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Writings for the Nashville Scene

Jen Hartry

While I’ve been writing the new record for the past two years (about which I am trying to find a way to write), I’ve also written some things for The Nashville Scene. It has been gratifying to have such an outlet. Here are those few things for anyone interested in words without music.

The latest was an autobiographical story about how a terrible worship song drove me from the church, and eventually from Christianity. The piece was commented on quite a bit, and not all the time very intelligently I’d say. I read only a few comments and stopped. I’ve thought about writing a follow up to it, but I’m not sure I’d like to validate thoughtless internet commenters that way. To be fair, I received a bunch of thoughtful and wonderful responses, too. 

Before that I published what I was hoping was sort of an exposé of what Music Row calls a pitch list, which is a document that details what sort of songs Nashville country singers are looking to record. It was either not widely read or came across as totally unsurprising.

Similar to that, I analyzed long ago the Billboard Top 20 Country Songs for similarity, to test the claim that all country songs were lyrically the same. At least back in 2013, they were. I was happy that this little article got a lot of reads, and soon after we saw people putting together mashups and laughing at those. I was talking to a songwriter pal of mine who writes on Music Row. He said he was at a songwriting retreat with his publishing company and another. The type of thing where you retreat but are supposed to write a ton of songs while you’re there. He told me that everyone there was reading the article, and that the president of his publishing company said that he didn’t know whether to tell the writers to write songs like those mentioned in the article, or to avoid doing it. That is sad success.

Lastly, my only article written on assignment, this piece surprised me. I was asked to write about Jason Aldean. I think the editor was hoping that I’d write a good send up. And boy was I ready, because boy do I think Jason Aldean’s songs are crap. But the more I listened and thought about the dude, and about bro-country in general, the more I realized that he was doing something kind of, ehem, innovative. It hurts to type it.

After the piece about the worship song got so much response, the music editor of the Scene asked to meet with me and I did. His name his Adam Gold, and not only is he a great fellow, but he’s a great writer. He told me he liked my writing and that I could write basically whatever I wanted for the Scene’s music section. I was excited by the prospect. But during the next few days I thought and thought about what to write and came up with nothing that appealed to myself. As you know, I don’t listen to a ton of music, so I don’t think I’m the man for concert or record reviews. Nor do I read a lot of music journalism. Which might be a good thing, but may not. The short of it is that I couldn’t come up with anything the write that wouldn’t just be something like another piece of content on the web. So, I haven’t taken him up on the offer just yet.

That whole thing has always been a blessing and a curse for my writing. The notion for what to write has to come gleaming from the deep, or at least, when I’m done with it, needs to gleam like something from the deep. Otherwise I cast if off. Writing, when I get into it, feels pretty good no matter the quality of the words. The rhythm, and the expression of anything, of something. I’m hoping to find new ways of going about it.

Ladybugs

Jen Hartry

Today I have flicked a ladybug off my phone and off my plate. There are eight ladybugs on the inside side of the window in front of me right now. When I take a shower there are at least ten ladybugs, on the window, on the loofah, flying round. A few of them will die before I’m done. They’ll try to land in a place that’s too wet and they’ll fall down to the floor and drown or go down the drain. They are not fast to drown though. One morning I found a ladybug swimming in the glass of water I keep next to my bed. A couple days ago I found one swimming in the toilet. During my last shower a ladybug landed backwards and upside down on a bead of water rolling down the shower wall. It rode the bead down, landed on its head and crawled away. Now that they’ve been in the house for awhile I’m beginning to find ladybug corpses everywhere. On the bottom of a shoe or sock. On my desk and on window sills. Yesterday I moved a guitar case in my office and found ten ladybug corpses beneath it. There isn’t a light fixture without a ring of red inside of it now. They’ve taken over a secede window in the kitchen. Twenty ladybugs at least. They leave their yellow blood all over it to draw the others there. When the first few ladybugs appeared I took them outside, or I set them out of harm’s way in the shower. Then I started just to flick them away if they’re on something I need, and otherwise ignore them. When last I vacuumed I sucked up a few live ladybugs with the dead ones.

It’s clear that the time has come to do something. The humane thing to do would be to vacuum all of them I can, release them into the woods, scrub away all the blood on the window sills so that they’ve no extra incentive to return, and then be diligent about capturing and releasing any newcomers. That’d probably do the trick. It would have been a good way to do it from the very beginning. I suppose I could have saved a lot of ladybug lives if I’d been diligent. But that is not how I do things. Generally, I’m the type of guy who ignores a minor problem until it becomes a huge problem. I wait until a few dirty clothes on the floor become a pile that pisses my wife off. Until the little noise in the car results in a breakdown and a tow-truck. In general, I don’t deal with something until it starts dealing with me in some negative way. The ladybugs are populating the house now, they’re everywhere, and so I have to do something. I beat myself up for how I am, but I know a lot of people are like me, and I know society is like me in a lot of ways too. Which is a big thing to come away with considering that I’m talking about ladybugs here. But of course I’m not just talking about ladybugs here. I’m rarely talking about just one thing. Or, more to the point, and hopefully I’ll get back to a point, I’m rarely thinking about just one thing, rarely talking about anything at all. Things try to connect themselves in my head, usually in a sad way. Ladybugs are starting to get connected now, their blood being spilled on my windows and all.

Just as an example, in the shower the other day I thought about how sad it is that a ladybug should die on the window, where they can see so clearly the outside, but are separated from it by a mere inch of glass. I ridiculed myself for the thought, because, of course, that pane of glass is several times thicker than the body of a ladybug, and so the ladybug’s death isn’t really wrought with so much tragedy. Moreover, regardless of a creature’s size, the width of the barrier between life and death, between captivity and freedom, is far less relevant than the material from which the barrier is composed. Were the glass 100 times thinner the ladybug would still die on the same side of it. Like the bars of a prison cell; they’re thin, but they’re still impenetrable. Which is where my mind went next. There are over 2.4 million human beings in prison in the United States. Over 80,000 of these human beings are being held in solitary confinement. Guards with sticks and guns aside, that’s a whole lot of creatures separated from their freedom by something as thin as a cinder block wall, or something as permeable as a set of bars. It’s an issue I think and read a lot about, incarceration in the US. It’s a terrible problem, the numbers and conditions. It’s unjust and unethical and inhumane and idiotic and expensive. It seems insane to me that more people aren’t talking about it, aren’t trying to do something about it.

Yet I haven’t done a damn thing about it either. It’s a ladybug problem. I probably won’t do anything about it until it gets out of hand in my brain. This post is an indication that that time is drawing near. None of “us” will do anything about it either, until it becomes bothersome enough. There are a few good things going on, but they generally just point to how fucked up things already are. For example, New York has just changed their solitary confinement policies so that “children and pregnant inmates…will no longer be subjected to solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons…” (Isn’t the fact that they are there in the first place horrific? And that they could be put there for something as vague and subjective as “disciplinary reasons”?) And Attorney General Eric Holder is encouraging federal prosecutors to charge low-level drug offenders with less severe crimes. Which is good. (But it points to the fact that hundreds of thousands of low level, nonviolent drug offenders are serving long sentences in the first place.) I’m not an idiot. A lot of prisoners are in prison for good reason. They aren’t as innocent as ladybugs. They have nothing to do with ladybugs. I’m not so much talking about them (though we should talk about how we treat them once they’re there). But so many are there for no good reason. And so many are in solitary for years, decades even, and there can be no reasoning for that. It’s a giant lady bug problem, made worse by the fact that our prisoners aren’t languishing on windows that we can easily see them through. They’re hidden, hidden well, and hidden intentionally.

I gotta wonder if we’re all like me in one way or another. I know we are. My intentions are good, but the action I take, if any, is sporadic and feeble. Like being SO outraged by some piece of injustice, some Trayvon, that you post something about it on Facebook one day and forget it the next. I’ve got a plan to save humanely the growing ladybug population in my house, and how humane I will be about it! But not before letting so many of them die on account of my laziness. Similarly, maybe we’ll figure out our prison problem, but not before letting millions languish there. It’s silly, I know, to compare ladybugs and human beings. But I dunno, my last thought in the shower was that maybe it isn’t silly at all. Maybe we should all be strict buddhists in the sense that we do all we can to avoid harming or killing another creature. Maybe if I could learn to do something to better the lives of ladybugs then I could learn to better the lives of my fellow humans. To be honest, I don’t think there’s any justifying my behavior toward either animal. I feel guilty about the things I can do but don’t. And to be honest, I think all of us should. And more than that, we should all be doing something about it.

Chicken Coop for the Soul

Jen Hartry

I live between a peak and a valley. My house is on the way down. The peak is just the edge of level land, not some grand mountain top. The road just drops off it and passes me by.

It was sometime near 3AM when I stepped outside with Pablo, our new pup, and it was 20 degrees outside. The stars were the sort made closer and clearer by the cold. The winter view of the Orion Spur of the Milky Way, where the sun lives, where the stars are actually closer, and where there’s more blackness behind them. I was standing in my front yard looking up at them and it made me feel a warm mix of awe and luck. This is my front yard and my view and I am alive and alone to see it. About thirty yards from where I was standing there is a small greenhouse where our six chickens live. Inside, there is a red heat lamp to keep their water from freezing. That night the lamp made the whole greenhouse glow red. I thought to myself that it was like a soul, the warm center of the universe, beneath the Orion Spur, where six chickens slept in the quiet, these helpless but hearty little creatures. These are things I think when I get out of the way for a minute. I felt myself lift up. I put that light there. Those are my chickens. That is my soul.

I have always seen myself as one sort of man or another, not now, but in the future, and I have used these visions to try and make myself a man I can live with. It has rarely worked. I’ll forget the vision, try it and discard it, or never take any steps toward the vision. (For example, when I moved to LA I saw myself as a man who like to surf. I imagined it day and night. Then, in the seven years that I lived there I tried it only once. ((Incidentally, I tried it when the water was very cold, and the wetsuit I’d borrowed had a hole in the crotch. What happened is that, seeking warmth, my testicles traveled north, so that they were no longer hanging loosely and safely beneath me, but clinging firmly and frontally, and paddling myself out became a gauntlet of waves-slapping-surfboard-slapping frozen bits. This might have played a part in my never trying again))) So I am left comparing myself to the man I am and the man I want to be and the work I need to do and the work I have failed to do. I have wanted to be a man who is comfortable in nature, even ecstatic in it, and I’ve pictured myself with a nice little house with land where I can be alone with my pretty wife and some animals. I’ve got that. It’s one of those rare times when the man I am becomes the man I want to be.

