Folk-rocker Michael Ubaldini joins us at one of the homes of his Outlaws Of Folk music series, Sabor Y Cultura, to discuss his experiences with keeping his event long-standing, lending support to your local community, and the importance of passion in your life.
So we are here at Sabor Y Cultura, and you have been hosting a very successful coffeehouse folk series called Outlaws Of Folk for almost a decade, which is awesome and very impressive. What initially inspired you to start the series? What are your secrets for having success in such a long-standing event?
Michael Ubaldini: The inspiration to do it was kind of because when I was a little kid, I used to go to these acoustic singer-songwriter nights. It was pretty cool, because people there would come in to sing a full set and people would sit and really listen. Maybe they’d go outside to have a cigarette or to get some fresh air, and you know, some people would talk during it, but it was really more focused on the music. But I had noticed that those types of shows had started dwindling away, not just for if I was playing, but if I went to go see somebody play, you would see that people weren’t really paying that much attention. They were kind of more about themselves and their experience as opposed to taking the time to pay attention to the musicians who were pouring their hearts out. I was just thinking, ‘Man, it used to be so cool when I was a kid. I don’t know why it’s not like that anymore.’ And so I came up with the idea for Outlaws Of Folk while I was driving. I’m not the host type of person, I’m a songwriter, but I was determined to put this together. I got lots of people who play folk music, sort of like the outlaws from the other acoustic type of songwriter nights, and I just started booking different people as well as myself. I’d pick two or three other people, and we do a set and kind of make it more of a communal vibe bringing counties together from L.A., Long Beach, and Orange County. I started in a small coffeehouse, but then it seemed to kind of spring up, and people started wanting it in Long Beach and then L.A. I have no idea with the longevity, why it’s doing so good, but I think it has to do with the fact that there’s not as much pretentiousness and there’s not as much being like, ‘This is songwriter night. Here’s the clipboard for you to sign up’ kind of thing. Everybody gets respected, old and young, you know. So that’s why I did it.
Yeah! And like you were saying, there’s kind of a community aspect to the live music scene. I mean, the fact that you’re in three different hubs of L.A. with varying music scenes is awesome!
Michael: Yeah! It is kind of cool! There’s lots of places where you could be able to do this kind of thing. I really like having the series here in East Hollywood because there’s a lot going on down in this area. It might not have been like what I imagined in my mind, but I imagined like in the early sixties, Greenwich Village in New York kind of thing, like when Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and all these guys were playing. I grew up in the punk rock era, so there was that whole thing about individuality and doing it yourself before it actually became a DIY type of market. So I was really like, ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens.’
I mean, if you never try it out then you’ll never know how it’s going to end up.
Michael: Yeah, I mean, I could have crashed and burned, but like the old saying, ‘If it doesn’t work, at least we could say we tried.’
It’s better to have tried than to have the regrets of not trying.
And how has the Outlaws of Folk series changed you as a musician?
Michael: I’m basically the same, like, I just write my songs and sing. But one thing that’s changed me is I have more of an appreciation of all different generations of music. Let’s say, somebody is an older person, and maybe they don’t get to play anywhere anymore because they’re kind of ostracized. They now have a spot so that you can hear where they’re coming from and their stories. And the same for younger people coming up. So as a musician, it’s changed me in a sense that I’m inspired by it, whereas before, I would just go see people sing and be like, ‘Yeah, that person’s really good.’ When you feel like you’re all kind of involved together, you can feel yourself inspiring them too, so it’s kind of made me feel more appreciative as opposed to just being so rebellious all the time. *laughs*
And what would you say are some similarities and differences with running your own event as opposed to showing up at like an open mic night with your guitar and then getting on stage and performing?
Michael: Well, the difference is like, when you just show up and play, it’s pretty easy. You’ve got your stuff, you get up and play, and that’s all you’re focused on. But with this it’s different, because you’ve got to have everything a little more structured. The people are coming and they need to know what time they’re going to play and what they can bring, and I have to make sure they don’t go too crazy. It’s such a cool, laid back atmosphere, but at the same time, you don’t want people wheeling in like Marshall half stacks into a little coffeehouse. *laughs* It’s more responsibility for the overall event, so that’s different than just getting up there and playing.
