THE READING ROOM: Andrew Duhon on Reading and the Affliction of Writing
Andrew Duhon (photo by Cameron Gott)
New Orleans-based songwriter Andrew Duhon wears his literary heart on his sleeve. His lyrics on his new album, Emerald Blue (ND review), cast a little Faulknerian shade, a bit of Thoreauvian shadow, and a touch of spiritual insight with glances from both Buddha and Jesus. Duhon is never far from a book or two, and he and I chatted recently about books and reading and the influence of his reading on his songwriting.
What are some of the books that you were reading while you were making Emerald Blue?
The writings of Emerson and Walden, Thoreau: I remember Emerson and Thoreau as an unintended intro to my own artistic will, specifically the Emerson quote I belabor: “To believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for every man — that is genius.” I revisit this stuff partly because it feels like 101, and partly because it’s way too heavy for 101, and I don’t seem to retain as efficiently as I should. I reread some idea and think, “How does that not just stay with me?”
Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig: The first idea he talks about is great —the idea of traveling in a car being like watching it through a screen that is your side window vs. a motorcycle where you watch the ground moving below you and you’re in the world that you’re moving through instead of past. I visit that idea while touring, I’m sure, making sure I stop and smell the roses, or the asphalt, I suppose!
New Orleans Sketches, William Faulkner: These are stories that Faulkner published in the local paper and elsewhere while he lived here. They’re vignettes of life in the French Quarter at the time, and I owe it to these stories for helping me see past the tourism of the Quarter to recognize that the soul and the ghosts and the stories are still there. There’s one called “Jealousy” that is immensely haunting and ends in tragedy. I wonder if it could be turned into a song. I bought the book at Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter. I’ve always liked the idea of buying books where they were written, and was glad to pick this one up at that shop, in the very building he likely wrote most of the contents.
The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt: So utterly poignant, and probably always will be. It’s a book that I knew I’d reread after a few chapters, and I would double back on a chapter just to try and retain the ideas, but they come at you like a storm. Simply, it’s an analysis of our human condition’s process of using reason vs. intuition to form our beliefs, and how problematic that is. These days, we’re all sticking to our side, but to analyze how we got there is pretty humbling.
What’s the last book that made you laugh?
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I finally got to this one after that hero of a man passed on. I revered his approach to storytelling, and reading this one after his passing was like getting to hear his voice again. I appreciated the way he told these riveting stories while always making snarky remarks.
The last book to make you angry?
Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation. He pulls no punches in his critique of Christianity, and I’d have to say I mostly agree, though as a means of discourse, I’m sympathetic to the believer that I know I was in my younger years even if I do think Harris is right. “Everybody Colors Their Own Jesus” off my new album is my softer approach (chuckles). Perhaps I’m more on the side of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” to start discourse rather than just “imagining” you are wrong, as Harris tends to do.
The last book to make you cry?
Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South. The whole time the main character is on a journey to get his car back. It’s a beautiful illustration of our own journey. I really like Portis’ storytelling and enjoyed Norwood and True Grit as well.
What moves you most in a piece of writing?
[It’s] similar to a song. A good song has to cost you something. Writing the book must have cost the writer something dear, having to write the story the way they do. I feel the weight of its truth. There’s comfort in knowing that person’s longing, loneliness, their heart. Writing that grabs me the most expresses this river of human emotion, and we all enter it.
How does your reading influence your songwriting?
In my songwriting I am trying to tell a truer love story than a fairy tale is willing to admit. I want to write about one brick at a time in terms of a relationship. I am telling a fairly cohesive story, generally. How much truth can I bring to this story? Where are the truths that scare me to say? I’m always looking to find the way the story is told; how does it start? A filmmaker once said about perspective and making films, “Where do I place the camera?” When I am writing a song, I ask where I should put the camera. I try to write every day. I am thankful that songwriting feels like an affliction at times. If it’s something you have to do — and I have to write songs — then you are afflicted. Songwriting ventilates my soul.
What’s the one book you won’t leave home without?
Thoreau’s Walden. There’s something formative for me about that book. It’s the beginning of an image of what I hope is my final form: a cabin in the woods, slowing down, and finding out what it all means.
You’re having a dinner party and can invite three authors, living or dead. Whom do you invite?
Hemingway, Thoreau, Bourdain.