But the man I am now is also constantly reminding himself of his failure. It’s always there, nipping at my heels even when I have a rare momentary lift off into transcendence. I’m standing neath the stars and looking at my warm red soul and remember that, inside, it’s full of chicken shit.

This year I released my first record on a record label, signed a publishing deal, found myself (or, was found by) a manager, and played my first profitable tours. In Ireland no less. At the moment my label in LA is speaking through my new manager to a label here in Nashville about collaborating on the push of my latest record, which would mean that there would be lots of money put behind it. More money than I’ve ever made in any two years of my life combined. (My record would see the money, not my wallet.) That label in Nashville, via my publishing contract, has dibs on the release of my next record, which means I am all but guaranteed to have another label release. All of these things, on paper, are quite impressive if I say so myself (which I am currently doing). The man I was a year ago might be impressed with the man I am today. I assume too, perhaps a little haughtily, that many friends would sure like to be in my position as well.

There are some hard rubs in all of it, of course. First, as always, so much is up in the air all the time. I constantly worry about my future. With everything I have on paper going for me, I have absolutely nothing in stone for 2014, nothing to make me optimistic. Yes I know this is my fault: I am getting to that. Second, this way is a dumb way to have done things. Had I been brave I would have started touring when I was 18. That was the man I wanted to be. By now I could have been making at least the money I make now but with no contracts and…But I didn’t know how and I was scared. So I took jobs and hoped I’d be DISCOVERED. Mercy on me, I was more ignorant than cowardly. That’s what I tell myself. Third, in regard to my publishing deal, I have done musical things for money that I am not proud of. I cannot think of any other way to put it than to say that I have sold out, at least a little. I accept money to write songs with others that do not measure up to my artistic standard, and it makes me sad. I don’t hate myself too much for it. It beats a lot of other jobs. And I need that money, little as it is.

To make the rest of the money I need I work in a liquor store for about 24 hours a week. The work is easy going, and my coworkers are easy going, and it’s all easy going, except that lately it’s not easy going to work. I have a hard time sticking to a job for more than a year or two anyway. But the problem with the liquor store is that there can be a lot of down time. And in that down time I pace the aisles, putting a bottle of vodka up, a bottle of wine in the cooler, and I think about the man I am and the man I want to be and I go fucking crazy.

Simply put, I want to be a man who writes a lot, who writes well, and who writes meaningfully. I’m talking outside of songwriting. I think that that writing would would be meaningful and lead to other meaningful things. The writing would inform me first, then other people (if it’s up to snuff), and then the writing would lead me to be engaged in cultural conversations with people I find meaningful. I have raged against this man every way I know how, and it’s sad, because he seems like such a very simple man to be. To be him, I’d have to just pick something to wrote about and sit down and write about it. But I have not been able to do it, ever really. Instead I pace the liquor store aisles. I surf the internet. I read. I stare. And at the end of the day (get out the tiny violins) I pity myself for letting another day go by.

It’s gone on long enough that now the pity is hardening into resentment, into anger. I go to bed many nights and absolutely hate myself. My lovely domestic situation aside, I truly feel like I’m fucking my life up. I am failing to live it well. I’m so sick of it. I would love it if this anger would at least motivate me. But I don’t kid myself. This writers block is a habit. The relationship between myself and failure is that of an addict and a drug. I must find some sort of pleasure in it.

I have been thinking about the reasons I am stuck (even though my mind calls this sort of dwelling a type of procrastination…which it is). But I think I have some answers:

1- I most often believe that I am not informed enough to write, or not smart enough.
2- I most often believe that nothing is worth writing about.

It’s nice to put these things down, because they look so ridiculous. They are so easy to argue with. Against the first I can say that I am well educated, that I have read a whole lot of books and articles about various interesting and important things, that I have lived in a few interesting places, and that I am, in general, a very thoughtful person who appreciates complexity. I can also argue, the quality of my mind aside, that there are people out there who are writing and conversing in a public sphere who are complete morons. How come they can do it and I can’t?

The answer from my gut: a pathetic shrug. “A hundred more books and maybe you’ll be ready, buddy!”

The second point is harder to argue with, but is connected to the first. Meaning is subjective, but the search for it is the thing. Is my thing as least. It’s Frankl’s idea, that meaning is the driver of psychology, not happiness, as Freud claimed. I believe this, for myself anyway. When I am off I waffle between feeling meaning and not, which, of course, makes it all the more suspicious when meaning is there. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel meaninglessness, but I think it might be a bad thing to scorn the meaning because you’ve felt meaninglessness. That’s cynicism at its worst. I first found meaning in books. So I devoured them, and I still do. But lately, I read a book, or a whole Harper’s, and it doesn’t touch me. “Great,” I say to myself, “so that was post WWII Europe. Whatever. Next?” Or, “Great article about the disappearing aquifers, Harper’s. But what am I gonna do about it?” I consume thoughtful books and articles like they were Twizzlers. And I guess it’s like, So what? People watch TV the same way, they read US Weekly the same way. Why can’t Harper’s be my US Weekly?

Because Harper’s is not empty. Because if Harper’s is empty, then post WWII Europe is empty, then I am empty, and everything I could choose to write will be empty, because everything is empty. So I don’t write.

Living in that emptiness is not an option if one would like to stay alive. It is not survivable. That emptiness nearly killed me ten years ago. The idea of emptiness, of pointlessness, has good lessons to teach, but you can’t live like that. You can’t not write because of that. It’s pathetic.


I believe I am someone who could express great things. If I’m not, then I would at least like to be a man who has mined his potential. Instead, I’ve spent the last few years flashing forward to see a man on a deathbed, ashamed of his life because he never even broke ground. The shame of that image in the mind of a young man, with two hands and a healthy brain…

I would like to be a man who frequently feels the connection with the world that I felt the other night night beneath the stars looking at the glow of the chicken coop soul. Writing something good about the world makes me feel that. Being a writer makes me feel that. It’s not that hard. Even writing about the silly chicken coop makes me feel that.

But I’m up to my head in chicken shit, and it’s paralyzed me, and I’m just so sick of it.

Writing Alone with Everyone I Know

Jen Hartry

On my most recent trip to New York I confessed to my friend, Ryan Morgan, that he often pops into my mind when I am writing a song, and that when he does, he’s criticizing me. I don’t think he’d mind my saying so, but he’s the type of guy who has a sharp mind and a big mouth. It’s as if there were an intricate system of back roadspaved, clear, and completely familiar–weaving through all the fields of his knowledge, and that his mouth were connected to all that by a freeway with no speed limit. Discussion with him is often intense, sometimes intimidating, and always lively, as he is a very critical guy, and you can’t always tell whether he is baring his soul or playing devil’s advocate. He also takes joy in locating your buttons and pressing them, repeatedly. 

It’s a design of mind and mouth that I very much envy, and I have told him so. I envy it because the layout of my mind and mouth is very different. Where he has backroads, I have overgrown footpaths. And where he has an expressway, I have a muddy dirt road. Of course, it isn’t just the design that I envy, as there are plenty of people with the same design who use it to say the dumbest, most boring things. (I am thinking of, say, the stereotype of a so-called “valley girl” blathering on and, like, on.) No, the dude is smart–well read, well studied, thoughtful–and he’ll check you if you’re not being smart and thoughtful, too. He’s a good fella to bounce big thoughts on.

I don’t know if his mind works in the same way for songwriting as it does socially, but mine certainly does. It’s me with a machete, slowly (and I suppose somewhat whiningly, cursing a lot) clearing overgrown paths. And when the work seems long and lonely, after I finish a line or two, I want someone to talk to, and so I conjure someone up, someone like Ryan, and ask him, What do you think of this line? Is it true? Am I being too clever? And sometimes the Ryan will say, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” And I erase it. 

It’s not always like that. When I get into the work, when the chopping is good, Ryan isn’t there. Nobody is there. There is no question of what anyone but myself thinks about the lines. It’s that good feeling of, This is true for me, so it will be true for everyone, and I chop on by myself. Or is it that even in that sublime state when I am alone, I’m actually surrounded by everyone I’ve ever met, read, or heard about. But they’re all silent and in accord and let me chop on? It’s a strange thing.

And it’s a thing that, since I began writing songs when I was twelve, I have gone through phases of resenting. Someone would pop into my mind and I’d be all, “Hey, get the hell out of here, I don’t need your help.” The presence of these frowning people made me insecure, made me feel like I wasn’t a true artist, that I couldn’t write a song on my own. It’s always been a big thing with me, this desire to be my own man, to live how I live, to write what I write, and screw what anybody thinks of it. I want to be a true rebel, man. Which is a good, important, useful, and necessary thing to feel, I think.  But even that feeling, when I have had it and not been careful with it, has sent me deeper into insecurity, as it has made me aware that my desire to be such a man and to be such a writer betrays the fact that I am not in fact such a man and such a writer, at least not naturally, at least not now; that for the time being I’m just a sheep in the fold who considers himself brave for having the thought of rebellion, but is too cowardly (sheepish) to realize it. But that is all hogwash. Sheepwash. Because sure, maybe there are some true renegades out there, people who’ve never consulted society, externally or mentally, who have never had an internal conversation with someone to determine the value of their thoughts. And if so, then good for them. I guess. 

But now I’ve come to appreciate the group of critics in my mind, and to consider them useful and important. I like their company. Ryan seems to appear when I am trying to insinuate something political, historical, or literary into a lyric. And if I can’t convince him of the value of the line then the line isn’t good enough. When I was just starting to write songs, it was my dad who’d show up in my head. I would ask him questions (in physical life) about some of his songwriting rules, and when I found myself breaking them, in he’d walk (in mental life), shaking his head, and I would change the line. The deal is that the songs are much better for it. While writing songs I’ve spoken to Springsteen and Paul Simon, and Hemingway and James Joyce, to Niall Connolly, EW Harris and Mick Flannery, to characters I’m writing about, girls I’m writing about, girls I have had crushes on, girls I have despised, soldiers, political figures, and on and on. A lot of the time it isn’t just a person scoffing at my lyrics, it’s a person who’s challenging my version of things, complicating the picture, making sure I don’t get away with some things, that I include the shitty complicated things. And again, the song gets better for it.

