The Blue Rose:
AV Talks with Al Conti

 

Al Conti

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The Blue Rose

Northern Seas

Poeta


AV:  Tell me about how being surrounded by art and music growing up influenced the way that you looked at the world and the way that you wanted to express yourself?

AC:  I believe that I was born an artist, so growing up in an artistic family only encouraged it.  As a child, I was always up to some artistic pursuit like drawing, acting, creating puppets and attempting just about every kind of artistic expression I could come up with.  There’s a family story that, when very young, I pointed at the television set and told my parents I was going to be there. There was no talking me out of it, and I drove my parents to distraction until they enrolled me in theater classes.  I was never sociable in school, and, in fact, disliked being there because it always felt like someone was trying to re-program me away from what my soul wanted to do. In theater class however, surrounded by other artists, I was suddenly sociable, much to my parents’ and teachers’ surprise.

The fact that my parents were involved in the arts only helped encourage me further.  While my siblings were also encouraged, I am the one who eventually made it a profession.  Because expressing myself was natural for me, they always encouraged me to follow what I felt. I was never told, “You’ll starve as an artist.” I was never forced to be anything by my parents other than what I was inclined to be.   

AV:  Do you think that children are encouraged enough when it comes to pursuing music and the arts in our 21st century society and what would the end result be if that were to become a priority of parents and schools?

AC:  I feel that the arts are still seen as a ‘hobby’ and that personal and artistic expression have been relegated to a second tier. I have friends who never took my work in the arts seriously until they saw me on television, heard my music on the radio or found out I had been nominated for a Grammy. Suddenly, I became legitimate in their eyes. 

I find this very sad.  I believe children are not encouraged because art is seen as frivolous and not likely to lead to success – something that in our society means “how much money you make”.  Maybe they are encouraged, as a form of expression, to take band in school, but as they get older, the arts are often discouraged as a dead end.  I’ll admit that the arts are not an easy path, but if this is the path that resonates within someone and you are honest with yourself, you cannot help but follow it. I believe we are all given some sort of gift - a talent - maybe even more than one. To honor that talent is to honor ourselves.

AV:  When was it that you started to express your own inner feelings using art or music either through other people’s works or through your own compositions?

AC:  I think I was three years old, drawing Snoopy images on any piece of paper I could find (I still do it today!).  I’d express my inner self, my feelings, by drawing.  Television fascinated me, and as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to be doing what I saw the actors do. I completely understood they were acting, and I loved it – it was magical.  Music was also a form of expression for me. I felt music deeply, and I knew that with music you could affect people’s emotions.  Eventually, music and acting went hand in hand for me, as I’d prepare for a scene, hearing music in my head  helped me build the emotions that a particular scene needed.

AV:  You were born and raised in Argentina. Did the culture of Argentina have an influence when it came to how you approached playing or composing your music? In what ways?

AC:  The Argentina I was brought up in was permeated by the arts.  Music and movies from all over the world reached Buenos Aires, and I was exposed to it all.  When I was growing up, Argentina was truly globally influenced – it was as likely to hear an Italian or French singer as it was to hear an American or British. My family is also Italian and German, so I was exposed to both languages growing up, and music old and new from both countries was part of our lives.  I think being exposed to art from all over the world influenced my broad taste in music and film and, eventually, my approach to composing.  I can find music I like in most genres, and this has broadened my compositional style and nurtured my interest in the interweaving of culture and music.

AV:  Can you remember the point at which you first entertained the idea of music as a career?

AC:  I was doing music work for a company out of Germany, and people kept asking if I had a CD with my music, which at the time I did not.  As time passed, it became clearer to me that the universe was trying to tell me something. I was growing tired of traveling to New York City at a moment’s notice each time my manager’s office called for an acting job or audition.  As much as I loved acting, it was taking a lot out of me.  I also no longer felt the desire to stand on stage for two hours and break down emotionally, and be exhausted later.  When music offered me the opportunity, I took it.

AV:  I’ve read in your bio that you are an actor on top of being a musician and that you have worked on television in that capacity. Tell me about how you are able to balance these two aspects of your artistic persona while still doing justice to both.

