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On Ancient History, Nickel Creek, and the Sometimes Necessary Genrefication of Music

Nickel CreekOriginally written for No Depression

One of the oldest human possessions ever found is a flute. I’m talking somewhere in the area of 50,000 years ago, someone sat or squatted – presumably on the ground – playing a flute. The fact that these old flutes exist indicates the presence of music is much older. It would have to be in order for people to get good enough at flute-making as to fashion an instrument that would be so durable.

But, think about the implications here. You can’t run from a predator when you’re playing a flute. You can’t even be scared for very long. The instrument requires the employment of both hands; it requires the very careful control of breath. Playing the flute means you’re sitting or standing in one place, vulnerable, on purpose.

Ancient humans may have used these instruments to communicate beyond the reach of the human voice – a way in which we still employ music. Or, they may have simply been entertaining each other. Regardless, this thing we do with both our hands and all of our breath, where we organize our sloppiest, most unweildy emotions into something that feels beautiful to other people, is something we’ve been doing in order to keep our communities intact, calm and collected, for at least tens of thousands of years.

Here in America, there are songs that people have sung for two hundred years. We posture about no clear American culture, but the earliest Americans – voluntary and forced immigrants from Europe and Africa, mostly – created songs that they taught to one person at a time, face to face, for decades, and we now have these songs ingrained in our culture. When we started making recordings for sale and profit, we started calling those old songs “folk music”. Some practitioners started making new songs that used the same musical forms and rhyme schemes, borrowed some melodies and even some lyrics. What those people did was called “folk music” too. And so on, all the way up to today, where “folk music” refers to both of those things, and pretty much everything in between. (Despite what some hard-core traditionalist enthusiasts insist.)

Other styles of music emerged, first organically – people who play instruments got together in a room somewhere and just improvised for shits and giggles. Then they wrote one song in the style of another and so on, until people started craving that certain rhythm or sound, seeking out bands that employ trumpets or saxophones, electric guitars or pedal steel, or hard-hitting drummers. That’s how jazz happened, and rock and roll, country, and metal.

Speaking of which, have you heard the new Nickel Creek album? It’s streaming at NPR this week. It’s a doozy, packed with all the exceptional musicality for which that trio became famous in the first place. There are galloping mandolin arpeggios from Chris Thile – inarguably one of the most talented mandolinists on the planet. There are three-part harmonies – supported by that magical siblings-singing-together quality – that feel like waves just begun in the middle of a vast ocean. The songs follow those waves all the way to shore, where onlookers finally see the full force of what began far away, as it breaks on an eager bed of sand. There are quiet and delicate moments, balanced on the whisper-tinged, deceptive softness of Sara Watkin’s adept voice. And, there are moments when you wonder how hard rock ever got away with leaning on the crutch of electric instruments – clearly that style was meant to be physicaly pounded out, against the forgiving wood of an acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.

What’s more, there are lyrics that hint at everything from bottled-up anger to resignation and hope. For a trio of 30-somethings who have been performing together since they were eight and eleven years old, A Dotted Linerepresents – as its title suggests – a humanly broken but always persistent, ongoing journey in some unspecified direction. It’s life. It’s stirring and profound. And, for the 37 minutes and 48 seconds that this album spins, if I just close my eyes, I could care less into what category it fits. The music is there and I am there, and it’s amazing that complete strangers can have such a deep conversation as this, understanding each other’s crippling fear and uncompromising hope, without even looking into each other’s eyes, just through the magic of modern technology and recorded sound. I know, because of the music, that my heartbreak and hope and uncertainty and mortality are shared by everyone else listening to this same record. I am relieved. I am energized.

There’s a reason for this – a reason I reckon Thile and the Watkins siblings understand.

There have been studies with sound waves and water, how the sound of an instrument or even a human voice, amplified, can literally create waves. It can move the water, make the water dance. An adult human being is more than 50 percent water. It doesn’t take a genius to put those two facts together and determine what music does to us. It moves us, literally.

In that moment, listening to the Nickel Creek record on speakers or headphones, in the moment, as a listener, I don’t care from what tradition this all comes. I’m moved. I don’t care what category it fits into at the record store. I forget that iTunes has it listed as “Country & Western” (really?) and that the band came from bluegrass and dabbled in folk, jazz, and classical; that its members have publicly espoused the absurdity of musical genres altogether, claiming they don’t matter in the least. It’s true that listening to music is often more about hearing and feeling, then moving on, ever-so-slightly changed.

