Friday, September 19, 2014

CIW Q&A: Wolf Gang's Max McElligott

The inspiration for Wolf Gang’s Max McElligott’s first album Suego Faults came, quite literally, from a dream. But now the British singer reports he’s become more grounded, and he’s brought that sound to his sophomore album. In advance of his show at Subterranean on September 19—co-headlined with Sir Sly and featuring opening band Secret Someones—we talked to McElligot about the reaction to his more mature sound and who he sees next.
Max McElligot (second from the right) is bringing sounds of reality to his latest album.
You quit college to pursue music. What led you to that decision?
I just sort of realized in my last year of studying at university that all my life that the one passion I had was music. The one thing that I could work endlessly toward without feeling like it was hard work at all was music…. I was 21, young. I just thought I’d take a leap of faith. I dropped out... Luckily, I was able to secure a record deal quite soon afterward. So, that’s how it all came about.

How does your newest album differ from Suego Faults?
The first one was very ethereal, very dream-like, quite youthful and romantic. Everything down to the way it sounded, like the production and everything… The second record is a lot more down-to-earth. The recording of it is slightly rawer, a bit more organic sounding.

Lyrically, it’s a bit more real. James [Wood, the bassist], who is the primary songwriter, has written some amazing songs. They’re about more real-life experiences rather than dream ones. It’s a bit more of a mature record. I mean, I think there’s still a lot of Wolf Gang stuck in there. It’s still me singing and the arrangements are still quite ambitious sounding soundscapes, and people who enjoy the first record will like in the second. It’s just a step forward really.

What types of reactions are getting from people to some of these newer songs? How do people respond to the real-life songs?
Some of them are really quite emotional. Some people are not too well and ill, and they talk about how music got them through a bad patch, or they may be unwell still and not going to get better. I’ve had that a couple of times, and I’ve never really had that before. It’s really tough at first to even get your head around about how someone might be in that position. It makes you think a lot. It’s very touching.

You kind of forget…. When you write songs—many songs I may have written eight years ago in my bedroom—when you write that, then you kind of forget that the song takes on its own life and can affect people in different ways, many years after you’ve written it and long after you’ve thought about it. That’s an amazing experience, I think. Every time we come to America there’s funny stories, things that happen, people that you meet. Very touching things that happen as well, like people coming and telling me something that’s personal to them or what music might mean to them.

We always ask: What are you listening to right now? What band or musician do you think is the next big thing?
To be honest, I think Secret Someones are just absolutely incredible. I’ve fallen in love with that band, watch[ing] their performance every night. They have a song called “Let You Go”, which I have no doubt will make the radio sometime soon and having a huge impact. It’s just the most amazing kind of Fleetwood Mac type—I mean, to me, it’s Fleetwood Mac anyway. An amazing love song, real 80s filter. There’s just so much character to that band. I’ve been really enjoying getting to know their songs.

How has the tour been more generally? Have you gotten to do any sightseeing in the states?
We’re so lucky—we get to wake up in the city and get a whole day of getting to wander around and see stuff. I’ve been trying to make the most of that. I went to Philadelphia the other day, which is absolutely incredible, and took a walk downtown. It’s nice to have a little time to soak up the vibe of the city.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

CIW Q&A: Sir Sly's Landon Jacobs

Released this month, Sir Sly’s debut album You Haunt Me puts the LA–based band’s signature sound—winkingly referred to by members Landon Jacobs, Jason Suwito and Hayden Coplen as “sly-fi”—on full display. A breakout year for the trio, the band toured earlier in 2014 with The 1975 (“the best thing that’s ever happened to us”, according to Jacobs), and are currently co-headlining a multi-city tour with Wolf Gang. The band's biggest hit to date, “Gold”, was picked up for a Cadillac commercial, a move that has gained the band a lot of exposure but is, as Jacobs admits, “ironic” for a song whose theme is commercialization. You can catch Sir Sly yourself in Chicago September 19 at Subterranean.

LA-based Sir Sly (from left: Hayden Coplen, Landon Jacobs and Jason Suwito) will bring "sly-fi" to Chicago September 19 at the Subterranean. 
We talked to frontman and vocalist Landon Jacobs about Sir Sly’s breakout success, their start at their local church and where they see themselves going next.

Let’s start at the beginning. What’s Sir Sly’s origin story?
I grew up playing music at church, and that’s how I met Hayden—he played drums at the church. I sang and played the guitar. We played music together outside of church as well. That’s how I met Jason was recording at his studio. Jason and I started Sir Sly together when Hayden was doing finals at USC one week.

