1/6: Linda Chorney, Public Nominee No. 1

It doesn’t get any more stars ‘n stripes than Linda Chorney — seen here strumming “Say No to Sarah” in a vid capture that does NOT refer to Sarah Jarosz — as the AmeriControversial musician preps to storm the gates of Grammy-lot with an intimate gig at Asbury’s Wonder Bar this very night.

She stands accused of “gaming the system;” a heinous offense that puts her on a par with any banned-from-Bally’s casino card counter — although we prefer to picture Catherine Zeta Jones in Entrapment, slinking under the laser alarms while doing a human hack into some hitherto impermeable layers of security.

She’s been placed in the middle of conspiracy theories involving the most shadowy Star Chambers of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) — in the same breath that she’s been cast as a carpetbagging, not-one-of-us interloper; a distaff Professor Harold Hill with a folding merch table and a smaller horn section.

She’s been called manipulating, fake, a player of house parties (?) — even, Helen Help Us, a “Poster Child for a Paradigm Shift.”

She’s also got a lot of people out there — including past Grammy winners and biz bigwigs — reaching for the phrase “You Go, Girl” in her defense. NARAS awards VP Bill Freimuth even went on record in Variety to point out that she’s played it strictly by the rules, and that she was “very diligent in her pursuit of attention by the Grammy voters, and it evidently paid off. Enough of the voters received her communications, listened to her music, thought it was worthwhile and voted for it.”

But Jeez Loweezy, you’d think that Linda Chorney was some kind of Carmen Sandiego villainess, the way that folks in certain rustic corners of the music industry have their polkadot bloomers in a bindle over her continued existence.

What the 51 year old, Beantown-bred, Sea Bright-seasoned singer and songwriter is at this moment is HOT — not just hotter than anything else born during the Ike administration or reliably flush with talent, but a hot topic of conversation; blazing with controversy and studio-tanning in the spotlight of public scrutiny.

Yeah, we’re well aware that we just did a feature on LaChorn a few weeks ago, but the circumstances surrounding the “local, Shore based” musician’s appearance on the national stage — including this oft-quoted story in Variety and some coast-to-coast radio guestings — are simply too tantalizing to ignore. Especially in the numbing lull of a Jersey Shore January.

To refresh your memory: Chorney — like any Upper Wet Side artist worth her salt water taffy, a relentlessly DIY self promoter with the scary skills to back up any blip of bluster — released last year her sixth and by far most ambitious album of her 30 year career, a doublewide sensation called Emotional Jukebox. An epic yet intimate moodswing sonata that traced its way home past territories controlled by pop, folk, country, R&B, classic rock covers and a fully arranged chamber symphony, the album boasted well known musicians, groovy graphics, playful sneetches of humor and a boundary-busting worldview born of an era in which recording artists — with the help of seemingly unlimited studio budgets (Chorney’s project was financed in full by a single philanthropic phan) — aimed for the stars and pushed the envelope of studio time ‘n space.

So smitten was Chorney herself over the quality of her labor-intensive babydrop — and so disheartened over the prospect of its disappearing into the black hole where “local records” go to die — that she decided to get it nominated for a Grammy. Which, while laughably improbable, is at least theoretically possible given the increasingly heightened presence of Grammy 365, the peer-to-peer social network via which NARAS members can hep each other to new sounds in an increasingly fragmented, post-everything industrial landscape.

Long story short, when the dust cleared for the announcement of the 54th Grammy Award nominations, there was Emotional Jukebox, nominated (in the company of several serial Grammy winners) as Best Americana Album — a development that didn’t exactly inspire the Nashville-based Americana Music Association to send her a congratulatory Edible Arrangement. But, not to put too hyperbolic a spin on it, it was a pretty history-making moment — the first time by our reckoning that such an uber-indie, DIY, far-from-mainstream recording had cracked the Grammy circle. We’re willing to wager that it won’t be the last.

UpperWETside managed to corral this 30-year music biz underdog for a phone interview before having to take a number behind Vanity Fair, and found her busily shopping for a gown with which to make a grand entrance — a little above and beyond the call of duty just for talking to our little blog, if you ask us, but then Linda Chorney never does anything halfway. Read on, pilgrim…

Her song (and Red Bank-shot video) “Tea Bag Party People” might have cost Linda Chorney a fan or friend or five (and made her even more new true “blue” ones) — but it was a tempest in a teapot compared to the Wrath of AmeriKhan swirling about the Sea Bright singer these days. Bonus points awarded for picking up on the cheesily unsubtle hint regarding a blind item in this article. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)

upperWETside: A gown? Really, you shouldn’t have. But if you’re red-carpeting at the Grammys, are you planning on Björking it up with something like the swan-egg accessory, or the Gaga meat-dress (“Who are you wearing?” “Stew Leonard”) angle?

LINDA CHORNEY: It’s actually made of swan meat. Seriously, it’s a nice dress, not a formal gown, although I haven’t found the right  accessories to go with it just yet.

