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"The Toronto Star"

JOHN SAKAMOTO
TORONTO STAR
10. MAX VERNON

"I Kissed a Girl"

In one of the more nimble gender-reversals of late, this 20-year-old New York singer-songwriter takes the leering aural giggle that is Katy Perry's No. 1 hit and gives it an added dimension it probably doesn't deserve. In Vernon's hands, here's how the chorus goes: "I kissed a girl just to try it/Hope my boyfriend don't mind it." To say nothing of the classical-piano accompaniment. - The Anti-Hit List


"New York Magazine"

2. Max Vernon, "I Kissed a Girl" (Katy Perry Cover)
Max Vernon keeps the original gender pronouns on this doo-wop cover of Katy Perry's jam of the summer. We wonder if he's going to teach your girlfriend how to dance with you while he's at it. [The Music Slut]


http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2008/07/bloc_party_blame_their_lyrics.html - Right Click


"Hypeful"

Despite ongoing stories of Katy Perry’s uncoolness, Hypeful is temporarily suspending its musical fatwa against her to offer you Max Vernon’s doo wop/jazz cover of her single “I Kissed A Girl.” It’s great to hear a guy tackle this song and you’ve got to admire Vernon’s chutzpah for really going after it. (Get ready, the song really hits its full synth-stride at the midpoint!) If you dig this, Vernon has more MP3s for your downloading pleasure on his MySpace page - which means he probably won’t be sending the IFPI after you like certain other girl-kissers I can think of…*cough cough* Enjoy!

original link: http://www.hypeful.com/2008/07/03/max-vernon-covers-katy-perrys-i-kissed-a-girl/ - Max Vernon Covers Katy Perry


"Interview with an Intelligent Teenager"

Linda says: I first met Max Vernon at a birthday party. He was fifteen at the time. During lunch he stood up and without apology or embarrassment gave an improvised and heartfelt speech in praise of his friend who was turning sixteen. This in front of a bunch of shocked teenagers he barely knew, as he was a new student at the high school. I was very impressed at that time with his bravery and expressiveness and throughout those high school years I kept an interested eye on Max. I noted the originality of his choices. Learning Japanese while living with a Japanese family in Japan, the beautiful and provocative drawings he made, his interest in theatre, his willingness to confront the status quo, (he once showed up at the rather stuffy school semi-formal dance in a 17th century costume complete with hose and doublet.) On his senior class page, rather than pasting together the expected pictures of himself at parties or winning awards, he scrawled the words “ART IS TRIVIAL.” I would occasionally hear him playing a really mean piano. I heard rumors that he was a talented songwriter/singer. Not long ago a friend of ours heard his song, Lisa Q, piped into the American Apparel store in Los Angeles. (How they found it, I can’t imagine. I also doubt that Max was paid for it.) Then I read about Max winning a songwriting/performance competition at NYU. He plays regularly at The Sidewalk Café in New York with upcoming dates at the Lucky Cat in Brooklyn, among others. He has put out his first CD called Lollipopsicles. And Max is doing all of this more or less on his own. By his own efforts his music is starting to immerge. And, like that original salute at the sweet sixteen party, he is still brave and expressive. He is not afraid to combine the poetic, the personal and the political. I asked him the following questions. As always, Max cheered me up quite a bit.



LINDA: So Max, what are some key autobiographical highlights?

MAX: I was born May 24th, 1988 making me a Gemini, which means nothing because I clearly don’t spend hours googling my horoscope and astrological charts…

I moved to LA when I was 5 or 6. After that, I was abducted by half vampire ninjas and instructed in the ways of stealth- I quickly ran around the world, married into vast wealth, saw everything there was to see, and became the jaded young man before you.

(None of this is true, except for the ninjas).

LINDA: Do you still think art is trivial?

MAX: I think that statement was made during the context of the height of my cynicism. I’m very idealistic about the nature of art and its ability to enrich, educate, and influence-so I felt increasingly dismayed by what I saw as the elitism of visual art-I felt that the industry of the art world and its various institutions and museums had totally disconnected people from the emotional experience surrounding art and that it had devolved into posters decorating people’s wall. After I wrote that though I more or less stopped drawing and focused on my music which I though was a much easier way of connecting with people on an emotional level and conveying some kind of message, whether political, social, etc.

LINDA: Where did you get the name “Lollipopsicles” for your CD?

MAX: I came up with that title in response to a record executive who told me my music wouldn’t sell without a psychosexual title. It was my way at poking fun at the ridiculousness of the record industry.

LINDA: Do you have any special process by which you filter your personal experience into song?

