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Nicky Schrire: On Songs, Spaces And Places

Dan Bilawsky By

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You learn so much from recording, and they’re things that you wouldn’t learn doing anything else. You won’t learn them in school; you won’t learn them gigging; and you won’t learn them just playing random sessions with people.
What defines power? That's a tough question to answer in general, and an even harder one to figure out when it comes to the world of music. For in music, a whisper may carry greater weight than a roar, an honest gesture can outdo a demonstration of brute strength and technique, and a direct message to the heart can mean more than a shot of adrenaline aimed at the same place. It's the sonorous David-topples-Goliath scenario, where vocalists with strong artistic inclinations and pure intentions—like Nicky Schrire—come out on top.

Schrire, who was born in London and raised in South Africa, came to the United States to study at the Manhattan School of Music. After completing her studies in 2011, she quickly made a name for herself with the release of three albums in short order. Each one proved different and distinct, yet they all highlight her skills as an artist, interpreter and, increasingly of late, a songwriter. She also proves to be as candid in conversation as she is in song.

All About Jazz: As we speak you're celebrating the release of your new EP—To The Spring (Self Produced, 2014). Can you speak a little bit about how this recording came about?

Nicky Schrire: Yes, I can. It came about after recording Space And Time (Magenta Label Group, 2013), which was a full LP with a bigger budget because of the nature of the project and the people involved.

Two Australians who you've written about—[vocalist] Gian Slater and [bassist] Chris Hale—came to town. They're both so loved within the community of musicians that I like to hang out with, and they did a couple of gigs while they were here. Gian is really a prolific writer, but she doesn't just write. I know a lot of people who write all the time, but she'll actually go and document and record the stuff that she's written. So it's a two-part process where she's writing, and then that material becomes an EP or an LP. She's accumulated quite a remarkable number of albums for somebody of her age and stage. So it was really being inspired by their concerts, and talking with her and Chris, who had just released Sylvan Coda (Which Way Music, 2012), which is beautiful.

They helped to take the mystery out of making an album. Before that, I started to get a little disillusioned by the process. You want to pay attention to details, but I just feel that perfectionism shouldn't kill you, so all of this made me take a step back and say, "what is the purpose of recording anything and why do we write music?" One facet of being a musician is, obviously, live performance. That's the golden egg, but it's something that's so difficult to just do [exclusive of everything else], especially in a place like New York which is so saturated with musicians. Recording is something that you can control and do on your own timeline. You're not at the mercy of someone saying, "yes, you can use my studio" or "no, I don't like your style of music, so I'm not going to let you come in here and record anything."

So after seeing them when they visited, I thought, "you know what, I'm just going to go and really enjoy the process of writing, creating, and then documenting it." You learn so much from recording, and they're things that you wouldn't learn doing anything else. You won't learn them in school; you won't learn them gigging; and you won't learn them just playing random sessions with people. That's why it's such a pity that it's generally such an expensive undertaking. It's unfortunate because I think that a lot of us—a lot of musicians—would benefit from recording.

So coming off of making a full length album, which was the second one; and coming off of seeing Gian and Chris here; and talking with them and being inspired by the music that Gian is creating and Chris is creating helped [me]. I decided I was going to sit down on my bum and write music over a period of time, which was about seven weeks. I'm not usually very good at forced writing. I read an interview with a musician who was speaking about writing every day, and I wish I could do that, but it tends to come at certain moments. For some reason, and I don't know why, I was able to create these songs over seven weeks.

It was very obvious to me that the people I wanted to play them were [pianist] Fabian [Almazan] and [bassist] Desmond [White]. Fabian and I had talked about Indie singer-songwriters and shared notes on people we like and found to be interesting, so I knew that he was interested in that kind of music. And then Des had just put out a singer-songwriter jazz album [called Short Stories (Biophilia Records, 2013)] that he pretty much recorded himself in his own home studio, so I knew that he was interested in that kind of music and I knew he'd be supportive of me putting a toe in that pond.

People always talk about how many amazing musicians are in New York, and there are so many amazing musicians here, but that doesn't mean that all of those musicians are the right people for your music. You can find yourself in some really unpleasant situations if you've picked the wrong people to play with you. Then you have to deal with a certain attitude that they give off, where they're not digging your music: either it's not traditional enough, or they don't think much of your writing, or it's not this or it's that. You have to choose wisely, so it was a bit of a no-brainer as I knew Des and Fabian would like this.

