Monday, December 19, 2011

last-minute gifts for music-lovers

As you probably already know, the first and most important gift to buy for your music-loving loved ones (at least if you live in the northeast US) is a ticket to one of my upcoming CD release shows.

Now that my shameless plug is complete, let me shamelessly plug the work of some excellent songwriters who are not me. Myself, I don't listen to much music that was made after about 1975, but I have proverbially spun all of these records til they wore through. Keep in mind that I have a strong bias towards great lyricists, so if that ain't your thing, you might want to read somebody else's list of recommendations. Also, keep in mind that all of these artists are even better live, so if you dig their records, sign their mailing lists.

Below are my top 5 not-widely-known-album recommendations, all of which are guaranteed home runs, some of which your music-loving friends and family may not already have.

1) Devon Sproule - Don't Hurry for Heaven - Buy it here

For fans of: Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, Hoagy Carmichael
Who dig: Outstandingly playful, creative, wry, image-rich lyrics paired with earbogglingly beautiful melodies, presented by Devon's sweet, young, conversational vocals and skillful, warm jazz guitar.
Note: For the already-avid Devon fan, consider gifting her newest record, I Love You, Go Easy, on vinyl.

Ain't That the Way by Devon Sproule on Grooveshark

2) Milton - Grand Hotel - Buy it here

For fans of:
Van Morrison, Randy Newman, John Prine, Nick Lowe
Who dig: Classic tunes (and I mean CLASSIC, like could-have-been-written-in-any-decade-by-any-of-the-aforementioned-greats), simple arrangements with great groove, conversational singing from a disarmingly honest, whip-smart, totally endearing songwriter.
Note: This song is not on this album. Grooveshark lacks the new record, but it's even better.

In the City by Milton on Grooveshark

3) Anais Mitchell - The Brightness - Buy it here

For fans of: Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom, Leonard Cohen, Ani DiFranco
Who dig: Expansive, emotive, exuberant, pitch-perfect singing, sparse instrumentation, absolutely masterful wordplay. Topics include Jesus, apples, war in the Middle East, Hades and Persephone.

Changer by Anaïs Mitchell on Grooveshark

4) Mark Erelli - Little Vigils - Buy it here

For fans of: Jackson Browne, early Paul Simon, Loudon Wainwright III
Who dig: Incredibly sweet, melodic, totally love-filled songs, delivered with a shockingly adept voice (this dude has a five-octave range, all of which has the texture of warm honey). The songs are simple-but-surprising, honest, and introspective. I especially recommend this album if you're buying for your sweetheart, or for new parents.
Note: Again, this song is not on this album, but it is my favorite album of his. Damn you, Grooveshark! Also, Mark is touring with me in January as a special guest.

Once by Mark Erelli on Grooveshark

5) Cary Ann Hearst - Lions & Lambs - Buy it here

For fans of: The Band, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Steve Earle
Who dig: Instant heartbreak, fearless vocals, classic country melodies, totally asskicking drums and harmonies (think The Band with Janis Joplin as frontwoman), songs of death, courage and outlaws.

The Hardest Thing by Cary Ann Hearst on Grooveshark

Thursday, November 17, 2011

my personal top 10

As you may know (if you're my Facebook buddy), I just spent way too much time over the past week compiling a list, proposed and edited by my friends and fans, of the Top 50 American Musical Artists of the Past 100 Years. The final list (after four rounds of voting) can be found here.

As a highly music-obsessed and highly opinionated person, of course, I have my own version of this list. First, I'll tell you why. Then, I'll tell you what it is.

1) Originators over Popularizers

Occasionally, someone invents a whole new kind of music, becomes gigantically famous, and brings that kind of music to the whole world (Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson). Usually, though, it's one or the other.

One of my biggest pet peeves in reading these sorts of lists (*cough* ROLLING STONE *cough, cough*) is when an artist like Buddy Holly is listed instead of, or higher than, an artist like Chuck Berry. Why? because Buddy Holly was doing something extremely similar to what Chuck Berry did, only a little later, and not as well.

It's difficult to say how much race influences the popularity and long-term idolization of a given artist, but I do see a theme. The more popular, and more-often-cited "originators" of a given genre, are usually white. See also: Frank Sinatra, Eminem, Elvis Presley.

"The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goosed it up. I got it from them. " - Elvis Himself.

2) Pop Musicians over Cult Artists

This is not a hard and fast rule, and this tenet is not very popular with music geeks, but in general I think pop musicians have a wider scope of influence than cult musicians. Obviously, there are exceptions to that rule (eg: The Pixies. But who ever thought indie rock would become pop?)

You'll notice Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker didn't make it onto my list. Why? Because bebop & modern jazz are, and always have been, cult genres. That music is for music geeks, not the general public. As much as I appreciate it, as a music geek myself, I don't think geekery influences the world of music the same way a brilliant pop song does.

3) Lasting Impressions over Flashes in the Pan

In creating my list, I am extremely hesitant to include anybody who's been making and releasing records for less than 20 years. Why? Because it's impossible to take the long-view of a part of history that one is currently involved in. Eg: I think Ani DiFranco is incredible, and I'm glad she made the top 50 (especially glad considering some of the other proposals). But, I didn't vote for her myself, because we can't yet say whether she changed the face of music forever, or just for now.

So here it is, my top 10, in chronological order (rather than order of greatness).

Louis Armstrong

Like I said, this list is not supposed to be in order of greatness. BUT, if I had to pick one artist, the artist who MOST changed the face of music, worldwide, irreversibly and for the better, it would be Louis. As Wynton Marsalis said, "He invented swing, he invented jazz, he invented the telephone, the automobile and the polio vaccine." Louis Armstrong redefined rhythm, phrasing AND tonality, changing the way people write and sing songs forever.

