Category Archives: Mind of a musician

Interview + Show review: Varya

Photography, interview & review by Jonathan Orenstein.

Set up in a small corner of a south Austin popular Greek hangout, Opa!, VARYA adjusts her mic stand, amplifier, and tunes her lyric-adorned acoustic guitar. Her husband and a complete stranger fuss with a string of fairy lights at her feet in an attempt to bring some light to her face. The photographer suggested that more light will enhance the photos and eliminate the dark shadows under her brow. “I can’t deal with this right now, I’m really nervous,” VARYA cries to her uninvited stage crew as she waves them off. I walk back to the bar with her husband discussing lighting issues that these small venues create but I would capture her with my camera none-the-less. The house is full this night, a table of Russian-speaking men clap vigorously as she thanks the crowd for coming out. A table with a dozen or so couples sits nearby, her invited posse, and they erupt into applause.

VARYA steels herself, organizing her thoughts, going over her play her set silently. She’s been performing for over a decade in small venues like this, each show gives her butterflies. VARYA describes herself as strong, sensitive, and loud – these traits give her the strength to perform. Her husband and sister modify her self-identifying personality with outgoing, impulsive, and stubborn. Regardless of which are the correct modifiers, there is something about VARYA with which everyone in her presence can connect.

She tunes her dark-wood guitar and the overhead lights shimmer across poetic phrases scrawled around the guitar’s face. Her soft melodic voice turns heads as an almost Gaelic sound echoes throughout the space. The songs are dark, emotional, and raw, but her emotive expressions draw you in, connecting with her as if she was a longtime friend. Over the next hour, VARYA connects with the audience much like a storyteller engrosses a crowd during a book reading. Page after page of lyrics share thoughts about struggle of love, fear, and togetherness. The small table of men sing along with her to sad tunes of loves lost, like close-knit friends (Russian: drougs) in a local pub.

VARYA focuses her music on telling stories rather than appease to a pop listening crowd. Growing up in Moldova, a small Balkan region country nestled between Romania and Ukraine, VARYA was immersed in local storytelling and music. Her mother and she sang children’s songs together, and her father, known for his poetic verse, wrote her a song that they performed together during some of his concerts. Her native country has a very long and beautiful musical history, where most of the population speaks the Romanian romance language. Moldova existed long before the U.S.S.R. and has very much reclaimed its culture since the breakup of the Soviet republic. There is a deep tradition of Bard music in her country, considered much less of a music genre but rather a lifestyle. VARYA calls it “poetry delivered through the medium of music.”

Poet-songwriters known as romance bards, mostly students of the physical sciences and history, brought this far reaching global musical attitude to the Soviet bloc countries in the early 1950s. The bard style was common in the Baltic region long before it grew in popularity under Soviet rule. The common man and woman would compose romantic lyrics that enshrined the beauty of life, gathering like souls together in harmony and joy. At first this was an underground movement that helped Soviet citizens cope with governmental oppression under Stalin and following the easing of controls under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, Bard music became the naturalists’ music. Bards performed their own songs, and as they were not classically trained musicians, linguists, or lyricists, their poetry was played to simple chord progressions. These songs were sung for pleasure and not for monetary gain. This brought bard music to the young people who enjoyed camping, kayaking, and outdoor adventures. Songs may be political in nature at times, but mainly romantic and family-based themes were the norm. Russian bard music is akin to American folk music, although not commercialized.

VARYA’s family and neighbors wrote original songs, played instruments and performed at small concerts and festivals. “Nobody was particularly good, at least not in a commercial way, but it’s incredibly intimate and honest and raw.”

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Published by Jonathan Orenstein

My focus is on highlighting the great programs that support the community, local musicians, and those in need. I am an Austin-based photographer with experience shooting at the Long Center, various music venues, as well as high school theater performances. My clients include the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Greater Austin High School Musical Theater Awards, and Rock to Recovery. I welcome the opportunity to work for you. View more posts

Mind of a Musician: A Creative’s Journey, Blog series Part 002

Touring is an interesting beast. Sure, you’re getting to travel to places you’ve never been before and meet lots of people, but there’s so much more to it than that. There’s the logistics and admin work that goes into planning out stops, shows, where you’re staying in hotels or with friends, or in some cases camping, and a whole plethora of other concerns and details that need to be worked out. Going into it, I had a naive expectation of essentially a fun filled adventurous vacation. While there was plenty of fun, and more than enough adventure to go around, it was definitely work.