This isn’t to say that songwriting is a people pleasing business for me. For one, the Ryan in my head is not the actual Ryan, of course, but a Ryan I have invented to keep me accountable. Similarly, I certainly don’t have much interest in spending time pleasing exes, nor do they have time for me, but the exes I invite into the writing of songs have all the time in the world to give just to me, and they politely argue over our grossest past with me until we come to some consensus. (I was distant, you didn’t deal with that in the best way.)  Secondly,  there are people who pop into my mind because I know that they would loathe my train of thought, and in these cases it is their disdain that proves to me that the line is good. For example, I’ve written a thing or two about religion on each of my records. Having grown up a religious man I know plenty of religious people, and those people have appeared in protest in my mind every time I write something that might disagree with them. And it’s a thrill. Now, I have never written a line with the sole intention of offending anyone. It’s just that, with my real life people pleasing tendencies, the thought of making someone uncomfortable inside the safety of my song makes me very happy.

Now, see, the Ryan Morgan in my head is telling me to end this post, and I’m arguing with him that it needs some grand closure. Something that begins with something like, “In the end…” And my wife is telling me that it’s a blog post, and it doesn’t need some grand closure. And I’m telling her that she usually has something like at least semi-grand closure in her blogs, so what right has she to say something like that? And now there is my new manager, Jeff, he’s in my head too, and I’m like, “You told me I should be writing more outside of songwriting. Is this alright? Or should I have talked about my chickens more?” Meanwhile, I am loving all of this, and on and on and on it goes, until…In the end, when all the conversation stops, I’m alone at the kitchen table again, and I’ve a little piece of writing that’s been torn apart and vetted by all the people I trust.

Cowriting

Jen Hartry

People in Nashville cowrite songs. Generally, you meet up with someone at 11AM, sometimes at your house, sometimes in a writers room on Music Row, and you get amped up on coffee together. With the coffee’s help you do one of two things: One, you get to talking about life, about what’s going on in your life, and how those goings-on have got you to thinking about this one thing, and how this thing seems song-worthy. Or, two, you get to talking about song ideas you have, and if you’re me, you figure out if you can connect to any of those ideas personally, whether it be through your own personal life, your sense of humor, or your sense of empathy. A lot of songwriters talk about how cowriting is like getting into a room with another person, sometimes a stranger, and pulling your pants down. 

I often think in a good cowriting session that the world would be a much more peaceful and lovely place if everyone talked to each other like two songwriters trying to get to the heart of a song. On one hand you’ve got two people who have agreed to admit that they are sensitive and vulnerable in both their experience of the world and the way they write about it. And on the other hand you’ve got two people who feel strongly and deeply about something, something that is true to them, and they have to work in such a way that the song, in the end, reflects that feeling. Inevitably, and hopefully, both writers compromise with each other, but they do not compromise their sense of truth or their sense of what makes a quality song. It’s a beautiful process that sometimes produces beautiful songs. And when you’ve experienced such a process and written such a song then there is no feeling quite like it.

Yet, though I’ve cowritten somewhere around 50 songs in my life, I’ve released only two cowritten songs myself (out of 40 released or soon-to-be-released tracks). I don’t know why, but I can’t really cowrite unless the song is for someone else, or for some other purpose. In fact, though I’ve made cowriting out to sound like the greatest thing ever, I am rarely as happy about the product of cowriting as I am about the product of solo-writing. Something happens to me in the process that keeps me distant from the work. When I wrote for EMI a decade ago, which is when I was thrown into the cowriting universe, I felt like the process was destroying me artistically. As over-the-top as it sounds, I would come out of writing sessions and feel like my soul had been assaulted, and I’d feel like the people I was writing with weren’t real artists. How could they be, with the types of songs they wanted to write? To me, they wrote all wrong. They wrote songs as a whittler whittles, from the outside in, tossing a title out like a block of wood and carving away at it until it resembled as closely and cleanly the title they’d thrown out. It was all about titles. I’d never written songs like this. I’d always written, say, to stick with the metaphor, as if I were suddenly trapped in a piece of wood and had to carefully claw myself out. In the end I’d turn around and look at the wood, and how I transformed it with my clawing, and I’d think, Hey, I made it pretty! In addition to that, it usually took a month or so for me to write a song, not a few hours. My metaphor-made-stupid aside, I was young, and so I thought my way was the right way. And I thought any song written with an inferior method was an inferior song. After I left Nashville, and EMI, I didn’t cowrite for more than ten years.

And now here I am in Nashville, about to sign a publishing deal again, and cowriting at least twice a week. What’s changed is that I can have fun with it now, and I can appreciate that as far as jobs go songwriting is a good one (not paywise, but satisfaction-wise). In other words, I don’t feel like my soul is under assault; perhaps because I spent ten years learning the layout of some of my soul and can therefore defend it. I’m also a lot more interested in different processes than I used to be. There are a few songs on my records (Holly, for example, off Vacations) that started as a title (or, in the case of Holly, a pun), and they turned out pretty good (in my opinion), and I’d like to be not so stuck in my one way of songwriting. With a less precious and defensive state of mind I’ve already learned a few really valuable things in my recent cowrites, and I’m glad for that. Still, despite all that, distance remains between myself and these songs. I’d like to think that maybe the more I practice it the more I’ll close the gap, because the gap makes me feel not just like I’ve done something kind of inferior, but kind of wrong. Which leads me back to the feeling I had at EMI, which, if history were allowed to repeat itself, could drive me away from Nashville songwriting again. 

But maybe it’ll always be there, and maybe it’s a good thing to feel that way, and maybe I wasn’t all wrong in my youthful artistic righteousness. It could be that I just had it backwards. Because these days, when I get the feeling of having done something wrong, I no longer think it’s the result of some failure to defend my artistic soul against attack. Instead, I blame it on a failure to advance my artistic soul in its own offensives, to expand its empire. That’s a horrible way of putting it, especially after claiming that cowriting might be a way toward world peace. But I guess that’s the whole thing, ain’t it? It’s tough to fit souls together.

Ladies, Gentlemen, Mutants

Jen Hartry

On the Sky Captains of Industry, working together, and the future prospects of the rest of your heart.

             
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Like all songwriters, I have a pathological incapability for listening to other people’s music without thinking about how it was written. This manifests itself in a lot of different ways - I always try to guess the rhyme after the first lyric in a verse, for example, or I think “Hmmm, I wanna use that chord progression” instead of just appreciating it. In a recent interview with Conan O'Brien, Jack White says that he knows a record is good when he hears it without thinking about how it was recorded. That is to say, he by instinct doesn’t hear records or songs. Instead, he hears effects and reverb and levels. He really loves something when it doesn’t make him think about any of that.

The Brooklyn-based Sky Captains of Industry's debut recordRocket City, pulls me totally out of my own writer-ness. It presents itself in such a way that I have nothing to add to it by wondering why the hell E.W. Harris says “Barack Obama” in the first part of “Love Shark.” He just does, and it makes sense in context. Rocket City is just so fucking successful at what it does that I, when I listen to it, believe completely in the parallel universe the band has created. Every note and nearly every lyric, especially when understood in the context of the record, is perfect. There’s nothing there for me to doubt and the end result is appealing to me as a fan of great art to such an extent that it shuts up the part of me that wants to know how they did it. (Well, almost, as we’ll see.)

This is a particular accomplishment, in the narrow and narcissistic way I’m judging it, because I know all the members of the band, and I knew them all before they were in the band. I’ve known most of the songs from the time they were half-written little acoustic numbers being played in the back-room at our regular Brooklyn pub. Hell, I've played with all the members of the band at different times, and E.W. Harris produced my own record. By all precedents, I should be comparing the songs as they exist on the album to the evolutions I know they’ve taken. In fact, I thought that would happen. Like most people in my social circle, I was waiting for Rocket City with varying degrees of patience for something like a year before it finally came out. And I’ve had plenty of conversations about it since then that worked around the basic theme of “I was really nervous that this thing wasn’t going to be as good as I hoped it would be, considering how great their show has become. And, um, it’s better than I expected.”

All of the members of the Sky Captains - and here I include the various guest Captains that appear from time to time on Rocket City and at their shows, in addition to the core of E.W. Harris (vocals, guitar, synth), Don Paris Schlotman (bass, vocals, synth), Jasper Lewis (guitar, vocals), and Lindsay Dragan (drums, vocals) - are excellent songwriters on their own. This strikes me as superficially problematic. Songwriting collaboration, I confess, has always been a mystery to me so I’m dealing at least somewhat from a place of my own weakness of imagination. Still, I would think that even in the best of situations, there would have to be arguments and bruised egos. Put at least four and sometimes up to six songwriters into a room, as The Sky Captains of Industry do, and the best I’d expect is chaos and the end of several friendships. Rocket City, though, represents a triumph for collaboration.

E.W. and Don have both told me that, to varying degrees, they accomplished this by a mutual understanding of - and dedication to - a Rocket City concept that predates the existence of the band. Rocket City (the place) has its origins in a dream E.W. had some time near the turn of the century, itself inspired by a dream his friend Dr. Cool had just prior. (Speaking of Dr. Cool, knowing E.W. and Don personally just blurs the line between the supposedly fictional Rocket City of the album and their actual lives, which are populated by people and stories that wouldn’t be at all out of place in the Altered States of America.) During periods of studio tedium while Don and E.W. were working on Don’s album Mother Transit Authority in late 2010, the two began talking about a concept album built around E.W.’s old dream (which never totally left him) and the shell of the song that would become the title track.

A lot of ideas that start that way, in the inevitable Four Loko and American Spirit haze of delirium during endless hours mixing the same 20 seconds of song, fizzle out. For people of a certain disposition (I include myself, and I doubt E.W. or Don would mind that I include them), lots of ideas that started in some kind of “awww, man, that would be awesome!” conversation become, in the end, no more than the conversation itself. In the case of Rocket City becoming Rocket City, though, the story of sticking with a great idea and the story of how a bunch of writers with their own styles, influences, and egos can blend together into something so spectacular are the same.

