Erik Balkey

Negotiations & Compromise

The singer/songwriter is one of the great constants in American music. From the days when settlers brought folk tunes with them across a young nation and the rise of new genres of music and electric instrumentation in the last century, all of the fads, styles and trends lead back to a single musician, often armed with a guitar, sharing a message and a sound with an audience. Even the high-tech age, studio technology and the Internet, has not prevented numerous men and women from setting forth with their music and a story to tell, looking to find their own way across the world.

Philadelphia-based Erik Balkey is the consummate singer/songwriter of the 21st century. He has built his career using the time-tested methods of bringing his music to listeners around the country, while embracing the modern advances presented to such artists. In addition to his live shows and debut album, "Negotiations & Compromise", Balkey actively expands his role as a performer; participating in putting together shows and seminars, as well as writing about his travels, to continue to foster the knowledge of his craft, and share it with a greater community of his peers.

In 1993, Balkey sought his first acoustic guitar while in college seeking his degree in mechanical engineering. Despite an analytical background, he was drawn to songwriting and was soon performing on stage. Over the next several years, and after graduating from Penn State, he became a regular part of the Red Bank, Philadelphia and New City music scenes.

In early 2000, he began writing his "Songwriters Tour Guide", an engaging, literate and informative diary of the life of a performing musician. Unlike many journals, Balkey presents both the emotional stories about life on the road, as well as a practical information he learns; where gigs are available and how to get them, recording and producing a CD, how to get songs on the radio, even dealing with car break-downs and keeping a schedule. The STG is essential reading for anyone looking to follow Balkey's path, and a wonderful insight for fans who want to discover how difficult it can be to make it to that stool and microphone in the corner of your local coffee house.

Last year, Balkey made a final break into becoming a full-time, touring and performing musician. He quit his last day job, as a site engineer at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The timing coincides with the release of his debut CD, which he has crossed the country to promote.

And the music? It summaries Balkey well; literate, engaging, entertaining and a little road-weary. The songs are complex enough to remain interesting after repeated listenings, yet are approachable and familiar

All of these qualities presented themselves in Chorus and Verse's interview with Balkey and, hopefully, will remain a staple of a long and successful career.

Let's start with your latest album "Negotiations & Compromise". How faithful is the recording to capturing your live performance? The CD booklet lists a number of guest musicians, a luxury you obviously don't have during a solo performance. When you do go into the studio, are you looking to recreate your typical show or do you see the creation of an album as a separate endeavor from playing live?

Different albums can have different aims. I used the opportunity in the studio to add some things to my songs like cello, harmonies, violin, and a whole bunch of other things. But, I feel like the strength of what I do is, and has to be, the 'song.' So, if I accomplished my goal, the production [is] a nice touch, but not overwhelming. That would make it not too far from my live performance. I am in the process of collecting live recordings of my performances and have a new album in the works that will capture the songs live. Nothing like the energy shared between performer and audience.

The album features nine original songs. How were these songs chosen for the album? Were the tracks to be included on the disc chosen before starting to record, or did you record an excess of material and make those decisions afterwards? Do you prefer a complex production process, with lots of post-production, or do you prefer a more organic, "one-take" style?

I recorded a few more than the nine songs that made the album. A couple songs didn't make the album. I didn't think we captured what I really felt like was a good take of a couple tunes, so I'm going to put them in the pool of songs for my next recording project.

I prefer one-take. Studio performances can become stale, especially if you are recording one song over a long session. Now, that being said, I don't always get it in one-take. That is something I am really working on - nailing the songs live with guitar and voice simultaneously - that is, not 'tracked'. I've been working backward with my recording projects from produced to under-produced, and from 'tracked' and with a 'click' track to 'live.' I'll feel quite accomplished when I can record entirely live and solo and produce a compelling album like that.

How important is the lay-out of the tracks on the CD, the order in which they are listed? Is each track a singular statement, or is there a flow to the entire record that you were looking for?

In general, there is no 'theme' to the order. I just try to keep a variety from song to song and make it compelling enough to keep a listener's attention for the entire album. There is one short set of tunes that is somewhat sequential and follows a theme. If you listen to the album, listen to tracks 4-6 with that in mind.

In addition to the original material on the CD, you've included three cover tracks; an instrumental version of "Amazing Grace", Bob Dylan's "Dark Eyes" and a somewhat different take on John Lennon's "Imagine". Are these songs staples of your live set, and what drew you to them as a songwriter? Does your timing on "Imagine" simply indicate a different style in your playing, or is there an alternate statement you're trying to make from Lennon's original intent?

