Arun O’Connor’s music is definitely not ‘Too Far Gone’

With the release of his infectious, rockin’ new single “Too Far Gone” and his upcoming debut album Songs from the Reading Room, Arun O’Connor offers a powerhouse showcase for “Kiwi Country” and a primer on just how vibrant, soulful and kickass country music is in his native New Zealand.

On a more personal level, the multi-talented singer-songwriter–who’s been on the scene in the country’s Southland (southernmost) region for 15 years (or about half his life), he’s continuing a dynamic family legacy that includes his dad, Southland Rock n Roll Hall of Famer Dave O’Connor and three older brothers who played drums.

In addition to leading the popular cover band Small Feet for the past 11 years, O’Connor has built a stellar reputation as a session and touring musician and musical director for internationally renowned New Zealand country greats Jody Direen, Kayla Mahon, The Heartleys and more. O’Connor is also a three time nominee for Southland Entertainer of the Year (winning the award in 2020) as well as winning the 2018 Southland Musician of the Year Award.

The singer’s recent success as a solo artist – and discovery of his latent songwriting talents – happened serendipitously as a result of his sweeping triumph at the 2018 Gold Guitar Awards, where he won the Senior Overall Award as well as the Open Vocal Group, Senior Male Vocal, Senior NZ Song and New Country Category award. The prize package for winning for Senior Male Vocal for his rendition of Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” was, as he says, “more of a career starter than a cash prize, a new guitar and kudos.” He earned the opportunity to record a single in Nashville with Jay Tooke, former drummer of the country band The Steel Woods, who has become one of the most sought after producers in Music City for indie artists. There was only one glitch that might possibly impede a productive two week first time visit to America and some great sessions with some prominent Nashville cats – O’Connor, for all of his years of accolades and gigs as a performer, had never written an original song. Drawing on a lifetime of experiences and keen observation of the lives of family and friends, he took to the craft naturally, emerging with the killer country-blues and vocal harmony laden ballad “Following the Line.” In addition to over 132,000 Spotify streams, the track hit #2 on the NZ iTunes Country charts, #3 on the NZ iTunes Overall chart and #11 on the official NZ music NZ Hot New Singles chart.

The singer scaled even greater heights with his follow-up single, the rollicking, original “Let Go of My Heart,” whose instrumental tracks were recorded in Nashville while O’Connor tracked his vocals and guitar back home. The song went to #1 on the NZ iTunes Country charts and #3 on the NZ iTunes Overall charts. O’Connor wrote a whopping 16 new songs from October 2020 to March 2021 to lay the foundation for his Tooke-produced, Nashville and New Zealand recorded (due to COVID travel restrictions) full length debut album Songs from the Reading Room. The collection’s title is a riff on a private joke stemming from a kid in his grade school class who was dragged from class to the “reading room” next door to be reprimanded. Though he assesses much of his personal and observational songwriting as laid back and somewhat dark and melancholy in nature, his choice for lead single, “Too Far Gone” is one of those classy styled songs featuring happy up-tempo music contrasted with poignant, hard-hitting lyrics.

“I wrote this song with Nashville songwriters, Ryan Sorestad, Brittany Knott & Taylor Nash over a zoom call during lockdown here in NZ. The song was then recorded in Pentavarit Studios Nashville using members from bands such as Eric Church, Brothers Osbourne, Colbie Caillat, and Randy Houser. I recorded my parts in Auckland’s well-known Roundhead Studio, owned by Crowded House’s Neil Finn. It is being promoted by Ue3 Promotions in LA, Grass Roots Promotion in Nashville & Suzie Says in NZ,” explains O’Connor.

“Too Far Gone” is a song about the mistakes we make in life, all the bad choices that lead us down the roads we don’t want to go down. It is a song that will hopefully make us question our own intentions and reevaluate what is most important in our lives. Maybe we deserve that second chance. Maybe we can change and be the person we had always set out to be. “Too Far Gone” speaks of a seemingly never-ending cycle of mistakes and regrets but with a stubbornness of not wholeheartedly wanting to change.”

