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Music in His Head: Singer-Songwriter Casey Stratton

Underwriting support from:

12th Annual Jammie Awards

The Jammies are Grand Rapids' version of the Grammy Awards, recognizing local music talent. The awards will be held at the Intersection on February 15, 2011 and are a production of WYCE Radio. Doors open at 5 p.m. and more than 20 musical acts, including Casey Stratton will perform. The event is free and is open to people of all ages.  The Intersection is located on the corner of Cherry Street and Grandville Avenue.

Singer/Songwriter Casey Stratton

Singer/Songwriter Casey Stratton /Terry Johnston

Stratton at Wealthy Theatre

Stratton at Wealthy Theatre /Terry Johnston

When songs come together for Casey Stratton, musical structure leads the creative process. Interestingly, he talks about the "lyric writer" in the second person, as if the words to his songs are written by someone else. "I'm a melodically-driven musician, so I write the music first. My brain thinks in music and the lyric writer writes something for the musician to sing. It's hard for me to take words and turn them into music. It is two separate jobs," said Stratton. "People tell me my lyrics are good, but I think of myself as a musician more than a writer. I feel the most vulnerable in writing."

A new song might begin with an interesting sound or rhythm he likes. Sometimes he'll play it out on the piano or guitar. From there he adds layers to it; builds it up. "I worked with music producer Patrick Leonard and we would say the song knows what it wants," he says. "Songwriting is an exact science though, there is a craft that you have to learn to make it work. Once you've done it enough, you can let the technique go. You don't have to think about it all the time--it resides in you."

Stratton worked on perfecting his music technique while at Interlochen Arts Academy High School in Northern Michigan. Despite a nurturing experience at Jenison Public Schools,  Stratton knew he needed more than what the music program offered. Interlochen was just the challenge he needed to add to his music knowledge and polish his interesting and unusual countertenor voice. He completed high school there. "I learned technique; I learned how music works so it is second nature to me. I don't have to analyze it much. I think in music and I know it well. Whenever I'm talking to young people I tell them to learn music theory. It gives you the map, the keys," said Stratton. He speaks with great fondness of his years at Interlochen. "It was the first time I was competing with very talented people from all around the world and I could hold my own. It was good to know that I could compete," he said. "There you are working with the best teachers and the best students. It really raised the bar for me."  The social experience at the Academy prepared him for the competition in the real world, especially New York. He says that musicians are always competing though they are not always competitive, and there is a sense of family among trusted colleagues.

Since 1995 he has created 13 albums. Standing at the Edge (2004) was done while he was with Sony/BMG. He found that being with a label wasn't for him, and after two plus years with the label he departed New York for his hometown, Grand Rapids. Wisely, he invested in a home music studio with his record label earnings so when the idea for a song comes to him, he can start making music. "It was the best thing I ever did: it has paid for itself 100 times over," he said.

He speaks about his time with Sony with clarity, focus and without a hint of regret. "I found I didn't function well in the corporate world. I was aware that they would have a different bottom line than I would. I knew that going into it. But every day of that attitude became very taxing. It was always about image and how we would sell the music and not about creativity," said Stratton. Delays, changes in personnel and ego made the process long and tiresome. Sony merged with BMG while he was signed there, which complicated the situation. But, if not for the time with the label, Stratton believes he would not know what he needed to launch an independent career. "I did okay with that record. Some people knew who I was, I had a small fan base around the world. It was 2005, just when the internet was starting to take off with music. I started making music at home, getting it out online [adistributing it through iTunes and word of mouth. I enjoy the fact that if a project fails I only have myself to blame," he said.

He points to Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Sarah McLachlan, Siouxsie and Banshees and Loreena McKennitt as influences, and the similarities in his vocal range are obvious. He sings in a higher range than most male singers, and that clear distinctive sound creates the musician the sound that is Casey Stratton.

Stratton has been nominated for six Jammies (see sidebar) and will perform at the music awards program.

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