A couple months before high school ended, senior year, I bought a ticket to see R.E.M. in Tampa, with Radiohead opening. “Creep” had only just hit and Radiohead was still somewhat obscure, but there was something about the languid melancholy in Thom Yorke’s voice that felt … promising, if melancholy can be that. And, even though I loved R.E.M.’s long-ago music — Eponymous, even Automatic for the People — what they were doing with Monster was interesting to me. Besides, I’d never seen them live and they seemed like the right kind of band to drive clear across the state for. I didn’t know how I was going to get to this show. I was pretty certain my mother wasn’t going to give me the car to drive the two and a half hours to and from Tampa, late at night, by myself. But I was 18; I’d figure it out.
Turned out my friends Sean and Freddy were going, and somehow me jumping in the car with two teenage boys that she didn’t know very well, made my mother feel much more comfortable about sending me off for the weekend. (Sean’s aunt had arranged a hotel room for us, so there would be no late-night driving.)
The show was incredible, or at least Radiohead’s performance was incredible — easily within my Top 10 favorite shows I’ve ever seen. Radiohead didn’t have any lights or visual effects — they were just a rock and roll band, throwing it down hard. I was so arrested by their delivery, I could’ve watched them all night. But opening bands don’t come back for encores, and R.E.M. was kind of a big deal.
Peter Buck was wearing a sky blue suit that had fabric linking his arms to the torso of the suit jacket, so that when he lifted his arms, he looked like a big, giant bird. He lept and kicked off the monitors, in great motion, whether he was ripping an electric guitar solo or fluttering on his mandolin. Michael Stipe, meanwhile, read most of his lyrics from a sheet on a music stand, which I found distracting and disappointing.
Peter Buck’s awesomeness notwithstanding, I wanted Radiohead back.
Later that night, we drove around Tampa blasting Hole’s Live Through This and working on our riot grrl screams. When that got old and tired, Sean put on a casette tape by Ani DiFranco called Not a Pretty Girl. He’d learned of her through CMJ magazine, which included her on one of its monthly compilation discs. I was bowled over. Especially juxtaposed with the pipes and power of Courtney Love, Ani’s careful and deliberate slaying of all six strings on her guitar (those weren’t power chords) was a revelation to me. I’d spent years enthralled with the command of bands like Babes in Toyland and Seven Year Bitch and L7, and one spin of Not a Pretty Girl made me feel like I had been entirely missing the point of what a woman could do with soundwaves and a musical instrument. The plucking and thrashing and staccato guitar-coughing of it all was just enthralling to me. There was no going back. My ears couldn’t un-hear, and I couldn’t un-know what could be done with such an instrument.
Later that summer, Sean was invited to participate in a battle of the bands competition and he agreed, except he didn’t have a band at the time. So he asked me if I wanted to be a band with him. I played the flute and wrote poems. There was no way I fit in with the punk bands that were competing in this thing, but I agreed anyway. To compliment my flute, Sean brought along his Ovation acoustic and we drove out to the Gulf to turn our poems into songs. When we took the “stage” at the battle of the bands, all the mohawked and pierced punks who had been moshing minutes ago, sat down Indian style. My mother wheeled my grandmother to the front so she could watch. And we wound up winning the damn thing. We got some strings and guitar picks, and something silly like two hours of studio time (that’s about how long it takes to set up the mics). But it was enough of a vote of confidence for us to keep going.
As the year unfolded, Sean and I accumulated a percussionist and a standing gig at a couple of coffee shops in Daytona Beach. We played three-hour sets every Friday and Saturday night, got $100 from the house and a full tip jar. It was a good way to practice in public and get comfortable singing in front of people. Before that, I was a mortifiedly shy performer. The whole thing was just terrifying to me. But by the end of the year, I could look back and realize I was making money from sitting on a chair and making music with my friends. Why ever do anything else?