I simply select covers of songs that I love AND songs that I can play well and make some sort of 'contribution' by recording them. By 'contribution' I mean that I would find it difficult to justify recording someone's material in an identical manner. If I can add some interpretation through the feel or the production, then I consider it. To be honest, I don't have a long set of 'cover' music. I had a handful of tunes to consider during this project, and just picked the ones that I felt like I could do justice with.

As for the 'Imagine' cover. Honestly, I wouldn't normally have considered that song. But, the timing with world events, along with the fact that my take on the song was a little different, made it an obvious choice. It is such a familiar song, but becomes fresh when it hits the listener's ears differently. And, unfortunately, the sentiment is pertinent and likely always will be.

"Honest" and "real" are oft-quoted and common complements to singer/songwriters. Have these words become too clich´┐Ż to be meaningful anymore, or are there elements that you hear in the music of certain performers that you feel still stands out as deserving recognition for these traits?

Certainly the singer-songwriter wave is strong. As a result, some great music is being created. I find inspiration in what my peers accomplish. And, for the most part, I am drawn to those traits - honest and real. To really accomplish that is quite an achievement. And, it is how I challenge myself all the time with my writing and my performances. I believe people want to connect with the performer. At least, I try to find an audience that is seeking that kind of connection. To do that requires authenticity. I'd say you are correct probably that these terms may be used too loosely and perhaps too often. But, those traits are what I aspire to, and they are what I admire in other artists. Art, in my mind, is about communication. And being genuine and honest is a part of that.

Talk a little bit about your "Summer Night Songcircle" shows. What is the concept behind these events and were you pleased with the outcome of the shows this past summer? Are there any initial plans for next year's shows that you can share at this point?

The goal was to showcase some great songwriters. It was a Philadelphia-based show and four performers shared the stage at the Tin Angel and the Point, the two premier venues in the area. I was pleased to be given the opportunity to perform at these venues with some of my favorite local performers - Andy & Denise, Jeff Twardzik, Antje Duvekot and Eliot Bronson.

The shows went off really well, and we plan to do some other similar shows soon.

One of the notable parts of your web site is your "Songwriters Tour Guide", where you describe in detail your experience as a musician on the road for the past few years. Can you describe the genesis of the Tour Guide, and some of the reasons you feel the need to share these experiences with others?

Well, the STG is basically a journal of my experiences written with the aim to provide real information to my peers, performing songwriters. I enjoy talking about what I do, and feel that the best information any of us gather is from each other, so I just make all my information available to anyone interested. I am pleased that the Songwriters Tour Guide is now a feature column at

Have other musicians, especially those who are just starting out, contacted you about the Tour Guide and, if so, what have their reactions been? The music business has something of a cut-throat reputation. Is that feeling somewhat different along the singer/songwriter circuit?

Many songwriters really react well to the idea of the Songwriters Tour Guide and I believe that the sense of community and willingness to share is infectious. I am proud to be an example of that spirit. As for competition, I don't believe in it as 'cut throat' or negative. Nobody is holding me back from creating the best songs that I possibly can. In fact, I find 'inspiration' from my peers rather than 'competition.' I am inspired by the possibilities of what we can create. And, while I don't write the STG with any real personal agenda in mind, I do believe that good things come back to me from it. The best support I receive in my artistic and career endeavors is from my peers.

Any stories that you've told in the Tour Guide that stand out as particularly notable? Has the experience of being a professional musician been different from what you expected when you first made the decision to pursue it? Are there any particular surprises that you've encountered?

I have notable stories daily. Honestly, I love what I do. I can't tell you that I don't have doubts daily about what I am doing, but I have to pinch myself sometimes. I have sacrificed some major things, like a 'home' and money, but I love what I do.

As for surprises, I don't know, really. I understood that it would be a lot of work, and that is was decision that I made for other than conventional and practical reasons. I guess that one thing that pleasantly has developed is a sense of confidence and less of a need to impress folks as a means for furthering my career. I don't really pursue the 'career' stuff so diligently as one would expect. I am more about creating a sustainable lifestyle. By that I mean that I want to find 'balance' in routine that allows me to continue doing what I am doing. Among those things is to improve and foster my art - that of performing and writing. And, among the things that make this possible is picking up small painting jobs along the way. I don't stress myself out with goals like 'making a living at music.' I like to control things that I can, like getting better at what I do every year, and let the rest fall in place as it will.

