By Robin Linn
……..is a concept born from a wildly diverse background and the merging of two great talents with several creative influences? JP Houston and his new bride Julie Van Dusen have created a brand new concept by combining vintage influences with their musical and acting talents. APS is a radio program. It’s a live show. It’s a love story. It’s a fresh new idea inspired by one of the first forms of American entertainment…the great American radio show. Influenced by nostalgic radio show programs such as Jack Benny….but in this case it’s “Say goodnight JULIE”. American Parlor Songbook begins with a new twist on an old idea and incorporates in-studio performance art featuring some of the hottest new music acts to come out of our region.
I first met JP at the Joshua Tree Saloon. I heard him at Ted Quinn’s Variety show and thought he was JT’s answer to Billy Joel and Elton John…all rolled up into one. We chatted on the patio that evening, and I learned he would be playing with my friends in Waxy that coming weekend. It was a Kyuss reunion show and also a benefit for my dear family friends Sean and Amy Poag, whose toddler son had been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer.
When Waxy played that weekend, I was blown away by JP’s contribution on the keys. He had incorporated some vibey electronic sounds using pedals attached to a keyboard. It was a broad and bold jump from the piano man I had witnessed just days before in the high desert.
Since that day I have seen JP in a number of musical situations. Each of them JP brings a humble and welcoming presence and top notch level of musicianship. His ability to win over a room with his gentle demeanor and comedic dialogue while single handedly whipping out tune after tune is nothing to balk at. From a gig at a jet setter country club to the studio of NPR/KCVR….JP is a consummate professional, a warm individual, and a beautiful entertainer.
This week I tuned into American Parlor Songbook and listened to half a dozen past episodes. What I discovered was a wealth of local talent such as David Macias and his band Machin’, Chris Unck with partner Gabriella Evaro, The Black Tongue Bells, and a dozen other completely original and unique musical artists I had never before experienced. Newlyweds JP and Julie have combined their variety show satire with JP’s piano man performance to blend the type of old school radio show program Jack Benny was famous for. American Parlor Songbook is regularly featured on our local internet radio program, Radio Free Joshua Tree as well as on KCVR, a public broadcast radio station out of Santa Monica. The show is being syndicated this season and new stations are picking it up all the time. This season JP and Julie will also be recording in New York and we will be privy to some fresh east coast talent as well. I imagine that one of those east coast shows will include Jane Lee Hooker, an all-girl blues band featuring JP’s sister on drums. Jane Lee Hooker will be appearing at Pappy & Harriet’s on February 1st. I will be in Texas that week but recommend catching their show.
I asked JP and Julie the following questions and will share their answers in their own beautiful words. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.
RL: Briefly tell me about your introduction to music and a bit of personal background?
JP: Growing up in Toronto, my parents were creative types…my father a journalist, my mother a theater person. She had a Shirley Temple type act in the 40s raising war bonds in Canadian theaters. They had crazy friends that were dancers, singers, actors, writers, and artists. They threw big parties with everyone around the piano singing standards and show tunes. Those gatherings were a big influence on me, and the show.
I was the youngest of 9. We all put on plays and played music in the basement. Most of the family went into other fields. My sister Melissa and I went into music and entertainment. She became a professional drummer and lives in New York City. She has a great band, Jane Lee Hooker, an all-girl blues, rock group. They do lots of cool covers of deep blues cuts. They’ll be up at Pappy & Harriet’s the first of February. I’m really excited for people out here to hear her play.
RL: I understand you worked with the PBS program, Sesame Street. Tell me more about that?
JP: As a teen in Toronto, I became pretty well known in bars. I played in bands, and on my own since age 14, often needing a note from my parents to get into venues. I self-released cassettes of my songs. One of those albums got passed from a daughter to a mother… Cheryl Wagner, who was producing a new children’s series. They got in touch and arranged a meeting. I showed up, 17 years old, hopped on the piano and banged out a bunch of original muppet-ish songs. They hired me on the spot. That began a long relationship with Radical Sheep Productions. The company was founded by Rob Mills, a former Henson puppeteer. I became their songwriter and over 10 years we created many series and hundreds of episodes with lots of awards and accolades. I was nominated for best score at the Geminis (Canadian Emmy equivalent) The biggest series we did in the U.S. was The Big Comfy Couch, which was a hit on PBS for a decade. There were toys, touring productions, and even a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. It was an amazing experience to have a song float down the street in that event! I still do composing work for various film and television productions. I’m working on a song for a Danish film this week.