What was that transition like—going from playing church gigs to forming a band?  Was it seamless?
It definitely took a long time. I’ve been writing songs since I was 14. I started out just me and an acoustic guitar playing coffee shops and stuff, writing stuff on piano, recording tons of stuff on tape recorders, filling up journals full of lyrics.

It took years to kind of figure out that I wanted to push the boundaries creatively a little bit more and record electronic stuff. That was one of the most important parts of meeting Jason and writing with him—the ability to do that so quickly. Going from playing a church to what we’re doing now, I think it was a period of really intense questioning in my life. So, this whole record is vaguely about that transition and the relationships surrounding it and all the experiences that have happened in the past two years.

What are the experiences you delve into in your album?
It deals a little bit with changing beliefs and dealing with death of family members and relationships, like growing up with family members with addiction. [It’s] sorting through the mess of life.

Given that you started songwriting at 14, is that what writing music always was for you—a way to “sort through the mess of life”?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve never been a big journaler, writing about day-to-day events or memories. For me, it’s always been about songwriting and sorting through the emotional aspects of the situations that I’m in.

What do you envision for Sir Sly in the future?
There’s places I want to play, and there’s places I want to record. I’d love to play a show on every continent by the time I die.

Even Antarctica?
No, not Antarctica. Unless the scientists down there are really into Sir Sly, I don’t see that as really being a distinct possibility.

With your new album, you may end up with fans in Antarctica!
Who knows? Why not? Why not go and film a music video there or something?

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Meet the Lab Host: Rooted Self Expression Center

Meet the Lab Host gives you an inside look at the innovative, creative, forward-thinking Chicago organizations hosting CIW 2014 Labs.  To learn more about 2014 programming, consult our online schedule

Get some fitness for your soul with Rooted Self Expression Center on Saturday, October 18 from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m.

Shruti Sekhri founded Rooted Self Expression Center in August, 2014 with the goal of providing a place for self-exploration and discovery—or, as Sekhri puts it, “fitness for the soul”.  Funded in part through a Kickstarter campaign, the Center puts its focus on creative activities, including art, acting and improv, voice, movement and writing, that allow for self expression regardless of skill level. Sekhri guides us through what creative activities to expect at the Center’s upcoming Lab.

Rooted Self Expression Center's walls become canvases for self expression for

In three sentences or fewer, what is your organization's manifesto or mission?
At Rooted, we believe that the deepest purpose of life is to have genuine connection; however, this connection can only come when we allow ourselves to be seen.  So, our mission is simple: We want to provide a safe and judgment-free place where people can freely access and express themselves in a way that deepens their connection to themselves and others.

Why Chicago?  Tell us why this idea or organization is based in Chicago, how you think the city has supported the project and how you think the project contributes to our city. 
Chicago is full of culture and openness, both of which provide a perfect platform for Rooted. It is also “the City of Big Shoulders” with a real attachment to responsibility, and we feel Chicagoans need Rooted for release and self-care. There has been encouragement and appreciation for Rooted every step of the way from artists and corporate leaders alike.

Give us a sneak peek of what we should expect at your Lab.  What hands-on, interactive activities do you have planned for participants?  (But don’t tell us everything—keep some of your Lab a surprise!)  
You should be prepared to have a one-of-kind experience!  For starters, you’ll get to write all over Rooted’s walls. There will be prompts and questions on the walls for you to respond to, and the experience will help you get accustomed to self-expression before the “workshop” portion of the Lab starts. 

Then, you’ll choose from two self-expression workshops customized for CIW:  1) introspective: an array of activities incorporating visual art, creative writing and expressive writing or 2) interactive: a mix of voice and movement activities along with expressive writing.  In either case, you'll be given the tools necessary to complete the activity—there is no experience or skill required.

We want to be in the know!  Name one person, place or thing that you think is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets—a secret until now, of course.  
I attended Sunday Dinner Club when a couple of really talented chefs opened up their homes for an invitation only, paid dinner with BYOB.  The invitations were forwarded amongst friends and brought together 20 to 25 strangers who connected over the amazing food and the privilege to be in that personal space together. Though they have since moved into a non-residential location, the laid-back, home-like atmosphere remains. 

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Local Look: Rags of Honor's Mark Doyle

You can see Rags of Honor Founder Mark Doyle in the CIW Conversation Veterans: Life after Service. And learn how to screen print yourself at the Rags of Honorhosted Lab Screen Printing for Good.