MAX: Usually the way I write songs is I just find myself making random noises throughout the day to keep myself occupied- then if I hear something interesting I’ll just start making lyrics up on the spot- gibberish almost. Then I’ll latch onto one particular word, which usually brings along some emotional connotation, and then it just writes itself from there. I guess it’s really just a process of tapping into my subconscious.

LINDA: I’ve heard your music described as “Antifolk.” Do you agree with that? And what is antifolk, anyway?

MAX: I actually just found out I’m going to be playing the summer antifolk festival. A lot of notable people have played at this festival so I’m thrilled. I think I would consider myself antifok in that my music is hard to categorize and antifolk is the genre of non-genre. That said, antifok is a million different things to different people—most of who are experimenting and trying different things. I think my lyric emphasis and my love of structure and melody maybe sets me apart-I mean some of these people are REALLY out there, but it’s fitting for the moment.

LINDA: Is the private school scene in LA, New York a positive environment for you as an artist or is it something you have to work against?

MAX: I think the “private school scene” in LA was a positive environment for me because it was something I had to work against. With the exception of a few of my friends, I wasn’t really inspired creatively by anyone at school so I retreated into myself, which is really useful for someone just starting to write songs. I think I had a lot of emotional issues/stereotypical teenage angst pent up that I needed to get out on paper- I don’t even have recordings of a lot of these first songs. On the other hand, being in New York has been an incredible environment for the completely opposite reason- being in the city and hearing so many interesting people perform all the time, especially in the anti-folk/roots revival scene has been humbling and inspiring. There are so many musical ideas being thrown around- so I process some, incorporate certain elements I like- I’ve been writing a lot more in New York. I wrote five new songs last month.



There was greed, there’s a past that we’d like to ignore

Like a scar on an ivory complexion

But it’s the ground we were built on

And we still can’t seem to find a new direction

Do you feel the sun burning in your face?

Don’t confuse the heat for passion

Another one abandoned by medicade

No insurance is the latest summer fashion



Lord how long have we been on this upward trend

See the dominoes fall on CNN…



Antacid rain, cook the books in your bank accounts

Your 401K took the bull/bear brunt of the fall with the click of a mouse

And now you can’t repay the loans on your brand new white picket fence of a house

Somebody take the blame, we can’t get a pill to block it out.



From Antacid Rain, music and lyrics by Max Vernon



LINDA: What do you feel are the worst sins of the previous generations and how have they hampered your generation of young artists. In the same vein, have we done anything useful?

MAX: As I write this, thanks to iTunes I think the biggest sin of the previous generation was not listening to this Swedish singer from the 70’s, Doris Svensson. I discovered her CD by accident at work and it’s absolutely brilliant- I have no idea how no one’s ever heard of it. Okay, serious Max again here we go- first off as a disclaimer I’d like to say “sins” is a bit of a weighty charge. I won’t blame anything on the previous generation that was out of their control due to mass hysteria- the Aqua Net that released the hydro fluoro carbons into the air that ate away the ozone layer, the popularity of bands like Air Supply, or the cost of the baby boom retiring which I will be paying off happily with all of my high school friends. I do however, think the overall apathy of my generation, when you get to the root of is in part traceable to the baby boomers (i.e. our parents)- quick A&E moment: hippies became yuppies and then the yuppies became content with being yuppies. Cash was king, and the overindulgence and emphasis on consumption that resulted left our world depleted and even worse, set a dangerous precedent: Many of my peers aren’t trying to figure out how to help the environment, but rather, they’ve been raised to want get the job that allows them to purchase the SUV that destroys the environment- I myself am susceptible to this rabid commercialism as well; it almost seems as if it’s written into all of our DNA. Thankfully, this interview is in a publication geared towards the politically involved and socially conscious so I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir- I just think more people should be challenging the social status quo in a progressive way, and the ones who actually have the power to challenge it are the ones who have money and influence. In other words, not my generation for the moment being. And I’m aware this is all just a bit precocious and I may one day read this at fifty and reflect on my naivety. But I digress…

Oh wait, this was supposed to be about the impact on young artists? Should I say the yuppies are the CEOs of all the record labels that probably won’t sign me? That too.

But for every thing that has “hampered” us, you have done so many amazing things. 1. You gave birth to us, 2. This is silly, because there are far too many positive things to mention. To be born in these times, although troubling, is such a blessing because all the problems we’re faced with will eventually force us into productivity.

LINDA: Do you have any advice as to what we should be doing to help heal the mess were in politically, environmentally?

MAX: Politically: TERM LIMITS in the Supreme Court, Senate, and Congress. Once politicians can stop worrying about running for reelection, the fear mongering and politicking these people do with hot button issues like gay marriage and abortion to get the vote of the fanatic religious right will hopefully start to fade. Also, it’s an easy way to diminish the power of lobbyists in congress, who regularly take advantage of Washington’s conductivity to corruption.

