Tag Archives: songwriter

Pitch Poet

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

She sets up on a bustling Old Market corner. The footpaths jostle with tourists and locals doing their weekend shopping, dining,
and sightseeing.

Jocelyn Muhammad pulls the acoustic guitar slung over her back then slowly strums a chord that rings throughout the heart of the old-timey business district.

She massages sweet melodies from her guitar, but it’s not until the baby-faced, curly-haired 19-year-old songstress adds her silvery vocals that passersby stop to admire her. No one could escape her charm.

“I want to feel the breeze through my hair, through my hair,” she sings. “I want to go somewhere. I want to be someone. I want to fall in love just like everybody else.”

Muhammad’s voice flows freely at her top notes, pleasantly vibrating eardrums. She’s a showstopper—and a guitar-wielding poet of sorts.

A young musician relatively new to Omaha’s music scene, Muhammad’s voice has a textured, lived-in quality. Perhaps that’s her appeal. Caught off guard, spectators pause to hear her old-soul poetic lyrics and heart-on-her-sleeve folkie romantic songs, which are totally unexpected from such a young, jovial person.

Muhammad is a promising singer-songwriter who has already attracted an incredibly large social media following and the attention of the music industry.

A live, buzzworthy video snippet of her song “Just Like Everybody Else” recently went viral to the tune of almost 5 million plays on YouTube, even before the studio version was released in November. The 23-second clip, filmed on a few cellphone cameras, features Muhammad belting out the chorus of her song.

Taken aback, she was surprised her song reached people from as far away as Russia. It was a humbling experience, says the recent Millard South graduate. In fact, one fan wrote a song in
honor of her.

Songwriting is such an intimate practice and the truest form of flattery, she says. “It’s the idea of singing a song that you wrote about someone. The way they make you feel. And you get to put it to a melody and add words.”

Social-media savvy Muhammad stays connected with her fans through her music blog (jocelynmusic.com), YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter. She documents her musical journey, taking fans along the quirky moments in studio sessions to interviews with the media.

Aside from hearing her from-the-heart work on Old Market street corners, fans catch her at open mic nights around town. She sings a mix of original melodies and covers about love and loss, loneliness and desperation, and pleas to find her soul mate. Under her musical belt, per se, she’s performed at open mic sessions at the legendary Whisky a Go Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer to finish piecing together her first record.

Muhammad got her music start at age 14. Though she participated in school choir, her happenstance of guitar picking came later when she rescued a black Indiana acoustic guitar dubbed “Black Bastard” from the flames of a friend’s bonfire.

She took it home and cleaned it up. She studied her favorite British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s likes and dislikes. His musical preferences and tendencies influenced her own.

A friend taught her the fundamentals of guitar strumming—how to play a G on Cadd9 chord. Two weeks later, she wrote her first song, “Burn It Down.”

She couldn’t bottle up her newfound love for songwriting and guitar playing. So, she packed up her guitar and headed for the Old Market.

A few months later, she says she was introduced to Aly Peeler, who, at the time, was in charge of an open mic night for the then-Side Door lounge. Soon after, she met her current manager, Jeff McClain of Midlands Music Group, who offered her a placement in the group’s free mentoring program for budding musicians.

Muhammad is grateful that she has Peeler and McClain as soundboards to help her polish her melodies and lyrics. Still honing her skills, she says she owes Peeler and McClain for helping develop her talent through many lessons and repetitive exercises, which prepared her to perform live.

“I’m not going to let a melody be just a melody,” she says. “It has to be the right one. I’m practicing constantly…working to get better.”

When she’s performing on stage, Muhammad says, “It’s just me. It’s just me there, singing to you. There’s nothing else … no one else. Just me and you. And, I’m singing.”

Muhammad has been nominated three times for Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards’ best singer-songwriter, but has yet to take home the hardware.

“I’m, like, the youngest artist there…so that’s really cool,” she says. “I’m still working on winning though. I’ll get there someday, but it’s cool just to be nominated.” 

jocelynmusic.com

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Ren
ais
sance 
Man

April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A boozy brunch between girlfriends, a meeting of coworkers over coffee, a couple splitting a glass   of wine—conversations captured around the city, all serve as fodder and inspiration for Brion Poloncic’s work. In the quiet corners of Omaha’s local coffee shops and wine bars, Poloncic puts pen to paper, his ear tuned into the surrounding babble, creating art that he feels represents those around him and the experiences they discuss.

But don’t expect a still life of women gossiping between sips of their Venti mochas. As a visual artist, author, and former musician, Poloncic is a man of many hats but always remains a creator of thought-provoking and idiosyncratic work that paints middle America in a psychedelic wash.

“I’ve always fancied myself an artist,” Poloncic says. “My art is an affirmation of my peculiar skill set, and it just so happens to make me happy. It’s my own blend of therapy.”

