I’m entering the second month of my residency at Town Hall, and already it has been an extremely fruitful and rewarding experience. I’ve honestly written more songs in the past month than I have in the last year or so (but more on that later.) I also got to attend a couple of events which I found to be particularly illuminating, especially concerning the creative process and finding one’s voice.
The first was an evening with satirist and short story writer George Saunders. I had never read any of Mr.Saunders’ work, so to prepare I read a few stories from his latest collection, Tenth of December: Stories. I found his writing to be quite dark but very funny, and compassionate towards its not always conventionally likeable characters. Saunders himself was a very warm and engaging speaker, with an easy, dry wit probably developed through his experience teaching at Syracuse. He spoke of his creative process (one gem: “Begin the day by reading the previous day’s work. If it sucks, ask why it sucks. If it offends you, at least you know you have taste.”), and of his early days spent emulating his favorite authors, and how he finally found his own voice. “The moment of artist breakthrough was not joyful,” he said, “I was actually kind of disappointed. I wasn’t Chekov, I wasn’t Hemingway.” I could relate with the peculiar feeling of discovery, of realizing that the thing that makes you most unique are often right in front of your face, and not that remarkable in your own eyes. But, Saunders continued, “the parts of yourself that you’re ashamed of are the most valuable… I would rather have the lesser thing that feels like me than the greater thing that belongs to someone else.” I often struggle with this issue, often finding myself inadvertently measuring my own work against those of the great writers I admire, and always coming up short. This is bullshit, of course, and I almost always come back to the realization that for better or for worse, I can only ever be me. It seems like an obvious truth, but it was still nice to hear that someone of George Saunders’ stature and talent would still find the need to remind himself of this once in a while.
A similar moment of an artist’s self discovery was related a few days later in a conversation between biographer Charles R. Cross and KEXP DJ John Richards on the life and art of Kurt Cobain. Cross pointed to the song “Sliver” as the moment Cobain combined the “loud-soft-loud” dynamics and riffs of his favorite band The Pixies with lyrics based on his childhood (“Gramma take me home, I wanna be alone.”) and discovered his own unique voice as a writer. This potent combination, Cross contends, opened up a flood gate of creativity for Cobain that led to the songs that would eventually become Nevermind. As a suburban kid growing up in the 90’s, I was one of millions of kids who were influenced by Cobain, not only as a musician but also as a human being. The first time I’d heard of feminism and of the concept of gay rights, for example, were by reading the liner notes to Incesticide. So it was fun to imagine Kurt going through the process of discovering his own voice, and embracing the aspects of himself that made him unique. I’m now a few years older than he was when he died, and it made me sad to think of how many more discoveries he would have made had he stayed around…
And so this brings us to one of Kurt Cobain’s famous favorite words: Empathy. In my first week of residency I found things with I could relate to both Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as well as the homeless youth quoted at the Urban Poverty Forum. By listening to each other’s stories, we find common hopes and struggles that make us human. George Saunders had a great quote on this: “Reading softens the borders between ‘you’ and ‘me’.” This softening of the borders, and development of empathy towards others, seems to be the common thread in the programs I’ve attended so far at Town Hall, and I continue to be surprised and delighted by the people I meet, and the stories they have to share.
It’s been a very inspiring month so far and I’m so excited that I get to spend two more months here. I continue to be thankful to the folks at Town Hall for this opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve written and recorded a bunch of songs here already, and I’m happy to report that I almost have enough for a whole album. My hope is to continue writing and to have a record released by this fall. I’ll be previewing a couple of the newer songs at my Scratch Night on April 29th, where I’ll also be joined by my friends Kevin Murphy, Hanna Benn, and Grant Olsen. We’ll be discussing songwriting and the creative process, and hopefully continuing in this great vein of Town Hall programs that make weirdos like us a little more relatable. Hope to see you there.
…and here’s the full KEXP performance.
Here’s a video from the KEXP session I did back in December. This is a cover of a Townes Van Zandt song, “If I Needed You.”
