“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
By Jami Mills for rez magazine.
When Twin Ghost was born in a Philadelphia hospital, his doctor spanked his bottom and he let out a wail. That’s when his mother knew he was destined to be a gifted singer. And the rest is, as they say, history. That wail is still very present in the soulful vocals of one of SL’s most popular vocalists, Twin Ghost, or “TG” as his friends call him. He brings a mix of blues, R&B, soul, funk and rock, all through the lens of his own original talent. I’m not sure if it’s whiskey and cigarettes or a God-given gift that accounts for that gravelly voice that hits at your heartstrings, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? We know what our ears tell us. And they tell us we’re listening to one of SL’s unique performers, who brings a passion and authenticity to each and every performance.
People have described his vocals as “smoky.” Was Blind Lemon Jefferson “smoky?” Was Robert Johnson “smoky?” Most definitely. And yet, he has drawn on those Delta Blues roots for his own blend of many influences to fashion a style all his own.
We know that blues came from African-Americans in the Deep South in the 19th Century, based on spirituals, shouts, chants, and field hollers. The term “blues” most likely came from “blue indigo,” which was a color denoting “suffering,” which West African slaves would wear to mourn death. In “the great migration,” musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Work and Willie Dixon added electric guitar, harmonica and smokin’ rhythm sections to the austerity of Delta Blues and Chicago Blues was born. It wasn’t long before that led to R&B, which in turn begat rock ‘n roll. And then comes along Twin Ghost, who pays homage to them all right here in Second Life.
We’re lucky to catch up with Twin Ghost in between his busy schedule. Thank you TG for meeting with me. I’m sure our readers will enjoy this opportunity to get to know you and your music a little better.
Jami Mills: O.K. Let’s get one thing out of the way first before we go any further. For all the Philly Cheese Steak aficionados throughout the world, Pat’s or Geno’s? [Editor’s Note: One of the greatest food feuds in America is whether the “whiz wit” at Pat’s King of Steaks is better than at its arch rival across the street, Geno’s Steaks. For the uninitiated, a Philadelphia Cheese Steak is thinly sliced (or chopped) rib-eye steak served with or without onions on an Italian roll slathered with a God-awful processed cheese concoction called Cheez Whiz.]
Twin Ghost: Haha … They both suck! Truth is, you get a much better cheese steak in most corner pizza shops. I used to make a pretty good one when I used to rock the spatula.
JM: One of the first things one notices after hearing your distinctive voice is that you sing in tune. And you’re constantly tuning your guitar throughout your performances as well. Some people might find that distracting, but for those who love good music, it’s a sign of respect. You take great pains to present a very professional performance each time out, and it really shows. Where does that attention to detail come from? Are we dealing with a perfectionist here?
TG: I don’t know if I’m a perfectionist … my music is far from perfect. Being in tune is very important. It hurts when I hear something out of tune, and in the end, it’s all about fun for me, and playing a song out of tune is just a drag – for me and for the audience. I’m not about that. It has to be fun and honest for me to groove with it. And I tune my guitar down a half step, so it’s tricky to get it in perfect tune.
JM: You have a mix of originals and covers, but one thing is in common: you bring an almost spiritual quality to your songs. In other words, you sing from the heart. No one sings the blues without having been there themselves. In “Homecoming,” another original of yours, you sing, “Everywhere I turn, obstacles surround me…I feel a million miles away….will I ever find my way home?” Does your own life story account for the sense of sadness and alienation in some of your songs?
TG: Unfortunately, I think it rears its ugly head in all my songs… lol… Interesting you chose the word alienation rather than loneliness. Without getting to psychoanalytical, that’s a feeling I think I’ve carried the weight of my whole life, and through music, I’m finally starting to understand how I am supposed to communicate my feelings and emotions. I think everyone at some point in their lives has felt that way. It’s a very internal and personal, almost secret, emotion that a lot share, but with a song like Homecoming, like much of my work, there are metaphors to express that yearning for acceptance. On another, more surface level, it’s a song about a man driving home to see his wife, and their relationship is under stress because he’s never around. His love is strong, so he’s pleading to her in his thoughts to not give up on him. Without getting too religious (‘cause I tend to take a more existential approach to matters of the spiritual or unknown), I’ll say this much — when I sing and it’s right, I leave the Earth and go away for a while – and that’s therapy for me.
JM: You have recorded a wonderful CD self-titled “Twin Ghost,” which is available on your website. It’s a compilation of live performances recorded in Second Life. You contribute your own bass, electric guitar and percussion tracks. You play lap steel on First Light and even add some organ tracks on Trippin Lovely. Anything you’re not comfortable playing? Bagpipes, perhaps? Please describe how that CD came into being, and who else made it possible.
