Lloyd Webber as inspiration for her piece, “I Have To,” an orchestral work featuring Gomers frontman Biff Blumfumgagnge on violin and composer Scott Lamps on upright bass.

Sean Michael Dargan also looked to Broadway when putting together a song called “Unicorn Love.” He doesn’t often write about mythical creatures, but composing music for a play about mermaids seemed to call for something out of the ordinary.

“It’s sort of a cross between West Side Story and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with a little bit of Little Shop of Horrors,” he says.

He had to indulge his love of jangly pop, too.

“A bit of Crowded House or the Smiths usually sneaks into my songs,” he says.

Lamps, meanwhile, wrote a Celtic-sounding war hymn called “Overcoming Family” for Brad Knight’s play, which features the singing sword.

“The sword is asked for advice in certain situations, so I started by thinking, ‘What’s the character of the sword?’ Since it’s an ancient weapon, I’m using battle music that’s very rhythmic and drum-heavy and exciting,” he says.

Excitement is also at the heart of a fable written by Streich. As she explains how a witch has banished music from the kingdom, the rest of the cast acts out the story with exaggerated expressions. Though their lips move, no sounds emerge. But Blumfumgagnge’s gospel-tinged “Sing for Your Supper” helps tell the story as Streich belts out the vocals.

Down to the wire

Trout admits that the plays were in relatively rough shape on Saturday. But within 24 hours, they evolved in miraculous ways. The musicians convinced him the production was on the right track.

“They were just sitting around a table with keyboards and guitars. The music was absolutely beautiful, and the lyrics were hilarious. It brought tears to my eyes,” he says. “Usually I trust we’re going to make it to the finish line, but that morning I wasn’t so sure. That moment with the musicians is when I stopped doubting.”

Now it’s down to the wire to polish each play as much as possible. Sunday was filled with rehearsals in the basement of First United Methodist Church, with the actors in one room and the musicians in another. Since then, the group has completed “tech day,” in which the cast and composers gather to run each play three times — in three hours, if possible.

The musicians have sounded more confident with each rehearsal, and now that all of the songs have names, they seem more real. For instance, Stephanie Rearick’s catchy ditty is named “Salty Demon,” and Rohn’s hard-rocking number is “Scream at the Silence.” And the actors have learned their lines so well that they can seek out opportunities for extra fun. Moeller hams up her role as a maiden who rebuffs a king’s marriage proposal, and Maxwell wants to choreograph a dance for the forest creatures in the fable. Durbin, the forest’s snowy owl, realizes he needs an instrument to play during a song. The blue boobie becomes a tambourine he thwacks against his hip.

With just a little more time until the curtain rises, anything seems possible.

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Alash and the art of Tuvan throat singing

Tuva is a Siberian republic surrounded by two majestic mountain ranges and peppered with tiny deserts, lush valleys, and more than 9,000 rivers. Population-wise, it’s about the size of Iceland and shares a similar history of being isolated from much of the world for thousands of years due to its location and chilly temperatures. Music-wise, it’s one of the most amazing places you’re likely to discover.

Much like the home of Björk and Sigur Rós, Tuva is immersed in a musical tradition that’s deeper than its permafrost. This tradition revolves around throat singing, an art form in which multiple voices seem to spring from one vocalist thanks to the magic of harmonics and overtones.

Scientifically speaking, a singer can amplify different parts of a sound wave by changing the shape of various cavities of the mouth, voice box, and throat, allowing sounds that are subdued in most vocal performances to take center-stage. The result is a sound that’s been described as a “one-man quartet” and even a “bullfrog swallowing a whistle,” as the 1999 documentary film Genghis Blues puts it.

The Alash ensemble, a quartet composed of Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, Ayan Shirizhik, and Nachyn Choodu — four twenty-somethings trained in this ancient art by their parents, grandparents, and a healthy dose of intuition — serves as Tuva’s musical ambassador to the United States.

Alash

“Things like Jimi Hendrix and the [Sun Ra] Arkestra are slowly but surely having an effect on our music; it’s not so much about directly mixing these artists’ sounds with throat singing but how it affects the way their music feels.”

Over the past three years, the group has performed with the Sun Ra Arkestra, recorded a Christmas album (Jingle All The Way) with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and introduced numerous students to a style of music that sounds like a mix between Tom Waits and a flock of swallows.

The band’s flagship song, “Alash,” with its bouncy melody, could be a tune from the Appalachian Mountains or the hills of Ireland. At other times, the group’s sound is more abstract, reminiscent of distant trains, or the yip-yipping martians from Sesame Street.

The music inspires comparisons to nature and the great beyond. Alash is named after one of the most majestic rivers in Tuva, symbolizing the band’s connection to the water from which its ancestors drank thousands of years ago. And just like the movement of water from clouds to streams to lips and back again, Tuvan songs pass from the spirits of nature to the souls of humans, released back into nature via the lips of throat singers.

Though many of Alash’s melodies have cycled through Tuva for centuries, the way the group presents them to the cosmos is very new.

