Rachel Ana Dobken chats about her influential gig as curator of music at Danny Clinch Transparent Gallery in Asbury Park, as well as her new LP, “When It Happens To You.”
Whether curating music at Danny Clinch Transparent Gallery or rockin’ tunes live off her great new album, When It Happens to You, Rachel Ana Dobken totally lives up to her initials: RAD! The following long chat with Dobken will tell you just about everything you need to know about her, including how she got the Clinch gig, what she loves most about her fantastic LP, and where she will be performing it live. Upcoming dates include opening for Grammy-nominated blues-rocker Scott Sharrard on Jan. 12 at Wonder Bar in Asbury Park and the Makin Waves-curated LOD@APYC during Light of Day Winterfest on Jan. 18 at Asbury Park Yacht Club with Erotic Novels, Molly Rhythm and Little Vicious.
Where did you grow up and did that influence your desire to play music?
I grew up in Fair Haven — and aside from my music-loving family — I had friends that exposed me to a lot of the music that influences me still, specifically Sam Sherman, Lucas Sacks, Paul Vinci. For me, it’s always about the people and relationships in an environment that truly influence, so in that regards, yes. But it is also a really beautiful area, and whenever I felt stuck either personally or artistically, I would visit the beach or the rivers and just get lost walking around. It would keep me calm and centered and allow me to enter into a more organic artistic space to create.
Out of your many influences, what made you want to play music the most and why?
Man, I can’t answer this with just one. The first was probably Paul Simon. Growing up, my dad played him a lot. But as I discovered his work more, especially throughout college, it was more and more brilliant to me. Songs like “Congratulations,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Oh, Marion.” I have always been fascinated with Paul Simon’s ability to perfectly marry lyrical storytelling, brilliant musicality and uniqueness into one.
John Mayer is another. None of that “Your Body Is A Wonderland” stuff. I’m talking deeper into his discography and songs like “New Deep,” “Friends, Lovers or Nothing,” all of Continuum! There is a conversational way that John speaks in his work that has always influenced me. I felt I could relate to these artists, these individuals, as someone so in my own head it was so comforting to listen and say, ‘Wow, they really get it.’ Then, of course, once I heavily dove into The Band I never stopped. I realized in so many ways they are the pinnacle of what it means to create amazing, genuine and unique music, how to stay true to yourself as an artist, and absolute raw soul and talent. I tell people frequently, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm ARE the reason I play music. Other big ones: Incubus, Jeff Buckley, Fiona Apple.
Are drums your first instrument?
My first instrument was actually guitar at 8 years old, but I was so overwhelmed by the instrument — still am — that I didn’t get very far. It wasn’t until college that I pushed myself.
I always knew I was a drummer. I always had a fantastic sense of time and rhythm, but did not start playing until I was 19 when I finally put my foot down with my parents. Growing up my mom said, ‘I do not want drums in the house!’ and said, ‘OK! 19th birthday present: drum lessons. I don’t need a kit. I can do everything with a pad and sticks.’ And sure enough, my parents let me. Eventually, they saw how hard I was working, that I actually had some skill and bought me a kit. Almost immediately, it was clear this was my natural habitat.
I was at Bard at that time, and I studied drumming in my jazz classes, as well as in my private lessons. I had an incredible instructor, Carlos Valdez, who made me cut my teeth to all that New Orleans stuff.
You’re a very multi-hyphenated talent. How much did Bard influence that and what other factors did?
At first it started as a necessity. I didn’t have a band, but wanted to start playing out and it became very clear, ‘You have to do this yourself, then the rest will come. If you want to succeed you can’t rely on anyone else.’ You have to be your own accompanist. I also feel that if you truly want to call yourself a bandleader, you must understand all aspects of a band. Be an expert at your craft, know everything there is to know, and that is, in part, where my multi-hyphenated interests came to be.
I am also a drummer, and I absolutely love being behind the kit, and I always will. As much as I may not lead from behind the kit, I will never not play the drums. They can exist together.
In regards to Bard, I truly owe my professors everything when it comes to my musical career because they gave me the tools I needed to succeed. I did not study music prior to Bard and sitting in on jazz classes taught me how to improvise. In ‘Jazz Harmony,’ it was a requirement to learn piano — because all of the theory was taught from that — so that’s where that came from. I was also studying voice and drumming, but my comp professor, Erica Lindsay, made me do ‘Jazz Improv’ for guitar. So, I learned, took lessons, learned modes, and how to solo; although I did so poorly. But I really appreciate these things now because it makes my life so much easier to understand not only how a band functions, but how to write, how to play and how to lead.