But, in the practice of writing about music, thinking about music, coming to understand who we are as humans and why we need this – the making music and the listening to it – I have to talk about things like categories. Yes, our old friends with the ancient flutes weren’t concerned about categories. But 50,000 years of history have transpired in the meantime, and we humans could stand to learn a thing or two by discussing it when we can.

From where I sit in my living room typing this, the view beyond my computer looks out at a set of woods. A collection of trees. An array of evergreens and flowering woody species. I have no idea what to call any of them, so I don’t. I don’t need to know what they’re called in order to admire the way, at this point in the spring, some have abundant green needles while others are completely bare. One or two have tiny leaf buds. It’s pretty. This view of the woods brings me calm and a quiet head. They say there’s something healing about living among – and walking between – trees. This healing quality happens, also, regardless of whether or not you know what kind of trees you’re walking between.

Yet, in this intentional community where I live, we have people who could tell you the genus and species of each one of those trees, as well as the common names. They can tell you what the vines are called that so beautifully (and, I’m told, life-suckingly) wrap a branch or two. They can identify the scat on the ground and know what the proper balance is between soil, mulch, and brush. Or something. I don’t honestly know enough about the natural world to continue this exhaustive metaphor beyond these two paragraphs. But I know it’s important, I want people who know more than me to spend their knowledge and expertise protecting and preserving it. We all have our passions and skills. I hope those with tree-related skill sets do their thing to ensure this beautiful small woods remains.

We all know that beauty defies definition. It happens whether you know what to call it or not. But, knowing what to call it helps us preserve it and ensure that it thrives. My tree-loving friends know what all those trees are because they’re committed to preserving our natural habitat. They have to know what’s out there in order to know how to pitch in, to maintain nature’s balance after humans came in and affected that balance with their various developments.

The same is true in music.

As much as people who listen to music and many of those who make it (in other words, all of us) would like to believe that style and category don’t matter, the stories of these things are a testament to the creative power of human vulnerability and connection. If we know the name of a category and the story of why we call it what we do, we are giving ourselves power to make better things, more long-lasting things, things that – like those ancient flutes – will raise questions and influence the ideas of people long after we’re gone. Knowledge is power, words are power, and all that jazz. (And, by “jazz,” I do mean jazz.)

Songwriters on Songwriting: Darrell Scott

Darrell ScottOriginally published in The Bluegrass Situation

There are many reasons to write music. Some songwriters work alone, others are at their best in collaboration. Sometimes lyrics pop into one’s head like a rhythmic mantra, other times the song floats in on a seemingly familiar melody. The place where songs come from is elusive and subjective. Like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement, it can be a different space each time you enter. What’s more, it’s not always the space the songwriter thought they were seeking when they set out.

The same way a joke stops being funny when a comedian is asked to justify it, something about a song is lost as soon as a reporter asks the artist for an explanation. Granted, I’m a recovering songwriter, but to me there’s always something innately frustrating about an artist interview aimed at pushing an album or product more than it is at discovering how the artist approaches the music-making itself. Everything you need to know about the album should be on the album. But how does the artist experience the music, and its creation?

To that end, I’ve decided to talk with some great songwriters about the experience of songwriting itself. When I designated this column, I thought it would be a discussion about craft. But, as my first subject – Darrell Scott – pointed out, craft is an entirely different thing than artistry. Before we could get very far into the discussion, he pointed out that there’s something far more deliberate about craftsmanship, as opposed to the mysterious and inspirational pull of art:

Kim Ruehl: That makes sense, certainly in terms of Nashville songwriting, where people are writing songs toward profit…

Darrell Scott: Yeah, toward the marketplace. They hear somebody’s making a new record so they try to write for that record, in that vernacular, that style. Craft is more like that. [Meanwhile,] you have someone else writing, across the same town. They’re just open and the opening shows up in a song. Do you see what I mean?

KR: Yes. Well, I’d much rather talk about the art of songwriting, in that case.

DS: [laughs] Yeah, me too.