It’s like, ‘I am not used to this kind of thing!’ *laughs*
Michael: I’m really not. *laughs* I can get up and sing and play in front of people no problem, but to actually be one of those host-type people is completely different. That’s a gift in itself for people to get up there and be like, ‘Hey, welcome to the show!’ so I just kind of keep it more like I’m talking to you, like, ‘Okay, so-and-so is gonna get up now and do their thing. Check them out. You’re going to dig it.’ Being a host, for me, it’s just a whole different medium in a way, but I’m getting better at it a little bit.
It’s definitely is an art form in an of itself, and very few people have that talent.
Michael: Yeah. I feel kind of insecure without the guitar up there. It’s like, I don’t want to introduce artists with my guitar on. *laughs*
‘What do I do with my hands?’ *laughs*
Michael: *laughs* Yeah, you’re fumbling with your hands and whatnot.
And how important do you think it is to support not only the local music scene, but local events and local businesses as an artist heavily involved with those aspects?
Michael: I think it’s important to support the local music scene because, especially now, it seems like everything’s very soul-less or something. It almost seems like there’s not a lot of places for people to play, unless you shell out a bunch of money and they give you tickets, and then you have to sell them and you’re responsible for how big your crowd is. The bands are responsible for the money they bring home from the show, and you know, most artists don’t have a lot of money when they’re starting off anyway.
Yeah. And it kind of defeats the purpose of playing a show to make money when it’s run that way.
Michael: Exactly. So I really think it’s important to support the artists and musicians and songwriters so that they can not worry about any of that. They’re not pressured by some promoter that doesn’t really want to do his job, they want you to promote and play. And of course, you’re going to promote yourself, but those places don’t want to do anything, so I think that kind of creates a lack of excitement around the scene. You’ve just got to support, you know? And then also it’s good for the local businesses, as you’re saying. Like for instance, this coffeeshop right here in East Hollywood here, it’s just a nice little little old vintage building with cool art on the wall by local artists, and I don’t think a lot of people would know it’s here. But by doing a night here, it brings the people around, and then they get to see other things that are around here, like, the little businesses.
Yeah. And there are so many different kinds of events, so it’s cool to see businesses that are now not doing just music. It’s really opening the door for many different art forms and growing the general artist community in a way.
Michael: Yeah. Like here, they have their poetry nights and then they have their free speech night, which is cool and kind of ironic because I have a song called “Free Speech Blues” on my new record, so it kind of fits right in. And with the local artists, it’s so cool to see and there’s some good stuff in there right now.
So you’ve played at many different venues here in L.A., the few that are still around. Have you noticed any differences in regards to audience support or how the show itself is run between the different areas that you’ve performed in?
Michael: Yeah, they seem like they’re different in different places. Sometimes I think that people don’t lose their inhibitions to have fun as much because they’re on the phone a lot. I mean, like, maybe that’s fun in their world there, but some places aren’t like that. I know when I was on tour in Austin or in Tennessee or some of these places, people are there and the audience and the musicians are kind of feeding off each other. There’s an excitement in the room that’s contagious, but a lot of times there’s certain places, let’s say in L.A. or even Orange County or wherever, where you get the people there and you’ve got to beat him into submission. It’s kind of like when there’s a dance floor and there’s nobody out there. If somebody dances first, then everybody goes out there, but no one wants to be the first to go out there. Some places it’s not like that, like these odd states and these little small towns in California. People are pretty loose at the folk things, like, the people that come are just as important as the musicians because they’re part of it, and without then, the show couldn’t really happen.
Without the fans, there would be no music.
Michael: Exactly! Nothing!
I mean, there probably would still be music in some way or form. *laughs*
Michael: *laughs* Yeah. You would just be playing to yourself, I guess.
