Get ready to wrap your brain around this lyricist from Latvia enjoying the sunny side of California. Whether it’s good, old-fashioned “California Dreamin’”or a dream of one day playing with Sting or Eric Clapton, Maxim Senin is definitely on the right path. Maxim had an excellent quote that I’d like to share with you right now before you get into the whole interview: “Songs are like children, and when you let them go into the world you worry about them, and you want them to succeed.” With a debut EP out titled ‘The Taming of the Wolf’, Mr. Maxim Senin is sure to be a howling success!
J Rae: So I see that you grew up in Riga, Latvia (formerly the USSR) and now you’ve been living in Long Beach, California for the last 13 years. I have to ask what was that transition like going from Latvia to California? I have to imagine that the whole move from one country to another had to have been quite a culture shock for you.
Maxim Senin: Definitely! Coming to LA in the middle of winter was the first shock — stepping out of the airplane I was still dressed in two layers: from -15F in Moscow to +72F in LA in 13 hours. Not only was there no snow on the streets, but people wore shorts, grew oranges in their gardens and there were blooming flowers on their loans. LAPD cops looked even cooler in real life than in the movies. Girls, not boys, played soccer, and cars yielded to pedestrians. Took a while to figure out how to tip properly, what a freeway is and why there are no pedestrians there, and that the word “friend” has pretty lose meaning here. Everybody who you’ve made eye contact with says hello and smiles at you [with a fake smile], while in Europe people believe they have the right not to be talked to. But I was in my early twenties, and this is the age when everything was possible. Moving to another country with a one-way ticket, only $1,500 in the pocket (my entire savings), and a spork? Sure, why not? Ha-ha.
“Sing To Me”
J Rae: Could you tell us all what your favorite Latvian cuisine is and your #1 American dish? Please feel free to give the readers a solid description for each with plenty of details. Give us a five-course menu!
Maxim Senin: It’s all simple rustic peasant dishes: meat and potatoes (stewed or fried) are the staple, rye bread, a lot of soups (you need hot liquids in winter), smoked or grilled or pickled herring, lots of fresh vegetables. I miss picking berries and mushrooms in the woods in summer and fall. “Herring under fur coat“ — a layer of pickled herring under a layer of diced onions under a layer of diced boiled red beats under a layer of diced eggs under a layer of sour cream or mayo. There are a couple of traditional cheeses. There’s a brewery that’s been around since 1865. Pickled mushrooms.
American dish? Don’t take it the wrong way, but it’s not for me. Perhaps a nice New York steak. Define “American”? Does BLT qualify as a “dish” or “food”? I love Indian, Greek and Japanese food.
J Rae: And yes BLT’s absolutely do count as an All-American dish/food that I happen to enjoy once in a while myself–BLT’s for EVERYONE!
J Rae: What was the reason behind moving to the United States?
Maxim Senin: Short answer is career. Back in Latvia, as a software developer, I think I got as far as I could and it seemed like a small fishbowl. I wanted the ocean where the big fish swim.
J Rae: I gotta be honest when I say you have a pretty cool name and very original I might add. Do you get this a lot here in the U.S. and also does this help at all in the marketing & promotion of your music?
Maxim Senin: It’s a pretty common name where I’m from. There were 3 other Maxims besides me in my middle school class of 29 children. I may be wrong but the name has become popular thanks to the famous British machine gun widely used during World War I and Russian Civil War. But in America I have to spell it to people. I never thought it was “cool”, but now that you mention it, why not? It’s certainly memorable. As for marketing and promotion, that’s a whole separate conversation. I’ve tried a lot of things, but nobody is buying music anymore. First of all, anyone with a computer can make music at home now, so the market is flooded with content, and as the result the world is near the point where artists will have to pay listeners to get heard. The paradox of modern music business is that it’s the best time to make music and to consume music, and it’s also the worst time to be a musician.
J Rae: Besides having an immense passion for music, you are also a software engineer and private pilot and so could you tell the Skope readers a little bit more about this part of your life?
Maxim Senin: When I was a computer science student I dreamt about taking over the world by building the next Microsoft, and for that optimism I thank my professors at Riga Aviation University. We all were very optimistic about the future. Part of it was due to being very young and stupid, but I always wanted to impress my teachers and make them proud. I’m a pretty good engineer, and I enjoy solving problems. And it’s great to get paid for it, which is how I’m able to finance my expensive projects like music and flying. Always wanted to fly. Back in the USSR children could engage in any trade or hobby with unlimited after-school programs for free or next to nothing. Art and music were paid for by the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of culture (i.e. taxpayers), and sports by factories or the army. So my music lessons, drawing, carpentry, model airplane building, judo, figure skating, aero club, gymnastics and tons of other things I’ve tried were free or almost free. There was an army-sponsored aero club in my home city where I had some experience with parachutes and gliders. After moving to the States, it took almost 6 years before I discovered that flying is easily accessible here too, although it costs thousands of dollars to learn to fly here, but I wanted to get back into it. In the words of Pink Floyd, “there’s no sensation to compare with this, suspended animation, a state of bliss”. Want another great quote? “Once you’ve tasted the flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you’ll always long to return” (Leonardo da Vinci). This is so true! If I may add, everyone should be flying — after all, the taxpayers own the airspace. So having the education and a good job was the key to be able to get involved with music and flying.
J Rae: Your songs definitely exhibit the themes of love; all the good, bad & ugly associated with it. Where did the inspiration come from to incorporate themes of love within your music?
Maxim Senin: I like songs that tell a story. And one of the ways to tell a story in a personal way that people can relate to is to tell it in first person. The key here is to be honest. Although an honest song doesn’t need to be auto-biographical. I draw a lot from personal life and experiences, but many of my characters are often composites of me or people I met. Then the story needs to be shaped in the form of the song’s genre. For a blues song, there would be some sort of injustice, betrayal, poverty and bad grammar. I am particularly interested in stories involving love triangles where the main character is “caught between Scylla and Charybdis”, or what happens when one falls in love with a person who is not available, or some sort of unanswered love.
J Rae: The overall sound includes elements of rock & folk and it’s all very low-key to say the least. I, along with the Skope Universe, would like to know how this laid-back, easy-going style originated?
Maxim Senin: The main inspiration is the legend and guitar-God, Mark Knopfler. He doesn’t have a great vocal range — he almost whispers, but he is a great story-teller, and he can also be humorous and cynical while being optimistic. Another artist with similar sound and quality of lyrics is JJ Cale. His vocals are barely heard on the records. And yet they are so thoughtful and laid-back — this is the sound and philosophy of being a seen-it-all reflective middle-aged man.
J Rae: I couldn’t help but notice the major singer/songwriter vibe where you definitely have a lot to say! As a lyricist, what is the hardest thing about coming up with lyrics for a new song? What gets you in the zone and helps fuel the fire?
Maxim Senin: Drama, good or bad. The music is the escape and the healer. And writing things down helps to get one’s thought organized when one feels like going insane. There are songs that took me just a couple of hours to write, and some took almost a year. There’s a song I’ve been working on, on and off, for two years now. The rhymes themselves are not that difficult when you can arm yourself with online rhyming dictionaries. One of the challenges, I’ll put them in the “technical” category, is not letting the rhyme dictate the story. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of “love-dove-glove-shove-above” ha-ha.
The key is to get into my character’s shoes — as an actor would get into his role. And I also do quite a bit of research whenever the song’s story involves places, times or trade of some sort. For example, for my 2012 single “Chains of love” I’ve done a lot of reading on Greek mythology and metallurgy. In the end I dropped the mythical part from the song because only History and English majors could understand what I’m talking about, even though I liked it. Talk about over-engineering a song…
To get in the zone I need to get away from distractions of busy life, get into a coffee shop, where I’d outline the major story points, write down key verbs and build the song around that. But I also know I can’t force it. If I feel blocked or exhausted, I may put the song away for a day or a week and get back to it later, either when I’m in a state of mind that inspired the song, or when a new idea presents itself.
J Rae: With a debut EP out titled ‘The Taming of the Wolf’ how does it feel to have your very own release out that can be purchased & enjoyed by the public?
Maxim Senin: It’s a milestone. It feels the same way as a civil engineer feels when the bridge or a building he designed is finished, or the way a painter feels when a painting is completed. There’s some anxiety too — songs are like children, and when you let them go into the world you worry about them, and you want them to succeed.
J Rae: What was the drive behind the making of ‘The Taming of the Wolf’? I guess a “Behind The Music”-type answer would be perfect here!
Maxim Senin: As a beginner, and I still consider myself a beginner, I was worried about feedback and about being accepted and about measuring up to my idols and peers. But every artist has their first album, there’s no way around it, so I just wanted to get something out there and see what happens. And I wanted to share my songs with people, because I think that if they can relate to it, if I can strum their emotional strings, it will make them come back for more and will make them think about their lives too. I had a good theme for the album, so I could organize the songs.
J Rae: With one of your musical influences being Duran Duran I just have to ask if there is any correlation between the title of your EP and Duran Duran’s wildly successful single “Hungry Like The Wolf”? OR am I way off base here?