E.W. and Don started playing as the Sky Captains in the spring and summer of 2011, playing a set heavy on stuff from their solo projects that was peppered with some of the earliest Sky Captains tunes (“Rocket City”, “Factory”, and “Time Traveler's Lament” among them). According to both of them, they had a wide-ranging bunch of discussions of what exactly Rocket City would be. Their major musical influences (Bjork, Radiohead, and assorted noisemaking sci-fi scores for E.W., Joe Jackson, The Talking Heads, and assorted noisemaking sci-fi scores for Don) would all make appearances. More important, though, was the story and the point they were making with it. Both agree that E.W. served as sort of a “guardian” of the concept, while Don was the major idea-man. Neither of them had a particular interest in a specific narrative, so they approached writing the songs for the record in two ways. Sometimes an idea (usually Don’s) would spawn a song, and sometimes a song that one of them had incidentally written would make sense in the larger context.

Jasper Lewis, the lead guitar player and (like everyone) co-writer and co-singer, joined the band around New Year, 2012. (His first gig as a Sky Captain was January 31 of that year at Spike Hill in Brooklyn.) His recently released solo record, The King of Ideas and the Weirdo Kid, highlights the eclecticism of his tastes and abilities. He’s a literal music student, but also a genuine student of music, and King of Ideas ranges from straight up Tom Petty-like rock and roll to gorgeous acoustic ballads to something like RnB.

There is, of course, no shortage of guitar players in Brooklyn. E.W. and Don knew that with Jasper they’d be getting a collaborator as well as a great guitar player. Jasper’s playing goes way beyond filling in musical gaps, instead changing the entire tenor of some songs. It’s impossible to overstate how much he brings to the table. The ideas around Rocket City were reasonably well-formed by the time Jasper joined the band, but it didn’t take him much time at all to be fully on board. Jasper’s contributions to the band, in some ways, highlight the enormous attention to detail that E.W. and Don have paid to the Rocket City project. What I mean is, they didn’t ask Jasper to join the band because he’s a great guitar player (which, make no mistake, he is.) They asked him to join the band because he was the best possible guitar player for the band. Simple as that. (It’s also a testament to how good an idea Rocket City is, and how well E.W. and Don are at presenting it, that Jasper would agree to become a full-time Sky Captain. He has no shortage of prospects as a solo performer and a sideman, but he’s chosen to throw himself in with these guys. It’s a perfect match both ways.)

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Through 2011 and 2012, the Sky Captains played with the ultimate rock-and-roll cliche - a rotating cast of drummers. Their first (and still occasional) percussionist was the Groove Lobster, E.W.’s trusty drum machine. As with Jasper, though, each of the drummers the Sky Captains have played with have brought something specific and meaningful to the overall idea. Four of them, including the Groove Lobster herself, are credited on the album. (The humanoid three are Casey Black, E.W.’s brother Phil Harris, and Lindsay Dragan.) It would’ve been an easy choice for the band to just use whichever drummer was playing with them at the moment on the record, but the truth is - all of them are necessary. Phil brings a bizarre combination of musical talents to the table (in addition to drums and percussion, he plays saw and kora (!) on the album), Casey would claim not to be anything as a drummer but in fact adds a very specific percussive element to the sound of the band, and Lindsay (who plays with the band full-time now) sings gorgeous harmonies and plays perfectly off Don.

It’s my impression from watching the evolution of the songs over time, from hearing Rocket City itself, and from talking to the Sky Captains both socially and in the attempted formalities of “interviews” for this review, that one of the biggest reasons for their success in corralling the talents and egos of all these songwriters is that everyone is completely committed to the band as a band and to the idea of Rocket City as an idea. (This, I’ll note, explains the lack of jealousy about the others’ songwriting - what I mean is, in a band, it’s expected that when some songwriting member is hoarding good material for a solo album, that will create resentment. All of E.W., Don, and Jasper have been writing killer material for themselves during the time Sky Captains have been together and none of them mind - if it’s outside Rocket City, they don’t want it for the band anyway no matter how good it is.)

Although E.W. is the nominal front-man of the group, singing lead on most songs and also producing and engineering the album in his Bed-Stuy studio, the Sky Captains are actually a well-cultivated blend of the talents of every member of the band. Without any of of the people who play on the record or in the show, either one would be something different than (and less than) it is. Nobody operates as a traditional sideman. The band is not a democracy exactly, but if it’s a dictatorship, the dictator is the Rocket City concept. E.W. may be the guardian and originator of that concept, but every member of the band past and present has had a part in creating it. They didn’t find a magic potion to subsume their egos, but such is their dedication to making Rocket City properly (and here I use the present tense verb because, as E.W. told me, the recorded version isn’t the finished version - it’s just the recorded version) that losing arguments about lyrics or arrangements or vocal effects doesn’t hold the sting it otherwise would.

And what is the concept, exactly? Rocket City is, if we must genre-ize things, a work of science-fiction. A sci-fi concept album, I suppose. As I mentioned earlier, it eschews a narrative format, presenting itself instead (as Chris Michael, the announcer at the beginning of the title track, called it in his review) as “a series of vignettes” that explore the post-apocalyptic American landscape, the capitol of which is Rocket City. (Don’s extraordinary cover art for the album would have us believe Rocket City is New York, but I think that’s too easy.) I would make the argument that the album (and the band more generally) didn’t invent a fictional setting for their stories so much as they’re working in a parallel universe to our own. It’s beyond allegory, and more like magic realism. Robots, aliens, and rockets may be the backdrop, but the record shouldn’t be confused with escapism.

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E.W. thoroughly rejects the idea that Rocket City is any kind of philosophical allegory, but he agreed with me when I suggested the allegory might be political. Rocket City presents a dystopian vision, sure, but it’s one that is fundamentally optimistic - the opposite of Ayn Rand, if you’ll permit the easy comparison. Time and again, the tracks on the record reflect the spirit of the band itself - collective action to a greater accomplishment. For evidence of this, I’d point you to the “we” that gets into trouble in “Factory”, “Dog Eat Dog”, “Mermaid”, “The Rock Saved Us”, “The Cans”, and “Gone Fission” as well as the call for the audience to join the collective in “Rock & Roll Shoes.” We don’t find much at all - sorry, Ayn! - that suggests that any one can save the day. The songs have narrators, of course, so the group activities are presented through individual experiences. But the narrators and, through the “come on, climb aboard” invitation in “Rock & Roll Shoes”, also the band and we the listeners, have a consistent point to make: we’re all in this together.

(A quick parenthetical pseudo-paragraph in which I explain why I think “Rock & Roll Shoes” is the ultimate in this idea. It’s all right there in the hook - “it’s gonna save the rest of your heart”. Yes, you’re fucked up and broken and shitty things have happened to you, but if you come with us, man, we can at least keep you safe for the rest of it. Much of the beauty of rock and roll as a subculture is in that exact sentiment.)

Such is the attention to detail, and on content and form colliding in the most beautiful ways, that the triple lead vocal on the Don-penned “Factory” has a Rocket City-specific reason for being. (I assumed that it was a matter of just taking advantage of the band’s ample resources - if you’ve got four great singers, why not use them all?) E.W. concedes that Jasper phrases the first verse better than he used to, but also says that the three lead singers works as a sort of exposition for the story. If the album actually is about collectivity as expressed through individual narrators, what better way to show not tell that then to give us three narrators right up front. The lyrics may be all “I” and “my” but the fact of the three singers introduces us to the group from the get-go.

Speaking of attention to detail, I want to draw attention to the tracks “The Great Inland Sea”, “The Rock Saved Us”, and “It Matters” (the latter two featuring performances by guest-Captains Casey Black and Niall Connolly, respectively.) Spoken-word-over-sound-collage is an E.W. Harris production trope, especially on his 2010 solo album A Waste of Water and Time. “Supernova”, the first song on that record (which also featured in the earliest Sky Captains sets,) is (in his words) “a context experiment” in which members of a live audience read aloud whatever they happen to have with them (I’ve seen it done with novels, poetry, newspapers, it doesn’t matter) over the chords and the chorus of the song. The idea being, whichever words are read will change the meaning of the music (and the lyrics in the chorus) and simultaneously the music and lyrics will change the meaning of the text.

I’d argue that the three tracks mentioned above are proof that the experiment worked. While all of them serve the concept album purpose of tying together tracks and sounds to form a more cohesive whole, the content of “The Rock Saved Us” and “It Matters” fully support (maybe even explain in a way the live show doesn’t) the record’s theme. The mutant played by Casey in “The Rock Saved Us”, for example, interprets the motivation of cannibals in, well, in very un-Randian terms. “It Matters” is a beautiful Niall-penned poem with Phil’s kora playing behind it. “Nothing’s built to last…it matters how you are.” Here again, as in “Rock & Roll Shoes” and throughout, we have the twin ideas that things can be terrible and there can be destruction, but that we’re still responsible for being Good People. These three tracks, not songs, are also not interludes for the record or transitions between up-tempo and down-tempo. Not just that, anyway. They’re integral parts of the album - Rocket City is incomplete without them, both musically and theoretically.

As for the music, I realize I’m closing in on 3000 words here without ever talking about it. To be honest, I expect whoever’s gotten this far (hi, Don!) to know what it sounds like. The music, and here I’m repeating myself to the point of self-parody, reflects that same idea of collectivism and collaboration. Every band member is providing something singular - each song, like the album as a whole and the band as a concept, is less complete without any of its parts. The Sky Captains of Industry is made up of great musicians who write great songs, and that would be enough on its own insofar as a band of great musicians playing great songs is always something worth listening to. They haven't just done that, though. They’ve combined their influences and individual styles seamlessly in service of the idea. When the idea is that we all gotta work together to get through the shit, it’s not (I hope) too much to say that the way the band works is also a reflection of that point. So what does it sound like? I dunno. I think describing music in words is asinine. Here’s as close as I can get: Buddy Holly fronting a band of robots and hobos, but only if he’d learned to sing opera and also spent three years listening to nothing but Pixies and Radiohead. See? That’s bullshit, and it doesn’t explain anything. So I think I won’t bother.

What I’ll close with, then, is something E.W. said to me about “Gone Fission” and its place in Rocket City and Rocket City. “There’s no one thing that’s gonna solve everything,” he said, “I’m about to blow up. We’re trapped in this thing. We have to do something about it. Everybody has to do something about it.”


The Sky Captains of Industry will be playing a record release show at Mercury Lounge in New York, NY, January 27th at 8PM.

(photos and video: Roy Lewis)

Breaking "Genius Block" with the King of Ideas and the Weirdo Kid

Jen Hartry

There is the kind writer’s block that everyone knows about, and there is the other. The kind where you’ve got an idea for a song that's so good that you’re intimidated by it, or scared to write it because you don’t wanna write it wrong. Or you start thinking that it it’s such a brilliant idea that maybe it could never be written. Not by you at least.