Growing up in the small city of Invercargill at the southern tip of New Zealand’s south island, O’Connor’s musical sensibilities were shaped not only by his dad and brothers, but also by the American country music his parents played – Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, etc. Fascinated by the musicianship of The Eagles when he watched their classic “Hell Freezes Over” performance, he was inspired to be the one kid in the family who, instead of drums, chose guitar, which he began playing at age 11. By 15, he was playing weekend pub dates, weddings and corporate functions. While pursuing his musical endeavors, he worked a few day jobs ( wool room laborer, mechanic’s apprentice) but the combination of his skills and diversity (bass, electric and acoustic guitar, singing) quickly led to a full time career, both leading bands and working as a sideman for others, most prominently Jody Direen, who opened for Kenny Rogers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, LeAnn Rimes and American Idol winner Scotty McCreery in NZ and played at CMC Rocks, Australia’s largest country music festival.

“After so many years making a living playing with other artists and singing cover songs, it’s definitely been a challenge to perform my own material for people,” O’Connor says. “It’s honestly something I never expected to do, and I am so grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, not only with streams and chart success, but from fans who come to see my shows. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to share my new-found passion for songwriting with everyone.”

We think that O’Connor may well be the next big international country star. Check out his Spotify page for more great tunes.

Leo Sawikin allows the music to roll away the layers of his life

As the former lead singer of the NYC indie band The Chordaes, Leo Sawikin brought their songs to life. But only now on his debut solo project does he allow the music to strip away the layers of his own life and show the world what an awesome life it is.

Sawikin is an old soul, one who would have thrived in the prime of the Tin Pan Alley days—tirelessly composing beautiful ballads in rooms with open windows for the music publishers whose offices lined West 28th Street in New York City. Although the city still swells with the sounds of ghosts past, the music landscape has drastically changed. Now more than ever, Sawikin finds himself longing for the days that were.   

For the past decade, Leo has steadily evolved his sound, spending hours both in the studio and in writing rooms, culminating in Row Me Away—his upcoming fourth album, but the first to be released under his own name. The new record was produced by Grammy-winning producer Marc Swersky and mixed by Tony Black and Seth Von Paulus.

Prior to the pandemic, Sawikin recorded a string of anthems that seem to foreshadow life as we experienced it over the last year. Questioning whether the dystopian future we’ve all been fearing had arrived, the songs chronicle the vastly changing world, a society teetering on the edge, and the transformative power of hindsight. “It’s about letting go of the past to carve out a new future,” says Sawikin.

Like many artists, Sawikin uses his music and songwriting as his primary way to connect with the world. Since very young, he was described as having Non-Verbal Learning Disability. But because it has not yet been included in the DSM and presents in various ways, it is often overlooked and misunderstood. In Sawikin’s case, it affected his ability to receive and interpret non-verbal forms of communication. “I have always had trouble paying attention to people’s non-verbal signals. I understand them as well as anyone, but my thoughts are very scattered so I often miss them.” By the age of 5, he was getting into trouble at school. This was eventually tamed by medications, but they had a numbing effect on his mood and ability to connect with peers.  At age 9, he picked up a guitar and by 12 he was immersed in workshops and music camps, where he found that songcraft came naturally. It’s proven to be his greatest strength and has become the catalyst for living his life off medication. 

“Music has always been my secret weapon to combat this. It brings me to a place outside of all of my problems, and the dream I have is that when other people listen to it they will be brought to that same place. In that space we all share, none of our differences matter and understanding one another is as effortless as the sound of the music traveling through the air. My goal in life is to bring as many people to that place as possible.”

We were fortunate to feature his music video in our Monday Mashup column back in August. Now that we have had the chance to review the entire album, we stand by our original thoughts: “If the voice behind our first music video of the week sounds familiar, that’s because he was formerly the lead singer for The Chordaes. His name is Leo Sawikin, and his song is entitled “Row me Away.” We adore his voice and wish him well in his solo career. We think it will be incredibly successful.”

Each song on the album is strongly and beautifully constructed, with lyrics that reach down and directly connect the hearts of the listener to the creator. These tunes are enduring and should be heard over and over again until the words sink in. All ten tunes are memorable, but we think that the title track, “A Whole World Waiting,” All Just a Drop,” “You Love Too Much,” and “Tell me There’s an Answer” contain the message that is at the heart of the album – you are not worthless, but of immense worth, so don’t give up until you bring that light within out where the world can see it.

