Monday, March 23, 2009

Dan Torres: Breaking the Silence

In this constantly evolving community one path inevitably leads to another, opening our eyes and ears to the talent that lies right in front of us.  A few weeks ago at The Living Room, the trail of scattered postcards strewn across tables at Madi Diaz's show guided me to the CD/DVD Release Party of yet another audibly stimulating artist, Dan Torres.

On Friday, March 13 at 9pm, an aura of respect hovered over the record release party at The Living Room, carefully slithering through the audience's anticipation of the next striking note.  Promoting "Dan Torres: Live," an acoustic mix of both previously recorded and brand new songs, Dan commanded the jam-packed crowd with a powerful voice and impressive guitar skills that rocked listeners into a silent trance, only to be awoken by the finale of egg shakers percussively highlighting an outstanding collaborative finale.  The exquisitely packaged CD/DVD offers a gorgeous arrangement of live music that takes its listeners through every emotion and back again; it's a collection that speaks of life, love, and the human condition that is raw, stripped and relatable. 

Stage presence and vocal control come so naturally to this performer, it's hard to believe Dan just started playing the NYC circuit in 2005.  With formal training in music and composition, his guitar skills were self-taught and vocals came much later in life.  Torres started writing a bit in high school, more in college, but preferred to seek out others to perform his songs.  "I was very reluctant, I hated it," Dan says about singing, "I was just figuring it out." Influenced musically by the big chords and interesting voicings of guitarists from Stone Temple Pilots, Tonic, and Nirvana, it was singers like Jimmy Gnecco, Bono, Matthew Bellamy, Freddie Mercury, and Jeff Buckley who guided his voice.  In singing along with albums like Buckley's "Grace," Torres learned more about his range and vocal capabilities, developing a style uniquely his own.

Digging through the layers of Torres' striking music, a journal of lyrics sits peacefully, composed on mostly real-life events, with a bit of fantasizing over how things could have happened.  When first starting the writing process Dan claimed, "I had no experience with writing, I had experience with living."  As life moved on, new lyrics became more imaginative, letting the listeners take away what they wanted from it.  "I tell a lot of secrets very publicly, and that's kind of a relief, " Torres admits.  "Everything is a metaphor for something else."  

Enticing for spectators, who are captured by the artistic and comfortable flow of the live acoustic album, Dan's writing offers something for everyone.  "I try to write music where musicians will respect it and the average listener will still enjoy it."  Mission accomplished, as evident by the blend of people who find pleasure, excitement, and a little piece of themselves in each of Torres' songs.

Dan Torres' musical journey began not too long ago, in New York City circa 2005.  Recording started immediately, his first album "Where I Stand" was released in Fall 2006 and a tour was booked by Summer 2007.  The country-wide tour ended in Portland, Oregon, where Torres ended up living for a year. In October 2007, Dan's manager set up a performance at CMJ in New York, followed by a 6-week tour in England with percussionist Ryan Vaughn, before finally returning to NYC last summer. 

While being on the road can be tough, this 25-year-old understands the importance of moving around, meeting new people, and treating this career path like the business it is.  Success has come naturally because of this attitude, with Torres filling listening rooms and clubs all over New York City in the past year.  Perhaps its because he truly gets the scene, from understanding the different neighborhoods, time slots, and venues to realizing starting at the bottom and working your way up, just like any other job.  Favorite places to play include Rockwood Music Hall and The Living Room, despite the fact these free venues pull in little income.  "For the artists who need to make money it sucks, but at the same time we meet so many more people," Torres explains, "It's more important for me to have a line out the door than to force people to buy my CD."

Dan acknowledges while NYC is vast in opportunities, it's also pertinent to an artist's progression to leave, go on tour, and meet "normal" people.  These "normal" people include music lovers, not just music players; the average downloader or listener who simply respect and like music.  "I would like to play for 1,000 strangers every night," Torres states as his personal goal.  "Beyond that it's not intimate anymore."  Specific venue types include concert halls where classical musicians play, where "you don't need a mic because they are so well built."  

To think this musician's career began in a small TriBeca bar that no longer exists called "The Orange Bear."  Over spring break in college, Dan placed a call to the owner asking if he could play an open mic on a random weekday night.  The owner agreed, leading to his first gig where the audience consisted of three friends, the bartender and the owner.  Instead of being disheartened, the young Torres saw this as a business opportunity, and started organizing gigs, advertising, and bringing in other bands.  Eventually more night gigs, including weekends, were added and crowds grew; a fantastic discovery into gaining fans and incorporating musicians.  Over time Dan began playing at larger, more established venues in the city, and now practically calls Rockwood home.  "Thanks [to that opportunity] I figured out how to promote bigger things," Torres states. "I want to be able to call a venue and say I want to play tomorrow."

One of the most impressive aspects of Dan's show for both the listeners and the artist is how breathtakingly quiet a room becomes.  Listing this as his favorite part of performing, Torres declares, "Silence.  When the audience is totally silent when I'm singing.  Because it's really hard for people to sit quietly and it must mean what I'm doing really means something to them."  A true observer of human nature, Dan doesn't always come with a set list prepared, opting to watch the audience to figure out what to play next; probably the reason why songs resonate so personally to each individual eagerly hanging on the next chord.

Above all, it's the natural, genuine nature of Dan Torres, a man who values the importance of being a good person, that will keep drawing audiences and filling those 1,000 person concert halls.  People often forget that artists are regular people, placing them on pedestals or idolizing them for the wrong reasons.  Dan makes it clear that is not his intent.  "I make it a point when I play to ask everyone to come say hello, and I mean it."

Check out Dan Torres at or  And the next time you are at a show, be sure to say hello. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Caleb Hawley: Welcome to the Show.

If the culture and arts of New York City were to be an integral part of a daily diet, Caleb Hawley would be the main course. This well-balanced musician understands the value and importance of entertainment, incorporating humor, song variety, audience participation, and even a few sweet dances moves that flavor even the quietest venues. No stranger to the stage, Hawley has spent the past year touring the country, playing colleges, coffee houses, and a medley of local music spots, impressing audiences with a uniquely powerful voice and charming stage presence.

Hailing from the Midwest, Hawley is the youngest of three and grew up in a household with musician parents and a singer/songwriter brother. “Our vacations every summer were never to Mexico,” Caleb says, “We went to folk festivals.” Formal music lessons started at age 11, first with the drums, moving onto the guitar. Inspired by rock music like Metallica and Nirvana, Caleb joined the jazz band with dreams of pursuing the electric guitar. With three possible life goals in place at age 16, it was the singer/songwriter path that won, beating out college music professor and singing in a local acappella group. After high school he spent a year at community college, transferring later to Berklee College in Boston to complete his music degree. The move to New York came directly after graduation, along with marriage to high school sweetheart Samantha.

The 24-year-old’s music is a delicious blend of acoustic, funk and pop, with a dash of “white boy soul.” Growing up listening to a song’s lyrical content led to Hawley’s folk-based writing, but a significant jazz background gave way to gospel and blues influences. Another highlight of the act is Caleb’s use of the loop pedal, an increasingly popular instrument used by guitarists “to create looping layers of melody or texture during a live performance.”

“I first started using it at colleges because they wanted to hear pop songs,” clarifies Hawley. With a bag full of tricks to “spice thing up," including a musical caterpillar, wooden spoon, frying pan, shaker, and whistle, the audience is treated to radio hits like “Senorita” and “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” along with Caleb’s personal introductory rap, a clever, catchy marketing technique to introduce his website.

A true observer of human nature and social aspects, Caleb was originally drawn to satirical music, citing Randy Newman and Nelly McKay as two major influences. “What comes to me naturally is making fun of people,” Hawley laughs, but understands, “I love funny music, but I’ll listen to the CD and few times and that’s what it’s good for.” As a result, recent songs have taken a more serious turn, with chords that sing of beauty, sadness, struggle, and hope. The outcome: Music you can listen to over and over again; time capsules of the writer’s life.

