It’s when you hear artists as they’re evolving as musicians that you really respect the talent it takes to be successful in this business. And make no mistake about the nature of this beast: it’s a business.
You need to show how you can be an economical investment for any of the major labels to pay attention to your skills. You can be the greatest show on earth during a festival like SXSW, and you can be the talk of the town, but if you’re not marketable to some necktie wearing stiffs in the back room of some boardroom you can just take your pachouli and go somewhere else.
Eren Cannata’s dedication to his music is one thing but when you listen to how he has found a way to exist without the help of the big label infrastructure that has made good bands sell their creative soul to the material devil he’s an amazingly sharp man who is equally precise when it comes to delivering on the melodic goods.
Eren’s music travels a route that many can relate to but so few have put so well without sounding trite, maudalin or saccharine sweet. His album, Blame It On The City, is his first major release and one that defies convention if you’re taste has been steeped in the false and theatric nihilism of My Chemical Romance or any other number of emo bands that should really be big boys about making their way through the world; suck it up, stop whining and if things are really that bad then get a job and call me when you realize life isn’t supposed to be wine and roses.
I caught up with Eren just days after the release of his full-length album.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: You had an in-store concert appearance recently, didn’t you?
EREN CANNATA: Yes, the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, New York City. It was a huge performance for us and a milestone for my career, my life. It was a bit surreal, too. There were tons of people there and it was so much fun and for the first time my CD is everywhere, they even had it in the New Release bin, the whole bit was pretty exciting.
STIPP: I would ask if that’s the biggest crowd you’ve played for prior to the release of this album but I’m sure you’ve played for bigger…
CANNATA: Yeah, it definitely wasn’t the biggest venue I’ve ever played because I grew up on the road with my dad who was a saxophonist for Billy Joel and The Beach Boys, I was a tour kid, and, at times, all of us would come out and play with the band on the biggest of shows. So, I’m working my way up to that! One day it’ll be my show.
STIPP: When did this all happen?
CANNATA: Well, I was born in 85 and I went out with the Beach Boys in the 90s, because that’s what he was doing around then, and it was just a blast. I got real close with Carl Wilson, who has since passed away since then, and I got very close to him but it was one of those experiences I remember at all times and taught me a lot about music.
STIPP: What was one of the biggest things you took away from it?
CANNATA: Well, Carl Wilson taught me how to warm up my voice. Simple as that. I was one of the only kids allowed in his dressing room at the time, I don’t know why, my dad says it was because every one else was a little more annoying than me, but I would go back there and say “This is how you warm up…This is what we do…These are my guitars…” They also taught me about harmony and how to blend and how to be good to each other on the road and how to write good music. Even if they didn’t personally show me, osmosis picked it up and I’m trying to apply it to my own music making process.
But I took a lot away from it all even though I was simply enjoying myself at the time, just trying to be an annoying little kid.
STIPP: How did your experience, then, shape how you thought about in which direction you wanted to take your own sound?
CANNATA: The Beach Boys and Billy Joel…the songwriting, alone, is amazing to me. Pet Sounds was revolutionary in how it was recorded and written. Billy’s The Stranger…they’re true songsters. They have ideas and concepts that…let’s say about “love.” Everybody talks about love but how are you going talk about love and make it popular, again, and make it something that’s new, fresh and catchy and a lovely piece of art too? So, through them, I’ve shaped my sound…find that hook, find that difference, find that harmony part in your vocal that people have done before but you’re saying with your flair and your attitude and that you’re making your own. And that’s something I’ve taken away that’s been invaluable.
STIPP: How does that influence your writing?
CANNATA: Sometimes people will ask, “What’s your passion about the whole thing? Is it performing? Is it playing guitar?” But, really, the thing that I am first and the thing that I love the most, and would never give up in a million years for anything, is writing music. I love writing and listening to great music. That’s where my heat lies, that’s how it’s shaped. I like to start with that.
If my song doesn’t sound good with me and an acoustic guitar in my hand or me and a piano or just me singing a capella…if it doesn’t have any meaning or significance when I do any of those then I don’t believe there’s any grounds for me to put it on an album. That’s why I’m so excited about the album because all those songs mean something to me and they say something. They all can be played acoustically.
I was at the University of Maryland and playing for the students there, 600 some odd tickets were sold, and I did the entire show acoustically. It was great and everyone had a really good time. It really shows the bare bones of what I love to do.