We had a playing session and they really liked it. The music sounded good, and it was easy, and it was fun. So it was a case of, "let's make this very simple and go and record it." No muss, no fuss. And it was a way for me to learn how to be really clear. It taught me a lot about the recording process. I used to think that it was cheating when one song would be made up of multiple takes. It felt a bit dishonest, but I learned that it's not really dishonest. You're just taking advantage of the medium.

AAJ: Was there a lot of cut-and-paste involved in the EP?

NS: No. One of the six songs was done in one take and most of the rest of them were two takes. The title track, because it's more delicate and slower, leaving more room for things to come undone, was completed in three or four takes. We only had five hours, so you learn to accept things and move on. After Des and Fabian left, there was an hour that I had to do all of the vocal overdubbing, so I came back to a few tracks. I said, "let me try that vocal again," and then I'd listen back. And while it might have been a stronger vocal with things fixed that I wanted to fix, it sounded strange since it wasn't what I was singing when Des and Fabian were playing live. It stuck out, so I would revert back to the previous takes.

AAJ: You commented on the tempo of "To The Spring." Despite the title, it's not a very pastoral piece and it's very glacial in the way it develops and moves.

NS: Right. It's not spring-y at all.

AAJ: Was that an intentional contrast?

NS: No. I didn't have the order of the songs going in, so I didn't think about what would be sandwiched in this place or that place. I didn't write by thinking that I must have a ballad...and I must have this or that. I didn't write that way. I just had the lyrics and it felt like a slow tempo song because of the melody.

AAJ: Much of your music prior to this release balances out between jazz, world music and art song in interesting ways, but this is really a departure. As you just noted, it's more of an indie singer-songwriter project. You mentioned that you and Fabian had some favorites in common, so who are some of these people that have influenced this music?

NS: Definitely Gian Slater. Kate McGarry is another one. Her original tunes are speckled across all of her albums, with one original here and one there. I always think that her originals are some of the strongest material on each of her albums.

AAJ: Songs like "Ten Little Indians?"

NS: Yes. That song only came out now [on Genevieve And Ferdinand (Sunnyside Records, 2014)], but I'd heard her sing it before this album was recorded. There's also a song called "Going In," which is on one of her other albums [called Mercy Streets (Palmetto Records, 2005)]. Everybody talks about her as an interpreter, but she's also a fantastic songwriter. I also love the folk aesthetic that [guitarist] Keith [Ganz] brings to what they do together. That really appeals to me. So Kate and Gian are big influences. I'm also a huge fan of Randy Newman...and I really love his work and the way it's piano-driven. He's amazing at writing political songs or songs that comment on political situations. I can't do that. I feel that I'm not clever enough. He's also written some amazing love songs, or songs that you think are love songs. Then, when you "google" the songs and get some background information, you discover that they're not about love at all; or they're about the love between a father and a son. I like that idea, that a song is whatever you make of it.

Jo Lawry , especially since she's been working with Sting, is another one [of my influences]. She says that he's been encouraging her to write more originals, so if you go to any of her live gigs at the 55 Bar, you'll hear that she's doing all original music now. She has an album coming out in the summer and she's a fantastic writer. It's a mixture of genres, but a lot of it is in the style of folk music. I really appreciate that and I think that there's a simplicity to that sort of music. The great thing about it is that the focus is on the songwriting. There are a lot of people who write music that's really complex, and it's beautiful, but you're never going to be moved by the lyrics [in those situations]; you don't necessarily understand them because they're really abstract. There's a lot to be said for the idea of simplicity and what it takes to write a good song.

AAJ: That idea definitely comes through on "The Traveler"—the opening song on To The Spring. When you recently performed at Raphael Vineyards, you noted that it was a song about the traveling musician, but it's also a song about a relationship. That gets back to what you were saying about a song being about two things, or thinking a song is about one thing when it's really about another. There also seem to be other influences, whether intentionally absorbed or not, that come through in your music. Bits of Regina Spektor, latter day James Taylor, Mark Knopfler, and even some Irish undertones [in "Father"] seem to shine through.

