Open letter to the universe (or one musician who shall remain nameless)

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Album art from the 1980 album Waves by singer-songwriter Mike Batt

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago, not necessarily intending to send it (because fan mail is inherently creepy, isn’t it?), but just to get the thoughts on paper. It was literal paper, too. I started with a ballpoint pen and a notebook.

But in the last few days I’ve found myself saying similar words to other people in different contexts — most recently while talking to students at a career mixer at my alma mater. (Sorry, kids, but adulting is strange business.)

I’ll add that it has long been my belief that all love songs are ultimately written to god (I say this as an agnostic who likes the concision of the word “god”); that romantic longings are the pathways to our highest selves.

It might be trite or cliche to tell a musician that their songs meant something to you. I probably should feel at least bit silly about how deeply I’ve gone into your songs lately. How I’ve lived in [insert album title]. But the whole point of creative work is to make connections. Songs, poems, stories, books — they’re all missives loosed into the world in hopes of finding kindred spirits.

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Ben Lovett on creativity

Asheville-based musician, composer, filmmaker and producer Ben Lovett (not the Mumford & Sons band member of the same name) recently launched the four-EP series, Lovers & Friends. It came about when he was introduced to 12 songwriters in Los Angeles, and during a series of blind-date-type meet-ups, composed songs with each of those strangers-turned-collaborators. Follow the series at youtube.com/user/LoversLabel.

Here, Lovett talks about creating art, where ideas come from, and how to not be held back by fear or uncertainty.

Lovett in a still from his music video for

Lovett in a still from his music video for “HEARTATTACK.”

A fundamental part of my philosophy is to never let the fear of not know what I’m doing prevent me from trying.

The first thing I really ever did was make music for these guys’ movie in college, when I was a freshman or sophomore. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “I don’t know anything about writing music for a movie,” and they were like, “Well, we don’t know anything about making one.” I was like, “OK, awesome.”

That whole experience was so encouraging and rewarding that it multiplied into all these other things I’ve done. If you were to find a common thread, it’s [that] I charged into them inexperienced and without any idea of what I was doing. But if you’re too preoccupied with looking cool, you’re going to miss out on a lot of stuff. If you’re trapped in the fear of coming across looking stupid or untalented, you’re really not even allowing access to all the other parts of yourself … that you need to create art.

You’ve got to learn that even your most embarrassing moments are not going to kill you. In fact, sometimes they give you a really good story. On a long time line, that’s all you’re looking for — as many good stories as you can find.

If you knew were [ideas] came from, you’d go there more often and just stand at the door. It’s almost like you accidentally tune into that frequency. You have these moments where it’s coming in, but it’s coming in a little hazy you’re just off the dial of it. You’re constantly trying to figure out which way you need to lean or turn to get it to come in clearer.

Every songwriter and writer and artist has had these moments where it’s just, bam! Bolt of lightning. All of a sudden this whole thing comes through you in one spell. You don’t know why or where, but it’s so profound and it’s so real. You only ever feel the slightest bit, if any, responsible for it. You become addicted and you’re waiting around, trying to do anything you can to get it to come back.

There’s no more sort of religious experience, for me, when you go from nothing to a song that now exists. It will outlive you and it’s a companion for the rest of your life. It makes you feel lucky to be alive and to be in touch with that, [as if] you were tapped [to] have that luck that day.

I feel more like I’m just waving around my butterfly net most of the time. Every now and then you’re like, “A butterfly! Oh my god!” You can only really ever get better at building your net or waving it around. You don’t really know how to make the butterfly fly into any better.

Fiction and songwriting

Fiction and songwriting

It’s my theory (and probably not mine alone) that whatever you search for, that’s what you’ll find. Teachers are everywhere. Since I’m interested in the craft of fiction, and my day job involves many interviews with musicians, I learn a lot about writing fiction from songwriters.

Creativity is transmutable. (Technique is another issue, but there are probably YouTube videos for that.)

Still, I was surprised by a recent interview between Lord Huron front man Ben Schneider and NPR reporter Melissa Block. Schneider, who got his start as a visual artist and now lives in L.A., approaches his musical project from a very literary point of view. The first Lord Huron album, Lonesome Dreams, is a collection of songs inspired by Schneider’s youth spent near Lake Huron. The characters are all fabled and mist-enshrouded and could have been be culled from folklore.

The new album, Strange Trails — which the singer-songwriter discusses with Block — is a series of post-apocalyptic shorts and ghost stories, each sung from the perspective of the song’s central character. It’s flash fiction at its finest: poignant and palpable, brief yet complete.

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/397364256/397891235

I love this for a couple of reasons. First, many musicians say they don’t want to share their song inspirations for fear of altering the listener’s perception of the song. And that’s valid. I understand the sentiment from the perspective that songs hit on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one (and often the former more than the later). But as a person who loves words and listens to lyrics first, I want to dig into the songwriting process. That Schneider’s is so closely linked to the process of writing fiction is intriguing.