Robert Johnson

I'm already breaking my own rule, here, because Robert Johnson was a cult musician if there ever was one. He achieved no kind of fame or fortune during his short life, just wandered the juke joints of the south, playing what eventually became known as the blues. However, he made a series of recording that unequivocally changed music; writing and recording the first set of songs in a genre that later morphed into R&B, rock & roll, folk, soul, funk, punk and all the rest.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith originated (more or less) a singing style that influenced all the singers to follow, thus influencing the way songs were written, in an infinite feedback loop that still continues today. Among those influenced by Bessie Smith, whether they know it or not, are Adele, Kelly Clarkson and Amy Winehouse (RIP). She also penned at least one extremely well-known and long-enduring blues standard, Backwater Blues.

Billie Holiday

If I'm being honest, Billie was a popularizer more than an originator. Her phrasing was extremely similar to Armstrong's, only moreso. But, she was just SO DAMN GOOD.... I guess this one is just a personal favorite I can't let go of.

Duke Ellington

First off, thanks for naming him #1 on our little list over there, voters. He certainly had a gigantic circle of influence. In addition to writing and arranging (yes, along with Strayhorn) "It Don't Mean a Thing", "Mood Indigo", "I Let a Song Go Out Of My Heart", and of course dozens of other totally gorgeous and magical jazz standards, Duke was a very elegant slap in the face to a segregated society that still didn't like seeing well-dressed, well-spoken, undeniably ingenious black men. Plus, he brought us Johnny Hodges.

Little Richard

See above. Li'l Rich is more responsible for Rock & Roll than most, possible all other, Rock & Rollers. He was cited as a major influence of, among others, The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix and Queen. I had a small conniption over whether to include Chuck Berry instead, but went with LR because he had better hair.

Ray Charles

UGH. If all Ray did was record a huge percentage of the best records of all time, I would still include him on this list. But no, he also invented several genres which went on to change all American music, wrote dozens of classic songs, sang dozens of other classic songs better than they'd ever been sung, popularized gospel and blues music with white people, popularized country music with black people, and personally integrated Birmingham, AL.

Bob Dylan

First, I'd like to congratulate Bob for being the only white dude on this list. I swear, it's not that I'm a self-hating white racist. It just happens to be the case, in this particular country, during the particular span of years in question, that persons of African descent invented, perfected, and popularized almost all of the best music.

Bob, of course, being a notable exception to that rule. Funny thing about Bob Dylan: he was (is) not a great singer or instrumentalist, but he certainly did change music in a huge way. His genius lies in changing the way people hear the popular song; suddenly, it's personal, direct, conversational. He more or less invented a style of songwriting to which everyone who came after owes a great debt (myself included). He cracked open the genre, and allowed us to speak when we're singing, and to speak to someone in particular. Simultaneously, he helped turn the songwriter into the performer, the celebrity, and the idol. Then, he made it cool for folk artists to have a rock band. Thanks, Bob.

Aretha Franklin

Much like Billie, Aretha was more a popularizer than an originator. But again, she recorded a huge number of the best records in her genre (and yes, in the history of American music). She also just sang (sings) her ass off, all the time, more than anybody else ever has or will.

Michael Jackson

Controversial, I know, but would anybody argue that hip-hop would exist without MJ? How about pop music, as it's currently defined? What about breakdancing? How about music videos, as we know them? Perhaps most pertinently, what about the show "So You Think You Can Dance"?

MJ originated AND PERFECTED a genre that we still don't know what to call. Ask me in another hundred years.

Monday, October 24, 2011

three myths about art and success

My five-year anniversary of professional musicianship passed in August, and I was too busy making a record, touring, and driving back and forth to New Orleans to notice until now. I guess that's as it should be.

Five years of doing this thing - and I mean REALLY DOING IT, pouring in all of my time and energy and passion and night-and-daydreams - has given me a whole lot of thoughts, feelings, and surprises. Below are some of my favorites, and the myths that begot them.

Myth #1: Being Good will Make You Successful.

The reality: being good and being successful: no correlation.

This has been the number one biggest shock to me over the past five years, and even though I "get it" now, I still wake up every week or two in a panic/depression/rebellion against this idea. I spent literally ten years of my life, ages 13 to 23, focused on only one musical goal: becoming a great songwriter. On the tail-end of that ten years, just as I started to think I might be reaching my goal, I got a wicked-bad feeling that it might not matter. It reminded me of Joseph Campbell's description of a midlife crisis: you spend half your life climbing a ladder, you finally get to the top, and you realize it's up against the wrong wall.

I woke up one day and had this chilling thought: I could be the best songwriter alive, and it wouldn't guarantee any sort of external success. Not fame, not fortune, not even rent money.

I think the greatness = success myth grew out of a combination of bio-pic mania and the rags-to-riches fairy tales that Americans are particularly fond of. The myth goes something like this: if you're really good at what you do, someone will come along and "discover" you, make a few phone calls, and before long, you'll be a star.

I am not saying this to be bitchy, but here's the stone-cold fact: the people who are most successful in the music business are not always the people who are best at music. Conversely, the people who are best at music are not always successful in the music business.

This principle, unfortunately, trickles down from platinum-selling mega-stars to the street musicians of Manhattan, and seems to be equally prevalent in the other arts, sciences, and even business. Contrary to popular belief, I think it's been more or less this way for the last hundred years. Yes, Louis Armstrong was incredibly great, and incredibly successful. But have you ever heard of Cleo Brown? How about James Booker? And I won't go into the less-than-talented artists who have been extremely successful, that would be rude... *COUGH* Rebecca Black *cough, cough*. Excuse me.