NS: The cool thing that I always tell people and students about being a singer, is that, yes, you have to practice the way a horn player or pianist would practice, but because you're so reliant on your ear, you have an advantage because you can just sit and have sounds and music playing [that you can absorb]. And it doesn't even have to be through active listening. Just because of the nature of the ears and mind, you're going to absorb things subconsciously, and then you may or may not end up using them. There are certain things you obviously have to drill in and get the muscles to remember, like [certain placements], but you have the ear at your disposal. I'm aware that I absorb a lot of things and quote things without realizing it. You lean on certain influences. I love James Taylor. My dad is a huge James Taylor fan, and I've listened to a lot of his music. I've also listened to a lot of Shawn Colvin. She's another singer-songwriter that I really love. She's amazing. I was also a huge, huge fan of Regina Spektor's early albums.

AAJ: "Fall Apart" is the song on To The Spring that seems to really have that Regina Spektor vibe surrounding it.

NS: A lot of people say that. The guy who was mixing it—Dave [Darlington at Bass Hit Recording]—also said it was a little Beatle-esque. I read something that a singer-songwriter said, that people often think that if you listen to other people's music there's a chance that you'll steal their ideas, but in fact, nothing's really original. Nothing is one-hundred percent original nowadays. Everything references something else, and I don't have a problem with that. If somebody's listening and they say that something of mine sounds like Regina Spektor, I think that's a complement. It also means that when they hear it, their ears are grabbing onto something familiar. I think that helps my cause rather than hindering it.

AAJ: I think we all like to reference and compare certain things to other things. We like to categorize since it makes it easy to absorb things and put it in our memory bank.

NS: Totally.

AAJ: Even though To The Spring is really your first completely DIY project, there's been a bit of a do-it-yourself element to both of your prior projects. Can you speak a little bit about your first album [Freedom Flight (Circavision, 2012)], which, if I'm not mistaken, you released while you were still studying at the Manhattan School of Music?

NS: Freedom Flight was actually released in May 2012, so it was a year after [I finished at the Manhattan School of Music]. I recorded it after school, but it was just after school. It was recorded with musicians that I'd been playing with at the time; they were all MSM guys. We'd played a lot of the music repeatedly, so it felt like a very natural thing to have them play on the record. All of the guests were people I had met that had helped me a lot, either by teaching me or supporting me. People like Peter Eldridge and Brian Adler.

Freedom Flight was done straight out of school, and I didn't use a producer because I felt like we had all of the material [together], apart from one song. We didn't need much guidance on the material, although critics might argue otherwise, and I wanted it to be a situation where everybody was just chipping in and being involved. If there was a producer looming there, it might have changed the dynamic and it might have been less fun and less relaxed. So we did it without a producer, and everyone was great. We did it at a really good studio in the city—Sear Sound. The reason for doing that, and for putting money into the studio, was because I didn't have a producer. I was very green and I didn't want to be recording at a place where something could go wrong or the gear wasn't the best gear that could be there. Chris [Allen], who's the house engineer in Sear Sound, is everything you'd want in an engineer. He's so good...and he made it really easy.

When the record was done, I shopped it around. I have no qualms about putting myself out there and inviting in rejection emails. I shopped it around, and it didn't garner any interest, so I put it out myself. Brian Adler, the percussionist who plays on the album, has his own label for his releases, like the trio he has with [singer] Sunny Kim called Prana Trio. He has an umbrella label called Circavision Productions, so technically it came out on that label, but it was a completely independent endeavor. Brian said, "sure, here's the logo, and I'll share information." Otherwise, I could do whatever I wanted in terms of artwork and other things. I hired my own publicist, but I did a lot of my own publicity. I actually hired a publicist that wasn't one of the jazz inner circle publicists. He was lovely, but that probably wasn't the best use of money. So I ended up doing a lot of DIY publicity, and learning a ton, and creating relationships with writers that are specific to me, and not my publicist. That's how you ended up getting the album.

AAJ: Right, when you reached out about the album via email.

NS: Right. I think you'd reviewed either Kate McGarry's album, or Sara Gazarek's album, or another singer that I felt was in my realm, [so I sent it to you]. The lack of DIY savyness that some musicians have baffles me. I just think it's the most obvious thing: find somebody that you think you're similar to, see who's reviewing them, and see if you can send them an album. The worst thing they can say is "no."