The next wind of Caleb’s tour swirls through major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, and Portland, as well local gigs in Nebraska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. A self-made musician, Hawley started booking tours when he was 16, taking the family van to various locations in the Midwest. One of the most difficult aspects of this lifestyle is the do-it-yourself attitude that must prevail in order to succeed. A lesson taught at a young age: “The effort you put into it in the long run will get you further.” This is particularly true in the NYC scene, loaded with options and talented young artists; it’s hard to stand out in the crowd. Previously discouraged by the “hard to impress” atmosphere in New York, Caleb felt an enormous boost of confidence and energy after a warm reception at Rockwood Music Hall last week. “It was amazing,” he said, “When the crowd is good it is easy to feed off of.”

One of the top 12 finalists in “New York Songwriter’s Circle” last year, Caleb continues to perform with this incredible operation, next appearing in a live showcase at World CafĂ© Live in Philadelphia. The networking provided by this intimate and exclusive group offers publicity to the artists, a chance put forth their most powerful music, and camaraderie between producers, musicians, and club owners. Another remarkable facet of the New York artists scene, “Songwriter’s Circle” brought Hawley one step closer to his short-term goal: to be able to walk into any town, at any given time, and draw a crowd of fifty strangers who are there solely to see him play.

What will lure these crowds is Caleb’s phenomenal ability to capture the energy of a performance. “That’s something that has always been important to me, putting on a full, entertaining show. As a solo singer/songwriter, you can be so much like everyone else, so you just have to keep switching it up. I strive to make the show fun,” Hawley explains. "Fun" is certainly the vibe radiated at a Caleb Hawley show, where you walk away smiling, happy, fulfilled, and enthused; a main course that satisfies so wholly, there’s no need for dessert.

For more information and tour dates please check out or

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Madi Diaz: The Soul Behind the Voice

It's a Saturday night in New York City, and The Living Room is packed from the stage to the bar.  A medley of characters fill the room, all eager to hear the astounding voice of fresh-faced 22 year-old singer/songwriter, Madi Diaz, whose music can only be described as an orgasm for your ears.  From the fanciful opening song "It's Only a Kiss" to the heart-tugging encore "Pictures," Diaz commands her audience with every effortless note escaping that gifted mouth.

Growing up in Lancaster, PA, Madi's father (a musician as well) introduced her to piano at age five, and guitar at fourteen.  "I lived out in the middle of nowhere... I rode horses for ten years before I did anything else," Diaz says with a laugh, "Ponies were really great until I found the guitar, and then that was really great."  More formal training came during her high school years at Paul Green's School of Rock in Philadelphia, PA, before heading to Berklee College in Boston.  Diaz now resides in Nashville, TN, writing, recording, networking, touring, and following her dream.

Perched casually at the bar at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, it's almost hard to believe the powerful voice, moving lyrics, and infectious spirit that radiates out of this humble young girl onstage.  Describing her indie/folk/pop blend as "flirty, cynical, and distracted," you can't help but wonder if that's how this insanely talented artist also views herself.

Diaz started writing around the age of 16, creating songs that reach out to audiences of all ages and lyrics that resonate maturity and real-life experience.  "When you start writing a song it takes a direction no matter what you try to do, and the more you try to force it, it doesn't get to it's full potential," Madi explains, "If the emotion is taking it one way you have to follow it."  It seems the road to create a song is similar to the road to create an artist.

Taking care of all the booking and hype promotions, finding a place to sleep, eating well, and learning the target audience in each new city they tour is just a sampling of responsibility for this young entrepreneur.  "It's not just getting there to play your set and pour your heart into," Diaz maintains.  There are club owners and audiences to thank, other bands to make connections with, CD's and promotional materials to sell, mailing lists to generate, and networking to be made across the board.  Challenging, but not discouraging for Madi, whose band mates provide a fantastic, built-in support system.