AC:  I’ve left the acting world and while there was some overlap between the two careers I no longer do any acting at all.  Acting, for me, has become a ‘former life.’  One I remember fondly, but rarely miss because of the stresses involved.  Music now takes up all of my time and all of my emotional energy. I do not feel I would have anything left to give to acting. I believe strongly in putting all my energy into one path, rather than spread it all over the place and show little for it anywhere.  Music offers me a different life that is more suited to who I am on many levels. 

AV:  You once mentioned to me that you are an introvert by nature. Being an introvert myself I can definitely see the dilemma of choosing such careers as acting and performing music. How is it that you are able to function on such a public platform career wise and what are the daily challenges you face in regards to those careers?

AC:  It is extremely difficult for me.  As an actor, I was often surrounded by other introverts, because it is not uncommon for actors to be
“secret” introverts.  Like all aspects of personality, introversion manifests in different ways for different people. For me, standing on a stage in front of 2,000 people was fine.  However, after the show, having to interact with any of them was torture.  I’ve never mastered the art of easy communication and even today, when I have to “mingle” or interact for long periods of time at musical events, it takes a lot of energy and I am often left exhausted. I know for some people this is easy but for me, and many introverts, it is very difficult. But music is very different, and many musicians around me seem not only to be extroverts, but to also love and need a social entourage. 

Another aspect that makes my work in music as an introvert difficult is that we truly expose who we are, whereas an actor hides behind a mask.  This has been very hard for me.  In this day and age of social media, audiences and even fellow musicians seem to demand personal interaction, something I dread.  Not that I do not like people, because I do, but I have always had a need to be alone, or surrounded by just a few people at a time.  As a child, in the seventies, this was not seen well, and I spent many hours in therapy.  To this day I still hear in my head what I was told oftentimes as a child, “You need to be more sociable.” 

When my mother would throw me a birthday party, I’d tend to spend time with one or two other kids, ignoring the rest.  No one had a problem, because in Argentina, give a soccer ball to a bunch of kids and they are kept happy for hours. I’d then retreat and enjoy being with a couple of the quiet kids who, generally, enjoyed music, puppets and other less noisy activities.  Yet I remember the dread of being forced to play soccer with 20 other kids.  It was not going to happen. At some point people around me realized this and started leaving me alone.  Of course, I did not understand as a child what was happening, so then I’d feel left out of everything.  It was a no-win situation but one that helped me later in life understand myself and be comfortable with my choices.

I recall being on the red carpet at the Grammies, surrounded by hundreds of people and photographers. I turned to Kevin, my manager, and said, “Welcome to my idea of hell!”  In fact, the strain from all the Grammy madness left my creativity completely dry and it took months before the production of my album, The Blue Rose, could get back on track.

AV:  When you first started to compose your own music what was it that became the foundation of your style of composition? Classical, world, new age, ambient or something else?

AC:  I used to compose music for my own enjoyment and never imagined it would become my career.  I just needed music around me and oftentimes I needed to get music that constantly played in my head out.  New Age was not much of a stretch for me, because instrumental music and film scores captivated me ever since I can remember.  By my late teens, I was already an avid New Age music fan - unusual for a teenager but the music really connected to my soul.  My first album was a compilation of songs I had composed years before and never intended to release.  My second album became much more structured and serious.  But it was not until my album ‘Scheherazade’ that I feel my style was defined.  It was inevitable that acting and music would collide, and my style with its cinematic overtones, I believe, is a mixture of both.

AV:  How did you feel about releasing your first album Shadows back in 2006? Was this a natural next step for you and the music you were composing?

AC:  I released that album with a lot of trepidation, because I was not expecting music to become my career.  And to this day I cannot listen to it.  I am not fond of it from an artistic perspective, but I do owe a lot to it.  I am where I am today in my career because of it.  However, if I learned one thing as a professional actor is: take your craft seriously, treat it as something you love but also a business, be as professional as you can be and either do it wholeheartedly or not at all.  So I took the plunge, brought my acting training with me into the music business and did it all the way.

AV:  Since ‘Shadows’ you have released 4 other albums including your latest which came out earlier this year called The Blue Rose. As a composer what has each new project taught you in regards to your music and how have they helped you to understand your own inner artistic motivations?