“Things like Jimi Hendrix and the [Sun Ra] Arkestra are slowly but surely having an effect on our music; it’s not so much about directly mixing these artists’ sounds with throat singing, but how it affects the way their music feels,” the band says, via manager and translator Sean Quirk. “We have a new song about reindeer herding. Even though the piece focuses on this practice that’s very much about Tuva, you can sense these other influences if you’re listening closely.”

This is a huge breakthrough for a musical tradition that still considers stringed and woodwind instruments new additions. These instruments include the igil, a two-stringed instrument that’s played like a cello; the doshpuluur, a three-stringed instrument that’s plucked or strummed like a banjo; the byzaanchy, which has four strings that represent the udders of a cow and are “milked” to create a sound; the chadagan, which resembles a zither or a koto; a jaw harp known as a xomus; the murgu and limpi, two types of flutes; and a large drum called a kengirge, which often comes with a set of reindeer bells.

Alash uses all of these instruments and a few others to create a sound that’s lush and layered, with rhythms that duel one moment and collaborate the next. And unlike most bands, Alash will even teach you how to play the instruments — as well as how to build a yurt and cook up some Tuvan snacks — at its concerts, if you have the time and the money. It’s all part of an effort to welcome people from other cultures — especially Americans — into the fold.

“The touring is all about creating a good impression of Tuva and conveying something about the lives of people who live there,” Quirk says, “and maybe attracting a few visitors. Tuva loves guests.”

It’s also a way of bringing bits of the West back to Tuva, which still shows relatively few signs of capitalism. Though many Tuvans descended from nomadic tribes, they are not immune to pangs of homesickness.

When traveling the roads of Texas and Oklahoma, the lonesome cowboy is one American figure Alash can relate to, but not for his cigarettes. It’s because he also feels incomplete without his trusty steed. To keep spirits high, the band adopted a wrangler look — ten-gallon hats and all — when traveling through Texas, stopping in Fort Worth to ride a mechanical bull and visit some friends with a horse ranch.

“Like many people from Tuva, they feel most at home when riding their horses,” Quirk says.

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Merch mania

It was one of the coldest nights of winter 2009, but the Wisco was sweltering with rock ‘n’ roll. The Goodnight Loving were in from Milwaukee, Screamin’ Cyn Cyn & the Pons were in top form, and the Midwest Beat’s Matt Joyce did a scorching solo set. The only band I’d missed was the Hussy. I’d caught the tail end of their set on three different occasions and was hoping this night would be different.

Shane Shane merch by Jessica Steinhoff

Frustrated, I stomped down the steps, ready to kick the nearest snow bank. That’s when I saw it: a Hussy T-shirt, just my size, drenched in sweat. I almost needed an ice pick to remove it from the sidewalk, but after that, the shirt became my most treasured item of clothing. I wrote in it. I slept in it. I lent it to my friends. The shirt made people laugh, and it started conversations. It got me talking, too, no small feat for someone prone to shyness. Plus, it reminded me to catch the Hussy’s next show — and buy another one of their shirts.

For local musicians, merchandise works magic. Not only does it help fans find one another and show off their taste, it allows Madison bands to take their shows on the road. For groups like All Tiny Creatures and the Pons, merch has funded trips to South by Southwest. For others, it has funded recording time in Seattle and tours of Europe.

Kurt Baker, the Madison native who fronts the Portland, Maine, pop-punk band the Leftovers, says that merch — as it’s universally called — means food, fuel and other necessities to get from one town to the next.

“A lot of bands getting out on the road for the first few times don’t get a door deal or much money from the clubs they’re playing,” he explains. “This is especially true for unsigned bands and those on smaller indie labels. They depend on people buying their merch to pay for gas money, food and motel rooms.”

But that’s just the beginning. More and more bands, it seems, are financing their careers with merch rather than mp3s. Irving Azoff, the artist-management magnate who represents Jimmy Buffett and Neil Diamond, explained in a recent New Yorker article that merch sales and third-party sponsorship have virtually replaced record sales in the music industry’s moneymaking model.

This shift has benefited bands such as Massachusetts’ Dropkick Murphys, who reportedly make more from merchandise than recordings. Mike Krol, who drums for Whatfor and Time Since Western and until recently worked for the Madison-based design firm Planet Propaganda, says he’s figured out the secret. He did it by observing one of his best friends, the Murphys’ merch buyer.

“I hung out with him when the Murphys played the Majestic last year, and he literally set up a shopping mall for a merch table,” Krol says. “He does an amazing job with getting the most random merch items: golf balls, bottle openers, Trapper Keepers, key chains, beer koozies, baby bibs, grocery bags.”

Another Madison-bred band Krol sometimes drums for, Sleeping in the Aviary, have adopted an even wackier approach. They’ve been known to peddle clippings of their hair in Ziploc bags and thrift-store coffee mugs decorated with their faces. Krol’s favorite was a huge pair of pink, one-piece pajamas.

Other local groups are upping the ante for creativity and craziness. Masked surf-rockers Knuckel Drager have been making merch awesomeness for years. Darwin Sampson, owner of the Frequency and bassist for Helliphant and Ladybeard, says he’s proud to own one the band’s signature action figures — or fingers, as the case may be. “[It’s] the ‘El Diablo Action Figure,’ which is merely a plastic hand flipping the bird,” he says.

