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The Education of Darnell Levine
By Tim Roberts
He's a Man Without a Venue. Temporarily.
Two-thousand-seven is only nine days old. By the end of the week, he was supposed to have a two-night gig at a local nightspot: Big Hopp's on Main Street, in what used to be a Goodwill store, just one block west of the Glassworks Building and the Jazz Factory. The gig was the lead paragraph on the home page of his web site. He had strategically blitzed the music community here in Louisville with e-mail announcing the show. He had a CD ready to sell. He had spent the autumn touring Tennessee and Georgia, collected words of praise from The Tennessean, jazz musician Kevin Whalum and Cedric Dent of the a-capella Gospel-pop sextet Take 6.
He was ready to start 2007 fresh in his home town at one of the few soul music venues left in Louisville. Maybe sell a few of those CDs, too.
Then word came that Big Hopp's had closed. According to his blog on MySpace, the news came from someone he calls his beautiful partner in crime. Word from her was that bad management shut it down.
"It felt like. . .my wife didn't want to be with me anymore," he said. "It hurt my heart."
We were at a table in Border's at Fourth Street Live, talking over the shrill whistle of the espresso machine, the piercing beeps of the checkpoint scanners by the door when one guy kept walking to the trash can next to them to throw something away, still holding a book he was browsing through. From the speakers in the ceiling, whenever the noises from the café stopped, came the music department's featured CD: Steely Dan's Aja. Donald Fagen was declaring his love affair with a destructive, narcissistic addict over and he tells her to drink her big Black Cow and get out.
"I took about an hour to mope about it," he continued, "then I just got on the ground because there were a lot of things surrounding the gigs that I couldn't let go. Even if we had to do it in the basement of a church, I would have done something."
Clubs closing without warning. It happens, especially in a city as bar-saturated as Louisville. One night the beer lights in the windows just never come on. Some musicians shrug it off without surprise and just go back out and spread their one-sheeters and drop off a CD at another place that looks like it might want to have live music in a few nights a week.
But not Darnell Levine. Not when an a piece of an entire marketing campaign for himself was built around a pair of gigs touted as a homecoming and he had already booked time in the personal schedules of the members of the band playing with him. And especially not when the four years in college spent acquiring a degree in music business told otherwise.
"Luckily my partner and I found a spot that really wanted to have me," Levine said. "From what I hear, they had other acts that were similar to my style of music. When I came into the picture, they said 'Perfect!'"
So Darnell Levine had his homecoming concert at the RAW sushi bar on Fourth Street, close to the Seelbach Hotel. He was only able to book a single night (two had been scheduled at Big Hopp's), but got to play two sets and keep 100% of the cover charge.
Not bad for a young performer who seemed to have the first of what may be many rugs yanked out from under him.
"As a musician you get flooded with so much work if you're good," Levine said. "You're getting a check every week, playing at a church, playing at a club or somewhere else. You have these big dreams but you don't figure in the what ifs, figuring things out. Nobody ever tells them to slow down and they end up having nothing but pay stubs. That's not gonna cut it."
Twenty-four and currently living in Nashville, Louisville-native Levine describes himself as a jazz-soul vocalist, pulling in the creamy vibe of Al Jarreau, the slickness 1970s Philly soul, Gospel music harmonies and the body-as-instrument acrobatics of Bobby McFerrin. Trained as a percussionist since he joined band in elementary school, his favorite instrument is the vocal-trumpet: "blowing" a melody through tightened lips, sort of like mimicking a trumpet sound, or making melodic raspberries. He even has a mute for it.
"I really honestly would like to lean toward jazz," he said. "I feel like there might be a void there I might be able to fill for years to come. I still have that soul within me. I still have that itch to do harmonies and things like that. I don't think that's going anywhere, so I just have to find a balance between the two."
He grew up in Gospel music. His father, known as Little Dave Anderson, was a Gospel DJ on WLLV and WLOU for 30 years, plus he heard plenty of it at Southern Star and Bates Memorial Baptist Churches. He was also a percussionist in Male High School's symphonic and marching bands. But after graduating from Male in 2000, he (like many others who had spent nearly half their lives at that point with a horn stuck in their faces or sticks in their hands) chose not to continue into music. At first.
"I was always in band and music was a passion," he said, "A lot of my family is into music. I didn't want to follow suit and be kind of stereotypical. I went to the University of Kentucky for three years, studying architecture. It was a little too much. I loved the creative side, but I just didn't like the history. So I found a music business program at Middle Tennessee State University. It would justify going to college not just for music."
There tends to be selective attention paid to half of the term "music business," namely the "business" half. Now that the era of patronage has been dust for several centuries, musicians have had to learn some basic skills: budgeting, saving, the difference between accounts receivable and payable, taxes, paying a band, finding a band, how to coax money from the manager of the bar where you've just finished playing without resorting to brass knuckles or small firearms. Some perform these skills well by themselves, others hire managers, others blissfully ignore them (it is all about the art, you know?) and others just screw up. Frequently.
Offered by several universities, including New York University and the Berklee College of Music in addition to Levine's alma mater, music business programs provide musicians (and those who want to love and nurture them) a solid, realistic sense of the "business" part of the "music business."
"They teach you how to run a label," Levine said of the program he had finished at Middle Tennessee. "Then they teach other stuff that's kind of a side part of the business, but in a lot of ways it's the most important part. You take a course in business law. You take a course in entrepreneurship. Marketing of recordings, record retail. It really dissects it and puts a microscope on a whole big industry. It was definitely eye-opening for me."
It was also handy that his college was close to Nashville, which provided him two opportunities to learn more about the business and, generally, about more kinds of music: a job at the Ryman Auditorium and an internship in the marketing department at the Warner Bros. office on Music Row.
"I learned how their marketing programs worked," he said, "how the attention they paid to certain artists depended on status and album releases. I learned that getting signed and being known can be so far apart in time. You can be signed and have nothing ready, but it's in their hands. And their hands are usually full. Basically, I learned how the marketing department works with PR, how PR works with the art department, how the art has to run down to promotions. How it can work and how it can't work. If everybody has a door closed, it's not going to work.
"I figured out that I wasn't trying to climb the corporate ladder, as opposed to being an artist. I had to choose. I couldn't do both."
That puts Levine at an advantage. He got to study, for a short while, what's under the hood of the great music business machine. It is like seeing the inside of a desktop computer for the first time. All the wires and plugs and circuits look incomprehensible. But once you follow the paths from one connection to another, it gradually makes sense. And you start to sound like an expert when you describe what you learned to others who wouldn't dare open one.
Combined with discovering a few rules-of-thumb about being a performer, Levine's degree, desire and his brief work at a major record label all stewed together into his first recording appropriately titled We Gon' Use What We Got.
"The CD was produced in about six months," Levine said, "but the songs were made over time. What somebody told me was to always keep writing songs, because your first album takes a lifetime to write. Your second album takes two years. That's the reason for a lot of sophomore slumps."
Even if a first record takes a lifetime, that doesn't always mean everything is studio-ready once the songs are finished. Levine states one song , "Table for Two," was too short and had to finish it the night before it was recorded.
"It was a process that started at Middle Tennessee State's studio as another student's project. I listened to a lot of Quincy Jones. I had a videotape of Steely Dan recording Aja. I started to pick up on syncopation, how it all worked, how you pull musicians in and get them to do what you want to do. I would sing the part, then tell them that's what I wanted them to play."
Fitting, then, that Levine studied the making of Aja video, because making We Gon' Use became similar to a Steely Dan studio piece: there were no regular musicians. Levine used two different guitar players, two different bass players, two different drummers, three different keyboard players (including Levine himself) and six different vocalists.
"It was really fun. I actually saw my dreams together before my eyes."
With four songs left to record, Levine took the project to Boys N the House Studios in Lexington to finish it with some seasoned session musicians, then he left it there for mixing.
We Gon' Use What We Got was released in July and, according to Levine, has been selling very well online and at shows.
The songs are similar to the sleek jazz-soul work from Al Jarreau's crossover Breakin' Away album from the early 1980s, with intimate vocals, a tight, in-the-pocket rhythm section, songs that make you nod your head and gently snap your fingers, or take your loved one by the hand for some cheek-to-cheek on the dance floor. Or wherever you find yourselves. In Levine's harmonies, there's also a tiny undertone of Take 6 (appropriate, since he's received some praise from one of its members).
However, outside of Gospel and one major soul singer, the music Levine listened to growing up was nothing like the material on We Gon' Use.
"I understand [the comparisons], but I don't listen to that. I grew up on the Bee Gees and Teddy Pendergrass. I know who Al Jarreau is and what he does, just like I know who Bobby McFerrin is and what he does. I feel confident because it came naturally. Some of the attributes given to him have been given to me. People identify best by association, so being associated with him. . .who could ask for more than that?"
Living in Nashville, Levine has been exposed to the "songwriteresqueness" (a word he coined on the spot as we talked) of the country music scene of that city. It has, he claims, got him to think more about a song's lyrics, about getting to the point sooner.
"Even when I was at MTSU taking songwriting classes, I was the only guy who played keyboard. Everyone else had a guitar. So I had to listen."
In addition to learning to listen to country songs to learn structure, there were the number of acts he got to see working at the Ryman, opening his ears to other music he had never heard before.
"I had no idea who Ricky Skaggs was," Levine admitted, "or Little Jimmy Dickens. I had no idea who Ben Folds was. Got to see the John Mayer trio, too. I got to see all these different people. Nashville's been a great spot."
Levine has also learned the art of being in contact with his listeners, which is more than just putting up posters of an upcoming performance. It means communicating with audiences, both current and future, but not just at shows.
"That's my bread and butter: playing live. That will equal more sales [of the CD], but that will also equal more people to hear you and see you. If nothing else, it will make contact. I heard an artist named Eric Roberson say getting someone's e-mail address is almost just as important as their buying an album. If you keep that line of contact, they may not buy the album, but they'll know where you are. There's always time to buy an album, but getting that e-mail address and keeping that contact is priceless."
Levine keeps in contact with his audiences not only through e-mail and live shows, but through his web site and blog, programmed so he could update it himself.
"People want to know what you're thinking. They don't want to know a whole lot. But the more detail you give, the more they feel like they're close to you. In turn, they don't have to guess."
Guessing around in the music business is how a lot of young musicians start out. And finish out, too. Unfortunately, a lot of them make the wrong guesses and end up with an underplayed instrument locked up in its case, or a voice that only gets used when it tries to sell long distance plans over the telephone. Darnell Levine is fortunate in that he studied the business in college and lives in a city where the word music is part of its nickname. And he has already learned the hard lesson of what happens when a place you are going to play suddenly closes.
With that much ground already under him, he can focus on what he wants to do.
"My number one goal is to reach people with music. I think God has given me the talent for writing and vocal ability. I want to affect people, get across a message and create a change if only in the mind. The root of it is to make a living doing that."
Darnell Levine doesn't want you to guess what's going on with him, so pay a visit to www.darnelllevine.com.