Lend an ear to some of the more intriguing members of Central Florida's vibrant and diverse music scene.
By Brett Ballantini - Thursday, May 25, 2017
Rob Hazen: Two Sides, One Soul
Rob Hazen is straight outta Hollywood (Florida), and he is one schizophrenic soul cat.
As an international touring dynamo, he has a golden touch, charting three different songs in five countries, including three No. 1 dance music singles across Europe and Asia. As a Florida homebody, well, the solo Hazen switches on the funked-up, soulcoustic sound.
In either personage, Hazen’s soaring vocals will move you.
After playing in South Florida bands throughout middle and high school, Hazen couldn’t kick the performing bug even while studying finance at the University of Notre Dame.
“My professors told me to follow my passion instead of a paycheck,” Hazen says. “So I recorded my debut EP and toured the Midwest” while still in school.
Hazen’s second EP coincided with graduation, and Florida’s fertile musical grounds pulled him home.
“After graduating, I knew I wanted to be a musician and saw that there was way more opportunity to perform live in and around the Central Florida area,” Hazen says. “So I decided to live where the live scene is bustling.”
Hazen moved back to Florida, assembled a band and management and hit the road. After some extensive touring in the United States and Canada, Hazen moved north to Orlando and found his first international success, a cover of the Smashing Pumpkins song “1979” with DJ/producer George Acosta.
“I put my vocals on the song, and it ended up getting into the hands of a label in Europe,” Hazen says. “The label had a lot of great producers on its roster who heard my track and subsequently wanted to work with me as a songwriter/vocalist. Since then, I’ve released almost a dozen songs, with more coming out this year. I’ve been blessed with a lot of success in electronic music over the past few years.”
But Hazen isn’t neglecting his stripped-down sound, either. In March, he released his first solo single in more than three years, “Soul.”
“It’s always difficult to box yourself in as a songwriter/musician—and it’s especially hard for me being that I have released music in several different genres—but I would say the best example of who I am today would be ‘Soul,’” Hazen says. “It’s an interesting mix of acoustic soul and tropical house, the perfect music to listen to with the windows down on a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Central Florida!”
With “Soul” out and more songs trickling onto Spotify in weeks to come and a new label and PR representation in place, Hazen is growing his fan base and working toward putting a personal imprint on the charts.
“I feel like ‘Soul’ represents a fresh start,” Hazen says. “And I like where I’m starting.”
Spotify: Rob Hazen
Top track: “Soul”
Gigs: In regular rotation at Eaton’s Beach, Weirsdale and residencies at Bahama Breeze in Orlando and Altamonte Springs
Mai Tatro: Paying Her Dues
Mai Tätro can clearly remember being just 5 years old, sitting on the porch with her grandfather, learning guitar chords and songs.
It’s still a crisp, vivid memory, because those roots of her music career came just a shade more than a decade ago.
By 10, Tätro was performing live with a group in Orlando and has been growing her music career as a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukulele) ever since.
But don’t go throwing around flattering adjectives—Tätro might sooner listen to some Prodigy than be called a prodigy. As her own motto reads: “I’m just a girl and a guitar.”
The hardest working teenager in Florida’s music business is a whirlwind of gigs, recording sessions and radio appearances. She’s already appeared on Nashville’s The Josie Show, on WQFB-FM in Flagler Beach and WROD-FM in Daytona Beach and gigged all over Central Florida to the delight of a growing legion of fans.
“I’ve really liked playing in this area—Ocala is very friendly, and I love the scenery,” Tätro says. “Ocala and Central Florida have always been nice places to be a musician because growing up here, it’s where I’m most comfortable.”
There’s no drudgery or fatigue involved with touring Florida in Tätro’s world.
“I’ve loved traveling around Florida and going to new places I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” she says. “I also like meeting new people and making new friends. There have been so many amazing things I have experienced as I musician.”
In addition to playing live, Tätro is focused on finishing her first EP with producers Omar Maldonado and Alex Budzilek.
Older hands might see some Ani DiFranco in Tätro, but she embraces a harder edge that drifts more toward Avril Lavigne, ‘90s alternative and grunge. One of her new tracks, “Twisted Lover,” certainly embraces those influences.
Lavigne is an appropriate reference point, as a fellow performer whose age often overshadowed her talent and work ethic.
“I have been performing since I was 10 years old, so even though I’m still young, I have a lot of experience as a performer,” Tätro says. “I’ve been paying my dues for years.”
A growing connection with her audience indicates those dues are already paying off.