STIPP: Especially on a song like “Part of Me” I thought about how the sound of that song represented of what I could compare it to from my own musical experiences. It finally came to me that listening to that song was like hearing the genesis of a band like Toad the Wet Sprocket; a real focus on instrumentation, introspection and a sound that any college kid in the early 90’s could gravitate toward.
CANNATA: Absolutely. And that’s what I want to come out of my music; I want to be as specific enough and say exactly how I feel but yet when people listen to it I hope they can say something like, “Yeah. I’ve been there.” Something that can capture the audience like that as they listen.
STIPP: Who do you admire that’s out there, then, contemporarily speaking, that’s playing right now and speaking to what you’re trying to accomplish with your music?
CANNATA: I think John Mayer. He’s got something magical about him. Not because of his first or second album but because of the way he’s trying to depart from his usual self. I read in an interview about him he said, “I’m more comfortable with a guitar in my hand than a microphone in front of me.” He’s a great songwriter, he’s a decent singer but he really plays guitar and he was able to tell his record label, “I am going in this direction. You need to trust me.” And, personally, I really enjoy that; he’s taking the bull by the horns and doing it like that.
That being said, though, it’s not my most favorite of things I’ve ever heard. People that I admire right now? I listen to old stuff. Things like Tower of Power and I still listen to Billy Joel and The Beach Boys. Right now I am completely hooked on the new Beatles “Love” album. I’m completely hooked on that.
STIPP: And, at this point, John can pretty much call the shots. When you were recording Blame It On The City was there any give and take with what you wanted and what those in charge wanted?
CANNATA: Here’s the brilliant part about that…my father has a recording studio here in Glen Cove, Long Island and it was basically that when my dad was on the road with Billy my mom wouldn’t let my dad spend his money on fancy cars or boats or anything. So, she said, “Buy something that will give back…something that you can do and love it for the rest of your life.” So, they put a studio together and since I’m an only child I am totally indebted to my parents for that. Being that it was here, my dad produced my album and it was a lovely thing where all the comments that were made were in my best interest. It was like “How do you feel?”, “What do think you should do?”, “What do you think sounds good with this?” That’s why it worked out real well.
We also didn’t have a label hanging over our head telling us what to do and so we started our own indie label, Brown Dog Records, my father and I and an attorney. It’s great. We signed up with Icon Distribution and they got it into stores for us. And, so, the people we answer to is my father and an attorney that is completely in love with the project. If we think we should do something, we do it. If we don’t want to do it, we don’t do it and no one tells us otherwise. It’s one of the most lucky situations we’ve fell into and it’s certainly one of the most lucky things that have happened in my life so far. Being able to have an album in stores and doing it the way I want to do it, by choosing the pictures we want with the CD and not the ones that people would negate or try to airbrush…
STIPP: Is that a trap where you see some performers fall into?
CANNATA: A lot of musicians want it so bad that they’re willing to compromise integrity for it…which is tough. If I didn’t have this position I might be compromising my integrity too. I want it that bad as well. It’s a dirty game but you’ve got to play by the rules and break some rules at the same time.
STIPP: Speaking of distribution…With music companies growing ever more conglomeratized how difficult is it to get your music…
CANNATA: Distribution is extremely hard. A) A good distribution deal, in itself, is a hard thing to get and B) some distributors will simply release an album online and say, “Here it is…It’s released.” It’s tough but we’re excited because we have a distribution company that believes in us. Just being able to have someone like Josh Kelly, someone who I listen to while I was writing my album, and for us to be on the same roster of distributors is pretty cool.
STIPP: Have you had to be more of a business person than someone who wouldn’t have to be…
CANNATA: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I never thought I would but when I discovered that I was going to have to wear a few hats, it’s what I had to do. We had to make sure we hired a really good team, a small team but effective, who could push it because we want people to buy it and we want people to listen to it. We know that there are some people who will listen to it and be opinionated about it but, you know what, we think it’s good and if they like it, they like it.
STIPP: You’re going to be touring behind this, right?
CANNATA: We’re probably going to be doing 20 shows in the next month, just by myself, just doing acoustic things, just promoting it out there, doing a lot of college towns and things like that. But a lot of that stuff is up in the air. We’re booking shows 1 by 1 and getting ourselves on the road.
