published Friday, April 8th, 2011

Q&A with guitarist Jon Adams and cellist Jenn Adams

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with guitarist Jon Adams and cellist Jenn Adams of chamber rock duo Montana Skies about how they’re received by rock and classical purists and what is important to them, musically.

CP: What are your individual music origins?

Jon: I started when I was about 12 years old or so. I just became interested in the guitar. My dad had guitars around the house, so that made it accessible. My next-door neighbor played guitar. He was a couple years older than me. He played in a finger picking style. That got me started with guitar, and from there, I took lessons with various teachers and eventually went through my rock phase and got into classical a little bit later.

CP: What kind of finger picking?

Jon: He played The Beatles. I remember that “Blackbird” was one of the original tunes I learned. It was definitely a folk style.

CP: What about you, Jen?

Jen: I started in public school. I was lucky enough that my public school had a great string and orchestra program. We had a general assembly in sixth grade with all the music teachers demonstrating the instruments. They said, “If you like one of these, come and sign up after school.” So I signed up after school.

My parents supported me, (but) it was my own thing. Many kids are forced to play an instrument, but because it was something I was interested in, it was exciting to me. My mom used to let me practice cello instead of washing dishes. That probably helped, too. (Laughs.)

CP: Your band configuration and approach is pretty unusual. Who do you see as Montana Sky's primary influences?

Jen: We have a lot of influences and continue to be inspired by new performers we discover. They may not be new to the world, but they're new to us.

When we started to find our own voice, I was inspired by people who didn't play cello, but string musicians like Jean-Luc Ponty, who plays jazz violin. He was really inspiring to me.

As a group, we were inspired by musicians like Pat Metheney, who plays a lot of different kinds of music in his shows and on his albums with different instruments, but it has a unique, Pat Metheny sound. That's something we strive for in our music, where we can express ourselves in different styles of music but which has a unique sound people can describe as “Montana Skies.”

Another group we listened to like that and who we went to all their shows when they were out performing was Nickel Creek. They inspired us because they were almost telepathic on stage. They were just so in synch, and it was really special.

Jon: I agree that we've been inspired by so many different people. Recently, as a guitar player, I've been inspired by Tommy Emmanuel, who is a great finger style player. We really like the energy that Rodrigo y Gabriela bring to the stage.

CP: What are the benefits and detractions of performing with such an exotic pairing of instruments?

Jon: I think the benefits are that it is unusual. If people haven't heard us before and come to the show, it's a little bit shocking, maybe, that we're able to create the amount of sound that we do with two instruments.

The disadvantage is that we're unusual. (Laughs.) It's really hard to explain what we do before people come to the show. It's the kind of thing where people have to experience it. You can't explain it easily in two or three sentences.

Unusual is both the benefit and the disadvantage.

Jen: That covers it. One of the advantages of two instruments is that tightness I like about Nickel Creek. It becomes more like one instrument on stage. That's a benefit to two instruments, as opposed to a larger ensemble.

Also, because it's two people and we create so much more sound, that's an advantage, too because you catch people off guard. It's more exciting because it's different.

CP: Was that tightness there from day one or has it grown with time?

Jen: I think it's something that grows over time. Playing music with someone is a lot like a relationship. You have to trust each other and have to genuinely like and respect each other in a relationship, and it's the same thing in music. Having that trust in each other, makes it easier, even in the beginning. It grows over time, definitely.

CP: When you started out, your bio says you were faced with a situation where, because you were pairing classical guitar and cello, you didn't have a “ready made repertoire.” Was that situation intimidating? Creatively freeing?

Jon: I think the immediate reaction was that we were a little bit intimidated by it, because we realized there was no music. It was very quick after that that we really took the ball and ran with it. I myself really like composing and arranging music. It's fun to really have no rules or boundaries you have to stay within or music that you have to stick to.

Because we were studying classical music in college, we thought we'd go out and read sheet music, as we were being trained to do. That quickly changed.

Jen: I definitely like it now. It felt like molasses in the beginning because we had no experience arranging or composing our own music. I felt like, “It's not like add water and have an insta-group.” That means it was quality because we had to really examine what mattered to us, musically. We're still finding that.

Music is an expression of who we are right now. It's a glimpse into what we're feeling at this time and what we want to express. It changes over time.

There are songs we started with our first album in 2002 that we're not performing now. I still love them, and when I listen to the CD, it's almost like a different person. It's like remembering something. Back then, it was just a slow start that was new for me, but I'm glad it happened that way.

CP: Over the last nine years, what have you determined is important to you, musically?

Jon: Now, we bring a lot more energy than we used to. We really have incorporated a lot of elements in the last few years that allow us to rock out more, from Jen's six-string electric cello to a stomp pedal I use that gives us a bass drum sound and percussive effects. I like electrical guitar distortion on the classical guitar, which is not something that's normally done on the classical guitar. (Laughs.)

Jen: Artistically, what I've realized over the years of performing is the sincerity that you feel about what you're playing is picked up on by your audience and your fans. The fact that I've never been more excited about what I have to share with people than now is really a new frontier.

