Friday, July 25, 2008

Voices of Comfort and Protest

My recent experience as a judge in the Mountain Stage Newsong contest has redeemed my faith in songwriting as an art form. Although there seems to be a tendency in general for artistic writers to enter contests while the more commercial writers do not, that wasn't the case with Newsong. What I found instead was a group of writer-artists passionately pursuing personal expression whether aimed at mainstream Nashville or a slot on the Mountain Stage radio show. The contest atmosphere breathed familiar somehow until I recalled my early days in Nashville and realized that the exchange of creative energy in those days was very similar to the virtual exchange taking place in this Internet based contest. The competition wasn't so much for the fist full of dollars as it was for the title of 'best communicator'.

There is an art form thriving out there, we just have to look in some unlikely places to find it. You certainly won't hear it in the mainstream media. You may not even hear it so much on satellite radio, where many repackaged mainstream acts have retreated.

I was most curious as I judged the entries as to where the act was working and what, if any, measures they were taking to promote themselves. It ran the gamut. There were tight bluegrass acts working two nights a week in local watering holes; there were closet songwriters who'd worked in complete obscurity for 30 years before finding the nerve to go public; there were self-promoters with some flair and obvious previous training; there were even nationally touring acts that had managed to stay below the radar somehow.

I was taken with the one common thread in all of it: honesty. A writer can say true things: the sun rose today. He can also say honest things: the sun rose today but I didn't care. The difference is striking when it comes to a song. It all goes back to who you are, how much you know about yourself, how willing you are to be vulnerable and open, whether you'll risk saying what you feel, think, perceive, and hope for in life. And saying it all with that inner voice we only seem to find in desperate moments.

I wrote about character last week, and this is where the bullet meets the bone. It's easy to spot a song that's superficially packaged to appeal to a world in denial. It's also easy to spot a song that's so evasive as to be inconsequential, or so shallow as to qualify as a jingle rather than a song. What's so bad about evasive songs and jingles? Nothing really, unless that's all we hear. Then those songs contribute to the wash of opiating culture we're all going numb under. As the world gets more irrational, the opiates get more powerful. It becomes more rare for honesty to break through and shake us back to consciousness.

Yet that's how I feel today after listening to dozens and dozens of young and not so young artists being honest, if nothing else. I feel as if I've been taken to a remote compound and fed gallons of coffee, been slapped about the head, had a few glasses of cold water thrown in my face. I feel as if I've been shown dozens and dozens of microcosms I didn't notice before. I've seen short "movies" of daily life in remote places where real issues meet real lives and the result is a life and death struggle for an entire community. Ask yourself when you last heard a song that made you care about the ecology of a remote mountain valley, or the fair use of a waterway in Appalachia, or the death by late spring frost of a farmer's crop?

Whether any of these songs actually wins the contest isn't important, and I don't have final say about that. What's important is that these songs were written.

I may be fighting a losing battle here, but I'm not alone. It could be that some of you reading this wonder what all the fuss is about. I'll tell you. The very survival of the art of songwriting. If you can go back to your day job merrily and turn on the radio humming the latest tunes, I'm not talking to you. But if you feel a genuine loss of quality in your life because great honest songs are hard to find, keep reading, I'm with you all the way.

Songs used to comfort us in times of crisis. We are in the midst of a terrible crisis as I write this. Need I elaborate? No, I don't think so. Where are the songs to comfort us?

Songs used to protest injustice. We are being oppressed by an aristocracy of politicians and CEOs who won't be happy until they bleed us dry. We are being screwed by HMOs and other insurance providers, lied to by our government, conned by financial institutions, over-taxed, over-worked, over-opiated. Where are the songs of protest?

Where are the songs of protest and comfort? Where is our voice? Where is our honest song?

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Monday, July 14, 2008

The True Character's Voice

The true character has a voice. I don't mean simply male or a female vocal chords saying something. I mean a voice as distinct as one human being from another, no two the same. The voice will ring genuine.

Today the Voice has largely disappeared in the Nashville commodity song. We hear tune after tune featuring the same indistinct characters; the one-size fits all "proclaiming her independence" diva, the bad-ass southern boy...

I can always tell whether a writer is inhabiting his character or not. He will discover things that can't be discovered any other way. If you find yourself thinking about words rather than digging into your character, you're too much at a distance. Your character will be weak, and your song will be less because of it.

The character is revealed by how he says what he says, by how he does what he does, by how he appears to himself in the lyric. Small words can make a huge difference. The art operates on many levels:

"Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt

And the beer I had for breakfast

Wasn't bad so I had one more for dessert

Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes

And found my cleanest dirty shirt

And I shaved my face and combed my hair

And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day"

(Kris Kristofferson "Sunday Morning Coming Down")

We must become the song we're trying to write. We must find the voice.