And there’s nothing wrong with playing music to yourself. It’s therapeutic.
Michael: Yeah, for sure.
Do you feel like there’s some unpublicized competition within the local music scene at all?
Michael: You know, I never really thought about it too much, but I’m sure there is because it’s human nature a little bit. I think people want to help each other out, but a lot of times it depends on what your inner strength is or if you’re confident enough in yourself. You don’t really have to compete with anybody because you’re confident in what you’re doing so you can appreciate what other people are doing. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it because I don’t really come from that approach, but I think it does exist. I mean, you’ve probably gotten other musicians who may have told you that it happens. Sometimes you wonder, ‘How come I’m not on that bill?’ I mean, you could look like somebody that they didn’t like in high school or something, and so you’re paying the price for the booking agent’s tragic past. *laughs* So yeah, the competition’s out there, but I just don’t think about it too much.
Sometimes it’s best to not think about it too much.
Michael: *laughs* Yeah, sometimes I’m kind of oblivious. I just get in there and play.
It means you’re enjoying the journey without the stress.
So if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Michael: Do they have to be alive?
We can totally bring them back from the dead!
Michael: Well the hologram thing is already happening! You could go on tour with The Beatles! *laughs* I mean, I wouldn’t mind going on tour with the biggest band ever, like The [Rolling] Stones or somebody, just to experience it, you know? I’ve done shows with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam and The Cramps, so I wouldn’t mind going on tour with some of those groups. I don’t think The Cramps are really around anymore, but that would still be kind of a cool thing. If I had to go on tour with somebody that wasn’t here, maybe like Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan or something, because it lends itself to that style a bit. And what would I call it? Well, when I did my last two I named it after one of my records called Acoustic Rumble, and the L.A. Times picked it as their number one release of the year and like ‘10th Best Of The Decade.’ I don’t even know how they heard it, but it was one of the only indies on their list. This was a long time ago now, like a decade ago. And so I think I would call the tour ‘The Acoustic Rumble Tour,’ or if I was with my band, maybe it would be ‘The Happy To Be Alive Tour.’
Awesome! And going back to how the L.A. Times just magically found your album and how you were like the only indie that was on that specific list. How do you feel about modern journalism and review sites’ tactics for finding new artists?
Michael: That’s a good question. I think it’s good that there are people devoting online sites to things, but the one thing I don’t like about music journalists sometimes is, let’s say they were a musician and they became bitter because they didn’t get what they wanted, they make themselves the stars of their own article. There’s different ways to go about it. If somebody gives you legitimate criticism, that’s cool, whether positive or negative, but when they make personal attacks on people, I don’t like that. There’s one cliche a lot of them do where it’s like they’re writing from a bar or drinking, and they’re swearing between like it’s supposed to be rebellious to swear, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, while nipping at my Jack Daniel’s, my stomach started to turn…’ It’s like they’re almost trying too hard to be cool, and that just doesn’t seem honest to me, you know? But for the most part I think it’s good journalism if people really are music lovers and they look for the positive, even if they’re giving a critique, so that it would be able to help out the artists. Sometimes they don’t really know what it’s like to dedicate your life to something like music where otherwise would would just have a different job. But I do respect journalists, and I mean, I can’t complain when they’ve written some good stuff about me and things like that, but it’s always good if you get bad and good because, when you have an extreme of someone that just really hates you on one end, and then some people really being behind you on the other, then you know you’ve done a valid piece of art.
And it’s always better to have a strong feeling about something as opposed to being passive.
Michael: Yeah. And the thing is, some of the bigger publications are kind of owned by these record companies, if there are any record companies are even left, or the big conglomerates, so I don’t think they cover a lot of the bands that they could. Yeah, they still have the persona of being an ‘underground’ magazine, but they’re really not.
Yeah. They’ll only cover certain people or certain bands and such.
Michael: Exactly, or they’ll have some super famous on the cover. And I get it, they’ve got to sell the magazine, but then they try to give off like this, ‘Yeah, we’re in the underground independent scene.We’re at the crux of what’s happening now.’