Environmentally: Even after taking a year’s worth of environmental science I have no idea. It scares me quite frankly, I feel very overwhelmed. I think we all have to do what we can on a small level. For me, that means writing music that addresses the issue in some way. The truth is the world doesn’t have a choice anymore. We’re either going to adapt or we’re going to cease to exist. I think taking away the power of the religious right could positively affect the environmental movement as well. A few weeks ago a seemingly innocuous girl in Union Square tried to pass me pamphlet entitled, Gore’s Inconvenient Lie, and then said “Only god can change the temperature”. Fundamentalist Christians in this country have way too much power in indirectly shaping policy within our government and that needs to change.



Lisa Q you met with your ex and helped sell

Concessions at a kickball game.

He was wearing a bow tie and a paper hat,

“Hotchhound” pants-oh you nearly came then

but you waited till after your bellies were

filled with sausage from a shady polish restaurant in

Brooklyn-a discotheque refuge, a mafia rendezvous

It was a discotheque refuge, a mafia rendezvous.



From Lisa Q, music and lyrics by Max Vernon



LINDA: Some of your songs are messages to friends. Almost like little medieval moral tales. What makes a good friend, a good person?

MAX: Oh I think I’m hardly qualified to say anymore- I guess a good person is someone who manages to meet my ungodly high standards because I clearly can’t.

To clarify, I make certain candid observations about people, but I mainly make them because I have an easier time identifying my flaws when I see them in someone else. Honestly, I think a good person is simply someone who can derive happiness from something that doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s. People who believe in moderation, reason, etc. (insert positive trait here.)

LINDA: Describe your working environment.

MAX: Initially, my environment is the streets of New York, where I’ll inadvertently start humming something to myself, which will later become a motif in a song. The process of actually developing the song is more difficult- I have a really hard time concentrating and experimenting lyrically around other people (AKA my two frat boy suitemates from Virginia). So, I have to block out four or five hours to lock myself in the basement with three bottles of water and the slightly out of tune NYU piano.



But I’ve been around enough to know

That everyone wants something

And I’ll have to give it up

So is it worth the cost, the line that I’ll cross

If I get what I want?

You’ve got a wall of faces staring at you

And when you’ve thrown me out

You’ll put me up there too

It’s so easy how we sell ourselves

When all we seem to get is more doubt

And is that enough



It’s never enough.



From Enough, music and lyrics by Max Vernon



LINDA: Do you think it is important to keep your individuality and autonomy in a system that immediately commodifies originality and makes it a lifestyle choice? (This question comes from the EAP editor, Tod Davies)

MAX: I think there’s a very fine line between commerciality and artistry that record executives try to blend when you speak with them. I see nothing wrong with commerciality personally; I think good pop is good music. However, I have heard the same speech now from several different people connected to the record industry- too much for comfort. A man at EMI who has been generous enough to meet with me several times, introduce me to my new singing teacher, and give me suggestions with my music essentially said something along the lines of, “Your music is unlike anything going on right now, or unlike what any male singer has ever done…but I think you need to figure out whether your music is Billy Joel or Broadway, it’s somewhere in between right now.” Beyond that my music sounds almost nothing like Billy Joel’s save the fact that we both play piano, I actually initially found this comment very seductive. In hearing him say this over and over in my head, I began to forget the first part of it, and started to solely think about how I could mold my sound into something more marketable and then get a record contract. Do this, this, this, this, and this, and then maybe we’ll like you. Well, is there a “you” when all of that is done? When I told my first singing coach/second mother about all of this, instead of being excited like I thought she would be she gave me some valuable advice: “As a singer songwriter starting out, you have to think of yourself like a Jackson Pollock” Well forget his alcoholism, depression, and early death- I get what she means. Selling out, licensing your music to commercials to ACTUALLY make money from music is absolutely fine with me, but you have to pay your dues first. Compromising yourself artistically when you’re just getting started out does not get you any respect within the artistic community. I think ultimately, all people trying to pursue a career in music need to maintain their sense of originality, because eventually when the record industry collapses from the lack of innovation and new creative talent, those people will still be standing, and someone will be listening.

LINDA: What do you most likely to do when you are not writing or performing your music?

MAX: Go to SoHo, admire clothing, look at price tag, jump out window.

Other than that…well I have a job now, so I suppose I’m most likely to be behind a computer screen clicking through online libraries of stock music trying to find the right Norah Jones-rip off to match up with a shampoo commercial.

LINDA: On your website you have listed some musical influences, do you want to add to those?