Rags of Honor is a silk-screen operation whose t-shirt logo, as Founder Mark Doyle once told The Chicago Tribune, "pretty much sums it up": "They had our backs. Let's keep the shirt on theirs." The nonprofit, now a year and a half old, employs homeless veterans, providing screen printing training and jobs. And it's wholly the brainchild of Doyle, who started it from his car after returning from a year on an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan. There, he "watched billions spent building that country, while our veterans were living under bridges, in their cars and in shelters." Now, Rags of Honor is providing jobs to many of those veterans from its West Side location and with clients who range from Walgreens to Rutgers University to individuals across the city of Chicago, Doyle is optimistic that Rags of Honor will continue to grow in impact. We talked to Doyle about Rags of Honor's mission and how the organization has been able to tap into Chicago's rich "community spirit".

Mark Doyle provides homeless U.S. veterans employment
through the screen-printing organization he founded, Rags of Honor.
Why did you choose Chicago?
Chicago is my home. I have worked at the White House and on two presidential campaigns, lived in Arkansas, Delaware and even Afghanistan, but this place is like no other place, and I always wanted to be back here. This city has embraced our mission whole heartedly. Every time we hire one homeless veteran he or she becomes a more complete person again and that makes that individual more engaged with family and community.

If you could go back in time before you started this project and share one piece of advice with yourself, what would you tell yourself?
I would probably tell myself to be prepared for a slow build. I'd tell myself to ramp up in a more gradual way.

What are your next steps?
This project is in its infancy. My goal is to be the largest employer of homeless veterans in America. To do that, I need to keep adding customers, building an infrastructure, defining the verticals I want to grow into, developing a sales and marketing strategy and establishing a retail presence to take this nationwide.

We want to be in the know!  Name one person, place or thing that you think is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets—a secret until now, of course.
The best-kept secret of Chicago is the depth of character and amazing will of Chicagoans to help those in need. To a person, everyone who has come in contact with us has always asked the same question: What can I do to help? Chicago is truly a place where the community spirit is not just present, it is thriving.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Monday, September 8, 2014

CIW Q&A: Redmoon Theater's Jim Lasko

Go behind the scenes at The Great Chicago Fire Festival in an interactive CIW Lab on September 10.  Learn more and purchase tickets here.

Redmoon Theater’s Jim Lasko is a civic-minded artist with a central goal in mind: to put Chicago’s strengths, resiliency and unique culture on display. Central to that goal is the upcoming Great Chicago Fire Festival, which will culminate October 4 with a fire display on the Chicago River and which celebrates “Chicago’s epic resurgence and strength after the Great Fire of 1871”. We talked to Lasko about his creative vision for The Great Chicago Fire Festival, Redmoon Theater and our city as a whole.

Redmoon Theater's Jim Lasko. Photo credit: Sandro Miller.
You have been at Redmoon Theater for 23 years, starting as a Co-Artistic Director for the theater. How has your artistic vision for the theater changed over time?
I will admit that that has changed over time for sure. Originally, we had a very exciting visual style that was primarily based in puppetry and pageantry, and over the years it’s become a much more mechanized and device-centered aesthetic that’s more civically engaged.

Today, Redmoon Theater focuses on events that engage the public and are held in open spaces. What is it like to put on an event in a public space rather than in a theater?
The form we were excited about, the form we were working in had a real populist sensibility and that made it possible to take that form and put it into public space and move it out of the theater and into the real world as it were. [This is a much more] challenging space because theater is designed for the maker to have total control over the elements: the lights, the sound, which way the eye moves on the stage, all of that stuff is designed with the theater space. If you’re in public space, none of those controls are there. You don’t know where people are going to be seated. You don’t know what other sonic elements are going to be involved. You don’t get to control the light or even the weather. We had to adapt and change the aesthetics to get there, but I think we have developed a unique and exciting form as a result of trying to meet those challenges.

Certainly, if we’re talking Redmoon events in public spaces—and the challenges inherent in those types of productions—we have to mention The Great Chicago Fire Festival.
That is by far the biggest and most exciting collaboration we’ve ever engaged in. We’re dealing not only with those challenges that you [mention], but we’ve collaborated with 38 different community-based organizations and probably 7 different governmental agencies and [at least] 3 federal agencies. The amount of collaboration and communication and consensus building has been enormous. Those are challenges but there also incredible opportunities. You don’t get to perform on the Chicago River without having met those challenges, and that’s what makes it such an exciting project really.