With the release of Row Me Away Sawikin hopes to bring comfort and consolation to listeners as we all witness the unfolding of a new world. We think he has truly succeeded in his quest.

Lavendine ‘Opens Up a Window’ into their heart and presents it ‘Here to You’

There is something beautiful about artists whose insight into the human condition allows them to create – some might say, divinely channel – works that perfectly meet the moment in time when we most need their inspiration. Though Oklahoma-based twin sisters and multi-talented singer/songwriters Jacy and Jana Ayers – collectively known as indie pop/rock duo Lavendine – wrote new alt-pop single “Here To You” from a personal empowering experience of breakthrough after a deeply challenging and traumatic time, the infectious, vocal harmony-driven track offers up exactly the hope and optimistic spirit we all need moving forward through and past this anxiety-ridden pandemic era.

We first introduced you to this amazing duo back in September of 2020, and they have only gotten better. They have the most perfect harmonies and their lyrics truly touch the heart in a way that is unheard of in today’s pop music.

Lifting their dreamy, soulful vocals over a jangling guitar vibe and mid-tempo pop/rock groove, Jana and Jacy share what it’s like to open up to the proverbial light after too long in the darkness: “Opened up a window in this heart of mine to see what’s going on outside/I never dreamed I would be so surprised.” 

The chorus, which we will no doubt be singing along with for awhile, is the perfect fusion of the duo’s heartfelt personal emotions and a universal call to unshackle the chains of malaise and realize that life can not only be good again, but maybe even better than before. They sing: “It’s time to tell the new day, it’s good to finally see you/It’s time to tell the heartache, you’re not mine, go away/It’s to find the reasons to smile. . .see the good that’s been around me/Don’t you see the change in me…”    

“Here To You” follows Lavendine’s impressive success with several singles from their debut album Feel My Way. Their signature song “Rapture” hit both the Mediabase AC Top 25 and BDS/Billboard AC Top 25 and #1 on the Mediabase AC Independent Artist-Song Rankings. The track had 250,000 feature insertions on Adult Pop radio digital streams in multiple major markets across the U.S. Before that, their single “Maybe I Might” hit the Top 30 on the Mediabase AC and BDS/Billboard AC charts, and “You Can’t Change My Mind” reached #36 on the Mediabase AC chart. The national buzz around these tunes also led Lavendine to be featured in the Artist Spotlight on the Jim Brickman national radio show.   

As women of deep faith, Jana and Jacy’s lives are inspirational testaments to the power of never giving up on life, love and musical dreams no matter the trials thrown at us. Jana and Jacy wrote “Open Up A Window” to claim a hopeful victory over a traumatic series of extreme health setbacks that might have derailed most people. Not long after releasing Feel My Way, both were deathly ill from the after-effects of root canals, later explained to them as a possible allergic reaction to the metal instruments used. Both felt heavy flu-like symptoms for several years. Attempts at implants were rejected. At one point, the infection got so bad that they went to Baylor University Medical Center to get both jaw joints replaced. 

These issues were on top of previous medical problems Jana and Jacy had experienced as they were working as an esthetician (Jana) and hairstylist (Jacy) while working diligently on developing their artistry and overcoming the many obstacles involved in pursuing an indie music career. Having led worship at church for years and being part of ensembles that won prestigious state competitions in middle and high school, they trekked to Nashville in their late teens to pursue their passion – but found that most producers and executives were more concerned with the marketing and creation of the duo rather than allowing them to pursue their own vision. 

When Jana began having debilitating migraines, she saw specialists, had test after test done to no avail, until one day when she went to her vocal doctor for a problem with her throat. It wasn’t until he looked in her ear that it was discovered she was experiencing the effects of trauma to her eardrum from back when she was just eleven years old, diving off a high dive. The incident had caused a tumor to grow over time backwards towards her brainstem and she was rushed into emergency surgery. Since then, she has struggled with managing her chronic nerve pain and as well as surprising everyone in the music industry that hears her sing with the fact that she has 80% hearing loss in one ear.

Meanwhile, Jacy spent ten years in and out of emergency rooms due to her own medical troubles, as well as recovering from ten different surgeries, ranging from kidney stones to gall bladder problems. Especially difficult during this time was having an ectopic pregnancy and the emotional recovery that followed.

