Cover Story

Sky Ladd: Cowboy Chords and Plebeian Poetry

Sky Ladd. Photo by Julia Hall-McMahon.

As I was meandering down Adams Avenue during a weekend of the Adams Avenue Street Fair, I found Sky Ladd. His A-frame Sky Blue Music stand stood tall on the sidewalk in the thick of one of the most loved and diverse music festivals in San Diego. I began piano lessons at Sky Blue Music not long afterward. After a few months of lessons I was delighted to learn that while Sky is a true musical sophisticate with a genuine encouraging openness and a keen interest in creation of original music. As someone who learned how to speak before learning my grammar in music, Sky helped me with some fundamentals on piano and music theory and he could really talk about New Orleans brass band music in part because of his background on trumpet. We talked about playing together in some capacity and then a gig at Seven Grand opened up and I lassoed Sky in to play. A lively improv group centered around Sky on piano, Doug Walker on bass and myself on drums, I was blown away at the places he would guide the music. Solos that were head spinning. His comping leaves you that little opening that nurtures new musical ideas. Sky just has that ability to just make everyone sound better. We were busy for almost two years with public and private gigs. After learning that he was a ghost writer for some EDM, I asked him to be part of a Cars/Rick Ocasek tribute band. The keyboards were so critical to this music I was certain the tide would be raised with his playing. Unpacking his deep reserve of skills takes a while. When he was introducing his own material to me, he would casually pick up a nylon-string guitar missing a string to explore variations of cowboy chords with fingers spanning I’m not certain how many frets, in tempo most certainly and quite clean in the pocket. His cocktail drum kit could not be more awkward and severely lacking to me, yet somehow he can rip a beat on it, making it sound like a spendy boutique drum kit. We are lucky to have a music scene so drenched in talent. Sky’s contributions are already considerable. He is a bit of an enigma, especially as a longtime Tijuana resident who crosses the border sparingly for teaching at his studio and for performances. I consider myself a friend and admirer and really wanted to get into some of his history and biography and how he arrived at his latest endeavor in the music world.

Sky describes his musical voyage beginning in 5th grade band in elementary school. He began on trumpet, an instrument he played in school ensembles all the way through college. He claims he can play trumpet “a bit…though the amount of time I spend with it waxes and wanes…and trumpet is not a forgiving instrument when it comes to taking a hiatus.”

Photo by Julia Hall-McMahon.

In junior high he started taking piano lessons as well as playing a bit of acoustic guitar. Growing up in rural Northern California—in Humboldt County—real country life, far away from big cities offered him much time to focus on music. Sky explains, “In our small town there were two piano teachers. If someone heard you were taking piano lessons they would ask, are you studying with Mrs. Brown or Mrs. Mallory? I studied with Mrs. Helen Mallory. I would go to her house, which was nestled in the redwoods…she was interesting, to say the least. Mrs. Mallory would chain smoke during the lessons…and much of the time would not sit by the piano, she would be doing something in the kitchen and call out if she heard a mistake. Her musical background was that she used to play piano for the silent movies. It’s only looking back that I chuckle at her slightly eccentric teaching methods. At the time I didn’t think any of it was unusual.

“Later, in high school, I studied with a woman from our church who was more traditional, and she started me on the Hanon exercise book and preparatory classical pieces. When I was 16 I joined a local jazz band, a trio with upright bass, guitar, and piano. They performed at local coffee shops and a bar/restaurant called the Shelter Cove Grotto. I was completely new to jazz and it was an awakening experience. The other two members were in their forties. Having never studied jazz I learned some of the more complicated jazz chords by looking at a guitar chord book—figuring out what the note of each string was and then putting them together on the piano. Unfortunately, not realizing that with some of those jazz guitar voicings not every string was supposed to be played…so later, much to my chagrin, I had to unlearn some of those chords where I included incorrect notes.”