Why do you think it’s important to put on a large-scale event like the Great Chicago Fire Festival? What are you trying to convey to the public with the event?
We have an amazing city. There’s a disproportionate amount of attention given to the very important but sensational stories of corruption and violent crime and homicide. I’m not saying that those don’t need to be covered, but they don’t need to be the only stories told. There are other stories that need to be told about the brilliant artists that live in the city and the everyday people who heroically go to work everyday and meet the challenges of their lives and overcome those challenges and celebrate one another. I think this is a celebration of Chicago: It’s a celebration of its artistry. It’s a celebration of its citizenry. It’s a celebration of our grit and resilience. I think that is a really vital and important story to be told and to be felt by the city and ultimately it needs to be part of who we are.

In 2009, you became the city of Chicago’s first Artist-in-Residence. How did that position influence the development of the Great Chicago Fire Festival?
That was a really exciting opportunity that was really in some ways ultimately the seed of the Great Chicago Fire Festival…. I had worked with the previous Commissioner of Public Affairs, Lois Weisberg, and we were trying to think really about what a unique spectacle celebrating Chicago might look like, as an adjunct to the Olympic bid. [We were] trying to think about: How do we want to show our city to the nation and the world when the Olympics come? That was really the job and in many ways the seeds that were sown during that time with the Artist in Residency became the Great Chicago Fire Festival that we’ll be seeing in October.

What was your primary focus in your work and research during the residency?
I spent a lot of time really thinking about the challenge of how to celebrate Chicago.  I thought a lot about the different mappings and ways that Chicago could be seen—not only by neighborhood, but by fire district, by poverty zone, by cultural districts, etc.  It was really a kind of study of Chicago: its assets and its deficits. The challenge of who are we uniquely and how do we celebrate that for the world to see was really what I was doing at that time.

How do you see the Great Chicago Fire Festival and the way it celebrates our city evolving in the coming years?
We hope that this is Chicago’s Mardi Gras. We hope that this is an annual event.  What’s most exciting for us is that we would have created platforms for many different kinds of artistic collaborations and neighborhood collaborations. We hope to really expand our group of collaborators in the coming years quite a bit.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Introducing the 2014 BHSI Fellows: Vera Solutions' Zak Kaufman

2014 BHSI Fellow Zak Kaufman is co-founder and CEO of Vera Solutions, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits—95 other nonprofits across 40 countries so far, to be exact.  Kaufman and his team use cloud and mobile technology to build data systems and analytics for nonprofit organizations of all sizes, enabling these nonprofits to analyze, monitor and adapt their programming based on an ongoing analysis of their impact and effectiveness.  We talked to Kaufman about how he went from running charity soccer tournaments to spearheading a multinational data analytics nonprofit.

BHSI 2014 Fellow Zak Kaufman.
The roots for Vera Solutions lie in an internship you held with an HIV prevention organization while you were still a student at Dartmouth.  What types of initiatives did you help spearhead in that role?
Looking around campus, I saw [that] a lot of students that were really interested in supporting this organization didn’t really have a mechanism for doing that.  I had the idea to run a big barefoot, 3V3 soccer tournament in the middle of campus called “Lose the Shoes” to raise money and awareness for the organization.  We did that, and it was a big success.

It really seemed to be an effective approach and got interest from a lot of folks.  Little by little, other schools started saying…we’d love to be a part of this.  My job evolved to coaching other schools to run these soccer tournaments.

In Vera Solutions today, you use a data system and analytic tool, Salesforce, to build data systems that allow organizations to analyze the impact their organization has.  How did you transition into that kind of data work from your original work running “Lose the Shoes”?
We managed all of the data for that campaign on Salesforce.  I got exposed to it and got my hands very dirty with it and started to get some skills on it.  [I] also just saw this is a really powerful tool.

[I worked with another organization], and we built a system.  It was really successful.  We were able to track individual beneficiaries…in our program.  Then, organizations started coming to us.

So, we started consulting for these organizations and helping them build systems, and that’s how Vera was born.  Essentially every project we did lead to three more projects.  Four years later, we’ve worked with 99 organizations around the world in 40-plus countries…. It’s a remarkable opportunity to help game-changing organizations more powerfully achieve their own mission.

In the data projects you complete with organizations, do you work to empower the organizations to take control of the data themselves, to learn to implement the Salesforce systems you put together?
That’s a big part of the model: We want to build up their skills and capacity and expertise as much as possible over the course of the project.  We start training from the middle of the project once we’ve got some of the system built and try to build capacity.