Forget the superficial "commercial" goals if you want a true character. These calculations only enter the picture after the hard work is finished. You can always back away from a risky proposition in a lyric, but if you don't allow yourself to
find that proposition first, you aren't really writing.

"Just like the sun over the mountain tops

You know I'll always come again

You know I love to spend my mornings

Like sunlight dancing on your skin

I've never gone so wrong as for telling lies to you

What you see is what I am

There is nothing I could hide from you

You see me better than I can

Out on the road that lies before me now

There are some turns where I will spin

I only hope that you can hold me now

Til I can gain control again"

(Rodney Crowell "Till I Gain Control Again")

The true character's voice will speak distinctly; he will be three dimensional; he will come to life for a three minute duration and be unforgettable afterwards.

At times it can be hard to hear the character's voice. It will be drowned beneath the voices of the commodity music industry, or by the advice, the endless well-meaning advice and criticism. Sometimes 16th Avenue itself seemed to have a voice when I was writing in Nashville. I had to learn to turn it off and find the essential voice, the only one that knows what the lyric must say if it's to be an honest song.

If all of this seems abstract to you, perhaps you haven't considered what a character is. A character is not an exterior creation. You don't picture someone leaning on a lamp post and say,"Ah, a character!" You must go inside and find someone you know, an alter-ego of sorts, someone drawn from accumulated observation and experience, but not the Ambassador you present to the world. The Ambassador isn't very interesting. He's safe, smooth and packaged to prevent the need for damage control.

"Pack up all your dishes
Make note of all good wishes
Say goodbye to the landlord for me
That son of a bitch has always bored me
Throw out them LA papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers
Adios to all this concrete
Gonna get me some dirt road back street"
(Guy Clark "LA Freeway")

We must be more than keen observers. We must absorb life in order to embody a true character.

"Mansion On The Hill" (Bruce Springsteen)

"Millworker" (James Taylor)

More than anything I can think of, it's the voice of the character that defines the great songs. Are you censoring that voice or allowing it to speak?

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Figure A Song Makes (Homage to Robert Frost)

I re-read one of my favorite creative essays recently. It holds up well, and it applies perfectly to great songwriting.

"The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

Frost's point is that as artists we are not merely recorders of life and fact. We must be more inventive than journalists, whose job it is to tell an accurate story. Accuracy isn't art. Art is wild.

There's a difference between detail and fact. Details can describe the way a red scarf blows in the breeze. Facts can tell us exactly what time of day that breeze came along. Details can intrigue, facts can impose.

All too often I'm listening to a song and suddenly, out of the blue, comes a fact that ruins my interpretation of what's going on. I was riding on my own current within the song and hit a crosscurrent that the writer didn't know he/she had set in motion. That's why a song is best felt rather than contemplated. We rationalize too much anyway. Better that there are some mysteries rather than unsatisfactory explanations.

Frost also says in this same essay,"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." One could write volumes about this simple truth. Extrapolate this quote and apply it to songwriting, and it's still true : No tear for the writer, no tear for the listener. No hair standing up on the back of the writer's neck, no hair standing up on the listener's neck. The lesson is "Feel what you write and allow for the unexpected."
"Half the moon is shining tonight, and half the moon is pitch black
I've got half a chance that you might turn around and come back"
(Hugh Prestwood - Half The Moon)
You can tell a story from a safe distance, or you can climb inside and feel what the character in the song feels. Allow yourself to be surprised by what floats to the surface. This is usually accompanied by a limbic reaction-- the rush you get when the line feels perfect. Remember to allow for the madness (see my previous post here)
"I'm just one man, sometimes I wish I was three
I could take a .44 pistol to me
Put one bullet in my brain for her memory
One more for my heart, and I would be free"
(Mickey Newbury - Nights When I Am Sane)
It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

I hear too many logical lines in the songs I evaluate. Throw out logic sometimes, cross the threshold and dare to look for something more mystical.
"I wanna wrap the moon around us
Lay beside you skin on skin"
(Tony Lane and David Lee- I Need You)
Many writers get confused about this when they take their songs to Nashville. People tell them "it needs more imagery", "it needs furniture", "it needs edge", "it needs to be more clever", "it needs more attitude", and yet they never say, "you've got to surprise me with the emotion", which is the very thing that most people respond to in a song.

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." (Robert Frost - The Figure A Poem Makes)

Allow the song to take possession of the process and become what it wants to become.
Go along for the ride and be willing to risk it all on an impulse. For it to be vital, you must invest yourself in it. If you merely invest time in it, there are no guarantees that it will mean anything at all in six months. If you invest your soul and your emotional fiber in it, maybe it will also move others the way it moved you. We must have faith that our emotional involvement during the creative process will leave its mark on the work.

And we should remember that whatever is worth writing, is worth writing well.