Southern (Jersey) Comfort

By Dave Quaile

Posted: 12/19/2012

With the holidays around the corner, radio stations, department stores, and even some downtown sidewalks are slowly filling with a handful of Christmas songs that will be played over and over again until December twenty-fifth. For a lot of people, singing songs about chestnuts and sleigh bells while taking down Halloween decorations is part of the fun. But for most well-adjusted members of society, it can be a bit much.

There is a very simple solution for those of us who, by the first week of December, are sick of hearing Christmas songs: take charge of your stereo and iPod. For some reason, people forget that during the holiday season there are other forms of music out there. For instance, right in our backyard, there is a budding country music scene teeming with talented artists who are just waiting to save you from singing, “Run, Run, Rudolph,” for the millionth time this week.

You may be thinking to yourself that Jersey is kind of an arbitrary place to kick off a country career, but recently I had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with three New Jersey women who have proven that country music is neither strictly a southern comfort nor just a man’s game.

Liv Devine - Your Holiday Segue

There are many reasons to shine the spotlight on Liv Devine, but first and foremost, I should mention that her new song, “Hey! It’s Christmas Day,” is a great way to break the cycle of repetitive songs and explore alternative genres this holiday season. This contemporary and cleverly written tune is one the whole family will love.

Before Devine began writing her own holiday songs, she was a University of the Arts student from Washington Township, NJ with a dream of singing country music. “When I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to go into country,” she explains. “When I went to the University of the Arts as a vocal major, I was expanding my education, but at the same time I was starting to pursue my music career.” Although in high school she loved playing the songs of such artists as Martina McBride, it was at the University of the Arts that Liv found her love for song writing and decided to take the great leap forward into the country music scene.

It takes a lot for a person to uproot their life and follow a career that has no guaranteed stability, but that is exactly what Liv did when she decided to record her first EP. “To be honest, it never started out as a ‘for fun’ kind of thing—although it is fun.

I always knew that I wanted this to be my career. So that’s when I found a backing band and went out to Nashville.” For anyone who is unfamiliar with the town of Nashville, Tennessee, it is one of the top circuits for a country music artist to play—and exactly where Devine set her sights right out of high school.

Not only was Devine recording in one of the most respected country music towns in the country, she was also recording at Blackbird Studios—the recording studio owned by Martina McBride, one of the most respected country music artists around and the same woman whose songs Devine used to sing in high school.

“It was really surreal,” says Devine. “Taylor Swift was recording next door and it was just a beautiful studio and a great place to get introduced into that whole Nashville Circuit.” Still, she does admit that her time in Nashville was not an instant success and that she had to pay her dues. “The first time we went and recorded there, we were just on our own and hadn’t put anything out yet,” she says. “But after a few trips out, we had met a lot of people who were really great to us and still keep in contact through email and we still see often when we go out.” From her constant trips to Nashville, Liv has set up connections with and opened for such acts as Little Big Town, Wynonna Judd, and Joe Nichols, to name a few.

Just because she opens shows for Country Music Award (CMA) nominated artists does not mean she is too good for her roots. Recently, Devine played at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, opening for Little Big Town. For those of you living in the Southern region of the state, Liv has also been known to play at Prospectors in Mt. Laurel and Ott’s on the Green in Washington Township. She also visited her alma mater, Washington Township High School, to play a benefit for 800 people, including her friends and family that she recognizes as her biggest supporters.

Although Devine does her recording in Tennessee, she still calls New Jersey her home. “Hey, I love being from New Jersey. There are a lot of jokes about our accent,” she jokes. “But [in Tennessee] a few people have actually mistaken it for a southern accent, so it has worked to my advantage.” She explained that Jersey has shaped her both an artist and as a person, and that is what makes her stay when she isn’t traveling. “I loved growing up in Jersey. There’s just so much pride in our area and I feel like that pride has been passed down to me.”