Jana and Jacy speak like a tag team, complementing each other’s thoughts as they reflect on their intense journey of overcoming obstacles and share the resulting forward-thinking mindset that drives the music and lyrics of Lavendine. “A year and a half ago,” Jana says, “when we were coming out of all this and doubting our path forward in music, our husbands and mom told us, ‘You can’t not do music anymore. Many people in our lives were encouraging us, and deep down, we knew it was what we were called to do. No matter how relentless it felt like there were forces opposing us with one nightmarish situation after another, we wanted our positive messages to get out there. 

Jacy adds, “Particularly with ‘Open Up a Window’, there’s an underlying message of hope in our music and we want to give listeners the sense that things may look bleak, but they will get better. Bishop T.D. Jakes has talked about the trap of getting caught up in the hateful middle of a difficult circumstance and not seeing that God can open us up to the end so that we can step into the promise. We don’t always hear people talking about the hope part of it. But Jana and I have kept moving forward and those underlying themes of perseverance come out in our writing.” 

Jana continues, “Looking outside the window of your pain helps us see that we might be our own problem, and when we stay positive through all of our struggles with doubt and negativity, God will open us up to change. You can open up to that little glimmer and give yourself one more chance to believe in something good. You can crack that part of your heart open and give yourself a chance to believe in the possibilities of love and dreams again.”  

Because of their deep cultural and spiritual roots in church, it would seem that Lavendine’s natural genre in the industry would be in Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). But every time they pursued that route, the doors closed emphatically while others in the secular music world seemed to open. While Jana and Jacy were happily surprised at the mainstream success of a faith-based song like “Rapture,” that seems to be a manifestation of their belief that they were given these outlets for a reason. Rather than preach to the choir, they can share their uplifting mesages with those who need to hear them more – and bring the gospel spirit to recording sessions helmed by secular producers and engineers in their midst. 

The creation of “Open Up a Window” offers evidence that the song, as Jacy says, is “God-kissed.” She, Jana and Jacy’s guitarist husband Daniel, one of their co-writers, were in the studio one night just hanging out. Daniel felt prompted to go over to the keyboard in the room, and while he was “dilly-dallying” on it, he started playing a melody. Daniel is not a keyboardist and had never done anything like that. But as he captured that riff, Jacy suddenly said, “open up the window’ and they wrote the first verse in less than ten minutes. After the song was written, every time they asked Daniel to play it on the keys, he said he was unable to replicate what happened in that beautiful moment of inspiration.

“There are so many details Jana and I have struggled with on other songs we have written,” Jacy says. “But on this one, it was as fi we were vessels and God said, ‘Move over, I’m writing this one.’ Just like the title says, it’s opened us up to a new season of creativity and we’re excited about the new songs we’re working on that we plan to release soon. We don’t know the future, but we’re grateful and humbled to be back making music.”   We have a feeling they will be around for quite a long time.

Get it or forget it – KG Music Press

Having a great PR firm is critical for indie artists, since they don’t have the power of a label behind them to promote their material. One of the better PR firms that we have worked with is Kim Grant’s KG Music Press. This edition of Get it or Forget it will highlight four of her recent clients’ releases.

compliments of Pleasant Valley Ranch

Artist NameWest of Texas

Album NameHeartache, Hangovers and Honky Tonks

Label:  Pleasant Valley Ranch

Genre: Country/Folk

Track Listing:  1. My Whiskey Life; 2. Foolin’; 3. The Cost of Lovin’ You; 4. Darlin’ How You’ve Changed; 5. This Fool; 6. Whatcha Drinkin’ (explicit); 7. Dead End Job Blues 8. Bayou Boy; 9. Cheatin’ Drinkin’ Hurtin’ Song; 10. Fixin’ to Love You; 11. Sign of a Broken Heart; 12. If You Were in my Shoes; 13. You’re Still the One I Dream Of; 14. 12 Steps to Drinkin’; 15. Sound of my Heart Breakin’; 16. Whatcha Drinkin’ (radio edit)