The initials of your full name are RAD. Do they inspire you to be the best you can be or are they just rad initials?
[Laughs] I never thought of it that way. I think they are just RAD initials. Thank you Mom and Dad!
In the two years that you’ve been curating the gallery, what is the funniest thing that has happened and/or the most fun you’ve had?
Oh man, there are so many amazing moments. OK, it’s two. The first would be the day G. Love showed up, and Danny and I got to play with him. He was playing at the Algonquin Theater, and Danny had invited him down. I showed up that day in July (it was Fourth of July weekend 2017), and Danny goes, ‘Rachel, you wanna jam? I asked my friend Garrett (G.Love) to come by.’ Next thing I know, he’s got my guitar, I’m behind the kit, and he and Danny are having a harmonica showdown. His baby is snatched onto his leg dancing! It was amazing, adorable, so organic and so much fun!
The second I have to say was during our Two-Year Anniversary Blues Jam. We had a little while back when Brian Fallon came onstage and I asked him, ‘Do you know ‘Ophelia?’’ And he goes, ‘Yes, of course, let’s do that!’ So, he played ‘Ophelia’ with me pulling a Levon — drums + singing. It was totally unexpected and a blast. I’m so grateful my buddies The Cranston Dean Band were playing with us, as well as Rogers from Blind Melon! A total, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ moment!
What celebrity musicians you’ve played with at Transparent Gallery taught you most, how and why?
OK, there’s a few: Robert Randolph, G. Love, Brian Sella from The Front Bottoms, Christopher Thorn and Rogers Stevens from Blind Melon, Blind Melon, Tash Neal, Brian Fallon, Nicole Atkins, Rayland Baxter, some of the guys from Phil Lesh’s band, some of the guys from Portugal. The Man, Vini Lopez … I think there’s more, but let’s start there. My experience playing with the guys from Blind Melon, specifically Rogers and Christopher, both of whom I love, has taught me the most because I got to spend some time chatting with Christopher and Rogers about life and music and the entire process. When I came in the day Blind Melon was playing, I showed Rogers the form of ‘My Babe; and he was all, ‘You should totally play with us on this,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s OK! It’s not necessary!’ And then he insisted. So, during sound check, I ran it, then Danny goes, ‘Rachel sing a verse.’ And the guys we’re all into it, so then it happened live! I was so thankful for that.
Those are the most meaningful moments for me because one, they keep you on your toes and make you a better player, and two, they aren’t expected so when they happen, you can truly appreciate the organic nature and shape they take. They sort of test you, make you realize, everything in this moment has brought me to this place where I know I can do this.
Were there any who made you nervous to play with?
Yes! I was terrified to play with Blind Melon! When Rogers said, ‘OK, you should totally play on this with us,’ I was like, ‘Alright, here we go!’ But it all worked out. I mean, I get nervous before every performance so there’s that.
I was also pretty nervous to play with Tash because we were doing an entire set of songs with him that we hadn’t rehearsed, and some we’re definitely tougher than others, like “Politician” by Cream, and he had a very specific arrangement we didn’t really know. It was one of those things that if we had even taken one time to run the song, I would have felt so much better, but you can’t always do that, and that’s why you have to be prepared on your end and know that the more you improvise and do it, the better it gets. Just do the damn thing, and you’ll be amazed at what you’re capable of, especially for next time! All about those 10,000 hours!
What do you enjoy most about working with Danny both at the gallery and on its stage?
That’s a good question. Well, I love anytime Danny and I get to share the stage. We have a ton of fun playing, even if we are just goofing around. We love so much of the same music, especially all of that old deep blues. My passion in life is music, and I could talk forever to someone about that love that I feel so deeply, and I know Danny feels the same. This is one of the levels on which we’ve connected.
Aside from that, I feel most comfortable one-on-one with a person, and I don’t do well with surface. I’m a very honest person, and I don’t know how to be anything other than that. This is what I love about Danny, Maria (Clinch’s wife) and Tina (Kerekes, gallery manager). They are the same way.
