Write What You (Don’t) Know

In July, I played a duo show with one of my Lost Cartographers collaborators (singer Gabrielle Schafer) at the venerable Chicago club Schuba’s. The show went really well, but our melancholy, often-dark alt.country was perhaps not the best complement to the earnest pop of singer-songwriter Katie Todd, the headliner for the night. After the show, one of Katie’s fans was chatting with Gabrielle and asked something along the lines of, “What’s up with that guy and all the depressing songs he writes?” Gabrielle fumbled out something about how she thought maybe I had written most of those songs before I had gotten married, and that’s why they were so sad. “Well,” replied the stranger, “maybe he just needs to get laid.”

I smile every time I think of this story, because it holds up to the light one of the assumptions that we often make about the relationship between artists and their art, namely that art is a direct reflection of the thoughts and emotions of the person who creates it. This is particularly true in the often overly-confessional genre of singer-songwriter fare, but I’m sure the same is true in other musical genres as well as in other art forms.

The advice to “write what you know,” of course, is famously imparted to every Creative Writing 101 class, and is quickly internalized by most fledgling writers. As in most clich├ęs, there is plenty of truth to be found in this advice — the surest way to create “authentic” art is of course to explore the characters, settings, and situations that surround you every day. There is just one glaring problem with this practice.

Writing what you know is, after awhile, deadly boring.

Yes, some of those sad songs I write *were* written from personal experience, and deeply-felt emotions. But generally, as a happily married thirty-something with a good job and a life marred by very little personal trauma, I really don’t have much to be sad about. I suppose I could write songs about the joys of a blessed life, but I suspect I would not be alone in finding such songs utterly tedious.

I’m reminded of a discussion I once saw on the Sound Opinions message boards, where someone had posted about how they found Tom Waits (incidentally, one of my favorite artists) to be annoying, because it seemed to them that people just listened to Waits so they could “feel like barflies.” My immediate reaction to this was incredulity; even if that were why people listened to Waits, why wouldn’t that be a good reason? If you only listen to music that reflects your own personal experience, you might as well sit around listening to the recorded hum of your kitchen appliances.

We consume art, I believe, to travel to places we’ve never been, experience things we’ve never seen, felt, or heard, and the best art transports us to another being, without our even noticing — and that is why I, at least, also create art. To conjure — from the flotsam and jetsam of everything I’ve ever read, everyone I’ve ever spoken with, and all the other songs I’ve heard — the mind of a character whose story is very different than mine is a fascinating and satisfying alchemical enterprise.

Certainly there are dangers to this approach; when I write a song from the perspective of, for example, a spurned woman or the engineer of a doomed train, I do not know what it is actually like to be a woman or a train engineer, and I risk misrepresenting those experiences. But good art, I think, can — and should — accept those challenges. If Homer or Shakespeare or Bob Dylan had only written about what they knew, would anybody care about the work they produced? I certainly wouldn’t put my three-chord ditties on par with the masters, but hell — I’m the one who has to live with them for the rest of my life, so they better at least be interesting to me.

P.S. If you’re interested, Gabrielle and I will be back at Schubas on December 12 (tickets on sale now!), opening for Jill Andrews.

The Return of the Artistic Patron

A couple of weeks ago, I observed with interest a discussion on Twitter between the Lost Cartographers‘ bass player, Karl Seigfried, and writer/bass player Keidra Chaney. The discussion was too long and wide-ranging to reproduce completely here, but it centered on the question of how the rise of internet is affecting both journalists and musicians.

Karl, who makes his living performing and teaching music, pointed out the dilemma facing recording musicians in the age of the “information wants to be free” generation.

My students are performance, music business, and music ed majors. All want music for free, but still think they’ll make a living at it.

And later:

This is what I mean about the internet model not working. These young people will NEVER pay for music. So how do we finance recording?

Now, I’m generally a proponent of the idea that having their music downloaded for free (whether legally or not) is not necessarily a bad thing for bands, and that fighting the technology, as the record companies have attempted, is an unwinnable battle. But it does raise the question, as Karl asks, of how musicians without the backing of a record company afford to record and effectively distribute albums (or singles, or ringtones, or whatever the dominant popular musical form becomes).

Despite the steep drop in costs for recording technology in the digital age, recording can still be one of the more expensive endeavors musicians may undertake. Equipment, including instruments, microphones, and software, must be rented or purchased. Experts in engineering, mixing, and mastering may need to be hired. Some physical copies will likely need to be manufactured. Those who have day jobs may need to take time of off work to attend to the recording process. If no one buys the music we record, how on earth do we justify this expense, and afford to make future recordings?

It’s important to remember, I think, that while the death of the record industry model as we knew it is certainly a paradigm shift, musicians were making a living long before the first record company was formed — performance has always been, and will likely always remain, most musicians’ bread and butter. The sort of large-scale effort represented today largely by complex recording projects was in the past by supported primarily through the patronage model. Wealthy individuals, families, or organizations (such as the Catholic Church) would provide the funds to support artists for the length of, say the composition of a symphony, trading actual capital for the social (or spiritual) capital of having their names associated with great works of art.

The move to the record industry model was a result of the fact that, by virtue of being recorded onto a physical product — a record, cassette, or CD — music became a commodity that could be exchanged not just for social capital but for actual capital. Record companies controlled the means of production of these commodities, from the recording studios to the vinyl pressers, and therefore were able to institute what was in effect an artificial scarcity; as a result, the demand for their products was usually higher than the supply, resulting in massive profits for the companies that controlled those means of production. Today, when the means of production are effectively in the hands of nearly everyone who owns a computer, the cost of reproducing that product is virtually zero, and the supply of recorded music far outstrips the demand, recorded music is largely a valueless commodity.

But while the monetary value of recorded music approaches zero, the emotional value for music fans remains high – we all remember where we were when we first heard our favorite artist, or how a particular album got us through a difficult breakup, or whatever. Clearly music fans want musicians to continue making music. As a result, I think we are going to see a return to the patronage model of artistic production, with one incredibly important change: patronage is now longer the province of wealthy families and the Church, but of many ordinary individuals. And I’m not talking about the “pay what you like” model that superstar bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have experimented with, in which they use their own vast wealth to finance recordings and then make them available to the public for whatever price the public feels they are worth. I’m talking about artists like Jill Sobule. After years of touring (and yes, one minor hit in the 90s), Sobule had built up a small but dedicated fan base. When she found herself without a record contract, she was able to get those fans to finance her next album through pre-orders and giveaways — to the tune of $88,969 — from just 638 fans. One fan, who pledged $10,000, was even invited to sing on the album.

And now, websites like Kickstarter and Pledgemusic make this model available to all artists. A Brooklyn-based band called The Damnwells is, I think, the perfect example of this new model. Virtually unknown, they self-financed the recording of their album “One Last Century” and gave it away for free, even paying for ads announcing the giveaway on the website and email newsletters of Paste Magazine. As a result, they gained a great many fans who might never have heard of them otherwise, and were able to leverage this expanded fanbase into $30,000 dollars worth of pledges for financing their next album (while simultaneously supporting the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and TB).

One can imagine that this individual patronage model could be used to finance other aspects of an artist’s career, in addition to recording. Donate X amount, and you’ll get put on the guest list at the show of your choice; for Y amount we’ll schedule a stop in your town; for Z amount we’ll do a private show in your living room.

If we are lucky, the death of the record industry will mean the end of a middle man between musicians and their fans, and the success of a band will hinge not upon slick PR campaigns and payola to radio stations, but on the direct connection between fans and the music they love. Of course, corporate sponsorship will never go away, but I think the fan patronage model makes the playing field infinitely more level.

My Top Albums of the Decade

Generally, I tend to think that things like “Best of the Decade” lists are ways for lazy editors (and bloggers) to fill space, though that never stops me from doing my own year-end lists.

However, reading Paste Magazine’s take on the topic led me to reflect a bit on how much my musical life has changed in the last ten years. If the 90s were the decade when I discovered music — when the power of melody, rhythm, lyrics and live performance were first revealed to me, and I made my initial tentative stabs at writing, performing, and recording music — then the ’00s were the decade in which I began to live it. In the last ten years, I’ve recorded three solo “bedroom” records, as well as a full-fledged studio record with my band The Lost Cartographers, played dozens of gigs, seen hundreds more, and increased the size of my music collection by a power of ten. iTunes changed the way we buy music, and made it possible for me to listen to that entire collection shuffled together (making the album itself a somewhat archaic way of organizing lists like these). And my iPhone allows me to take a large chunk of it with me wherever I go, as well as find and download new music from anywhere.

