Monday, April 7, 2014

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Heather Jacks, Author

Heather Jacks, Author
Heather Jacks has enthusiastically published a unique book—THE NOISE BENEATH THE APPLE®—with its own music (11-track vinyl record) “to legitimize the profession of busking and street culture.”  She tells the stories of 35 New York City street musicians in a “compelling” and “captivating” manner, according to reviewers, in this large book, in a big way. At 200 pages, it weighs 8 lbs and measures 12” by 12".  Her love of street music and busking inspired her to produce the book, and also to continue to support busking in other ways as well. Her next project involves a recording of the Billy Joel song, New York State of Mind with 30 New York City Street musicians, to be released in May.

Jacks has worked in the music industry since the 1980s and today lives in San Francisco, a city she loves. She is an ardent “orange and black” fan (that would be the Giants, for those not familiar with the world champion baseball team). She also appreciates “eating and drinking throughout all the funky and fabulous neighborhoods here.” In whatever spare time she has, she makes (and sells) unique retro shoulder bags from reclaimed records.

Q: How did you become interested in busking? Why did you decide to write a book about it? Are you a musician?

Heather Jacks: My love of busking stems from a childhood spent on Indian land. I was raised in the forgotten sands of the high deserts of southern Oregon during the seventies. The seventies were an interesting time for Indians—who had not yet become Native Americans. We had no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing.  The Vietnam War had ended, the Cold War continued, Nixon was President, Chief Joseph and Leonard Peltier were our heroes.

For Indians, the seventies were a time of great change; of assimilation. Some Indians would leave the ‘rez’—and would forever be apples—(red on the outside/white on the inside). They would never be able to return. Others would stay forever.  But it wasn’t just the Indians who came and went; it was people. The Holy Roller Tent Revivals and the circus’—(which I thought were the same kinds of shows), war dodgers, musicians, traveling bandwagons of performers, gypsies, outcasts, innovators, rebels, rogues and ‘the mad ones’ as described in a Jack Kerouac novel.  They were entertainers, coming onto Indian land for a brief moment, leaving us something of value and taking something of worth with them.  I would excitedly await the arrival of each act, anticipating what ‘show’ they would bring, what new music I would hear, what plays they would perform, what dances and magic I might see. The anticipation was all encompassing. 

When I left Indian land, my love of street performance was firmly ingrained, although I did not know this is what it was. To this day, I still seek out those performers who are standing just outside the mainstream; perhaps they are on street corners, public parks, and train platforms, or at subway stops. No matter where they are, they continue to transform the world around them and by extension; they transform me, just as they did when I was a gap toothed, frizzy haired girl of ten.

Having witnessed the loss of a culture—(my culture, specifically) -- as a young person, I needed to write THE NOISE BENEATH THE APPLE®.  I wanted to capture a piece of busking culture and history, before it evolved into something entirely different; or was legislated out of existence all together. 

Q:  Your book THE NOISE BENEATH THE APPLE features “groundbreaking” musicians from NYC’s “underground music scene.” How did you determine a “groundbreaking” musician?

Heather Jacks:  The word ‘groundbreaking’ was actually not mine; it came from someone who had listened to the vinyl record we produced.  It works, so I kept it!

The current model for mainstream music is one of no to low risk.  That is due to the fact that there aren’t many big labels left. In fact, there are three left standing, (Warner, Universal and Sony.)  These will probably go the way of the dodo at some point as well.

In order to maintain their power and foothold as gatekeepers, they have constructed a massive marketing machine and churn out the same no/low risk formulaic music over and over and over and…..(well, you get the idea). This necessarily means that you will probably not hear some of the best music in the world. The most original, the most daring, the most unique voices, often go unrecognized by the dominant music industry, because they don’t fit neatly inside a pre-designed select number of templates. It’s music performed by the innovators, the rebels, the mavericks, the buskers.

