Saturday, December 2, 2017

EP RELEASE TRACK, FINAL RELEASE #5

For my big show December 2nd at the Old Church in Portland for the Minor Key Concert Series I'll be playing all the songs on my new EP which will be released on that same day. Each of the songs tell a story (kind of like the ones in my first album, Stern Little Stories) and as a preview I wanted to release each song for a 24 hour period.


FINAL SONG: ASHES OF REMBETIKO 

(This song no longer available for free but is yours for $1.25 HERE. )


  When you're a touring musician you go to a lot of places and meet a lot of fascinating people, and usually your time with them is brief. That brevity can sometimes give an illusion of depth, that wouldn't really be manifest if you actually had to do the real work of being friends. This song, written after coming home from a Vagabond Opera tour, is about how you sometimes can confuse the touring reality, with all its razzle-dazzle, with what really matters. The setting for it is Greece, hence the title. 
  I've always wanted to walk into a Portland coffee house, accordion strapped to my bosom and sing the first lines of the song:
  YOU HIPSTERS WHO DRINK COFFEE OVER A SEA OF SHIMMERING LAPTOPS! 

THE NEW EP IS OUT TODAY AND YOU CAN GET IT HERE! 

Friday, December 1, 2017

EP RELEASE TRACK #4

For my big show December 2nd at the Old Church in Portland for the Minor Key Concert Series I'll be playing all the songs on my new EP which will be released on that same day. Each of the songs tell a story (kind of like the ones in my first album, Stern Little Stories) and as a preview I wanted to release each song for a 24 hour period.

FOURTH SONG: PAPER CROW

(This song no longer available for free but is yours for $1.25 HERE. )

 

Some songs come out of nowhere. Or reading lots of Rumi and combining it with your life experience. 
 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

EP RELEASE TRACK #3 THE BLACK MADONNA

  For my big show December 2nd at the Old Church in Portland for the Minor Key Concert Series I'll be playing all the songs on my new EP which will be released on that same day. Each of the songs tell a story (kind of like the ones in my first album, Stern Little Stories) and as a preview I wanted to release each song for a 24 hour period.

THIRD SONG: THE BLACK MADONNA

(This song no longer available for free but is yours for $1.25 HERE. )


  This song was inspired by my trip to Greece with Vagabond Opera. We performed in a jazz club in Athens called the Half Note. Unlike other times we weren't touring, but rather had a two-week engagement. This was lovely because it meant that rather than being in a different town every day with little or no free time, we had only to play our engagement (9-Midnight), and then we were free. Free to tour the city during the day and free to go to another club EVERY NIGHT, the same club where we sat, in awed amazement as watched a band, a band where men and women, arrayed side by side on a semi-circle on a small stage played traditional Rembetiko music. Rembetiko would be hard to describe in a nutshell, but it's often called the Blues of Greece, and you can hear a sample here from the movie Rembetiko (Which I believe is free on youtube). You'll get the idea and you'll see how it inspired my song, in English, with the tragic lyrics that are typical of the genre. This was a Vagabond Opera tune and in this recording you'll hear not only accordion, but bass and more importantly, oud. Enjoy!

Monday, November 27, 2017

EP RELEASE TRACK #2 THE CANTEEN

   For my big show December 2nd at the Old Church in Portland for the Minor Key Concert Series I'll be playing all the songs on my new EP which will be released on that same day. Each of the songs tell a story (kind of like the ones in my first album, Stern Little Stories) and as a preview I wanted to release each song for a 24 hour period.

SECOND SONG: THE CANTEEN

(This song no longer available for free but is yours for $1.25 HERE. )

  Some of my best memories of my touring days with Vagabond Opera was not only the shows we played but the people we stayed with. At the top of the list was Joey Almeida and his wife Barbara. Joey is the father of band member Xander Almeida and we always knew that once the gate was rolled back and the dog calmed down we had a place to lay our hats and so much more. After Joey made us dinner he'd regale us with tales of shark-hunting in the Pacific and crack jokes. And then the guitar would come out. Now I'll tell you a trade secret: many musicians, after their show, just want to relax quietly and I've always avoided playing music late into the night, or at all even, after a performance. Playing with Joey was always the exception.
  There was something so infectious about his playing when he took out the guitar, and so inviting, that we'd all find ourselves on his back courtyard strumming and humming and singing along, to Johnny Cash songs, Tom Petty, and even Mariachi tunes (Joey's Mexican-American and proud of it), and surprises. New songs, new songwriters to me.
  One of those songs was Robert Earl Keene's CHRISTMAS WITH THE FAMILY. Do yourself a favor and take four minutes out of your life to listen. Hanging with Joey, then listening him sing that song inspired me to want to write a song, a funny song, a working class song, a song with alcohol and something with a Mariachi flavor. Those were my guideposts but I had to wait for real life events to inspire it.
   A couple of years later I watched the screens of Midway airport as they inexplicably indicated "CANCELLED" for each and EVERY flight. As we all learned soon enough there had been a fire and a suicide and all sorts of stuff. You can actually read the story by Maria La Ganga in the LA TIMES where I was interviewed about it or just read the quote about me here:
 