Then there’s the gumball dispenser Knuckel Drager’s Matt Villand unveiled at last month’s Melt-Banana show. “It gave out random objects like vampire teeth and plastic rings,” recalls Knuckel Drager bassist Bill Borowski, who helped open the show with his other band, United Sons of Toil.

More creations by Villand and his bandmates are available through the Black Cat Printing Company, which creates merch items like posters, T-shirts and, yes, gumball machines for other musicians.

Other designers from the area are also using band merch to show off their creative powers. Krol has made baseball jerseys for Icarus Himself, while artists from the recently shuttered art collective Firecracker Studios made hundreds of gig posters over the course of five years. In September, the Project Lodge even hosted an art show of posters custom-made for the Forward Music Festival, submitted by designers from here to Philadelphia.

While a designer can spruce up a band’s merch offerings, lots of bands without design pros are trying their hand at creating stuff, too.

For Shane O’Neill of the Pons, his electro-meets-comedy venture Shane Shane doubles as an outlet for his craft projects. He even runs an Etsy store when he’s not working on lyrics and dance moves.

At Shane Shane shows, O’Neill dresses up as a giant soft-serve cone, then heads to his merch table to distribute free, ice-cream-themed buttons and stickers. This gets people interested in buying his T-shirts, and it gets them talking about the show.

“I treat stickers, CDs, patches and buttons as promotional materials and only charge money for shirts,” he says. “It’s nice to poor people, and I’m hoping it provides free advertising.”

Even venues are getting involved. At the Frequency, a slew of gig posters, most for local bands, covers the stage room from floor to ceiling. Band stickers, ticket stubs and guitar picks adorn the bar.

Sampson says these decorations have provided an instant conversation piece for customers and have given his staff and bandmates a chance to reminisce. Plus, when bands play there, they have a way to leave their mark.

Near the Frequency’s jukebox and Arkanoid machine are glass cases filled with all sorts of kitschy oddities: a can of “meat” sold by the band Human Aftertaste, an autographed photo of Britney Spears a Frequency employee found during Hippie Christmas, a Mozart action figure and much more. These items pay tribute to Madison showgoers’ merch-buying obsessions while mocking them with a smile and a wink.

For fans, there’s fun to be had in building their own shrines of merch. The process breaks down the wall between performer and audience, especially when a merch-table visit leads to a conversation.

Think of a purchase as a way of thanking a band for rocking, says Jake Shut of the local Crustacean music label.

“When a band that was not on my radar leaves my jaw on the ground with an incredible set, I feel the need to buy some merch from them out of gratitude,” he explains. “And when a band like this can give me an experience that’s a vivid reminder of why I’m so obsessed with music, they deserve some more of my money, sort of akin to getting exceptional service at a restaurant and leaving a fatter tip as a result.”

On the flip side, merch tables are a place for musicians to thank fans for coming out to the show. For Jess Northup of Gold and Shooter Grey Suede, two Chicago bands that play Madison regularly, merch tables have taken the form of a bake sale, with brownies and coffee from bandmate Mike McSherry’s bean-roasting business.

There’s an added benefit as well: The more enticing the merch table, the less isolated the band feels, especially if it’s far from home.

“On tour, Gold will put anything on the merch table that seems remotely interesting, like sunglasses from gas stations,” he says. “We also have a fake fur we use as a backdrop. It encourages people to come over and hang out. Touring gets lonely, after all.”

While the fur and snacks give Gold’s table a twisted Cub Scout vibe, Shane O’Neill says his merch peddling is more like going on a date. “You want to treat someone buying your merch as you would someone buying you a drink,” he says. “They’re also buying your time, so be nice to them and make small talk.”

The Leftovers’ Kurt Baker even suggests that bands bring cameras to their merch tables to keep the conversation going after the show’s over.

“Take a picture with your new fans buying your stuff, then post it online and make them feel special,” he says. “It’s all about connecting with people at the shows and being on a personal level with the audience.”

zebras merch by jessica steinhoff

Dressing up the merch is key. Local bands like Zebras and Underculture have used Christmas lights to add flash to their T-shirts and recordings, even in the middle of summer.

Underculture drummer/vocalist Nate Onsrud says the lights aren’t about holiday cheer. They’re about drawing people’s eyes across a crowded room and into a suitcase packed with their newest offerings.

Meanwhile, All Tiny Creatures offer this tip for bands in the merchandising business: Go minimal. “A great merch table isn’t crowded, and everything is clearly labeled,” says Andrew Fitzpatrick, the band’s guitarist.

The right attitude is probably the most important thing, says multi-instrumentalist Thomas Wincek, who’s also a member of Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees.

“In the best-case scenario, merchandise can be used to further a connection people may have with a band. In the worst case, it’s used to cash in on an image and seen as almost more important than the experience of the music,” he argues.

No matter what, merch can help musicians express their sense of humor, which helps them with the all-important human touch.

“Why should corporations, banks and dentists have all the fun?” asks Whatfor drummer Mike Krol. “Why can’t a band have their logo on a pencil sharpener?”