AAJ: A lot of people seem to be living in another time, when the music business was far different. They're expecting somebody to just give them their big break out of nowhere. They don't realize that the playing field has changed considerably. Artists really need to reach out and do their own work to get noticed.

You've mentioned artists that you feel you're similar to and/or a lot of your mentors, like Kate McGarry and Jo Lawry. These are people who are extremely well-respected and they're all individualists, but they don't necessarily fit with the traditional definition of a jazz singer. Many would say that you don't either. How do you feel about the term, "jazz singer?"

NS: There are so many debates about the terminology of the genre as a whole. I think it's totally open to interpretation. You were talking about how it's a DIY age, and [it's true]. The record industry that existed when The Manhattan Transfer was discovered at a concert and signed backstage doesn't exist anymore. That's a different time and different era, so there are huge generation gaps and there are going to be differing opinions about what is jazz and what is not jazz. A lot of movies will show the jazz singer with the glitzy dress on, and I love that image. It's very old school. It's very [representative of the] 1920s and 1930s and, apart from any sexism that existed for musicians on the whole at that time, I have no issue with that, but I think we live in a different age. There are always going to be people who champion that vision of the jazz singer, and that's fine. There are always going to be these eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-olds who sound a bit like Billie Holiday, and I mean that in a completely complimentary way. More often than not, I'm at least entertained when I hear a nineteen-year-old open her mouth and sound [something] like Nina Simone. It's amazing! It's a talent and you're working what you've been given. Those are your cords and that's your larynx, so I think that, as long as there are singers like that, they'll satisfy the traditionalists who believe that jazz and jazz singing are a certain thing...but there are people out there who are more interested in jazz that feels more relevant to the rest of the music that we're getting bombarded with on the radio and on-line. So I don't have any issue with it.

Yes, there are times when I get bitter, and I feel that because I'm not willing to be a traditional jazz singer and sing standards...it's much harder. Part of the reason I left South Africa was because I couldn't find people that I felt had similar voices to mine and could show me how to use this kind of voice. It's not the norm there and those are the voices that my ear gravitates toward because that's the kind of voice I have. I came to the states because I heard people like Kate McGarry, and Tierney Sutton, and Sara Gazarek, and Gretchen Parlato. Just take those four singers and you have a myriad of ways to approach the whole "jazz singing" thing.

There are different ways [to approach this], and that's why I came over here, but since coming over here I realized , with putting albums out and trying to get writers interested just to listen to them if not even cover them, that my sound is probably more European. I saw where the divide was, and I thought, "yeah, I'll go to the states," but now that I'm here, I can sort of see all the subdivisions. It's a really interesting world. I hope that somebody who's doing a Ph.D. will write about it. It's difficult either way, because if you do sound super traditional, you're just going to be compared to people like Cécile [McLorin Salvant] and maybe Cyrille [Aimée], who is so fantastic, but at the same time, they're doing something different with traditionalism. So even in that sense it's progressive, but they appease people who want to hear something more traditional. It's a little bit of a Catch-22.

AAJ: You mentioned South Africa, we've discussed New York, and you've mentioned that you might have more of European sound. You're pretty unique because you're a citizen of three realms: you were born in London, you grew up in South Africa, you've spent a long time in New York now, and you're preparing to move to London. Being familiar with the scenes in all three places, do you find that there's something distinct and different about the general jazz community in each place?

NS: For sure. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that jazz isn't in a bubble. It doesn't exist that way anymore. There's so much crossing over. If you look at those three places and you look at the other genres that are really popular, those are the genres that the jazz communities are going to be borrowing from.