"As Howard was trying to kill himself in the air traffic control center, Eric Stern was just waking up in a cot room at Chicago’s Midway International Airport. The performance artist and opera singer was en route to his Portland, Ore., home after a trip to Philadelphia. What should have been an easy stopover in Chicago turned into a nightmare, disrupted first by terrible weather and then by the fire at the air traffic control center. “I have bad luck,” he said at Midway. “I came from Philadelphia last night. That flight was delayed three hours because of weather. When I got here, my flight to Portland was already gone. They have cots here. I decided to stay on a cot. “My flight was supposed to be this morning at 8:30,” Stern continued. “They texted me and said it was delayed. Then, like other people, I checked the board and it said ‘canceled.’ “I have seen a number of people come in, look kind of stunned at the departure screen because everything says ‘canceled.’ The next thing they do is lift up their iPhones and take a picture,” Stern said
 Here's what happened next: I walked to a motel, 'cause I was too cheap to take a cab. I found a canteen underneath the overpass and went back and forth between the canteen and the motel for two days, drinking and sleeping. I made a facebook post about it:
After venturing on foot from the Midway airport. Restaurant Los Comales on 78th and Cicero. Portrait after 2.5 Coronas:
The guitar is wearing her mask for carnivale, the one with the black flowers, and even though this is a Mexican Cantina I hear Palmas beating on the radio and the hostess is a girl leading into womanhood.I walked three miles to here, this little box, a day of the dead coffin of a cantina, Oaxacan geckos climbing the walls and a plastic flowered-shrine to Guadalupe.My table has only one leg, a leg of blue and pink sugar skulls, a heart rendered in every forehead.You'll find me here now and maybe later after the long blistering walk, past the home depots and the stupid black-topped shined Olive Gardens and Friday's, some place called Shenanigans, not a decent place for a thirst man for three miles until this one, past the lubricating car stalls with chains of oil cans hanging soup-belled over the concrete bays.
And just when you couldn't stand it anymore the road lifted itself up, I expect a long trek over a godless freeway but instead Black-Eyed Susans and Foxtails augured and framed the railroad (not the freeway), it emerged like a wide river, it was like the Mississippi River, that wide, and even though we are of an age weary with fetishisation and glorification of the great iron works the dams (Roll on Columbia!) and the rails, we crave the world now on a smaller scale, sustainable as we say, I saw today the color of white smoke billowing from the mighty sand blasters down there, the hard scrabble men sledgehammering the spikes in the heat, and it made me want to commission Diego Rivera to paint a mural of and for the workers, made me want to give a Whitmanesque Yawp (I did!) and brought into clear focus Sinclair, Bellows, Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright. Chicago!
I could have gotten on the train from the airport and gone to the art museum.
But then I wouldn't have seen the black-eyes Susans beckoning a vision of america where the "a" is still capitalized. My regards then, facebook friends. The cots are not for me, the proprietor has just bought me a beer and a Lebanese friend is coming to meet me now. Tonight I will lay my body down and push my breath into the mattress at the Saratoga Inn, the low-shelf motel that lies somewhere between this flowering Cantina coffin and the vision of the endless railroad ties.
Later I posted again:
People are generous. I've been at the Cantina for more than three hours talking to the owner about Mexico and Narco's and then my friend showed up and we spoke of the civil war in Lebanon, and there were laughs and comradeship and the owner kept making different drinks to try and bringing us out taco salads and enchiladas and stuff we didn't order and then at the end the bill was like nothing and I feel blessed by new friendship and hospitality. Taqueria los Comales if you ever go...
  And the song came together.
  As for Amy (names have been changed to protect the privacy of ex-girlfriends)...that was a long time ago and none of your business.