Madi Diaz is rarely seen performing without best friend Kyle Ryan by her side.  Diaz and Ryan have been playing and writing together since meeting at Berklee; their onstage connection screams of a solid friendship and mutual respect.  Touring with Adam Popick and Mitch Jones, the gifted foursome are a pleasure to watch.  Constant movement happens on stage, with each band member rotating instruments and vocals for every single track, validating that these are no ordinary musicians, but artists in every sense of the word.  Not phased by being the token female, Diaz says, "It's been so gratifying to just have people that know you and respect you... They are my peers, musicians, friends, colleagues, brothers and fathers... lot of roles all in one."  The admiration is reciprocal, obvious as they let Madi take center stage.

Another mentor and source of inspiration for Madi is manager Ty Stiklorius.  Diaz sings her praises: "She's like a big sister, best friend, mom, manager... she has an amazing career, a beautiful baby, and has struggled so hard to get where she is... she just wants to help other people, the light of the world, just wants to give... I hope that one day I'm in a position like hers so that I can help somebody like myself."  

This budding 20-something declares performing a John Denver duet with Tom Paxton at the Songwriters Hall of Fame to be a career highlight, and holds high esteem for Radiohead, respecting the way they've built their albums and their command of the industry.  "They've made really smart decisions- production-wise, career-wise- that I think everybody could take note from.  They've done it really well," she explains.

As for advice Diaz would pass on to other new artists getting their feet wet? "Do everything.  Never say no.  Say yes until you get so busy because people know you are always going to say yes.  That's when you can start picking and choosing."  Madi adds with a laugh, "Except drugs.  Say no to drugs but say yes to everything else."

Now promoting "Ten Gun Salute," the EP follow up to her debut "Skin and Bone," Diaz's growth and experimental style with music is intriguing to observe.  Recording "Skin and Bone" in Hawaii with a group of young musicians and producers new to the scene, Diaz exclaimed, "I barely had enough songs for a record!" Citing influences such as Patty Griffin and Ryan Adams, Madi was still learning "to influence and create what you need to do instead of imitating."

Collaborating with Kyle on "Ten Gun Salute," Madi's new EP (which was recorded in less than seven days) has taken a wonderful turn lyrically, vocally, and musically to incorporate a conglomeration of new concepts and sounds.  Instruments have been added, and that powerful voice grabs every emotion of the uniquely different songs.  "We realized we didn't need to force songs, we could let them be what they were," Diaz explains.

Still writing the new, tweaking the old, and pushing forward on this incredible journey, Madi's passion, commitment, and love for her art is obvious to anyone within miles.  Observing our nation is "do-it-yourself," this aggressive musician understands the importance of who you know, who you need to know, and figuring out how to get there. "It's all right there for you," Diaz says, " People just need to have the drive to go and get it."  No regrets reside in this gifted singer/songwriter, who made her peace with youth and is ready for this road. "I think this would be what I was missing if I did anything else," Madi states with absolution.

For the record, the world would be missing out if she did anything else.

For more information on Madi Diaz and to check out her tour line-up, please visit or www.myspace.madidiaz.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ryan Vaughn: Outside the "Box"

Ryan Vaughn may strike you as just another Village hipster with a cool air of confidence and a dream. Excited blue eyes accentuated by Clark Kent glasses, a genuine smile, and a warm greeting make you feel instantly at ease. There's more to this unique and talented drummer/percussionist, however; he's one of the most honest, driven, and well-spoken young artists in the up-and-coming New York City music scene.

This 25-year-old NY implant burst his way onto the scene in 2004. The first beat on his drum came at the age of 10 in a California school jazz band. That percussion experience put him ahead of the game when he moved to Arizona the following year, where Ryan's competitive nature pushed him to continue being the best in his class and stay ahead of the curve. After high school graduation he enrolled in Mesa Community College, earning two associates degrees before transferring with a full ride to WPUNJ's prestigious jazz program.

