A rock concert on an acoustic guitar
To play solo, to be your own boss, climb your own mountain, and try not to lose your own strings
A while ago, we started an exciting tradition here, in this magazine, to follow the success of graduates of the jazz department of the Academy of music. This time the hero of the conversation is Jānis Bērziņš. While he graduated with a master’s degree in jazz, Latvian listeners are more acquainted with him as a guitarist, composer, and… a singer. The last one came as a surprise to me, because while studying together (Jānis is, by the way, my coursemate), I’ve never heard him sing a single note. It turned out that Jānis has been a songwriter since early childhood, and now his dreams of singing publicly are coming true. Thanks to the pandemic, we finally had a chance to catch up on what’s new, how it feels to be completely alone on the stage, take care of all the publicity hustle himself, concert organization, etc. Also on the studies here and there, arts and music, and how we all will survive, while everything is prohibited, but we want so much…
Let’s start with the latest! How’s it going?
Things are going pretty well, actually! Not that crazy. On the one hand, it’s freaky that everything has just stopped, but I was in such a hustle before that. Now my well being has improved significantly.
Because you have more time to yourself?
Yes. I have the time to relax because I was beginning to feel a little burned out, toeing the line. I take care of many things on my own — different projects, communication, and all; also, I’m always driving somewhere. I was exhausted. And then the government announced the state of emergency, and my stress levels grew even more because I had to get through canceling all my concerts, and then it hit me that now I can go home and do nothing. So the filing of total relaxation took over. After that, other problems arose, of course, but it was different. It affected me in other ways, not as intense. Maybe because I moved to the countryside. The first week of the pandemic, I was stuck home in Riga, and that’s when the first wave of panic hit. Then it went away and came back again. And then I went to the countryside, and the moment I stepped out of the car it just hit me, wow!
From the box of your apartment…
Probably. I am lucky that I have this vast space. I’m not originally from Riga, so it was hard when I first started city life. Everything is more expensive, more intense. But now I’m used to it, and the fact that I can run away to my countryside helps a lot, I can breathe there. It’s an opportunity to relax.
Yeah, but all the finances had stopped. Last year I played around 150 concerts, now, after May 12 I had only two small ones…
Were the concerts for a fee or without one?
For a fee, but it was a symbolic one, nothing to live off. And there was another one, arranged by the Saldus tourism information center. But in comparison with my last season’s schedule, it’s just sad. And now, even though everything has stopped, the work never ends. I do a lot of things all the time. I renovated a room, made a workspace in my home in Druva. I can make music there now.
Do you do online events? Like concerts or workshops?
I did a couple of live streams on Instagram, but just small ones, improvised… I just placed my phone in front of me, that’s it, live stream from my home. It gives some results, that’s for sure. As much as I’ve read some advisers’ articles or opinions, these live streams are essential to musicians. This is a hard time for the music industry. The main goal is to stay afloat, to put some thought into your finances because it all won’t come back so quickly, and these live streams are good for reminding the listeners that you exist. And then I was invited to do an event at Saldus Tourist Information Centre. It was way better, an excellent format, they asked me questions, and it was refreshing not to be alone in the studio, but other people’s presence awakens the creativity. It’s an excellent way to do online events, and people are developing this form of online events, which is good.
And as to the concerts, well, I’m not very fond of online shows as a way of earning money, I don’t believe that they could cover the expenses. I’m not an expert, but in my opinion, it’s something similar to when the internet appeared, and people stopped buying CDs. You’re always trying to persuade people to buy those CDs still, although they can download the music for free. Not that it’s legal or something, but the internet gave freedom to music piracy. Now, all those streaming platforms let you listen to music for free, and what does an artist get in return? Scraps.
Yes, that sounds true. Some people say that all these free online concerts will negatively impact the music industry: people will get used to the idea that culture comes for free and will stop attending shows with an entrance fee.
