There are moments when pursuing a life as an artist can feel selfish. Spending hours alone working on the craft, and spending weeks and months away from home. If time is currency, then the budget is far from balanced. Families and loved ones feel the brunt, and their patience is stretched. In moments of darkness and doubt, the question ‘is this worth it?’ lingers like a stubborn fog.
But then this yearning, deep as a fault line pushes us on to express, to toil away, to search ever harder, and to perform. Ever so often, if we’re lucky enough, we feel like we are doing some good in the world; spreading some joy and light. It’s hard to avoid cliches in this kind of expression, but the feeling of goodness is real and palpable. Recently at Mass Mocha the Birds of Chicago hit on a vein of joy that lead right to the hearts of the audience and was reflected back to us. It’s funny because I remember thinking I didn’t play at my very best, but it wasn’t about me; it was about all of us there that night. A collective experience of feeling understood, maybe a little less lonely in our deepest thoughts and fears, and of course, celebration and joy.
The Birds of Chicago are gaining some attention these days. Last I heard, the album Real Midnight is coming in at #20 on the Americana charts in the USA, and #1 in Europe. There’s a full slate of shows coming up: Great American Music Hall in SF, Largo in LA, opening up a show in Grass Valley California for Robert Cray, plus a European tour and a pile of summer festivals on the horizon.
These opportunities are fulfilling in very real ways, but that feeling is tinged with sadness. Where joy and melancholy meet, there is compassion and humility, and I hope all of this, as authentically as possible, is reflected back.
I was listening to the Fretboard Journal Podcast featuring an interview with famed musicians and producers Joe Henry and David Crosby. The hour long talk offers a wealth of information on artistic, philosophical, and practical aspects of making records. I recommend listening to the whole thing, but here is an inspiring snippet:
“There is a moment like a seance when a song stands up and identifies itself. No matter how haggard it may appear, how beautiful, or how smeared the lipstick might be, that’s the moment I want to hear. That’s what brings me back to it – when something sounds viscerally alive.” – Joe Henry
There is such a strong urge to assert control when recording. Joe argues there is a danger to overly rehearsing and fixing every blemish. Sometimes in doing so, we forget about the authenticity of a song, and ultimately loose the quality that makes the listeners want to come back again and again.
This past year I have begun producing in my project studio in Toronto. I will write more about this in a later entry, but for now as I plant my flag as a producer, resources like this offer so much encouragement and inspiration.
The upcoming Birds of Chicago release “Real Midnight“, features Joe Henry’s production. On April 2, we will be playing a show with him at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
Recently, I was listening to veteran Toronto guitarist Kurt Swinghammer play on Royal Wood’s song “Acting Crazy: It’s a Breakdown”. Kurt’s guitar playing on this track is so visceral, raw, and expressive. I have been inspired by his work on this particular tune for a long time now. While the notes and rhythms he chooses are important, the impact for me is his masterful use of effects to paint the song with an entirely new brush. You can download this song or the full album from itunes.
As an exercise, I wanted to see if I could come up with something aesthetically similar. Here’s my study in Swinghammer: