Call it what you will- New Age, avant garde, contemporary jazz, experimental, progressive rock- Knitting By Twilight has been creating this top shelf hybrid of music for more than fifteen years. John Orsi is the heart and soul behind Knitting By Twilight and his love for progressive rock bands like Gentle Giant and King Crimson, along with a keen ear for listening, has led him down this inventive musical path. Combining thought provoking instrumentals with vivid CD art, Orsi’s album presentations are both cinematic and musical. John and I talked at length one beautiful September evening and he outlined Knitting By Twilight’s journey over the last fifteen years...
METRONOME: How long has Knitting By Twilight been together?
John Orsi: It was formed in 1994 by myself and a keyboardist whose name is Michael Watson.
METRONOME: What was the plan?
JO: It was formed because there were a lot of ideas that both of us had that didn’t fit into our respective groups. Rather than force ideas into situations that wouldn’t be received well, or wouldn't work, we decided to get together away from band rehearsals and rehearse on our
own, write music, and see what happens from there.
METRONOME: Were the bands that you were both in more rock & roll and pop bands and your music was more instrumental and progressive?
JO: That’s a fair description of it. They weren’t conventional rock bands. I think they were somewhat more creative and experimental but they certainly had singers and the focus was on the songs as much the way it should be. We both loved instrumental music. We both loved film scores and progressive music and had leanings in that direction. We worked some of that in to our respective groups but alot of it, we felt, would be best to not try and force in.
METRONOME: Who were some of the people, acts and bands that influenced you to want to go in this direction?
JO: King Crimson and Robert Fripp certainly. Bill Bruford is a big mentor of mine as a drummer. Gentle Giant. Those are probably the most influential acts. Certainly the progressive school. By that time though, 1994, most of that music had been here and gone. But those records always meant a lot to me. They consistently were inspirational works so when I quote those bands, it’s for their output in the early 70s mostly. Then again, that was so far ahead of its time at that time, that it took, as it often does with bands that are thinking in forward motion, the audience about ten years to catch up. Then of course by that time, musicians have moved on to other things.
METRONOME: Did you listen to bands like King Crimson in your teenage years?
JO: I think so. In high school and the early days of music school. I would say that was what I was influenced by. I still harken back to that. Of course there’s a lot of classical and jazz influences too. Jazz and classical because that’s mostly instrumental.
METRONOME: Did you go to college for music?
JO: It wasn’t Berklee. It was a music school down here in Rhode Island. It wasn’t an accredited university, it was more of a cooperative where a lot of teachers that graduated from Berklee formed this co-op and taught there.
METRONOME: How long did you study there?
JO: It wasn’t very long. I only went there briefly because I found a teacher I wanted to study with independently from that. He was a jazz drummer that played during the big band era. The principle reason I went was because of his wisdom. He had been playing for over 50 years, so it was not only what I could learn technically from someone like that, but his wisdom and knowledge of music was so vast. There was a lot to learn just listening to him speak to me about those times.
METRONOME: What was his name?
JO: His name is Chuck Conte.
METRONOME: Is he still around?
JO: Yes, he’s still around. He still plays. He must be close to 80 at this point. He was great. I had to audition to become one of his students which I thought was funny.
METRONOME: Typical of a Juilliard audition?
JO: It really was. He only had a handful of students. When someone else moved on and there was a spot available, there was a waiting list of folks who wanted to study with him. I remember going over to his house and playing a bit. He would walk around while I was playing, very intimidating when you think about it. He didn’t say a whole lot. He just watched my body language and listened to the sound that was coming off the drums and how literally the angle in which I would strike a drum. The force I was using and the touch and sensitivity. He was looking at a lot of things. I didn’t hear back from him that night. He said, “Okay, very good. Next!” A few days later I got the call and he said, “If you’d like to study with me, I’ve decided to take you on as a student.” I was very, very pleased.
METRONOME: You must have been really excited?
JO: I was. I learned a lot from him. I still do whenever I can grab a lesson from him. He sold his home and he and his wife moved in to a retirement place where he literally can’t have drums set up for folk like me to bang on. He can’t teach anymore in that regard, but if you call him for a lesson, you can talk to him about a lesson over the phone. You just can’t go and take a lesson from him. He has so much knowledge. Just from a conversation, I learn so much from him. He opens up your mind to other things. The best example of it is; I might have three ideas of how to play a certain exercise and he has fifty three ideas. That’s fifty more ideas I hadn’t thought of (laughs).
METRONOME: Are you primarily a drummer because I noticed that you play other instruments as well on your recordings?