I don’t think this statement is accurate. First of all, people already believe that culture should be free to all. If a person wants to enjoy a concert by a particular musician, they can watch a show on Youtube. Of course, that’s not the same as a live experience. People pay for the live experience they get from the place and other people they meet at the event. At this social gathering, they can make an appearance, communicate verbally or nonverbally. And it’s a bit funny that the last ones people think about, they don’t care whether the musicians are being paid or not. They usually assume that everything is covered by the venue — sound equipment, lights, advertising, yadda-yadda, and the musician just enjoys playing music. Bet people also are paying for the brand this musician represents. So all in all the people are paying for the chance to gather somewhere where there’s live music playing. That’s what I think. I don’t know. As a musician, I concentrate on the music other musicians make, but I think there’s something to this concept.
And what about those online concerts where you have to buy tickets?
I don’t think those have a real future. Just as well people can watch a recording of the concert. If there is some additional value to the show, like a beautiful venue, a reason to dress up, then yes. But to pay for an online concert to watch it on your computer while lying in bed? I don’t think people are ready to pay for that kind of fun. Maybe once, but then I think this will die down.
You have mentioned before that you are your own manager, is that so?
Yes, I manage myself and my projects.
With no one to help out?
Nope. Gerda Čevere had helped out for a short while when she had more time on her hands. She did a lot of good things, but for the most part, I do everything myself.
Because when I was willing and able to pay, I couldn’t find anyone that could help me! Maybe all the good ones are already occupied, I don’t know. I think it’s very hard to find the right person who would really do more than I could and just as I want it. I would like not to do all those things myself, not to have to communicate with the press, the TV, not to think about all the ways to make myself famous. If you have the right person at your beck and call, you are fortunate, and then everything will work out as it should. There will be more people attending your concerts.
You know what? Since I had some free time recently, I went through the files on my old computer and found many essays from the time I studied in England. There was this one essay on the music business, specifically on music management. There was a description of the things the manager does, and he is the one who has to communicate with booking agents, producers, recording studios, labels. In Latvia, a music manager is someone who does all of the things I mentioned…
I searched for you on the internet and discovered that you don’t have a web page!
I don’t have a web page! [laughs] I don’t think I need it. What will a web page do? It will redirect you to my social network accounts. I believe that a web page is a thing of the past. We have Facebook, Instagram, Youtube. What else do you need?
Is your Instagram linked to your Facebook account?
Yes, I usually try to think a bit about which things would look better hare and what there. Just now, when I did my live streams, I connected two devices to stream on both platforms at the same time, to reach both audiences at once. I don’t know if it was the right decision to do so, but maybe it will help me get some new followers. But yes, I try separating one from another and thinking about making the content different. I’ve noticed that Facebook has a more mature audience, and Instagram is more for humor. Something like that.
Somehow we haven’t yet talked about you as a musician! We went straight to the mundane and music business… But I do want to talk about your art. If I type your name in Google, it will tell me that you are a guitarist, singer, and composer.
Mainly a guitarist, yes. A guitarist who likes the music of different genres that plays a lot of tunes in the style of Tommy Emmanuel, Chet Atkins, Joe Robinson. I also like what Joe Bonamassa plays, Robin Ford, some blues-rock. Also, some jazz things, but the percentage is relatively small if compared to the other stuff. But I enjoy giving people this experience as well. As a vocalist, I am more of a songwriter. I like writing songs with my lyrics, and I like singing my songs, it’s convenient, a singing guitarist… This story is as old as time, as they say! [laughs]
If we talk about composition, then it is not just me writing songs; I also compose some more complicated things with a more prominent form. I write pieces not only for myself but for other projects as well. But what describes me the most is the majority of the genres I work in.
Yes, I could hear that in your album; the tunes’ styles are very different there. When I listened to your album, I wanted to ask you whether you were cautious of putting together a recording with so many faces? Because I heard vocal tunes there, instrumental ones, solo guitar, band, blues, country, and other things.