The first follow-up question, which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to, is this: if being good doesn't make you successful, what does? Some common suggestions are: 1) money 2) good looks 3) dumb luck. A less common but equally probable suggestion: 4) persistence.

The next follow-up question is a doozie. If being good doesn't make you successful... why be good?

Myth #2: If You're Not Successful, You Should Probably Stop.

The reality: your success is none of your business.

Before I got out from under this myth, I had to spend many months crying into my cereal about the fact that I had probably wasted ten years of my life honing a skill that the rest of the world considers about as important and interesting as making sculptures out of pencil shavings. So why be good? Why make music at all?

Finally, it dawned on me: success is not the point. Furthermore, it's none of my business. My business is, in fact, being good.

Little-known fact: the most important and satisfying rewards one gets from being good at something are not external rewards. They don't always include money or fame or gold stars. For example: nobody ever got a trophy for being in a happy marriage. At best, your spouse will buy you flowers, or do the dishes, occasionally. Does that mean it's not worth the effort?

Obviously not. My goal of being a great songwriter is partly selfish and partly altruistic: I want to write great songs because doing so makes me happy. And how do I know I've written a great song? Because hearing that song makes somebody else happy.

I have to assume, somewhere deep in my heart, that the world will take care of me if I keep on doing what I love, and throwing my pleasure and joy and enthusiasm for it all around me like birdseed at a wedding. I have to assume that, put my head down, and write more songs.

Myth #3: Making Art will Drive You Crazy

The reality: success, or lack thereof, will drive you crazy. Making art may be the only thing that will keep you sane.

I blogged in detail about this a few months back, and here's a follow-up. People (including me, until recently) seem to think that being an artist is a little like being a paranoid schizophrenic. You're born that way and there's nothing you can do about it, but with lots of meds and a decent institution, there's still hope of an okay life. More likely, you'll end up ODing at 27 in a basement green room, having spent your twelve illegitimate kids' inheritance money on hookers and blow.

I'll be 27 next July, so it seems like the time to take a long, hard look at this one.

I can't say this will always be the case, but here's what I've found so far: my relationship with my "muse", that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me songs and melody and great performances, is the most satisfying relationship in my life. Creating art is a beautiful, magical, endlessly-gratifying experience.

My relationship with my ego, however, that creature/spirit/part of my brain that brings me fear, bitterness, and endless late-night monologues about my failures as an artist, is by far the most destructive and abusive one in my life. If I ever end up ODing in a basement green room (still looking pretty unlikely, from here): blame my ego, not my muse.

And yes, I blame Robert Johnson's, Janis Joplin's, Kurt Cobain's and Amy Winehouse's egos, too. Their muses were brilliant and kind and good to them. They didn't have to die to make those records. Let's all stop talking that way, for the good of the artists who are still with us.

In Conclusion...

I always hope that my little essays will be interesting to other artists, as well as to computer programmers and doctors and stay-at-home-dads. In case this one is a little too artist-centric, here's a big-picture summary.

We humans, these days, put way too much emphasis on the kinds of success we can quantify, measure and compare (why? Probably a lot of reasons. I mostly blame the school system. And American Idol). Unfortunately for us, that kind of success has no inherent personal or spiritual value.

The kind of success that we need, that we ought to be concentrating on, cultivating, and encouraging from our kids, is the kind that brings us joy and satisfaction. It's success that we need to work hard for, but the work makes us feel strong and smart and a little bit giddy. Chances are good that this kind of success brings the people around us joy and satisfaction, too; but how much, and whether they pay/thank/praise us for it, is none of our business.

I think Howard Thurman said it best, when he said...

"Do not ask yourself what the world needs. As yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

PS. Actually, all kids already know this.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

fastidious and precise

This song has wormed its way into my head and heart, and now I can't walk down the freshly cooled Philly streets without humming it to myself, or bursting into dimpled grins at a line like "to avoid complications, she never kept the same address/in conversation, she spoke just like a baroness"! Have you ever truly considered the depth and breadth of brilliance that is Queen? Now is the time, friends. Now is the time.

Monday, August 29, 2011

until that morning

It's midnight in Atlanta. I'm sitting in the "living room" at a mixing studio, which consists of a table with three chairs, and a couch facing a blank orange wall. Mixing a record is monotonous and maddening simultaneously, and also really fun and exciting. At least, fun and exciting for me; of course, I am usually in the other room while Damien mixes. He's been working on the same song for three hours.

To reset my ears, between sessions, I've been listening to Sam Cooke's greatest hits. The nights are hot and sultry down here, and after many years of sitting on the fence, I've finally settled on my favorite version of "Summertime".

Friday, August 12, 2011

on living a creative life

“We can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves." - e. e. cummings

Liz Gilbert, who has done a lot of very inspired writing, observes in this TED talk (one of my favorite things on the whole internet) that considering an artist responsible for the quality of her own work, rather than leaving that responsibility to the gods/muses/daemons, may be a grave mistake.

This is a tremendously comforting concept for me, and I imagine it's the same for every creative person (and by that I mean every person). It means that my job is not to create. My job is to remain inspired, so that my heart will be open to the creative force.

For me, remaining inspired requires being honest, growing personally, feeling passionately, and having adventures. It generally requires a deep and vibrant experience of music, poetry, sensuality, and/or love. It absolutely requires continually becoming the person I want to be, at risk of facing fears, disappointing people, and breaking with convention.