Maxim Senin: Uhm, a pretty loose correlation. Where I’m from, a wolf is a pretty common character of myths and fairytales, it’s something most Europeans, not only Russians, have grown up with. From “Little Red Riding Hood” to Russian fairytales and proverbs, a wolf is a common presence. The wolf is a proud & wild creature; he can be dangerous but he can also be gentle. There’s a Russian proverb, “no matter how long you feed a wolf, he keeps running away into the forest”, meaning you can never get a free and wild spirit out of him. It’s a great metaphor for a bachelor, similar to “taming of the shrew”. So that’s the real root of the idea. As far as Duran Duran is concerned, I haven’t experimented with Pop yet, but I certainly look up to them for song structure, poetry and the quality of stage performance.
J Rae: The Skope viewers would be pretty impressed to find out that not only did you write all of the songs on ‘The Taming of the Wolf’ but that you also played all of the instruments including: acoustic guitar, piano, ukulele, harmonica, keyboard and all percussion parts. What made you want to get involved with so many different instruments throughout your life?
Maxim Senin: First of all, I was fascinated with layering various tracks on top of each other and watching how a song comes to life and changes colors and shades, and how various voices of instruments affect the structure and even genre of the song. Secondly, I wanted to see how far along I can take it on my own — to find my own limits. I also wanted to develop a method to composing a recording. What comes first, the melody or the rhythm? And finally, there’s a business reason — playing everything myself saves me tons of money.
Both my parents were very good piano players with classical training, and they wanted me to master at least one instrument. In first grade they bought me a little violin, the smallest one. As I mentioned before, those lessons were free, but the teacher was yelling at me a lot, and then turned me off. Instead I found carpentry lessons in the basement of the same building and drawing lessons on the third floor. Good teachers are so important when you are a little kid!
Later they sent me to piano lessons, but we could not afford to buy a piano, and renting was prohibitively expensive too. The last time I tried to get into piano was in 5th grade. My grandparents helped financially with a piano purchase. But that didn’t last. The economy collapsed and the piano was sold so we could buy food.
I played clarinet for several years and I was pretty good. Guitar… I tried to pick it up several times in my childhood but lacked mentoring and motivation. It wasn’t until I attended a university when I realized that carrying around a guitar case makes it so much easier to get phone numbers from girls! Ha-ha! And my little brother was just starting his guitar lessons, so I picked up a couple of chords from him.
But I only started playing more or less seriously only a few years ago when I was unemployed for several months. I was a mature adult, I had some understanding and knowledge of music, and for the first time I had a goal that wasn’t imposed by my parents! I don’t mean it in a negative way — I’m eternally thankful to them for pushing me! I also now knew a method to learning to play instruments, and I could apply that method to expanding my knowledge. Much in the same way as someone who knows Italian will have less difficulty learning Spanish — because there are so many similarities. Going from guitar to ukulele is not that hard, and so is learning to play a recorder after playing clarinet for many years. And finally, right now there are so many resources online about playing instruments! There’s no excuse to not play music! Mark my words, any parents out there!
J Rae: The debut is just the beginning for you because there is talk of a full-length album in the works along with heavy promotion on your part. Would you mind delving more into this for the entire Skope viewing audience?
Maxim Senin: Releasing the EP was a major milestone: many valuable lessons were learned, and feedback and criticism was also important. One of the things I realized is that I can’t play all instruments excellently, the way a professional could. So I am not putting out a product of the best quality. Since then, ‘The Taming of the Wolf’ was remixed and re-mastered, and I started to use session musicians. The costs skyrocketed, of course, but I am quickly learning the business aspect of music production. For an LP album I need at least 35-45 minutes of total play time, so as soon as I have enough songs that fit the theme of the LP, there will be a full-length album. I released several new songs as singles after ‘The Taming of the Wolf’, but I’m saving some for the future LP. The feedback has been pretty good, and the title track from the EP received a Runner-Up award in 2012 Song of the Year competition in the lyrics category, so those are all encouraging signs that keep me motivated and keep me going. “Chains of Love” and others have been played thousands, if not tens of thousands of times on digital and FM radio. My friends and family have also been very supportive and encouraging — more than I ever expected, so there’s some pressure to make them proud. I’ve built a pretty good following online while learning to communicate with fans properly, and I am going to leverage that asset and experience for marketing the new album, whenever it will be ready. I will focus on quality of lyrics and recording.
J Rae: I noticed on your Bio that it is a dream of yours to perform alongside either Eric Clapton or Sting. Now I am no genie and I surely do not have a magic lamp, so then how can we make this happen? Time to make some calls!
Maxim Senin: Ha-ha… that would be fantastic. But I’ve got so much to learn! So I must work very hard if I’m ever to become good enough to play and sing alongside them.
By Jimmy Rae (firstname.lastname@example.org)