JO: My principal instrument is the drum set but I moved in to tuned percussion and as a composer I had to learn a pitched instrument. A keyboard seemed the most logical thing to me. It’s very logically laid out. I love guitar but I can’t really fathom it. It’s not as logical to me as a keyboard. That’s purely my deficiency. To make some of those stretches on a guitar for chording and things seems infinitely harder to me than the keyboard (laughs).
METRONOME: You’re not the first person to tell me that.
JO: Is that right? Yeah for me, I had to learn something that I could compose with so the other musicians wouldn’t look at me funny.
METRONOME: How many Knitting By Twilight albums have you released over the years?
JO: Knitting By Twilight, over the course of fifteen years has only released five CDs. That’s a very small output over fifteen years. But because I keep saying yes to people who ask, “Can you play on this record? Can you be in this band?” I would say yes to everything. I’m an enthusiastic drummer and when somebody asked me to be in a project for a couple of years, I would go off and do that. In recent years, I decided that wasn’t fair to Knitting by Twilight so I had to learn to say no more often so I could get a second boost of recorded output from Knitting By Twilight underway.A lot of success for a group or someone’s music is purely continuity and consistency. That’s how the band grows and evolves. If you’re only getting to it once or twice every couple of years, it doesn’t really have that natural maturation that it does if you bare down and stick with it over a consistent amount of time.
METRONOME: I have seen your name in other projects that have been sent to Metronome. Most of them seem to be from the same fabric of what you do with Knitting By Twilight. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, I would say that’s right. I don’t do anything that’s even a small stretch from what I do with Knitting By Twilight. I think that’s because the people that ask me to play ask me to play for a reason. They’re after a particular thing when they ask me to be on a project. They are different. They’re somebody else’s principle vision so it’s different in that regard, but the music definitely has an element. I bring something to it that changes it ever so slightly. I generally don’t get calls for jazz and folk sessions because that’s not what I’m known for.
METRONOME: Can you name some of the acts that you‘ve worked with during the past fifteen years?
JO: I can. Just before Knitting By Twilight, the keyboard player I mentioned before, Michael Watson and I were playing in a group called Spindle Shanks. They (are still going I believe) are a Goth band for lack of a better word. Michael is classically trained so he brings that element to it. The arrangements of the music are fairly sophisticated and have a lot of elements that I don’t think are found in most Goth groups.
METRONOME: What was the name of the group?
JO: Spindle Shanks. We wrote a lot of music for that group. There was a lot of freedom for us in that group but we didn’t want to force some ideas that wouldn’t work in the presentation of a Goth group. That’s why we were both writing music that eventually became Knitting By Twilight.
METRONOME: You were both in that group together and that’s how Knitting By Twilight evolved?
JO: That’s right. We were both in that group. Originally it was a duo with Michael and a singer. I went to see them play and was enamored by his playing in particular and asked if percussion was something they thought about at anytime. They were both open to it. He and I got to business straight away at rewriting a lot of the music and also writing new music for them involving percussion. It was great fun. Only a little bit of that music has made its way out for release.
Knitting By Twilight was never meant to be a band in the formal sense because it was just he and I in the very beginning and then it was inviting guests who would come in and contribute to the recordings.
METRONOME: Is it true that you’ve continued that tradition for all these years?
JO: Yeah, I guess it evolved in to being the principle writing vehicle for myself. Michael contributed quite a bit to the first album and a little bit to the second but then went in other directions. This has been the modus operandi for Knitting By Twilight. Folks come in and they are in the cast of Knitting By Twilight for a while and then they go off and do other projects. That’s been totally fine by me. It was always meant to be a one-off and you could contribute ideas but it wouldn’t be a great time commitment. You could go back to your regular gig. Talking about it now, I guess that was the way jazz groups operated. It became sort of blasphemous in the rock world, but in
jazz, as you know, people guest on each others records all the time. You always think of what combination of players... if I have so and so on trumpet, that will take the music in that direction. That’s a healthy relationship in jazz but it hasn’t really evolved that much in rock. I always thought Knitting By Twilight could be a rock collective that did that. I became the director of it by default.
METRONOME: Can you name all your Knitting By Twilight albums and their release dates?
JO: The first one is eponymously titled Knitting By Twilight and came out in 1994. It was myself and Michael. We also had two guitarists by the name of Manny Silva and Mike Marando.
METRONOME: Manny and Mike still play with you right?
