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Guitarist pro Billy Rogan talks of music and indie film project 'Hear My Heart'

Billy Rogan playing in Palm Beach
Billy Rogan playing in Palm Beach
Steven Lebowitz

Music is something that people of all ages can appreciate and enjoy. If you have ever seen guitarist Billy Rogan play, it is doubtful you would ever forget him. Many of us have our favorite bands and musicians. Sometimes you may stumble across a great piece of music or musician in the most unlikely of places, such as a New York City subway. Rogan has a style seldom seen. He plays up the neck of the guitar and taps the base as if it was a drum. He performs with immense passion and precision. If you happen to be in New York this week, he is playing at the Metropolitan Room at 34 West 22nd Street this Thursday, April 17 at 9:00 PM (you can purchase tickets by clicking HERE).

Billy Rogan was in South Florida recently and I was afforded the chance to speak to him before he played for a small intimate audience (I was very taken with his show). We spoke on how his passion for music began, who is influences are and about his involvement in the South Florida independent SAG film production, "Hear My Heart."

It is not difficult to sense that music is your #1 passion. How did that love begin? The passion for music began a long time ago. My mom taught piano for a very long time, so it was just always around and she's very musical. Her brother, my uncle is very musical as well. He always had bands. I was always surrounded by it and they'd be practicing in the basement all the time. My mom had a wide collection of vinyl that I would listen to as a kid. The first thing I would do in the morning is run down the stairs and she'd put me in these circles of chairs and hand me some drum sticks. I would just bang on the chairs listening to Bruce Springsteen, Earth, Wind & Fire and Carol King, literally anything. She listened to so much different stuff. Then I got into saxophone and I stuck with that. I just always loved it.

When did you pick up a guitar? I picked up a guitar when I was thirteen or fourteen. I went to Valley Forge Military Academy. I had to play these little stupid lessons. They were like marching band songs. I was like Lisa Simpson when she would grab the saxophone and freak out, but play anyway and then get kicked out. That was me. I actually got kicked out of band every day for doing that because I thought it was so boring. Then I would just start wailing on this sax. I would get kicked out and my teacher would put me in the practice room and I was like, "Thank you."

I've watch some of your videos and you look to have a pretty unique style the way you often play up on the neck of the guitar and doing your guitar tapping. How did that develop? That developed by trial and error. (laughs) It was inspired by a video a friend showed me on YouTube. Her name is Kaki King. She's a prominent finger style guitarist. She did the music in "August Rush" and was the hand double for the boy. She got her style from another guitar player named Preston Reed. He's one of those other type of finger style guitarists that uses very intricate percussive, finger tapping and all that. I never saw that before and it really blew me away. I appreciated the fact that you could take something and just totally retune the guitar to something you don't know what it is and really find your own voice with it.

That is one interesting looking guitar you use. I don't think I've seen anything like it. Can you tell me about that, please? Yes, the guitar is a Takamine. EAN10C is the model number, which means it is an electrical acoustic and it's a cedar. Cedar wood is very soft. That's why it is all scratched up and there is a hole in it now from picking it. That's my main guitar. That thing has been all over, subways, concert halls and everywhere in between. I put a little decoupage leaf design on there. Fall is my favorite season and I just wanted have something to remind me of back home. I guess I wanted to have an interesting looking something on there.

I know you've worked with a variety of other professional musicians. Who was your favorite and why? Probably Bill Kirchen because he is Americana of Legend. Outside of that, he is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. He has a story for everything. I first met him at the Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio and that's kind of like guitar God rock camp. Rock legends come and you study with them for five days straight, from sunrise to sunset. You eat with them and everything. There's no downtime. You just like... guitar! All day. All night. Five days straight. Bill just had these incredible stories and he was just so captivating when he entertained and I was just blown away. We had a chance to perform for the teachers. When we got done he came up to me, and pardon my language, he said, "And you. You are one dangerous mother f-er!" (laughs). I was like, "This guy is pretty cool!"