Second, I’ve felt disappointed, in the past, by songwriters who get too invested in creating a fictional world for their songs. Telling a good story: yes. Creating a persona and a fictional voice and a world for those to inhabit: no.

Case in point: Father John Misty. Now, I have friends, whose opinions I respect, who like Father John Misty. I get that the songs, albums and stage shows are the fiction created by Joshua Tillman. But I don’t think the fiction works because the character is pretty much a jerk. And, while he crafts a world of his own, it’s ultimately not one that anyone else can inhabit. It’s a world of flash and catchy hooks, of smug insider jokes and brash dismissals.

But there’s no mystery, no room for the listener to live within the idea, no secret doors left to open or curtains to peer behind.

Lord Huron, on the other hand, is all mystery and doors and curtains.

That’s what I want in the books I read and, apparently, in the songs I listen to.

Sea songs: “Gentle Spotted Giants” EP by Alex Krug

Need a little inspiration this Friday? Here’s one of my favorite recent musical discoveries. This lush and evocative four-song EP is dreamy, spooky, cinematic and quiet — exactly all of my favorite elements this summer.

This review was originally posted at Mountainx.com:

AlexKrugComboThere are contradictions in Alex Krug‘s voice: The softness with which she sings belies her power, the prettiness of her vocal is offset by a rawness that appears and disappears to devastating effect. And each song on the Alex Krug Combo’s new EP, Gentle Spotted Giants, is delivered with absolute care, even as its wrung from the singer’s guts.

Lead track “Divers” begins with snare rolls (guest artist Bill Berg) and the quiet thunder of upright bass (Kevin Lampson). The song moves unhurried — a few notes plucked from the violin, a strum of guitar. An electric guitar (Kyle Samples) revs in the background, fuzzy and ominous as an approaching storm. All the while, Krug’s strange and wonderful vocal dips and swells into the song. Each instrument adds texture, and the track builds like a fantastical tale without ever losing sight of its own emotional thread.

“Towhee” is slower, more rocked by ion-rich gusts, haunted by gathering shadows. Rachel Gramig provides warm and resonant harmonies to Krug’s lilting melody. “I hit the rocks, on the edge of water / I’ve been beat up, can’t hold it together,” she sings. The songs pauses just briefly, breathlessly, and then the boom of two drum beats brings the music back in. Lyndsay Pruett‘s violin is so lovely it stings to listen, and when Krug hits her upper register — just for a few measures — the effect all updraft and velocity and terrible beauty.

“Whaleshark,” the EP’s longest track, was produced by Michael Selverne/Welcome to Mars. If the rest of the EP is deliberate and expansive, this song positively breathes in space. Strings waver between gorgeous and damaged territories. Each note is mined for its most and least dulcet tones; instruments cry and echo, otherworldly and animalian. Krug’s and Gramig’s voices weave and part, gliding in a couple’s dance over the textural soundscape of percussion and electric guitar. A story unfolds, but so does a sonic atlas — a journey informed as much by instrumental explorations as by narrative. It’s shattering and still uplifting, if just for its sheer beauty.

Final track “Sail With You” is perhaps the sweetest offering. It carries on the oceanic theme, and so too the vastness and loneliness of that metaphor. But here Krug’s voice is close and clear. “Maybe I could sail with you / cut across these waves with you,” she sings. It’s airy and untethered, the thrumming low notes of the strings like the call of a ship lost in the fog. Every part of the song aches in the way that, say, an Irish folk song reverberates with loss and longing carried for generations and held captive in a few potent verses. But as much as “Sail with You” feels timeless, it’s also distinctly present — a love song for the love of singing, for the whaleshark or for the gentle spotted giants after whom the album is named. Or for the ocean itself. Romantic as the track is, the “you” ultimately matters little while the song itself looms large long after its final notes.

An open letter to Twin Shadow

An open letter to Twin Shadow

Image from TwinShadow.net

Dear George Lewis Jr. (aka Twin Shadow),

The main thing I can’t forgive you for is that every time I hear your voice with all of its melodramatic angst and longing, and those boomy atmospherics, synthy drums and shimmery keyboards, I’m instantly transported to Newark, New York, circa 1987. The parking lot of the gym where I sat on the curb and waited for my friend Kim to finish aerobics class. I’m all torn tights, black eyeliner and leather jacket, hunched over my journal. And across the lot two boys on skateboards swerve lazy arcs toward me and away again.

John Henderson was the one I liked even though I mostly talked to his blond and obvious friend. Between us, John and I probably said enough words to fill one journal page, if that. We were both shy, insulated by our loneliness and our chatty friends. But in our minds — I believe this — we were all strobe lights and white-hot dance beats, the one-two pulse of wanting and not having. Wanting to be understood, wanting to scream, wanting to get the hell out of our small towns, wanting each other and not saying it.tumblr_nhh2o92Rna1r2gfato1_400

Or maybe I was alone in my wanting. You tell me, Twin Shadow. Clearly you’ve found the portal back to those feelings. The sharp demand, the shrill fear that to want and not have equals utter annihilation. The vivid longing for things that can not be named. The breathless rush to grow up, get better, stop slicing away the despair with shoplifted blades. The longing to replace emptiness with something better than stolen Vodka in a cold garage — and the knowing that there’s nothing better than bad booze with best friends.