Although she has spent the last couple years opening for some of the biggest names in country music and building up a hell of an opening act résumé, Devine is still waiting for her own headlining tour. “I am still holding out for that,” she says, laughing. “It’s hard though, because for as many ups as there are and how fun it is, there are just as many downs. The best you can do is surround yourself with people that are just as passionate as you are, work really hard at it, and hope for the best.”

Doreen Taylor - The Woman of Many (Ten-Gallon) Hats

For most people, excelling in one career is an accomplishment. But my next interviewee has succeeded as a country music artist, a model/actor/writer, and has her master’s degree in opera. Apparently also among her many talents is the ability to time travel, because no one without a time machine should be able to master so many skills. I think it is safe to say that Doreen Taylor of Mullica Hill, NJ is the world champion of time management.

First, let’s tackle the issue of making the jump from opera to country music. It is one thing to participate in your local theatre’s production of “Don Giovanni,” but it is a whole different ballgame to have lead roles in more than one Broadway national tour group. After graduating from Temple University with her Master’s in Opera Performance, Taylor spent time traveling the country performing in various shows, such as “Phantom of the Opera,” “Showboat,” and “Ragtime.” But it was Taylor’s independent spirit that led her off the stage and onto the country circuit.

“Opera liked me more than I liked it,” she says laughing. “If I had continued with it, I probably could have been very successful at it, but I was tired of playing a character all the time.” It was this detachment from her true self that would lead her into a whole new form of musical expression. “I didn’t like singing something that 50,000 people had sung before me,” Taylor explains. “There was no creativity that I could add to anything and I am a very creative person by nature.” The mix of creativity and the desire to express herself lead Taylor to begin writing all of her own music.

To Taylor, the decision to leave her lucrative career as an opera singer was somewhat easy. “I believe music is art and unfortunately a lot of people disagree and think it is a business,” she says. “When things are being put out just to be mass produced for money, it’s a pale imitation of what it could be. I believe music has a message and that it can reach people. When I am able to do that, it’s the biggest joy in my life.”

When Taylor isn’t on the stage or in the studio, she spends time modeling, acting, and sometimes even writing. Her album “Coming Home,” a tribute to the WWII era, included a book that she had written as well as a series of 1940s-era pinup recreations.

Of her many talents, Taylor admits that her real passion is live performance. “I adore being on the stage and I don’t think there is anywhere else on the planet I would rather be.” she says. “There is something about being a live performer as opposed to a studio musician.” The energy of the crowd drives Taylor’s performance and sets her apart from many of the acts out there today. “I live on it. The better they are, the better I am going to be.”

Although she feeds off the energy of the crowd, Taylor says the crowd deserves a good show, no matter what the size. “Even if there are two people there, I am going to give them the same performance, because they came there to see me. It isn’t their fault that nobody else showed, so they are going to get the same performance that I would give if I played the Wachovia Center.”

For someone with such a large fan base and a packed schedule, Taylor spends whatever time she does have to spare on her fans. “I do all of my [own] social networking. I feel like it is really important to stay grounded and connect with your fans.” This is no small task for someone with 40,000 Facebook fans. “I personally respond to every comment, picture comment, you name it. It may take me a while, but I will do that until as long as I possibly can,” she says. “It isn’t some company that I hire to talk to my fans, it’s me because I think staying connected to the people that support your music is one of the most important things in show business.”

Doreen Taylor has a work ethic that is unparalleled in the music industry. It is surprising that she has time to sleep, let alone give an interview for a magazine.

Although she is successful, she still remains grounded and passionate about her fans, which is a commendable and rare thing in successful musicians.

Her album “Magic” is available for download on iTunes and she recently released her video “Judgment Day” on YouTube. When you listen to the album, it won’t go unnoticed that Doreen Taylor is one of the hardest working artists in country music today.

Mia Bergmann - Restoring Faith in Humanity Statewide

Over last ten years or so, the Internet has given artists, who otherwise would be completely overlooked, a whole new platform to distribute their music to the world. In some cases, this is a wonderful thing. But then again, Justin Bieber, who recently won Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards, was discovered via YouTube. People have been saying that the Internet could mean the death of the music industry, and if Justin Bieber is the number one artist in America, it may already have killed it.