Reverb Nation, YouTube: Mai Tatro
Top track: “Twisted Lover”
Gigs: June 10 and 22, The Copper Rocket, Maitland; June 16, Johnny D’s, Flagler Beach; June 29 and July 23, Gator Joe’s, Ocklawaha
John Johnson: Goodbye Rodeo, Hello Radio
John Johnson didn’t set out to be a singer or musician. And he certainly didn’t imagine his roots as a performer would be straight out of a Nashville biopic. But it’s hard to call his story anything less than country kismet.
Johnson was just 19, in college and making money bull riding, when his roommate’s father (a musician) heard him singing along to the radio and insisted he sing in his band. The young roughneck wasn’t moved, certainly not enough to sing in front of an audience—at least until that father added a sweetener.
“He said, ‘Well, you can meet girls. There’s nothing better than a bull rider—unless it’s a bull rider who can play guitar and sing,’ Johnson recalls. “Well, as a 19-year-old kid, I was immediately interested.”
Johnson used his roughneck spirit to take more than one crack at the bright lights of Nashville, and he’s not the first singer to return with a sour taste.
“The music business is the worst part of music,” he says. “It beats you down. It’s so fickle. Talent doesn’t have as much to do with success as money and connections.”
Johnson’s band, Branded Moon, did some good business around Ocala and throughout Florida, even upstaging the occasional headlining act along the way. But over the years, his bandmates have gotten older and deeper into careers and family, gigs together came fewer and farther between (Branded Moon plays every few months nowadays). But Johnson continues to follow the music, usually playing a couple of solo shows a week in the Ocala area, at coffee shops and wineries, private parties or on charity slates.
“I love the Ocala scene,” Johnson says. “Among artists, it’s a very supportive and encouraging scene. And music is strong, very diverse, from heavy grunge bands down to elevator music, with everything in between. There’s a huge amount of talent here and has been for years.”
And Johnson is comfortable with his role among all that talent here, playing classic country and Southern rock covers with a twist, content in making new friends and connecting with audiences throughout the area.
“I turned 52 in April, and while I’ve recorded demos, I’ve never put together a quality recording,” he says. “I want to record a CD, just for fun, even if it doesn’t sell but is something I can be proud of, and that people can put on in their car and enjoy.”
And those Nashville dreams?
“I’m very content with the fact that I’m not going to be a big star,” Johnson says. “I’m good with that. But if I can have fun and give people an enjoyable show, that’s all I need.”
Facebook: JohnJohnsonMusicPage, BrandedMoonMusic
Gigs: June 13, Cup O’ The Irish, Ocala; June 16, The Backyard Barn, Wildwood; June 23, Two Old Hags, Leesburg; June 27, Cup O’ The Irish, Ocala; June 30, The Backyard Barn, Wildwood
The Feeling Well:A Good-Mood Supergroup
As a musician, how do you cook up some sinister pop?
If you’re Ocala stalwarts The Feeling Well, you take pop and rock, suffocate it with harmonies and smack it around in equal parts melody and hook. Ooh la la: That battered deliciousness sounds like sinister pop.
The Feeling Well is comprised of veterans of the Ocala scene, Adam Rountree, Jahn West, Andrew Rome and William Perez, coming together for the most delightful reason possible: They really liked listening to one another’s music.
“We have all worked on music separately and performed in other groups in and around Ocala,” Rountree says. “We all became friends at each other’s shows or in other bands that we’ve been in together. We all love playing music with each other.”
West is more succinct: “We are weirdies.”
In almost two decades crisscrossing the Brick City, there’s an edge to The Feeling Well that stems from not quite breaking big yet. Rountree’s résumé alone counts such varied outfits as Noadie There, AutoEuphoric, Low-Level Parties, Assemble the Embassy, Hippopotamus, Vincent Valentine, Hey Nice Guy and Under the Covers, not to mention numerous solo outings.
“The Ocala scene has been inconsistent for me,” Rountree says. “[But] there’s almost always a place to have a show, and if the timing’s right and the right band or bands get together, a cool musical event can happen.”
To meet the understandable angst stemming from stepping to the plate so often without getting a call to the show with such positivity is a tribute to the fortitude of The Feeling Well.
Even the irascible West makes the best of it: “We choose our station but not our placement. We book our own shows because we don’t fit in.”
One thing The Feeling Well has achieved in its young life is connecting with an audience hungry for something different.
“We see and meet so many people, watch them dance and sing along to our music,” Rountree says. “We’re happy in the moment, doing what we love to do.”
“We want to spread joy, understanding and even more questions,” West adds.
A primary goal for The Feeling Well is to cut more tracks and steadily build a living with their latest, joyous project.
“We have a lot of music that needs to get recorded and shared with the universe,” Rountree says. “That is a current and future goal for us, as we continually write and rehearse songs. We want to tour and perform as much as we can.”
