The Year in Retrospect

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Once again, it is that time of the year and I am amazed – and a little embarrassed to admit – that it has been over a year since I have written a post for this blog. Time sure rushes by…

This is the time when many of us, including me, like to look back to what this year has brought. It has been a busy year indeed. We wrapped up production of the new album, MYSTIC, earlier this year and released it in October. Much work went into the album and I am taking a short break to catch up with other things in my life.

As we all rush around madly at this time of year, I also like to step back and take stock of my life as a musician. One thing that I come back to year after year is the thought that being a musician is something I do, not what defines me entirely as a person. I used to say the same when I was a full time actor. I have been pretty much an artist since birth and while being an actor and later, a musician, became my full time career, I have made it a point to fill my life with many other things – a balance of sorts. While I am a musician, I am also a partner, a son, a brother, an uncle and I also have many pursuits and passions. If tomorrow the art or business of music were no longer a part of my life, I would still be who I am – a different “me” but fundamentally unchanged at my core.

Too many musicians feel that being an artist is the end all, be all and if that should ever disappear, their entire life would end. Maybe this, coupled with being an introvert who needs a lot of alone time, is why I try to avoid functions like red carpets, awards, or other industry or networking events, even though they are important – like in any profession. To the recurring question from my colleagues: “Will I see you in LA next February (for the Grammys)?” always comes the answer, “Probably not.” I avoid most of these situations when I can, although unfortunately this is something not always possible for me to do. And maybe this is why I falter at constant blogging, Tweeting of Facebook posting. It is not that I do not want to reach out, but rather that I feel I am living my life as everyone lives theirs and no one is necessarily eagerly waiting for a word from me. I try to live as authentically and as true to myself as I can in a world not always sympathetic to introverts and artists.

mystic_rgb_600As I mentioned, MYSTIC was released earlier this year and I am happy that many are responding favorably to the project. Broadcasters have embraced the album, and because of this, it entered the ZMR Top 100 Chart at number 1 for the month of October. Many broadcasters have actually reached out to me personally to tell me how much they like the album, which is even more of a surprise and something I am extremely thankful for. The album, which also includes the amazing talents of vocalist Charlee Brooks, guitarist Jeff Pearce, musicians Pamela and Randy Copus of the band 2002, and composer, music producer and environmental conservationist Ricky Kej, is one I am most proud of and feel has brought me to yet another level of my career… another step in this journey that we are all sharing.

As I continue to look back on the year just ending, and wonder what will come next, I also hope that your year has been equally gratifying and that you will have a wonderful holiday season and prosperous new year ahead.

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The end of the 2015 year

As the end of the year approaches and the trees become bare, a testament of the marching seasons and drifting sands of time, we tend to look back at the year that has passed. This year has been such a varied tapestry for me. While positive in my personal life, the world has grown more restless. This gives one pause to think about the future, but more importantly, the safety of one’s own world: home. Making sure that we express to those close to us how much we love and appreciate them has become more imperative.

As it is with everyone, my world consists of many people. In my case, a large part of these people happens to be in the entertainment industry, and a large percentage of that work in the music industry. Artists in general are quite affected by the world around them, especially tragic events. I know I can speak for many of my colleagues when I say that, as musicians, we try to bring some peace and comfort into this world through our music. The New Age and World music genres are particular in this. I like to create a world separate from the daily realities we are faced with — a sort of escape, if you will.

I am happy to report that my upcoming album is approaching the final stages of the creative process.  This means that all of the album’s songs will soon have been recorded and the final mix and mastering phases will begin. The album’s release is planned for late 2016 and all is right on schedule. Next May will mark three years since the release of The Blue Rose album. This will officially be the longest I have gone without an album release. However, I needed this time to regroup and find my creative center. I also like to release an album when I am ready, and this cannot be dictated by award deadlines or other demands. I prefer to create an album that will please my audience, which is ultimately why I compose music to begin with.  We will start sharing information about the new album early in 2016.  Please stay tuned.

In the meantime, I hope everyone has a peaceful holiday season, filled with the love of relatives and friends.

A Full Life

I recently attended the ZMR Music Awards Show in New Orleans. I was asked to present one of the awards so, as reclusive as I may be, I could not say no. ZMR does a lot for the New Age music genre (as well as several others, including World, Contemporary and Piano) and I considered it an honor to be asked to present along colleagues and friends of mine, artists of superb talent like Paul Avgerinos, Darlene Koldenhoven and Joseph Akins. But it also meant being in New Orleans, a city I consider the center of extroversion — not easy for an introvert like me to be in. It also meant several days of being constantly surrounded by people and constantly photographed; another difficult thing for me. But I knew I would get to see my publicist and both my promoters, people who are dear to me and whom I rarely, if ever, get to see in person as we live thousands of miles away.   I was able to get everyone together into one unforgettable photo with my manager, Kevin, and I. My one amazing team.