I finally feel like I have found what I want to say in the group Montana Skies. Part of it is to rock people's faces off. It sounds funny because it's a cello and a guitar, but that's part of why I'm so excited by it.

To influence people's perspective and have someone say, “Wow, that was the most exciting concert I've ever been to,” is really meaningful to me. Everything I play comes from a really sincere place inside that I'm excited to share with people. That matters. I'm not putting on a façade.

CP: Your sets consist of both covers and original songs. What was the first cover you arranged for Montana Skies?

Jon: I think it was probably “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles. It's a wonderful tune, and it's actually pretty simple in its chord structure. We've taken it and turned it into a theme of variations with different key changes, and we improvise more on it in a live concert. You can't really go wrong with The Beatles. Their melodic and chord structures are so deep and rich. You can do a lot with that music.

CP: Was it surprising that it fit your configuration so well?

Jon: I don't know if I was surprised. I think it does work well because The Beatles' melodies are so strong. Sometimes, we'll try to do another piece that's actually a pop tune that centers on vocals, and you find that it doesn't work that well, instrumentally. But “Eleanor Rigby” worked out pretty well, I think.

CP: Jen didn't do any co-writing on your first album, but she started to contribute to the compositions of your second. Has that trend continued? Do you write together more now?

Jon: We definitely do. I don't think Jen wrote any on the first album, but she started writing more on “Chasing the Sun.” On the third album, she wrote even more. We've actually got quite a few we're working on now that we'd like to record soon.

That's definitely grown more and more with the group. That has changed our music, too, because in those early days, when it was just me writing, I was able to write for the cello, to a certain extent, but I found that when I handed an idea for a melody over to Jen, she can expound on that and do things that I couldn't have imagined because she obviously knows her instrument so much better.

Jen: The co-writing, for me, has grown because I've become more confident in my own playing and finding out what matters to me, musically. It's something you can't hold back if you want to express yourself.

We have so many ideas that don't become songs, but we're constantly tossing around ideas. Composing together creates an even more special thing because it's both artists saying together, instead of just one.

Jon's compositions on our first album are really special and have been in some really great placements, like on Travel Channel and PBS and different programs. I'm proud of those compositions, and we perform a lot of them today, but getting to be more virtuosic on my cello and becoming more of a performer has influenced me wanting to co-write so the cello arts are more improv and jazz and virtuosic.

I enjoy co-writing, but I also really admire what Jon did with his compositions, too.

CP: What is the ratio of covers to originals in your shows now?

Jen: I think it's about half and half right now. It depends on the show and what our moods are. We definitely perform a good amount of covers in concert. Our originals we perform are usually interspersed.

CP: Given that your instruments are more commonly associated with classical music, have you faced an uphill battle being accepted by pop and rock music venues?

Jen: Yes. (Laughs.) That's the short answer. We used to approach some venues and never get a return call.

Luckily, when you get one person to say “Wow, I really like that and want to try that,” within the industry and among the different venues, people start to notice that “Hey, this group is getting out there and doing things.” Your tour calendar starts to get bulked up with these types of festivals and rock venues. It builds on itself. Word of mouth is a big thing.

We performed in Chattanooga at Riverbend and got to open for The Avett Brothers. I think that a venue like Rhythm & Brews gets to, “Oh, this group must be different than what I thought they were.” Then, they check you out and are willing to present you because they understand you're not somber and boring and you won't be reading music; you'll be jumping around and playing Charlie Daniels and music that might be even more exciting and rocking than the other stuff they have there.

CP: What was your first experience playing in front of a non-classical crowd like?

Jen: I found it exhilarating because I realized there were no rules other than “I want to connect with you, and we're going to have an experience together.” I feel like, at venues like that, everyone is there to have a great time, and that is my meaning as a performer, to orchestra everyone having a great time.

Realizing that on stage for the first time was similar to realizing that we could compose whatever we wanted to; it was very freeing. You realized that you could jump around and do different things and cuss on stage. That was different than in a recital hall or a community concert where there are more rules and people are more contained.

I do remember that I had a lot of fear before going on because when you play at a venue like that, you're often sharing a bill when you first start. Somebody might have an awesome drum player and what do you have? You just have a cello and guitar, and you think, “Oh my god, we're going to get booed off the stage.”

What was encouraging was that, when we'd go on and play things like “Eleanor Rigby,” people would cheer us on and stomp their feet and cheer us on, so we realized that, “There is a place for us here in the music scene where real people are going to come out and enjoy this.” That was exciting, but I can still find myself getting nervous, though. (Laughs.)

CP: On the flip side, has your more energetic approach to classical music closed the door to performing in more traditional classical venues and festivals or are you still welcome there?

Jon: Yeah, definitely. I think that the concert presenters that might be classical are looking for something that's outside the box and different. We fit that bill for them, nicely. I think there are still some who are classical snobs and aren't ready for that, but that's OK, too.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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