California Widow- Chicago based alternative music project founded by Estonian artist Darja Vaarsi.
Interview conducted on By Dan Locke
The storytelling of doom and forlorn romance through dark lyrical imagery interwoven with somber musical landscapes. Taking you back to the western frontier where men would leave behind their wives in search of striking gold. They had plans to reunite but never did, leaving them a California Widow.
You are descent form Estonian Royalty. What is your upbringing?
I’m Estonian, that part of my life comes from a Russian relative that was a personal royal guard. That closest translation for the title can be a prince but it had a different meaning and not always in relation to royals so we say nobility. During the communist occupation, it was common to flee, go into hiding, be exiled, or killed for a number of reasons because so much from aristocracy to art, religion and culture were banned. My family had our identity changed and lives uprooted for generations because of it. My upbringing was that of a refugee, but it’s hard to know if our lives would have turned out differently because it was an indiscriminate and impossible time in history for many people.
What do you remember from your childhood coming from the USSR through Europe and finally taking up asylum in the USA?
My earliest memories were of war in Estonia. My family sold everything, bribed soldiers, and escaped by train as you couldn’t freely leave. We were homeless for half a decade throughout Europe often wearing all the clothing we owned at once, I still have those polaroid’s up. In Italy, we polaroids were sponsored by diplomats and came to the US on a ship across the Atlantic with some books, records and our St. Bernard. We’d received our status from cooperating with the US government. I have mixed memories that left a lasting impact on me, from being attacked by strangers to receiving gifts from them, so you have to judge everything individually
How are you a nationally certified sailor?
I have three certifications recognized worldwide through ASA that involved courses/classes, hands on experience, tests, and a live abroad in Florida. Other than that, I sail as much as I can in my personal time on our SV Kraken or other friends’ vessels. I’ve mused about retiring somewhere tropical and sailing for years so it’s a logical step to be self-sufficient.
How did you discover music?
I’m from a family of musicians, grew up with classical, opera, and folk. My father was a singer/ guitarist, my mother a singer, accordion, and piano player. Since I traveled through so many different places growing up, the music never had any borders in life, I grew up listening to foreign/ exotic music from every country which is where my love of Rai and electronic bagpipes comes from. Within the US I grew up with old rock, country, and Motown, which influenced me and remain some of my favorite.
How did you start to write music?
In the third or fourth grade, I founded this “Earth Club” where we would do environmentally friendly things and volunteer work after school. I was then inspired to write a school play expanding on that with different cliques and styles of songs. The school actually let me put on a full production for the school with all the grades involved. That was a very proud moment for me, reflecting back on it I think it’s pretty awesome I accomplished that.
Your band is a Chicago based alternative music project. How did your band form?
California Widow was never a band, Brendan’s been the only other person involved, it’s more of a personal/music project for me. We have both had industrial projects in the past, were goofing around, he played some chords on the guitar and I came up with the opening for “Storm of Death”. It’s always been a creative vision of mine and I take care of the legal, social, business, distribution, and so forth aspects of it, I am working on it independently now but we’ll probably collaborate again in different ways.
How did you get your bands name?
It’s old American western slang from the gold rush era, of a man who ventures west to strike gold, leaving behind his wife. They became accidental “California widows”. The first place I lived in America officially was Texas, later on, California, so I have a love for the wild west, deserts, the western frontier, and story-telling.
Describe your music.
My intention was desert-like atmospheres, a dash of doom, and forlorn romance initially. Something that feels like a backdrop in a somber moment in your life. I’ll always maintain that mood in a way but it fits in a lot of genres ranging from gothic country to hard rock, the new handful of tracks incorporate a lot of new elements and genres.
Do you belong to any to songwriters’ organizations like the International singer-songwriter association, SESAC, BMI or ASCAP?
What makes a good songwriter?
Feeling something in your heart, or soul, learning and bettering yourself at your craft. You don’t have to be the best singer or musician if you can connect with people on a genuine and personal level because that’s already a special ability people can’t necessarily learn or fake.
What was the title of your first original song? Did you record it?
Storm of Death, all writing/recording is home studio based.
What is the process of writing your music?
My music generally originates backwards, writing words and melodies in a stream of consciousness together first, generally based on mood and influenced by personal life. Brendan has the opposite approach as he attended a number of music schools, but we can each work both ways. I can always remember how an idea sounds, now I am learning to compose formally and know my new instruments will make me a better songwriter. On Deeper Graves I presently just contribute vocals/ lyrics.
You have worked in television, feature films and commercials. What is your favorite project you have worked on?
Working on a music video with Lena Katina of TATU. I heard their music growing up so it was exciting that ours landed at number one on Russian MTV. I have worked on some other productions with actors I look up to like Michael Shannon
Tell me about your latest single “Howl”?
It’s a short film and song I released last month. When my family first came to America, two individuals became our lifelong friends, showing what unconditional love and unmotivated kindness were. Unfortunately, later on, one of them died from ALS and her husband followed shortly thereafter of a broken heart. This song is about loving someone with a terminal illness and wanting to be reunited with them at any cost.