JO: Yes. They are both in the fold again. Manny is one of those folks that did a lot of work on the first couple of records. Went away for awhile and came back and did some work on the album before last An Evening Out of Town. That was released in the last quarter of last year . He’s also on a bit of the new album, Riding The Way Back as well. I have him in mind for the next record which I am writing and starting to record presently. Manny Silva is a wonderful guitarist. I’m
happy he’s back in the fold. Then of course, my wife has been a contributor over the last couple of records which is great fun.
METRONOME: Has Karen [Orsi] always been a musician or did you convert her?
JO: It was my sheer good luck that we met in a recording studio on a session for somebody else. It was very romantic... a perfect way for musicians to meet. What better scenario could I have thought of, had I thought of it (laughs). We met on a session for a group we both ended up being in called Overflower. We did three records. The last one, Water On Mars was a very popular one. That was the one Metronome gave a lot of attention to.
We got called to the same session and were in the group together. Somewhere along the line, I asked her if she would fancy contributing to Knitting By Twilight. She, like me, says yes most of the time (laughs), to whatever people ask her to play.
METRONOME: What was the name of the next Knitting By Twilight album?
JO: I went to play with Blue Shift Signal for awhile and then the next Knitting By Twilight CD came out in 1997. It was called, Heavy Hearts and Safety Nets. That was with essentially the same line up, Manny and Michael and Mike Marando. That was the same quartet for that record. Then Blue Shift Signal led me in to Overflower. That was a very busy time. Again, Knitting By Twilight went on hold. When I finally got back to it, it was almost five years later.
METRONOME: You were well in to the new millennium by then?
JO: I was because Overflower started rehearsing in 1998. For a lot of years I was doing session work for a lot of people and earning a living that way. That was real money. For the original music, I don’t ever expect a pay check. It’s great when it happens, but for me it’s never been about that. That’s fine. I don’t have any grand designs of being a rock star or being a billionaire through writing for Knitting By Twilight. It’s just not that sort of music. I don’t have any false illusions about achieving those kinds of things. Any success to me is measured by speaking to you on the telephone or the fact that Knitting By Twilight music is received all around the world and is available in other countries. That’s fantastic stuff and very gratifying to me. Whatever income stream happens from that, great, but it’s not designed for that.
METRONOME: Who were the principles in Overflower?
JO: Mark and Jason Bouchard. The brothers Bouchard. I was actually the last one in. They asked Karen to be in the band first. The three of them were already working on the music with a drum machine and then I came in. They quickly decided that wasn’t working out and needed the feel of a real person. I’m thankful that they saw the light. I loved the music and meeting Karen was a major consideration... and I was able to contribute to the writing. We did that for nearly five years time.
There’s actually another album that’s been recorded which I think is the finest work we ever did together. It’s just in the can as the phrase goes.
METRONOME: After Overflower ceased playing and recording, what happened?
JO: When the Bouchard boys went on sabbatical, as I often do, I got back to Knitting By Twilight. The first thing that came out was Moments of Suspension. By that time I had a lot of Knitting By Twilight music that I had recorded at various times whenever I could. But they weren’t pieces... I’m very big on themes. They were kind of disparate in theme. I couldn’t put them together in a thematic way that made any sense to me for an album. So I released them on Moments of Suspension which was a compilation of music from all the acts that record or release music on it’s Twilight Time. There were five Knitting By Twilight tracks that were recorded during that interim period while I was in Overflower. So the compilation in 2003, Moments of Suspension made sense. That also had Overflower music on it and a progressive group that I play with every now and again called Incandescent Sky. Those musicians are all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire so we get together once or twice a year and record. The recorded output from that situation is slow as you
can imagine. We love playing together. There was also a Blue Shift Signal track that hadn’t been previously released.
Then Incandescent Sky went in to a fairly busy period for us where we were getting together once a month which was quite a lot for us. That was 2004. We released an album called Glorious Stereo in 2005. That same year, a Knitting By Twilight EP came out called Someone To Break The Silence. We did another Incandescent Sky record called Paths and Angles. I believe that was in 2006. Then I wrote the music for the CD, An Evening Out Of Town. That took quite a while. I went through some rewrites because it’s mostly about the passing of my mom. I had an entire CD ready to be released in 2007, but then she passed away that same year. All of a sudden, none of the music made any sense to me so I scrapped most of it and rewrote it. You only have one mom.
Rewriting the music was my way of getting through the passing of my mom. It was cathartic and it also paid homage to her.
METRONOME: Was your mom musically inclined?