Publicist: KG Music Press

Review:  In a world where “country music” is more rock than country comes a breath of fresh air. West of Texas provides a more traditional approach to country music that is pure Texas in its sound, incorporating more blues, folk and swing into the mix. This is the music you want to hear in a dance hall as you two-step, waltz and swing around the floor. What makes it even more interesting is the story behind the album, which began more than 10 years ago as a 3-song EP. Lead singer and songwriter Jerry Zinn developed health problems and was unable to sing from 2010 until 2019. Just as he was getting ready to return to the studio to complete the album, the world got shut down because of the Coronavirus. Fortunately, the final product was worth the wait, and allowed Zinn to work with some of the best players in the Southern California country and Americana scenes. We can hardly wait to hear what comes next.

Recommendation: If you love country dancing or just want to hear some good music with your beer, then this one is perfect for you. Go get it.

courtesy of Belltown Records

Artist NameHilary Scott

Album NameKaleidoscope

Label:  Belltown Records

Genre:  Alternative/Country

Track Listing:  1. Just a Shame; 2. Almost Home 3. Too Much is not Enough; 4. And Just; 5. Free Country

Publicist:  KG Music Press

Review:  It’s been a few years since we last reviewed Hilary Scott, and her latest EP was worth the wait. Her musical sound has developed since then and is so much more than typical modern country, with a more alternative pop-rock sound. It truly showcases the eclectic musical taste of a seasoned artist, and is one of the best we’ve reviewed in quite a while. All five songs are different and we think the best is yet to come. We recently featured “Just a Shame” in our Monday Mashup column, but every one of these tunes could potentially be highlighted. We are truly looking forward to seeing which direction she takes in the future, and believe she will continue to be a shining light on the indie music scene. The EP closes with “Free Country,” which belongs on Top 40 radio.

Recommendation:  Rush out and get this one.

courtesy of Young and Sick

Artist NameBen Reddell Band

Album NameLA Baby!

Label:  Self-released

Genre:  Roots/country

Track Listing:  1. My Baby; 2. Cocaine; 3. Tumbleweed; 4. Love her & you need her; 5. 12 bar blues; 6. Good Thing

Publicist:  KG Music Press

Review:  If you’ve spent any time around the LA roots scene, you’ve undoubtedly seen Ben Reddell. He is the promoter of the weekly The Grand Ole Echo indie-roots music show and general manager of Bedrock LA Studios. He is also the unofficial “Mayor.” His last album was released in 2012. However, with the shutdown of the live music scene, Reddell found himself with a lot of time on his hands, so he turned his knowledge of the scene and his contacts within the scene into a fun, no-holds-barred album that will make you want to listen again and again. We really love the zydeco feel of “Love her & you need her” and “Good Thing” and the Jimmy Buffett influence of “12 bar blues.” This is an album that will definitely stand the test of time, and we already want to see it performed live. Please don’t make us wait another nine years for the next one.

Recommendation: , Definitely worth whatever it costs to add this one to your collection. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

courtesy of Justin Largent

Artist Name Tylor & the Train Robbers

Album NameNon-Typical Find

Label:  Self-released

Track Listing:  1. Equation of Life; 2. This Town; 3. Worth the Wait; 4. Jenny Lynn; 5. Non-Typical Find; 6. Lemonade 7. Something Better; 8. Staring Down the North; 9. These Eyes; 10. Back the Other Half; 11. Silver Line

Publicist:  KG Music Press

Genre Roots/Country

Review:  This is our first exposure to the music of Tylor & the Train Robbers, and we guarantee it won’t be the last. They have a classic country sound that reminds us of such hitmakers as Sawyer Brown and Confederate Railroad. Lead singer Tylor Ketchum‘s vocals are reminiscent of a cross between another famous Ketchum (“Hal“) and Bob Dylan. The band is composed of Ketchum, his brothers Jason and Tommy Bushman, his father-in-law, Johnny “Shoes” Pisano, and his wife Jennifer. Other musicians who contributed included Bernie Reilly, Cody Braun and Brian Davies. Nashville needs to stand up and take notice of this band, as we believe they have what it takes for lasting success. The songs are designed to get you on on the dance floor, and the lyrics are memorable and fun.

Recommendation:  This one is a definitely Get. Don’t waste time if you love great classic roots country.