"My dad had a job he hated and retired way early and always encouraged my brother and I to pursue something we enjoy and have fun, but be smart about it," Vaughn said. He credits his parents, brother, aunts and uncles with being one hundred percent supportive of his career choice and talent, despite not coming from a "musical family."

In sitting and talking with Ryan, enthusiasm and passion for his art radiate through the room. I first saw Ryan perform on a cajon (accent on the "a")- a large wood box on which he makes original sounds that rival a full African tribe in the height of fertility season. The rhythms, beats, clatters and reverberations he was able to make out of what seemed like a simple box and some kitchen utensils blew me away. The "utensils" include shakers, tambourines, sticks, cymbals, etc. "I'll [see something] make it my own and try to do it better," says Vaughn, "Everything makes sound... I'll play the table, I'll play the floor... There's always more, there's never enough."

An artist who can discover rhythms that never existed before, and who can breathe life into a piece of music rejuvenating it's very essence; three words that Ryan used to represent his sound are: "Organic. Primal. Colorful." Vaughn explains, "Organic- I don't strap stuff on myself... I need to be able to move around, pick it up off the floor... I want to be very earthly and worldly... all honest, not contrived. Primal- You hit things. They make sound. Man hits box. It's all physical. Colorful- I create textures... It's like painting with sound." And what an exquisite picture he paints.

After sitting for awhile sipping our 9th Street Espresso coffees, we dove into the topic of the New York City singer/songwriter scene. Vaughn has impressively established relationships with virtually every singer/songwriter in the city in the past 5 years. One quick glance at his gig calendar and you'll see that is no exaggeration.

Spending his first year working, commuting, sleeping two hours a night, checking out different venues and artists, he would attend shows alone, collect cards, load up his database, and send e-mails, hoping to get his name out to as many people as possible.

It was his persistence with Jill Stevenson after seeing her play The Living Room that landed him his first NY gig. He went on to play with the Josh Dion Band and later hooked up with Dan Torres. With Dan, he spent time writing and playing in California, leading to a six-month tour in England, before returning to New York last year and hitting the scene hard. Most recently, Ryan was featured on The Conan O'Brien Show as a percussionist for Joshua Radin, an opportunity that came up, quite literally, because of a dream and a friendship with Radin's drummer. "Somehow the universe takes care of you. Sometimes you just have to have faith... that you're gonna make rent," Vaughn says with a slight smirk, as though taunting the Universe to test him.

For Vaughn, and many of the artists who live and breathe the culture and music of NYC, the singer/songwriter scene is extremely personal. A community of like souls, making music and trying to survive. From folk to country to rock, the essence is all the same- original music and personal lyrics, untainted by professional producers. Songs are their "babies," their "seedlings," continuously played out to see how they grow. Sometimes the arrangements will never change; sometimes they will evolve ten times over. Ryan compared the writing process to two schools of thought: "Beethoven wrote nine symphonies and spent forever trying to get it right. Mozart just cranked them out. Most singer/songwriters fall into one of those categories."

Vaughn pointed out these musicians recently had one of their most successful nights in years at the live music bar Piano's NYC, on a random Tuesday. Why? Because people need music right now. It's cheap, it's entertaining, it's an escape from the problems we deal with every day. It's comforting, a warm blanket to wrap ourselves in on these dismal, cold winter nights. Every song provides a hug- some warm and squishy, some tight and fierce, some sort and comforting. We find reflections of ourselves in these artists, identifying with their pleasure and pain; their musical journey offers a glimmer of hope.

Ryan Vaughn's passion and ambition is so addicting and infectious you feel inspired to do more with your life after speaking with him. Musicians who strike a personal chord for Ryan include Dan Torres, Wes Hutchinson, Sasha Dobson, Mieka Pauley, and Pete and J, to name a few. They're incredible singers and songwriters, along with being smart business people. Networking is second nature to them; understanding the give and take, and immersing themselves with like minds. As for Ryan, his words say it best. "I want to play with the stars, I want to be a household name, I want to change the world. I want it all. I want big."

For more information on Ryan and upcoming shows, check out