At Humboldt State University, Sky was a classical piano major, kind of by default because no jazz or composition major existed back then. (He was actually was a double major—trumpet and piano—until he realized that piano was closer to his heart and simply got tired of having to practice both piano and trumpet every day.) Even though classical piano would not have been his first choice, he claims, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” This happenstance made him fall deep in love with classical music, a love affair that continues to this day. “The emphasis on technique and tone quality in those piano studies has paid dividends in every style of music I have ever played since. Classical piano really refines both your ear for timbre and your touch in ways that very few other genres do.

Photo by Julia Hall-McMahon.

“I had two piano instructors in college, Dr. Frank Marks and Dr. Deborah Clasquin. They were both wonderful but had very different teaching styles. Frank was very strict, with a heavy diet of technique and sight-reading built into his prescribed practice regimen. I had heard stories from other students where they had shown up to a lesson unprepared and he had simply left the room, telling them that having a lesson was a waste of his time if they hadn’t practiced that week. So, partly out of fear, I was always prepared for my lessons. My freshman year, studying with Frank, I won the university’s concerto/aria competition and performed a Mozart concerto with the school orchestra. The disciplined approach to music and practicing that I learned from him is something I’ll always be grateful for. Sadly, Frank passed away the following year from cancer. I began studying with Dr. Deborah Clasquin; Deborah had been a student of Pressler’s at Indiana University and was really focused on interpretation and tone color. I didn’t study any piano technique with her at all, we only worked on repertoire. Deborah really opened up my ear to all of the tone colors and articulations possible on the piano.

“Following university I spent my 20s working on cruise ships. I’ve lost count but it was somewhere around 23 different ships I worked on. I had the opportunity to play with some amazing musicians, people from the Berkeley, North Texas, Manhattan, and Miami jazz programs. My first roommate was Seneca Black, a trumpet player who just a few months later became the lead trumpet player for Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center jazz orchestra.

“My first musical loves were Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, and part of their appeal was the fact that they wrote their own songs. Our local small-town radio station had a weekly two-hour oldies slot where a disc jockey named Jumpin’ Jim played songs from the 1950s and early ’60s. I would record his show every week on a cassette tape; I adored music from that era and it was the only avenue I had to get exposed to songs I hadn’t heard before. My family knew how much I idolized Jumpin’ Jim and they arranged for me to meet him and sit with him at the radio station during one of his shows. For me it was like meeting the biggest celebrity on the planet.

“Later, in junior high, I discovered the Beatles and through their inspiration started writing my own songs with lyrics. I was raised on Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine…and grew up with their songs and lyrics in my ear. To this day the music of John Prine is the only music I can listen to no matter what my mood is. His words have a special kind of tenderness that is a salve for my soul like no other…songs like “Far from Me,” “Mexican Home,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “Summers End,” “I Remember Everything,” “Souvenirs,” “Bruised Orange,” “Linda Goes to Mars,” “Lake Marie,” “Paradise” was a treasure trove of songwriting at the very highest level.

The Chee Koo Trio, featuring David Mosby:Doug Walker Ron Bocian, Mosby, Ladd. Photo by Julia Hall-McMahon.

“At the age of 16 I discovered jazz and classical music and started listening to and playing instrumental versions of that music almost exclusively; in my twenties I hardly listened to any music with vocals, I was seduced by the harmonies and textures of modern jazz and classical music. Of course, as a pianist I still worked professionally with many vocalists and enjoyed that—and came to know and love the lyrics of Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, and Ira Gershwin, among others, but on my own I really only surrounded myself with instrumental music. However, I was a voracious reader during that time, devouring as much classic literature and poetry as I could…so the written word was still an important part of my life. My work on cruise ships allowed for plenty of time spent reading out on deck with the sea as my backdrop, many hours every day.

“In my early thirties I met and started working with two songwriters in San Diego: Carlos Olmeda and Benjamin Ziff. And later Gregory Page. That reawakened my interest in singer-songwriter music and music with lyrics in general.”

Photo by Dennis Andersen.

Sky has been taking this pandemic time to re-emerge as a singer-songwriter. “The pandemic has forced me, like many musicians, into an extended Twilight Zone where I have no gigs or performances. On the one hand it has been awful, not only financially but emotionally. Making music with other musicians has always been something I looked forward to…the empty calendar is depressing. On the other hand, it has led me to reassess what I want with my musical life. My dream has always been to write and perform my own songs, and yet I’ve spent my working life performing the music of other people. My songs are cowboy chords and plebeian poetry. A simple expression of my daily thoughts, feelings, and experiences, nothing more. My songs don’t solve any problems or set the world on fire.

Writing my thoughts down is cathartic; I almost have to do it in order to make sense of my world and process what I am feeling. I used to have notebooks filled with my scribble…just me trying to work through my life on paper. Then I discovered that arranging those thoughts into a song structure gave me the feeling that something had been accomplished that day…and the process also sparked my musical imagination. So, that’s what I do: this endlessly turning gear powered by the flotsam and jetsam of life. At this point I have lyrics to at least 800 songs. But I have never shared them with the world, mainly because my singing voice is an untrained, inadequate vessel with a six-note range, on a good day…but also because I’ve been slow to set my lyrics to music.

“Recently, I’ve reached a point of mid-life “sand of time slipping away” crisis, if you will, where I have thrown caution and musical taste to the wind and started to sing my songs. I’m not sure that the world is a better place for it—but sometimes in life you have to be a bit selfish, I suppose.

“My goal is to make the kind of album I have always yearned to hear: an album of original music by one artist with many different genres, all done well: classical, jazz, singer-songwriter, synth pop, country, New Wave, rock, Brazilian bossa nova, samba, folk, salsa, funk, banda, blues, disco, electronic, fusion, punk, pop, 1950’s rock, mariachi, hip hop, rap, Viennese waltz, avant-garde, dixieland, dark wave, Russian choir music, barber shop quartet, Persian music, 1930’s Cuban music, African music, heavy metal, Celtic music, Broadway, etc.

“I’m not sure if anyone else on the planet wants to hear that; it may just be a way to guarantee that an album will have at least five songs that a listener will hate. Who knows? But it’s an album that I have been waiting to hear my whole life.

“Years ago my dear departed mom unwittingly gave me my favorite compliment that I have ever received. She was dating a man who listened to country music and my mom, who loved opera and really disliked country music, was complaining about this. I said, “I like country music,” to which she replied in a supremely annoyed tone of voice, “Sky, you like EVERY kind of music.

“My first and only CD has never been officially released. There was a small record label in the Netherlands who had expressed interest in releasing an album of mine if I ever did one. There ended up being a tacit deadline of a particular week I would be in the Netherlands performing as a sideman and could hand the album to the label in person. So, I finished the album and gave it to them when I was there. They passed on the album, which was disappointing—but it was still great to have had a deadline, otherwise I would have never finished anything—and I remain grateful that they even considered the album. But I did tailor the music towards what I thought they were looking for rather than what I really wanted my first album to be. It’s all instrumental, my lyrics and my out-of-tune voice make no appearance. And, I made the fatal mistake of putting too much music on the CD. I thought it would be a way to save money…why pay for printing two 40-minute CD’s when I could put all 80 minutes on one CD? (Well, technically the maximum for a CD is 74 minutes.) Plus, if you can’t give people quality then at least give them quantity! But the album length took away from having the album be a sit-down start-to-finish experience…growing up I really enjoyed the classic 45-minute length of vinyl LP’s…they seemed like the perfect length…but for some reason my brain went haywire when I put together my own album.”

Lucky for music lovers out there Sky will be premiering “Sky Ladd and Friends” live stream on May 15th. He will be featuring his original songs, which he describes as “cowboy chords with plebeian poetry,” along with an original singer songwriter(s) from around San Diego. I personally look forward to backing him in this new direction and cannot wait to witness the music unveiled. To check the dates and guests visit www.skyladdandfriends.com and also check out www.skybluemusic.com for his educational and music production services.

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