SS: I showed an aptitude for fine arts at a very young age. I spent many hours creating paintings in my room as a child while other kids were outside playing. I specifically enjoyed working in acrylics as it lent itself to my surreal style. My earliest influences were Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Fine Arts remained my focus when I entered college and my style diverged from Surrealism toward Science Fiction. At the time many of my paintings were reminiscent of the type of artwork you would have seen in a publication like "Omni" Magazine. About the same time I became very interested in music and picked up guitar. I became obsessed with music as I felt it presented degrees of freedom of expression and emotional rapport that I could not obtain singularly through painting.
AV: Did you feel like you were sacrificing your love of art to pursue music?
SS: I will always love and appreciate art. Especially art as applied to Science Fiction and Surrealism. To me its all about imagination and exploration. I have always felt that I made the right decision moving into music as my core pursuit. These days most Science Fiction artists gravitate toward 3D animation and most of that expression involves movies. A number of years ago I was schooled in 3D Modeling and considered picking up animation as a second career, but ultimately I made the decision to focus on my music and engage art as a sideline of my music production.
AV: Were there other artists or composers that helped to shape the direction that your own music would take as you moved forward?
SS: In the beginning I was influenced by Progressive Rock, Jazz Fusion, Electronic and Jazz artists. Epic artists like: Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Crimson, Weather Report, Pat Metheny, RTF, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Synergy and Vangelis to name but a few.
AV: You studied piano performance in college and then after college developed an affinity for guitar. What was it inside of you that prompted you to add the guitar to repertoire?
SS: Many colleges did not offer guitar performance so I went with the flow. While I do love piano I deeply enjoyed the intimacy of guitar. The ability to manipulate notes with bends, slurs and other techniques was a revelation, as was playing guitar through various effects to achieve a greater sense of dimension and scope. Guitar has the advantage of being an easy traveling companion.
AV: Many of the artists that I interview/review for Ambient Visions are referred to as multi-instrumentalists. As an artist Is it difficult to maintain a high standard of quality across several instruments when it comes to performance and composition?
SS: I think that really depends on your style and approach. Certainly if ones genre and style places an emphasis on pedagogy and technique such as Classical, Jazz or Jazz Fusion. When it comes to composition their is no substitute for high standards and quality regardless of genre. There are many distinct sub-genres and styles and it may seem confusing to find artists one can resonate with. From my perspective it comes down to conceptual maturity and dedication to quality and content.
AV: When you first started to compose your own music what was the inspiration that motivated you and what type of music did you write?
SS: When I left the Jazz Fusion/Progressive Rock scene I dived headlong into synthesizers. As a young solo artist I viewed multi-tracked synths as my backup band. I blended Electronica with my bent toward Fusion Guitar (subdued of course). It was experimental and I had little knowledge of where it would all lead. At the time most of my compositions were conceptual and fused elements of electronica with guitar.
AV: In September 2013 you are coming up on your 7th album to be released but before we talk about that how about we revisit your very first album called Into Light. Tell me about the songs that made up your first release and if there was a theme that united them on this album.
SS: During this time I was very involved in the New Age community and had taken many trips to the Four Corners region exploring ancient sites such as: Keet Seel, Mesa Verde, Sedona, Chaco and Aztec. The track "Anasazi" was directly inspired by Keet Seel. I have a strong affinity with ancient cultures like Egypt and this is evident in the track "Aton". At the time, I was involved in the practice of Reiki and Meditation. "Into Light" was a manifestation of these meditative journeys. Tracks such "Waterdown" and "Cetacea" are inspired by deep nature meditations. The common thread is sacred nature and sacred cultures. Into Light represents a journey through these mythical and not so mythical portals. The symbol on the Into Light cover is a creation of mine rendered as a 3D relief that represents a number of binding concepts: Pyramid, Infinity and the Flame of Life wrapped in the energy of Gold.
AV: How did you feel about the album after you had finished the work and released it to the public? Were you happy with the process and did you learn some things about how you might better approach your next album?