TG: Thank you … haha … Yeah, bagpipes! I can’t breathe much through my nose … broke it when I was a kid and never fixed it … so the bagpipes are tough!! I’ve always played anything I could get my hands on. I never wanted to be just a guitar player. I always wanted to be a musician. Instruments are just vehicles of human expression. In fact, anything that makes a noise can be musical when applied with artistic taste and sensibility. I once made a track out of me playing a broken old washing machine with a giant stick in a junkyard down by the Delaware River with a field recorder. My first attempt into the world of industrial music I guess. It actually wound up being played as one of the opening tracks to the new baseball stadium (Citizens Bank Park) here in Philadelphia for the Phillies. For the record, I did have some help bringing in some soloists, as well as a drummer and accordion player, dobro and keys. Some of the guests: Bill Halverson on drums; Joe Tosolt on dobro/accordion/FenderRhodes; Fredrick Reed on electric guitar (on Black Cat); and Tamra Hayden on backup vocals on Live Again. I produced, recorded and mixed the whole thing myself. The CD was recorded from live shows on SL and recorded to a multi-track unit. Then I picked the best takes out of several shows (I have over 500 SL shows recorded to date) and added and layered it all here in my little home studio.
JM: At a recent performance, you did two new originals (Pieces of My Life and Spirit Dancer) which you said were going to be on your new CD that’s coming out soon. Please tell us about how you approach selecting the material for a CD and whether it’s any easier the more you do it.
TG: Not sure if it’s gotten any easier … I choose my material the same way I choose what songs I write. It has to be something strong, with a deep emotional connection, a trigger … something that feels really heavy to me. For me, often if there’s no real substance to the idea, then it often gets tossed to the side and lives forever on some cassette tape or hard drive. Doesn’t matter if it’s a good melody or an interesting piece of music. I’m less inclined to deal with it if it never fills up the emotional well … I’m thirsty that way. The way I pick stuff for the album? I like to create some kind of musical journey. That’s how I enjoy records. That’s the kind I like to make. This winter, I’ll be recording my new album titled (at the moment) Spirit Dancer. I’ll be starting an Indiegogo fundraising campaign soon to help raise money so I can take the music, sonically, to the level it deserves. I’ll be recording the record exactly the same way all my musical heroes recorded theirs … during a time when performance was the thing … a time before computers were fixing everything and making it perfect. I don’t want any of that to touch my music, so I’m going into an incredible, almost time warp-like studio that I found in CT … strictly analog! I’ll be staying up there for a week and putting my thing down the way I put my thing down each and every night — live into a mic! Capturing the moment as it is … capturing the soul and essence of here and now. Then I’m going to create a full record from that … build it up with some fantastic musician friends and the usual mad scientist aesthetic.
JM: Time is a theme running through your work. There’s an urgency to your singing, as if you’re reminding us “time’s a wastin’.” In your original, Black Cat, you sing “live for the moment.” Is that your philosophy?
TG: To me, singing’s the second most important thing in the world (the first being love of course) … that moment when it’s happening, and you’re deep in it … I live for these tiny magic moments. I want to savor every nuance and learn to sustain that feeling. It’s the same with love. Black Cat in some ways is an abstract way of saying “Stop sitting on your hands and go out and make something happen” … whatever your thing is … look for love … feed a dream … find yourself … climb a mountain. You get the idea.
JM: Our readers have an unquenchable thirst for technical details. I heard you loop one song and added some nice effects on another. If you would, please walk us through the equipment you use, beginning with your guitar and ending with your mics and outboard gear.
TG: I’m forever a fan of old school sounds and devices. I’m also always changing things around. Currently, for my online shows (the setup for online broadcasts is fairly different from a live venue), I use a J-45 Gibson acoustic guitar (I do not use electric guitars live). I run my acoustic guitar thru a variety of stomp boxes (effect pedals). First in the chain is my Vox mini volume/wah pedal. Then I run into a tube screamer for distortion (it’s actually a tube screamer clone made by a company called Mooer. They make tiny little kick ass pedals!). Then I run into two different delay pedals: one is called a Gen 5 echo and the other is called the Flashback. Both have great old school echo tape loop simulation and warble. I love the Gen 5. Probably gonna switch the Flashback for something else soon. Ok, so then I run all that into a Holy Grail reverb pedal to sweeten it all up just a tad. Then I send all that sweetness into my Boss RC 20 looper, and finally last in the chain is my LR Baggs Para EQ direct box (yes last! Gear heads are now asking, “Why is it last?” Well, I need to do swells with the volume pedal, and I need to loop all my effects in any combination at any given moment. So there! … lol). The Para EQ box is a great “don’t leave home without it” unit … a real tone beast! I use this to EQ my guitar and keep it full and warm (powerful EQ). I change the configuration quite a bit and the order of things, which is a great advantage to using pedals. Plus, I like knobs and switches. Ok … sigh … then I go into a portable Zoom R-16 mix and multi-track unit (using it as a mixer most nights, but also multi-track capabilities at any given moment, I used this device mostly for my first record) and send that out to my digital converter into my Mac, then Nicecast, and finally … into the loving and supporting ears of the beautiful people who listen to my stream!! (which makes that whole chain of nonsense make all the sense in the world … lol). For my vocals, I use an old (beloved) Rode tube mic – – a big old warm sucker. I run that into a tube preamp and into the board … blah blah blah … lol, adding a touch of reverb using a TC Electronics foot pedal unit that allows me to have a couple different reverbs for spacy effects and giant rooms and halls and echo chambers … fun stuff!