Our book and record, features a Cellist, a Thereminist, folk, ambient, opera and so much more incredible music and the musicians who make it, but you probably aren’t going to hear it—(or them) on the mainstream. Aside from the sound and talent of the buskers, another ‘groundbreaking’ aspect is that theirs is music that exists outside of a financial context—(you don’t have to buy a ticket to go to the show)—and it doesn’t require you to plug out of your daily life to enjoy it.  You just have to be present.

Q: Why did you choose to write about New York’s buskers, rather than those in other cities, such as San Francisco?

Heather Jacks: New York City buskers are the first buskers I’ve written in depth about, but not the last. My goal is to capture the busking culture in other cities as well; New Orleans, Chicago, Boston, Nashville, San Francisco, etc…. So, why New York was the first, has to do with New York herself.

It was the holiday season of 2009 and I found myself drinking rum, listening to rock and roll and reflecting.  Reflecting is what we do at that time of year; the rum and rock and roll simply make that reflection easier to swallow. I had never been to New York before; had never even visited.  My only frame of reference were the postcards that littered my ‘memento drawer’ from people who had been there for business trips or Red Eye weekends and who were all of the opinion;  that I belonged in the Big Apple. At the time I was living in Los Angeles, with no boyfriend, no dog, no job and no prospects; not even an air fern.

Within two weeks, I had given everything away, bought a one way ticket and boarded a plane to New York City.  New Yorkers, I soon discovered, have mastered several things; the bagels, the bars and the buses. I bought an unlimited MTA Pass and began riding the train.  I got off and went ice skating in Central Park, visited Strawberry Fields, took a picture of the Imagine Memorial, and then the three degree temperature, pushed me back onto the train.

At Grand Central Terminal, I met Luke Ryan, who I eventually dubbed The Queen’s Cowboy.  Part Wolf Man Jack, part Waylon Jennings, and part Merry Prankster, he was playing with and cajoling the commuter crowd.  I stayed. I was enthralled. At the time, I was freelance writing for various culture and e’zines, and I knew that there were some good stories here, that would make for good reading.

New York is a city that is brimming with vitality. People come together in this City to clash and fuse and create the future. Cooper Moore, one of our book participants explained it like this. “You cannot be here in New York City without a purpose,” This is not an easy place.  Some people think that if you have money it’s easy to live here. But if you have no purpose, you can end up very lonely. You can end up being ill; emotionally, mentally. You have to have a community. A community may not be people that you see all the time. But you have to feel that you belong here; and that’s something money can’t ever buy. That’s the thing about New York. You have to ground yourself. Not necessarily in people, because people come and go here.  You have to ground yourself in your work and the dream that you have about the work; and you share it with others and that’s your community.”   

As days passed and I navigated the subways of New York, I discovered opera, rock and roll, mariachi, gospel and jazz musicians,  actors and performers, magicians and the Naked Cowboy, to name a few.  I never knew who or what was going to be around the next corner, at the next stop; but, I wanted to find out.  When the idea for a Coffee Table Style Art Book, began to crystallize, I had a purpose.  I went back and found Luke and then I had the beginning of a community. Luke would be my first profile and the inspiration for a project three years in the future; THE NOISE BENEATH THE APPLE®.

Q:  The book is not just about busking in NY but about living your dreams and doing what you love for all the right reasons.” Why did you publish the book THE NOISE BENEATH THE APPLE? Did you intend to educate readers? Publicize the value of these musicians? Or, as the reviewer suggests, instill fortitude into readers to pursue their dreams?

Heather Jacks: That’s such a good question—the short answer is, for all of those reasons. A few years back, I took a Learning Exchange class in SoHo about blogging. The class got way off track and was going nowhere fast. I lived in Brooklyn at the time, and decided to head back ‘over the bridge.’ On my way to the train, I stopped for a coffee at Starbucks, where I met an amazing man. We ended up chatting, I took notes, he was incredible and I learned a lot from him over that Latte. Some weeks later, my boyfriend and I were at the bookstore, when I recognized the ‘guru’ who saved my evening. He was smiling at me from the cover of a best-selling book. It turned out; his name was Seth Godin, who I am a huge fan of to this day. One of the things he had instructed was for me to create a mission statement. Doesn’t that sound awful? Still, I did. That was over four years ago, and there have been many times I’ve gotten sidetracked and distracted, but I go back to my Mission Statement, which is five points long, but concludes with the reason I created THE NOISE BENEATH THE APPLE® in the first place; to legitimize the profession of busking and street culture. However people receive that message, is perfectly valid.