It didn’t take long for people to start reflecting back on us that we were making folk music. That we reminded them of [name the artist]. For the most part, I had no idea what folk music was, or who these artists were, so I started buying the albums people mentioned to me. Someone told me my voice sounded like Shawn Colvin or Beth Orton, so I bought those albums. People said “folk music” enough that I just started buying albums from the folk music section. I chose albums back then the way I now choose wine — based on the cover art. That first crop of folksingers (singer-songwriters, really) — my gateway drugs — were Greg Brown, John Gorka, Dar Williams, Laura Love, Gillian Welch, Tanita Tikaram, Danielle Howle, Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls. It was a few years before I found my way through the wormhole to Woody and Pete, but I studied thoose artists’ songs, listening closely to the places where the music and lyrics seemed to come from the same breath, and the places where the music and lyrics diverged. I studied the syncopation of melody and lyric, the evolutin of harmony, the way they manipulated counterpoint singing as a way of adding rhythm, the way words were used for texture and not always for the explicit communication of ideas. And of course the way words were used for the explicit communication of ideas.
I put these techniques to work in my own songs. When someone told me I sounded like Shawn Colvin, I tried to write like Shawn Colvin. When I got the Tracy Chapman reference, I tried to see if I could write like Tracy Chapman. Of course I have no soul in my voice, no gospel or blues, and not really even enough sadness and disappointment. I spent too much time as a child being schooled in singing clearly and direct. I studied classical singing and learned well how to manipulate dynamics, but never how to truly embody a song, the way Patsy Cline does, the way k.d. lang wears the music like it’s a coat and she’s coming in from the cold.
To learn how to sing like that, I had to listen to these folksingers, which led me many years later to the old school country singers.
When I was 19, I moved to Buffalo, where I met a guy named Michael Meldrum, who introduced me to Townes Van Zandt. My boyfriend at the time introduced me to Frank Zappa. And with that, I was done for.
To this day, I see music on a spectrum from Townes to Frank. It’s like the Kinsey scale of sonic manipulation. Dangerously close to monotone on one end, freakishly experimental on the other. Somewhere in the middle is the music of Van Morrison, John Gorka, and other masters of melodism. And then you can branch out from there.
I spent the better part of a decade studying these artists closely, borrowing from them, snapping twigs from their trees to build my own nest. I glommed onto John Lennon early, but didn’t find my way to Bob Dylan til I had been pursuing the songwriting thing for eight or nine years. By the time I discovered Patty Griffin, I’d nearly determined that I needed a break from the whole game. When you dig into Patty’s canon — really dig — it becomes clear that there’s no better way to say it than she does. “Making Pies,” “Heavenly Day,” “Up to the Mountain,” “Long Ride Home,” “Rain,” “Mary.”
Her songs are perfect in any state. One voice and one guitar, three-part harmony and a full band, a capella, plugged in, acoustic. You can’t fuck them up if you try. Every note is in place, every word sings itself. If you just read the words out loud, speak them, they roll out with the same rhythm and melody that she uses to sing them.
Once I understood that words do that on their own, that it’s not a songwriter trick that needs to be worked on but rather a door that needs to be opened, my interest shifted to writing great sentences. I realized I was more interested in communicating emotionally stunning images. The work became about writing the things that I’d never be able to say out loud. Once I opened that door, I saw that I’m not a songwriter at all, but a prose writer who just knows music very well. So here I am, writing about music for a living. A natural, obvious, but not-so-obvious landing pad.
I’m still in search of the perfect sentence. I’m still in search of the best way to wrap words around a moment or an image. I’m still taking hints from those artists, still learning from Patty Griffin and others like her (cough Jason Isbell cough), still measuring sound on a scale of Townes to Frank. But the work is different now, and the well of music is deeper than ever. Separating myself from the mission of writing The Great Song, I’ve been able to listen to music more deeply. I’ve been able to appreciate the deep well of possibility that exists beyond the marriage of words and music, to delve into the work of artists who are completely different songwriters than me — bluegrass bands and old timey fiddlers and imaginative virtuosos like everyone in Punch Brothers.
Nonetheless, when I read what people write on this site, I know well that what they think of the artist they’re writing about, has to do with the artists who led them here. Whether Easy Ed is drawing a line from Crosby, Stills, and Nash to I’m With Her, or whether commenters are complaining that Ashley Monroe isn’t [something] enough for their taste, it’s all just a reflection of our individual journeys to find more of the magic that set us on this road in the first place.
So, I must ask: What was your gateway band or album? How did you find your way to rootsy music? What’s the lens through which you hear every new band? Do you have a Townes-to-Frank scale?