AC:  As an artist, I feel we’re constantly growing and expanding.  It is what I hope for.  With each album, I need to feel I am moving forward and I am bettering myself.  Once an album reaches number one in a chart, or you get a nomination or an award, it is easy to feel the pressure of, “How do I top this?”  With ‘Scheherazade,’ I suddenly found myself catapulted to number one on the ZMR charts for three months, people were paying attention, I received numerous nominations and awards and broadcasters and reviewers loved the album.  As wonderful as it all was, I had no idea how to recapture this success with a new album.  I eventually learned to let go, follow my intuition and muse and compose what I was being led to compose, regardless of whether it would be successful or not.  It worked out well. My next album, ‘Northern Seas,’ reached the top 10 on Amazon’s best New Age albums for 2010 and garnered several ZMR nominations as well as a Grammy nomination.  By the time all of it was behind me, I had learned enough to not feel stressed as to how to approach my next album.  The concept of ‘The Blue Rose’ was already brewing, and I felt that creating an album that would be very different from its predecessor would help me grow as an artist.  I relaxed into it and I feel it worked well.

Above all, I feel that I have now spent enough time in this business, and in the New Age genre, to have developed a good following, the respect of my peers and music professionals, and that feels good to me. 

I have heard from broadcasters who are actually thrilled to see a new Al Conti album come their way.  That means a lot to me (and I must admit it still surprises me).  I feel that some new artists, lured by the trap of instant gratification, want immediate acceptance and success and they miss the power of the journey.  It takes time to grow in this business, and I love the process. 

AV:  The Blue Rose has a theme that flows from the first song to the last. Tell me about how The Legend of the Blue Rose shaped the music that you composed for this release.

AC:  Generally, a story I decide on for an album will unfold for me in the way a script did in acting.  There is a beginning, where an audience is introduced to the main characters and are given a brief idea of what is to come.  The legend of ‘The Blue Rose’ was very easy for me as far as treatment: an emperor wants to marry off his daughter; she refuses but agrees to marry a man who will bring her a blue rose; knowing one does not exists in nature – so she can avoid getting married.  Many suitors come forth willing to marry her, but only one with true love eventually wins.  There was a very clear beginning, a continuation or tension, and then a happy ending.  However, what emerged for me was the message of hope that permeated the entire story, and what a wonderful message this could be when expressed with music.

AV:  Do any of your other albums have underlying themes that tie the projects together in some way? Is that normally how you approach composing?

AC:  Once a project is done, I move on to something else.  Many times I cannot listen to the project once a new one takes over and, in fact, I need a clear separation from what I did before to successfully create something completely new.  So, I would say that each album stands on its own.   However, what they do have in common is that each is based on some form of myth or legend, and all are concept albums.  I find that creating a concept album keeps me focused, tells me what it wants me to compose and how to go about it.  As one reviewer recently put it, concept albums are a lost art. I feel lucky that I can create concept albums and that this form works best for me.  I do not believe an artist should look at what someone else is doing and then say, “Oh, he does concept albums and is successful, I am going to do the same.”   For me, I followed what came naturally, and that just happened to be concept albums. I can connect this approach to my acting, as I said, but also to my love of folklore and myths. ‘The Blue Rose’ is a story I first read as a child.

AV:  On The Blue Rose you composed, arranged and performed all of the songs. Is there anything about taking a project like this from concept to finished album that you don’t do?

AC:  While I compose, arrange and perform much of what you hear, I do bring in guest artists to play certain instruments.  I play various instruments, either live or electronically, but I like to also bring the talents of other people to add their individual talents to my work – it is like adding a special spice to the mix. I give guest artists a little direction and allow them to bring their own flavor to a piece.  Someone like Ann Licater, for example, who played flute in the song ‘Bamboo Night Garden,’ added a whole new energy to the piece. The music came alive even more.

I am also completely involved in my work, from start to finish, from the composing, performing and arrangements, to the mixing, mastering and even album design.  I seek perfection and professionalism, and while I never really feel I fully achieve it, it drives me to create the best I can at that given time.

AV:  When you are telling a story like you are on The Blue Rose is it any more difficult to compose pieces that flow together than creating stand-alone compositions?