It’s not often you come across a talented young artist who has not only a great voice but also the ability to write her own songs without a producer. Luckily for me, I had a twenty-minute conversation with a young lady who undid all of the horrible things that Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen have done to my music-loving heart over the last five years.

Mia Bergmann is a fourteen-year-old country music artist from Margate, NJ. Like many popular performers, Bergmann has been singing for as long as she can remember. “If we were having mashed potatoes for dinner, I would make up a song at the table and sing about mashed potatoes,” she says. “But I didn’t pick up a guitar until about a year and a half ago, when I was twelve.” You might be thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, two years to learn guitar and perform her own songs publicly is pretty impressive.’ Well, if that were the case, you would be right. But it was only six months after she picked up the guitar that Bergmann was playing open mic nights in venues like the Malenani Café in Ventnor, NJ—the place where she has tested out her new songs ever since.

If you are under the impression that she is strictly a teeny-bopper who writes kids songs and performs wherever she can get an opening, it is important to know that Bergmann has opened for country music star John Michael Montgomery on several occasions and has performed in places like North Carolina, Alabama, Cancun, Mexico, and most recently, Tennessee.

As a full-time student who spends a lot of her time traveling, Bergmann notes the importance of having a strong support group, which she has in both her parents and her school. “They have been great. They really work with me a lot,” Bergmann explains. “As long as I keep up with my work and don’t fall behind, they just need my schedule. It really isn’t that difficult to juggle the touring and school work.” Although at times she seems like anything but your typical teenager, she still exhibits a few flashes of your everyday kid. “I definitely try to think about school work when I’m in school and put singing off until I’m home, but every once in a while you get bored and think about performing,” she said. “It’s not so bad, though. I like school and all of my friends and teachers are really great.”

As far as supportive parents, Bergmann’s mother, Jennifer Hansen, sets the standard. “My mom is incredibly supportive,” Bergmann says., “She used to follow around the Grateful Dead when she was a little bit older than me, and she has been playing music since I was a baby. She is just as excited as I am when I have the opportunity to travel and play a show.” One of the biggest problems for a young performer is not having your parents’ blessing, especially when it comes to traveling. I guess it doesn’t hurt to have an ex-Deadhead as a manager and mother.

Bergmann took a few minutes to explain the subtle differences (and benefits) that arise when she takes her songs to the South. “It is a whole culture there,” she explains. “For example, I have a lyric that says ‘Miranda taught me not to play with fire,’ and in the South, everyone knows who Miranda is. You don’t have people coming up asking about Miranda.” For you New Jerseyans, Miranda is country music star Miranda Lambert.

Although the South may be ahead of us here on the East Coast when it comes to the percent of population that listens to country, Bergmann still has a lot of love for her New Jersey fans—even if they don’t quite understand. “Everyone in Jersey comes out and sees me and they are really great, and a lot of people don’t get why I chose to play country, but it really comes down to the honesty,” she says.

It’s the honesty of her songs that Bergmann says completely changed her life for the better. “I love writing songs. It’s a way for me to tell a story, but not come out and say exactly what I’m talking about,” she says. “My dad actually had trouble with addiction and relapsed about a year ago. As his daughter, I wasn’t sure what to say to him, so I wrote three songs for him and after he heard the songs, he decided to get help.” The songs on Bergmann’s self-titled album about her father’s addiction—“More Than That” and “I Can’t Do It for You”—show Bergmann’s ability to bypass the standard teen pop album and produce something that reflects a maturity level well beyond her years.

There was a time that music was written by people who actually had something relevant to say, and if you didn’t have the talent, you didn’t get the attention of the labels. It’s good to know that even if the rise of the Internet means the times they are a-changin’, there are still young musicians like Mia Bergmann to pick the music industry up out of the dirt.

If jingle bells and chestnuts roasting on an open fire start to bring down your spirits, plan your escape with the sounds of New Jersey’s often overlooked country music scene, and remember that the onslaught of holiday music will be over in a just few short weeks.

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