South African jazz, as a sub-genre, has very specific traits and a very specific aesthetic that is often married to the instrumentation. You know, the use of acoustic guitar over electric guitar or the use of traditional percussion versus a full-on jazz drum kit. Or even the way the way South African saxophonists—people like Winston Mankunku [Ngozi]—sound. A lot of people in America would say, "oh, that's out of tune," but in South Africa it aligns with the tuning system. And it's that slightly flat way of playing that makes it sound South African to us. So we hear it and we go, "ah, South African jazz." We don't hear it and go, "oh, he's out of tune." There are all these little differences. I think a lot of South African jazz musicians, like [pianist] Kyle Shepherd...are very pro-Africa and pro-South Africa. He's incorporated all these traditional instruments, like the berimbau and those sort of things, so he's very invested in making sure that traditional African music is not forgotten or pushed aside. His way of doing that is incorporating that into his jazz vocabulary, and I think it's very nice. [Bassist] Shane [Cooper] is the same. I saw him play live recently...and it was great. He did a song by a South African musician who's since passed away, as many of them have, and it fit within his set of original music. I like to think that I do the same thing. On every album I've done, there's been a song by a South African composer. It's not an affectation. It's not, "well, lets remind people [where I'm from]." It's, "do I like the song," or "do I like the composer," or "do I want to sing that song." I approach it from the same way as, "do I want to arrange that standard?" If I don't feel connected to it, or I can't envision a different arrangement for it, I'm not going to do it. In that sense, that's kind of what's happening in South Africa.

New York is tricky. Everybody always says that New York is not like the rest of North America, and that it's its own thing. But at the same time, you have all of America in New York, so in some ways, it really gives you a pretty good taste of what's going on in the rest of North America. You're meeting all these different people and it has a huge amount of foreigners. People from Europe, and Israel, and everywhere else are also here, so it's a bit of a mixed bag. It's a pretty progressive scene and it's a mixed bag where anything goes. And that's why New York is great for musicians who are here. It's very liberating and it means that you can study with some of the absolute jazz legends, and you can take in what they're teaching you, but you don't have to adhere to it. In fact, you'd be a fool to do it since they're still around. For example, if you're here, you can study with Lee Konitz, but don't go around playing like Lee Konitz because it's not going to serve you in any way.

AAJ: [laughs] He doesn't even go around playing like himself very often.

NS: [laughs] Exactly. You'll be a version behind!

In terms of London, I haven't really spent a lot of time on the scene. I've done a lot of voluntary research into what's going on and how people are. I think the vocalist scene there is really interesting. From my view, there appears to be a lot of generational divide between the singers there. You have these sort of grand dames of British jazz—people like Norma Winstone—and then you have the next generation, people like Anita Wardell, and Tina May, and Claire Martin. Then you have my generation, where there are some very interesting singers, and people who are doing things I like a lot. A lot of them are incorporating folk music, whether it be from England or their native country, like Sweden or wherever [they're from], and I like that.

AAJ: Not to switch gears, but we spoke a bit about To The Spring, and we spoke a little bit about Freedom Flight, so we still need to get to Space And Time, your second release, which is an all-duo date. Can you speak a little bit about the album and the intentions behind it?

NS: Each project has basically been a result of the previous project. Freedom Flight was with a quartet, with some quintet tracks. It was a big project, I did it completely independently...so in a lot of ways I felt quite overwhelmed by the process and quite tired, just tired out by general day-to-day living in New York, which is crazy. The pace is manic and exciting and exhausting. So Space And Time is an answer to Freedom Flight, with everything just pared down. It's all duo. It's duo with different pianists, partly to keep me on my toes. It's a fun thing to do. But also, I think I hoped it would be interesting for the listener. That's the classic format—voice and piano. I've listened to a lot of duo albums, and there are a handful of them where I felt like my attention was captured throughout. It's tricky. Even if it's not a ballad album...[it leans in that direction because] it's the nature of the context. The energy is going to go there whether you like it or not. It's just two people, so that's just how it is. So my attention hasn't been held by a lot duo albums, so I thought, "Well, this is one way to hold it" because these are three pianists who have very different styles. So [I thought,] "lets just throw that into the pot and see what happens." I've always loved incorporating duo songs [into the program] when I'm doing a gig, whether it's bass and voice, or piano and voice, or drums and voice.

I love the piano. That was my first instrument. And I love arranging for piano and voice because you can be really specific, but then you can also have that opened up by the pianist that you're working with. They'll have ideas that you couldn't possibly write; well, I couldn't possibly write because my piano playing is not strong enough. It's a balancing act thing.