KR: So what do you think is a song – of all the music you’ve ever heard – that gets everything right?

DS: John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a perfect song. “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” by Kristofferson, is a perfect song. “That Old Time Feeling,” by Guy Clark, is a perfect song.

KR: Why?

DS: Why are they perfect? They just exemplify what they set out to do as a song. I don’t know a better song than “Imagine,” for example. I know other songs that work at something else, to get across [the same thing], but sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on why one song works that way and another one doesn’t. It’s more that you feel it rather than it being a cognitive, brain exploration. It’s more of a feeling. The difference between art and craft [is that] song craft has the brain attached to the process. The art part, it’s not that it doesn’t have the brain, but it’s more led by the spirit or inspiration, or heart, or emotion.

When I hear “Imagine,” it feels like a very simple, almost childlike song, except with a message that is childlike but [it’s] also red letter edition New Testament Jesus… or Buddha. It feels like a different place – an old place, an ancient place, and a future place all at one time. Timeless is a word I’d use for a great song. Timeless. They don’t have one single place in time that they stand in. “Blowing in the Wind” was perfect for Dylan in the time it was written, but it’s also perfect today or [it would have been perfect] during the Civil War. There’s a timeless quality to great songs.

KR: Yes, but you can’t really sit down to write a song and intend for it to be timeless, can you?

DS: That’s right. If you try to do a song about anything, you [get into] the craft side. You don’t sit down to write a timeless song. The timeless song comes along and sits you down. It takes you to its place, as opposed to the songwriter sitting down and saying, “I’m gonna write me a song today.” That’s… the craft.

KR: Is it possible to only write songs when, as you said, they “sit you down”? Or do you have to maintain the ability to write songs by making yourself write and hoping the timeless songs come?

DS: I think actually more of us are capable of timeless stuff than we might think that we are. The ability to write the timeless song… we have what it takes anywhere along the line. For example, that’s not the only timeless song that Lennon wrote. That’s not the only timeless song Kris Kristofferson wrote. So they can do it again. Kristofferson is a good example – the last couple of his records have been really strong, regular, great Kristofferson songwriting that have some of the same quality he had in the 1960s. So, to me, that says it can happen again. If it can happen at all, it can happen more than once.

KR: How is the experience of a song different in a studio versus a live setting?

DS: Sometimes it can be similar. Some aspects of recording that I like the best are when there’s a live aspect to the recording. By “live,” I mean that in addition to playing at the same time, in some cases, the musicians are leaking the sound of their instrument or their voice into the next musician’s mic. Something’s wafting into each other’s recording, [and] you aren’t able to “fix it later.” Me and Tim O’Brien’s work together is exactly that. Then there’s recording where you sequester each musician away from each other and build it up one track at a time. That’s a certain kind of production, a certain kind of sound and vibe. But I think the things that happen live with musicians, are the things that are worth capturing in a recording. That’s what I’m looking for. Even though I’m in a studio, there’s still something about recording live… [the music is] at its best.

KR: A lot of your songs, the really great ones, there’s nothing you could add or take away that would make it better. It’s something a lot of newer songwriters have a hard time with – knowing when to stop and knowing when to back off. Why is restraint in songwriting so difficult? Is it difficult for you?

DS: I don’t know, in terms of songwriting. I think that’s one of those things – on one level you’re talking about songs and on another you’re talking about recording. I’m hearing two different things [in the question], but as far as restraint… I think maybe to cut to the chase of what I think you’re asking, [the song] only needs to work in its essentials, so that’s guitar and voice or piano and voice. How was it when the person wrote the song? What was the general essence that was going on when it worked, when it did what it was supposed to do? That element, whatever it is, needs to be there even if there’s a full orchestra, a full rock band, a blues band, electric or acoustic, live or in the studio. If you’re getting the essence that was there when you wrote the song, then it’s working. It’s working because you drew from the essence of the song, up.

Some songs don’t need much production. “Imagine” is basically John Lennon on the piano, and it’s an upright piano. It doesn’t need to sound like a grand piano. It’s a simple upright piano. Then there’s a light rhythm section that comes to support it. You just get out of the way of the song. Anything more than that would be producing a song, as opposed to playing a song, supporting a song.