By choosing to live a creative life, I have made a commitment to my muse: she is always welcome in my house. That means that I will remain open to inspiration at all times, regardless of what I might have to sacrifice to do so. So far, I have only had to sacrifice money, security, and routine, all of which I am lucky enough to have no taste for.

I believe in muses of the arts, but also of science, childcare, computer programming, baking, dog training, and human relationships. It's my strong suspicion that everyone has a muse, and that everyone - somewhere deep inside themselves - knows what they have to do to invite her into their lives. What have you done for your muse lately?

Monday, August 1, 2011

blissed half to death

Can I make an observation? Doing what you love - "following your bliss" - is a totally insane, preposterous and irrational thing to do. It will make you broke and anxious and periodically suicidally depressed. It will ravage your heart and mind with obsessions and compulsions, until you can't sit down to a polite conversation without gabbing manically about your most recent harebrained pursuit. It will slowly strip you of all social graces, as well as any unrelated interests or concerns you may once have maintained. You will forget to feed yourself, change your clothes, and take out the trash. In effect, you will be transformed into a bumbling, obsessive-compulsive, dirty, penniless maniac, with no regard for society and little contact with reality.

Unfortunately, it is absolutely the only way to live a satisfying life.

I just spent two weeks in Atlanta, making my record. We tracked twelve songs in three days, recording drums, bass, guitars and most of the lead vocals live. We spent another ten days arranging and recording overdubs (backup vocals, guitars, percussion, etcetera). Oliver Wood was with me, sharing in the alternating anguish and euphoria, from the first arrangement ideas to the last tambourine. Oliver is a special kind of saint; the kind that tells dirty jokes and plays the guitar like a mofo.

On the day I turned 26, I left Atlanta and drove south to New Orleans, for a week of high octane mojo-renewal. I had my rough mixes in tow.

To tell you the truth, this project has been absolutely grueling. I've been crazed and harried since mid-May, waking up in the middle of the night to make notes about drum fills, or record background vocal ideas on my iPhone. During the recording, I'm pretty sure I felt the complete range of human emotion in the course of each day. The release date has been moved to January (following the advice of a radio promotion firm), which means I've got another five months of the same to look forward to.

To tell you the truth again, I believe these are the best songs I've ever written, many of the best players I've ever worked with, and the best singing I've ever gotten on tape. This record is going to be outstanding, and I am fiercely proud of it.

I told you all in my previous post about my plan for the making and release of this record. It's a three-phase process (recording, promotion, and manufacturing). Phase one is now just about complete, and phase two (in which I'll be hiring a big-shot publicity firm and a radio promoter) starts in September.

I mentioned before that folks interested in investing should contact me. To my surprise and delight, I've raised over $20,000 to date in investments from fans. If anyone else is interested in investing in the project, I am open to taking another $10,000 in investments (to be repaid, with interest, over an agreed-upon period after the record is released). Email me ( for details.

If you'd like to contribute in smaller increments, I'm still taking donations as well. Small donations will help A TON by covering unplanned and unpredictable budget items (of which there are always lots).

Thank you, again, for making me crazy.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

the big exciting news

Well, it's happened again. I've written a complete batch of shiny new songs, and I'm ready to make an album. I am more excited than a puppy in peanut-butter, and the prospect of making said album has got me obsessing over my work, my career, the industry, and the future of songs and albums. The schemes are commencing, and I'd like to share them with you.

The Album

In July, Joe and I will head to Atlanta for a week to make a record. It will be produced by the brilliant, talented, heart-squishingly soulful Oliver Wood. Oliver is one half of the Wood Brothers, a band who you may have seen me touring with/raving about on and off for just under three years. In addition to being my favorite living band, these guys have been my friends and advocates, and I feel completely humbled and honored to work with Oliver.

The record is slated to come out in October. As far as I can tell, it will be called 'Idiot Heart'.

The Release

One question that's been on my mind a bunch lately (as I've mentioned in the past) is this: what does a record label do? What did record labels do in their heyday? What do labels do that I can't?

The answer to that last one, I've decided, is this: very little, possibly nothing.

Thus, I will be releasing my next record with a bigger, bolder, more assertive approach. I will more or less be acting like a record label. I am investing my own money, and that of a few people who are inspired by the project, in not only making the best album I possibly can, but hiring a team of people to help me release it (the same sort of team a label would have in-house). There will be professional marketing, publicity, and radio campaign firms, merchandise, and music videos.

This is not cheap, and is thus not a common approach for an artist like myself. However, I am blessed to have people around to me who believe in the project and have a little cash on hand. After five years of working as an independent artist, my business generates a semi-predictable and growing income, and a few folks have taken notice and are willing to invest in the prospect that it will continue to do so. (If you are interested in being an investor, as opposed to a donor, send me an email.)

In short, I've decided that a little thing like money should not dictate the quality or the impact of my work, and I've made it my mission to act on that decision.

The Wacky Part

Speaking of money not dictating the impact of art, I've come to one more unusual conclusion in all of my scheming. I no longer want to sell my music like a commodity. Music is an activity and an experience; it is not a product, and thus, it's impossible to quantify its value. From here on out, my method of selling my music will reflect that. I am hereby transitioning my music sales from the traditional model to the pay-what-you-want model.

Many of you have seen the "Quidplayer" on my website, which allows you to download my music for any price you want. A few months ago, some friends (Mark Erelli and Red Molly) inspired me to try this approach with my physical CD at live shows. I have done so, and it's gone remarkably well.