I think the most enjoyable moments I’ve had with Danny are the ones where we really get into the nitty-gritty about life, art and the music industry, when we get to go to shows together or just chat on the phone, when we all get to just hang out as friends: Danny, Maria, and Tina. My album photo shoot with Danny was an incredible experience in particular. Aside from the fact that Danny is absolutely the best at what he does, it was just a ton of fun. We were so in the moment, and it was very genuine. He was able to tap into so perfectly the same sentiment that exists within my music. It was real, honest and personal. Time sort of existed within this bubble where you didn’t really know where or when it was. It’s hard to explain. It’s not something that even needs to put into words, per se, because I think it touches on the reality that great art exists as a means of emotional communication that people can feel in a genuine way. That is what this album is about, and I feel what Danny’s photographs are about. There is no need to discuss it because the work will speak for itself.
How does Tina help make it possible to do what you do at the gallery?
Tina is one of — if not — the most integral part of Transparent. She is the manager, which means that she makes sure that everything at the gallery is not only constantly running but that it does so smoothly. She is there all hours of the day when we are open, manning the DC store, making sure prints are cleaned, hung and that there are places for everything. She handles sales, customers, clients, logistics, anyone who walks in the door or has a need to be connected to us. I don’t think anyone else could do that job as flawlessly, as cool, and as helpful as her. Tina truly is an amazing woman. Her dedication and love that she gives to people and that space, to art and this community … if anything has come out of this experience of working at the Transparent Gallery, it’s that I have been so blessed to meet and now have a friend in Tina for life — and Danny and Maria, but I did not know Tina prior to this. That is something I am truly grateful for. She is one in a million, and I know I speak for Danny and Maria when I say that as well. We are a crew and a team, and without any of us, this ship wouldn’t run.
Danny and I had a conversation recently about how we are so lucky that we have the team that we do. It’s a rare thing that four, strong, powerful, driven, honest and trustworthy personalities can match so well. We all have a natural chemistry and it works. They are family.
Out of all the musicians in Asbury Park, why did you think Danny went with you to curate, how did that come to be, and how did that work out well for both of you, particularly the size of your following, as well as the many musicians you invite to play?
I think it was a time-place and chemistry thing similar to what I said above. Danny saw how hard I worked, how much I love music and that I am serious about my career and putting myself out there (both as a player and supporter). It had an organic way of coming to be. Danny saw me drumming two years prior to my job starting at Transparent at a ‘Last Waltz’ tribute show at Monmouth University. A week later he invited me to sit in with the Tangiers Blues Band in Jersey City at Southhouse. I kept in touch with Danny and knew we would be a good fit. I wanted to work with him.
We have a lot in common. I’m actually a photographer. I don’t shoot anymore because music is my 100 percent artistic focus and majored in it at Bard with a ‘minor’ in jazz. We both grew up at the Jersey Shore and have a similar love for music. I worked as a designer/editor/assistant for Elliott Landy right out of college — the photographer for Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin and much more — and knew that eventually, Danny and I would cross paths in a working environment. It makes total sense that it is in this capacity. I have met so many wonderful musicians and people working there and that has definitely helped to expand my fan base.
Danny told me that one of the reasons he wanted you to curate was because he was very impressed with the level of talent of a lot of your friends. Beyond just giving them an opportunity to play, how and why has the gallery made the strong Asbury Park music scene even stronger? Please provide an example of that.
Prior to the last couple years, I have viewed the Asbury Park music scene as one that exists sort of insularly: talent, but not really the means to get out of the bubble that was surrounding it. Lately, I feel that the bubble is bursting, and it’s a lot of ‘time-place’ factors that have built up. The town has built-up rapidly. Young artists can’t afford living in New York City and move down here. And now here it’s unaffordable, but it’s much more feasible. There are bands that have the talent and are constantly raising the bar and challenging one another to be better and better. Venues are not joking around when it comes to shows: APYC/Langosta, Wonder Bar, Pony, Saint, Asbury Lanes.
There is certainly no lack of serious talent, and I feel Danny and Transparent have come around at the best time to really put the icing on the cake. All the people that Danny has brought through those doors — all his friends in particular who have come to see how cool this place is — for us to connect with, and vice versa. On my part, bringing in the awesome talent that is around here has really helped grow all of those other things in tandem. Sea.Hear.Now is a huge example of that.
A few of the musicians who play often at the gallery also are in your band. Who are they, what do they play in the band, how did you come to play with them, and which of them are on When It Happens to You?
I had an incredible band of fellows, all of whom have played at the gallery. Dan Haase (bass), Ryan MacLean (guitar), Joey Henderson (helped engineer, also played guitar on “Always” and “Intro”), Andy Jackle (drums on “Intro,” “Got Away,” “Taking My Time”), Mark Masefield (Hammond B3), Chris Dubrow (bass on “Us,” “Taking My Time”), Danny Clinch (harmonica!), Ian Gray (trombone), Bruce Krywinsky (trumpet), Denis Daley (sax). I played drums, guitar, piano, sang and produced it.