I’m so damn excited to get out there and show everyone every song that I’ve ever written from the beginning of time…I’m very comfortable on stage. It’s an exciting moment for me and I can’t wait to share this with everyone.
STIPP: Going back to the recording of the album, I’m curious, did there ever come a time when you felt like you were overproducing a song? You can hear it in how some artists just add layer after layer…
CANNATA: Of course. There’s one song on the album that my father and I did not produce, “Part of Me” in fact, and the one thing we worried about was that it was done too many times. We sort of have this concept in the studio…everything you lay down, make sure it sounds amazing. Don’t say, “We’ll come back to it.” And that’s just good producing, that’s not over producing. And when you when you over produce something it’s when you keep putting more and more on top of what was there; it gets cluttered. Because here, in the studio, we have the liberty of being able to burn CDs after we’re done every day and we’ll be able to be honest with each other. I might say, “Dad…Didn’t really need those background parts,” and he’ll be in a position to be able and say, “Yeah, I agree with you. Take ‘em out.” And we’ll be done just like that. We have a good checks and balances system here.
STIPP: But what happens when you come to a crossroad where you disagree? Are you, ultimately, the president, C.E.O.?
CANNATA: We’re very democratic, diplomatic about it all but if, let’s say, an engineer feels real strongly about something we know something’s wrong because they work with us. These people who are the engineers have been engineers for my dad for 20 years. They learned how we work and a lot of those people who’ve worked here have gone on to be Grammy award winning mixers and engineers themselves. So, their opinions are very valuable to us. If they’re strongly feeling something we take that into consideration. At the end of the day, yeah, we’ll make the decision but, in the back of our mind, we might be thinking, “You know what? They might be right about this so let’s see how we can rework it to make it perfect without making it sound too homogenized and over produced.”
STIPP: In your writing, what comes first: melody or the lyrics?
CANNATA: For me, sometimes, the music comes first or the lyrics come first. It’s always different. But the most successful way, I’ve found, is if I sit down and everything comes out at the same time. “Blame It On The City” came out all at once. It was a streaming thought. Front to back. I didn’t even start with the chorus. Every song, to me, the reason why I would consider a good song for the album has a story like that.
STIPP: And something that I appreciate is the way these moments, these songs, seem honest. It seems like a decision you have to make as an artist as well.
CANNATA: Absolutely. You’ve got to find your true integrity in it and that’s what I really enjoy about what I do. It is believable because it is true. It’s those normal little stories of things that have happened to me and I’ve turned them into something interesting just by phrasing them into a way I think they should be phrased.
STIPP: Your sound seems reminiscent, like I’ve stated, of the college rock that seemed to be so prevalent in the early 90’s; minimal production, thick sound. Has anyone else commented on what this music appears indicative of to them?
CANNATA: There’s a lot of younger fans that I have and what I get from them is that this music is something completely different than what they’ve been exposed to and, from the older fans, a lot of people have said I have an old soul. I get that a lot. I average those two together and think that the music speaks to something that my older fans were listening to when they were the age of my younger fans.
STIPP: My last question, if you don’t mind offering some thoughts on the subject, is when I was reading your bio it said you really began your musical career with cover tunes, something that really helps with all those things necessary to being a good musician. What do you make of those guys who never move beyond that, those dudes who will forever play 25 cent draft and well drinks, damned to jam forever, singing back-to-back ditties like “Sister Christian” and “Panama”?
CANNATA: I find that a lot when I come back home.
Home for me is Long Island, New York and I find that when I come back home and I see all my old friends, they’re the ones at the bar playing those things and they’ll say, “This is life. Why would I ever want to leave here?”
But that’s what it is. It’s like that movie, GARDEN STATE. There are some but I feel like it’s almost a little too foolish to pigeonhole yourself to just do cover songs like that and try to make that your life.
At the Virgin in-store I did one. I did Jimi Hendrix’ “Fire” with Max Weinberg from Bruce Springsteen and Conan O’Brien…he came up and played with us.
CANNATA: We rocked it out. I put down my guitar and ran around on stage. It was fantastic and everyone had a really good time. It was the cherry on top of a completely original set. We played a great set, people were so in tune with the signing of the album…and we see Max there and we were, “Yo, Max. Come on, come on up.” I brought the horn section up and we played it with horns and made it something really unique that people could enjoy.
STIPP: Eren, thank you so much for making time for me. I hope the album does very, very well.
CANNATA: Thank you, absolutely.
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