To that end, The Feeling Well have launched a GoFundMe campaign (@TheFeelingWell) where Rountree has penned a passionate appeal toward the band’s $10,000 goal.
The band’s lofty mission statement indicates they might just pull it off. “The Feeling Well is based on the idea,” Rountree says, “that best friends playing music together with the intention of making everyone feel better, and doing it unlike anyone else has ever done it, is a worthy idea.”
That’s not sinister. But it is Feeling Well.
Soundcloud: Sinister Pop Records
Top track: “Moon”
Humans in Disguise:Great Songs Are Easy to Spot
When Jared Quidley and Elliot Eisler met in 2014 as bandmates in The Blue Jays Band, they didn’t realize they were about to don a disguise.
But that October, the duo launched a new concept that found the musicians hunkering down in Ocala and cranking out an EP and album in short measure. Their dedication to playing live also helped hone their songwriting craft.
Humans in Disguise was born.
Did this duo make an impact? Well, mere months after their inception, Humans in Disguise was opening up for Tonic at Ocala’s 2015 Feel Downtown Live concert.
But after a couple of years as a duo, the Disguise decided to double, adding Mike Koller and Dustin King to fill out the sound with lead guitar and bass. The band continues to exhaustively gig around town, developing a sound even more unique than that of the initial duo.
“Ocala has been pretty great as far as gig opportunities go,” Quidley says. “Compared to other big cities, it’s actually a nice little scene here if you know where to go. There is plenty of support for local musicians among various venues, and there are some really lovely places that we call home and play at every month, where our fans know they can find us.”
Part of developing a new and better sound is being able to lay it down on tape, and Humans in Disguise are itching to record a follow-up to their initial, self-titled release.
“We didn’t have the same band lineup that we do now, and needless to say, our sound has changed since [the first recordings],” Quidley says. “We’ve grown tremendously as musicians.”
Along with getting down new tracks to share with their loyal audience is finding new fans, in new environs. Humans In Disguise is itching to get on the road and spread the gospel.
“We have plans to travel soon, and share our music with more of Florida and the entire Southeast,” Quidley says. “From there, the world! I feel proud of how far we’ve come and look forward to what the future holds if we keep working hard.”
For now, Humans in Disguise are content to let the good vibes push them forward.
“Our music has no specific direction. We simply write and play what feels and sounds good to us,” Quidley says. “Hopefully people like it and can enjoy it like we do.”
Top tracks: “Hold Me Close,” “Same Ol’ Story”
Gigs: June 9, Margarita Republic, Spanish Springs at The Villages; June 10, Eagle Ridge Golf Club, Summerfield
j.mo: Persistence Is a Virtue
Justin Marshall Orlow—aka j.mo—is a battler.
Like his beloved Cleveland Cavaliers, rallying back from a 3-1 deficit to win their first NBA title in 2016, the Toledo native knows the power of persistence.
Most notably, j.mo suffered a shattered jaw in 2014, an injury that took five surgeries to repair. A year later, he was back out gigging and making plans to record—and in almost a blink of an eye, j.mo was signed after catching the ear of Lakehouse Records owner Reno Mussatto.
“I went into the studio on my own dime,” j.mo says. “Chris Short, owner of Alpaca Ranch Studios, played my rough tracks for [Mussatto], who was mixing a record for one of his other artists. Getting signed has been the highlight of my career so far. Sometimes good things happen to good people who work hard.”
The signing ensured j.mo membership in the exclusive SESAC writer’s guild, as well as granting the opportunity to meet and work with numerous industry veterans.
The most noteworthy of j.mo’s connections was made before the release of his first record, East 408. That full-band production was mastered by Bruce Hensel, who has worked with The Eagles, The Bee Gees, Stephen Stills and Dan Fogelberg.
The singer-songwriter is now finishing up a different sort of project, a more acoustic-based EP reflecting the eclectic, old-soul solo stage chops he puts on display throughout Central Florida.
“I’ve been gigging in Central Florida for more than 10 years, and I love how eclectic the scene is as a whole,” j.mo says. “I enjoy and prefer playing my original music, and Central Florida has offered me a vast amount of venues throughout the years, which is fantastic.”
Among at least a dozen venues on j.mo’s tour rounds include Ocala’s A Cup o’ the Irish and World of Beers in Spanish Springs at The Villages, as he aims to spread his sound to bigger and bigger stages.
“Basically, I love rock and tend to lean on the soulful side as a singer,” j.mo says. “I really try to make each song have its own sound, meaning and feel when I’m writing.”
Record label: LakehouseRecords.com
Top track: “Sometimes”
Gigs: June 23 and August 11, Orlando Brewing; July 14 and 27, The Copper Rocket, Maitland