MAX: You’ve just opened up Pandora’s box, hence why I only list two in my bio online. Well I can’t say Joni Mitchell enough times. Joni never conformed to a particular genre -- she's always followed her own path, whether that meant her idiosyncratic guitar tunings, free form song structure, or her ambitious orchestral production. I think keeping Joni in mind has also given me the courage to stand up to all the music industry people that tell me my music can't be categorized, and therefore can't be sold. What would Joni have said to that? Screw you, I'm Joni Mitchell. Well, maybe I'm not in a position to say that just yet, but I internalize that quite often. I was actually thinking about this the other day -- I noticed that 95% of the artists I would list as influences are women. I think that's because my music background is first and foremost in singing, and men for the most part don't actually sing, they just get by on attitude and image, or if they sing their voice has to be ugly or abrasive somehow. So based on vocalization, I'd say Laura Nyro, Buffy St. Marie (god what a crazy voice), Judy Henske, Regina Spektor -- who helped break down my mental barriers of what I could and couldn't do with a piano -- and pretty much any large black woman that's ever sung gospel, jazz, or just about anything.

Okay, we’re in the home stretch now so I’ll give some exceptions to my female rule: Sonic Youth, Queen, Journey (said in a whisper), and Marilyn Manson.

Oh…screw it, fine! Mariah Carey. There you are, now go and blackmail me!

LINDA: What are some non-musical influences for your music, (writers, painters, classes you are taking etc.)?

MAX: I think to a degree, the way I sing is influenced by Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty- I mean I obviously don’t believe in annoying the listener, but I am interested in often distorting certain vowels and juxtaposing “ugly” sounds with more traditionally pleasing ways of singing- Like a musical Shiatsu massage: tension and release.

Also, last semester the one redeeming experience in this dreadful class I took was reading a great deal of Sontag- Her ideas in On Photography, and Regarding the Pain of Others definitely resonated with me- in fact, a lyric in my song Politburo Technocrats and Prophesizing Maniacs references her pretty directly: “With every picture you politicize we become anesthetized to the world at large.”

LINDA: Any notes on the big picture, as in the purpose of music?

MAX: The only thing I’d add in passing is, (in the LEAST self-important, corny way possible of saying it), I do have idealistic expectations of the purpose of music. I’m majoring in Music as Social Activism at NYU and I’m looking to perhaps write music for grass roots projects. Although my music may be challenging to some people because of the lyric structure that makes it a bit theatrical, or it doesn’t really fit with a particular genre, I try to write music because it unifies people. I’m not typically interested in country music or hip hop, but good music is good music and it can transcend taste-and if it can transcend common taste and somehow infiltrate mainstream culture with some kind of message attached to it that isn’t trite or overly processed, then I think it can make a “difference”-whatever that is in this day and age I’m not exactly sure, but it fuels my drive to keep writing.

Okay that was my pretentious artist statement. It’s 1:38 am, in other words, cookie time.

LINDA: Wait! Where can we go to hear your work?

MAX: The easiest way would probably be to find me online: www.myspace.com/maxvernon. Did you hear that? That’s the sound of my dignity and brain cells sobbing as I plug away at oblivion. Oh well, I suppose there are more scandalous ways of networking these days. If you want to hear me live, I’d say you’re most likely to find me in the dark, derelict alleyways of New York/ The Sidewalk Café. Finally, you may find me performing on an enormous stage a few years from now should my birthday candles decide to pay back my ignored wishes with interest. Or, perhaps I’ll be sitting in the sad grey cubicle of broken dreams depending on how the coin lands. So it goes, to appropriate Vonnegut. - Linda Sandoval


"Fong Songs"

http://fongsongs.blogspot.com/2008/11/conversation-with-max-vernon.html

I am very excited and proud about this next post. A week or two ago I started exchanging e-mails with New York-based musician Max Vernon who had very kindly agreed to do an interview, the first time I've ever done one of these for Fong Songs. Max first garnered my attention earlier this summer with his piano/electro/doo-wop cover of Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl and I quickly became a fan as I explored his original music on mySpace, a unique blend of jazz, classical, vaudeville, and pop.

Whether it's on his mySpace blog, YouTube channel, other interviews I've read, or our e-mail exchanges, I always get the sense that at any given moment we're getting Max Vernon unfiltered. That's to say, he speaks from the heart and often isn't afraid of saying things that may even be embarrassing to himself. As you'll discover in this interview, there's a lot more to Max Vernon than just a nice voice and a pretty face... ha ha, I forgot to ask him about it, but he did once enter an online modeling contest for fun.

Fong Songs: What were some of your earliest music experiences as a child and has being a musician been a long term goal?