SS: I felt wonderful when the album was released. I was thrilled when it won a NAV Music Award. I was happy with the process and learned along the way. Specifically, I learned about concepts of marketing and placement. Having been a musician/artist my emphasis was focused on creation and I had limited exposure regarding music as a business. I learned a few lessons regarding genre placement based on track diversity. When I released Into Light I viewed the project as "New Age". Many viewed the project as "Space Music" and iTunes placed "Into Light" as genre "Rock". In 2010 I remastered and re-released Into Light as genre "Electronic" at iTunes.
AV: I won't go through each album you've released for the last 12 years but do you see a pattern of growth and exploration in your compositions that flows through the music that you have released over the years?
SS: Up until my up and coming release Cosmic Diva I consider my exploration in compositions as embracing two periods: Ambient and Chillout. My Ambient period began with Into Light and culminated in Inner Beauty. Inner Beauty was a deep reflection of my inner space and my most intimate expression of those journeys. At the time I felt I had said all I had to say within the context of pure synthesis. After the release of Inner Beauty I wanted to return to guitar performances with a strong beat as the foundation of the compositions. I wanted synthesizers to support my artistic vision but not consume it. This period began with "Coffee Culture" and culminated in my last release "Prismatic". I definitely see a pattern of growth and exploration throughout these periods. Inner Beauty took me deep into layered synthesis and I focused on a tightly coupled conceptual approach. The Chillout period has allowed me to deeply explore and refine the rhythmic and sensual aspects of my musical personality. Throughout both of these periods my cinematic and imaginative layering flow through these releases.
AV: Your latest release is entitled Cosmic Diva and is due out in September 2013. Tell me about the title and how that ties in with the songs that you have pulled together for this new release.
SS: Cosmic Diva refers to humanities desire to escape its earthly confines and journey into outer space and inner space. It is also in reference to Greg Bear whom in my opinion is one of the finest Science Fiction authors of all time. The songs on Cosmic Diva are a reflection of the journey humanity encounters as it steps into a vast galactic community. The journey begins with awareness (Foreplay) to encounter (Link with Me) to acceptance (Crossing the Threshold) to preparation (Points of Embarkation, Promise Me This) to continuance (Loves Journey, Light Always Glistens).
AV: As a composer how is it that you can tell that one of your compositions as opposed to another fits into the overall theme of a project that you are working on?
SS: I generally work within a cinematic concept as my brain and nervous system are wired in that way. I work in the moment and go with the muse. As things progress I have a strong sense of the flow and musical energy. There are times when I immediately know I am in the "zone" and it all fits. There are other times when I work a theme (over and over) and scrap the idea completely walking away from the project for a few days in order to gain a fresh perspective. Its really an ebb and flow process within me. I have learned over the years when its time to unwind and come back to it with fresh insight.
AV: Tell me about how science fiction author Greg Bear's writings have influenced and shaped the music that your fans will find on Cosmic Diva.
SS: As a Science Fiction lover I was influenced by many great books and movies over the years. However, I had literally gone a decade without reading any relatively recent authors choosing to primarily watch Science Fiction movies and TV series. Recently I decided to surf the web and see if there were any authors that might peak my interest. That is when I learned of Greg Bear. My introduction to Greg Bear began with the classic "Eon" and followed with "Eternity". I was completely "blown away" with the entire concept of The Way on an epic scale both macro and micro level. The journey taken within Cosmic Diva embodies similar concepts though different characterization.
AV: As far as production, engineering, mixing etc. is Cosmic Diva pretty much your own baby start to finish? And do you enjoy having complete control over what will and won't be in the finished composition?
SS: Cosmic Diva is definitely my own baby from start to finish. I do all my own production, engineering and mixing. I have worked in a few studios and have had studio engineers as friends so I am somewhat adept at engineering and mixing. I do like to fix it in the mix as I compose which I find greatly simplifies the final mastering process. I prefer a Zen approach to music and like to keep things simple and direct. I enjoy having complete control over my compositions and concepts. I like my music to embody the concept of freedom of choice. Though over the years I have learned it is equally important to manage the scope of my projects.
