GYPSY SOUL: DIY MUSICIANS ACHIEVING “GRACE AND TRANQUILITY”
By Paul Freeman
“We’re pretty hands-on artists,” says Cilette Swann, vocalist/lyricist for the inspiring duo Gypsy Soul. Her declaration is an understatement. Swann and musical partner Roman Morykit, composer/multi-instrumentalist/producer, put a massive amount of blood, sweat and tears into building a loyal audience.
Once people hear Gypsy Soul’s mesmerizing music - an exquisite blend of Americana, Celtic and other flavors - they want to hear more. It’s gaining the initial exposure that’s challenging.
The twosome comes by its nomadic spirit naturally. They’re children of first-generation immigrants. Swann’s parents, of South African/Irish background, settled in Canada. Morykit’s folks, Hungarian and Italian, moved to England. Now Swann and Morykit are first-generation immigrants, living in the U.S. - southern Oregon.
They met in Scotland, when Swann was in Europe, singing jazz. Their common love of Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois, U2, folk, Celtic and blues, drew them together.
They went to Canada, married and pursued musical dreams. A stint in Los Angeles proved difficult. Promised opportunities faded.
Swann says, “All of our friends were artists, photographers, actresses or musicians and everyone was heartbroken. Everyone we knew - a pretty damned talented bunch of people - had a lot of rejection and disappointment.”
Morykit adds, “Los Angeles is not a nurturing environment. That’s the kindest way to put it. You either crumble under it or it makes you stronger and it gives you more impetus to keep going. With us, it was the latter.”
An indie record deal in ‘97 led to AC airplay, quite a feat for unknown artists. But the label’s money ran out and that ride ended. Morykit had been through similar disillusionments in England.
“With a label, so much needs to align,” he says. “Everybody needs to be backing the band at the right time and pushing in the same direction. It’s amazing, frankly, that anybody ever does make it. We thought, ‘Do we want to go up against those odds or do we want to try to find a way to do this ourselves?’”
Swann says, “We realized no one is ever going to have our best interests at heart as much as we are.”
They didn’t aspire to fame and fortune. They simply wanted to be career musicians.
“The two - musicians and stars - aren’t always mutually exclusive,” Morykit points out. “But for us, it was always more important to be musicians, being true to what it is that we have to say and who we are, rather than being stars.”
The duo receives e-mails and letters describing how much the music means to listeners. Morykit says, “They’re connecting in a profound way and that’s the reason that we’re doing this.”
Morykit and Swann started their own label and arranged for distribution. To get their music heard, the couple turned to wine and art festivals. Finding the hour on main stages didn’t garner enough attention, they began renting booths. Spending 10 grueling hours alternating live mini-sets with CD play, resulted in tons of sales.
Technology provided new opportunities. Morykit says, “You’re able to get out there and do things on places like MySpace and Facebook to get exposure. Then there’s iTunes and Rhapsody for downloads. It involves a lot of work, but it is possible now. You have to just keep plugging away.”
Their rapidly growing fan base wanted to enjoy the full Gypsy Soul experience, so Morykit and Swann rented small theaters. A bountiful e-mail list helped pack each engagement. The couple also found interest from morning TV shows and newspapers. Everyone roots for talented underdogs.
Sold out houses spanning the western states have displayed their love for Gypsy Soul. Plans now include national and international touring.
Having songs played in films and on such TV shows as “Felicity,” “Roswell” and “The Young and the Restless” causes downloads to surge.
Listeners responded enthusiastically to tunes from the CD, “Beneath The Covers: A Rediscovery.” Featured are imaginative interpretations of such songs as “Wicked Game” and “Superstition.”
The aptly named “Wanderlust” album presented hauntingly lovely originals from the adventurous, perpetually traveling duo. It includes the uplifting “Be The Change,” based on Gandhi’s philosophy.
Through advance sales and fan contributions, Gypsy Soul has raised sufficient funds for record production and promotion campaigns.
Gypsy Soul’s 10th and latest album, “Grace and Tranquility,” elegantly achieves both of those elusive qualities, despite the fact that it was created in a period of emotional upheaval. Swann and Morykit created the CD as a companion piece to the book of the same name by author/lyricist/photographer Eric Alan.