Max Vernon: The first time I remember actually playing my own music was when I was five or six, and I would play Heart and Soul for hours on a cheap casio keyboard. I was really proud that I managed to figure out the melody on my own. I started taking piano lessons shortly after that, but my musical ear (I can play what I hear almost perfectly, but I can't sight read to save my life) turned into a crutch that prevented me from ever really dedicating myself to music theory- thus ending my potential career as a concert pianist haha.

I also remember driving with my Dad around Long Island listening to the radio- I'm not sure how old I was, but probably around ten or eleven- and Fleetwood Mac's Rhiannon came on the radio. My dad told me the song was about a Welch witch, and at the time I think I was going through some kind of poseur wiccan phase, so I was immediately taken with the song. It sounds ridiculous and fairly trite, but when Stevie Nicks hit that one really satisfying note in Rhiannon (the one she was always too coked out to hit when performing live) it was like a moment of clarity, and I knew I wanted music to be a major part of my life. Fleetwood Mac, Queen, and Mama's and the Papa's are the first CDs I remember owning...well those and TLC/Savage Garden.

Although I always loved music, and have studied piano and singing since I was six or seven, I never really saw it as a viable career path. I was really focused on my academics and was on a path to living a life that would have made me really unhappy in the long run- namely, getting a business degree. But, luckily I had a revelation around ninth grade that all of that was a big waste of time for me, and that I had to focus instead on my art. However, when I say art, I mean my visual art- which is where most people told me I had the most talent. Visual art was my main focus in high school, I was known as the artist in my grade, and a lot of people (including myself) assumed I would either go to a school like Cooper Union or RISD.

But then I started writing songs my senior year of high school and started to realize that that was a more effective, more immediate way of connecting with people- which is what I always wanted to do through my art in the first place. A really shitty art class I took at NYU during my first semester crystalized the idea in my head that emotionally I had somewhat moved past visual art and into music.

FS: I see that all of those artists (minus TLC and Savage Garden) are listed as musical influences on your MySpace. Were those CDs ones you bought yourself or were they given to you as gifts? When I was about 9, I remember discovering Queen when my mom gave a Greatest Hits CD to my dad for Father's Day. A few days later I popped it in the CD player and just sat there on the floor absorbing it. They've been among my all-time favourite bands ever since. Tell me about your favourite Queen song(s).

MV: Those CDs were all given to me as gifts. TLC, Spice Girls, and Savage Garden were the first cds I bought with my own money (don't judge!) Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, Killer Queen, and Bicycle Race were and are my favorite Queen songs, but Freddy Mercury could have probably sung the dictionary and made it compelling.

FS: I read you're currently at NYU majoring in Music as Social Activism (correct me if I'm wrong). What kind of courses does that entail and has it changed the way you approach your songwriting?

MV: You're right about my major, though lately I've been calling it "The Politics of Performance". There aren't any specific courses at NYU that really delve into this as it is my own major I've created, but that somewhat vague name allows me to justify taking courses in a lot of different subjects across the board. In addition to music business/performance courses, I've been taking a lot of courses that deal with Social politics and community activism.

Some sample courses:
I took one course called "Lyrics on Lockdown" which was primarily concerned with dissecting/critiquing the Prison Industrial Complex, going to Rikers Island every weekend to lead arts workshops with some of the kids at Rikers academy. I took another course called "Aesthetics on Trial", which examined the history of controversies within the art realm (think Leni Reifenstahl, Serra's Tilted Arc, Nabokov's Lolita) and discussed ways to integrate art into the public sphere. Last semester I took a really interesting course on the history of gender and sexuality theory, which also peripherally delved into community organizing, and radical protest movements.

Taking these highly politicized courses has definitely influenced the kind of music I've been writing. I couldn't have written Politburo Technocrats for example without first reading Susan Sontag and learning about how "images anesthetize". It's probably made my music more confrontational, a bit more philosophical/analytical...hopefully not too much more obtuse. For instance, this semester I'm taking a seminar on 1968 with Karen Finley (famous, insane, awesome performance artist, youtube her). For my mid-term I took a poem I wrote when I was still taking the class on the Prison Industrial Complex, rewrote some stanzas to make it relate to the current Wall Street financial crisis, set it to a meter- and created a protest song that updates the kind of music that was being made in 1968 by people like Buffy St. Marie, Laura Nyro, etc.

Haha I just re-read what I wrote...can you tell i'm a college student? well, at least I stopped myself from talking about Michel Foucault.

FS: Besides Politburo Technocrats, Dear Democracy is another clear example where you don't shy away from politics in your music. Both songs seem to be a call for greater political engagement, but at the same time perhaps lamenting the inability to effect change. With the US election just over a week away [tomorrow!], any prophecies for the coming weeks? It may all be over by the time I post this interview, so your predictions may end up laughable or eerily prescient... By the way, our federal election in Canada just took place last week and set a new record for the lowest voter turnout in history. Yikes.