You think it was risky, right? In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking of the album; I was more interested in making a concert sound interesting. I knew from the start that my shows would be divided into two parts — the first one more in the vibe of Tommy Emmanuel and the second one in Jimmy Hendricks. So you see, Emmanuel is all about the acoustic solo guitar, something with vocals on top of that. And the Hendricks part is with other musicians on stage alongside me. Maybe even in a John Mayer style. I know that I want to put those two things together and that it’s a risk that there will be people who will have something to say about that. This is not a traditional way of doing concerts people are used to, or that I might not state a precise selling point. Still, I believe that the music industry nowadays is so colorful that people who genuinely listen to music will understand the concert’s mainline. The concept is variegated, but on the other hand, this approach will make sure that every listener will find something of their liking. I wanted to kill two birds with one stone, to allow everyone to find something for themselves. And then I did the same on my album.
So it was a commercial decision?
If it were a commercial decision, I wouldn’t include instrumental music in my album. People usually enjoy singing, looking at the market, how it is structured — how many tickets are sold to vocal concerts, and how many to instrumental ones.
So that’s why you started singing!
No. To tell you the truth, I started singing a very long time ago. I remember we had bands in high school, and when I was 14, I started singing in one as a lead vocalist. On a hilarious level, of course, but still! And all those artists I have mentioned before — Joe Bonamassa, Tommy Emmanuel, all sing in their concerts, although they are considered guitarists.
And you said that you write your texts, right?
Yes, since I was 10! When I recently had the chance to go through my old stuff, I found those old notes; they were hilarious, those lyrics; I also tried writing something in English as well…
So you are indeed a songwriter first and only then a guitarist?
You could say so, yes.
I’ve read on the internet that you have studied in the «Academy of Contemporary Music» in Great Britain. What’s that school about?
It’s an academy of music in Guilford. I studied there for three years, from 2007 to 2010. It’s a school that specializes in modern pop music. I have a bachelor’s degree from there.
There’s this word in the name of the school — contemporary. I don’t know, but I think that this is a very unclear concept nowadays. Maybe you could tell me more about the things you learned there? Because I had the impression that it’s all about modern classical music.
[laughs] It all begins with «Red Hot Chili Peppers» and Jimmy Hendricks. All the classes we had were aimed to make successful commercial musicians out of us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a session musician or a pop singer. 40% of all classes were about music marketing, the market, etc.
Of course, there was a marketing department as well, they went really deep with this stuff, and we just scratched the surface of these topics. But that is considered a default practice to help a young musician understand the market they are entering. Of course, we were unsatisfied with the amount of these classes, we were too bored with them, though it was too much. We wanted to spend more time making music. But now, going through all my notes, I realize how many useful things the studies gave me. Maybe it would have been best to study more… But oh well.
In the beginning, we played all kinds of stuff. It was fascinating, there were about 70 guitarists in one year (a little less of bassists, half of that singer, same with the drummers), the classes are held in a room full of 20 guitarists and one teacher. So, on Monday morning we learn a tune, then we’d have other lectures on Tuesday, same on Wednesday, and then on Thursday, we would all have to go to a theater, where all of the students from our year ar divided into groups and we would play the tune we started learning on Monday to everyone there. Like an instant showcase. The teachers then comment on the result — how you behave on the stage, how you look like, how you played. And that’s how the year went; we went through many different styles — rock, pop, blues. Alongside that, we had lectures in music theory, and that’s how you grow in other musical styles — jazz, Latin music, improvisation. Fusion was viral at that time; I was very into that.
Another exciting thing about the school is that you don’t have to stick to one teacher — 12 different teachers specialized in a particular genre. You could change your teacher whenever you wanted to. You just had to have two individual lessons a week. I don’t know if that’s the right approach; maybe you would need more time to see the results. When you have only one teacher, you see the results instantly. Maybe.
If I understand correctly, it wasn’t your goal to study jazz music, right? So why did you enroll in the Academy of Music in Latvia? Here we have only classical music and jazz, that’s it, for now, it’s not possible to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree in pop or rock music.