Most of these guys I’ve met throughout my years in the Asbury scene — Joey, Chris and I in particular — have become very close … and they really helped me throughout this entire process. Ryan and I met in college and have been playing music together for eight years. He is one of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever known, and I owe him so much for pushing and believing in me. Tim Pannella and Joey Henderson engineered the record for me, and it was an absolute pleasure to work with them. We recorded it at Cedar Sounds in Oceanport.
How is When It Happens to You a departure from Detach and why?
On all levels, I feel Happens is a superior record. For one, I have grown so much as a player at all my instruments (voice, guitar, drums, piano). And two, I feel my songwriting maturing and going in a direction that I am proud of. I can feel myself ‘trimming the fat’ and getting more to the point. Detach was my first legitimate work of art. Also, it’s an EP and Happens is an LP. It was more as a means to get stuff out there. But this record (Happens) really felt like it holds some true meaning for me, and I’m truly proud of the way it came out.
How and why did your production chops improve from one record to the next and can you provide an example of that on Happens?
I have crazy control issues, hence, playing four instruments and producing this record! [Laughs] I hear everything in my head and have such a specific vision that I wanted to produce it.
Detachwas a breeze. We had been playing those songs for years and flushed out the parts. We did the entire record in two days in the studio, so there wasn’t much thought required in terms of producing parts and making decisions.
WIHTU was much different. I went into the studio with about 40 percent of the record done, meaning parts of drums and lead guitar were flushed out, and knew that a lot it would come together during tracking or post-production. This was way more than I had anticipated. I don’t think I realized how much was still left to finish. But all that being said, I know so much more now and know what my ‘sound’ is going into the next album.
I absolutely love being in the studio, getting lost in that world and learning what it takes to make a great record. I’m really happy with the guitar tones. I have to give so much credit to Tim, Joey and my mixing engineer Kyle Joseph. I wrote a lot of those guitar riffs and sonically, they turned out exactly how I wanted them to. The main lick to “Always” and also the outro in “Understand” when the guitar and bass double one another, that guitar tone is my favorite in the entire record!
What song from Happens do you like performing the most and why?
When I have the entire band, it’s either “Always” or “Understand.” When we do “Always” live. we jam it out at the end and it’s just a ton of fun. I know that’s always an audience favorite too. I love “Understand” for the ending. “Everybody Wants” is a great one too also because I usually just get to sing, and that is where my vocals can always shine. It’s nice to be able to just sing and I’m trying to put more of those songs back into my set so people can really see what I’m capable of vocally!
Did anything bad in your life inspire an element of the album that you makes you proud? If so, what is it, what did it inspire, why are you proud of the results, do those results make it all worthwhile and how?
In regards to what inspired elements or the album in general, I think just life and whatever human relationships I’ve made over the past couple of years. My fascination with life and art is our undying desire to relate to one another and find connection, and that will always be present in my work. In particular, the album was inspired by a poem that came to me about three years ago. It’s about the idea that you don’t know what you know until you go through it yourself. People can give you advice and warn you, but until you have experienced a given situation, you won’t know Until It Happens to You.
So, what’s next for you? Are there any tour, video or other plans in relation to the record?
I’m currently mapping out 2019, which will include a music video and hopefully a couple of one-off shows, potentially a mini tour! Stay tuned!
What shows are coming up for you and for the gallery?
In regards to shows, we have a big full-band show on Jan. 12 at The Wonder Bar supporting amazing guitarist Scott Sharrard. Then, of course, our show with you at APYC the following week for Light of Day! We are super excited for that one! Next show at Transparent is for Jan. 19 during Light of Day.
Have you played Light of Day before? If so, what is it about that you’re looking forward to experiencing again? If not, what are you looking forward to most?
Besides the stuff we have done at Transparent, and the epic 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday jams from last year at Light of Day, no I haven’t ‘officially’ played it like we will be this year for your show at APYC! We’re looking forward to that experience. I’m looking forward to playing with the other bands on our bill and meeting some more incredible musicians both that night and all-around town!
I’m hoping there will be another late-night jam at the gallery. We are preparing for it! We will have ‘Music at the Gallery’ that Saturday at Transparent, probably around 3 (p.m.), and Danny and I will probably play a bit — or just me if he’s running around like crazy! I’m solidifying that lineup as we speak!