AV: What kind of process, if any, do you go through as you start work on a new album and how is it that you know when the music is as good as you can make it?
SS: Whenever I start work on a new album I almost always have a strong concept in mind. I define my palette of genre/styles that I intend to utilize and explore. Much the same as a painter conceptualizes a scene and chooses a palette of colors. I found this helps me retain my focus and achieve a better level of consistency throughout a project. My co-producer Anne McGlochlin has a marvelous ear and a strong sense of nuance. She provides valuable guidance during track listening sessions, mixing and mastering. There have been moments when it is difficult to embrace suggestions but I have learned to trust her direction. Before any project is manufactured and distributed it receives repeated listens across different devices and situations. When it all comes together its ready for print.
AV: Do you think technology/software has reached the point where you can record and mix your music in a home studio with as much quality as you would get out of going to a traditional studio set up? As a musician how does that change the whole dynamic of composing, recording and releasing your music in 2013 as compared to a couple of decades ago?
SS: I absolutely feel that technology/software has reached the point where you can record in your home studio and retain very high quality. The technology is definitely here. The skill and background to accomplish the task is another matter entirely. As good as technology is there is no substitute for experience, dedication and fundamentals. I personally embrace change rather easily so I feel the technology shift is amazing and wonderful. On the other hand one has to maintain a sense of perspective as it is very easy to get "hungup" in the technology and music can lose its vitality and emotional nuance.
Decades ago you had to "get it right" the first or second overdub. Now you can virtually manipulate and change any aspect of sound you wish down to the smallest nuance. In my view "less is generally more".
AV: Has the Internet made it easier or harder for you to get your music heard in the midst of all the music that is floating around out there clambering for listener's attention?
SS: The Internet has definitely made it easier to get my music out there. Since my music is largely "Cinematic" and "Layered" it would take a 4-6 piece band or heavily sequenced show in order to produce it properly in live venues. Decades ago one had little to know chance of being heard beyond their immediate locale without getting signed to a major deal. Freedom in music was transitory since you had to fit within tight corporate guidelines in order to gain the backing and marketing. Once you "made it" the label expects the "rinse and repeat" performance. As you say there is allot of music out there clambering for listener's attention. Regardless of how proud an artist might be regarding their product it must "resonate strongly" with listener's if it is to gain exposure and momentum. When that momentum is combined with a sound marketing strategy an artist will attract listeners.
AV: Tell me about the digital artwork that you create and how satisfying that is to the other part of your creative nature?
SS: I still enjoy digital artwork. But these days my music takes most all my free time. Depending on my free time, project concept and inclinations, I may pursue digital artwork via photographs. The CD artwork I did on "Prismatic" was a collage of photos I took while vacationing in Oregon.
AV: As a musician how much influence do the reviews, feedback or comments about your music in print or on the Internet affect you in regards to where your music might go in the future?
SS: As a musician I embrace freedom. Freedom to conceptualize, create and embody music in any way I see fit. Still I would not be completely honest if I said I was not influenced by reviews, feedback and comments. Music is like alchemy where one is experimenting with blending and mixing different elements. This is especially true across the Electronic genres of music. Sometimes the results push the domain toward the future and feedback is an important measurement. Those moments are critical milestones in the evolutionary path of any genre and serve to strengthen an artist's resolve.
AV: I have a more philosophical question for you to close out this interview. How has your art and music influenced you in regards to the kind of person that you have grown into that you would not have been without these disciplines? In other words who are you now because of the music and art in your life that you would not be without it.
SS: I can't imagine my life without the creative spark of art and music that manifested early on. Music and art has been a gift to me that allows my imagination to flourish. These disciplines have given me a focus that allows my minds eye to journey inward and embrace the next adventure.
AV: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to Ambient Visions and I look forward to hearing your latest release Cosmic Diva when it becomes available at the beginning of September. I wish you much success with this new album and all your future projects as well.
SS: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. All the very best to you Michael and Ambient Visions