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The evening prior to the awards show was an impressive gathering of talent, all in one venue. From New Age music moguls like Will Ackerman and reviewers and broadcasters, to legends like Peter Kater and Paul Avgerinos, we all basically had a chance to meet and/or reacquaint with each other. In some cases, I met with musicians who have been friends for years, yet we had never had a chance to meet in person — a few who are actually working in my new album!

The awards show was a wonderful experience that allowed me to see many friends in action. The performances were quite magical. At one point during someone’s extremely powerful performance, my manager leaned over to me and whispered, “Wow, some people have NO idea this is New Age music!” Indeed.

The evening also awarded Peter Kater with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Peter has had an impressive career and worked with anyone and everyone, from Robert Redford and John Denver, has scored commercials, films and television programs, and the list goes on and on. It was an honor to spend time with him during those days in New Orleans.

Then it was my turn to present the Best World Album award, a category I know well as I received that honor for my album Scheherazade, back in 2008. As I stood there, ready to present, I was struck by how the theater was completely filled with artists and other music industry people. In that one moment I realized how, as musicians, we all get to experience such a unique, full life. I even said something to that that effect before I introduced the nominees, and then the winners (friends Ricky Kej and Wouter Kellerman). I was born an artist and have always lived in that mode. I have always stood out when in a crowd, even though I never wanted to. I was always ‘too intense’ or ‘too eccentric’ or even ‘too extreme.’ But right then, in that theater, I was surrounded by people who live this life of emotional extremes, of constant travel, touring, performances, charts, awards, being photographed, lives plastered on Wikipedia, and completely vulnerable through innermost expression. But we move forward just the same.

All of this brought to mind a poem I have always loved, from the book Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. Each poem in the book is an epitaph on a tombstone in a fictional town’s cemetery. Each describes one person who lived in that town. Possibly, the most powerful is number 64: George Gray. In it, George, now deceased, looks at his epitaph and realizes he lived a life full of fear, which prevented him from experiencing love, joy, sorrow and loss. Basically, he never allowed himself to live life. He now realizes that to live a full life, one must get past that fear and risk pain, loss and sorrow by loving, living and taking risks.

I know people who will never finish writing that book, or composing that album, for fear of rejection. A friend of mine is still writing his manuscript, after 10 years – while another has published over twenty-five books! It is only a small percentage of us who actually take the plunge, and a smaller percentage still that, maybe, even end up walking the Grammy’s red carpet. I understand. As an artist, I know that fear and dread. I don’t think there is an artist who doesn’t experience this with each album we begin and finish and then allow to walk freely into the world to be scrutinized, critiqued, reviewed and maybe even passed over. It is said that Sir Lawrence Olivier threw up before each of his stage performances. I personally know superb artists who think they stink.

Therefore, this blog post I dedicate to all those who have always wanted to create, but have not allowed themselves the freedom to do it. Be creative. Do what you want to do. Paint, write, compose, create a new food recipe, plant a garden, express whatever is inside of you that you may have feared expressing before. You’ll never know what you may discover and, at the end of your journey, unlike George Gray, you will have lived life to the fullest, with no regrets, filled with all the feelings life invites us to experience.

From peaceful slumbers to waking up

I sit here looking out my studio window, wondering when the sun will shine again, not just for us in Atlanta but for most of the Mid-west and Atlantic states. This has certainly been a harsh winter for many. However, with a harsh winter also comes much needed quiet and introspection. Not necessarily bad when the situation is unavoidable and we look for the positive side in any circumstance. For me, this time has meant the beginning of a new project, making this my sixth album.

While I enjoyed a period of quiet for the last year, the time finally arrived when a new album made itself present. As it happens, the concept for this project had come to me before I finished my last album, The Blue Rose, over two years ago. But the time was not quite right for me to begin it, and I needed to back away and take time off after nearly 10 years of non-stop music work.

The time away paid off and I now find myself refreshed and ready to rejoin the music world. Although, it is not like one actually ever ‘leaves’ the music business — once one reaches a certain level within it, one never fully leaves. The business side of this work is constantly moving forward, even if one takes a much needed time out.