RL: What inspires you musically?
JP: My biggest influences are probably on my sleeve. From a young age I was in love with storytellers, mostly on pianos… Billy Joel, Paul Williams, Freddy Mercury, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson…and later, discovered the older generation, Hoagy Carmichael, Coal Porter, George Gershwin, all the Hollywood composers.
My goal is always to write songs with melodies you can sing, and interesting stories, or ideas, or even jokes. I write two kinds of songs. The first are assigned pieces. I always try to stay honest and free when writing to order, but there is definitely more craft involved in the process. The second is from inspiration….my personal songs. Inspiration comes anywhere from true love to the weather.
The second type of songs on APS are a combination of the two. They are assignments due to the time constraints of broadcast schedule, and in the sense that they have to fit the theme of the show. But since I’m creating the theme, they are from inspiration at the same time.
RL: How did you meet Julie?
JP: I met Julie at The Joshua Tree Saloon. She had just moved to the area. We were introduced by a mutual friend, a brief hello on her way out. I turned to my friend Ray Woods and said “I want to marry her.” Our first date was at Pappy and Harriet’s at our friend Ted Quinn’s open mic. I must admit it was a clever ruse to get on stage and sing love songs!
RL: How has she impacted your life and your music?
JP: We instantly began improvising together. Everywhere we went we were doing characters and voices. I had worked comedy clubs before and had sort of forgotten that side of myself. In rock and roll, it’s not cool to be light or funny in songs. I’d reached a point where I was getting bored with a lot of what rock is, posturing, shoe gazing… and I wanted to find a way to change course. Meeting Julie inspired me to bring humor back into things. I also knew I didn’t want to continue spending my time in vans and bars. So it made sense to come up with something we could do together… something that allowed me to sing and write songs, and both of us to perform. The show was born of that. Adding up all of the things we liked doing. Put those together with my background in Television and production, and out comes APS. The show wouldn’t exist without Julie, that’s for sure, we’re a team. It’s such a nice surprise in life, the kind of thing you dream of…
RL: When did you conceive the idea for your American Parlor Songbook?
JP: I hid a small black and white TV under my bed as an 8 year old. I would sneak under to watch Johnny Carson on school nights. As a teen, I discovered old radio shows. I bought cassette tapes of George and Gracie, Jack Benny, all those old greats. From back then, I always fantasized about a show. When I met Julie, I knew I found Gracie, so it just came together. I started kicking around format ideas and writing things. I decided we needed to go for it and start making episodes. I knew we’d need to iron out the kinks before taking it anywhere. We spent a few months doing weekly shows. Once we had the format dialed in, I approached KVCR about picking up the show.
RL: Have there been any stand out guests for you on the APS show, anyone that musically inspired you?
JP: There have been so many great guests. It’s been a lot of fun, and very rewarding getting to help people get some air time. Everyone we’ve had on has been really talented. Machin’ impressed me right away. They’re really original and entertaining. David Macias writes great songs, and the arrangements are so interesting.
RL: What is your vision with this radio program?
JP: Creatively, I want to expand the show. I’m developing ideas to take the content to really surprising places. I want to push the envelope and bend the medium a little. We’ll be doing a couple of episodes this year that will give a clue of what I’m talking about. Expect it to get a little weirder, and more original, and maybe break the radio 4th wall a little… But overall, the goal is an entertaining show.
Our goal is national broadcast, and we are working hard to make that happen. RFJT are a great group of people and we love having the show on there. And our first station, KVCR has been great. We’ve been really happy working with Rick Dulock, the program director over there. He’s been a great help teaching us the ropes of the radio format and business. We’re aiming to make the jump to an hour program soon. We hope to add a few more stations this season. We’re working on a plan with our agent to push for a national distributor. We are definitely aiming for public radio. I like the non-commercial freedom, and it seems like the most interesting stuff is on PR these days.