JM: Thanks for getting into some of the tech stuff. I’m sure more than a few of your fans just think you grab your guitar and start singing! You’ve written a good half of the material I’ve heard you perform. Your originals are filled with tasty hooks and catchy phrasing. How do you approach your songwriting? Do you begin with the music and add lyrics later, or the other way around?
TG: I have a couple hours of original music. I play a lot in SL, so covers are a blast to keep things interesting each night. And it’s fun to change them up and mess around. Usually for me, it’s music and melody and vibe first … then, if it’s worth anything … it will conjure up something powerful enough to inspire me to take it to that next level. Often, it’s a series of songs (or ideas) written in a flash until that one magic one appears, and it usually pours out in a completely unconscious state of mind. It’s as though all the hours behind you (sometimes days) of writing and working on stuff is all just an exercise to get you to open your mind and be ready to receive the real deal. So, in short, I might write 10 half-baked songs to get to one that hits a chord in my soul. But with all that said, it also can happen the first time you pick up the guitar. It’s really all a mystery.
JM: Have you dual streamed much here in SL and, if so, how you do like it and do you think you’ll be doing more of it?
TG: I like to dual with only a couple of people in SL. I’ve done several incredible duals with FunkyFreddy Republic (Frederick Reed) and recently, I’ve been enjoying moments with voodoo shilton … both fantastic musicians. What’s great about a good dual stream for me is when both parties have a good imagination mixed with a history of playing with other people and understanding the balance that’s involved … when not to play … lol … but it’s a lot of fun to imagine the other party … when you kinda know their style you can play to it and actually have real connections thru music, regardless of not being able to see them or in one person’s case, not even hear the other player. So, in essence, I think the key word is “trust” and a little love for the other player … and a strong imagination! … lol. Oh, and a couple of beers or a glass of wine … ‘cause it’s fun as hell!!!
JM: Josephine, your addictive song about a little runaway who turns her back on authority, recalls early Van Morrison. Your cover of The Letter captures the spirit of Joe Cocker’s arrangement without copying it. You channel John Fogerty in the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, Who’ll Catch the Rain, which you closed with one night. It’s a great song for you. Who are the most powerful influences on your music?
TG: I love so much music, it’s hard to nail it down … but if we’re talking about singing, some of my most important influences are Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis (yep for singing), Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Son House, Blind Willy Johnson, etc.
JM: That’s a pretty impressive collection of singers. I’m glad you included the delta blues singer, Son House (Death Letter Blues), who hasn’t really gotten his due. Some credit him with teaching Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson how to play guitar! The White Stripes dedicated their debut album to Son House. I would guess whenever you think about singing pretty, you just need to throw on some Son House and listen to how “authenticity” trumps “pretty” every time.
You’ve played at a ton of clubs in Philly: MilkBoy, The Legendary Dobbs, The Burlap and Bean, Lickety Split, Gunners Run, the Grape Room, and the World Café (in both Philly and Wilmington) [Editor’s Note: here’s the link to TG’s Homecoming recorded live at the World Café], and you’ve played lots of clubs in New York, too: National Underground, Arlene’s Grocery, Rockwood, and others. You have a couple of RL shows coming up in Philly: November 17 at MilkBoy, and a big show on January 11 at The Burlap and Bean (for a complete list of upcoming shows, check out TG’s website twinghost.com ). How would you compare performing in RL clubs to the “better” clubs in SL? Despite the obvious limitations, you seem to really connect with your SL audiences.
TG: It’s very different. On a technical level, during an online broadcast, I have total control of the sound. You can create album quality sound for the listener, if one is so inclined. In a real life venue, you have a sound man … and that can go either way. So that’s a major difference. It’s hard to compare the experiences. Both are extremely fulfilling as far as the connection goes … mind-blowing and surreal, often! Regarding online broadcasts though, it’s astonishing actually how much you can feel over the airways of the internet … but I think it goes beyond that and into some unexplainable realm … a realm that transcends our understanding of what a connection entirely is … and the limitations we set simply because we are bound in bodies and flesh and bone. We forget sometimes we are all just energy … little particles that vibrate. Sound, and the emotion it carries and receives, I believe travels … I don’t want to get too deep … there might be kids reading you know!! lol! But I really “feel” people listening and enjoying, and it makes me play better and it’s amazing … truly.
JM: Thank you so much for this opportunity to get to know you a little better. And I’m sorry if they refuse to serve you in the future at Pat’s and Geno’s. That’s the price of fame! Is there anything you’d like to say to our readers before we wrap up?
TG: Peace and love…