I hate to ask this, but are we even going to be able to catch a glimpse of you in your dress at the awards show? Is Americana even one of the categories that gets announced on TV?

They’ve included it in a during-the-day simulcast part of the show, separate from the big prime-time special — it’s actually a good show, with really cool people performing.

So there’s such a thing as a secret, cool Grammys that most of America doesn’t get to see…I guess that kind of speaks to my biggest problem here, which is that for as long as I’ve been a smug, music-obsessed jerkoff I’ve been trained to view the Grammys as a total joke; the antithesis of anything cool or indie or built to last into next week. As the great old song goes, “Why Try To Change Me Now?

Hopefully I’m changing you just a little bit…the Grammys don’t have to be a joke, or something based strictly upon sales, or airplay or magazine covers. If you really care about music, it should be about recognizing the best of what’s out there each year.

We saw a little preview of what you’re going through at last year’s awards; a lot of people appeared blindsided by Esperanza Spalding’s big win, like she literally came out of nowhere when Justin Bieber was, you know, supposed to win…

It’s really not supposed to be about anything other than the music, and that’s what makes my being nominated such a sweet victory, regardless of how it all plays out. I look it at as my working against the machine — the entrenched structure in the industry; the gatekeepers and the tastemakers. And what the corporations have dictated, as the industry has changed out from beneath them, is not the way things used to be.

Even the people who are considered “indies” have a friggin’ label behind them; a corporate team of people whose job it is to see that they get nominated. I just have me.

In the end it’s really between me and my peers — musicians are peers with ears, and most musicians are very supportive of each other. A lot of musicians know what it’s like to work hard, to pile in the van and make shit for money. They’re much more likely to look past the name recognition and the record sales. I’m very fortunate, humbled and touched that so many voted for me.

Well, among the many ridiculous overreactions to how you’ve gone about things is this sense that you’re something akin to a teenage hacker, who somehow sabotaged the network, changed your test scores and “gamed” the system without leaving your dorm room. In actual fact you are pretty much a contemporary of someone like Lucinda Williams — a veteran gigging pro, who’s put all of the available resources to work for herself to create that opportunity that never came your way through the conventional channels.

I tell people that I took the scenic route, the back roads, to the Grammys. I make no secret of the fact that I’ve been at this a long time; I’ve done many years worth of little local shows but I’ve also made it a point to use music as a way to travel and see the world.

I’ve had my brushes with opportunity; I did break into the top 40, I shared the stage with some big name acts, and I had my deal negotiations with major labels — one of them fell apart when the A&R person I was working with got replaced by someone else.

That’s something that happens even to the biggest of them. I guess this is a good time to emphasize that the controversy over your nomination is NOT coming from the Grammy people…you worked within the process that they established themselves, and they’ve stood by it.

After trying for 25 years to get my music heard by a wider audience, I saw Grammy 365 as my best chance to be noticed. It’s like a lottery ticket for an indie musician — only instead of relying on pure luck, you have an edge. It’s your music that gives you the edge.

Do you think, though, that they might try to institute some kind of “Linda’s Law” in the wake of all this brouhaha; make it just that much more difficult for a total unknown to gain entree to their popular-kids clique from out of left field?

No, I don’t think that will happen — not from NARAS. If anything I think it will open everyone up to the reality of what a musician needs to do to make their way in the business these days.

I’m certainly not the only musician who’s attempted to do what I did. You’re going to be hearing from a lot more people who don’t have the support of a big machine behind them — Arlan Feiles for one.

After I got the nomination, and after I started getting backlash from certain places, I heard from some other people who worked through Grammy 365, and they were telling me, ‘I’m glad it was you and not me…I don’t think I could handle some of the things they’re saying about you.’

 (Photo by Danny Sanchez)

A lot of that backlash is just incredible, and I gotta say incredibly entertaining to watch from the sidelines. It’s shot through with a shrapnel-bomb’s worth of irony, not the least of which is the fact that you worked very hard on the album, and worked very hard to get it heard…a fucking all-American Horatio Alger scenario, with maybe a Dickensian benefactor to keep things interesting. 

You worked, as I said, entirely within the process that was made available to musicians like you. You got the attention of thousands of people, and enough of them — these people whose reputations are not being called into question, and who I’m assuming you couldn’t afford to bribe — thought that your album was good enough to rate with Levon Helm and the rest. 

If that’s cheating, then it seems like it’s way more hard work than it’s worth. And still you’re getting this laughably sanctimonious heat, even in a landscape where, maybe more than ever, TV shows dictate what goes on at the top of the pop charts.

Basically it doesn’t even seem like a music or entertainment story anymore…it’s playing out like pure politics. It’s as if you’re an outsider candidate making an ambitious run at a public office where a lot of entrenched forces have lined up against you.

It really does feel like I wandered into the political arena some days — like how everyone’s first impulse when dealing with a newcomer candidate is to discredit that person. It seems similar to how they tried to discredit Obama for being a community organizer — and when that didn’t work, they painted him as a “celebrity,” a Muslim, a Kenyan.