But we all know they’re really not.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. It’s good that it’s there and that anything can inspire you.
So social media tends to be the most preferred or easiest form of marketing nowadays, do you feel that it’s made it easier or harder for independent artists to kind of make a name for themselves?
Michael: I think it’s helped a lot because, for instance, just doing this Outlaws Of Folk series, I would have never been able to get the counties together without it. Through social media, people will friends you, and then you start to follow some of their stuff, and then you say, ‘Oh, maybe this person would like to play up in North Hollywood or San Diego or wherever.’ So it helps in that way because it connects people. But then the downside is that there’s so much stuff out there that to heard through all the noise is difficult. Like anything else, I think it’s got its positives and negatives, and I do think it’s good that it happened because where would you be without it? Like, these small businesses and things, people wouldn’t even know they existed.
I know right? It’s insane how important it’s become for us smaller businesses and artists.
Michael: Yeah, and it’s because of social media I found you. If social media wasn’t around, I wouldn’t have had bumped into you online to even know about you.
Right! And do you feel, as an artist, that social media adds on a pressure for you to constantly have something going on or even reveal aspects of themselves to their audience that they normally wouldn’t have?
Michael: Yeah, I think it might put some pressure on some people. I think if you get too addicted to it then you might think you need to be on it all the time, or like, post a picture every day or their food or whatever it is, just to stay relevant. It’s like that old saying, ‘Everything’s great in moderation.’ I think it’s better if you’re not on there all the time because you’ll make people want to listen to you. You’ve got to be heard, but at the same time, if you use it too much it could be overkill. It’s tough. I actually wrote a song about it called “Jeanie Lee’s Phone,” and it’s about this girl who’s addicted to her smartphone, and this guy who’s in love with her is trying to get her attention but she’s always on her phone.
I mean, It’s very relevant, especially nowadays.
Michael: It’s funny because this one political site wanted to play it, and two of the writers were arguing over it. One was like, ‘Well, how is this political?’ and the other guy goes, ‘Well, it’s obviously political in a different way. Not with politics, but, in the general social commentary.’ So I was just sitting there watching these guys argue about my song.
You sparked a conversation with a relatively simple and relatable topic that we see in everyday life.
Michael: *laughs* Yeah. It was like I was reading about somebody else.
So you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Michael: I’ve had some tough times, like, if you’re in a relationship or something, it can be tough because you go on the road and stuff like that. Basically, my personal life and my music life is pretty much one and the same, because if I’m not playing, I’m writing songs or poetry or something like that. But to balance it, I don’t know, that’s a good question too. I never really thought about it, you know? I just kind of do what I do and then hopefully everybody is happy in the end.
And as long as you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Michael: Yeah. If I were to get overwhelmed I just wouldn’t do it. *both laugh* But you’ve gotta do something, right? Man, I’ve had some big run ins with life and death. When I was a kid I was born with about heart valve, and I was playing on stage not long ago, maybe a couple years ago, and I collapsed on stage. I was dead, and two of my friends were there and they were doing CPR on me right on stage. They saved my life, but I was technically gone. I saw an interview you did with a girl who was in a car accident, and she’s right, you look at things in a totally different way after something like that. I thought I just passed out and was thinking, ‘Oh, I just passed out in front of all these people. It’s embarrassing.’ So yeah, I just appreciate things more because of that. The personal and the professional, so to speak, is just all part of this great experiment called life.
Life is too short to not do the things you want to do.
Michael: Yeah, completely.
And if you could give your younger self, or even yourself right now, some advice as to what you’ve experienced so far with music or with life in general, what advice would you give him?
