Q&A: John Medeski and Renee Vogelsang Talk About Clean Power and How Music Can Be a Catalyst for Change

Posted on Friday June 3rd in


An all-star lineup comes together on Tuesday at Brooklyn Bowl to put on a benefit Concert for Clean Power. And John Medeski called in from his home in upstate New York, while Renee Vogelsang, the campaign coordinator for New Yorkers for Clean Power, reached out from the outskirts of the Catskill Mountains on her way to Mountain Jam to discuss with  clean energy, fracking, and what to expect on Tuesday night with Knockdown Alley.

Renee, just as a primer, what’s the purpose of New Yorkers for Clean Power and how did the organization get started? New Yorkers for Clean Power is a statewide campaign to help facilitate the transition to renewable energy, electric vehicles, energy efficiency — with a focus on solar, offshore wind, renewable heating and cooling — as well creating jobs in all of these individual sectors across the state. Essentially, we got started coming off of this unprecedented movement across New York State in rejecting fossil fuels, especially the campaign to band fracking, which was an epic five-plus-yearlong campaign made up of hundreds of grassroots organizations as well as regional, state, and national organizations. So coming off that, a handful of groups — the most notable convening members being Sierra Club, NRDC, Catskill Mountainkeeper, the Solutions Project, Frack Action, and a group called E2, which stands for Environmental Entrepreneurs — came together and saw this need for an organized campaign to help facilitate this movement to make New York State a leader in combating climate change and eradicating all the pollution, and making sure we have clean water, fresh air to breathe, as well as long-term sustainable healthy jobs for many New Yorkers across the state. Parts of New York are really struggling economically, and we see clean energy, renewable energy, electric vehicles as the way to go in building our economy in New York.

And how did John get involved? I met Renee six, seven years ago when I moved upstate and heard about this thing called fracking, and I realized it was gonna be threatening where I live, my family, and our future. And the deeper I got into it, the more I realized how screwed up it was. So along with some other musicians from up here, we got really involved on many levels to help raise awareness and to help fight fracking. We did a big concert. Natalie Merchant really helped us spearhead this concert we did at the Egg. In addition to the music, there was a lot of information about fracking. And I was also involved with a benefit up here for Frack Action with other local musicians from the Hudson Valley to help raise money so we could keep going. And when New York banned fracking, it was shocking, amazing, and beautiful. And everyone realized that was just the first step. Obviously, we need power to live, but the next step is to start working for promoting alternative energy. We can’t just talk about what not to do. We have to have a solution. That’s what this step is about because the state has already put a lot of money into clean energy. And I think a lot of people aren’t aware of this. People don’t even know how the government is making it really easy to pursue this path and how many jobs have already been filled, how many people are already working in clean energy. The idea of this concert is mainly to try to raise money to help get this organization stronger, but also to start building awareness. It’s the only thing we can do to educate people about the options and show how easy it is, how much better it is. It’s so obvious to me: Fracking, bad. That’s obvious. And we need to find a sustainable solution for our energy needs, an obvious thing.

Renee, when this show was coming together, was John the first one you contacted? Yes, we’ve been really blessed to meet John. It’s been great working with him. We’re all kind of equally passionate about protecting the planet and the land in upstate New York and all across the state. We’re really inspired by the late Pete Seeger, who was really a big part of the anti-fracking movement and a big messenger of how music can be a great catalyst and powerful force in social change. I feel like a piece of Pete is in everything we do, and doing these concerts is really helpful in not only raising money but also, like John said, in raising awareness. But, yeah, John was definitely the first person I called. We’ve kind of had some magic together in making things happen here in New York, and I think we’ll be able to continue to make things happen and build awareness and raise funds moving forward in New York and, possibly, beyond.

So, John, once you were aboard, was it up to you to fill out the lineup? We kicked some things around. But I basically called friends. Yuka Honda had been involved with Artists Against Fracking when we did the anti-fracking show. So she was obviously the first person to call, and she was into it instantly. But I think maybe Renee came up with the idea of Ryan, but I know Ryan, too, really well. The whole lineup is cross-pollination. Marco lives up here, and he was instantly ready to jump in. It came together very quickly and easily. It’s actually gonna be an amazing show, first of all. It’s a chance to see these different groups but also to see a little bit of a crossover between everybody. I’ll probably be playing with Ryan, and Will Bernard, who also has played a little bit with Ryan, will play with me. And it looks like now Jay Rodriguez — a great sax player — is gonna show up and play with Billy and myself. And DJ Logic’s gonna be there, so we’re gonna play together. And we’ll see what happens during Marco’s set. It’s hard to know what will happen when all these musicians get together, but it’s guaranteed to be fun.

Obviously, Renee, this isn’t just about everyone having a good time. What do you hope the takeaway is for concertgoers — beyond having fun? We have multiple takeaways: We’d love people to help us raise some money so we can keep going. We are a nonprofit campaign and we need the funds. But beyond that, just as important if not more important, we’d like people to be inspired to get involved. New York State has provide five-billion dollars toward the Clean Energy Fund to help with this transition to fight climate change and build out renewable energy and electric vehicles and energy efficiency. So people can leave the concert finding out how they can go solar in their house, how they can support a campaign for offshore wind, how they can get into an electric vehicle, how they could become a volunteer for the campaign — or even entering into a job in clean energy or clean transportation. The final takeaway would be that we are doing really great things in New York. We’re rejecting fossil fuels. We’re embracing renewable energy, and let’s keep the momentum going. In a world where we sometimes have a lot to feel down about, hopefully people can go home feeling energized.

And how about you, John? What I see it as, is really an overture. In the big picture of things, it’s a small event to raise some money and begin the process of raising awareness. To help out the organization, to start getting musicians involved. As we saw with the anti-fracking campaign in New York: The more we got involved, the more we did, the bigger it got. So this is really, to me, the first of many, a way to get the ball rolling. Everyone involved will be inspired. Everyone there will be inspired. And hopefully it will start to open up doors for the people who have their own ideas about what they can do. As musicians, it’s very parallel to the music industry, what’s happened. The music industry really fell behind the game — the record industry — like idiots. And the same thing’s happening with the gas and oil industries. It’s over. We know it’s over. So we’ve all gotta be working toward the future. We can’t be living in the past. We have to be smart. And because New York set this precedent by being the first state to ban fracking, we have a real opportunity to be on the forefront of this movement for the country and then the world, because there’s fracking going on in other places, too. People don’t really know what’s going on because they slip in there and start doing it before anyone realized it’s happening. And we, fortunately, caught it. We want to keep moving forward and have New York be an example of how it can be done. Seems to me technology should be working toward the best way and most efficient way to do things. That’s what really what science and technology should be about — not to keep filling the pockets of the same old people. Now is really the time. This concert’s just gonna be the beginning.

(If you can’t make the show but would like to support or donate in some way, reach out to info@nyforcleanpower.org.)


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