It’s amazing when it works well because you can see the organization take ownership of it.  The reality is data systems are living things.  They need to evolve as organizations evolve.... We’re able to really through the course of implementation, we can kind of change the DNA of the organization, shift them from paper and excel to mobile phones and cloud database.

How do organizations and individuals in these organizations react to this “DNA shift”?  What types of changes are you making that affect them day-to-day?
A big part of the fundamental problem is that with what people are doing—the programs that they’re running need relational databases.  They need to be able to track the kids, and what schools they’re connected to, and what sessions they’ve attended, and what teachers they’re working with.  What most organizations currently have is an excel sheet of kids and an excel sheet of teachers and so forth.  Excel isn’t good at use for relational databases; it isn’t a very powerful tool.

When you really spend the time to work with an organization to design what does this look like as a relational database…there’s always this aha moment—just at this stage, which is pretty early in the project.  You can see the switch go on…the sky is the limit for what this can do for us.

Once we build in the analytics, it’s another eye opener.

You work with a wide spectrum of organizations—the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Oxfam, Shining Hope for Communities, just to name a few.  Can you speak to some of those experiences?
The spectrum really runs from very small community organizations to really big organizations in Geneva, like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.  On the other side of the spectrum, you can get to an organization working in Zimbabwe to track the work the are doing with disabled youth.

What do you hope to gain from your experience as a BHSI Fellow?
The network and relationships and advice would be the key things…. We’re really seeking some advice in terms of growing operationally and strengthening [our own organization].

I see the Fellowship as an opportunity to create some reflection space and get some great advice.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Introducing the 2014 BHSI Fellows: Wishbone's Beth Schmidt

2014 BHSI Fellow Beth Schmidt started by inspiring her own 10th grade English students to pursue their passions via after-school activities.  Today, the organization she founded, Wishbone, provides funding to students to across two cities, using a platform that allows donors to directly fund after-school programming for individual students.  Schmidt sat down with us to share how empowering students to follow their passions outside of school often ignites their educational interests at school.
2014 BHSI Fellow Beth Schmidt.
You started out in TFA as a Corps Member, working in Los Angeles.  How did that help to inspire Wishbone?
I had five periods of 10th grade English—about 42 kids per class…. I assigned a paper…and less than 10 percent of all five periods turned the paper in.

I took a step back as a first year teacher and thought, How am I going to engage this group of kids to actually find relevance in this assignment and actually complete the important work of learning and actually do research and write a paper?  So I changed the topic to the most relevant thing I could think of, which was, “What’s your passion? What do you care about?”  The research component was [to] tell me how you would pursue that after school or in the summer in Los Angeles.

It was incredible what came back.  For that assignment, something like 85 percent of kids turned in papers. 

So, how did that assignment turn into what is Wishbone today?
I actually ran a marathon to raise some money to send the top 7 papers…. I chose the students based on the potential I thought they had.  When those kids came back, that’s when I decided I needed to do this full time.

Basically, these kids…connected the dots.  They saw what was possible for their future.  They had seen this opportunity they had never thought they would experience.  The biggest thing is it put relevance back into the school day.

Once you decided to scale this up—from seven students to the high-school students across two cities—how did you decide on the model you use?  Your website allows donors to directly donate to individual students.
When I was teaching, I sent out these teacher packets, which look very similar to how the site looks now.  I mailed them to family and friends, to say, will you contribute to these campaigns?

What I heard back was…the direct student connection, just that concept of, I know who I supported.  Throughout that process, we had students send updates to the donors about what they’d done in the program, and that’s still a part of the model.

What types of long-term impact does program participation have on students?  How do you track the impact your program has on students?
We track retention, graduation and matriculation.  Shorter-term, immediately when they get back from the program, we’re tracking their GPA, so academic achievement.

The other piece that’s incredibly interesting is the engagement piece.  The metric we’re using is, are they showing up to class more?  The qualitative measurement will work with us to do a before and after of what they see.  That’s where we get these comments of confidence levels.  That’s hard to put a number on, but it’s really important for us to know that.

What do you hope to gain from your experience as a BHSI Fellow?
I want to bring Wishbone to Chicago.  I really think Chicago would be a great next city for us.

We serve students in New York City and the Bay Area right now.  It’s been really interesting to see the marketplace for program providers…. With all of the universities here locally, it’s such an amazing city to be able to do that locally.  And the need here for high potential, low-income kids is huge, so connecting those two worlds makes a ton of sense.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.