KR: I guess it was more of a performance question, then, maybe. I think it happens more with guitar solos, where people go too far. Do you know what I’m saying?

DS: I think I do, yeah. But sometimes guitar solos that go on can be a great carrier of the song, too. You can be the jam section of a song, or [mark] passage of time. If there’s a song that just goes on for a couple of verses and then there’s a guitar solo, you can let the listener know that was a passage of time so that, after the solo, [they’ll know] you needed to have that time passage.

Solos themselves aren’t a detriment; it’s how they support that song. I’m guilty of playing plenty of guitar solos in my songs, especially live. But what I’m hopefully doing is carrying the essence of the song through the solo, so that it’s not like I slipped out the back door for a while and now I’ve come back to the song, and I hope you’re all with me. I think it’s one of those [paths] that the song was supposed to take in the first place.

KR: How is co-writing different from writing solo, for you?

DS: You get the input of someone else whose work you respect, if that’s who you’re writing with. If I’m co-writing with someone whose work I respect, when they say we should do something different with the second verse, I’m all ears because I know their work, I trust their work, and we’re both working toward the same thing. Also, the other writer might hear something I don’t. Sometimes I’ve been stuck in songs I started on my own and I don’t know how to get out of it. I’ll take it to another songwriter that I respect and they’ll have an inkling of how to get out of this thing. They’ll break it open when I’m stuck. The reverse is true too. I’ve done that for folks, on their songs.

The other good thing about co-writing is that you can come out of it with the song neither of you would have written on your own. That can be stylistically, it can be language, or subject matter. Co-writing is not a curse word. I know for some people it can be and, at times in my life, it has been, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing of the idea of working with somebody on a piece of music that says “this is going to suck”. As a matter of fact, it can be better than if you’d done it on your own, but you have to choose your co-writer carefully.

KR: In light of that, what have you learned from Tim O’Brien?

DS: Tim has a real familiarity with the Appalachian roots and, for that matter, Irish roots, mountain roots. He’s been a part of that all along, whether it was with bluegrass or some of his albums that went into old timey stuff or even some that were just singer-songwriter [albums]. He’s very familiar with his Appalachian roots. I’ve spent time in my life where I was trying to run from my Appalachian roots, hiding the fact that I’m from Kentucky. When you’re in your 20s, you’re more prone to run from where you’ve been and where you come from. But Tim has always been embracing of his West Virginia everything. When I’m around Tim in that way, writing or singing harmony, playing solos, bluegrass, mountain music… he makes it very easy for me to bring my roots right up there next to his.

KR: When you write, are you thinking about tradition? Or does that just come out naturally because it’s in your bones?

DS: Well, it’s in there. It is in the bones, it’s in the genes. A better way to say that is that I follow the song wherever it wants to go. So if the song is a roots or mountain or Appalachian song, then that’s absolutely where I’m going. If it’s a blues song, I bring all the blues I know, stylistically, to it. If it’s a gospel song, a confessional song, if it’s a piano ballad…whatever the song is trying to be, I’m trying to be in support of that. Sometimes it’s the mountains, sometimes its pop sensibility, sometimes it’s a jazzy chord. It’d be stupid to bring a jazzy chord into a Carter Family-style mountain ballad. The song tells me what tricks to bring to it, what sensibility. I don’t tell the song what to do, it tells me what to do.

KR: Is there anything else you want to say about songwriting? Any advice for other songwriters?

DS: I think it’s what Guy Clark says, which is: “Write what scares you.” You know you’re onto something when you’re frightened by it. You’re frightened by how it feels to you, when you’re alone in the room with it. So I guess I’ll just copy Guy and say write what scares you.

Conversations with… Buddy Miller

Buddy MillerOriginally written for The Bluegrass Situation

“I don’t work on things that don’t mean something to me,” Buddy Miller says, and you know he means it. After all, you can’t fake that kind of dedication. You can hear it in the music and see it on the stage, in the way he bends a note or how he attacks a mic. Here’s a guy for whom music is the main thing – not the image or the lifestyle, but the songs. To know what I’m talking about, you wouldn’t have to look much further than Miller’s own music collection. Indeed, in Americana circles, it’s somewhat legendary.  Talk to anyone who’s worked with him and they’re bound to bring up his exhaustive library.