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Lewis Koch: Touchless Automatic Wonder

Pieces of text often come disguised as debris–candy wrappers, discarded receipts, fading patches of graffiti–but they’re still saying something. It’s just a question of what. For photographer Lewis Koch (who speaks this Saturday afternoon at Rainbow Bookstore Co-Op), these letters, numbers, and symbols spell out poems. They might not form tidy stanzas or couplets, and they might not rhyme, but they share the spirit of Surrealism that has fascinated poets such as John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg and free-jazz musicians like Sun Ra. They speak to us in a language that’s alien to our sense of reason, but familiar to our emotions and even our memories.

YES

Koch’s new book, Touchless Automatic Wonder, a collection of what he calls “found text photographs from the real world,” creates a poem that’s both miniature and epic. Though these images contain just a handful of words, they say a lot and ask even more. They also represent nearly three decades of observation and creation by the Madison-based artist, whose work has made its way into the permanent collections of the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and appeared in exhibitions in New York, London, Seoul, and beyond.

The book begins with a black-and-white print of a window, viewed from the inside of a building. Plastered on the glass is the word “yes,” which appears to float above the street outside. A few pages later is a long-division problem, spelled out in sticks–or pretzel sticks, perhaps–on a table peppered with napkins and coffee cups. Other words and letters pop up like guests at a surprise party: The word “dream” (emblazoned on some large, decaying object) hides behind a chalkboard of children’s drawings; a broken record surfaces in a field, among the unruly leaves and flowers. A painting of a lady revealing her garter points at the word “almost,” while a television with a man waving his finger reminds everyone to “wear suspenders,” as if neglecting to do so is a very serious transgression. Meanwhile, a deserted car lot sprouts four signs from its cracked concrete, all of which say “OK,” even though business clearly isn’t booming.

What’s most fascinating about these photos, however, is that they’ll likely mean something different to each person who sees them, dredging up a unique combination of memories and associations. In the introduction to the book, Koch says it’s the images’ fragmented nature that creates a “sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental account of one’s life.” But rather than reading them like a novel, they can be read like a diary, a riddle, or even a dream.

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Carolina Chocolate Drops give new life to old-time string music

Carolina Chocolate Drops knows a thing or two about blending in. On the cover of the trio’s 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, Rhiannon Giddens makes camouflage out of a bright-red dress. Draped on the sofa like a blanket, she matches her surroundings (a red velvet curtain and Oriental rug) so well that she almost disappears. That’s no small feat.

Maybe she’s remembering the old days of the band’s home base of Durham, North Carolina, where until the ’60s, black faces occupied the backs of buses and the margins of their local community, even though they’d created a thriving center of industry, culture, and especially music.

Or maybe she’s channeling the spirit of writer Mary Mebane, who likened her 1930s Durham childhood to an elaborate game of dress-up. Mebane described this Durham as a place where “black skin was to be disguised at all costs” and where those with the darkest faces drowned their insecurities in makeup and whiskey.

Though Appalachian tunes have become the music of all Americans, there’s another truth lurking in the shadows: the story behind the music has been whitewashed.

So perhaps standing out is an even larger feat for Giddens and her bandmates, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. They can’t help it, given their musical chops, but they don’t just accept it. They embrace it. And they get their gusto from the ghosts of North Carolina’s past, the black folks who pioneered much of the Appalachian music that launched the careers of white guys like Bela Fleck, the New Lost Ramblers, and the Avett Brothers.

Surprisingly, it was Fleck and the Ramblers who helped Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson find one another at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC. The three expected to learn about the instrument’s African and African-American roots, not come away with a globetrotting ensemble and a record deal.

The timing must have been just right. Fleck had recently returned from an African tour, and Mike Seeger of the Ramblers had left New York for a southern sojourn. Flemons traveled all the way from Phoenix just to learn from them. But it was an 86-year-old fiddler named Joe Thompson who sealed the deal, transforming three wandering souls into a tight-knit ensemble.

Now 91, Thompson is thought to be the last living performer from the golden age of Piedmont string bands. In the early 20th Century, he and his family were playing socials and square dances for black and white families alike. At the time, it was one of the rare instances where the racial divide softened, if only for a few hours.

Many people are familiar with the white fiddle-and-banjo music of the southern Appalachian region, but the Piedmont tradition is slightly different. Unlike other Appalachian music, it gives the leading role to the banjo, which sets the tone and tempo of the tunes. The fiddle tends to come second, providing backup along with instruments such as the jug and spoons. This unique combination was pioneered by families of black musicians. Although the banjo was created in the USA, it was inspired by a few lute-like West African instruments. Banjo music was often passed from one black family to the next, and it eventually made its way to other ethnic groups. Until the early 20th Century, young white musicians usually befriended an older black musician if they wanted to learn it.

Learning the banjo also helped the Drops find its identity as a band. Though the group is an old-time string band steeped in Piedmont’s unique blend of folk and blues, it’s a melting pot of other influences as well: some hip hop here, some bluegrass there, with rock and jazz essences filling the gaps. But the three musicians didn’t meld together until Thompson entered the picture.