I have such an idea. When it came to me I stopped in my tracks on a bitter cold and rainy night on some Williamsburg block, already late for a show, to sing the piece in my head into my phone. A simple chorus melody and a phrase. I’ve thought and thought about it, and played and played around with it, but nothing I do is good enough. The piece is still all I have. The voice memo is dated 8/15/12. 

Perhaps Jasper Lewis can help me out. If you’ve heard Jasper’s music you know, like I do, that he is a serious-ly good songwriter. But his writing and performing also have an enviable playfulness to them. I have had the thought while listening to Jasper play that he writes great songs because he somehow allows himself to write great songs; like he invites the great idea to dinner, and then instead of having an intense staring contest with it until it either relents or storms out of your house (which I am prone to doing), he serves the idea some jello and tells it a dirty joke. He seems to truly entertain an idea. Here, in Jasper’s words, is some insight into how he pulls it off:

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Keeping it real

One of the most challenging things for a songwriter is knowing what to do with a really good idea. I don’t mean a pretty good idea, like, “hey that lady in the coffeeshop used a funny colloquialism let’s write a song about it,” or “I’m sure mad at my girlfriend today.” I mean a really good idea like “this is the one, my hallelujah, my like a rolling stone, my rolling in the deep.” That kind of idea.

Now, the problem with these ideas is that they are just that, ideas, they aren’t things. A really good idea is not a really good thing. It’s just not. When faced with a really, truly great idea it’s easy to lose perspective and get jammed up. No matter how hard you try, and how many re-writes you perform, the thing will never be as good as the idea, or as Socrates once put it, “I’ll be back in five minutes bro, don’t rufie my hemlock.”

Ideas don’t exist though, and these sorts of really good ideas are a special kind of disruptive annoyance once you allow them to take hold. When faced with a really good idea the best thing to do is to turn it into a pretty good thing as quickly as possible. Get it over with. Here’s a few things to try next time you’re stumped by a really good idea.

a) Shoot yourself in the foot. Do you play guitar? Great. Write this one on the piano, or the kazoo, or without accompaniment. Write it without words.  Distract from the goodness of your idea with the badness of your playing. A little rough will make the diamond shine all the brighter.

b) Be obvious. Stop trying to be poetical and just say what you mean.  Blatantly and awkwardly, if necessary. A great example of this is the song You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told) by the White Stripes. Now that’s a really good idea. You can almost feel Jack White’s impatience as he waits and waits to get to the point.

c) Give yourself a deadline. The sooner the better. Have a great idea at work and finish writing it before you get home.  

d) Embrace your flaws. The details and mistakes that keep your thing from being as perfect as your idea are the details and mistakes that make you human. More than your great idea, they are the things that your audience will relate to. Don’t try to cover them up or you will just confuse people.

Until it’s finished, you won’t be able to think of anything better.

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Jasper Lewis is based in New York, and sometimes New Jersey. He’s just released a great new record, The King of Ideas and the Weirdo Kid, which you can sample and purchase here.

(Photo: Roy Lewis)

My Advice to Writers Who Give Advice to Writers

Jen Hartry

I read recently this article on The Atlantic’s site, in which the writer, Noah Berlatsky, excoriates author Jeffrey Eugenide’s advice to writers. In short,  Berlatsky says that Eugenide’s encouraging  young writers “to write as if they’re dead…without regard to popularity,” is “ just bad advice.” He closes the article with the advice to “write, in short, as if you are alive, both because the alternative is cramped and stupid, and because you don’t have any other choice.”

Spats of this kind feel silly to me, and I get the same kind of feeling from them that I get from reading about how Jonathan Franzen hates Twitter. What gets me is that these writers, especially Berlatsky, seem to assume that, one, there is one way of writing that works best for everyone, and two, that their audiences are helpless and mindless enough to choose permanently one way of writing over another because a published author said so.

When I was in high school my dad bought Jimmy Webb’s book, Tunesmith, for me, which contained advice and stories about his songwriting career (which, if you don’t know, included his writing Wichita Lineman, MacArthur Park and many other big hits). I was excited by the gift, because I was just starting to write songs, and with the gift my dad, a songwriter, was showing love and encouragement. I also felt like reading it would be a step toward being a greater writer. There were a few good tips in there, like never noodle around without recording it, and other practical stuff like that. But I remember turning a page and reading something very near to this: “The amateur songwriter’s greatest single failing and one that is immediately obvious to the listener is that the writer does not know exactly where the song is going.“ Thinking on it now, I suppose that maybe he meant that an amateur songwriter might call a song complete even though it meanders more that it should. Okay, I guess, but who’s to judge that? When I read it at sixteen, though, I didn’t read it like that. What I read was that I shouldn’t start a lyric without first knowing where the lyric was going. The sentence had quite an effect on me: I slammed the book shut, threw it across the room, and never opened it up again. It was total bullshit. Back then, I started every song of mine from word one and didn’t know where it was going. Today, especially when I write alone, I write that way about 85% of the time. Sure, I was and still am an amateur in some ways, but to Webb I guess–because I don’t write his way–I’m an amateur through and through. Bullshit!

I’ve written Eugenide’s and Berlatsky’s way, successfully. And I’ve written Webb’s way successfully, too. So perhaps everyone should write all three ways like me, right? After all, I have a record deal and was a professional staff songwriter for a while, so I am an AUTHORity, right. Of course not. There ain’t one way to write. There are many.

Please, fellow writers, do continue to talk about what works for you, because I for one find it very interesting. (And don’t I find it interesting because it’s different for so many people?) But quit saying that your way is the best and only way, because it’s condescending, and so obviously untrue.

Brief Interviews: Don Paris Schlotman

Jen Hartry

Brooklyn singer songwriter and instrumentalist, Don Paris Schlotman, answers my songwriter questionnaire: 

Outside of music, what or who has the greatest influence on your songwriting?

Reading books has probably been the largest influence, followed by movies or just things overheard from friends/strangers.

How do you name a song?

It just comes to me. Sometimes the title is just the obvious refrain, sometimes it’s a chance to explain the lyrics or set up the idea outside of the actual lyrics.

Generally, what are your lyrics about?

Weird shit like computers, monsters, ghosts, pirates, rockets, and hot lady cops. Inside the metaphor of that weird shit, they’re usually about heartbreak and other common human conditions and things like food, dancing, and opportunities to use puns.

Where do your songs come from?

It’s always different, but most of my songs begin life as a short line, phrase, or melody that gets stuck in my head while doing otherwise mundane tasks. By the time it gets to my guitar or bass, it’s usually quite different, something I am not sure I like or not.

What is the best analogy for the songwriting process, and, briefly, why? (My answer is a wrestling match, if that clears up the question.)

Dancing with the devil in the full moonlight. No wait. The zoo - everything is wrapped up in pretty cages and enclosures and people aren’t generally allowed inside. If they do get inside, they sometimes get eaten or mauled.

What is your songwriting pet peeve? (Or, what do you most frequently get annoyed with in other people’s songs?)

I don’t think I have any. I get annoyed by stupid lyrics I guess (see: “lonely is the night, when you find yourself alone”), but am pretty open minded about most things, sometimes even including stupid lyrics.  

Are there any songwriting rules you impose on yourself? If so, what are they?

Only to keep moving, like a shark so I don’t drown.

                            

Don Paris Schlotman’s latest solo record is Mother Transit Authority. Don is also a writer, performer (and record cover painter) for The Sky Captains of Industry, who just recently put out their debut record, entitled Rocket City. Listen to it here.

(Photo: Roy Lewis)

Wanna answer the questionnaire? Then do it. Then send things to me at caseyblackmusic@gmail.com

Ryan Morgan's Annual Torturefest

Jen Hartry

Ryan Morgan laments his aging, and pop music’s failure to age with him:

“Just finished my annual tradition of making myself listen to the Billboard Top 20 Songs of the year just ended. Summary: nobody writes verses any more, and I’m getting old, and pop music hasn’t changed much at all since 2004, both in terms of the way the songs sound and the actual people who are performing them.”

I try (kind of) hard to like pop music. My wife sings and dances to it in the car, and I wish I could do that. You’d have to be stupid not to recognize some of the great infectious little (actually, big) melodies in pop music. Why, some are beautiful like diamonds in the sky. But I agree with Ryan, verses are kaput.

I wrote a song called Radio Hit when I was a confused, religious, moral 20 year-old asshole. It was a genius piece of horribleness–a screed against “audio porn"–the "hit” in the title being the violent kind (get it??). It had a lyric that raged against “midriffs and their melodies,” which is hilarious now, as it’s cringe-worthy writing, and I quite like midriffs now that I don’t hate my own desires. Anyhow, there was one line in there that might be salvageable, in the bridge:

Thank you for teaching me a brand new meaning of pop/Pop, you’re gone

Which is to say, pop songs these days don’t feel like they’ll last. They ain’t timeless. Maybe ageless, but not timeless.

One, Two, Three to the Gut - Track 3

Jen Hartry

(For context, see previous posts One, Two, Three to the Gut, and One, Two, Three to the Gut - Track 2, in order.)

Ryan, I am trying to think of any act of violence outside of sport that has bettered the world, or raised us up in some way. War is the first thing to come to mind, as in something like a “good war,” where a bad man is defeated through violence because violence is the only way to defeat him. But even a “good war” is a war, and no side gets out clean. Some bad man throws the first punch and draws us down, even if necessarily, to his level. Dehumanization is what you’d call it I guess. And we don’t celebrate the death, violence, and animal behavior that comes with war when it’s over: We celebrate the survival of our value system, the victory or our way of civilization over the others’.

