Music

Perfect Timing: An Interview with Orba Squara

Zach Hinkle

Mitch Davis, otherwise known as the pop tunesmith behind Orba Squara, talks to PopMatters about his newest release, the road trip that followed, and how it feels to have your music infiltrate the American populace.

Mitch Davis, otherwise known as the pop tunesmith behind Orba Squara, writes music that’s ingrained into the cultural consciousness more than most people are aware. After signing to Universal Publishing, Orba Squara released its debut, sunshyness, a collection of upbeat, catchy numbers that embrace the ukulele like it’s a Stratocaster and emphasize Davis’ ability to turn even the most minimal instruments into interlocking weaves of melody and bliss. It was this album that led to the licensing of nearly every song on the disc, earning spots on ads by Saturn, Expedia, and the current wish-list of every indie band out there, Apple. The ad, which introduced Apple’s now ubiquitous iPhone, featured the bells and jangle of the track, “Perfect Timing (This Morning).” The only negative side to the ad? “It would have been nice if the vocals were incorporated into the commercial,” says Davis.

Having already written a second wave of songs by the time sunshyness was released, Orba Squara has now delivered The Trouble with Flying, a continuation of Davis’ easy-going approach and hummable melodies. The record even teams Davis up with his all-time favorite recording artist, ’80s chart-topper Billy Squier, who contributes vocals and guitar.

Before the release of Flying, Davis took a cross country road trip with several friends and musicians, meeting new fans in different cities along the way, and by the end turning those traveled miles into a visual collage of words and images; what he calls the “extended artwork” to his newest release.

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I remember when the iPhone commercial first aired, my girlfriend and I liked the music. I still remember seeing it for the first time.

Yeah, it’s funny that you actually remember the music. For me the only negative thing about it was they used the first 30 seconds of the song before the vocals came in, so a lot of people don’t even know the song because unless you hear the singing you don’t really know that there is more than those 30 seconds. It would have been nice if the vocals were incorporated into the commercial too but I’m not complaining about it.

I assume you didn’t have much say in that matter.

No, I had no choice. They said, “We’re interested in using this,” and I said, “Sure, whatever you want to do is fine.” I’m particular about what I have the songs in and I don’t take any commercial and say lets put it in there. But the Apple commercials are nice and they focus on the music, and they’re just nice ones to be involved in.

Compared to so many other products and companies out there Apple seems great because not only does it have such a wide audience but the brand itself allows you to retain artistic credibility. I’ve never heard too much criticism over that sort of deal.

Yeah, definitely. I never write songs for the purpose of trying to license them. It was creatively what I wanted to do and it’s just a bonus that people seem to latch onto it and want to license it. I can feel proud of the music I did and I didn’t change anything to get them into commercials. It just happened that the people making the commercial thought that what I was doing was something they could associate with their ad.

A few years ago, Of Montreal really seemed to catch a lot criticism about their Outback commercial. Where do you stand on music being used to help push a product that may not share the same goals as the musician or band that wrote it? Do you draw a line at some point?

I think it comes down to what any particular artist feels comfortable doing. I think these days it’s great that people are licensing independent music for ads because it is a lot harder to make money off of records now. People are just downloading music and not buying physical records so it’s a way for artists to survive. I think with Of Montreal what people objected to was that they changed the lyrics. But I don’t hold it against anybody that wants to do anything that they want to do. I was reading somewhere and he [Kevin Barnes] was talking about it and I completely understood what he was saying. And I even read Devo talking about the subject too, you know, using “Whip It” in a Swiffer commercial. They changed the lyrics from “Whip It” to “Swiffer” and he was taking it from the perspective that they were infiltrating the “big machine” and getting their music in there in weird and different ways, messing with the system, that kind of thing. It’s all about how you view it and whether you choose to embrace it. The music environment is definitely changing. It’s a way for artists to actually see some money.

Most of the criticism was not coming from other artists, at least from what I read.

Yeah, and what I was saying earlier about the stuff I’ve been licensing from this, when I say I wrote this stuff with only the idea of making the record. On the flip side to that, I don’t think it’s bad if you do want to write a song for the purpose of it being used in an ad. Artistically, whatever someone wants to do, it’s all good. It’s all art. If you try to please everyone all the time you’re just going to disappoint yourself. Do it and hope for the best.

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Davis mustered some enthusiasm when talking about the world of licensing but I remained aware that what he really wanted to focus on was the songs themselves - the time spent in the studio crafting them, and the cross-country trip inspired by the album’s literal theme of exploring what is often missed when flying. His journey from New York to Portland included several friends and musicians. Some were there to play and others, as Davis puts it, were just, “doing their thing.” What he means is that they were filming, photographing, and documenting local fans, rural and urban landscapes, performances in the street, and the ever-changing terrain between the coasts. Once completed, the video and photos, along with lyrics and journal entries, were turned into a colorful collage of art and featured on his website. The songs from Flying provide the soundtrack to take the listener beyond the album, allowing them a look into Davis’ world and giving the listener an entirely different perspective.

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The new record and your website come together as a wonderful combination of images and music. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind that?