Swann says, “Roman and I have been married 19 years, but we’ve gone through a separation for the last two, which is staggering, considering we’ve been best friends and we’ve been together, essentially 24/7 for all those years.
“And Eric and his girlfriend of 12 years broke up right before we made this record. So we all were going through this growth and deep self-reflection, still remaining as grateful as we all could, within our partnerships. It was fascinating.”
The changes in the Oregon-based duo’s relationship didn’t hinder Gypsy Soul’s conjuring of musical magic.
Morykit says, “We poured all our energies into the band and the creative process. So the music has never suffered.”
Swann adds, “The music is what we’ve protected most. and nurtured the most. We didn’t nurture our personal relationship as much as we did the music. Gypsy Soul is like our child in many ways.”
“Grace and Tranquility,” their beautiful new arrival, represents a rare collaboration with an outside artist. They had known Eric Alan for a decade. The time was finally right to combine all of their talents.
Bringing the project to fruition made the personal transitions easier, though they had to work through difficult feelings. Swann says, “It was deeply cathartic.”
Morykit says, “There are certain songs that were really raw for us to record, ‘Letting Wounds Go,’ ‘Walking Softly Beyond,’ ‘Hardest Good Days.’”
Alan provided Gypsy Soul with what he called “a pile of words.” Morykit says, “For me, it was fun to write to something that was pre-existing, rather than just looking at a blank canvas.”
Swann, herself an eloquent lyricist, gave shape to Alan’s themes, editing and fine-tuning. “It was as if these songs needed to come off the page and have life. Eric lived with so many of these themes for years. And we all had a resonance with these ideas.”
Morykit explains, “It was poetry before and Cilette was able to turn them into lyrics.
We all agreed to leave egos at the door and put ourselves in service to the songs, If changing a lyric or a chord sequence, no matter how much we liked it, would make the song better, then that’s what we did.
“In a lot of ways, this process was liberating,” he says. “Eric had ideas of the musical themes. Sometimes I would run with those ideas. Other times, I would tell him, ‘I don’t hear that at all.’ And I would come up with something completely different. But every time, it kept the essence of what he’d felt. For all of us, it was a matter of expressing what we felt.”
Morykit composed lush, intricately fashioned folk-rock. The songs work individually, but also weave together as a compelling entity.
“As a producer, “ says Morykit, “I didn’t want this to be a collection of singles - and that’s basically what iTunes has done to music, good and bad. Basically people listen to select songs. They don’t listen to albums anymore.
“I wanted it to be an album that you would listen to in the same way that you would listen to ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ When we were younger, that’s how you would listen to records. You would sit down and listen to the whole record. What did the artist actually mean when they were putting this together? There’s a reason certain songs follow certain songs. It moves through themes. And that’s what we tried to achieve with this record.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘Let’s make a bunch of singles and hope one of them hits on iTunes’ kind of thing. No, this was, ‘Let’s just make a full creative work in the way that an album used to be.’”
The uplifting results have just earned Gypsy Soul a Posi Music Award nomination. It’s a way for the New Thought Community to recognize works of positivity and spiritual relevance.
The duo’s music moves listeners. Swann says, “When you’re creating music, at the core, you’re creating it for yourself and you hope that people like it. When it’s so well received and people take it to their hearts, it’s remarkable. We get letters and e-mails - ‘We played your music at our family dinner’ or ‘We played your music on Christmas morning.’. People have taken us so into their private lives. It’s such an honor to be accepted in that way.”
“That’s where we’ve built relationships with people. It’s hard for us to call them ‘fans.’ It just sounds so temporary. These people come back year after year. We know what their kids are doing. ‘Johnny is a drum major now at university.’ Or ‘He plays guitar, because he saw Roman when he was five and we brought him to some art festival and you guys had an impact.’”
They’ve definitely made an impact... and did so with the courage of their creative convictions. Swann says, “We both have been quite uncompromising in the type of things we were willing to do. We’ve had managers. We’ve had record deals in the past. And they’re like, ‘Yeah, we love you, now we’re going to change you.’ And that was never okay for us.”
Morykit says, “This is our unique expression. And if it’s not for you, that’s okay. There are plenty of other things out there. But this is our take on music, all the experiences we have accumulated and how we express them. And that was never open to debate, in terms of, ‘You need to do stuff that’s poppier’ or ‘You need to do stuff that’s happier.’