You ask if I would really go back and hit these people. For Marcus, at the football field, and for the gay-bashers in the movie parking lot, I suppose the answer is actually No, I wouldn’t. I thought about your saying that there is some desire in you “to see bad people hurt,” but you recognize that “it is, at heart, a deeply uncivilized notion.” I have, when it comes down to it, very little desire to see bad people hurt. Even the baddest people, say, your Saddam Husseins and Muammar Gaddafis–some part of me did want them to suffer the violence and death they inflicted on others, then another part of me saw them getting hung or beaten to death and didn’t feel okay about it. I have even less desire to to see bad people hurt by me, especially when violence hasn’t been introduced into the situation. Neither Marcus nor the assholes in the parking lot threatened or introduced violence, so maybe my introduction of it would have symbolized a few steps backward, away from civility. And now that you’ve really got me thinking about it, Marcus seems like some sort of hero for civilization, some sort of teacher. After all, he did in fact think I’d called him nigger, so if any violence was called for it would have been his to mete out. But he said only, “I know you want to hit me.” He didn’t challenge me or provoke me, just told me how I felt, and correctly. With the group gathered around he could have been a science teacher, using me as an example of how a Homo sapien will bare its teeth not only when its corporal safety is challenged, but when its sense of justice is challenged. Had I hit Marcus (who had a big fat gut just like so many statues of a certain other teacher…) it would have been sad, unreasonable and less than civilized.

I can’t tell you if I’d hit Ben or not. I go back and forth. He did hit me after all, and I’d like to think I can (and would) defend myself without relying on authorities or alternative justice if I need to. (Of course, retreat was actually the best defense in terms of my physical safety, as it resulted in no more physical injury.) Had I hit him, I guess it would have done little good, save for allowing me to preserve some playground dignity. I’m sure that I’d have been disappointed in whatever punishment the teacher gave anyway, because, well, I’d say he hit me first (just like Hitler!) and she wouldn’t care. With or without Ben the revelation of subjective justice through my teacher would have inevitably come from someone else, and probably soon. I don’t know about Ben. 

And so I guess one could ask (one being the number of people who read things on this blog): Why in the hell would I write that I’d go back and punch them if I wouldn’t? Because when I wrote it it felt true. And even when I posted it it felt true.  Your point that “art may just be the best place to put that shit” is taken. Because I edited that post like crazy, and I rewrote it a number of times over a couple of weeks. (I didn’t, say, just punch it out.) All that work wasn’t done because I was looking to get the facts straight. It was done because I wanted it to read cleanly, and because I wanted it to express the thing I was feeling, which was a rage at all the things I’d never expressed, and a frustration with myself for not expressing more today. (The reason I started a blog was to get myself to write more, and express more.) When it did feel right, I posted it. In other words, it had become a piece of art for me, and the process had been almost identical to my songwriting process, and so I labeled the paragraphs like they were parts of a song. 

It’s pretty ridiculous. When I was writing that I admired people who’d been in bar fights, I was thinking of people like Norman Mailer, who was known for that kinda thing. That’s what I was thinking, that he was known for that kind of thing. But he wasn’t known at all for that kind of thing. He was known because he was a writer, and the fact that he may have fought in bars makes him, I dunno, more interesting. But people who only get in bar fights aren’t interesting. Hell, I guess I wouldn’t think of you as being interesting (actually, I guess I wouldn’t even know you) if you were just a dude who’d smashed some guitars. But the fact that you’ve smashed guitars is interesting now that you’ve have used guitars to write the kind of songs you write. I guess the whole thing comes down to my admiring expression and the people who express. But you’re right. Though punching is a kind of expression, it’s dumber than art. Violence only leads to more violence, or a temporary end to violence. Violence leads to maintenance of a status quo or a degradation of it. It makes me think of other dudes we’ve talked about outside (the appropriately named) Path Cafe, like James Baldwin and Paulo Freire. Now those were two dudes who had every reason to resort to violence. But they both wrote instead of punching, and they wrote warnings to other groups of people, who also had every reason to use violence against their oppressors, and they said, in essence, don’t throw the punch, for if you do, you adopt the practices of your oppressors and eventually, perhaps, become the oppressors yourselves. Had they thrown punches, I s'pose I’d have never taken their point, or been fired up by the way they think, or talked about them outside Path. 

I think I may have not really addressed all the good stuff you mentioned in your response, and instead focused on (or got distracted by) your question of whether or not I’d really go back and hit those guys. All the same, I think you’re right. I wouldn’t punch them, and I shouldn’t. I appreciate your making me think about it. 

One, Two, Three to the Gut - Track 2

Jen Hartry

My pal and fellow songwriter, Ryan Morgan, sent a thoughtful response to my last post. I know Ryan from the Big City Folk scene in New York. He is a great songwriter (and conversationalist). You can, and should, listen to his music here.

He writes:

The thing is, your memories of when you wish you could go back and be violent are all in response to some injustice or another - arbitrariness on the playground, mistaken identity at the football game, homophobia in the parking lot. And in all cases, you’re in effect being targeted for something that isn’t your fault. So the rage is, in a sense, just. At least a response to injustice.

It’s an interesting venue for something like anger and violence, which are normally so visceral and instinctive. I’m thinking of violence as catharsis. Or as defensiveness. Or, anyway, as something less pure than what you’re describing. We are, after all, talking about hurting someone. You’re talking about hurting people who deserve it, like a vigilante, once principles or authority have refused to dole out appropriate punishment. I find that really interesting, because it’s an appropriation of a very carnal desire to what is in effect a very civilized end. Like the death penalty, or drone attacks.

Do you really wish you would have hit those people? The offender in the second story is the kid who really did say nigger and then slunk from your side when you were falsely accused. Shouldn’t he, rather than the black kid who knocked you out of the air, be the target of your nostalgic fury?

Anyway, when I was younger, I used to punch holes in walls, and I smashed the first three guitars I owned to bits. As an adult, I took on the habit of shooting handguns at paper targets, but it was always more for sport than catharsis. Still, yes, I think there is in me some desire to see bad people hurt. But I recognize that it is, at heart, a deeply uncivilized notion. Art may just be the best place to put that shit.

One, Two, Three to the Gut

Jen Hartry

First Verse

My friend Ben punched me in the stomach on the playground. We were in kindergarten. It didn’t really hurt that bad, but it shocked the hell out of me. I’d never been punched before and I couldn’t comprehend the violence. I remember I flamed up in anger, but before I could react with that anger I started crying, and the anger came back toward myself, as outwardly I was then a boy who was crying in front of everyone and that was a bad thing to be. Next thing I knew I was running to the teacher on playground duty, feeling ashamed as I did, but feeling that I had to use those tears somehow. When I told the teacher what happened, she said, “For the rest of recess you stay on that side of the playground and Ben will stay on that side of the playground.” My mouth fell open. I was a kid with a deep moral code and I expected the adult judge to enforce the code. But she was punishing us both, and Ben was getting the better half of the playground. Maybe I deserved it for being such a wimp and tattle tale, but it was a sick moment. There was the introduction to violence followed quickly by the realization that justice means different things for different people. I guess I felt I was better than punching, that we all should be. I am not better than punching now. If I could go back in time I would go to that playground and punch Ben as hard as I can.

Second Verse

When I was 12, I went to high school football game with my friend Nate. Our favorite thing to do at the games was to stand behind the goal posts and try to catch the ball after a field goal attempt. That night there were about 25 other kids back there and they were mostly older than us, so our chances of catching the ball were low. Still, a field goal was kicked, the ball went long, and I was fast, so I was able to sprint back and get to it. When I saw that it was going to bounce I dove, and in the middle of the dive I was knocked out of the air by a huge black dude, who ended up with the ball. As he walked triumphantly toward the end zone to throw the ball back to the ref, Nate, who had seen the mid-air knock, lifted his head toward the guy, and, under his breath said to me, “Nigger.” But he hadn’t said it quiet enough. A dude close by turned and said, “What you say?” But he wasn’t looking at Nate, he was looking at me. 

“I didn’t say anything,” I said, and I felt good and moral because I was telling the truth. “You said nigger,” he said, and then he turned to the guy who’d caught the ball, who was now walking back from the fence, and he said, “Marcus, this guy right here called you a nigger!” “No I didn’t!” I said. I turned to Nate and he was just looking at the ground. Marcus walked up to me. He was a foot taller than I was, had a big ole gut, and his head was shaved. His head was steaming, too. I could see it in the stadium lights, hot smoke from his sweaty skull floating up into the cold air. He came within a foot of me and stopped as his friends gathered round. “You call me a nigger?” he said. “No,” I said. “I heard it, man!” said his friend. “I didn’t.” I said. “You calling me a liar?” the friend said. “No,” I said. “Well what you wanna do?” Marcus said to me. He was staring down into my eyes and I looked right back at him. And I balled up my fists just in case. “You wanna hit me?” said Marcus, “I know you wanna hit me!” I let my eyes travel from his face to his big fat gut, right there in reach, and I did want to hit him. I wanted it bad. Here again was a failure of justice, a betrayal of a friend, and anger, and I wanted to punch his fat stomach and make my fist go through. “You wanna hit me?” he repeated. I looked at him one last time, squeezed my fists, tensed my arms, and . . I walked away. Behind my back the kids called me names and laughed as I retreated, Nate in tow. I walked behind the bleachers where nobody could see me, and I cried. Nate looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Why are you crying?” “I don’t know,” I said. If I could go back I would punch Marcus in the stomach, and after I was done getting my ass kicked by all of his friends I’d find Nate, who would no doubt have fled, and I’d punch him too. 

Third Verse

I was walking to my car in the movie theatre parking lot, 16 years old, when I heard a voice yell out, “Hey, faggot!” I made the mistake of turning to see the speaker, a slightly older dude who had two friends with him, and I realized he was talking to me. He was maybe 20 yards away. “Are you gay?” he asked me, in a kind of evil way. I took a second to think of what to say. And incredibly, I said, “Yeah, I’m gay.” I wasn’t gay then, and I’m not gay now–I didn’t even know a gay person then–but I said, “Yeah. I’m gay.” The guy opened his eyes real wide and laughed, and his friends laughed, too. I balled up my fists at my sides, ready for a fight, and they started walking toward me. But I changed my mind and walked as quickly but cooly to my car as I could. The car was close by and I got in, started the engine fast, and pulled away. As I waited to turn out of the parking lot onto the street the dudes pulled up to me and the driver, the same kid who’d asked me if I was gay, rolled down his window. He puckered his lips and smacked them in this sick way. “Hey faggot, you want a kiss? You want a blowjob? Lips are lips, right?” His friends laughed hard, and I pulled out onto the street. 