This new project also brings with it collaborations I had long hoped to create with some of my colleagues and the timing in everyone’s schedule seems just right. While I never like to make announcements ahead of time (as deals constantly change and people come and go), I can say that for the time being it looks like the album will be recorded in various studios, from Atlanta to Los Angeles and as far north as Newfoundland, Canada and east as India!

Also, while I generally prefer to stay out of the public’s eye and do my own quiet thing, especially when composing a new album, this year will see me appearing at some events, including as an award presenter in the upcoming ZMR Music Awards in New Orleans this coming May, as well as needing to travel to some of the album’s recording locations.

I guess I could say my slumber days are over. Much like the song from The Sound of Music goes, “Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumbers. When you wake up — Wake Up!”

Of ebb and flows and new albums

In an artist’s career, there is usually an ebb and flow. The challenge, however, seems to always be constant. But then, as artists we know what the entertainment industry is like and either we’re masochists or love a difficult challenge, but we stick with it. This is in part because many of us are born artists and have come to realize at some point in our early life that we cannot do anything else. If we do choose a different career, chances are we’d be miserable at it. In my case, that was certainly true.

As some of you know, I had taken 2014 off as I much needed that time to disconnect. The time away was like an oasis in the desert and did much good, especially for my creativity, which had taken a bit of a hit in the last couple of years. However, this is part of the artist’s career ‘ebb and flow’ I spoke of, and if an artist does not pay attention to those tides, it may spell trouble. And I listened.

Now, with renewed energy, the muse decided to come calling once again and I was informed in no uncertain terms that a new album was nigh. Actually, it was not so much ‘nigh’ as it was NOW. And again, I listened.

I guess then this is my official announcement –understated as I always tend to do things– that my new album is now underway and in production. I have not set a release date yet, and will not for a while, but the tentative plan is for a 2016 release. Since much goes into a release date, things can change, so I make no definite statement. What I can share, however, is that currently songs are being created and artists being brought together from different parts of the world to create what I hope will be a strong album.   As is customary with me, I never share the subject matter of my albums until close to their completion –a superstition of mine. What I will say is that many who still enjoy my Scheherazade album should be happy with this new entry in my recording journey.

And now, without further ado, it is time to create…..

Behind the Creative

I often hear from people who share with me about their individual experiences with my work. One of the recurring comments is about the difference between my albums, particularly the chasm between the last three and my first two. Yet, my albums remain, as one Amazon reviewer put it so well: “distinctly Al Conti.” Of course, as with any artist, we never try to put our individual ‘stamp’ on the music we create, it happens on it’s own because our work is permeated by who we are as individuals. It is a nice compliment to hear from people nonetheless.  I am always very grateful of my audience’s interaction with me and my work. This interaction may be people who reach out to me, or who purchase my music and then comment about it on venues such as Amazon and iTunes. And while some make themselves known to me via e-mails and social media, others remain anonymous, yet very much present to me. I figured, since so many ask me about this difference in my albums, that I would blog about just that in the hopes to answer some of the questions I receive about what is behind the music I create – or more like where I was emotionally when I created each album.

shadowsMy first album, Shadows, was a compilation of music I had created through many years, some with no intention of releasing publicly. Shadows is basically the album that launched my music career (I was previously an actor), but artistically, it is one I have never been happy with. In part, this is because I feel a good album is one that maintains the energy and cohesiveness from the first song to the last. Because of the amount of years between some of the songs in the Shadows album, that cohesiveness is missing. It almost plays like a “Greatest Hits” album, except that at that point in my career there were no hits.  As with any artist, the music one created 10 years ago is bound to be different (one can only hope) from that which one composes today. We grow and change as people and artists; we mature and hopefully improve. I will blog more about Shadows and my decision to remove it from the label’s catalog on a later post, but for now suffice it to say that this album is perhaps the most different from any of my other ones. Yet, the album seems to have its audience who really like it. I believe you can still find it as a download, and even as a CD in some pirated versions. Every so often, Shadowside Music has a promotion that offers the album. If you happen to listen to it, let me know what you think. You’ll see what I mean. It is definitely different.

POETA_myspace_coverNext came Poeta. In this album you can hear some songs that portent things to come. Songs like “Quest for Orpheus” are such a case. Listening to this song, after so many years, gives me the feeling that my album Scheherazade was just about ready to be born. Poeta is more classically oriented than its successors, something I purposely chose to distance myself from in later albums. Unless I am recording with an entire orchestra, classically based albums, in my view, fail to reach the artistic height I would otherwise expect. Style-wise, the songs in Poeta vary from one to the other, some more classical, some more New Age, in my view again somewhat lacking cohesiveness. Still, some ‘hits’ have come out of that album, like the aforementioned Quest for Orpheus, which received an award from Mystic Radio as Best of 2007, and also the song Dreams of Iliad, a song many seem to have resonated positively with and was a joy to record. Poeta is also my only album to date to be co-produced. The album was partially recorded in Kiel, Germany. I generally produce my albums, not always by choice, but it is what it is. And, as someone recently pointed out to me, I have done fairly well producing my own albums, so I am hesitant to change what is not broken. Yet, who knows what will happen in the future. I have had offers from (some wonderful) producers I am yet to accept. Call me superstitious…

scheherLASTScheherazade. What can I say? This is the album that changed everything for my career and for me, personally. And it is still a huge favorite with many. In fact, licensing and royalty checks attest to the album’s enduring success. Scheherazade brought many people into my life, including one of my publicists, who remain in my life to this day and have become dear to me. Scheherazade is also my first album to be fully concept, from start to finish. It also dictated what was to come after. With the success of this album, the stakes grew higher for me. The album put me on the New Age music map, so to speak, and after that, there was an expectation of “what will he do next?” As you may imagine, that can hinder an artist’s creativity. I was determined not to create another Scheherazade. Tempting as it was, it is not who I am as an artist. Talks ensued about even recording remixed versions of some of the most popular songs in the album. While I considered it, I scrapped the idea.

On another note regarding Scheherazade, some people ask if, as with many other musicians, I compose music for an album that is never included when the album is finally released. There are indeed a few of songs I composed for Scheherazade that never made it into the album because I did not feel they would advance the story. Other songs I either changed and these were featured in later albums, or I shelved altogether.

B003VI0F4O(grammy)Nothern Seas came next. My sound was pretty much set by now. I listened to my audience and what they liked about Scheherazade, but I charted new seas (pun intended) and went from Middle Eastern to Nordic. Some got it, some did not, but with this release a whole new audience joined my already wonderful one. However, at first, there was silence. I was afraid I had pushed the limits too far with this album. Then I received news that the album made Amazon’s Top 10 New Age albums for that year, alongside none other than Brian Eno!  I was a little surprised, but grateful that I did not miss the boat. While the New Age arena was still a bit on the fence about the album, as it showed in the ZMR charts that year where it reached number 2 for one month (as opposed to Scheherazade’s three months at number 1), the album finally received a few Zone Music Reporter (ZMR) nominations but no cigar. Yet, more was to come.

I still remember the evening when news reached me that Northern Seas had been nominated for a Grammy Award. I was in New York City that day with an extremely busy few days coming up in the city and needed to focus on that. Then the news came. I was a bit stunned as I was up against some stiff (and amazing) competition like Peter Kater, Yanni and Steven Halpern, to name but a few, and the list encompassed around 150 albums. But, as it happened, Northern Seas was indeed nominated.

What came next was a whirlwind. While I was prepared, being an introvert the Grammies and the exposure were more than I really wanted, and it cramped a lot of my creativity. I was left tired and overwrought. I had begun a new album (which eventually became The Blue Rose), but I was so worn out that I shelved it. I was too busy with traveling, giving interviews and adjusting to the noise. All of this affected the choices I made with The Blue Rose. While some artists love the fanfare they receive from awards and nominations, I am not one of those. While they feed on the energy, it leaves me exhausted.

Blue_Rose_coverThe Blue Rose was a by-product of my after-Grammy stupor. I wanted quiet, some anonymity and anything Zen I could get. I had also toyed for a few years with the idea of doing an Asian album. The concept presented itself and I grabbed it. What I had not counted on was the fact that by now my audience had gotten used to my sound in the Scheherazade and Northern Seas albums, which were strong and powerful. When The Blue Rose was released, some did not know what to make of it. A few reviewers commented on the contrast between this and my previous albums. However, I feel that The Blue Rose is, creatively, one of my best albums to date. I intended its low-key simplicity and introspective feel. A colleague of mine called it “a thinking person’s album” and compared me to Liz Story – quite an honor. Since my colleague works with people Story worked with, this was a high compliment indeed. What encouraged me is that The Blue Rose was – and is – what I wanted it to be. It is meant to be an introspective album, quiet and subdued. You won’t find a Valkyrja (from Northern Seas) in it, or a bombastic Seven Veils to Midnight (from Scheherazade). Instead, there is the sweet Bamboo Night Garden (featuring award winning artist and friend Ann Licater’s flutes) and the poignant Last Suitor.

