While the coronavirus pandemic has been slowing a lot of folks down, including musicians, whose livelihoods are challenged by the lack of open venues in which to perform, most are continuing to push ahead, performing online and doing other work.
Singer/songwriter John Sieger – long a member of both Semi-Twang and The R&B Cadets – is putting the shutdown time to good use in his home studio and brushing up on a new instrument. He’s also releasing a new CD on June 10 with a Facebook Live performance.
"Modern Folk II" is a collection of 11 intimate performances – enhanced with bass from Sieger’s brother Mike, guitar from John Parrott and percussion from longtime bandmate Bob Schneider – that showcase the songwriting skills that have fueled Sieger’s impressive career as a performer but also a writer for others.
"An acoustic guitar won’t lie to you," Sieger says. "When it comes to writing, I lean heavily on (it). For years it’s been whispering in my ear, telling me to make a recording with just the two of us. So now I’ve done something pretty close to that.
"These songs draw a bead on the cracks between folk, blues, country and pop. It’s dedicated to artists I admire, ones who avoid calling themselves poets, but always strive for something poetic in their writing."
I socially distanced with Sieger by doing an email Q&A with him...
OnMilwaukee: How have you been making use of all this time at home? Have you been musically productive or, like many, struggling to find focus during crazy days?
John Sieger: Really – what day is it? I'm breaking in some new gear in my studio that creates the illusion I know what I’m doing. It sounds so good I have to be dragged out of there for dinner. I’ve been trying to improve my rudimentary mandolin skills, too. I’m writing some – but I try not to force it. So when my muse takes a break I try to make myself useful. Right now I’m painting windows.
Tell me about making the new CD.
The inspiration was my old Gibson flat top. The songs I’ve been writing on that guitar for the last few years have been less aspirational and pretty direct. I tried to eliminate anything that would signal cleverness and just let the songs be what they were. They worked solo, so I didn’t want to make them into a big production or have anything distract from the singing and the lyrics.
When that’s your goal, nothing creates a nicer space for a singer than an acoustic guitar. Everything else was minimal — John Parrott, who played with Jethro of Homer & Jethro, is on almost every track holding down the rhythm and adding a couple nice solos. Bob Schneider added some light drums on a couple tunes and my brother Mike sings and plays bass on "Martha’s Machine," a song about our mom.
You must've done it before the shutdown. Do you think it'd be a different baby if you were making it now? Has this affected your songwriting?
Yeah, I’ve been working on this for a couple years. I did write a song called "An Atheist’s Prayer" at the beginning of the quarantine. It’s a classic argument-with-God-song inspired by a friend whose 2-year-old niece was struck and killed by a car.
This would seem to be a good time for divine intervention, but apparently I’m not calling the shots. Whatever my creative flow is though, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t respond to the current moment. I may write a pandemic song someday.
In a note you referenced the vague meaning of the word "folk." With country, alt.country, roots, Americana ... all these terms flying around for often similar styles of music, what does it mean to you?
Folk predates everything. Blues, country, jazz and gospel were homemade music made by folks from all over the map. Since it’s my fate to ramble between these styles, I call what I do folk or folk rock. The first is acoustic and the second electric. If you add synths or drum machines you’ll be asked to leave the hootenanny!
Americana is an unfortunate term that probably fits what I do, as does the outdated "roots" category. In the end, I never think about these things when I write … maybe I should!
Are you doing anything special during the shutdown: online performances, etc.?
I’ve been Zooming with my guitar students and songwriting groups. My wife Linsey and I do a weekly Zoom singalong we call The OK Chorale. OK is the key word, no divas, just regular folks singing one part harmony.
My first streaming show will be June 10 at 7 p.m. It’s the official release "party" for "Modern Folk Vol. II" in a Facebook Live. It will be me – I couldn’t avoid it! – and my son, Sam on drums. It’s going to be class production!
For more on John Sieger and "Modern Folk Vol. II," go to JohnSieger.com.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.