I didn’t and I don’t know why I told them I was gay. It makes no sense. It was a lie and it put me in danger. The only sense I can make of it is: Those kids were being jerks, to me, and well, to gay people, and this pissed me off. So, in the moment I must have made a heroic and stupid decision to represent all gay people. It’s as if my full reply was, “Yes, I’m gay, and what’s wrong with that?” Moreover, it must have been that saying No, in my mind, would have been to somehow ally myself with the homophobes, like, “No, dudes, I’m cool just like you guys are.” Saying No could have also made me look like a liar to them, like they’d made their minds up that I was gay, and that my denying it would have made me a coward. I guess I stood up to them a little bit in that way. But if I could go back, stupid as it would be and for whatever stupid reason, I would fight them.

Chorus

There are phases I go through when I feel something pent up, and I joke around that I want to go out and get into a fight. Once or twice when I lived near a not-so-nice place in Brooklyn I walked late at night into those streets to tempt fate. But nothing ever happened. Sick or not, I admire my friends who fought with their brothers when they were younger and people who have been in bar fights. The reason why is I’d like to know how it feels. Meaning, I’d like to know how it feels, less the punch and more the expression, and the close connection to another human. I guess I’m not a violent person. Violence scares me and baffles me. But I’m terrible at raw expression in real life, and I wish I weren’t: I admire people whose nervous systems have less inhibitors than mine. So I write a lot of songs with a narrator who knows his mind and speaks it, and about characters who say and do bold things out of hurt and anger. Because, to my chagrin, I have rarely been able to. The only place I’ve ever been able to throw a punch is in a song.

Jen Hartry

A new song, Museum Made of Glass, and an explanation.

I wrote this song after watching all of Twin Peaks in three or four sittings. The initial push to pick up my guitar came from my admiration for Agent Cooper’s unselfconscious trust in the power of his own dreams to reveal truths. Dreams have always been interesting to me on a psychological and even neurological and evolutionary level, but I also share the feeling of many that dreams are only really interesting if they’re your own. In other words, hearing about other people’s dreams is usually extremely boring. So the question I had when I started writing a song about a dream of mine was whether setting a dream narration to music would make the narration at least bearable, and at the optimistic most, interesting. The first and second verses, which are the dream verses, went through a few versions. It started feeling a lot better to me once I eliminated any mention of the narrative as a dream at all, which was something I may have picked up in creative writing classes at Columbia, where there was a lot of talk about giving realistic scenes a dream-like treatment, or dreamy scenes an entirely realistic treatment. But the verses are indeed a telling of one of the worst dreams I’ve ever had, which I dreamed more than ten years ago, but still remembered in detail. I have one or two vague interpretations of the dream, which I’d included in earlier drafts, but I decided to leave them out and stick to the story.

I finished those verses and the refrain in a day or two, but then I was stuck for a couple months. I was excited enough about the fragment that I played it out at Ceol and Path Cafe in New York by itself, and I got a lot of good feedback. (I sure do miss my circle of smart and attentive songwriting pals in New York.) But it wasn’t til I flew out to LA to start recording my new record that the thing got finished. My first night there I was getting all kinds of drunk with my friends and CatBeach Music owners Bob and Jen Hartry, and I played the fragment to see what they thought. They seemed excited about it and encouraged me to finish it. But I was stuck as stuck could be. Having started the song with a grand apocalyptic scene, where in the hell could a third and final verse go? One thought I had was to write about the most boring, quotidian scene imaginable. For example, I am trying to get a loan at a bank, and I have to fill out all these papers, and the loan officer is using all these big words… This seemed interesting to me, because then the listener could make all kinds of inferences as to how the apocalyptic scene informed the everyday scene. But my problem was that 1- I didn’t know the connection myself, and 2- I didn’t think anyone would wanna sit through a song about a loan application. So I decided that if the first verses were about the most horrible images I’d ever imagined personally, then maybe the last verse should be about one of the most horrible images we’d all shared collectively in hard reality. For me, one such image was of the people in the towers on 9/11 who’d had to jump to their deaths to avoid being burned or suffocated to death. I had some conversations with Bob and Jen at the studio about this, and it seemed important to me. I’d never written about 9/11 before, and I felt like I should. I struggled over the verse during breaks at the studio, and when I I finished it Bob pressed record.

The problem still remains for me as to what the two parts really have to do with each other. But this sort of excites me, to have written a song that was, in a way, a little ahead of my own understanding. That way, the more I play it the more I can understand it bit by bit, hopefully. There are a few things I think you’ll find about this song, if you care to at all, that exemplify a few new general songwriting things I’ve endeavored to do in many of the songs on my upcoming record. I mention it just because I feel like I’m growing a bit as a writer, and that’s always good. One of these things is the use of an image or images to tie thematic threads throughout a whole song. Meaning, an image or theme I bring up early on appears throughout the song as a sort of foundation. In this song, reflection of all kinds is the theme, and so you have many images of reflection. I don’t know whether giving so much info about a song will enhance or take away from your listening–maybe you could let me know either way–but that’s what this song is about and how it came to be. And this is a video of me playing it in my back yard.

My Five Favorite Songs

Jen Hartry

The fine Irish website wearenoise.com asked me to say some things about my five favorite songs. I was happy to go on and on about my choices. You can read it here. I’ll be playing the Gealach Gorm Singer Songwriter Festival in the village of Kill in County Waterford Ireland in April, and I’m very excited about it.

Buskin' in Lyon and New York

Jen Hartry


The first time I went out to busk I was nervous as hell. I don’t know why. I stood across the street from the spot I’d picked smoking and shaking a little bit. Maybe it was because it was in Lyon, France, and if I got in trouble I’d not be able to understand the consequences. Maybe it was because the street was simply a new kind of stage, which I had no experience with. Maybe, and probably, it was that I was about to cross a line between classes of performers. I don’t know if that was really on my mind at that moment, but I bet it was there somewhere. On my side of the street I was a serious singer songwriter and performer. On the other side I’d be a street performer, a skilled bum, a beggar.

But Molly and I were broke. All her savings were tied up in a Frencheaucratic rent-guarantee account, and her teaching gig wasn’t paying well. As for me, I couldn’t get myself a legal job and I wasn’t having any luck getting gigs. And we needed dinner money. The only way we could figure on getting it was my busking. So I stood there smoking and shaking looking at my spot and I wrestled with myself. It seems stupid now. And it seemed stupid, and naive, to me then, too. A lot of my friends and favorite songwriters had busked, still busk. They've  always spoken of it matter-of-factly, without any mention of having stooped, or of prostituting themselves. So how come I had such a gross and high-and-mighty feeling about it? How come I was thinking about it like some sort of rite of passage that would lead me to some lesser place?

I walked across the street and stood in my spot for a minute. It was a good spot. On a pedestrian street, it was a little raised platform around a small tree. I could stand up on the platform like it was a stage and open up my guitar case in front of me. The nearest beggar was a woman sitting cross-legged on the ground covered in gown and veil. She was a block down the way, so I wouldn’t be competing with her, and there was plenty of room in front of and behind me, so I wasn’t in anyone’s way or in anyone’s face. There was little street noise, and the street I was on was filled with classy shows and restaurants, so the people walking through would be richer than I was. I pulled my guitar out, strapped it on, seeded my case with a few euros, and began to play.

“I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told.” The well-dressed people of Lyon walked by. The first thing I noticed was that my voice was nervous and thin, and such a voice was not going to draw much attention, which meant I wasn’t going to get much dinner money. Obviously there was no mic and PA. This was not a stage, it was a city street, and so I was going to have to project. And so when the second verse rolled around I dug the pick into my strings and belted it out: “When I left my home and my family I was no more than a boy!” And people’s heads began to turn, and someone dropped a euro in my case and winked at me. And you know, I know it sounds stupid, but that euro drop and that wink gave me a little rush. I have been paid for shows; people have bought my records; and hell, I had had a deal in Nashville where I got paid every two weeks to write songs. But something about that man stopping what he was doing and digging out a coin for me was better. It was fast and direct–immediate. To me, it was as if the dude was saying, Thank you for improving my walk. Or maybe he was saying, I think you’re pretty good. I dunno. Maybe he felt sorry for me. But it felt damn good. And when more people started tossing in ten-cent pieces and dollars, it felt like a pretty good job to have. When I got back to our little apartment a couple of hours later (after my voice was shot) Molly asked how much money I’d made. I said I didn’t know yet, but my guitar case was heavy with all the coins. We counted it together and there was about twenty euro there. We’d be pissing off the cashier in the grocery store with all that change, but we were gonna eat.

That night I was sort of high on the experience. I wondered if there was another trade like this one, where you could think to yourself, I need dinner money, then go out to the street and two hours later have yourself some dinner money. Could a doctor or a lawyer do that? Could an accountant or mechanic? A graphic designer or a retail worker? No. But a busker could. I could.

The next day my buzz was killed in the first few lines I sang. I started with The Boxer again, and just as I sang the first lines I heard a loud and painful moan come from somewhere nearby. I continued on, and then the terrible sound came again. It was loud and painful but it also sounded angry. I looked around as I sang until I spotted a dirty bearded man sitting on the sidewalk in the shadow of the awning of the movie theatre across the street. He had a hat out in front of him, and he was looking straight at me while he moaned. It dawned on me that he was trying to ruin my song: He was trying to tell me to get the hell off his turf. Well, if I was the reason for his yelling I didn’t want to continue on, as I wasn’t there to stir anything up or to annoy people. So I stopped before I hit the chorus, and sure enough the man stopped yelling. I put my guitar in my case and wandered off to look for another spot.

While I walked away I was amused and angry. I was amused because I, Casey Black, Mr. Serious Artist, was now competing for space on the street with bums, and instead of feeling humiliated by it I thought it was funny. One of those moments when you look at your life from the bird’s eye and think, Umm, how did I get here? I was amused because, hell, I’d been sitting on my butt for a couple months while Molly went to work, and the challenges of my workplace were refreshing and stimulating. I started thinking about turf and strategy and the rules of the street. Did I do the right thing in yielding the old moaner? I had packed it in because he was causing a scene, but also because I’d had the quick notion that maybe that place was the guy’s regular spot. Maybe the guy had been bumming there for years, and then along comes Mr. American Mustache Singer trying to drain the change out of his hat… I left out of respect. But then that’s the thought that made me angry. Sure, the guy had (maybe) seniority, but what the hell was he doing? I was providing entertainment. I was performing some sort of service for the passers by: What was he doing? He was just a bum. I was a bum with a skill!