Here’s my first event at Town Hall! On April 29th, I’ll be debuting some new songs and I’ll also be joined by my friends Kevin Murphy of The Moondoggies, Hanna Benn of Pollens, and Grant Olsen of Gold Leaves for a discussion on songwriting, recording, and the wacky, mysterious thing we call the “creative process.” We’ll also have an open mic at the end of the show for anyone who’s interested in sharing their music. AND there’s also an after-party at Capitol Cider where there’ll be more music and merriment. It’s all FREE and open to the public, so please join us. It’s gonna be a real good time.
Nothing like spending all morning overdubbing guitars only to realize you’ve played it 4BPMs too fast. Ah, well. #gummybearbreak
I officially began my residency at Town Hall this past week. The wonderfully friendly and supportive staff there have given me the keys to the building for 3 months. They have also given me carte blanche to create whatever I want, which as any artist knows, is the most seductive and frightening gift one can receive. So far I’ve spent the time playing each of their beautiful Steinway pianos, and getting familiar with the nooks and crannies of the 98 year old building (the hallway between the basement bathrooms has the most incredible reverb). I’ve spent most of it in silence, listening for the ghosts in the walls and stained glass windows.
Another of the perks of the residency is being able to attend their various civics, science, arts, culture, and community-centered programs. For an indie-rocker whose entire world has largely revolved around recording studios and rowdy bars and music festivals for the past decade, this has been an important and eye-opening reminder that there is a great big world outside of the reality I’ve created for myself. This point was brought sharply into focus while attending the 7th Annual Urban Poverty Forum. The speakers including Pastor Pat Wright, folk singer Jim Page, MC Jace, and Jill Palzkill Woelfer all discussed the effect and value that music has, specifically for homeless young people. The quote that stuck with me the most is “there’s always a song no matter what emotion you’re experiencing,” spoken by a homeless person describing the effect music has on them.The panel spoke of music as an agent of hope and change, and as an important mode of self expression for those whose voices might otherwise go unheard. “There is no movement where there is no music,” said MC Jace, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between music and social change. The discussion made me think about why I do what I do, and what it is I’m putting out into the world. It also humanized the issue of homelessness and poverty which I’ve thought about often in the abstract but struggled at times with which to find relatable common ground. As Jim Page put it, by listening to songs and the stories they tell, we are better able to find compassion for others, to realize that “they” could be “me.”
Yet another humanizing moment was seeing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak in person last night in the Great Hall. I knew little about Justice Sotomayor besides the fact that she was appointed by President Obama, and that she is the 3rd woman and 1st Hispanic person appointed to the Court. I’d read her name in newspapers and seen her on TV (usually via some cable news show putting their own spin on the meaning of her words). But to hear her in person talking about her childhood growing up in a housing project in the Bronx, to dealing with the death of her closest cousin from a drug overdose, to working her way up to the highest court in the country, all humanized Justice Sotomayor in a way that I was not quite expecting. She described her journey as one of “self doubt and furious compensatory effort,” a concept with which I could immediately relate. It was surprising to hear someone of her stature acknowledging her deficiencies and difficulties meeting her own standards, and trying not to compete with anyone but herself. I saw myself in her struggle to “not escape your background, but to embrace it.” The abstract gained a human face, and “they” became “me”. It made me think of yet another quote from Jim Page at the Urban Poverty Forum: “The form doesn’t matter. What you do with it is what matters.” Where law is the form for Justice Sotomayor, music, my music is the form that I’ve chosen to tell my story. I hope to tell it truthfully.
* The next program I’ll be attending at Town Hall is a double feature on Tuesday, March 18th: “Ann Jones: The Everlasting Scars of War” and “Kshama Sawant and Charles Mudede: Why Socialism, Why Now?” I invite you all to attend as well!
American Laundromat Records’ “I Saved Latin: A Tribute To Wes Anderson” includes my cover of The Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting”, featuring Jesse Sykes on guest vocals. It’s available for pre-order, along with an amazing assortment of Wes Anderson-related collectibles. The comp comes out May 13th.