Through all these changes, the albums listed below are the ones that I most enjoyed over the past decade. I make no claims that these are the best albums produced in that time frame, but they are the ones that I would take with me to that other critical cliche: the desert island.

The Runners-Up:

The Finalists: 

5. Main Hoon Na (2004) – Main Hoon Na is the Bollywood movie I recommend most often to those who have never seen one: it’s funny and smart, worldly and rooted in an ancient mythic tradition (it’s based on the ancient epic Ramayana), and the music is great. The soundtrack takes the something-for-everything approach of masala films to a global level, mashing together styles as diverse as qawwali devotional music, American 1950s rock, and Latin pop just for the sheer joy of it, and it provided a big chunk of the soundtrack for my summer in Jaipur.

4. The Avett Brothers, Four Thieves Gone: The Robbinsville Sessions (2006) – While 2007’s Emotionalism and 2009 major label debut I and Love and You get most of the critical attention, Four Thieves Gone gets my vote as the Avetts’ best, as it’s one of the few studio albums that manages to convey the frenetic joy of a great live band in all its jagged glory.

3. Solomon Burke, Nashville (2006) – The larger-than-life “Legendary King of Rock and Soul” returns to his country roots on an album produced by Buddy Miller, and featuring collaborators from Patty Griffin to Dolly Parton. The result is an incomparably beautiful mix of soul and country, a truly American sound.

2. Old 97’s, Blame It On Gravity (2008) – Currently my favorite band of all time, the 97’s had an up-and-down decade, getting dropped by Elektra after 2001’s 60s-pop-influenced Sattelite Rides, returning to their alt.country origins on 2004’s Drag It Up (which unfortunately obscured some pretty good songs with muddy and overdone production) and coming back with six-guns blazing for their last album of the decade, an accomplishment that rivals their excellent late 90s albums for country swagger and pure melodic bliss.

1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)  – In the summer of 2002, while driving north from San Francisco in a rented car to visit friends and family in the Pacific Northwest, I stopped at a roadside mall to buy some CDs for the drive (this was a good four months before I got my first iPod). I had never owned a Wilco CD before, but the critical buzz over their new album was deafening, especially in my new hometown of Chicago (whose iconic Marina Towers also graced the CD cover), and I had heard enough bits and pieces of it to be intrigued. At that moment, driving away from the ruins of a failed relationship and toward a future that was thrillingly uncertain, the insect hum of homemade electronics, off-kilter drumming, and half-drunken piano plinking of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” held out the promise that, for all its heartbreak, the world remained a strange and beautiful place. By the end of the achingly lovely “Jesus Etc.” I knew that this would be one of my favorite albums of all-time.

Project Update: Lost Cartographers Poster

One of the fun parts about being a designer in a band (and probably the reason that so many designers are also musicians) is getting the chance to design all the schwag that goes along with the music: album covers, websites, t-shirts, and of course, gig posters. Designers love doing music-related projects, as other creatives tend to give designers more creative freedom than the average client. Often, particularly with gig posters, we’re freed from the usual constraints of having to clearly communicate a set of information (I’m fairly confident that no one in this day and age actually finds out about a gig by way of a poster) in favor of producing a work with an emotional impact, one that tells the story of a band’s sound in a single image (check out this great collection for some examples, and this post and its comments for some criticism of this paradigm).

Next week, the Lost Cartographers and I will be playing at Chicago’s legendary Empty Bottle for the second time; we’ll be opening for the incredible Samanatha Crain & The Midnight Shivers (check out this preview of the show). The Bottle’s promo folks asked us to provide some posters, and while we don’t normally make posters (the return on investment is just too low in terms of getting people to come to the show), I decided it might be fun to do one for what promises to be such a great show.

I’d be interested to hear in the comments what you think about the poster — does it capture our sound, and tell the story of our music (which you can hear here if you haven’t already)?