Friday, November 24, 2017

Track #1: The New EP and upcoming Old Church Show.

   For my big show December 2nd at the Old Church in Portland for the Minor Key Concert Series I'll be playing all the songs on my new EP which will be released on that same day. Each of the songs tell a story (kind of like the ones in my first album, Stern Little Stories) and as a preview I wanted to release each song for a 24 hour period.

FIRST SONG: ROMANIAN ALICE MP3   

(This song no longer available for free but is yours for $1.25 HERE. )


  Saturday nights I play accordion in a French restaurant. Over time I've gotten to know the staff and one night on my break I got into a conversation with the hostess. Shining upon her face was a bloom of happiness I had never seen and in speaking with her I discovered the source: She glowed with the particular shade of warm satisfaction that can only come with a break-up. She was leaving her boyfriend, the bartender, to start a new life in New Orleans and I'll always remember what she told me in recalling her life in Romania. "If I were at home, in our village, yes, we'd be married on Sunday and that would be my life. But here..I can...how do you say? Be my own person more. So I am moving to New Orleans."
  That was the kernel of the song. The rest, about a restaurant that's closing because all the waitresses are giving free food to their boyfriends, the cook sleeping in the kitchen, all that was either made up, or an amalgamation of experiences of my years of working in restaurants in my twenties.


Enjoy the song, I'll be selling the whole EP online for $5 and some change. If you download it here I'd appreciate if you went to CD baby and paid for it officially. The concert at the Old Church for the Minor Key Concert Series is in Portland and it's December 2nd at 8 PM. Buy Tickets here.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

So I Wrote a Mystery Novel!


  You might know me as a performer but I've always been a writer too. Short stories, lyrics for Vagabond Opera, and librettos for my opera have not been center-stage, but now I've written a mystery novel. Last week, after going over the proofs yet again, I sent it in—front cover, back cover, and everything in-between—and now the books are being printed. No turning back now!
  The process, was like many other artistic ones I've endeavored. A labor of love, it felt electric at the starting gate and then continued as peaks and troughs; nadirs when I felt that the whole project was pointless and zeniths when I felt like I was not only inhabiting another world but channeling the thoughts and dialogue of my characters.

  What is this world? Who are these characters? It takes place in Portland, 2008, and the book begins with a murder at Dante's. Here's the back cover to entice you:

   
  One more thing: I had the best editor ever! My good friend and artistic partner, Annie Rosen, who raked my novel over the coals again and again, and nurtured my work kindly and compassionately so that only the best would emerge. Thank you, Annie!

  Happy reading! The title is "Rose City" and you can purchase a hard copy here at Lulu.com:
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Lorca Aria

Photo by James Phillip Thomas
Awhile back I was part of a concert for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral of Leonard Cohen songs. Inspired by Cohen's own inspiration of Lorca I wrote this aria, to Lorca's poem La Casada Infiel. I decided not to use translated lyrics, but the original instead.



Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Moon and All That.