He claims it started when he was a kid, glued to the radio, back when they played the Beatles followed by Skeeter Davis, followed by whatever else was there. “They played the Grateful Dead on the radio from time to time!” he tells me, like the very notion still blows his mind.

Once you get Buddy talking, though, you realize there’s a lot about music which blows his mind. For example, the Strange Creek Singers once performed an assembly at his junior high school. “It was basically Hazel & Alice with Mike Seeger,” he says, “which was, you know, sick.” You can hear that 12-year-old boy still impressed by what a person can do with two hands, a voice, and a noisemaker. “[It was] a school assembly – not a big school – and Hazel sang ‘Black Lung’, and they did things I hadn’t heard of before…”

Long story short, from that point on, Miller became a feverish collector of music, and a rather influential performer of it. These days, for whatever reason, his iTunes collection is “down to about 126,000 songs.” A mere 126,000. By the way, that’s about as many songs as there are people in Charleston, S.C.

“I had a bottle of wine and a screwdriver one night in the back of the tour bus,” he tells me. “I took out the CD drive [from my laptop] and put in a terabyte drive… I go on groove hunts, I call it – looking for old songs.”

It’s the old songs which are his specialty, not because he’s aiming to be hip or ironic, no. The closer to the roots of the music he can get, the better will be whatever he’s working on. Lately, that includes music for the TV show Nashville, and beginning to think about maybe, possibly – sometime in the next year or two – considering a new solo album.

“My wife is a real writer,” he says of the remarkably gifted Julie Miller. “It just flows out of her, when it does happen. Me? Once in a while I might have something but I don’t usually just sit around and play. I’d love to. I’m sure I will soon. I’m sure after this year’s over nobody will be calling me anymore. But at this point, it’s been nonstop project to project, no time to breathe … I was actually thinking this morning, gosh I should make a record sometime.”

It may have been five years since he dropped what could be considered a solo album, but that hardly means Miller’s work hasn’t been swirling around the world. From Robert Plant’s Band of Joy to any of the assortment of albums he produced last year, to his work on Richard Thompson’s new disc Electric, his mark on the evolution of Americana music is pervasive.

As a songwriter, Miller hangs in the sweet space between classic country and soul. His solo albums – and the three he’s made with his wife – are exactly Americana. No frills, no spectacle, just great songwriting performed by freakishly talented players. As a producer, he’s worked with everyone from jugbands to contemporary songwriters and beyond, preferring a “less is more” approach to the lush sound so dominant in the pop music frequently passing for Americana. Listen to something Buddy produced and you get the sense he trusts music more than anything else in the world. He’d just as soon move out of the way and let the song do its thing. It’s no wonder, then, that he spends his spare time hunting grooves.

In fact, he pulled from his groove hunts when the time came to make a collaborative disc with his old friend Jim Lauderdale (Buddy & Jim, out Dec. 2012 on New West Records). In addition to the tune his wife Julie wrote, and those Buddy and Jim wrote themselves, they populated the disc with some well-considered cover tunes. Originally, he wanted it to be an album full of Johnny & Jack covers, but that didn’t quite work out.

“[There used to be] albums called something like Buddy & Jim Sing Johnny &  Jack,” he says, “which is what I wanted this to be called. You’d get it home and there’d be one to three Johnny and Jack songs on there, and the rest was whatever they wanted. I thought, let’s just do one Johnny & Jack song and call [the album] Buddy & Jim Sing Johnny & Jack. I thought it was a good name for a record. Plus, I’m a Johnny & Jack nut.”

And with that, he’s back to being a fan –in a way which gives you the sense Buddy Miller makes music because of his reverence for it. If he ever got into the rock and roll business to meet girls or look cool, he’s long since crossed a line to where the songs are the thing. “I just like to play music,” he says at last. “I’m happy to be making music and making what, I feel, is really good music.”

Ben Sollee live in Los Angeles, and other observations about Hollywood

originally written for NoDepression.com

Los Angeles is a rather strange place. You knew this already, of course. Whether you’ve lived there before or have only just visited on a pilgrimage to discover Hollywood, or even if you’ve only heard tell of it through blogs and television shows and the movies. It’s a weird town. Nothing is as it appears.

I’ve worked in the music industry long enough to have forgotten how it feels to not know the glamour as anything other than facade. But where magic still gets conjured on stages, flying over heads of strangers on banjo wings, there’s no mistaking the cracked earth running its fingers through the heart of Los Angeles.

On Hollywood Boulevard, inches from the pink and gold stars bearing the names of the entertainment industry’s most storied glamour-hounds, some bum has invariably pissed or puked up his breakfast. If you can’t plainly see it, you can smell it. If you can’t smell it, squint your eyes and there’s the stain, somewhere between the crack in the stone and the discarded condom. Of course the poetic irony of it is that all this glamour and hogwash only serves to underscore the incredible humanity of it all: We are a social species which instinctively organizes around our idols and gods, as arbitrarily as we’ve chosen them, or as they have chosen themselves for us. We like shiny things, we like to forget ourselves. Sometimes this works to our advantage, sure.

On the day when my partner and I visited Hollywood Boulevard, one of those blasted singing competition shows – the one with Simon Cowell and Britney Spears – was going to be filming, or something, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’ve seen a crowd this size gathering early in the day before – once when the Dalai Lama visited Portland and, before that, when Days of Thunder was filming in my hometown of DeLand, FL. Deep down inside, I wanted to sit down next to someone in the crowd and find out what in the world really matters to them. To hold that up next to whatever it is which motivated them to take the day off work or school (it was a weekday) to be here, to stake their spot for this television show.

Of course, it was 9/11, so I instinctively wanted to know what makes the world tick already. (Some other time, perhaps, I could tell you the story of how I ran for my life on 9/11. It’s always an interesting day for me, as it is for many.) Of course, it could have been the desire to escape the reality of remembering 9/11 which pulled these throngs onto the filthy sidewalk to wait the day away, in hopes of seeing so much as the back of Randy Jackson’s head. Just to say they had been there.

We all want to bear witness to something worth mentioning, I suppose.

Speaking of bearing witness, back up a little bit more, and you’d find me at the Hotel Cafe the night before, watching Kentuckian cellist Ben Sollee pay to a comfortable-sized crowd. Sandwiched between Steve Forbert and something called Super Soul Monday, Sollee crammed as much authenticity as one could possibly drag – kicking and screaming, I’d imagine – into a Hollywood bar. He only had 45 minutes to pull off that magic trick, but I wasn’t concerned. Sollee is a proficient authentician. He delivered songs from his new album Half Made Man – a remarkably touching, arrestingly honest disc which drops on the 25th – as well as a couple from last year’s Inclusions.

I stood there hyper-aware, of course, of my typical 9/10 state of mind. (I’ve long since let go the illusion that 9/10 was the last day when everything made sense. Nothing has ever made sense.) The energy I recognize in myself each September 10 is always markedly different from that of the day which follows. Sep. 10 is a somber, thoughtful day of observance. Sep. 11 makes sense as being focused more inward. The search for peace and beauty wherever I am becomes vital. Hollywood Boulevard made this a chore. Ben Sollee made it simple.

There’s this funny word people use for the kind of earnestly kind and determined quality by which people like Ben Sollee seem to be so driven: “naive”. Or sometimes they’ll use the word “optimistic” which, when used to describe anyone other than onesself, tends to carry with it a sort of negative judgment. Yes, we’ve all been on Earth a different amount of time, but once you’ve left your parents’ house and struck out on your own, the naivete dissipates in almost no time. For many of us, it leaves even before that date. Further, anyone who would call a traveling artist “optimistic” like its a bad thing has no idea the reality of living on the road away from everything familiar and comforting and supportive and secure, making a pittance in order to share the unshareable emotions with rooms full of strangers. To choose a life of touring (by bicycle, no less) and come out the other end with a sense of optimism, is a feat. Plain and simple.

That Sollee has found a way to put this optimism into music which is neither cliched or silly – or, dare I say, even naive – is impressive alone. He can sing about mountaintop removal or the Bible Belt or changing the world with authority, despite his 20-something years, because this is the life he lives. He’s not imagining a story of pain or serenity or empowerment or confusion. His lyrics acknowledge all those things without pretense and zero in on the truth as he knows it. As a result, the songs are wholly convincing. Never preachy or presumptuous. Never glinted by an attractive facade. This is a guy with a cello, for chrissakes – a skinny white boy from Kentucky with black-rimmed glasses and a wife and son, and a heart on his sleeve.