I released seven singles last year, under California Widow and my name, my favorite being “Storm of Death”, the first composition. I’m currently working on a full-length album, before I wanted to release my music, see what the unbiased reception was to different tracks since I had no presence in the music community. I thought it might work better for the short life span everything has today, an album might get the same amount of attention as a track. All that aside I have a tendency to use explicit and didn’t want that to affect my PG content if I released everything as a packaged deal.
What are you’re feeling about streaming music?
It’s the best way to expand your reach globally to audiences you wouldn’t normally have access to, to get your name out there, however it’s incredibly oversaturated and the pay out if any is low. The music industry has changed dramatically in recent decades, it’s possible to become successful independently with no physical releases.
The symbol # is known as the number sign, hash, pound sign and a sharp sign in music. The symbol has historically been used for a wide range of purposes Since 2007, widespread usage of the symbol to introduce metadata tags on social media platforms has led to such tags being known as “hashtags”, and from that, the symbol itself is sometimes called a hashtag. Are people forgetting that the # is a part of music?
A lot of activities in life require you to learn different languages, like sailing for instance. You can have a variety of different words that a layman vs a sailor uses while referring to the same thing. So, it’s all about perspective, knowledge, and the situation. Someone that reads music will possess the knowledge, but a different thought might come to mind first for someone in say, HTML.
Digital vs. vinyl?
What song from the past is in your mind right now? Moreover, what is the meaning that song means to you?
Twilight by Edge of Sanity, it’s an excellent composition overall and very catchy. I spend time watching music documentaries or tutorials and recently heard Dan Swano’s experiences producing Dissection. I have a soft spot for them and love their entire catalogue, that song has a similar essence. Otherwise, Clenched Fist by Sepultura, it’s highly quotable and my love/light IDGAF song, the lyrics speak for themselves.
How is Chicago for film work?
I’m currently focusing on music but open to acting opportunities which there are a lot of here. It is a very different environment and experience than working in LA in numerous ways.
With the Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccines being release. How long before the whole world will be vaccinated against the virus. You have to remember there only has to be a 70% for Herd immunity (Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected — not just those who are immune.)
I don’t think I’m in a position to answer that question but I think a few years. Maybe more isolated or economically/infra-structurally stable countries will have lower infection rates for obvious reasons.
If “Video Killed the Radio Star” do you think that the Covid-19 virus has killed live music? Do you feel the Covid-19 virus going to affect the music business in the future?
Live music is not dead, I’ve seen countless venues close, but there will be other pandemics and we have to think of alternative methods to thrive in these situations accepting it’ll be an ongoing part of life. I know a lot of people, places, and festivals are already bouncing back and making tour plans for end of this year and 2022.
What have you been doing with your self-quarantine?
Working on personal development, re-evaluating relationships, future goals, focusing on health, fitness, learning new skills, instruments. I released, copyrighted, licensed, monetized my music for the first time worldwide, trademarked my brand, created my logo, website, released my first merch. I learned a lot about the legal and business side of music, now I’m moving on to the doing the part I care about: being creative.
I also have a collaboration: Deeper Graves, we released an EP last July, a music video I produced on Decibel Magazine in August, and a single on Halloween “Dirt” when I had an interview for Dark Beauty Magazine Music.
Other than that, I spent time doing long distance sailing and RV glamping.
have you discovered or rediscovered any new hobbies?
Guitar, drawing, HIIT, Tabata and Yoga.
Many artists are doing nightly concerts over either YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. In October that is going to change at least on Facebook. Facebook is cracking down on live  streamed shows that include recorded music with new terms of service, preventing artists from using the platform for “commercial or non-personal” purposes, unless they have obtained the relevant licenses. The updated music guidelines state that users “may not use videos on our products [which include Instagram] to create a music listening experience […] This will include [Facebook] Live,” and stipulates that such content should be posted for the enjoyment of friends and family only. How do you think this will change the landscape of Facebook?
Well, if you want to use their platform then you need to adhere to their requirements or you can opt out. People are looking for alternatives to migrate to but I don’t foresee anything new right now.
Is pay to play still a thing? Now pay to play also means thinks like playlist on the internet and opening slots for a major band on tour.
Yes, now it’s a part of everything from shows, radio, to playlists submissions etc. Truth is whoever is running the show/company, station, whatever, can do whatever they want, it’s our choice whether we want to participate. It’s art to you but business to someone else.
What about Holographic concerts in our living room?
I think it’s cool for people to get to experience the greatest of all time in that way. Some of the best in music and artists already existed, there will be more, but you can’t replace their time and impact in history.
Last year I also saw a virtual concert with rapper Travis Scott in the free game Fortnite, I think that’s a pretty unique additional approach to performing people can enjoy the same way. Perhaps it’s something AI can help develop more quickly in the future.
