Vertical Leap – Video Interview
Norm: Hello and welcome! Im Norm Strang. My guest today is critically acclaimed musical artist, composer and producer, George Mahn. He is the founder of progressive rock band Vertical Leap, as well as a business leader and social critic. The groups debut album, Sanctuary, opened to shining reviews and airplay across the U.S. and Canada. George, glad you could join us!
Geo: Thank you, Norm. Im happy to be here!
I’m sure you had vivid dreams about making it in music. How would you say those dreams compare with the reality?
Getting here has been a straight up climb! Thats one reason my dad and I agreed that Vertical Leap was a good name for the band. The dream started when I was a teenager. I wanted to play like my guitar heroes, guys like Eric Clapton, Ted Nugent, and Jimmy Page. But it’s not as easy as just doing it. It’s taken me years to do this, especially since Ive taken a few career detours along the way. But once I decided to pursue music for a living, then I became proactive. Instead of waiting to be discovered, I took charge. So what people see or hear in Vertical Leaps music is the real me.
What styles of music do you enjoy and who are some of the people who influenced you?
Im of a generation that enjoys listening to many different styles of music – jazz, rock, classical, whatever. Theres a lot of unique sounds and talents out there and I think its good to spice up life with a variety. As for my influences, they span a broad spectrum, from the Beatles, The Who and Led Zeppelin to Rush and Pink Floyd, as well as Charlie Byrd, Al DiMeola and Chet Atkins; Id also have to include Roberta Flack, Willie Nelson and John Denver.
Based on that interesting group of musicians, what do you consider to be your essential listening?
Charlie Byrd – Brazilian Byrd and My Inspiration, both albums
Al DiMeola – Elegant Gypsy
Roberta Flack – First Take
and the complete works of Joaquin Rodrigo, featuring Pepe Romero, and another classical composer, Carl Orff – Carmina Burana, which is heard in Excalibur, among other movies, and really anything by Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Ted Nugent, Paul McCartney, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rush.
George, those are some very talented artists! You used literary allusion on your first album, Sanctuary. Is reading something that gets your wheels turning?
Sure, I think reading is very helpful. Its a great escape, too. Of course, I have a literary background, so maybe I see that a little differently. Listening to other musical artists is inspirational as well. Creativity is contagious, its an energy, all part of a moving occupation.
With that in mind, what are the themes that run through your work?
Heartache, healing and hope. I want to put out songs with meaning, something that inspires people. The point is to raise awareness and encourage listeners to look into the worldview and inspiration that guides their own lives. But you have to be careful to balance themes with specifics to create a poetic imagery. Details can make it interesting, but too many can bog it down. What goes to people’s hearts is space and openness and directness.
And you want to leave people with a good lasting impression?
Exactly! So sometimes Ill use poetic phrases, but those moments are generally… generally reserved to bring about a deeper understanding of a song, because I really want people to get what I’m talking about.
Do you have specific goals in mind for yourself when you write, or do you try not to approach it that way?
Sometimes I do, other times I just leave it open to explore. My writing process can start with a melody, a style or with lyrics, each spawn ideas. Harmony inspires me, too. A lot of the time, though, Ill just improv progressions into songs. I’ll either think of a motif, or I’ll find a sequence of chords that inspire me and, and then Ill develop from there. Then Ill try to introduce a change for a breath of fresh air and that one voicing can send me off in a whole new direction. I also prefer syncopated pieces to keep myself in rhythm, so my songs typically… typically contain a variety of changes, they can be really esoteric with complex structures.
I imagine that what you do within that tight format can really show what you’re made of?
Oh yeah, dramatically! Thats also why I dont play cover tunes, to avoid copying my favorite players, because if it goes in, some of it’s going to come out. Another practice that helps, too, is getting feedback from my fans. Ill post rough drafts of songs on my website for the Studio Insider fan club members to hear and judge.
Lets talk about the instruments you use. Tell me about the guitars and the benefits?
Well, when it comes to guitars, I think they’re works of living art! I just love the different sounds and tones. Switching guitars actually helps my creativity, it keeps the inspiration alive. I crave playing and using different instruments really keeps me on my toes.
And that creativity and inspiration is very noticeable in your performances, George. Youve been playing for over 20 years?
Yes, I have, Norm. I started at age 13 on an old hand me down Harmony guitar that my uncle brought home from the U.S. army air force. Story goes that he won it in a poker game!
Is that your number one guitar?
No, no, not anymore! In 1997 I bought my Gibson ES-346 after a six month hiatus from playing. Ive used it as my main electric ever since, but I also play a vintage 1963 Fender Telecaster for a change. For acoustic, I generally play my Taylor 612, but my Cordoba offers a unique voicing for certain tunes. And long before I started recording, I tried out several brands of strings and really decided that I liked the feel of DRs on my electrics and Elixirs and La Bellas on my acoustics. I’ve also been playing a Marshall AVT100 amp for a couple years. It’s a combo transistor with tube preamp, it provides a full range of tones for the various styles I like to play.
So using a variety of guitars allows you to express yourself in many different ways?
Definitely. And another huge factor in the sound is the types of picks you use. I change depending on the guitar. I use thin for electric and thick for acoustic. I actually got to meet Al DiMeola a few years ago after one of his shows and he gave me tips on the types of picks and… that he uses, and how he records his acoustics. Of course, I went straight home and tried them out, and they worked!
That must have been an exciting experience to have gotten advice from one of your heroes! Tell me, have there been any particular aspects of performing that you’ve had to work on over the years?