Your Tour Guide spends a great deal of time discussing the financial and logistical aspects of being a touring musician; from the costs of CDs and other promotional material, to travel, lodging and food expenses, to the basics of getting paid or not paid to do a gig. Do too many musicians ignore this part of the business or neglect the financial side of music, and does that explain why there are so many stories of artists being taken advantage of by club owners, record labels and others on the business side of the equation?

Hmmm ... all good questions. I think that many artists ignore some things. Among them is, most significantly, what they are trying to achieve. Setting and understanding your goals is very important. Ignoring the business side is fine, and can be more fulfilling, for performers who do this as a hobby and have no need for concern about the 'bottom line.'

For others, a more educated approach is recommended. I have an analytical background and I am comfortable with 'numbers.' So, I am not intimidated so much with the accounting and business-planning side of things. This doesn't come so naturally for everyone. In the Songwriters Tour Guide, I try to make others aware of some issues and make it easy to understand.

As for being taken advantage of by labels or venues, I don't experience that part of the business so much. And, yes, you are likely correct that lack of information and education causes such unfortunate situations. Understanding your business is essential. And while 'artists' may find this daunting and even uninteresting, you'll find that the most accomplished artists know their business.

Can you sum up your best piece of advice for someone thinking of a full-time career as a singer/songwriter?

Set your goals. Make a plan to achieve your goals. Do it! Do it! Do it! Get educated by talking to others and understanding your business. And, don't be afraid to modify your goals based on your education and experience. Using what you learn is the key to any endeavor.

You've taken the experiences discussed in the Tour Guide and put together a "Songwriters Tour Guide Seminar", where the essential information is presented in an interactive discussion format. Who is the seminar tailored for, and how did you made the decision to develop and begin presenting the seminar?

It is tailored to the audience at the time. The seminar is interactive and is aimed to address issues relevant to those participating. It is meant for those aspiring to start or develop a career as a performing songwriter. It developed as an idea to use my expertise in a productive manner.

During the seminars, have the songwriters you've talked to given you any insights that perhaps you hadn't considered previously? Do you consider yourself a grizzled veteran of the scene, or do you find yourself still learning on a regular basis?

I'm learning all the time. I am a veteran of the scene in my particular field, but I learn all the time. One must.

What do you feel are some of the most common mistakes that songwriters make, when they start performing or decide to pursue it full-time?

Lack of goal setting. And, perhaps unrealistic financial expectations. Practical and conventional thought would indicate that something you do with the majority of your energy and waking hours should be compensated like other conventional pursuits. The effort of writing and performing music is not lucrative for 99.99% of those attempting to do this. That is not to say that other music endeavors in conjunction with being a performing songwriter cannot make it possible. Common endeavors that can accomplish this include teaching lessons, performing cover music at weddings, and doing engineering/producing work in a home studio. In my case, I support what I do with painting, and presenting seminars when I can.

Let's discuss performing live a little bit. What have been some of your favorite rooms to play? What are the qualities that make for a good venue?

I love the Postcrypt Coffeehouse in New York City. It is small, intimate and there is no sound system. I like a listening audience and a quiet performing space. I love doing house concerts for all of these reasons. I could list dozens of venues and still forget some but, obviously, it is a rush to play the big and reputable venues like the Tin Angel and the Point in the Philadelphia area. Community-run 'coffeehouses' in churches or other non-commercial buildings tend to be really nice. This includes the DeCafe in Moorestown, NJ and the 333 Coffeehouse in Annapolis. I have a weekly series that I do in Voorhees, NJ where I have a good thing going with a nice stage and sound system, and different guest songwriters each week in this coffee shop.

What are some of your goals moving forward? Have you started to give any thought to a follow-up album, or an expansion of the areas in which you tour?

In some ways I am eager to record again. I have some growth in my music that I'd love to get recorded. I do need more material at this point, however. And, as I approach this in a practical business way, I don't feel a need to record a new album too soon, because I need to justify it financially. I do have a bottom line, and sinking money into recording projects will not help to sustain me in the long run. I am quite proud of my recording released in January, and will continue to promote that project for a while.

As for expanding the areas for touring, I play all over the country and am planning a Scotland tour. Again, the novelty of doing this is not the justification for touring. I need to be very practical about traveling to places that can be of benefit for me, if not with big financial reward, then with a good opportunity to further my career.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.