This model is really inspiring to me, and here's the best way I can explain it: Songwriting and performing is not just my job. It's my life, my passion, and the work I was born to do. If I am being honest with myself, it doesn't matter to me how much money I make doing it. If I was literally starving, I might get a job, but I will never stop making music. My music is a gift to me from somewhere else, and I give it as a gift to anyone who is moved by it.

All of that to say this: whether you pay $5 or $500 for my CD is none of my concern. That is your decision, and whatever choice you make, I want you to have it. Music is made to be shared. A song is not worth $.99 any more than it's worth $99; it is either completely worthless (if it doesn't move you), or infinitely valuable (if it does). Who am I to decide what you should pay for it?

Therefore, I will be releasing 'Idiot Heart' under the pay-what-you-want model. The digital album will be made available on Quidplayer, and the hard copies will be made available at live shows and through my website in a way that allows you to set your own price. Additionally, I will be asking you to share it with anyone who might be moved by it. The more people hear it, the better it is serving its purpose.

All of the above applies to my three previous releases, as well. Go forth and burn them! If you feel so moved, send me some money via Quidplayer, or better yet, buy some tickets and come to a show.

The Take-Home

The shortest possible version of all this is as follows: I have twelve new songs, and a really exciting team of musicians to help me execute them. I am as committed to these songs as I could possibly be. I am putting my money where my mouth is (and any other money I come across for the next four months), and doing everything within my power to make a great record, and to help it reach a larger audience.

Part of what's within my power is this: I am giving it, as a gift, to anyone who wants it. If my audience feels so moved, they are free to return the favor by throwing some money my way.

In case you want to contribute to this project, the "ChipIn" widget below will be up on my various and sundry websites until the project is complete (October). Any time you feel moved, toss some cash in the proverbial bucket. Rest assured knowing that it will go directly towards making and promoting my next record, with the help of a way-more-experienced-than-me recording & promotion team.

Thank you for giving me the means to spend my every waking hour thinking, dreaming, obsessing, scheming, and feeling about music. I couldn't be more blessed.

Friday, May 13, 2011

the lazy mississippi, a hurryin to spring

I just spent an afternoon on the levee in the Holy Cross neighborhood of New Orleans, watching the brown Mississippi lap the tops of willow trees, which grow on what were sandy banks just last week, and are now the bottom of a river. I was with my good friend Cassidy, who skipped rocks and told me about string theory and the names of clouds. I saw Canadian Geese zooming along the surface at unprecedented speeds, a heron gliding for a length of time that defied physics, and a rickety-looking steamboat called the Creole Queen. I left feeling absolutely elated.

The magic of the city of New Orleans is that death sits quietly along it, just beyond the levee, like a stone in your back pocket. The only thing to do about it is to live, deeply and viscerally and excruciatingly. Any time something less important tries to grab your attention, the river rises and reminds you: life is here and fleeting, it's made of dirty music and tugging sorrow and wet, honeysuckle-scented breezes, and if you don't catch it exactly NOW, it is likely to be too late.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

playing pointlessly

My favorite favorite book, if I had to pick one, is called "Finite and Infinite Games". In the opening pages, the author James P. Carse puts forth the notion that there are two types of games, and that everything we do in life can be identified as a "play" in one of these two categories.

The first type of game is called a finite game. A finite game is defined as any game which is played for the purpose of winning. Things that we usually call "games", such as Yahtzee and WWF wrestling, are in this category, along with things that we don't usually call games, but which are indeed played to win (at least, most of the time), such as war, college scholarships, and politics.

The second type of game is called an infinite game. An infinite game is a game that's played for the purpose of continuing the play. If someone starts to "lose" an infinite game, the other players will conspire to keep him in the game, either by helping him somehow, or by changing the rules.

The concept of changing the rules is what makes this idea really interesting to me. In a finite game, the rules are static, because rules are what determines who wins. If you change the rules, it becomes unclear who the winner is, and thus it's no longer a finite game (imagine you're playing Monopoly, and one of the other players declares a new rule: that he can take money directly from the bank whenever he wants. If this guy "wins", has he actually won?). In an infinite game, you make up the rules as you go along, and you change them whenever they become inconvenient. If the point is just to play, and not to win, then rules are only worthwhile as long as they make the game better, longer, or more fun.

Music is an infinite game. Although some people are fond of the misconception that music has "rules", such as time signatures and keys, even a limited investigation of the scope and history of music will reveal the shortcomings of this theory (free CD to anyone who can tell me the time signature of this Angola Prison Spiritual). Music theory is a way to describe music, and a language with which to communicate about it. Like any language, it's imperfect, and creates some distinctions which are lousy with exceptions.

I will say that a given song starts with a set of rules, but that those rules can be changed by the composer or the players whenever they agree to change them. Modulation is an easy example of this - if "play in the key of G" is a rule for a given song, the players or composer may choose to change that rule in order to make the song better. Dig the intro to my favorite version of "Honeysuckle Rose" if you have any doubts.

We human beings have a nasty habit of trying to turn infinite games into finite ones. Just think about the Guinness Book of World Records. Building giant replicas of things was definitely not a contest before that. The ugly business of trying to turn music into a finite game started longer ago that I can possibly determine, and is still going strong, with contests like the Grammys and American Idol leading the whole ridiculous pack.

I'm only saying all this to remind myself, and anyone else who's guilty of the same habit, that music is an infinite game. There are no rules, there are no winners, and we play it for only one purpose: to play.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

today totally makes up for yesterday

This was playing in my head all day, as I walked in the sunshine with the dogs and the kids and blossomy trees and the "water ice" sellers. It's my very favorite version of one of my very favorite songs.