Somebody had to figure out how to integrate the styles of Giddens, an opera singer with a soft spot for Irish jigs and jazz, with those of Robinson, a classically trained violinist, and Flemons, an Arizona native with a background in folk, jug bands, and old-fashioned country and blues. A Piedmont fiddler through and through, Thompson decided that the best way was to teach them to accompany each other in music and in life.

“We’d go down to his house on Thursday nights and learn how to back him up,” Flemons says. “He’d tell us about some of the older ways of [Southern] living, things like tobacco auctions and frolics, which are square dances in the black community. We really learned about the social functions of the music.”

Pretty soon the band was swapping melodies and instruments, do-si-do style. Now Robinson takes the lead on fiddle, adding banjo, autoharp, and jug as needed, while Flemons lends his skills on various banjos, plus the jug, quills, and harmonica. Giddens plays fiddle, banjo, and kazoo when she’s not wowing the crowd with her vocals.

The audience has added instruments to the lineup too. One fan gave Flemons a set of bones, which also spice up the rhythm of minstrel songs, zydeco, and bluegrass.

“She insisted that I learn how to use them, then showed me how to play them,” he says. “There have been a lot of interesting and wonderful experiences where people have shared songs, instruments, and memories with us. For some reason, our music has opened that up inside of them. Being able to do that is truly amazing.”

Though the group’s goal is to make great music and build a bit of community, it comes with a side of history, especially at its live shows, where Carolina Chocolate Drops is interested in telling the history that history books left out. The trio isn’t breaking out Howard Zinn’s books on stage, but it’s telling it like it is: black people pioneered much of the traditional folk music that spawned country songs. And the banjo wasn’t invented by Bo Duke and The Balladeer. It evolved from several types of African lutes, thanks to the ingenuity of slaves — a fact that banjo players themselves often are surprised to learn.

In other words, though Appalachian tunes have become the music of all Americans, there’s another truth lurking in the shadows: the story behind the music has been whitewashed. We tend to remember the white banjo students but not their black teachers. As a result, much of tradition’s richness is buried, along with the bones of those who played the minstrel shows of the 1880s and the hoedowns of the 1920s and ’30s.

Carolina Chocolate Drops makes music that breaks down cultural barriers and brings together people from various walks of life, but it’s making those black musicians and teachers stick out — in a good way. It’s also helping them gain their rightful place in history and in the imaginations of those listening to the music today.

This theme of rewriting history is heavy one moment and lighthearted the next, much like the songs of Genuine Negro Jig. At least half of the album is good, old-fashioned hoedown fare. There’s hooting and hollering and crazy kazoo solos. There’s more banjo than the Dukes of Hazzard theme song and plenty of material for stomping, swinging, and square dancing.

The other half has some frank messages: advice on how to treat a cheatin’ man and exorcise one’s inner demons. It’s the kind of stuff that gets you talking after passing out from moonshine and dancing. You can’t help but get to know your neighbor.

This is a novel concept for people who spend most of their time on Facebook and iPhones. Yes, the Internet is great at bringing people together, but you can’t dance with it. That’s why Carolina Chocolate Drops blends the whimsy of eras past with the stuff that makes people human today: getting drunk, making out, showing off, and screwing up.

Flemons says that the group marries old and new with the West African concept of Sankofa, which means “go back and fetch it.” It takes good ideas from the past, brings them to the present, and gives them new life.

“We’re not trying to bring the old times back, but we’re using them to help people enjoy themselves,” he says. “Building community by getting people to sing and dance together at a concert makes sense in the modern world.”

But there’s more to it than that. They’re creating something new as well.

Most recently, the music opened the doors of Nonesuch Records, the label that the Magnetic Fields, Brian Wilson, and David Byrne call home. This, in turn, unlocked a Pasadena mansion that once belonged to President Garfield’s widow — and where producer Joe Henry now lives. It was the perfect place to record an album built upon American history.

These sessions led to a haunting rendition of Tom Waits‘ “Trampled Rose” and a fiddle-hop take on Blu Cantrell‘s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” On the latter, Giddens’ vocals create shivers as she alternately sets the track on fire with her fiddle. Underneath, Flemons’ beat boxing conjures the streets better than a cranked-up bass and a set of chrome rims. Then on the old Charlie Jackson tune “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” the band traces the blues back to its roots and gives them a Vaudevillian twist, while the Carolinian standard “Trouble in Your Mind” creates the insanity of which it warns with an out-and-out hootenanny. It’s hardly the way to blend in with the crowd.

Flemons says that the album is more of a genre-bender than the band’s earlier releases, but don’t expect Carolina Chocolate Drops to change its tune anytime soon.

“We’re proud to be who we are: an old-time black string band,” he says. “We don’t need to turn into a ’60s girl group or a hair band to stand out.”

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Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s absurdist art rock

Many children dream of running off and joining the circus, but only a few brave souls pursue fire eating and tightrope walking as adults. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum has done something even wilder: it has invented its own freak show, something more bizarre and beautiful than any clown-filled big-top.