Max Vernon - Politburo Technocrats & Prophesizing Maniacs
Max Vernon - Dear Democracy

MV: Yeah, I definitely think that duality exists in all my songs. I recognize why it's so easy for people to want to disconnect themselves from what's going on around them, especially when it comes to politics. I would say to an extent I have that instinct too, but my music is one of the ways I motivate myself to fight against that. When it comes to the election, at this point I really feel that unless the election is stolen or sabotaged, Barack Obama will be elected. People talk about how it doesn't seem feasible that there could be voter fraud in our country, and yet we all know what happened in 2000, and in 2004 there were many reports on voting machines breaking down in pivotal battleground states. What I think disturbs me most is the recent republican focus on this so called ACORN "scandal", which is in a nutshell (hah) about how ACORN paid some poor kids [to turn] in voter registration cards for make-believe figures Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (who can't vote without a passport anyway) to make a few bucks. By focusing on this incident, they turn attention away from the fact that many republican groups in battleground states have been advocating for voter roll purging, and in California very REAL voter registration fraud is being committed (see link). I have no idea what the political climate is like in Canada (hopefully the election had a positive outcome?), but voter apathy is an epidemic everywhere.

FS: In the past, you've been told by record execs that your music can't be categorized (i.e. uncommercial), suggesting it's somewhat avant-garde or something, yet I find it very accessible. How would you classify your own music?

MV: I've been told a great deal of many contradictory, almost non-sensical things by record executives. One told me for instance my music was "psycho-sexual, between broadway and billy joel...but very different from that". I mean I have no idea what that means...but that's definitely not a perspective I'm trying to write from. I don't think my music is so avant garde, so much as it is anachronistic. Over the past decade or so, the purpose of music has really changed. Whether the music now is indie easy-listening to play while you brew your morning coffee or it's some pulsating electro band, it's background; it's not something you really have to analyze to enjoy, but rather it provides an escape. In contrast, I think my lyrics, or maybe the way I sing is too confrontational to make for good background music. However, this is something I'm aware of...I know I'm often at risk with my music of being overly analytical or ranting politically or philosophically, so I try to throw pop hooks into my music to give people something to grab onto. I think this might be what you find accessible. I think some of my songs are more ambitious than others- many are pop songs, but some I think aspire to fall more into the category of "Art Song/Ballad" that people like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were writing in the sixties.

FS: You're probably right about the "pop hooks" being a point of accessibility. I think upon first listen it's the music/melody I respond to immediately on a gut level with the message revealing itself on repeated listens. You recently took a trip to LA to record at Westlake Studios, where a little album called Thriller was produced. What were the circumstances leading you to record there and how was that experience?

MV: In a nutshell what happened was I was working on some music with someone in new york, but our relationship grew very toxic- he was emotionally abusive to me, and he did many things (that I won't delve into great detail about) that crossed the line of professionalism/legality, including trying to claim writing credits on songs I had copyrighted even prior to going into the studio with him. However, most importantly, he was taking my music in a creative direction I didn't agree with. So, I abandoned the project and went back to California to stay with my mom/lay low, since at the time I was somewhat concerned for my safety. Once I got back to California, my mom saw how upset I was about the whole ordeal, and offered to finance some new recording sessions, since I had no money left by that point. She asked around to see if anyone knew of a studio that had any availability, and incredibly this world class studio ended up falling into my time frame.

The experience was incredible, just 100% different than what I had experienced in New York. The recording technicians were very supportive and complimentary, and they just kind of left me alone to do my own thing. The room had an incredible grand piano with a very rich tone, and I got to sing into vintage Neumann microphone that really brought out the best in my voice. The atmosphere just felt right, which is why I think most of the songs on my demo were one take recordings.

FS: Let's talk cover songs for a bit. One of the Westlake recordings was your great doo-wop/jazz cover of Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl, which of course is how I was first introduced to your music. I have to admit that I had somehow never even heard of Katy Perry, so I basically listened to your version as if it was an original composition. Like the best cover songs, I was naturally inclined to seek out your other music based on what I heard (and liked) in the cover. Now just recently you posted another phenomenal cover of Ace of Base's All That She Wants. First off, who's that singing back-up vocals and is she the same voice we hear in When Your Body Breaks?

Max Vernon - All That She Wants [originally by Ace of Base]

MV: Thanks for the nice words, I'm glad you like the new cover. The girl singing back up is my friend Caitlin Pasko, who also writes songs under the moniker, Lacrymosa. She's really talented and you should go check out her music too- you can find her in my top whatever on myspace. And yes, she is also the girl singing on when your body breaks.