And I really enjoy arranging, and that was my first foray into writing. I started writing more, and enjoying writing, and I considered myself a writer. So it was just a very natural progression to come off of something that was louder and do something that was softer that allowed me to exercise whatever muscles or skills I'd started developing. And I did it with a producer to experience that, and also because I felt a little bit wary of, "will the album be boring because it's slower and quieter?" And I didn't realize before I went into it that there's all this space. Had I known this before I would have never recorded it. I would've said, "Oh no, I'll do that when I'm 60. Let's just wait." In editing you can hear every little creak, and you can even hear what's going on in the next studio, even though the walls are soundproofed. So having a producer there and having ears for that helped. Also, [producer]Matt Pierson is really experienced, and he knew what kind of editing would be involved. I had no idea. He also had some really great arrangement suggestions, so it was a really positive experience.

AAJ: I think, in some ways, [with this project] you took songs that people know, and that they've known all their lives, and you bent the intentions of them by slowing them down or tweaking them. Songs like "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" and "I Wish You Love" take on a whole different meaning when they're really pulled back.

NS: These were songs that I loved, and if other people knew them, so be it. [When it comes to some of] them—"Say It Isn't So," "I Wish You Love," "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You"—I couldn't find renditions that I thought were slow enough, and that made sense when you're looking at the lyrics. "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" [is a great example]. Dean Martin sings that song, and there's a version with him, and Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland, and they're having a real slapper of a time. It's this big band medium swing version, and I don't understand how that connects to the lyrics. It's a great arrangement. The band sounds great. Dean, Frank, and Judy sound amazing. But it's kind of like a jeering song if it's at that tempo, so I thought, "well, it needs to be slower, but it also needs to be without drums." [Things change] the moment drums come in because they give it momentum. Especially if it's brushes comping around on the snare. So, I felt very strongly about that song. Same thing with "I Wish You Love." It's so sad. And the same thing with "Say It Isn't So." There are a couple other ballad versions that singers have done, but they have drums in them. It's with trio, and it's just a bit too fast. "Say It Isn't So" is so sad. So that was the idea behind slowing them down. And also, I think they are [often] in time, but they can also be ever so slightly out of time, which is something that's great. It's just fun to sing in rubato tempo.

AAJ: Along with those songs, you mixed in some songs that were contextually revised. Songs like "Here Comes The Sun" and Massive Attack's "Teardrops." And then you had some originals, a South African song—"Seliyana"—and "Bless The Telephone." These were beautiful pieces, some of which may not be known in the West. So you introduced people to some of these songs that have a timeless quality to them. It's really a testament to you that you were able to put all of this together, coupled with the fact that you were dealing with three different pianists, and that everything sounds very comfortable together. Did you have the playlist set out in advance, and were you looking for that cohesiveness, or were you trying to make each track stand out a bit?

NS: I completely appreciate the fact that you can get a great arrangement from someone else, but I think the massive pro of arranging everything yourself is that it gives you a sense of cohesiveness. [It works] because it's the same stamp that you're putting on every song, regardless of where the material comes from, and regardless of whether it's Cole Porter or Michael Jackson. You are thinking of how you can interpret it, so it feels like you and it's something you could wear. So that means that Cole Porter, Michael Jackson, and that song by Meatloaf that you love will all marry because you're the one who's taken them and reshaped them and molded them; it's your stamp. So I never really worry about, "well I want to do this song, but it's so different from that song." I never worry about the songs lining up because I know I'm the person that's interpreting them, and reharmonizing them, and reimagining them.

Maybe I should strive for crazy variety , and real peaks and troughs, but [that's not really what I'm striving for] at this stage of things. That's one thing that I spoke to Matt [Pierson] about. It's really important when you're a relatively unknown musician, or an emerging artist, or whatever they call it. You're slowly introducing people to you, and what you do, and what you like, and what you sound like, and all of those things, so I think it's very important to strive for cohesiveness over radical change. That's something I think you can do later on, and it's a risk taking endeavor.

In the moment, it's a case of building, and I really believe that each album has built. I mean, each album has been a result of the previous one, but they've also built off of each other. There were two original songs on the first one, there were four original songs on the second one, and now the EP is all originals. And they're all a direct result [of what came before]. I couldn't have done the second album without the first album because there are things that I learned about recording [the first time], and also writing and collaborating [that got me there]. Those are all the sort of things that informed the second album and my EP.

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