“Our music is reflective and, if you’re not willing to go that deep, when you listen to it, it can be heavy for you. But, if you are willing to really take it in and let it enter your soul and open up your heart, so you can look at yourself and your life and other people and your place in the world, then this is the kind of music that you’re going to want to listen to.”
In terms of the changing industry’s effect on artist’s avenues of self-promotion, Gypsy Soul is always capable of adapting.
Morykit says, “The music business is deconstructing all around us. Oftentimes, you feel like you’re on a rolling log on a lake and you’ve got to keep moving or else you’re going to go under. That’s what it’s felt like for the last 10 years.”
Swann adds, “You build a skill set that enables you to navigate the industry as an independent, and, especially, in the last five years, it feels like everything we’ve learned, these hard-earned experiences and skills, they don’t seem to apply anymore. And we thought we were innovative, doing things quite differently as an independent band.
“It feels like that’s where our energies have to be, even more so than in the creation of the music. We have to be so innovative in how we market ourselves. And it takes a lot of energy to reinvent yourself every day in your marketing approach.”
She continues, “The creative part is like the vacation. We’ve worked 15 years as professional musicians. We were musicians before that, but we had other jobs. For the last 15 years, we’ve been able to solely make our living doing this. And I feel so incredibly blessed that we’ve had that opportunity.
“What is the industry going to look like a few years from now? We have to keep doing what we’re doing, but also, every day, find new angles and new ways to reach people, that every other band isn’t doing.”
Morykit ponders the effect of the social networks. “Facebook and MySpace are really good for young bands. But the jury is out for me, as far as how much difference it really does make. Does having a million friends on Facebook really translate into having a career? Does it mean anything in real terms? I don’t know. It’s difficult to say.”
However difficult the path may be, these two gifted artists will never turn their backs on music. Morykit says, “The reason we’ve been able to keep going is, this is what we feel we’re meant to do. If we wanted to make money, there are easier ways.”
Going the more challenging, do-it-yourself route, has helped Gypsy Soul create lasting bonds with their public, however. They now play large venues and, this past summer, they headlined opening night of the Oregon’s prestigious Britt Fest. But they continue to also play house concerts, because they love that intimate ambiance.
Swann says, “We weren’t ushered into the music industry with chaperones of labels, etc. For a lot of our careers, we played wine and art festivals And so we were playing on the street, 10 feet from people. And people were sociable, curious. They were fascinated that we could make our living doing what we loved. It inspired people to go, ‘I’ve always wanted to have that flower shop’ or quit their corporate gig or whatever. And take a chance. They began to look at their own dreams in a different way. It’s amazing that people let you into their lives enough that you might even spark changes.”
Gypsy Soul loves to give back. Their annual benefit concerts in Southern Oregon have raised enough money to provide 20,000 meals for those in need. The duo has also raised funds for WinterSpring, an organization helping the bereaved to heal. Of course, with their music, Gypsy Soul helps people heal, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Another of Swann’s dreams is nearing reality. Gypsy Soul is starting a non-profit, Voices Unheard.
“It was inspired by a trip I took to Thailand, where we worked with kids who’d been in abusive situations,” she explains. “We want the vehicle of the music to raise awareness and education and funds. In my opinion, the easiest way to reach people’s hearts is through music.”
The beautiful new album should enable Gypsy Soul to reach a wide audience. “We’ll see where it goes,” Swann says. “You kind of create these little babies and you give them wings and then you’re like, ‘Do your thing!’”
Shared tribulations have only fortified the bond between Morykit and Swann. “We experience the exact same rejections all the time,” she says. “But we also live the same incredible, wonderful events. It makes for a really rich relationship.”
Despite the success they’ve forged, rejection remains an ongoing challenge. “We comfort each other and we’ve learned, as we’re getting older, to be philosophical,” says Swann. “The right stuff is going to come when it’s supposed to come.
“My dad, who was an actor and a writer, had a lot of rejection. He used to say, ‘You’ve got to enjoy the journey.’ That constantly rings true to me.”
Discover the delights of Gypsy Soul at www.gypsysoul.com.