People have tried to say that I cheated, and that didn’t work. Then they tried to make like I didn’t have the mileage or pay my dues, and that didn’t stick either. So now they’re just saying that I suck. I feel like I’ve taken the Evelyn Wood speed course on being a celebrity.

It’s interesting that a lot of the most negative stuff is coming from down South — it’s almost broken down along Civil War lines, just like in what passes for political commentary. There’s an effort to try and discredit someone simply by making stuff up — and I don’t understand when and why it became acceptable to be so unethical.

Well, I’m sure it’s gotta sting — even some of the people who’ve defended your methods have tripped all over themselves to point out that they still weren’t down with your music. But you seem to have weathered all of this with your customary good humor, and I would say that you’ve developed a thick enough skin to really run for office someday…for better or worse, you are officially a public figure, and getting publicker all the time.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do radio interviews, magazines, websites, including yours — I pick and choose. This can’t be for publication just yet, but I may be doing (REDACTED)!

On the other hand, there’s the critic who insists that I should “do the right thing” and withdraw my nomination; that my music makes him want to projectile vomit — I laughed out loud over that one. I mean, you can have your opinion about somebody’s music, but I think it’s worth pointing out the caliber of the people who worked on my album — Will Lee; Lisa Fischer who has toured with the Rolling Stones; Shawn Pelton from the SNL band — these people are just brilliant players.

A lot of the criticism is coming from the machine; the established associations. And just like in national politics, they’re the ones who make the most noise, where you don’t necessarily hear from the ones who are satisfied.

You have to examine the source of a lot of this controversy — this same grumpy old man from Texas, preaching to a choir of folks who didn’t get in for the Grammy nominations. And a lot of people who don’t stand to profit from what I do.

Even Bonnie Raitt, who I just love, is not immune to getting that sort of crap from the same sort of people.

The same Bonnie Raitt whose first albums are probably as close to a blueprint for the “Americana” thing as you could find — only they predate the whole cobbled-together category by several decades, coming out in a time when just about everything under the sun got tossed into the big bin of Rock.

I guess that leads into the question of how you yourself define Americana, since a big part of their problem seems to be the fact that nobody’s yet pinned this whole artificial genre down to anyone’s satisfaction.

I don’t have a whole lot of use for it myself — and even less use for an official trade association and a self-appointed Roots Music Authority — even though I happen to like a lot of what goes on under that tent. 

You could say it’s a lot of alt-country people who didn’t feel welcome within the larger and lamer Nashville thing, thrown in with a lot of aging and more or less irrelevant rockers, plus a formerly uncategorizable weirdo or three. I mean, someone like Robert Plant gets a pass… 

Well…YOU could say that! That’s your opinion. I would say that it’s still a fairly new category, and you could expect a certain amount of debate and discussion. I think that what a lot of the people who work within the category have in common is that they’ve been squeezed out from mainstream radio and other places; that they invented this for some of the people who felt excluded from the spotlight.

I wanted to mention a musician named Aaron White; someone whose work I like very much — he’s a native American Indian, and he told me that they smashed so many genres together that the only REAL Americana has to be Native American music.

But it’s worth mentioning again the caliber of the people that I’ve been nominated with — Ry Cooder, Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams. That so many people considered me worthy of being included in that kind of company is extremely satisfying and humbling after so many years of struggling in the music business.

Now, the Americana category happened to be the one in which you secured a nomination, but not the only one in which you entered your album…

When you listen to Emotional Jukebox, you hear a lot of different styles and influences — you’ve got a jazzish tune in “Do It While You Can;” an R&B song with “Broken Promise Land;” then “Cherries” is a folk Americana type of song, and you’ve even got an entire symphonic piece. I submitted in several different categories — and all of them accepted the album.

After I submitted for the Americana category, after I received the nomination and went through all that flak, I went and researched the Americana charts for every year since 2003. A large chunk of that music had a country twang to it, while other things had more of a rock or folk feel. It’s a real hodgepodge, and I saw no reason why my music wouldn’t fit there too.

What if your album had wound up nominated in another category like folk or rock or whatever? Do you think you would have encountered the same degree of pushback from those circles?

No, I don’t think so.

So what happens next, win or lose? A big label contract, endorsements, entourage, children’s album?

I’ve already received all sorts of offers — I’m not surrounded by corporate handlers, and I have to take into consideration the areas in which an artist makes money these days.

So things like t-shirts and merchandise become important — I want to mention that my WHO THE F$%# IS LINDA CHORNEY? shirts are on sale through my website. You can download Emotional Jukebox for $9.99 from CD Baby until the Grammys. And I hope that everybody can come by the Wonder Bar on Friday night!

Whatever happens, I’m laughing about it, I’m loving it — and I’m gonna write a book about it called Grammygate!

So it’s set then: Chorney 2016!

I’ll be running as Vice President on a ticket with Neil deGrasse Tyson!

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