Knowing there’s nothing better than five minutes sitting on the bed of a boy who can’t even meet your eyes. To dream of slow dancing is better than all the actual fast dances, all the downhill skateboard races, all the leather jackets — even the one stolen by the greasy-haired jerk who was supposed to replace John Henderson and could not. You know the one I mean, Twin Shadow.

But if we don’t grow past the shuddery anguish of being 15 and desperate over a boy with sad eyes and slow smiles, if we don’t shut down that particular ache, stop revisiting that singular wound, how can we get on? There’s so much to do and the world asks us to be adult about things. To buy groceries, pay bills, turn in assignments and return phone calls. No time for 12-page letters about nothing, about everything.
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That’s what happens to everyone, right? You get some perspective. You think maybe someday you’ll drive back past his house and he’ll just happen to be there, visiting his parents or something. You’ll stop the car, get out, hug him. The substantial feel of him — the familiar softness of a flannel shirt; the unfamiliar self-assuredness. You think it’ll hurt just a little to hear he’s married, has kids. That back then he thought about it, too. Slow dancing. The breathless, sweaty throb of it. The woozy chemical reaction that still flares between you.

You can still close your eyes and see him move in a fluid arc, weightless on wheels. Your index finger, chipped black nail polish pressed against his mouth, stifling a laugh and not daring a kiss.

I say you, and I mean me, Twin Shadow. You’re the conductor of memories and the fanner of flames — for this I blame you — and you’re the instigator of a litany of phantom pains. That you sing of us as we were (and us as we didn’t dare ourselves to be), that you sing the slow dances we didn’t dance, that you smolder and rasp and promise to wait, to stop, to start, to go, to drive all night. And it’s always night, and it’s always the moment of reckoning.

You might think that it would be sad for the story to end that way, John and me middle-aged, decades away from skateboards and ripped stockings. The you of your songs, Twin Shadow, would never stand for simply moving on: You move to the rhythm of the perfect ache held up to the black light and suspended in time. But the alternative ending is that I  casually ask about John in the early days of Facebook and the obvious blond boy (now a wearer of ties, a driver of mini vans) tells me that he did try to call but my father only said I didn’t live there anymore so no one ever told me. And just like that, the beautiful sad-eyed boy is lost to the garages and parking lots and flannel-strewn bedrooms of another lifetime. And you can’t mourn someone who’s been gone for more than a decade.

Cover image of Twin Shadow's new album, Eclipse

Cover image of Twin Shadow’s new album, Eclipse

But then there was you, Twin Shadow. With the way you look like John and the way you sing the things that should have been sung. With your sonic portal, your mirror held up to my teenage self. “Five seconds … straight to your heart” and all.

So now I’m that girl again. You can find me in the corner of the gym, in the darkest shadow of the bleachers. Ask me for the slow dance. Wound me with your soulful glance, your scarred wrist, your secrets, your doomed beauty.

I can’t forgive you for that, Twin Shadow. But that’s okay. I didn’t really want to shed this oppressive crush. I’ll keep waiting for that first kiss. I’ll keep fanning the flames. We’re all forged at the fires of love anyway; as long as we continue to burn — our rash and molten hearts — we can still be formed. We can still bear the impression of all who touch us.

. . .

The new Twin Shadow album, Eclipse, was recently released. I feel pretty certain that unless you’re dead inside, it will change your life.

Virtual city walk

Virtual city walk

I’ve been working on an article this week about Peter Turchi‘s new book, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic. In it, he collages his own essays with a selection of artworks, quotes and inspirations — and lots of puzzles, including some specially composed for the book. “The goal is to help people think about writing and reading in different ways,” Turchi says.

What’s so interesting to me about A Muse and a Maze is how writing can be informed by other artistic disciplines. “Other narrative forms like film and plays offer pretty direct inspiration,” Turchi says. “Sometimes it can be an artist whose work doesn’t have any obvious relation to mine. … Just the very notion behind them sometimes can be helpful in making me think of some aspect of fiction in a different way.”

With that in mind, I came across this album, Citywalk from the Isolation Studies series by Night’s Bright Colors — the project of my supertalented friend Jason Smith. It’s study of inspiration — music borne of street scenes and sounds. Each track could be a photograph, or a haiku, or a watercolor. And all of those possibilities are somehow compacted into perfect microcosms of moments that expand and contract with the breath and the day, with how light unfurls and moves across the room, with the openness of imagination and the closing of the eyes.

These are songs I could live in and write in. They ask for stories to be written of their distinct worlds — though I’m sure each contains its own nucleus of a story already intact and waiting to be discovered.