FS: Both of the covers you've done may be considered "guilty pleasures", perhaps a phrase overused to describe legitimately good songs. I've had to reconsider my stance on Britney Spears' Toxic purely on the basis of some great cover songs. Why did you choose to cover those particular songs? In general, do you have a set idea in mind when approaching a cover song? Lastly, can we expect more covers Max Vernon-style in the future?

MV: Yeah, I agree with what you're saying about the guilty pleasures- You can't get something from nothing. My covers wouldn't have much to go on if the originals didn't have as much going for them. There's this continual argument of high art vs. low art- questioning the validity of pop music, that I think is very unfair to pop artists. I think a brilliant pop song can be as powerful, and much more far-reaching than an "art for art's sake" kind of song. Now, I don't really think I Kissed a Girl or All That She Wants are brilliant pop songs- I would save that distinction for the work of the Beach Boys or the Beatles. However, I'm not interested in covering brilliant pop songs- if the songs were "brilliant" the first time, then any new interpretation is probably going to pale in comparison. I instead look for solid hooks, and kitsch factor when choosing which songs to cover. I like to be able to add a level of musical legitimacy to songs that people might otherwise dismiss, and I like singing vacuous lyrics as if they contain some deep emotional revelation- it's a good acting exercise.

I try not to have any preconceived notions in mind when creating a cover song. Actually with my last two covers, they started out as songs I was trying to write for myself, and then as a joke because I had no lyrics yet, I substituted the lyrics of the more well known songs and then had a eureka kind of moment. I think that's probably why the covers seem a bit unexpected.

In terms of the future, I certainly like reinterpreting songs that I enjoy ("guilty pleasure" or not) and I'm sure I will cover something else down the road, but I think I'm going to cut back for now. I'm not trying to be the next Nouvelle Vague, and I don't want to be pigeonholed as a cover artist. I'm really grateful that through these covers a lot of people have discovered my music that otherwise wouldn't have, but my primary focus is on my original songs.

FS: So what's in store for Max Vernon: a debut CD? Tour? World domination?

MV: I licensed my Katy Perry cover to Engine Room Recordings for their compilation, "Guilt By Association" It's the second volume of the compilation, in which indie artists cover well known pop acts. The last comp had some pretty big names like Devendra [Banhart], Bonnie Prince Billy, Mooney Suzuki, The Concretes, etc. This volume will have My Brightest Diamond (who I love) and some other awesome people. The last comp. got written up in 70+ music publications (rolling stone, spin, pitchfork, etc) so I'm really hoping I'll get some good press which might lead to some kind of record deal or investor. I kind of don't even want a record deal, but I recognize that for me to actually make the kind of debut cd I would want to make, I would need lots of $. So we'll see....

right now i've just been sending out my music to 60+ college radio stations, hoping someone will play it so I can organize some kind of tour. I've never toured and I feel like I need that experience. World domination will have to wait for the moment being hah.

FS: Alright, one last question and I'll let you go. You say you're looking forward to touring someday, but tell me about the Max Vernon Live experience to this point. Also, any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

MV: The live Max Vernon experience at this point is very unscripted. I love performing and the adrenaline and energy it gives me. I think that comes across. I become a very different person when I'm on stage- more outgoing and animated. I'm not going to say that's my true personality, but it's a personality I wish came out more in my day to day life. I hate it when I go to shows and the person performing just looks down the entire time and doesn't try to engage the audience; that being the case, I'd rather just stay home and listen to their record. Although I don't have big production values or even a backing band just yet, anyone who comes to see me perform live should at least expect that I will try to engage them in some way or another. I think some people might assume that I would be more aloof, but after shows I love meeting new people and talking casually.

As for final thoughts, I don't have an elegant conclusion or profound insight to offer, but I would say that I make music so I can feel like I'm a part of a community. I think the point of making any kind of music is to create a dialogue, or some kind of call and response...so now I'm waiting for the response.

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A massive thanks to Max Vernon for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to all of my questions. As mentioned, he'll be showing up soon on the latest Guilt by Association cover compilation from Engine Room Recordings, which I'm told has a digital release date of November 18th with a physical release probably in January. I'll continue to be keep a close eye on Max and his future endeavours and hopefully now you will too.

Max Vernon - Open Casting Calls

Max Vernon - When Your Body Breaks
My most played Max Vernon song, this was actually completed as a student project at NYU and features a 10-piece student orchestra. Love it.