A Corner of my Studio
  I went to bed early, upstairs in my studio, where I sometimes sleep if I come home late (instead of in the bedroom with my wife). My studio is an open space that takes up the entire second story, with two comfortable armchairs, two ouds, a piano keyboard, paintings on the walls that my friends have made and an oriental rug. Push aside the dark red curtains at one end and there's a glass door that opens to a balcony. On warm days when I sit on the balcony above the foliage, or warm nights under the stars playing my oud, I'm reminded of the old courtyards of Damascus, of which I've only read.
  Sometimes, up there, alone, I think: this would be enough. Living alone, in my studio, with maybe a bathroom and kitchen added. I know what all the articles say about single people not being as happy nor living as long, but maybe those people just don't have the right furnishings.
  It reminds me of what Frank Girard said once. Frank Girard was a friend and colleague of my father's. They were writing a book on some obscure Socialist Labor Party ephemera, and every Summer Frank would visit from Wisconsin. He wore plaid shirts and had large hands and always took an interest in what I was up to.
  The first Summer he came he stayed in my step-sister's old room that was across the hallway from mine. She had moved out and so I had made it into a sitting room and I must have been proud of the whole set-up because as soon as he finished mounting the stairs and could see the hallway and the two rooms he said, “Ah. Every man must have his castle!”
  I understood that then, and I understand it now.
  Making the whole upper floor into an apartment had always been part of my designs, and as soon as my sister moved out I jumped on to the space with all the first-world imperial privilege a boy my age could muster and annexed her room. I was fourteen.
  My bedroom I kept as my bedroom, but I arranged her room to be a sitting room, furnished half in the style of 221 Baker Street B, complete with a magnifying glass and Victorian ort, and half in a more noirish style.
  To fulfill the latter I gathered a couple of empty liquor bottles from around the neighborhood and arranged them with an empty bottle of my dad's Canadian Whiskey. I half filled them all with water so that my “bar” consisted of the blended whiskey along with two bottle of “Old Grand Dad.” The picture of the Victorian old man with the spectacles I had seen on billboards for the liquor also went nicely with the Sherlock Holmes aesthetic.
  In the late afternoon, or early evening I'd pour myself a glass of the “whiskey”, put my record of “Rhapsody in Blue” on using the large wooden console stereo and then sink into the green faux-leather armchair. I felt like a grown-up. but old-fashioned too, like I was a Bogart detective. The fantasy would continue and although it wasn't specific, I was just a detective in the big city relaxing with his drink at the end of the day, it pushed the boundaries of my natural existence—an assimilated Jewish boy growing up in a Philadelphia suburb and all the angst that comes with the adolescent territory—almost enough, until my mother yelled up to me that it was dinner time, or my father started mowing the lawn. Then I was just a kid again, not a guy in his thirties in the 1940's.
  At forty-four, I'm still sitting around in a furnished room, longing for something. The fantasy is a little different now. In the fantasy I'm a writer and a renaissance man, and I draw Arabic calligraphy and play the oud, and as it happens I do all of these things anyway. But in the fantasy I don't have a wife and child, I control everything, and I have lovers who come and go. And some sort of passive income.
  When I was a teenager the problem seemed to be that I wasn't a grown-up. And I couldn't be a grown up at that age any more than I could be a real private eye or living in the 1940's. And I certainly didn't think I'd miss my family one day, my parents, or my sister. Those were the people I couldn't wait to get away from.

  Now, I have all that and a bag of chips. That's something my wife would say. We've been together long enough that our speech patterns are well-integrated. And I suppose that if I really wanted to I could leave, set myself up in a small studio and live that coveted bachelor life where I fix myself drinks and listen to Gershwin, alone on a chair. Here's what actually happens when I'm by myself, for example when Jill takes my son to Memphis so they can visit relatives: I end up drinking a lot of beer and watching Jackie Chan movies. It's great for the first two days and then I feel lost. I suppose if it had to be that way I would push through it and even achieve some sort of happiness, but I also know something I didn't know when I was fourteen. And that's maybe that I would have enjoyed my sitting room for another hour if no one called me to dinner, maybe even two hours, but after that I would have gotten bored and wanted to hang out with my parents. The only reason my fantasy was appealing was because people were around...for escapism to be effective you need something to escape from.
  What keeps me from actually escaping is that without my wife and child my life would be drastically empty, pale and drained. Call me co-dependent, if you want, but we happen to have a great relationship and love all around. I'm very lucky. It's a pain living with anybody, but if it's the right people, it's a gaping pain living without them.

  I open the door and walk on to the balcony. The moon is full enough to read Arabic poetry by. The tree in the neighbor's yard is still bare from Winter and the branches open their hands to a swath of glowing sky.
  I walk back inside, play a song on the oud and then shut the curtains to utter darkness, crawl into the single bed, and go to sleep.

Me on my Balcony


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Gap Year: Eric Stern interviews himself (thanks for the idea g.g.).