And there you have it, my albums in a nutshell. What comes next? The concept for a new album has been present since before The Blue Rose was finished. With the encouragement of colleagues who are dear friends as well as amazing artists, I have re-centered and I feel my creativity returning. I have relocated to Atlanta and my new studio is finished, so soon I will begin working on my new project. Definitely, stay tuned!

Life Moving too Fast

I recently read of a study that was done about how technology has encouraged society to speed read through life in a sort of frantic attention deficit stupor. Just the other day, I saw a commercial on television about getting ready for one’s New Year’s resolutions (and losing a few pounds while we’re at it). I caught myself saying out loud, “New Year resolutions??? It is only SEPTEMBER!” Suddenly, that study seemed all too real. And suddenly, I was being speed-read to December 31, skipping over the rest of September, October, November and most of December!

I am possibly one of the few people on the planet who did not start texting until only this year, and only out of necessity, so I do not do it much. And, while replying to a text from a colleague, I caught myself grumbling along, “How can ANYONE type ANYTHING in this 5×3 inch thing?!” Yet, I cannot help but constantly see people doing it while they are driving 80 miles an hour on any given highway!  All of it seems to only make me feel like we’re all speeding out of control into a brick wall ahead. Maybe because I am an introvert I feel like I am being bombarded by too much of everything: texting, Internet, streaming, e-mails, Social Media, reality shows, new gadgets to replace ones that came out six months ago… Or maybe all IS actually too much?

On a blog post, I recently spoke about career burn out and how I am taking time off, although I am taking this hiatus to rebuild my studio in its new location, since I have left Vermont and moved to Atlanta a year ago.  While I guess most of what I am sharing above has certainly contributed to my burn out, the good thing about it is that I could take charge and say “enough.” I could say, “stop the train, I am getting off” because, ultimately, we’re all in charge of our own lives, even if sometimes it feels like we’re not.

The entertainment industry is a machine that is currently going at 100 miles an hour, with massive changes that seem to be happening almost daily. One of the reasons I took time off was because I no longer wanted to be part of that frenetic race to win the most awards, get the most reviews, be the most popular, have the most fans and so on – not to mention having to eagerly tell all my colleagues how I had the most awards, got the most reviews, was the most popular…well, you get my point. I was never into that game, but I had to step back and ask myself why I compose music to begin with.

Of course, I was an artist since I could walk, so that I spent most of my adult life in the entertainment industry is a no-brainer. I could not successfully do anything else even if I tried (and I did). I believe that an artist creates what comes from within in a need to share that with the world. Sharing with others through acting and music was a necessity for me, like the air I breathed. I did not know how to do anything different. But I also learned that an artist can lose sight of why he or she creates art in the first place. Once we’re thrown into the music business, it can be all too easy to forget why we create what we create and start on a race that, really, has no end. I cannot tell you how many musicians I know personally who have won a Grammy (or two, or three, or even ten) yet, desperately, want more. That void inside seems to never be filled. As an artist, we are the most alive during those moments when the lights go on, when the song is being created just perfectly, when the album is released, when the movie is being filmed. But those moments, unfortunately, are fleeting. Eventually, the lights go off, the song is done, the album is released, the movie is finished. That moment of pure bliss has passed, and an artist desperately works to find it again, and again, and again. This is why it is not uncommon to see artists turn to drugs or alcohol to fill that excruciating void. If you have not invested in creating a life that is sustainable outside of those fleeting moments, it can be truly depressing. Some of my New Age musician friends have done wonderfully in that arena, but some have not. I tend to gravitate to those who are happy no matter what they are doing, whether it be composing music, touring, or just living life day in and day out, just doing their own thing regardless of what anyone else is doing. Of course, music permeates our lives on a daily basis, but some of us can step out for a while.  I like this image of a businessman taking time off to contemplate life.

This is why I find it a wonderful thing to shut down for a time, to take time off, to live life, one moment at the time. It is truly replenishing, not to mention healthy. Like Tennyson wrote, “Eating the Lotos day by day…” Suddenly, I am doing my own thing and not really caring who is doing what, composing what, getting what award or making what chart. Like my partner loves to say, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” This is said referring to other people’s dramas and not being sucked into them. And trust me, where there be artists there be drama! But I love that saying and try to remind myself of it every day. When someone is trying to drag me into their drama, all I have to do is tell myself “Not my circus, not my monkeys” and I feel a lovely sense of freedom.