There were plenty of checks and balances out there for my self-righteousness. Teenagers could be pretty mean. I was playing my new cover of Billy Jean when one tough lookin’ teenage dude walked right up to me and put his face an inch away from mine. He just stood there staring right into my eyes, expressionless, as his friends pointed and laughed. I figured that if I quit playing I’d be surrendering to him somehow, and so I continued singing, and looked him right back in the eyeballs. And when he didn’t move I raised my eyebrows and smiled at him. He backed off and walked away laughing. The same day I was playing Help! (which is a very appropriate, if not desperate, busking song, I think) when another French-olescent passed by yelling something French and angry at me. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he held his pinky up for me to see, measuring it with the thumb and pointer of his other hand, and then pointed to my groin area. After awhile there was a group of teenage girls who’d stroll up, after they got out of school I guess. They’d always ask me to play Hit Me Baby One More Time, which I’d learned in order to have myself a funny number. I would oblige, and they could crowd up on me and sing along, and then leave without thinking it appropriate to throw me a nickel. They were okay, though: They made me laugh.


I never saw the old moaner again, so I suppose I had been wrong about being on his turf, but out on one of my last busks I did get pressured by another bum to move on down the street. I was trying a new spot when this guy, in his twenties with dirty dreads, waited until I finished a song and then said, in English, “Hey, man, we were wondering if you might move down a block. We’re set up right over there.” I looked over to where he was pointing and saw a woman, also in her twenties with dirty dreads, sitting on a blanket with two dogs and a hat for change. Again, I obliged, but again as I walked away I felt that amused self-righteousness, and I thought, But they’re not doing anything for the money! As it got warmer, more people came out and started doing things for the money. I eventually got pushed out of my spot by a breakdancer who’d bring a huge boombox and crank it up, only about twenty feet away from where I was playing. I was pissed, but when he started getting large crowds I relented. Fair enough.

Yet the benefits and joys of busking far outweigh the crap. Almost every time I went out I’d have small kids dancing. As they passed they’d sorta start to jig, and their parents would look up at me like they’d hit the jackpot and they’d just stand there, taking a break, while their kid rocked out. Usually when this happened a parent would eventually dig into his or her pocket and hand the child a euro. At which point the child would become confused and the parent had to sort of push the child up to my guitar case and tell them to drop the coin. I remember one time a little girl walked up all cute-like with her euro and instead of dropping it she bent down and started taking the money out of my case. I tried, as I sang, to smile and make light of it. The embarrassed parents rushed over and corrected the situation. Of course, there were adult fans, too. One I remember most fondly strolled along way across the street on one of my first days out. I was belting out Like A Rolling Stone and this lady stopped dead and turned to me. She sang every lyric along with me and when I was done she crossed over, said merci and dumped all the change in her change purse into my case.

The greatest benefits of busking have been the changes it has brought to my style and philosophy of performance. I don’t know why, but some time bout ten or twelve years ago I became very anti-“performance.” I’d become very cynical about a “show.” To me, what has always been most important is the quality of a song, especially the lyric. A performer’s duty, therefore, my duty was to perform the song in a way that would draw little or no attention to myself, but instead focus all attention on the song. This meant no over-emoting, no ridiculous Aguilera-runs (not that I am capable of them), no crazy dancing. My goal for so long had been to be the same Casey onstage as I was offstage, to be as ‘natural’ as possible. I called it the Naturalistic Philosophy of Performance. But such a philosophy wasn’t going to make me any money on the street, where a performer needs to draw attention. For who in the hell wants to hear a stranger quietly singing to himself on the side of the street? And why should anyone give money to a guy who appears to be trying his best not to put on any kind of show?

So, out on my first day of busking, between the first and second verse of The Boxer, not only did I decide that I needed to project, but I started to put on a damn show. In the next few days I loosened up. I moved around, stomping and twisting: I went for the high notes, and maybe did a run or two, the best I knew how. I dug into those strings. After a week my range and endurance had improved, and I was doing things with my voice I’d never been able to do. And much to the chagrin of my purist past self I found that I was actually having fun performing, perhaps for the first time since I was an unselfconscious teenager playing in metal bands. I started thinking what a complete waste and sham my former philosophy had been. A waste because it had prevented a lot of fun from occurring over the last decade, and a sham because there had been nothing ‘natural’ about those rules of performance. What is most natural at any time, on any occasion, not just in performance, is to act in congruence with your feelings and desires. To stomp and twist is natural, if that is what I am moved to do. To prevent myself from doing so when I am moved to do it is in fact unnatural, is dogma. Moreover, one can’t really be the same onstage (or on the street) as off, and maybe one shouldn’t try to be. In a way it is impossible to be natural on a stage. You’re on a raised platform, making you taller than you naturally are. There are lights (sometimes) shining on you, making you brighter than you actually are, and you can’t see the audience. There is amplification (sometimes) that makes you louder than you naturally are. Lastly, you do things on stage that you don’t do off (like singing and or dancing or acting for two hours straight). And so it is ridiculous to try and bring offstage nature on stage.

A week ago I busked in New York for the first time, and I did it a second time late last Thursday night. It’s been a couple of years now since Lyon, and sure, I am broke as ever, but I’ve also been having the urge to get out there and dig in and get some dollars tossed at me. I brushed up on the ole Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel songs that had served me well and I rode the subways looking for a good spot. West 4th was full of performers and the 14th St and Bedford L stops had too much train noise. Giving up I went to the N, Q, R platform to get my train home and there was a group of drummers sitting in a sweet spot looking like they had just been busking. I stood there and watched them as a few trains went by, until finally one of the guys doled out the earnings and they left. It must have been ninety degrees down there, and closing in on 11PM. I was tired and excited, and I don’t know why, but I was nervous again. I stood there staring at my spot, such a golden spot(!), trying to get my nerves up. A couple moved into the spot and my heart sank, but they weren’t there to perform, just to kiss, but still they gave me a reason to procrastinate even longer. Until finally their Q came (which was my Q too?) and I moved into the spot, threw my case open, seeded it with a few dollars and quarters, then began a-stomping my foot and playing, “I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told!” I made three bucks before the next train pulled in.

 

Busking is hard, and the money ain’t usually good for a solo singer songwriter. But it’s good-feeling money. A good fistful of dollars for singing and sweating. And sure it’s done a lot for me, but by writing about it I ain’t calling myself a veteran, or even a skilled busker. I was talking to amazing singer songwriter and pal Warren Malone about it the other day, and he said he busked for fifteen years in England, which is where he’s from. Fifteen damn years! I’m hoping to interview him about that and post it up, as I’m sure the guy has better stories than I do.

 

Yesterday, the Beginning of the New Record

Jen Hartry

Bobby, my friend and producer, drove us up to CatBeach Studios in San Pedro at 10:30AM to meet the engineer, Paul, to help him set up before the musicians arrived. While they were busy setting up mics and running cables, and speaking the language of engineers that I only know a few words of, I picked up one of Bobby’s many guitars and started strumming through a song of mine called Flowers, which, in my opinion, needed some major musical changes before it was committed to a recording. There was this chord in the chorus that has recently started sounding wrong to me. No, ‘wrong’ is the wrong word. The chord sounded completely stupid to me. It was a passing sorta chord, but the problem with it was that it wasn’t passing. Instead, it was calling out, “Look at me! I am an interesting chord choice! I am here to show you that the person who put me here is a master songwriter and player, capable of putting super-right-out-the-box chords right there in the box!” The chord needed to be dealt with because it was calling attention away from the flow of my lyric, which, in my tunes, is always the boss. So I changed the ole chord up to my satisfaction. Inspired, I then decided I’d lop off the last line of the chorus, as it was just way too clever. I have a problem with clever lyrics. You know the sort. The sort that, like that chord I murdered, call out to the listener saying, “Look at me! I’m a lyric that proves how clever the writer is!” When I hear these lyrics in other peoples’ songs it yanks me right out of the listening experience: I picture the writer as his or her desk, or on the bus with his or her notepad, writing the line down excitedly and then looking up all smug-like to see if anyone nearby somehow, perhaps through something quantum, picked up on just how damn clever he or she is. I hate those lines. In my case, the clever line was a summation of the song’s message. It told the listener exactly what the song is about, and that is sometimes cool, I guess, but in this case it was pure crap. If the listener can’t get the message without my explaining it then either I’ve written the song badly, the listener is an idiot, or I’m writing a country song… 

When the song was changed to my satisfaction I found I had nothing to do other than sit around and wait for the musicians to arrive, so with a little bit of anxiety, which was a result of my nervousness for the big day of recording, I walked outside, sat down, and flipped open Ellison’s Invisible Man, which I’d just bought, honestly, because I couldn’t get into Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. And the prologue was was a good thing to read before a recording session. In it, if you haven’t read it, the narrator talks about an experience he’d had while listening to a Louis Armstrong record after having smoked weed on accident. (“Some jokers” had given it to him when he asked for a cigarette.) He says, “That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered and looked around…

OF COURSE, Ellison was not writing this passage to inspire songwriters, but given my situation I looked up from the book and I was charged up, and in my charge, I realized that I had been uncharged up to that point, and I realized how very bad that was. First of all, here was the literal situation: I was in LA on the label’s dime: They’d flown me out here. And I was there because of the songs I’d written, and because the label believed they could record them, make profit from them, and share them with a wider audience. I was there because I’d written songs. And I was there waiting on the musicians to arrive, musicians who’d spend their whole Sunday playing my songs. So, in short, here was going to be a whole day spent concentrating, and descending into the things I’d written. I know this happens every day in artistic fields, but I also know that the every-dayness can wear away at just how great and weird and special the whole thing is. And so I began to get excited about the situation. And hell, I began to be excited that maybe someone would soon be having their own reefer visions as a result of the songs. I paced a lot for about an hour then. I changed another line in another song. Then the musicians arrived.

Aaron Sterling is one of my best friends. I’ve known him since elementary school. He’s also a drummer. He came in and, after catching up, Paul pressed record on the first song and Aaron began to play. You can call it descent, but it feels much more like ascent when a good musician starts playing parts on your song. I feel bad at those moments for everyone who isn’t a musician, cause they’re moments of hope and beauty they are. I ain’t gonna go on about it, because in a way I want it to be mine and not yours. But the moment continued on throughout the day. And roundabout 12 hours after arriving, under Bobby’s guidance, we had ourselves the foundation of a record, shored up with Jonathan Ahrens’ sturdy and sharp bass playing. My new record, which is so pleasant to say, is well under way.