It makes sense that we had to walk around the back of the building to get in, to duck into an alley to find a door where you can only pay cash. It makes sense that it’s safe to say a good portion of the crowd were Sollee’s friends and family – a crowd full of real honest-to-goodness human connections. Imagine.

Back home here in Asheville, Sollee will play to another crowded house at the Orange Peel later this month – a crowd of hundreds of strangers hanging on his every word (if his previous shows at that same venue are any indication). But in Los Angeles, in that small room, it was okay to see him deliver such an impressive set to so few people. Whatever interest LA has in authenticity – which hadn’t already flown to Nashville for the AMAs – was probably present. Sollee’s seasoned bow pulling hard against an emotional song he’s never played live before, a certain kind of humanity shone through – something unmistakable and clear. Meanwhile, not far from there, another honest side of humanity was sloppily stumbling home, past Judy Garland’s star.

Where I learn to stop worrying and appreciate Brandi Carlile’s ‘Bear Creek’

Brandi Carlile - Bear Creek

Originally written for NoDepression.com

This week in Seattle, Brandi Carlile climbed atop the stage at Easy Street Records in lower Queen Anne, as she’s done a number of times before, and ripped through a set of tunes from her new album Bear Creek. I wasn’t there because I live in Asheville, NC, but I’m familiar with the familial atmosphere which swells around any appearance she makes in Seattle. I’ve borne witness to it and it’s not all that surprising.

After all, Brandi started making her way as a performer when she was barely in the double digits. It’s easy to imagine everyone around her instantly recognized her freakish talent. Indeed, she has that certain thing which glues a roomful of eyes to her the second she steps on stage. I’ve heard plenty of critics question what the appeal is until they finally see her live. Two minutes into the show, they get it. That’s not something you hone, so I’m going to guess she had it when she was a kid.

By the time she was old enough to drink a beer, she had sung her way into the arms of one of the major-est major labels. No doubt there were image people on the case.

Which leads me to something I hate to point out, because I too am a woman in a male-dominated field and I know well that there are certain considerations women have to wrangle, with which men don’t as frequently have to concern themselves. When I find myself at a Brandi Carlile concert, or specifically some kind of event where Brandi is one of the headliners (Cayamo is a good example),  it’s hard to ignore the feeling in the crowd that her appearance and her image weigh at least as much as the music does. Her fans may bristle at this, but would they be so goo-goo-ga-ga if she wasn’t also so “dreamy”?

These things have always bothered me about Brandi Carlile, the performer – or perhaps rather the way the world has been presented with her, the way audiences have prioritized their response to her music. Because here’s the final thing: I think she’s a to-the-bone artist. Between the number of interviews I’ve had with her (too many to count) and the various times our paths have crossed in casual life, I believe she understands music in a way so many artists who pursue it don’t. I believe she considers her main instrument (her voice) on a fairly profound level, and I think she takes her journey as a singer in the world very seriously. Indeed, there’s a kind of seriousness one has to have when they pursue a major label recording contract in this music industry environment; when the music their voice naturally creates isn’t necessarily what you’d call “perfectly commercial.”

Yet, she did it. As an Americana singer-songwriter influenced by Elton John and Johnny Cash, in a world of American Idols and Lady Gagas, she got the money people to roll the dice on her. You’ve got to appreciate that kind of spunk.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the albums she’s released over the past few years, I’ve had this sense both as a critic and a fan that she was being held back, away from the proverbial ledge. Her genuine skills have been shaped and honed and directed by some exceptionally gifted producers (T Bone Burnett, Rick Rubin). Mostly, though, my interest in her career has remained because it’s felt like, with each record she’s made, she was edging just a little bit closer to making the kind of record she’s really capable of making. It’s been an interesting story arc, watching the artist grow, watching the leaves change color, etc.

Then came Bear Creek, which dropped on Columbia this week.

And I totally understand.