Friday, April 8, 2011

two great jazz songs you never heard

I've come across a couple rare gems of classic songwriting in the last few days, and wanted to share them.

Give a Broken Heart a Break

Cleo Brown is one of my most-favorite least-known artists. I don't know for sure who wrote it, but I've never found another version of it, which makes me guess it might've been Cleo herself. It's an adorable little jelly bean of a song.

You Don't Know What Love Is

I wasn't familiar with this song until I stumbled across it the other week, on a Billie Holiday cassette ($.50 from Amoeba records in LA)! Oddly enough, Ella sings this ballad harder, sadder and gutsier than Billie.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

there is nothing wrong with the music industry

I've had a fantastic few months of touring this spring, with wonderful, soul-expanding shows all the way across the US and the UK. I've also had a really prolific few months of writing, with my next album simmering on the front burner of my mind (if not yet in reality). I'm feeling generally lucky and happy and musically satisfied. However, one question keeps prodding the back of my mind.

What is the deal with the music industry?

There was a time, or so I hear, when there were these things called Major Labels. They were presided over by fancy-suited executives, and bankrolled by glittering rockstars, who sold millions upon millions of records. Due to the success of said rockstars, said executives could afford to "invest" in small time artists like myself, in hopes that they, too, would become glittering rock stars. We're not talking small change, either; an investment in a new, unknown but promising artist could easily climb into the millions of bucks.

Then, along came Napster. People started stealing music, instead of buying it. Suddenly, a multi-billion dollar industry started shrinking rapidly (music sales in the US fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $10.1 billion in 2010.) *Thanks to Iain Drummond for the correction, lifted from the NY Times.

Nowadays, an artist like me would be considered lucky if a tiny, sickly record label could come up with $30,000 to invest in my next album (and remember, I would be effectively selling them the rights to all the music on that album for a fairly measly price).

But, here's the funny thing, which you won't read in the papers. The aforementioned statistics are for record sales, which are traditionally the primary revenue source for record labels. Sales have never been the primary source of revenue for artists. Artists make the bulk of their money from royalties (the money we make when our songs get played on the radio), licensing (the money we make when our songs get used in a TV show or movie), and live concerts. Interestingly, overall revenue from live concerts has actually doubled between 2000 and 2007 (from $1.7 t0 $3.9 billion).

That means that, while the selling of records may be a dying industry, the selling of tickets and songs is still a vital and growing one.

I am writing this overly academic, potentially boring blog post just to bust a single myth, and here goes: there is nothing wrong with the music industry. Musicians make music, people listen to music, love it, and are willing to pay for it. All that's changing is the format: people don't pay so much for recordings, and they don't like to buy full-length albums. That means that the record industry is, indeed, on its way out.

The only effect this will have on artists is that the churning, growling, multi-billion dollar machine that is the record industry, which has perfected the art of turning musicians into pop idols, is a thing of the past. That means we might not get turned into pop idols so fast or so often.

To put all this in perspective, let's take a moment to consider the history of the record industry, as I understand it.

1890s-1910s: Edison invents the phonograph. Phonographs are too expensive for the average person to buy, but jukeboxes come along, and soon enough, record companies are selling about 3 million records per year to keep juke joints stocked with the new stuff.

1920s-1930s: Gramophones and vinyl records (10 inch, 5 minutes per side) are invented, and become affordable to the general public. Quickly thereafter, however, radios also become affordable and available!* Sales plummet. This is the first great record industry disaster.
Sales recover slowly as the US comes out of the great depression.

*Footnote: Also in the '30s, some businessman realizes that the only way for records to rival radio is if record labels make their artists sign contracts limiting their freedom to record/perform for other companies or media outlets. Those contracts mean that if the average music lover wants to hear Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives, she'll have to buy the record from Okeh. Modern record contracts are born!

1950s-'60s: The first LPs (25 minutes of music per side) become available to the general public. Also in this decade, somebody invents the multi-track tape recorder, which allows musicians to record several instruments at once, and go back in and edit any tracks that weren't perfect (up until this point, all recordings were live). Bands like the Beach Boys and the Beatles exploit multi-track technology for all its worth
(try to imagine "Pet Sounds" without multi-tracking).

1960s-1990s: The golden age of the record industry. The age of pop stars, Cadillacs, and the rock and roll lifestyle. Platinum records, concerts in amphitheaters, screaming, fainting fans. During this time, it was actually possible
to become a millionaire just because you were good at music.

1990s-2000s: As the internet worms its way insidiously into millions of homes throughout the western world, Napster, Limewire and etcetera are invented, giving any teenager with a phone line the ability to get all the music he desires for free. Even those teens on the straight-and-narrow tend to buy single tracks from iTunes, rather than full-length albums from record stores. This is the second great record industry disaster, and quite possibly the last.

I say all this just to prove one point: the record industry was short-lived, like the corset industry. Realistically, the demise of the gold or platinum record is but a footnote in the long history of music and musicians. Mozart didn't sell records, and nor will the musical geniuses being born in this decade. However, as Gillian Welch poignantly made clear, "We're gonna do it anyway/even if it doesn't pay". People will always make music, and if it's good, other people will always want to hear it. If the record industry is dead, I say good riddance.

And good riddance to the rock and roll lifestyle. I will settle for being a thousandaire. I am not really that much into hookers and blow, anyhow.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

top ten things to miss while gone

Morning tea in the studio

Listening to records

The magnetic poetry board in my bathroom

(and the pinup girls on the ceiling)

(and the sailboats by the bathtub)

The cozy chair





Thursday, February 24, 2011


Okay, last weekend I did one of the coolest things I've ever done. I performed the role of one of the three fates in Anais Mitchell's "Hadestown". Anais is one of the best singer-songwriters working today. She is a stunningly poetic, honest, intricate lyricist, and sings with fierce emotion and perfect intonation.