Q: Reviewers tout your writing of the buskers themselves as “intimate,” “captivating,” “honest,” “compelling,” and “superb and insightful.” How do you engage readers to care about your “characters?”

Heather Jacks: Busking is a niche topic and the performers are often the ‘unsung heroes’—unknown to many; so I am delighted and honored by how well people are receiving the book.  Throughout my own writing history, I have been told by reviewers and audiences alike, that I handle dialogue very well; according to the LA Times, ‘better than most.’ They also said that I had a ‘skewed perspective.’  Those things come directly from my childhood, which was devoid of television, video games, computers, etc… Lacking such items, forced me to develop my imagination and memory.

At an early age, I was in love with language; the cadence, the rhythm and the poetry of it. That coupled with the fact that so many odd and interesting people traversed across Indian land and I found myself memorizing what people said, replaying it in my mind over and over; how they looked, the surroundings, etc... For example; when I was a kid, I had a pet cow named Pepper. A group of hippies arrived on Indian land and built a house out of straw, which my cow, promptly ate. Recently we went back to Oregon for a funeral. It has been nearly 40 years and that hippie was still there! He remembered the cow; I remembered the conversation, the weather, the sound of his voice, and his exclamations of surprise.

So, if I have a secret, (and I don’t know that I do)--then that is it; I can relate stories, pretty close to how I hear them. I hear the slang, hear when a ‘g’ falls off the end of a word, hear the drawls and dialects and can capture and reiterate them.  Ultimately, people like a good story and busking is filled with them.  Luckily, I get to tell them.

Q:  Your interest in busking seems to go beyond your book. How else are you involved in this music scene?

I have a long and varied career in the music industry that began in the eighties. Radio was always my first love. I received my FCC License during a time when you still had to be tested in Morse code! I worked in radio a lot, and then graduated to concert production, beginning with the Monsters of Rock Tour, which always featured Van Halen, Dokken and The Scorpions. Eventually I was working at a record label—when AR still existed, then moved on to writing for the world of music; artist bios to profiles, reviews to previews.

Once I struck upon busking, which fit seamlessly in with so many of my interests, I created a website, in which I featured buskers. Over the past year, I have been asked many questions about the music that have appeared on my site:
  • Where can I buy it?
  • Where can I see him/her perform?
  • Can I get a download?
  • Will you make a holiday album?
  • Can I hire him/her for such-a-such?
  • And many, many more...

With this in mind, my newest project is revamping and refocusing my site to become a host for digital music from street performers and musicians--(past & present).  I hope to provide a digital platform for booking, music sales and digital downloads and synch licensing for indie film and webisode series.

The research is in and it’s very hard for musicians to make money on streaming and download services. It is literally pennies on the dollar. To stay true to the TNBTA® mission statement, which is to ‘help legitimize the profession of busking’; with the exception of the 2.75% bank fee, I will not be keeping any money from the down-loads. For example:

A .99¢ download=.96¢ to the musician.
A $5.00 EP = $4.86 to the musician.
A $10.00 Album = $9.72 to the musician.

Of course, as mentioned before, I want to replicate this project in other cities as well, and to that end, I am connecting with more buskers and street performers. I especially loved recording New York State of Mind and hope to record future City specific songs from buskers. I’m thinking New Orleans and The House of the Rising Sun or Boston Rag or Chicago.

I would also love to do a holiday album with street musicians.

Q:  What are the “politics” of busking?

Heather Jacks: Even though busking has a rich tradition throughout the world and has greatly influenced music, art and culture, it has not been accepted unconditionally.  In the United States, street performers are commonly subjected to tough legislation and regulation. But most of the court cases against busking are dismissed or thrown out as unconstitutional. Busking is considered free speech protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Yet there continue to be court cases, summons, legislation, rules and regulations introduced daily.