I’ve never been to Bear Creek, the recording studio just outside Seattle, but I know it from being in the Seattle music world. Plenty of artists have made the trek out there: Fleet Foxes, Gossip, Modest Mouse, Laura Love, Bill Frisell. Etc. If you’re an independent artist of any clout in the Seattle area, it’s one of three or four places you go. If Brandi Carlile was going to shirk major mainstream producers, drive into the boonies, and record some songs the way she wanted them done, it would be a natural choice.

The first time I listened to the album, I got very excited. Making my way through the first few songs, I felt like, Here’s Brandi Carlile, the singer whose spirit has been tied to a tree for a few projects in a row. Then track six happened – a pop song with an 80s vibe that just made me think, Oh no. From there on out, it was a grab-bag array of disconnected songs that had nothing to do with each other – sonically, emotionally, melodically, or otherwise. It felt like an album made for an iPod world; she’d resigned like every other band to the silly idea that people won’t listen to albums from start to finish anymore, so there’s no point in making one that calls for such an experience.

Having placed Brandi under the “true artist” category in my mind – that is to say, the kind of person who has a vision, dammit, and if you just trust her, she will take you for a ride – I suddenly found myself falling against the notion that perhaps she had, after some anticipation, released an album which is terrifically mediocre, lacking any cohesion or direction or thorough consideration. Most of the songs are good, taken alone, but some of them aren’t so much. The last song isn’t, and when it ended the album, I felt gypped. Which, when I was expecting this disc to take me to some kind of  “next step” from the one which preceded it, was a bit of a let-down.

Don’t get me wrong. A great song will sound just as great with your iPod on shuffle as it will in the middle of a solid record. But, there’s something to be said for the artistry of a cohesive album. It’s sort of the aural equivalent of a collection of Jhumpa Lahiri stories or Barbara Kingsolver essays. I love both those authors for their ability to deliver short stories which speak to each other, play off each other. If you read the books in full, from cover to cover, you have a certain cohesive experience with the characters and ideas, which you would not have had you simply plucked a single story from the collection then ignored the rest.

Or there was that movie years ago, Four Rooms, which was really a collection of short films by different filmmakers. You can watch those shorts separately, sure, but together they tell a much more meaningful story.

You see where I’m going here?

Had she not previously released a couple of albums in a row which were well-considered statements of vision, whose cohesion was central to each statement made on the album (from title to cover art, to sequencing, etc.), I may be swallowing this pill with a little more grace. Instead, I felt like she’d dropped the ball; it didn’t make sense.

Then I read this post from Charlie Bermant, where he quotes her as having said: “Everything is fair game on this record and anything you want to come up with is going to work. Nothing doesn’t fit. After the participation of (past producers) Rick Rubin and T-Bone Burnett we thought of this as our ‘the parents are away for the weekend and what are we going to do?’ record.”

That got the wheels turning and all the stars aligned. Of course, I thought. I turned the disc on for another spin and found myself smacked in the face by track number one. The first time through, this tune assaulted me in a way that wasn’t altogether pleasing. It’s catchy, it’s decidedly more country-Americana, for sure. But she sings the whole damn song at full voice. She knows better, I thought, than to sing an entire song with zero dynamics in her voice, creating zero terrain, just to show off her pipes. After all, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about her behemoth vocals was that she knew how to reign them in. So I got tangled in that.

What I should have been doing was listening to the actual lyrics:  

Follow my tracks
See all the times when I should’ve turned back
I wept alone
I know how it feels to be on my own
Ooh, the things I’ve known
Looks like I’m taking the hard way home

And so it is. She sang this whole song at full voice because she could, because nobody was there to stop her. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. This is the album Brandi Carlile got to make, the one where she got to wrestle away from the grip and fly out of the nest on her own. The one where she got to explore how much she’s learned from the people whose musical paths she’s crossed. Who cares if it’s not perfect, if it doesn’t follow the tracks laid for her by the big time fancy-shmancy producers she’s worked with before. This is what you get when you let her focus on her raw talent. And raw, it is, granted. But still, it’s not anyone else’s vision.

Bear Creek may not be the best thing she’s ever done but perhaps it’s the record she needed to make. At least half of it is excellent. “Raise Hell” is a freaking gem. But, if she decides to go forward with this kind of raw, basic, honest approach to recording – and I personally think it suits her best – maybe next time get Buddy Miller to produce.

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