AC:  For me, it is actually easier to follow a story through music than to compose individual pieces with no connection to each other.  This keeps me focused.  A project can easily take me a year or two from start to finish and it can be very easy for me half way through to creatively want to go elsewhere.  I can loose focus, and this is not good, because I feel listeners can hear if songs in one album do not flow together.  I believe this was the case with my first album and why I have trouble listening to it.  So, as I mentioned before, the concept album framework really appeals to me.

AV:  When you are in the process of arranging, mixing and editing your music do you have a sense as to when the music is “done” and that you should wrap it up and call it finished?

AC:  Great question!  I have never been asked this before, but it is exactly what happens for me.  When I am composing an album, I seem to be
‘guided’ by what I call a muse.  This is a different feeling from one album to the next – a different energy.  When the muse decrees the album is done, no more inspiration comes.  I can actually ‘feel’ it, like a door closing, and it is done.

I generally mix as I go, because I need to hear the work as it is in my head. I know artists who can compose a whole album and mix it later.  I tried this and it drove me insane.  Some things I know my engineer can tweak later, so I have gotten more relaxed as I work, but generally I need to hear the song as close to finished as possible.  After I am done composing and mixing, additional mixing and recording happens at my engineer’s studio and then at the end of it all, the mastering process.  By the time we are at the final mixing and mastering phase, I am long done composing.

AV:  As you look back on The Blue Rose do you feel that you were able to communicate the essence of The Legend of the Blue Rose through the music that you composed? Were you happy with the final result?

AC:  I think the answer would be a resounding ‘yes.’  I am never sure I will be able to pull it off, once a concept ‘chooses me.’  However, I now relax a bit more because I can look back on my past projects and I see I have done it over and over again, and I will do it again.  I used to stress to no end when I started a project.  Now I look back and tell myself, “I did it with the other albums, I will do it with this one” and then let myself go.  As with the other albums, I think I did with The Blue Rose what I set out to do. I cannot ever, though, foretell how the public will embrace an album.  I am happy that, so far, people have reacted positively to The Blue Rose.

AV:   You are also involved with a couple of organizations called Until There’s a Cure Foundation and Artists for Human Rights. Tell me about your involvement in these groups and how you feel about those who are in the public eye using their notoriety to help further humanitarian causes when they can.

AC:  There are some differences in how I deal with these organizations. I am an actual member of Artists For Human Rights, whereas I support the Until There’s A Cure foundation, the ASPCA and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, but am not a member of these.  I believe that there is a responsibility for people in the public eye and that we can help influence others by encouraging positive action. I take this responsibility extremely seriously when I decide to engage with an organization.  There are countless organizations out there, but I believe we need to be touched personally to understand what we’re getting involved in.  All the organizations I support and/or am a member of are very close to my heart. I also believe that as artists, we have the responsibility to give back in some way, and, other than through music, this is how I choose to do it.

AV:  So in terms of music what is next for you? Do you already have another musical project in mind? Is there something you haven’t done yet that you wanted to try?   Any hints?

AC:  I always seem to say this, but here I go again. I was, first and foremost, an actor.  Actors, especially theater ones, have some level of superstition.  I carry that with me into the music business.  I feel that speaking of a project that is just in its beginning stages is almost a curse, so I do not.  I only start speaking of it as it nears the end of the creative process. I do know it is scheduled for release in early 2015, but that, again, can change, as it happened with ‘The Blue Rose,’ which was originally slated for release in October of 2012 but was not until May 2013. 

What I can say is that there is a new project in the works and it will resemble in some small way my album ‘Scheherazade,’ although completely different in culture and style.

AV:  Your Northern Seas album was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2011. How do you feel about what the Grammy’s in general as it relates to ambient/new age artists? What were your feelings/thoughts about having received a Grammy nomination back then?

AC:  This is a touchy subject for me.  I’ve begun to wonder if the way some of the New Age artists present themselves in pursuit of a Grammy harms the way the New Age genre is viewed in the industry.  I have seen a lack of professionalism from some artists, for whom winning a Grammy has completely overshadowed the art of making music.   I think a Grammy is a wonderful thing for any artist, but not if it becomes the end-all, be–all.  As an introvert not inclined to campaigning, I found it amazing that I got nominated.  I can only hope that I was nominated because people truly liked my work and by the fact that I was genuine in my approach.  And because of that, I remain friends with many amazing Grammy members.  My friendship with them was not about a vote.