I always loved jazz music, even in my teen years, and then in time, I started to listen to it more and more. I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to study traditional jazz and our jazz department is very strong in that. I also wanted to get to know my coursemates better and learn from them, not just from my guitar teacher; it is an unmeasurable experience. It is incredible that I got to go through both those schools, ACM has some things that our school doesn’t, but the same is with JVLMA. Our jazz department has things you won’t learn in ACM.
Did you get the chance to use all the jazz knowledge gained in real life? Because «Alpinist» isn’t about that at all.
Yes, there’s nothing jazzy about it. But during my live shows, I play some jazz tunes as well, something from my master’s recital. I want people to hear those things as well.
Did I read somewhere on the web that you also play the bass?
Yes. I’ve also recorded the bass guitar for my album. Stasis [Staņislavs Judins] plays with me during the live shows, he plays way better than I do. [laughs] Way, way better! But yes, I played the bass in my album. But in truth, a bass guitar isn’t that different from a regular guitar. The technique differs slightly. I started playing the bass when I was in Saldus music school, in the wind instrument orchestra. The principal of the school suggested I do it, and I did. I have all the basics I need from that time. Sometimes I even play the bass on function gigs when needed. I’m not saying I’m a pro, but I can play something.
And how did the solo guitar journey begin?
With the same Tommy Emmanuel. He had a concert in the Congress Hall in 2007, and at that time I was a massive fan of rock music, so I went to the show, and it was fantastic! From the beginning to the end, he played the concert solo, and I was surprised by a single person’s ability to hold the audience’s attention for so long. It was terrific; in fact, it was so good I had to pick up my jaw from the ground. That’s when I decided I need to learn to play like that.
But that’s a very different way of playing, thinking?
It is different, indeed. You have to emulate an orchestra on an instrument that has only six strings. You have to plan out the arrangements very carefully to sound beautiful and plan all the chord changes and transitions. But this style is a very cultivated thing; they play it because it sounds good and extremely interesting.
There is this exceptional freedom when you play solo guitar — you’re your own boss, everything is exactly as you want it to be, and the guitar’s sound is unique; you can make it personal. There are a million ways to achieve that. I spent many hours arguing with pianists that because you can’t do much with a piano, there is the hammer, and only so many ways it hits the string. But the ways your fingers pluck the strings are endless. And then you try charming the listener with your guitar’s sounds, how the instrument breathes, and how the sound vibrates. That is the basis of my wish to play solo.
I like playing in the style of Tommy Emmanuel; he turns the volume so high that when he hits the strings, you get the feeling of being at a rock music concert. Like when a drummer hits the drums, and the sound resonates in your ribs. That is called «A rock concert on an acoustic guitar.» But then you have to have an excellent sound engineer. We can spend hours in the soundcheck to make sure that the sound is exactly as I want it.
I’ve seen an ad for one of your concerts, and there was a video where you play two guitars simultaneously. Is this a show element?
Yes, I’ve seen something similar done by Joe Robinson. He’s a younger version of Tommy Emmanuel. That is an actual show element, maybe a cheesy one, but still funny. I like stand-up comedians, and since I am the moderator on my own concerts, I also prepare some stories and even jokes to tell the audience. A couple of people even approached me after some shows and said they hadn’t had such a laugh for a long time. And I also like it myself. It’s more personal.
And the album is quite melancholic, right?
This album has its own concept. It stands apart from the live shows. But even when I play the music from this album in my concerts, I don’t tell that many jokes.
Speaking about the «Alpinist,» have you ever tried climbing something yourself?
No, I was inspired by a movie I saw, a documentary called «Free Solo.» It is about an alpinist who climbed the El Capitan without any equipment whatsoever. A stunning film about sports. I was so inspired I wrote a song right after I finished watching the movie. Then I started drawing parallels because this person had no safety, no one to rely on except on his own fingertips. It is a bit similar to how this solo thing goes — you are absolutely alone, no one to rely on, you can’t give the solo to the drummer and take a break because there is no drummer. I climb my mountain and try not to lose my strings.
Did you ever get to fall?
Sure! But no one wants to make mistakes, even though it happens from time to time.