The fearless five-piece performs one musical stunt after another, bleeding into performance-art territory as it carves genres such as metal, prog, and avant rock into strange new shapes. But this is no novelty act: the group has some substantial — even shocking — things to say about the nature of human life and 21st Century culture.

Most recently, Sleepytime has explored the theme of human extinction, which it began to dissect on its 2004 LP, Of Natural History. Described as a debate between Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, the album seems to boil down to a central question, phrased as a song title: “What shall we do without us?” This question leads to another too: “What might those last days be like?”

“I realized pretty quickly that one of the most direct ways to have a unique, original sound is to play instruments no one else is playing.”

The group’s Fall 2005 tour provided a few answers via Shinichi Iova-Koga, a movement artist who specializes in Butoh, an avant-garde dance form that grew out of student riots and cultural taboos in 1950s Japan. After hanging beneath a sheet, upside down, for the first half of each Sleepytime show, he would emerge as “The Last Human Being,” painted head to toe in white, writhing like a demon-possessed corpse as his shadows danced upon the wall.

These days, the band — clad in tattered tutus, bad-ass boots, and braids — provides a soundtrack for these eerie encounters whether or not Iova-Koga is part of the act. But to take a closer look at this theme of extinction, Sleepytime will soon release a short film called The Last Human Being that explores Iova-Koga’s character while presenting a few new songs.

“During the [2005 tour], we would talk about the human being and what had happened to them, how they used to be all over the place,” says Nils Frykdahl, Sleepytime’s guitar- and flute-playing vocalist. “The film takes that idea even further. It looks like that 1970s TV show In Search of… where Leonard Nimoy was the host and would ‘investigate’ something. We have actors playing a panel of scientists on a talk show. The human is the mysterious creature being ‘investigated.’ It’s fairly comic at its roots.”

Frykdahl says that the film and its music were also inspired, in part, by the story of Ishi, the last of California’s indigenous Yana people. After crossing paths with a group of cattle butchers in 1911, Ishi was quickly put on display at the University of California-Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology. Though Ishi helped scholars learn about his tribe’s rapidly dying customs and language, he also functioned much like a circus attraction, entertaining guests by making crafts and arrowheads.

“He’s this touching, tragic character,” Frykdahl says. “His life went from a tribal world that was decimated, where he’d seen only a few dozen humans in his entire life and survived, in isolation, in very rough terrain, to suddenly being exposed to Ocean Beach, with thousands of people. He probably stood there with his mouth open, shocked that there were so many human beings in the world.”

Sleepytime taps into this sense of wonder mixed with horror in many of its songs, especially newer offerings like “Salamander.” A mix of apocalyptic sonics — machine-gun drumming, theatrical vocals, commanding rhythms, and loads of distortion — illustrates the struggle to survive in a hostile environment while the band’s absurdist humor seems to mirror the cosmos, laughing at each tiny creature’s fragile existence.

A few tracks from past albums may find their way onto the film’s soundtrack as well. One possibility is “Phthisis,” a song from Of Natural History that imbues Sleepytime’s live act with the essence of an ancient death rite. Beginning with a dose of wailing vocals and metaphorical lyrics from violinist Carla Kihlstedt, the song descends into a primordial ooze of passionate melodies and precise, pounding rhythms. And it’s one of the group’s more straightforward compositions.

Another contender is “The Greenless Wreath,” from the band’s 2007 release, In Glorious Times. Frykdahl’s voice scrapes and scratches like Tom Waits‘ as custom-made instruments create a jungle of futuristic sounds. Built by bassist Dan Rathbun, these instruments create a new lexicon of sounds with which the band can communicate its vision. (Examples include the Pedal-Action Wiggler, a pedal-powered version of the Brazilian berimbau, and the Electric Pancreas, a set of thin metal slices that make a crunching sound when whacked with a stick.)

Then there’s a metal spring, inspired by the one that Einstürzende Neubauten plays in “Selbstportrait mit Kater.” Sleepytime uses it as a percussive instrument and a zany stage prop, along with a bicycle wheel, a kitchen sink, and other found objects.

“Bands like Einstürzende Neubauten — just the number of different things they would make into instruments is inspiring,” Rathbun says. “I realized pretty quickly that one of the most direct ways to have a unique, original sound is to play instruments no one else is playing.”

Frykdahl admits that it’s hard for the band to stick to simple musical concepts — or traditional instrumentation — in its recordings because it has mastered so many daring feats onstage. “Our natural tendency as composers is to fill the space with notes and harmony and melody, which means not leaving room for listening to the noise,” he says. “What we often wish we could do is make beautiful, simple music with a focus on the sound itself, but we like playing notes too much to do that. It seems like the people who do that best are non-musicians who don’t really practice their instruments.”

In other words, Sleepytime isn’t just another prog band with death-metal growls and guitars; it’s an ensemble of classical musicians making high art from unconventional sources. Frykdahl is more likely to gush about modern classical greats Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti than experimental contemporaries Meshuggah and Melt-Banana — when he’s not wrapped up in fairy tales, that is.

Frykdahl, his baby daughter, and Dawn McCarthy—his wife and bandmate in psych-folk project Faun Fables — recently traveled to Idyllwild, California to take in the scenery and make a “fairy-tale rock musical” with a bunch of high-school musicians. Like The Last Human Being, it’s a tale of being left behind. It’s also the perfect story for a tiny hamlet that’s mile high in mountains.