Oh, Max also had this to say:

MV: just as a quick amendment, I just got an email from Brian Ibbott of Coverville asking me to cover a Squeeze song, so there is a good possibility I might attempt to do that. But after that no more covers! - A Conversation With Max Vernon


"Obsession Collection"

Max Vernon has a vocal instrument that is deep and resonating, its clear tonality has reach and depth of maturity. With a signature voice he delivers piano driven melodies with a broad lyrical palette of intelligence. At twenty years old he composes music that can move in many ways like the Woody Guthrie of Pop to make a bold comparison.

Max Vernon’s lyrics leave an indelible impression. Using dynamic melodies in a pop format he subliminally infiltrates the listener with smart content. His bait and hook got to me immediately. He employs words that move, words that drive the discussion, words that can be subtly subversive and delivered with a tongue and cheek attitude. Topically he is current but it is his intellectual curiosity that captures the subtleties and irony in the topics/controversies of the day. But wait! All this is delivered in the most beautiful manner.

He plays the piano with such ease and fluidity, melding Jazz, blues, Do Wop, cabaret and adds touches of frivolity with classical escapades that are diced into song construction.

Getting recognition from his delightful cover parody of Katy Perry's " I Kissed A Girl" is a strange way to find Max Vernon’s music. But it has been the vehicle for attention even though it was sort of a goof that he decided to record and make a video. Attention has come his way. As I am writing this a release party for The Guilt by Association Volume 2 featuring danceable cover songs is at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. His cover is in good company.

Since he doesn’t have an official release he has chosen to share recordings and demos on a site called The One Sixty One. On You Tube he shares stripped down footage of piano and vocal in a variety of homey settings and the practice studios at NYU.

His most ambitious recording to date "A Good God Is Hard To Find." He infuses white collar crime, in god we trust, and proposition eight all into the same conversation tying these thoughts into a round of ecstasy embedded harmonies. How is that possible? But he does it.

Along similar lines is “Dear Democracy”. The heavy piano bass chords set the tone while he spews an operatic diatribe of political criticism ending each unnerving injustice with light sardonic classical notes, singing / I already know that I’m going to hell / so I’m having a party / a party.

"When Your Body Breaks" is an orchestrated production with female vocal backup Caitlin Pasko AKA (Lacrymosa), cello, violin, church organ, and flute. Giving a boost of encouragement for the depressed whose memories are tainted with grey. / Oh you deserve better than that / and you’re gonna have it / your body’s breaking / you’re left with just your mind / you’re gonna be fine / but it’ll take time….It will take time…

The Song "Pastels" is like poetic cinematic score. Singing about two people trying to find meaning in these troubled times / don’t criticize us /. It really pulls the heartstrings in the chorus / but I’ll be with you / you know / and when you fall down / just hit the ground running / and I’ll be running with you / running with you. He concludes interchanging running with you with take me with you. Ahhh...... I'm such a romantic sap.

In September 08 he was about to headline Ars Nova Uncharted Series. He wrote to me saying he found my Blog through some degree of separation after looking up the history of the series he found both Novice Theory and Langhorne Slim which lead him to me indirectly. I am so glad he reached out to me so I could discover his music and fall in love with it.

He closed his letter to me with "If you get a chance please give my songs a listen. Hopefully you'll dig it." Dig I did!

For now he continues his studies at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study graduating in May. The future looks bright and I look forward to it all.

http://www.obsessioncollectionmusic.com/2009/02/max-vernon-bait-and-hook.html - Max Vernon; Bait and Hook


Discography

Guilt By Association, Vol. 2 (Various Artists)
"I Kissed A Girl"

TMS Hearts Morrissey (Various Artists)
"The Headmaster Ritual"

Gallatone Records Volume 3 (Various Artists)
"Lisa Q"

Photos

Bio

At age five, Max Vernon was politely asked to leave his hippie New York pre-school, Rudolph Steiner, for repeatedly questioning the plot of See Spot Run during story hour. This early disillusionment no doubt left its mark on the impressionable young boy: by age nine, he was already leading a turbulent double life filled with drugs, sex, and Joni Mitchell CDs. After selling enough crack rocks to buy a piano, Max soon realized his affinity with the instrument and decided to craft a few songs, which followed the spirit of his original infantile question: Why are we doing this?

Despite continued FBI surveillance, Max’s songs continue to have a torrid love affair with the Internet with write-ups in the likes of New York Magazine, Paste, and Rolling Stone Online; he is also one of the top-ranked artists on TheSixtyOne.com.

His doo-wop inspired cover of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" was licensed to the Guilt by Association vol. 2 compilation alongside acts like My Brightest Diamond, Kaki King, Frightened Rabbit, Jukebox the Ghost, and Matt Pond PA. It is currently on rotation at 100+ colleges across the country.