People are buying physical releases less and less so you just have the songs and you kind of lose that visual that goes along with it. The website is almost like having an expanded album cover. Music can be more of a full experience, not just something you listen to. The idea is that you can have that visual component to the record and it makes it a little bit more multi-dimensional. The whole idea with the website and the road trip was to have another take on the album title which is, The Trouble with Flying. It relates to the song “The Trouble with Flying,” which is the story of a bird, and the point being you might be scared to fly, but you don’t succeed if you don’t try. But you can take that in a different way. For example, if you’re flying or traveling by plane, you’re missing all of these great things along the way. So we took that idea and incorporated it into the idea of the album and took this road trip and saw some things that I know I never had the chance to see in my life in America. So once we did that it kind of put the songs on the album into perspective. Going back to the album and listening to what I wrote, I realized there were a lot of themes that were about searching, travel, and experiencing things in the world, so it really fell together after the album was finished.

What cities did you enjoy most along the trip?

Austin was great. It’s a wonderful music town and the people there are really eager to talk to you and talk about music. To me, the interesting thing was that we stayed away from the typical sight-seeing things and it was more about meeting the people and experiencing the journey, instead of looking at that big building you’d typically see or that huge ball of twine. We tried to stay away from the traditional route that people take while driving across the country. We wanted to go places that not only I hadn’t seen but hopefully places that other people have not seen as well.

I’m very much envious right now. What kind of vehicle did you travel in?

One of those “rock ‘n’ roll” tour bus kind of things. We had a whole gang of people with us doing their thing.

Were you playing shows along the way?

Not playing shows but we’d play for people. You know, go out and find them and play for them. We wanted to do everything off the grid. So we were playing for people but also talking to them and getting their take on what “The Trouble with Flying” means to them - getting their perspective on the title. There’s a video portion of this trip that should be on the website soon and it’s footage of us talking to people and seeing what they have to say about their lives. And it was interesting - everyone seems to have different ideas behind the theme. Another thing is that I didn’t want the visual element to be so literal. The beauty of music is that you can interpret it in so many different ways, or you see a video and it changes how you feel about the song.

This idea sounds very “American” to me; having different perspectives on an aspect of a particular topic, and also combined with the road trip element, traveling across the country. In other words, the idea of America - what it means, what it meant growing up, and where it’s going. Did this ever come into your mind while creating this project?

It’s definitely possible. In times like these, when the whole world seems like it’s going crazy and everything is unstable and you don’t know what is happening anymore in the world, it seems that one would maybe long for “the old days” and driving across the country, etc. Fifty years ago that’s what families did. They’d take that road trip and drive across the country and that was a big part of their vacation and a big part of living in America. It was about seeing the world and discovering things and now everything is put right in front of you and you don’t have to do that so much anymore. Now you don’t have to travel there, you just go online and Google it. So in a sense it does bring you back to a time, whether it’s accurate or not, when things were safer and better and you have this sense of belonging and home.

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Before the actual recording of The Trouble with Flying, Davis began a conversational relationship with his music idol, Billy Squier. After meeting him at several events, Davis garnered the courage to pass along his demo. Fortunately for him, Squier liked it, and soon after the pair began working on the tracks that eventually became this newest release. Davis speaks fondly of Squier, but not in the way a child would speak about a loving parent, more like a friend would speak about someone they recently reconnected with. Their studio time turned into an adventure in experimentation, as Davis explains: “He was really open to trying different guitars. He brought this amazing guitar, but was into trying different recording stuff, and that’s really great because when you’ve done so many of these records and been in so many studios people can have their way to work, but he was really into trying different things, so it was a great experience overall - a perfect recording match.”

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How did that musical relationship with Billy Squier begin?

I’ll start with letting you know that Billy Squier is my all-time favorite artist. He was the first concert I went to. Fortunately, I’ve said this in interviews and in magazines long before I met Billy Squier [chuckles] so it’s not like, oh I worked with him so now I’m saying it. I was fortunate enough to do a series of events where I was in a situation to meet him and without being that annoying guy saying, “Here, take my CD.” I managed to get him my CD, the first album, and when I did meet him we got along well. After he listened to the album he sent me an email telling me how much he liked it and then we began talking about working on a project together. I said, if you’re interested I have a couple of songs here that might be good for you to sing on and play guitar, and fortunately for me he was interested. Actually, one song, “Tell Me,” that middle section where he sings, I actually wrote that part for him to sing, with him and his style in mind. It went well and then he told me he had some things he’d been working on too, so we’ll do some more stuff. So he was writing new songs and then we began recording his songs. So now we have three new Billy Squier songs recorded, and it was really a lot of fun. I can’t even express how cool it is to be able to record with a musical idol.

If someone were to ask me if I thought Squier’s voice would fit on top of your music, I would say, “No.” But then you listen to it and it does make sense. Was there ever a time when you said to yourself, “What if this doesn’t work?”

I knew it would work [laughs]. It’s funny because when I was recording “Tell Me,” like I said, I wrote that section specifically for Billy to sing, and I knew the rhythmic patterns he would use and I just knew what would sound good with his voice. But when he came in to sing it he didn’t see how he was going to fit in on “Tell Me.” He didn’t really get how he’d fit into my music but he kept singing it and by the end he was like, “Wow, this does sound good - I do get it.” And it ended up sounding really great. But he asked me “How do you want me to sing this?” and I’m like, “Sing it like you! Because I wrote it with you in mind and however you sing it it’s going to be perfect. You can’t sing it wrong!” He’s amazing - he sounds better than ever.

It has to be a wonderful feeling to hit record and realize that your childhood rock ‘n’ roll hero is actually laying down a solo in your studio.

It is! You can’t really top that.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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