“We arrived with the idea of doing something with the Pied Piper story, where there’s a town that’s infested with rats and the piper leads the rats away,” Frykdahl says. “When the town doesn’t pay the piper, he leads all the children away too, except for this one kid who has a bad foot. That kid doesn’t reach the mountains with the other kids, so he spends his life haunted by what he missed. So, of course, we decided to focus on him.”

The updated fable begins 30 years later than the original, with the bum-footed kid as town mayor. One day, his childhood playmates begin to reappear, as young as the day that they left. Pretty soon the village is filled with orphans, and he must decide what to do with them. According to Frykdahl, using lots of orphan characters makes for lots of acting roles, which allows all of the kids to play themselves—or wilder, more mythical versions of themselves—as they write original songs for the project.

“Right now, we’re madly finishing up parts they can sight-read on French horn and cello, and we may need to do a polyrhythms workshop,” he says, swept up in a flurry of creativity. “But hey, we get to indulge our obsession with fairy tales and mythology, which is really where it all started for us as performers—with cool stories.”

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Rupa & the April Fishes bridge cultural divides with pranks

“I used to dream of a pirate ship that would take me away from here / out to the open sea, into the biggest blue / complete with a cast of unsavory crew who’d show me things that I shouldn’t do,” sings Rupa Marya, ringleader of Rupa & The April Fishes, on “Wishful Thinking,” the closing track on the band’s 2008 release, eXtraOrdinary rendition.

Rupa & the April Fishes

It’s a fitting manifesto for a band that incorporates all sorts of renegade performance arts — from painting demonstrations to stilt walking — into its live shows, especially in its home base of San Francisco. “We live in an amazing community of artists where someone will just call up the night before a show and say, ‘Hey, do you mind if I play my accordion on the street outside?’” Marya says. “Each show ends up being different from the next based on the cast of characters.”

It’s a formula — or lack of formula — that helps Rupa & the April Fishes’ core members tap into their juiciest layers of creativity and helps the audience lose its preconceptions of what a concert can be. “For me, [live shows] are about everyone coming together to create something beautiful and otherworldly, to take you somewhere unrecognizable and discombobulate you so you can see things from a fresh perspective again,” Marya says. “Having a bunch of pranksters around to help you do that is really helpful.”

The central set of pranksters includes trumpet, accordion, percussion, and upright bass along with Marya on guitar and lead vocals, sung in Spanish, French, Hindi, and a bit of English. Though each of the Fishes is an accomplished solo musician, they sound their mightiest as a school, shifting seamlessly from an Argentine tango to a French chanson, tied together with vocals that are part Edith Piaf, part Hope Sandoval. This sound, which the band describes as “boundary-smashing global agit-pop,” makes mincemeat out of the artificial divides that maps, languages, and political regimes create.

The Fishes succeed in this mission in part because they know how these boundaries look, smell, taste, and sound. For Marya in particular, much of this knowledge comes from growing up in the midst of cultural collision. Born to Indian parents, she divided her childhood years among California, India, and the south of France. Marya was never able to blend in, whether due to her accent, the color of her skin, or her colorful personality, but she was able to carve out an extremely strong sense of self.

“The lessons I’ve learned from practicing medicine, from the amazing people I care for and work with, cross over into what I’m trying to accomplish with music, and vice versa.”

This process of identity building propelled the group’s 2009 recording, Este Mundo, which is sung almost entirely in Spanish. “All the motion in my life has led me to have more of a sense of home than homeland; I don’t have a strong national identity, but I do have a strong self-identity, with bridges to the many different aspects of who I am,” Marya says. “So the idea of home — what it is and where it’s found — has been a major theme in the music.”

Este Mundo frames these ideas not only as political questions but spiritual ones. And unlike eXtraOrdinary rendition, which has a carnival-meets-cabaret vibe and is sung almost entirely in French, it puts a Latin American spin on this quest for meaning.

Several of the album’s songs draw inspiration from brothel-bred tangos and cumbia, a style that began as a courtship dance among Colombian slaves and evolved into a form of political protest, spreading to Panama, Peru, Mexico, El Salvador, and Argentina, where it was adopted by both slum dwellers and orchestra leaders.

On Este Mundo, these dance rhythms create a mood that’s both romantic and rebellious, fit for dinner, dancing, and a hot-and-heavy discussion about Ché Guevara. Marya likens playing the album to looking through a microscope and a telescope at the same time. “It feels broad yet focused, with more abstract elements and more details at the same time,” she says.

The key to combining these apparent contradictions lies in Marya’s “other” job as a doctor at a San Francisco hospital, where she cares for many undocumented immigrants. Marya’s found that her work as a physician has moved her to help marginalized people find not only a voice but a place to call home.

It has also helped her discover music’s power to incite social change. “I’ll be walking down the hall in the hospital, checking in on each of my patients, and I’ll have a prostitute, a CEO, a law assistant, a student, and an immigrant mother, all within a few feet of each other — something that hardly ever happens outside hospitals,” she says.