My Grammy nomination was filled with mixed emotions.  I was not expecting a nomination and was stunned and honored when I received it.  But this also pulled me, an introvert, into a place of discomfort.  The spotlight is on you, and this time not as an actor playing a part, but as YOU.   You are exposed to behavior from other people that is less than desirable. I am usually an extremely genuine individual and saw around me a lack of authenticity that was astounding.  Suddenly, I had ‘friends’ everywhere, but I had a close group of people around me whom I could trust, and those were the people I turned to. 

I have to say, it tarnished the glow a bit for me.  To this day I question if people are reaching out to me just for a vote at Grammy time.  We have to hope that members take the voting process to heart as a responsibility to their art, consider every album, and allow terrific music to shine through.

AV:  To close this interview I’d like to offer you a chance to talk about something that is close to your heart whether it concerns your music, your acting or another cause or movement that you’d like to shed some light on through your words.

AC:  I was recently asked in an interview if I had any advice for starting musicians or for parents who want to encourage their child to follow this path.  I feel this is very important and people in the business should speak out honestly about the pros and cons.  For adult musicians who are starting out, I would say, be true to yourself. I am and have always been an artist.  I failed miserably at everything else.  This is who I am and why I do it.  However, if music is not your passion, if it is not in your head and heart 24/7, you may want to ask yourself why you want to do this.  In this age of YouTube and Facebook, I am finding many starting musicians want instant fame and fortune.  They do not want to work at developing their talents, honing their craft and building their career, slowly becoming known in the business or developing their fan base.  They want to put out their first album and be a star, instantly recognized and nominated for a Grammy.  They almost demand this, and sometimes have the money to back that notion, which makes matters worse.  Money does not buy talent, but dedication, hard work and love for the craft does.  I feel that there is an important process that must happen.  For me, it is not a matter of ‘paying your dues,’ it is a matter of learning professionalism and developing a career and getting there with some integrity left.   Things happen slowly for a reason.  You do not decide you are going to be an actor and suddenly land a starring role.  This does not happen because the moment the camera starts rolling you won’t know what to do.   That takes time, practice, study, and generally years of smaller roles. You pick up knowledge by being on the set, casting directors get to know you, and you create a network.  It can take actors more than a decade before they get somewhere, even though it may sometimes seem it was overnight.  I feel the same applies to the music business.  These days, anyone can put out an album, but not everyone is prepared professionally for it.  I was lucky that all the training I had as an actor I brought over to this business.  The professional etiquette is the same, and I see many musicians today who are sorely lacking because the technology is there for them to put out an album when in reality they might actually not be ready to do so.

As far as parents who want their children to follow this path, I would say, if you see your child is musically inclined, by all means, encourage it.  Help them explore various instruments, various styles.  Expose them to all kinds of music.  However, if your child wants nothing to do with music and would rather be adding up figures, do not force them.  Get them a calculator instead!  I saw plenty of stage mothers in the acting world, and it was horrible.  It was clear that the child wanted to be anywhere except in front of the camera, and oftentimes were like miniature robots, programmed to perform.  I was an artist since I was born and this was extremely clear to my parents.  So, they simply encouraged what was there.  My brother and sister followed a different path. My mother, who was a ballet dancer, could have made a ballet dancer out of my sister, and for a while my sister did choose to study ballet.  However, when it became clear that my sister wanted to follow a different path, then that was encouraged.  Today, she is an exceptional physician and has saved many lives.  If your child is an artist, believe me, it will become clear!  Allow them to follow THEIR path – every person has a talent to share with the world.

AV:  That is wonderful advice Al and I hope that those reading this interview will take it to heart for themselves and for parents that they will think about the path that their child is on and whether that is what the child wants for themselves. Thank you very much for such an insightful look into your life and your music through this interview and I wish you much success in your musical endeavors in the future. And you can bet that I will keep an eye out for your next project regardless of when it might show up.