Governments around the world are hearing the call of thousands of music creators and included protections for the music community in the omnibus bill. In addition to extended and improved unemployment benefits and small business loans for freelance creators, the package includes several bills which the Recording Academy, its members, and the larger music community advocated for. From the Save Our Stages Act, provided a lifeline to performance venues and promoters, to the CASE Act, which creates an avenue for smaller creators to defend their copyrighted works, Congress has ensured that both music creators and those who act behind the scenes to bring music to life are given the support they need during this difficult time.” Do you think this will save music venues?
Yes, we don’t have a choice unless we want to live in a world without live performances but considering it’s one of the most powerful and moving things in the world, I don’t anticipate all venues closing.
Did you know that the Grammys MusicCares can help artist? The MusiCares COVID-19 Relief has helped thousands of music industry artists and professionals during these difficult days. This is the most recipients helped, for any single event, in MusiCares’ history. The need remains great, and these unique times remain critical for music people. It has taken a community uplifting one another to get through this pandemic, and MusiCares has pulled together a list of additional organizations and resources to further support you. https:// www.grammy.com/musicares/get-help/relief-resources. Have you applied for it yet?
No, I have not applied for anything.
In the past if a musician stop doing music, they find a new career. For example, David Lee Roth from Van Halen became a licensed EMT in NY for 6 years, San Spitz (guitarist for Anthrax) became a master watchmaker, Dee Snider (Twister Sister) voice over work for SpongeBob SquarePants. If you can’t do music, what would you like to be doing?
This is the first time I’ve actually been focusing a lot on music in a decade, and thinking long term about cohesive concepts/plans. When the pandemic began unfolding, I worked in law. In the past I wanted to join the service, work as an EMT, firefighter etc. Right now, I would consider something in personal health/fitness, entertainment/ immigration/copyright law or for a non-profit.
What is your happy place?
In nature, disconnected from society and technology, with nothing standing between me, the elements and wilderness.
A lot of musicians such as Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, Journey, Def Leppard, and Shakira have sold their catalog rights within the last year. Bob Dylan sold his entire catalog for a reported $300 million. Once you get to the age of about 70. Publishing is far more lucrative than the mechanical royalties paid to artist based on sales, airplay and streams. A good example of this is Michael Jackson brought the rights to the Beatles catalog in 1985. And in the late 80’s the Beatles Revolution appeared in a Nike commercial. The lump sums being offered by publishing firms are more tax friendly concerning estate planning. Do you think you would be willing to sale your back catalog if someone like Universal is will to buy everything, such as all the rights to all your songs? Another factor is mortality.
That’s an unlikely concern for me right now considering the size of my catalogue, if it would provide me the financial opportunity to live out the rest of my life without a worry then probably. I am open to testing this out! I know that I am capable of creating new versions like Taylor Swift so it’s not the end of the road.
Spotify’s ‘Stream On’ event on Monday (February 22), the company confirmed that more than 60,000 new tracks are now being ingested by its platform every single day. This means people are added new tracks uploaded to its platform every 1.4 seconds. The figure, announced by Spotify’s Co-Head of Music, Jeremy Erlich, means that across the course of this year, approximately 22 million tracks will be added to Spotify’s catalog. Spotify confirmed in November last year that its platform now played host to around 70 million tracks. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that, by the end of 2021, SPOT will be home to over 90 million tracks. And that in the early part of next year, it will surpass a catalog of 100 million for the first time. But still back at the beginning of the year Spotify deleted 750,00 songs, mostly from independent artists. What do you think what that could mean to independent artist? How can bands keep their fans if they cannot play live in front of the fans and sell merchandise to them at the show?
You have to find a new way to present/sell your music or be a better musician/artist than everybody else. The only work around is connections, money, popularity, timing, luck etc. Other than that, all really matters is talent, innovation, adaptability and results.
Sony Music in November and Warner Music Group in December, The ByteDance-owned video app revealed on (February 8) that it has struck an “expanded” global licensing agreement with Universal Music Group. Now that TikTok is now fully licensed by all three major record companies, will you start using TikTok more?
I haven’t used to Tik Tok and don’t know whether I will.
Danny Wimmer Presents just announced their 2021 Festival Calendar: Which includes the following live shows: DWP Partners With Inkcarceration Music & Tattoo Festival For July 23-25 Event In Mansfield, OH Louder Than Life Set For September 23-26 With Newly Added Thursday Night Celebration In Louisville, KY Welcome To Rockville Expands To 4 Days And Shifts From Spring To November 11-14 In Daytona Beach, FL Aftershock Set For October 7-10 In Sacramento, CA, Almost Sold Out Would you be willing to play these shows and what precautions would you like to have in place?
I’m not sure if the one in July will occur and may be on the road touring in November/ December. I have a specific concept in mind for the type of performance I would ideally like to do, it’s not the conventional format for a show so I did not have any plans to perform with California Widow this year yet but I’m open-minded. The only precautions I care about are ones where safety and health are the top priority.