“It has fueled something in me that’s constantly asking, ‘What kind of world do we live in?’ and ‘What kind of world do we want to live in?’ The purpose of art, I think, isn’t just to expose what’s there but to look at what you wish the world could be.”

One of those wishes involves healthcare, something that many of her musician colleagues and immigrant patients lack. Marya’s quick to point out that the healthcare system, which is supposed to take care of sick people and prevent healthy people from becoming sick, should not be driven by the rules of the free market.

“People who stand to profit from others’ sickness — the insurance companies, the drug companies — shouldn’t get to decide who gets to have an important operation or an MRI or medication, and they certainly shouldn’t be in the same room where decisions about healthcare reform are being made,” she says.

“America is a very wealthy country that has many resources, but its values are out of whack. Reform has to start with some very basic questions about morals and ethics, especially concerning who gets to allocate resources.”

If power can be shifted away from profit seekers, she says, the picture would look very different — and more people might be able to pursue creative careers such as music.

It’s these “what if” questions that link her own two careers as well. Whereas “what if” can lead to an unforgettable chorus or a mind-bending jam session in music, it can lead to a diagnosis or even the cure to a deadly disease in medicine. And “what if” encapsulates the potential of both fields to improve other people’s lives through caring, dedication, and creativity.

Marya admits that most people wouldn’t attempt to be both a doctor and a full-fledged musician, but she’s made it work by challenging the flack she’s received from both professions and highlighting the common ground they share.

“Both are very much focused on compassion and trying to create something that can help people, whether it’s just expressing hope or giving someone something to hold onto in a difficult period,” she says. “The lessons I’ve learned from practicing medicine, from the amazing people I care for and work with, cross over into what I’m trying to accomplish with music, and vice versa.”

Logistically speaking, Marya’s landed a pretty sweet position that lets her spend large chunks of time away from the hospital, touring and recording. She says that this setup isn’t so much a product of luck but knowing who she is.

“When I got my job at the hospital, I explained to them that I wouldn’t be happy without being able to be a musician too,” she says. “They agreed to let me try it, and they saw that it worked, that I’m invigorated and excited to care for my patients when I return from the road. Without music, I wouldn’t be nearly as good of a doctor, and without medicine, I wouldn’t be nearly as good of a musician.”

It’s possible, of course, that Marya’s some kind of superhuman with endless supplies of energy, patience, and passion — plus a sense of optimism bordering on lunacy. The truth is that she’s not crazy at all. Like many artists, she’s fascinated with the fate that no one can escape: death. The difference is that death motivates her rather than making her want to smoke or drink or shudder beneath a cozy pile of blankets.

“When you see a lot of people die, it gives you a very strong appreciation for life,” she says. “You know that time is going to come when you’re too sick to get out of bed, and for me this means making the most out of the time when I am alive and healthy.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s also a tribute to my patients who have passed,” she explains. “That energy and hunger for life is probably the best thing I can give both my fans and my patients who are fighting to get well.”

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Title Tracks: In Blank

John Davis’ sophomore release as Title Tracks proves he’s a force to be reckoned with in the crowded field of power-pop. The former member of post-hardcore outfit Q and Not U recruited a band for this disc, dressing his punkish troubadour tunes in rhythmic guitars and fast-paced drums.

Davis uses Elvis Costello’s vocals as a model throughout the album, infusing them with Ted Leo’s vigor. Opening track “Shaking Hands” takes a Ramones-meets-Rubinoos approach to popcraft, punctuated by the occasional shouted vocal but driven by solid hooks. Adrenaline flows as guitars race and drums thunder, leading into a fist-pumping second track, “Turn Your Face.” The melody’s simple enough for sing-along moments but rarely gets boring, soaring when you expect it to dive and exploring minor-key moments when a ray of sunshine seems just around the corner.

“I Can’t Hide” warms up with fuzzy guitars, then finds a kernel of joy in its rich, major-key chords. Meanwhile, the guitars take on a Velvet Underground-style timbre, hinting at a sped-up “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” However, the penultimate tune, “It’s Wrong,” is where things really get interesting, with a Shins-style nod to the Honeycombs’ 1964 hit “Have I the Right.”

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The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea

Stephin Merritt must have sonar. Whether helming The Magnetic Fields or penning songs for films and musicals, he finds depth in even the shallowest of topics and creates meaning by exploring meaninglessness. The title of his new, self-produced album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, hints at this process as it summons daydreams about mermaids, pirates, and amorous octopi.

Synthesizers power this emotional bathysphere, recalling the sound that the band debuted on Distant Plastic Trees in 1991 and refined on 69 Love Songs in ’99. Hints of ’80s synth-pop pepper the recording as well, nodding to artists such as Gary Numan and earlier versions of the Merritt that fans know and love.

The album’s sonic textures aren’t entirely retro, however. Many of the electronic gadgets that shaped this disc didn’t exist in the ’90s, and after making three synth-less albums — i, Distortion, and Realism — the band was eager to test-drive the instruments that the past decade has spawned. The result is a vintage, back-to-the-future Magnetic Fields.