living room music

There’s a tempo they want. A sound quality they want. There are subjects they won’t air. The music industry (like any other successful industry) is about formulas and rules.

Follow them, and you will succeed in it as a songwriter and, for better or worse, likely remain a part of it for life. Incidentally, the formula looks like this:

This Brightness plus that Tempo plus this Timing and that Song Duration
multiplied by
LOUDNESS (imperative for chart-topping success this century),
divided by
such-and-such Chord Structure plus Harmonic Complexity = Chart Hit

If that’s the business you’re in, you keep doing this, because it brings you rewards. The tradeoff is that you end up with a body of contemporary hits that are cookie-cutter and calculated. Not anything meant to last.

If you’d made the choice not to follow the rules, then you have freedom to make something that could last. Like, living room music.

Before it was an industry, before Nashville, before Honky Tonk, before Rockabilly, country music truly was living room music. It had this timeless, front-porch quality to it. Much of it very dark and brooding, and depressing and tragic. And beautiful.

I aim with most every song I write to absorb some of that and evoke the past time, but at the same time make something new. Hopefully, something special and very cool to enough people.

This lofty height can only be reached from a place of autonomy. Without record companies, or radio dials, or A&R executives in the middle.

I have never made up a song with an ear or an eye for the marketplace. “Will it touch someone, and will it last?” is always what I’m up against.

I know how to make up that other kind of music. I choose not to. I choose to make quirky, alt-country songs I believe in, instead.

When a song is a hit and makes the artist famous, popular culture declares the song is great art. But of course, popular is not a measure of art. There are many things you can do to get everyone to hear and download your music that have nothing to do with whether it’s great art, just as there are many ways to sell a novel or increase your blog readership.

Do what you believe, not what’s going to make you popular.

OK, break time’s over. Back to my plain but very wonderful little studio up the stairs.

livingroommusic

 

 

alibi

I have wanted to write about the people who owned our old farmhouse before, but I couldn’t realize the song, which more and more seemed to want to talk about some essence of their moving on, not their past.

Reaching into the past, I am able to salvage:

The dim farmhouse, morning radio on …

Black-blue meadow stalking every step the living make  …

A whispered rush.

And that farmhouse, like an old brown photograph, suddenly fills the senses.

winterhorseredbarn

As a writer of two or three-minute songs, I’m not interested in holding on to something for very long, or walking back into the past too deep. I’m in it for the permission to be transient.

It’s like this with singing, too. The whole idea of holding a note is strange to me. Singing isn’t about that. It’s about passage, about carrying the note out of you and forward.

When I chronicle the past I’m really just connecting dots, picking the beautiful things out of it and presenting a coherent arc in a neat, little song. Of course, life in the farmhouse was much noisier than that. The past is merely an alibi for the present.

The future, well … it’s messy, but it’s better to move on to it, better to leave what’s left behind any way except a slow way, leave the fastest way you can.

As with the breakups I sing about, the staying moved on … this is the hardest thing of all.

 

voice lesson

Songwriters worry a lot about finding their voice. We all find our voice, though. By the time you’re ten or more years into your craft, you find it.

But that’s not the trouble. The trouble is getting rid of it.

Of course the song idea in my head has been done before. The question I have to answer is, “have I done this before?”

A mere cut and paste from something I shared before would be pointless.

Bringing my true self to my work, every time … shaping my sound until my own two ears say, “yes, that’s great, this surprises us.” That’s what I’m after.

Passionately pursuing a new song my whole life … that’s everything.

voice

 

 

 

finder’s reward

When I’m making up a song, I keep an ear to the ground for what people cast off.

An overheard remark in a train station, the half-sentences of friends workshopping love’s particulars in the local coffee shop: They’re the finder’s reward.

I listen in like an ecclesiastic to the human heart as it bares its splendor and its brokenness.

I listen, and write. And as I write, I polish what I’ve found, and as I craft it into a tune hopefully expose a genuine, consoling truth in the brokenness.

I pick up things others don’t ordinarily notice, like the flowers that thrive by the roadside as we pass on our way somewhere else. Sometimes it’s the only way to encounter the truth.

finders reward

beautiful flaws

I am so flawed as an artist. My songs are imperfectly performed. My wispy voice is sometimes shaky about pitch.

My recordings are a set of first-takes, a thoroughly homemade affair. Nothing feels mastered. Listen closely, and you might hear barn swallows, the sound of wood scraping on a floor, probably a chair.

beautiful flaw

I don’t have many true fans. Is it because everyone else hears my flaws? I could deceive myself into thinking that. Or, that it’s because I don’t fall neatly into a category of music … I’m not exactly country, or folk, or anything else.

But categories don’t matter. Most important work is done by people who don’t easily fit in. No great piece of art is flawless. And no great artist is universally liked or understood.

I’m happy to have a few true fans who don’t hear first-takes, but jewels, and who can’t wait to hear what I make up next.

Who are tuned in to me, flaws and all.