The thing was, I didn’t quite realize that there’s different kinds of travel—travel for vacation and relaxation, travel for work, travel for adventure, and so on, and none of them are quite like tour. I had never really thought about it too much; it was something that had never crossed my mind. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, I’ll have all the work taken care of for me and I’ll just get to think about the music. However, as an independent artist, it’s still all on me. In the summer of 2018, I embarked upon my very first tour around the US, covering 12,000 miles over more than three months. It was a learning experience to say the least.

Assuming that it was going to be a lot, I tried to prepare for every situation, but I didn’t quite realize what I was getting myself into. I didn’t consider the fact that while I was on the road, I’d also still be answering emails, making phone calls, having shows or places to stay fall through, essentially just figuring it out as I went—I was torn. I had never been to almost any of the amazing towns and cities I was going to be passing through, and I wanted to relish in the new experiences and cultures I would get to experience. I decided to set up some specific shows and places to stay but would leave certain ends open, which in theory sounds great and carefree, but in practice…let’s just say I didn’t quite nail the execution.

It started off with a private performance in Orlando, Florida, which I then planned around. I had never tried playing or booking shows in another state before, and it was initially a daunting task. Gradually, it got easier as I realized that my network of musicians, producers, managers, and friends was the most important asset I had. I started reaching out through them to see who had connections or even just recommendations for cities I was passing through, looking for venues and places to stay. I had mixed results, but the first month of tour ended up fairly solidly booked, staying with friends, friends of friends, friends of acquaintances, and everything in between.

The remaining two months were a whirlwind of driving hours on end daily, playing shows, meeting up with friends around the country I hadn’t seen in years, and even ended with my car being broken into and having gear stolen two weeks before the end. Still, even then, it was worth it. Every city I went to, I tried to remain positive and open to experiences and the people I would meet, and that is one thing I would definitely advocate—don’t underestimate the power of being nice to strangers, and reaching out to friends. Some of the most incredible experiences I had were the result of short and lively conversations with new friends that I made along the way. Simply by talking to people, I had opportunities come my way and made wonderful connections. I ended up staying in places like North Carolina, camping on the main stage of a 60 acre festival for week and howling at the moon. In Nashville I stayed with some blue grass musicians on their tour bus, chatting late into the night drinking their homemade moonshine.

Those two examples don’t even come close to describing the time we spent together and the friendships formed, and are just two of countless stories I could tell. There’s definitely a dichotomy to life on the road, between adventure and challenges, and I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture. It’s tough, but it’s worth it. Even if it seems daunting, challenging, or even downright scary to take on a task like planning and executing your own tour, do it. Make it happen. Do whatever it takes, and along the way when things go wrong, don’t regret going or wonder why you’re putting yourself through the ringer. Just remember it, learn from it, and know that you won’t make the same mistakes next time.

Mind of a Musician is a blog series documenting the experiences of our very own local artists, from their point of view. We’ll feature regular guest stories that document the perspectives, stories and struggles of being an artist in 2019.

Sheridan Reed is an Austin-based musician and songwriter. He’s been involved in the music industry, performing solo and with several different groups and genres over the last ten years. He’ll be giving an insiders perspective to his experience in the industry and the various facets and pitfalls that abound behind the scenes. 

I’ve been working in the music industry long enough to have picked up a few tricks here and there, and I’m fortunate enough that I’ve also been given advice and guidance that has been instrumental in my career. I’ll do my best to pass along what I’ve been told, what I’ve found helps, and what I’ve discovered doesn’t, but after all everyone’s experience is going to be different.

Sheridan recently released his debut EP, “Serendipity”, premiering his laid back R&B tracks with Ones to Watch, and preparing for a new season of live performances starting summer of 2019.”