Michael: If I was giving advice to my younger self, the first thing I would do is say to settle down. *laughs* I would also say to be a little more alert about trusting a lot of people, because I came from this sort of thought that when somebody said something and they shook your hand, that that was their word. But then you realize as you go on, that that’s not really their word, and they break that in a heartbeat so you get left out in the cold sometimes. People used to try to steal your music or whatever, and still try to do it even now. So I would say be more alert, and maybe don’t be so wild. *laughs* I was very wild back in the day, so ‘don’t be so wild because you’re can ruin everything you’ve worked on.’ It’s not rebellious to get into a fight or something, it’s really not good at all. So yeah, I would tell that guy to settle down, keep writing your songs, and stay focused. And the advice I would take advice from him for me now, there’s some things that I’d like to tap back into, like, don’t ever get complacent, and always be open to new stuff, new experiences, new music, you know, and don’t shut off or worry about what people would think. I’ve pretty much kept that guy with me, but I pull him out when I need him. *laughs*
And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Michael: I hope the audience takes away a few things from the music that I do. 1: I hope it inspires them to form their own groups or do their own music like the way I was inspired by The Clash and Johnny Thunders. The way music is set up right now is that things are always changing, so you just have to roll with that. But I do think there are somethings that are not inspirational about some of the stuff out there, like a lot of the talent shows that we have. It’s just not the same feeling, you know? I remember watching some clips of the early [The] Clash when I was a kid, and I was like, ‘I’m going to start a band!’ And now, I’ve had kids come up to me and say, ‘You know man, I’m going to do this!’ And it’s so cool to see that because they were kind of not sure if they should do it, so inspiring somebody to do something is one thing I want people to take away. And then the other one would be to look at things differently. I like to hold a mirror up to society and not lie give in to basic motivations. I don’t buy into any of that. I like to go, ‘Wait a minute. Let me look at the whole chessboard and see if I want to move.’ I’m more about believing that people should be together. Not everybody is going to think alike. Everybody’s always talking about putting labels on everything, and I think if people step back and take a look then they could see how differences make everybody similar. If they could take that away from some of the lyrics and the poetry, that would be awesome.
Absolutely! And to end us off, apart from continuing with the Outlaws of Folk music series, what other big exciting things should we be expecting from you?
Michael: I’m recording another record right now, another folk one, and it’s basically the companion piece to the one I just put out, The Song Of Our Time. I did a vinyl for a song called “Ballad of Brian Jones,” and it’s a story about the guy that formed The Rolling Stones that drowned in a swimming pool. A lot of people don’t know who he is, but he was really crucial to rock n’ roll and especially in England, but other than that I’m just carrying on from there. I’m recording this new album, and even though it’s acoustic, I consider it as twenty-first century. It’s like painting on an old canvas, but putting your own thing on the canvas. And so, this record is kind of like the companion piece to this last one, because I just have so many songs coming that I just want to get them out there. So those are my plans. I also want to get back out on the road and do that kind of thing, and to get more and more acts for the Outlaws Of Folk music series so I can just keep turning people on to all these different artists and local artists.
About Sabor Y Cultura:
Hollywood’s Sabor Y Cultura has a clear goal of wanting to bring together as many people as possible with the power of coffee, waffles, arts, and events. It’s really no wonder that Michael enjoys hosting his Outlaws Of Folk series here with its quirky color scheme, spacious floor plan, eye-catching artwork from local artists, and of course, a lovely staff that strives to make sure any patron is comfortable and having a great experience. Apart from the sheer kindness from shop owner Tyler to allow us to film Michael’s interview there, I was graced with a food and drink menu that had me torn on what exactly I wanted to order, in a good way. In the end, I just could not say ‘no’ to the sweet, fresh baked smell of waffles, and opted for a #foodporn worthy strawberry banana Belgian waffle and a dream-y sweet cloud coffee with Irish cream. Whether you’re stopping in to indulge yourself with a scrumptious (and giant!) homemade Belgian waffle with a side of caffeinated perkiness, or you’re sitting in the crowd waiting to discover your new favorite poet, musician, comedian, etc. at one of the many events hosted (check their delightful chalkboard list of events), Sabor Y Cultura is a wonderful spot for visitors from all walks of life to pop in.