How did you end up in the camp? That was awarded to me by two friends at the time. They lovingly and generously wanted me to go experience it. They believed in my music and talent. I am forever indebted to them for it. It was just an amazing, amazing experience! They wanted to share it with me.

I understand you have come on board with an independent film project "Hear My Heart" to do most of the music for it. That's a pretty amazing opportunity. What attracted you to the project? Well, when it was shown to me, I loved the opportunity, of course. When KC and I met, we talked on the phone for like three hours. I think she’s someone with a great vision who is really passionate about it. Working with anyone like that is always a joy. Or just even talking to someone like that, or surrounding yourself with people like KC who are living to something that they want to see come into fruition is a joy. (Speaking about Dr. KC Kelly, writer and producer of “Hear My Hear”) Having a goal and a dream, I think that's the secret to life. The script is beautiful and there music that is already in the script, having the main character being a musician. It feels like it’s honest, real and true, so I think there's a lot of potential there with KC's passion.

What are some of the challenges you are looking forward to facing while working on the film? Well there's going to be many, certainly. I'm looking forward to the creative process and a collaborative effort. The fact of working with visual ideas and concepts and putting them to music. I guess it's kind of like working in a band with someone. You're writing cords and you're telling a story. You're creating visualizations in your mind when you're writing it. You're connecting with this ideas in your mind, whether it is a love song or a song about politics. The words that are inside it create imagery. What you do then is write cords that match it. Major minor cords and the difference between them. Different textures and all the effects, paying attention to ideas of that in regards to how the color is on the screen or if it is a grainy shot. The flow of it. Just little things like that could stop and change on a dime. The whole process itself is totally different, so I look forward to it.

"Hear My Heart" has many positive themes in it and music plays a huge part in evoking emotions in audience members. How do you feel that your specific music style will bring out those emotions in viewers? How do I feel that they will bring them out? (laughs to himself) These are certainly good questions! Once something is created and there is music and becomes matched with what's on the screen, we'll have a better understanding on how people will connect with something like that. I think it is an emotional script with good character development. It really makes you tear up, you know? I think it's going to be an amazing emotional ride.

In following up on that, what do you hope audience members walk away with after seeing the film in general? A connection to compassion. Having a deeper compassion while leaving the theater with more of an understanding of loss, acceptance and appreciation for what everyone has in their life. The courage to stick through to something and hold steadfast to it.

When people come to see you perform, what would you like that they walk away with after seeing your performance? Yeah, I want them to be inspired. The music that I write, when I play it, it kind of puts me in a different place. Hopefully, it does that to them, wherever that place might be. My music, people say they like to listen to it when they go on long drives and things like that to unwind. Some of the songs are a little bit more intense and crazy, in your face because of the percussive style. They're being entertained in that regard. I think a lot of people reflect upon it and they create movies in their own mind when they hear it. So, what I want for them is whatever the hell they want. I don't want to impose anything. I think that's the beauty of that music. That's why I play it. I started getting into the style because it wasn't defined. It wasn't, you now, "Oh you're going to play rock. You're going to play blues." It's like, kind of just re-tune the guitar and play something that you don't know. All the cord shapes change. So you literally have no idea what you're doing. Everything goes out the window. You have no preconceived idea of, "Okay I'm going to do a C Major into an A Minor to a D7." In that regard I think it's artistic appreciation. I think maybe I'd like them to leave with a little bit more of a music artistic appreciation and just enjoying it and feeling good.

A contribution by “Heart My Heart” writer and producer, Dr. KC Kelly: Meeting someone as unique as Billy Rogan was a pleasure. Not only is he a great artistic talent, but he is also very kind and inspired. Watching him play live in Palm Beach was a wonderful treat and anyone who gets the same opportunity is privileged! I am very excited to collaborate with Billy on our very inspiration film,“Hear My Heart.” I believe that his music will bring out exactly what we wish to invoke upon our audiences and help to bring our film to life. Viewers will get to experience Billy's massive talent on the big screen… coming soon.