Regulating street performance has fallen to individual cities and municipalities and there seems to be little—(if any)—consistency throughout. At the time of this writing for example; New York has an audition process, San Francisco has a permitting process that does not include a fee, Santa Monica, CA has a permitting process which does include a fee, and Hollywood, CA has no permit, no fee and no desire to have street performers. They actively hustle them off the boulevard.

Q:  As a journalist you are accustomed to writing non-fiction. Have you considered writing fiction?

Heather Jacks: LOL! That is a great question. The answer is a resounding NO!  I think Fiction writing is hard—too hard for me, and I can’t get my head around it. I wouldn’t even know where to start.  I read a lot of books, as all people should—and it’s even more important for writers. I would say 97% of the books I read are non-fiction. In fact, so far this year, I have read 20 books and100% are non-fiction.

Q: What’s next?

Heather Jacks: Last year, I ran a successful crowdfunding campaign via Rockethub, in which we raised money to cover licensing and expenses to record the Billy Joel song, New York State of Mind with 30 NYC Street musicians, who were featured in our book. We went to this fabulous, subterranean studio in Brooklyn, Grand Street Recording, for one day, one time and one take!  Our version has a musical saw, Cello, Violins, Beat Rhymer, guitars and tons of vocals. It was EPIC!  The incredibly talented recording and touring artist, Keaton Simons, flew in from Los Angeles to arrange, produce and mix the final song. We will be releasing that song in May, under the leadership of the terrific boutique music public relations firm, Red Boot Publicity, based in Venice Beach, CA. The music sounds Amazing!

From that day, we also created a 13 minute short documentary film. It is great and I am honored to have the wonderful actor, Eric Roberts, volunteer his talents to narrating it. These two projects, along with gaining exposure for the book, are basically ‘what’s next’ for me!
Q: Tell us about Heather Jacks. What do you like to do when you’re not writing or working?
Heather Jacks: I live in and LOVE my City by the Bay, San Francisco. That being said, I spend an inordinate amount of time eating and drinking throughout all the funky and fabulous neighborhoods here. A lot of people don’t know there is great hiking and biking right in the City limits. In fact, our island is about 7 miles big and we have OVER 87 miles of bike lanes! It makes exploring this great City easy—(with the exception of the hills!)  I also make (and sell) unique, one of a kind, retro shoulder bags, from reclaimed records. The front cover is on one side and the actual vinyl record—(not a pressed blank) on the other side. I was juried into the San Francisco Arts Commission, so I can sell in select spaces throughout the City. It gives me a great excuse to haunt all the vintage shops and record stores in the City. I’m a HUGE Baseball fan. I bleed Orange & Black and watch most of the games—(that takes a lot of time, considering there are about 162 games in a season!) I also read TONS and post little reviews everywhere. Whew! I’m tired just thinking about it!
About Heather Jacks

Heather Jacks was raised on an Indian reservation in southeastern Oregon, until age fifteen. Jacks was the first ‘experimental exchange student’ to Australia with an organization called YFU, Youth for Understanding, where she spent 10.5 months in 1982. Once she returned, she received her B.A. from USF and followed that with two years of study at UC Davis.  She has worked in the music industry in various capacities, since the eighties; radio, production, A&R, booking and most recently as a music journalist.  She was recently named a finalist in the Book of the Year Award for her multi-media project, THE NOISE BENEATH THE APPLE®, which was inspired by her love for street music, busking and the people who make it.  Heather can be contacted at:


Written by Heather Jacks and accompanied by an eleven-track vinyl record, mastered by Grammy and Academy Award winning Mastering Engineer, Reuben Cohen and featuring the original music of a select number of participants, this 200-page art-style coffee table book measures 12’’ x 12’’ and weighs in at a whopping 8lbs. Putting the spotlight on an age-old profession, Jacks also seeks to stem the tide of regulation intended to suffocate creative expression and take performers off the streets.


Book Trailers: #1  and #2

No comments:

Post a Comment