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Posted Nov 24th, 2008 (5:30 pm) by Travis Müller

They say you should never meet the artists you admire, especially not the ones you may idolize. This principal stems from the same place as the old diva-notion, and that people don’t always reflect their music. This was entirely not the case with singer-songwriter Gregory Douglass of Burlington, VT. I met Mr. Douglass at a Japanese restaurant outside of Easthampton for an interview to discuss his music and where he’s headed. His touching music reflects his friendly personality, and over the course of the night, I forgot that I was working. The following comprises some of the more focused parts of our conversation over the course of the night.

IYS: So let’s start off with Battler, your new album that's coming out. How would you describe it? Would you say it’s like Up & Away with a continuation on heavy piano?

G. Douglass: Hmm [laughs]. Well, I haven’t given much thought to it yet; this is actually one of the first times I’ve talked about the new album, but my goal with this album was to get everything done much further in advance because I’m trying to be more strategic with the timing of the release, and having a lot of things happening at once - I hope it builds a bigger buzz.

IYS: Well, you’ve also got a tour going on right now. We’ll be seeing you tonight as well as in Cambridge early next year. What kind of headspace were you in when you were writing this album? I’ve heard that the best art often comes from pain.

G. Douglass: I find that myself. It was a pretty depressing time last winter because I was feeling really burned out from all the touring. So I decided to take much of the winter off [to] stay at home and hibernate in my studio. Since I live in Burlington, we get a pretty intense winter, so I just stayed home, you know? Watching Six Feet Under from beginning to end - and then all of a sudden these songs just came out of those few months, and then I made a game plan and felt a lot more focused. I’m glad that I took that downtime. A friend of mine told me once that you have to know when not to work. It’s part of your job to know when not to work. Especially in this industry. And I haven’t done much touring this year either because I’ve been working on this album so much. It’s got a few cabaret tracks on there, and I’ve been working with some new people like Anais Mitchell and Grace Potter of The Nocturnals.

IYS: Do you feel like you’ve hit your peak? Are you where you want to be musically?

G. Douglass: Well, I guess it depends on what your goals are. I always feel like I’m being pulled in two different directions — I wanna take advantage of being independent and uninhibited and be as creative as
I can, yet I want to [appeal] to the industry, or to whoever. I want to get a foot in the door, because, you know, I’m still struggling and I need help — it’s just not as sustainable as it could be. I’m always looking for the next opportunity. I actually listened to the last few albums in the car today, because it has been so long, and I thought I should hear how they sound in comparison.

IYS: So you can listen to your old stuff? Because just listening to this interview later is going to kill me.

G. Douglass: Yeah, but I always… cringe [laughs]. I think people’s talking voices are harder to playback.

IYS: Who would you say your influences are - Overall, and for
Battler? Who are you listening to?

G. Douglass: Well, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush are two of my biggest inspirations of all time. I'm also listening to a lot of Brandi Carlisle.

IYS: Now that’s interesting, because you have been compared to Rufus Wainwright in almost every little thing that’s written about you, and I have to say that I don’t hear it at all. I’m a fan of Rufus and of yours, and I don’t hear it. I think there’s a stigma attached to the fact that you’re both openly gay.

G. Douglass: Yeah, it’s an easier way to compartmentalize everything—so, “you’re a gay piano boy” means Rufus Wainwright.

IYS: I think it’s an entirely different aesthetic. I’ve noticed that a lot of your songs are narratives, and that they could be from your point of view or entirely somebody else’s.

G. Douglass: Yeah, I do try to write as universally as possible, because I know how personal it is to me when I can relate to a song, and the more specific the lyrics, the less the chance that people are going to feel like that song was written for them.

IYS: That brings me to the pronouns battle. You know, many gay songwriters don’t use he, but because your songs are narratives, you use whichever fits the best. And that you have songs geared towards many different audiences. Is there any agenda with your music?

G. Douglass: Well, I just try and stay as true to the song as I can. If I don’t feel connected to what I’m writing about, it’s going to translate.

IYS: What’s your favorite track to perform live?

G. Douglass: Hmmm. I guess that always changes. I think it depends on how long I’ve been playing a song. It’s always fun to play something that I haven’t played in a while, because it feels kind of new again. And it’s always fun to play new songs.

IYS: And how about a favorite venue?

G. Douglass: Well that’s hard too, but I love the intimate listening rooms like the one tonight [Pioneer Arts Center of Entertainment.] You can’t really beat those.

IYS: So, you prefer the shows where you can see the audience and the
like?