RL: What do you have planned for APS in 2014?
JP: We’ve got 8 shows recorded ahead. Those will air the next couple of months. We start taping more episodes at the end of February. We’ll be announcing dates in Palm Springs, Lake Arrowhead, Joshua Tree and Claremont soon. We’ll do another 8 in California, before we head back east. Then we’ll record 6 shows in the mid-west to round out the season. We should hit 32 episodes by July. Then in fall, we’ll start a fresh batch
RL: Do you have other creative aspirations for yourself in the future in addition to what you are doing with APS?
JP: I’ll always work away on albums. I’ve been slowly building my next one for a couple of years. I’m thinking I’ll put something out in 2015. I’m constantly writing screenplays and teleplays. I absolutely see myself producing a film or television show in the next few years. Another thing that has always been on deck is a musical. I completed one about 10 years ago that got tied up with rights issues and won’t see the light of day. But I’ve written an outline and some songs for another. It’s one of those things that everyone bugs me to do. I guess it seems like a natural with my songwriting style. One of these days I’ll get one out there I’m sure.
About the process of the show…I write the show starting with an idea for a theme which could be based on anything….the season, a feeling, a concept. I always write the monologue first and then the featured story, then I’ll work on the sketches. Julie and I improvise around the house. I pull characters and lines from those improvs. Then I boil them down into the skits. You can hear a little taste of us going off on the uncensored outtake I posted on the website…
I love playing rock and roll, and have had the privilege of playing with some great folks. I had a lot of fun helping out Gram Rabbit on their country stuff. They’re talented folks who always work really hard. Over the last couple of years I’ve worked a bunch with Brian Bell from Weezer on his side project The Relationship. I had a couple of fun little tours with him. His music is really intricately arranged, and was an interesting challenge to reproduce live. Waxy was a great time, and Robbie Waldman is a good friend. It was cool to apply keyboards to such guitar riff based music. Always having to try and invent what made sense. We got into using pedals on the electric piano in some really cool ways. And our tour in Europe with Kyuss was a blast. Although I can tell you it’s no fun to change Wurlitzer reeds in the basement of a German theater 2 minutes before show time.
JULIE VAN DUSEN
RL: Julie….give me a brief bit of background on where you come from, your connection to music, and your creative aspirations….and your version of how you and JP met?
JULIE: I grew up in Northern Michigan. As far back as I can remember I’ve had the desire to entertain people. I was always interested in dancing, singing, and acting. I narrowed it down to acting and pursued that in my education. I attended the theater program at the Interlochen Arts Academy in high school, and then at Oakland University for my BA. Acting in the theater department at Oakland lead to my professional work in Detroit. I performed in plays like Psycho Beach Party, Twelfth Night, Diary of Anne Frank, and Hair. I also did improv and comedy regionally in Michigan.
I come from a musical family and dabbled in a few instruments, but found that my strongest connection to music was through Dance. Music has always inspired me. It makes me move, it makes me happy. Although I don’t often sing on stage, you might catch me belting along to my Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb record at home. I feel lucky that I live with someone who creates music for a living. I get to peak behind the curtain to see how it happens. It amazes me how it all comes together, and how talented he is.
My goal is to entertain people with something genuine. I’m an actor at heart, and I’m so happy to have the show. It’s amazing to be able to play so many characters week to week. Creating the show has really been this amazing bonus. I feel like the show is a gift that JP created, not just for the audience but for me. It’s a cool thing on its own, and it also gives us a way to share our work life together. I get to do what I love with the person that I love. When you’re on stage and things come up, like a change in a line or a light goes out… Since we are so close, we have an extra ability to communicate. We just know what each other are thinking.
Check out American Parlor Songbook and past episodes on their website at: http://www.americanparlorsongbook.com/
Check out Jane Lee Hooker (JP’s sister from NYC) on Youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU1g-Pz-pmQ