Over the past few years, Anais wrote a set of songs based on the Orpheus myth. In the original myth, Eurydice, Orpheus' lover, gets bitten by a snake and taken to the underworld. Orpheus, being a musician, sings so beautifully and mournfully that the gods take pity on him and let him go to Hades to try and rescue her. Hades tells Orpheus that he can bring Eurydice back, as long as he walks out of Hades with her following behind, and doesn't look back to see if she's there. Orpheus fails, and Eurydice is gone forever.

In Anais' adaptation, Hadestown is a "post-apocalyptic American depression-era company town", ruled by Hades, who is basically a greedy CEO/dictator. Above ground, America lives in abject poverty, and below ground, Hadestown has a mine and a wall to build. It is ugly and sad, but there is work. Orpheus and Eurydice are living in poverty, and Hades convinces Eurydice to join him in Hadestown, so that she will have work and won't starve. Orpheus later goes to rescue her, and fails.

Meanwhile, we are entertained by multiple peripheral characters. Persephone, Hades' wife, runs a speakeasy in the underworld that sells above-ground luxuries to the sad, sunlight-deprived populace ("I got the wind right here in a jar, I got the rain on tap at the bar..."). Hermes is a fly-by-night hobo, who counsels Orpheus on how to sneak into Hadestown to rescue Eurydice "the river Styx is high and wide, with cinder bricks and razor wire, walls of iron and concrete, and hound dogs howlin' round the gate". The fates are a trio of yes-women, who represent the status quo, first talking Eurydice into abandoning Orpheus to find work in Hadestown ("You can have your principles/when you've got a bellyful/but hunger has a way with you/there's no telling what you're gonna do, when the chips are down."), and later talk Orpheus into leaving her there ("Why the struggle, why the strain? Why make trouble, why makes scenes? Why go against the grain? Why swim upstream?)

All told, it's an impeccably written set of songs, and a beautiful adaptation of a timeless, heartbreaking story. As she did in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Glasgow, London and California before, Anais brought together a group of musicians from the region (previously unknown to one another), had them learn their respective parts, and put on a set of shows, performing the opera from start to finish.

Anais, Jesse and Paul rehearsing, on the day of the first show (the first time any of us sang together!)

This is an unprecedented idea, to my knowledge, and it was outstandingly fun.

Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri, two of my other favorite songwriters, played the parts of the lovers. Anais herself took on the role of Persephone. Louis Ledford, originally from Richmond, played an absolutely chilling Hades. Jesse Elliot, lead singer of the asskicking band These United States, played Hermes. Myself and two lovely singer/songwriters from central VA, Jackie Stem and Carleigh Nesbit, played the three fates. We were backed up by a great band, led by Michael Chorney.

The fates, being... fately.

While we weren't performing, we hung out with each other, played songs, drank wine, and sat in a hot tub under the stars, in Luray VA, singing gospel songs in rounds. It was lovely, and it left me nostalgic.

Devon and Paul falling asleep following aforementioned wine and singing.

If Hadestown ever comes through your state: take a half day, drop the kids off with Grandma, and bring everybody you know.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I haven't blogged since I was driving west from Iowa, and now I'm back in Philadelphia, sitting in my favorite chair, reminiscing and recovering from a whirlwind month. Here are a few highlights.

The mesmerizing, breathtaking, awe-inspiring beauty of the American west. Utah, Wyoming, California, Arizona, New Mexico. I'd seen pictures, but I hadn't fathomed the greatness or the gorgeousness. What an absolute privilege.

The kindness of strangers. This guy, for instance, is a retired cop in Vancouver, BC. He spends his mornings pouring coffee for strangers, for free, in a place that serves $3 breakfast. They call him "The Cofficer".

The goodness (musical and personal) of the crowd I run with. WOW! I just can't believe my luck, most of the time. The west coast tour included nine shows with the Wood Brothers, and like always, I was floored by their talent, their kindness, their humor, and their sweet little hearts. A few of their crowd (Christian, John Medeski, and two of my dearest friends) are pictured above eating raw oysters, straight from the ocean, in Marshall, California, on the sunniest, warmest, gorgeousest February day in history.

New Orleans. I'm not sure how to describe my feelings about this place, but let me attempt. New Orleans is steeped in my favorite kind of magic: mournful, musical, dirty, hedonist magic. Billie Holiday magic, nightmare magic, voodoo and Carson McCullers and Jenkins Orphanage Band magic. It's a city on the edge of an abyss, ready at any moment to be dumped into the sea. Yet it's just vibrating with beauty, delicious food, heartbreakingly excellent music, and strange, sad, joyful people. The fictional quality of the city is so palpable, it's hard not to look for the man behind the curtain: oblivion hissing as the gate, and everybody dancing, singing, eating their way merrily towards it.

I want to live there, I want to die there, I want a small apartment there to write in on the off months. Who's in?

Monday, January 24, 2011

what got me through 34 hours of driving

1) The Promise (audiobook by Jonathan Alter)

The one and only time I've used my mailing list for political purposes was before the 2008 election, when I described why I would be voting for Barack Obama. Well, here's an admission: I feel even more enthusiastic about the president now than I did then. This book brought it home by describing the first-year accomplishments of the Obama white house, many of which which were conspicuously absent from media coverage (for more information, go here). Bonus: I now feel sufficiently well-informed about the Obama presidency to discuss my feelings with any and all of you. If you're one of the 47% of voters who disapprove of Obama's job performance, send me an email or post a comment for some friendly debate.