Sure. I try to take it at a steady pace so the fun doesnt fly by, but I have to beware of dwelling on the details around me. Not long ago I was picking out Shadows Fall, the opening song on Sanctuary, which is a fairly fast classical guitar-type piece, and I was really hitting the notes well. And as I was playing, I started to look out around the crowd to get their reaction. And suddenly out of nowhere my gaze caught this girl in the front row whose eyes were absolutely glued to me. And she smiled, she smiled her approval at me, which was really cool, you know, but then I… I was so shocked that I just skipped the rest of the passage and moved right into the next sequence. And then, of course, I was like, oh, man, I cant believe I just did that! Details!
Thats a great story, George! So how do you reach your audience and connect with them?
I always keep my fans in mind. I try to give them a great time and make them feel appreciated. They pay money to hear my music, and I would never disappoint anyone who listens to me. That’s just how I feel about the audience. Im not playing to just satisfy myself. I’m there to satisfy them.
Beyond that, my work openly and honestly expresses the painful struggles and truths I had to face about myself to find healing and meaning in my life. In many ways, my struggle is everyones struggle. Even though our experiences may be different, we each share the same journey through life. People relate to the emotions conveyed within my songs because theyve experienced similar feelings. I try to use my mistakes to create something better. I think thats why my music connects – whether people want to simply relax or if theyre feeling lost and lonely, helpless and empty, the music offers a tapestry of escape, compassion, reflection, and really above all, emotion.
So when youre recording, what do you enjoy most?
Oh, it’s a thrilling process! To transform an idea into a recording and to hear it come back sounding like the real thing and less like you singing in the shower – that’s a very satisfying feeling.
And George, it takes an incredible amount of planning to do an album. Tell me about your approach?
I recorded Sanctuary in my studio, kind of the way that Tom Sholz recorded all of the Boston albums in his home studio. The key is to have the right equipment, and the technology today really makes that much easier. I ran virtually all instrumentation direct, electric and acoustic, so I only used microphones for vocals. Then I hired John Adams on Bass, which really added depth and warmth on the songs. And then I took my equipment to Tim Cissells production studio to mix and master.
Working with a variety of established talent, how did you get the best performance from each person?
Its an interesting challenge to work with other professional musicians and engineers. A key element to working with people is getting to know each other. And also to be conscious of the spirit on a session, as far as whats going on in the room. And knowing how to say things at the right time. It really comes down to two basic categories – timing and spirit.
You need to avoid the problem-solver mindset by letting the germ of enthusiasm and… and high-spirited joy of creating be, and feed that. It so profoundly affects what you get out of people and how things come together. The right words can create magic and the right situation in which you get more than ever dreamed of from someone in a performance.
Thats a refreshing approach, George. What was your inspiration for your songs on Sanctuary?
My idea was to make a record that was an open and honest personal statement about spiritual awakening. I had gone through a terribly emotional breakup and I fell flat on my face. I was so certain that this girl was the right one for me that when we… when we broke up I was just completely devastated. It reminds me of mountain climbing. You know, when climbers slip their safety lines catch on anchors embedded in the rock, which breaks their fall. But for me, my emotional and spiritual anchors were so poorly fastened that when we broke up I just plummeted straight to the bottom of the mountain. But you know, they say its the… its not the fall that hurts, its the landing!
It doesnt sound like you had a soft landing?
No, no I didnt, Norm. But, ultimately, Sanctuary portrays the healing in my life. Even though I fell to rock bottom, I came up singing again once the spirit moved me.
After that experience, did you think about your writing differently?
Oh, yes. You know, every small revelation changes the way you approach things, and the lights and shadows of those days certainly adorn my music. I didn’t want to be only a guitar player anymore. I realized that I wanted to touch people’s hearts and share my experiences through my songs. Listeners, obviously, can interact with the music and define what it means for themselves.
Does the title track on Sanctuary capture the essence of the album?
Yes. I was trying to create an uplifting experience. But it was more than just a song. The main character had come through this whole gauntlet of frustration, tragedy, withdrawal and searching for meaning in life. It was about letting go of the pain of coming apart at the seams. I wanted to write a song that connected with parts of life that mattered most to me. It was really moving to retrace those steps, to bring back pieces left behind, since the storyline parallels my own experience of suffering and healing.
Musically, the melody and chords came first, with a fusion of Eric Clapton and Sade in mind. The opening part of the song I wrote remembering what it was like to emerge from darkness and how wonderful it felt to feel alive again. You know, the simplest or slightest movement of a melody can symbolize the presence of divinity. Remembering that got me started. And awhile later, I wrote the chorus. And when I wrote the chorus, then I decided that it would carry the banner of the album.
Thats fascinating, George. Describe for us some of your upcoming projects?
Well, Norm, this year has… has been very interesting for me. I’ve been promoting Sanctuary, building up the business side of things, and trying to write for the next album. But the concept is in place and songs are moving along very well. The album explores one persons struggles and looks forward to the future with the hope of living well.
So Sacred Promises follows Sanctuary in an ongoing series of songs that inspires people to rise above their problems?
Exactly! Elevate and Celebrate!
Elevate and Celebrate, are those words that you live by?
Yes! Elevate your spirit and celebrate life. Thats what Vertical Leap is all about. Its… its a philosophy rooted in faith, a real desire to touch the divine. Attitude, expression, sounds, it all comes from inside. Whether we affect people positively or negatively depends largely on who we are, our outlook. Actions may speak louder than words, but words, especially accompanied by music, can speak for a very long time.
Norm: George, thank you for sharing your time with us today. Ive enjoyed learning about your music and how you relate your passionate outlook and life experiences in your songs. Sanctuary is a tremendous album and we look forward to hearing what you have for us with Sacred Promises. Good luck to you and lets do this again soon!
Geo: Thank you very much, Norm. I look forward to it!