JO: It’s a funny thing, I was just talking to someone a few days ago who asked me the same question. There’s no one in my family... I had to go back generations to find anyone who played an instrument of any kind. I had to go back 150 years to find someone who was a classical percussionist in a symphony orchestra in Naples, Italy. An aunt of mine researches such things and found this classical percussionist in Italy. He was a cousin.
METRONOME: It’s remarkable that he was a percussionist as well?
JO: Right. I was very pleased to find that out. But that’s the payoff. If you have to go back 150 years, the least that could happen for you is that whoever it might be plays the same instrument. I was really pleased that he was a symphony player and that he played tuned percussion.
My mom and dad both had great knowledge of music but never had the ability or opportunity to play an instrument. The early days for me were pulling the pots and pans out of the cupboard and then playing them with the wooden cooking spoons. Those were the early days. Then in grade school, I went to Catholic school for elementary school. I was always drumming on the desk and the nuns, bless their hearts, recognized this innate sense of rhythm which is greatly helpful. It’s
great when it’s purely a gift. If you have a natural ability, that’s quite a starting point. I’m so thankful that I had rhythm as a small child before I could walk around. Those are the early days. I have many fond memories of my mom having to grab my hands at dinner.
Then my father, much to his credit, to test the seriousness of his son, bought one drum. “Have that for a couple of years.” Then one cymbal. I didn’t have a whole drum set for many years. But he had a lot of foresight with that because not only did it test my seriousness but it made me really clever with one instrument. I had to find ways of getting all these tones out of the one snare drum which of course benefited me later on. I didn’t know it at the time that it would benefit me later. I was frustrated at the time. I wished I had this, this, and this. I’m glad it happened that way though. It was a good learning tool for me.
METRONOME: Are you the principle songwriter for Knitting By Twilight?
JO: I am the principle songwriter. As I said earlier, I have no facility for stringed instruments at all. I just happened, happily, to know some wonderful guitar players. I usually start from a rhythmic
foundation. Sometimes that’s a drum set but more often the last few records I’ve been moving in to the symphony player’s approach where I’ve been orchestrating different instruments like a tympani or glockenspiel or pitched cymbals where I’ll sketch out a rhythmic foundation that’s very musical. I will record that and bring that disc to Karen and the lads and say, this is the basic arrangement. I will ask for as many ideas as they get, play them all and have the wonderful opportunity to choose what works. Being the director is great because you have the final word (laughs), which is no small compensation I must say. You have to be very tactful. Although, by this time they can all sense
the direction it’s going in.
METRONOME: Do you always have a theme in mind for each album?
JO: I try to have a theme and direction in mind. That’s not as hard as you might think. I’m never writing for commercial reasons. Some people are very clever and know where the hit part of the song should come in. I’m not concerned with those matters.
METRONOME: How do the song ideas strike you?
JO: It can be a snippet of a conversation I’m having with somebody. It can be a chapter in a book. It can be a film I really love. There are a lot of ideas out there. You just need to receive them. Working in the arts, I think that’s fairly natural for most of us. We get ideas from other art. Other disciplines. I find a lot of analogies with what I do in the world of film, particularly the sound editors and visual editors that have to put together scenes and put together music that fits a scene. That’s not so far and away from what I’m doing. I think in many ways, I’m a frustrated cinematographer. I’d love to be able to do that. I think that would be great fun. In another life, that’s something that maybe I did, or maybe I’ll do it in another lifetime.
METRONOME: I find that your album covers are very cinematic.
JO: Thanks, Knitting By Twilight is supposed to be a music and art presentation. The reason for that is so I can work with the artwork in that way. My wife, in addition to being a wonderful musician is also a graphic artist, so that helps. I can come to her with ideas and she can bring them to fruition. I have no drawing skills whatsoever (laughs). We’d really like to expand the art side of it because Karen and I both fancy to have that be a larger presentation. I’ve been thinking of going to an antique store and picking up one of those old book and record jackets the size of 45 sleeves. as potential models for design.
METRONOME: Tell me about you record label it’s Twilight Time.
JO: Like Knitting By Twilight, it just became a living breathing entity of its own. Originally it became just a releasing imprint for me and Knitting By Twilight, but then I felt I needed to extend the branch out to other similar thinking musicians who might want to be a part of what we’re doing. It’s still a homegrown effort, but it’s growing. It’s nice to see.
METRONOME: Where is the best place for people to track you down and buy your music?
JO: We’re available at the usual places; CDBaby, iTunes and Dig Station. All of those places are on our web site at www.itstwilightmusic.com. Of course you can order direct. We have a mail order shop where you can get all the releases that we have:
it’s Twilight Time, P.O. Box 40112, Providence, Rhode Island 02940.
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