Photo Credit: Michael Bodine
Photo Credit: Scott Bump
ES: I recently read a Vagabond Opera fan posting that described the band in the past tense...
Eric Stern: Yes, I read that as well. It started out: "A fine Portland band from the Pre-Portlandia era..." and then went on to say some very nice things.. But that framing of us, in bygone era, well I protested, at first.
ES: Why?
Eric Stern: Well first because I'd hate to use Portlandia as a temporal limiter, or as a means to define anything about this city, but mostly because...well the last gig we played was in November. I mean, don't be so quick to put nails in the coffin.
ES: And yet you've shaved your moustache, and if you make a public appearance these days you're usually seen playing an obscure Arabic instrument.
Eric Stern: The oud isn't obscure in the Arab or Turkish world. And yes, I'm obsessed with it, the same way I was once obsessed with the accordion. But that's besides the point. I'm not ready to say that Vagabond Opera is over, but I am taking a gap year.
ES: A gap year?
Eric Stern: Yes, you know when high school students take a year before college and travel to Europe or find a job at home and just experience life away from the pressure of school. The band has been going for around twelve years. I needed a break. A break from the band, from the persona, from the music industry. That's all.
ES: Why?
Eric Stern: Do I need a reason?
ES: No. But from what I know the band was touring, producing interesting shows, with interesting music. So why...sort of the "if it ain't broke principle," I guess...
Eric Stern: All of that is true, and even behind the scenes there wasn't the drama you often hear about in bands, and I've still remained friends with almost everyone that's been in it. That's almost part of the issue...I wish I could say that some cataclysmic dramatic event ended the ensemble with a resounding finality.
ES: So it is over?
Eric Stern: Never say "never." The music industry is an odd beast. I went into it, I mean the whole band thing, and maybe even when I was in opera, with this David Copperfield idea, that if I did my absolute best and greatest work, and that if I followed my heart that we would achieve unparalleled success. Rise to the top.
ES: You are of the "follow your bliss" generation and also from a country that is constantly in the throes of what Salman Rushdie calls the "cult of celebrity."
Eric Stern: I didn't need us to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I just wanted us to achieve a level of recognition maybe on par with our friends of The Decemberists or the Portland band, Pink Martini. In the end, I always knew that the true success...well this sounds trite but I mean it...that the true success was already achieved because in every show we gave our hearts minds body and blood practically and brought all of our art to serve and were rewarded instantly with the energetic return from the spectators. That much I knew, and that may be enough. But you don't hear too much about the economics of these things. You know I'm reminded of an R. Crumb quote where he said something to the effect of being an artist in the United States usually equated with being a loser. I wouldn't go so far, but I also did get tired of the ratio of work I and the band would put into projects versus our financial return. And there was another more important ratio. I found myself spending more and more time on promotion (even when we'd hire a promoter!), and less and less time to work on craft. And craft is vital to me. But rather than whine about it I've decided to do other things.
ES: Things that make more money?
Eric Stern: No things, that don't cost as much. Of course, right away after I made the decision to take a break I started an opera company and composed an opera and mounted a production and then began to think of all the things that would have to happen: fund-raisers, concerts, recruiting volunteers the whole catastrophe as Zorba would say and the oddest thing happened. I almost feel embarrassed to say it...
ES: Go ahead...
Eric Stern: I felt my body putting on the brakes. The only way I could put it is that I didn't want to be outward. So no big Fall production, no fund-raisers, none of that. Instead I started a little creative collective out of my home that met on Wednesdays, just me and a circle of my friends practicing songs, writing, but even that was too much. All I really wanted to do was play the oud, watch Christopher Hitchens on youtube or learn about history and philosophy, and write. Of course I didn't immediately embrace that; on the contrary I fought it for a month or so, but gradually, and with the wisdom of age, I knew to listen to what my body was telling me. It's been nourishing.
ES: What has?
Eric Stern: Going internal, I guess. Learning. being in one place. I'm barely performing (just once a week in a band that plays Arabic music for belly dancers. I play the oud, and accordion once a week at a French Restaurant), and I'm mostly writing, on a schedule, either alone or with my business partner from Hungry Opera Machine, Annie Rosen. Fiction, essays, short stories, a radio play and even a mystery novel. I don't wear striped pants or a moustache. I'm finished with that, for now. And besides I get to do this:
Elena Villa with Eric Stern. Photo: Phoebus-Foto

I'll also be blogging more...

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Original Radio Play airs on Portland Jewish Hour

Recently Liz Schwartz of the Portland Jewish Hour on KBOO contacted me about doing something original for the show. As it turned out my creative partner Annie Rosen and I had been doing a lot of writing so I thought I'd try a radio play, tailor-made for the both of us. My father was a big fan of Bob and Ray and I got to hear a lot of them growing up, and this radio play was written with their style in mind.

The Radio play, Always Leave Them Wanting More, is the exciting adventures of the Tin Pan Alley Duo Gloria Steinway and Herbert Plotzbottom. In this episode they're visited by the mysterious Mrs. Goldollar with a proposition that threatens to tear apart the creative team forever! Listen to the whole thing here:

Hungry Opera Machine and the Portland Jewish Hour presents Always Leave Them Wanting More!