G. Douglass: Yeah, I feel connected.

THE SHOW

I was at the show for the sole purpose of watching Gregory as a fan first and as a writer second. In all truth, I never expect much out of a show with double acts. The fan bases tend to be different and you have to deal with people coming late and leaving early; that said, the first act to take the stage impressed me to the point where I found myself feverishly scribbling down notes about their performance. Polly Fiveash and Anand Nayak, who have been performing together since the mid-nineties, opened the show, playing an amazing setlist that had the audience enthralled from start to end. Fresh and relevant, the duo played a great mix of tracks from those they co-wrote together to covers of Bruce Springsteen.

Their style is very simple. It’s just them, the guitar, and the audience, which is all they need to make for a good show. Polly, with her long hair and green sweater sang like a true diva. There’s no real way to describe it except that she has the voices that most acts dream of — and she knows how to use it, successfully adapting it for sarcastic, funny, sad or uplifting tones. Starting out with a cover of Walking After Midnight, they touched on a variety of topics. The highlight of their act had to have been Bert the Cat an ode to an annoying cat they constantly crossed paths with while house-sitting. Without being kitschy or cheesy, the duo intertwined their humor with very introspective music that ranged from tunes about getting stoned and breaking things to the ballad of a suicidal friend. The two, who are known as “being very depressing” (in the words of Polly herself), played with not only each other but with the audience, asking us direct questions, flubbing, stopping songs to laugh, and trying to figure out a setlist on the spot.

All I can say is I’d love to join them when they ”talk about insomnia and music” and “break things in my driveway”. Such a pretty sound, indeed.

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After a brief intermission and slight crowd rearrangement, Gregory took the stage, sitting behind his Roland keyboard, keeping the giddy atmosphere alive with jokes all his own. Playing ten songs from his impressive discography, he definitely proved to the audience that, in the words of Mr. Nayak, ”that man can sing.” Dividing his time on stage between a purple acoustic guitar and his keyboard, he sang with the conviction and passion as fellow-pianists Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder; for someone who sat for the first half of his show, he sure does pack in a lot of personality, moving around and getting lost in the music constantly.

His set opened with some of his older music, including fan favorite Sail the Sea, which he introduced by saying, ”This is about a friend of mine — who is, for a visual, a big bulldyke, so have that image in your head when you listen.” Of all the piano tracks, Who Knows from his 2006 Up & Away release was very polished, very fun, and represents exactly what his music is about: it’s meant to be enjoyed. The eclectic ten-song setlist included tracks from a handful of his previous albums, but there were a few that really stood out, namely the recently debuted tracks from his upcoming Battler release.

“Broken Through” was a very bittersweet song about a friend who got married after years of being jaded. The impressive hooks on that track as well as on “Ordinary Man” really gave a glimpse into the new record. Expanding on the dark, introspective mood of Up & Away, this record experiments with a more cabaret sound—heavy piano all around. The best song of the night was, ironically, an unnamed bluegrass song that he successfully pitched to singer Alison Krauss’s producer — ironic because he has never put the song on any of his own albums, something I must say is a crime.

Many of the tracks that night were somber or bittersweet, matching the chilly temperature of the Pioneer Arts Center of Entertainment café theater: a room with about fifteen tables and dozens of red, vinyl chairs lining the perimeter. The crunchy staff, the eclectic crowd, the music — the whole package felt very relaxed. You could more or less just strike up a conversation with anybody, including the performers.

There are many words one can use to describe Mr. Douglass’s stage charisma; shy is not one of them. On every track, he really wasn’t afraid to go there, specifically on the very blunt “Dry,” a song that is not only an exposed track preaching the dangers of convenience rather than love, but also had its writer hopping around in front of the microphone like the devil himself trying to escape. The live version, which is available on the official bootleg series Retro-Active” is one of those songs that has a real power, especially when you realize that it’s not the happiest thing ever written, but still extraordinarily catchy.

If you’re looking for some music with a sophisticated twist on the college-radio sound, picking a Gregory Douglass CD is definitely going to fit that bill. And a review of the upcoming Battler album (March 2009) will be going live on the site closer to its release date. Look for more news about Gregory Douglass at www.inyourspeakers.com as well as www.gregorydouglass.com

Listen here:
http://www.last.fm/music/Gregory+Douglass
http://www.myspace.com/gregorydouglass
http://cdbaby.com/found?allsearch=gregory+douglass&submit=

Listen and pre-order Battler here:
http://www.gregorydouglass.com

For more information on Polly Fiveash & Anand Nayak:
http://cdbaby.com/cd/pollyanand
http://www.myspace.com/dizzydogmusic

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