2) F&!$ You (by Cee Lo Green)

I'd like to say that the entire album, "Lady Killer", got me through the drive, but honestly, it was just this song. I played it loud every time I pulled out of a midwestern town or saw a particularly gorgeous sunset. Holy $@#%, this is a fantastic piece of music.

3) Hadestown (by Anais Mitchell)

Anais Mitchell is one of the best singer/songwriters working today. I've known this, unequivocally, since the release of The Brightness, in 2007. But with Hadestown, Anais has tackled a new and daunting task. She composed a "folk opera" based on the Orpheus myth, cast folk- and indie-giants Ani DiFranco (Persephone), Greg Brown (Hades) and Bon Iver (Orpheus), and recorded this breathtaking marriage of poetry, myth, and music. I can't recommend it highly enough.

In case I wasn't already a bumbling superfan, Anais recently asked me to perform the part of one of the Fates in the "Virginia Sings Hadestown" run of the show in February. I'll be singing with Anais, Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri and the whole crew, in Norfolk, Charlottesville and DC, giddy and squealing at the chance. Go here for information and tickets.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

8 albums that changed everything

Driving across the country gives me lots of time to listen to music, and to think (two of my favorite activities). I have a feeling this won't be the last contemplative post born of a drive across a midwestern state.

The following albums changed everything. Not necessarily everything in the world, but certainly the world in my head. I'm not saying they're the best albums, or even my favorite (although I heartily recommend you buy all of them, if you haven't yet), but when I heard them they thoroughly rearranged my relationship to music. Thus, everything.

1) Bonnie Raitt - Nick of Time

This is the first album I can remember learning all the words to. I also remember getting up early in the morning, hearing it playing in the living room, and running downstairs and dancing to it. I don't know how old I was at the time, but young enough that the phrase "don't want a man with a monkey on his back" was taken literally.

2) Patty Griffin - Living with Ghosts

This is the first album I remember that made me cry. I was 11 or 12, and the song "Poor Man's House", which I still think is one of the best songs ever written, really hit me in the guts. I also learned to play every one of these songs on guitar, which was another first.

3) Ani DiFranco - Out of Range

I heard this album on college radio soon after it came out. I was 11, and I hadn't yet purchased an album with my own money. I happened to be on the way to the mall with my mom at the time, and I went into a record store and bought this, 'Relish', and 'Tuesday Night Music Club' on cassette. This album was my first conscious encounter with playful, nontraditional lyrics, really biting humor, and lyrical wit.

4) Billie Holiday - Priceless Jazz Collection

My Grandpa bought me this CD when I was 14. I had never heard Billie Holiday before. I remember sitting in my room and listening to "Good Morning Heartache", and thinking I had never heard someone sound so sad. That was the beginning of my Billie Holiday obsession, which has yet to end.

5) Radiohead - OK Computer

My first love turned me onto this record, and I remember listening to it for the first time, alone in my bedroom. I remember the opening chords to "Airbag" as vividly as any opening chords. I also remember lying on the floor, hearing the first refrain to "Exit Music" ("Breathe/keep breathing"), and having tears just stream out of my eyes. Said first love and I would lie together for hours listening to this, Amnesiac and Kid A over and over, not talking or touching. Just listening and longing.

6) Paul Simon - Rhythm of the Saints

I heard this record for the first time when I was 16, on my first tour (as a backup singer in a funk band). I was lying in the back of the van, half asleep, somewhere in Nevada. Someone put this record on, and I remember sitting up and saying, "Who IS THIS?!" I was incredulous that my parents had failed to introduce me to Paul Simon **Editor's note: they DID actually introduce me to Paul Simon, but I was too young to remember. Thanks, Mom, for the clarification.** I listened to it obsessively for the rest of the tour, and I remember it as my first encounter with music in odd time signatures, and songwriting that used complex rhythms as a device. I wrote my first (and only) song in a weird time signature ('Time', which is in 7/8) during this period.

7) Elvis Costello - This Year's Model

My ex boyfriend introduced me to this record, and I am still grateful to him for it. I'm pretty sure this was the first rock and roll album I really loved. I was probably 18 when I got into it, and I remember rocking out to it in my bedroom before going to work at the dog grooming salon.

8) Aretha Franklin - Lady Soul

Okay, I just got into this album last year. I am using it to represent my R&B, motown and soul phase, which has certainly left a deep impression. This record is a prime example of what draws me to the whole genre: simple songs, soul-crushingly groovy bass lines, vocals so sexy they hurt a little. This genre was my first introduction to the concept of arranging songs in such a way that every instrument, at every point, is playing something catchy and melodic and soulful. There is no down time on this record.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

the plan

For those who wondered, here it is.

1) Get car pimped out. Tires, brakes, whole enchilada. (DONE.)

2) Buy a crapload of non-perishable Trader Joe's snack food. (DONE.)

3) Drive to Seattle to pick up Joe (via Boston, Cleveland, Des Moines, and Eugene.) (DOING.)

4) Hop on Wood Brothers tour in Vancouver.

5) Play nine shows on said tour (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Petlauma, San Francisco, Visalia, LA, San Diego).

6) Drop off Joe/pick up best bud (Kerry) in LA.

7) Drive back to Philadelphia via Albuquerque, Austin, New Orleans, and Knoxville.

Travel suggestions (places to eat/stay, stuff to see) welcome!