Project Update: Lost Cartographers Redesign

I just realized that the last few months have been so busy that I completely forgot to post about a project I completed at the beginning of the summer. In preparation for the release of the Lost Cartographers’ debut album, I decided to to redesign our website. While the old one was still workable, I wanted to design something that a) was consistent with our cd packaging and b) did a better job of integrating our social media presence. I also had an itch to create something in a photorealistic style, as opposed to the relatively clean graphic style I often gravitate toward.

Here is the before:

And the after:

For the Record (Store)

Last week was the second annual Record Store Day, the admirable goal of which is to get people to support their local record store. This past weekend, Sound Opinions devoted their show to interviews with some of the heavy hitters of independent music stores, including Chicago’s Reckless Records, the Bay Areas’s Amoeba Music, and Austin’s Waterloo Records. They also spent a great deal of time rhapsodizing over the nostalgic wonders of the record store that can not possibly be replicated by digital downloading.

I have to admit, it’s been a while since I bought anything in a record store (I get most of my music these days from eMusic). But I find it slightly bizarre that Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis spend much of their time applauding the changes in the music business that are leading to the collapse of the major labels’ outmoded business model, then spend an entire show lamenting the challenges wrought by those changes on the record stores’ outmoded business model.

The problem for record stores, I should note, is not that the internet has enabled people to illegally download music that they otherwise have bought in hard copy — studies indicate that those who download music illegally actually buy more music — but simply that no brick and mortar store can possibly offer the range of choices one finds on the web. If I want an album by a relatively obscure band like the Pine Hill Haints, I could get on the CTA, go to Reckless Records and try to find it… or I could get on the web and order a copy in the time it would take me to find my keys.

These days, services like iTunes make it almost effortless for independent bands to get their music online, while sites like CDBaby make it possible to get hard copies in the hands of individual consumers without the hassle of finding a distributor to get their music into record stores. The record store as middleman no longer has much reason to exist, unless it can find some way of adding value to the experience of shopping there (and I don’t consider being smirked at by a 25-year-old who thinks he’s the second coming of Lou Reed but still lives with his parents to be value added). Unfortunately, the future of the record store may very well be that rack by the cash register at Starbucks.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I have fond memories of teenage years spent browsing record stores and blowing my meager summer paychecks (I’m looking at you, Rhino Records in New Paltz), and I still enjoy having a physical copy of a cd, with album art and liner notes and so on. I would love for the Lost Cartographers‘ music to be able to help support independent record stores, but our label doesn’t have a distribution deal, and our fans will only be able to get our music online. And until someone starts a CDBaby-like business aimed at distributing physical product into physical stores (rather than just to individual consumers), record stores simply won’t be able to compete with the abundance of music available online.

Project Update: “Walk On” Album Cover

It’s been nearly as long in coming as “Chinese Democracy,” but The Lost Cartographers‘ debut album is about to be sent off to the manufacturers. The album features cover and disc design by yours truly, working off of a photo of a South Side food & liquor joint that I found on Flickr (the photographer generously offered use of the photo for the price of a complimentary CD.
The goal here was to come up with a design that was timeless, reflected the sound of the band, and — as our bassist Karl put it — would look awesome on a t-shirt.

Concert Review: Frightened Rabbit

For Christmas this year, I was given a copy of the video game “Rock Band.” I guess the thrill is a little less vicarious for those of us who are actually in rock bands, but there is still something about strapping on that plastic guitar and pounding out the power chords to classic rock songs while the (virtual) crowd sings along. And aside from not having to carry your own gear, the best part of the game is the fans — they consistently go crazy, pumping their fists in the air and engaging in call-and-response choruses without a hint of self-consciousness. “Wow,” I thought the first time I noticed this, “when was the last time I went to a show where people had that much fun?”

At the Empty Bottle on Saturday, I got a pleasant reminder of what it’s like to be a fan at a show like that. Frightened Rabbit are four guys from Scotland who I first heard about last year on Sound Opinions; their album The Midnight Organ Fight was one of my favorite albums of 2008. In concert, they manage to be both achingly sincere and exceedingly funny, and give the impression that there is nowhere else they’d rather be, and nothing else they’d rather be doing — an attitude that is truly infectious to a crowd. Take a listen to this encore, for which lead singer Scott Hutchison came out with an acoustic guitar and perched atop a speaker, singing with no amplification. The crowd may not have been pumping their fists during this number, but they were certainly hanging on every word.