It was through chance that Poloncic was first bitten by the creative bug. After he didn’t make the baseball team, he traded mitts for guitars and started writing music. A fan of everyone from Pink Floyd to Johnny Cash, he parlayed his early love for listening to his parent’s records into seven albums, all released under the moniker “A Tomato A Day (helps keep the tornado away).” A prolific songwriter, his discography is filled with character and colorful song titles, including ditties like “You Little Shit” and “Weirdo Park.”

For Poloncic, music wasn’t enough. He needed to sink his teeth into his next artistic outlet. So when a friend needed help setting up an Iowa art studio, he asked Polonic to draw pieces that illustrated his career. With no formal training or experience, unless coloring backpacks with magic markers counts, he dove in.

Two years later, Poloncic sold his first piece at a gallery in Lincoln. He has also shown work in Omaha and Kansas City and has a collection represented at Gallery 72, all those diploma-yielding pros be damned.

“My art isn’t constrained by my knowledge or training, and I think this makes me naturally less critical of my work,” Poloncic says.

Filled with abstract shapes, haunting faces, and stark use of color, his off-kilter yet original drawings mirror the tone of his written work. Through The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he published his first book Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics in 2012, following this up in 2014 with his second printed work On the Shoulders of Madmen. Both explored concepts of the subconscious mind, and the novel he is currently working on will follow suit.

“I’ll be surprised if anyone can read it,” Poloncic says. “It’s got no characters, no story arc, and isn’t about anything in particular.”

And he admits this is his niche, comparing his art to improvisational jazz or free-style rap where “things just happen.” For whatever he’s working on, he says the hardest part is just getting started. Once that happens, everything else just falls into place, and if he can’t get over a block, he always has another craft to turn to.

“If I stumble off the creative wagon with drawing, I get back on with writing and vice versa,” Poloncic says. “As you work on one, the other comes right along with it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Karen Sokolof Javitch

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The image of Karen Sokolof Javitch singing and camping it up on YouTube in the music video of her song, “I’m Not Obama’s Babe” doesn’t square with the unassuming, quietly engaging, makeup-less woman who buys flavored water at her favorite coffee shop. Not surprising, since there are many facets to the Omaha native: singer, songwriter, author, playwright, radio host, advocate, teacher, wife, mother, daughter, philanthropist.

Music is actually Karen’s second act. After earning a degree at the University of Texas, she began as a teacher of visually impaired children, a career inspired by her late mother, Ruth Sokolof. “My mother taught blind children for years. Everyone loved her. Film Streams Theater is named after her.”

It wasn’t until Karen’s own three children were in school that her life headed in a different direction. “It was around 1993. I was talking to a friend of mine, Jim Conant, and he said he had just written the book for a musical, but he hadn’t written any of the songs. And I said to him, ‘Um, can I try this?’”

Karen proved to be a natural at writing both the words and the lyrics to 13 songs for the production entitled Love! At The Café! The show ran for about seven weeks at a small venue in Benson. “It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Karen next collaborated with her good friend, local actress and author Elaine Jabenis, to write more shows, including the tribute Princess Diana, The Musical. Another key player in Karen’s success, Chuck Penington of Manheim Steamroller, orchestrates her music. Whether a song is catchy, rhythmic, and Broadway-like, or a touching ballad, Karen’s melodies stay with the listener.

“It was like a faucet turned on in my brain. The lyrics came first, and then I could hear the music in my head to go with them.”

Where did her talent come from? “My father, Phil, was a song-and-dance man before he became a successful businessman. He tried his luck in Chicago when he was 17. He finally realized he couldn’t be the next Frank Sinatra.”

Phil Sokolof would later use some of his fortune from his drywall company to wage a one-man crusade against cholesterol—a decades-long fight that resulted in nutrition information on food packaging.

Karen has written hundreds of songs, penned four musicals, and released 13 CDs, singing on many of them. While she should be swimming in royalties, the Westside High graduate has instead followed her parents’ legacy of giving back to their community.

“All proceeds from my music go to charities, mostly in Nebraska,” says Karen.

Does she make any money at all?

“Well, let’s just say my goal is to break even,” she says with a smile.

Over the past 20 years, Karen has raised over $300,000 in service to others. One project in particular remains dear to her heart. The “Nebraska Celebrities Sing for Sight” CD, for which she wrote most of the music and lyrics and featuring 20 celebrities from the area (including a terrific country vocal from former U.S. Senator Ben Nelson), raised money for visually impaired children. The man who couldn’t compete with Frank Sinatra also sings a track.

“Dad was alive when I started to do my music. He was very proud.”

Karen’s CDs can be found at the Nebraska Furniture Mart or online at CD Baby. Her radio show, “It’s the Beat!” with Jody Vinci, airs Saturdays at noon on KOIL 1290.