It’s hard not to think a lot about Tucson lately, a place where I have spent a lot of time in the last five years, and which I have written about multiply on this site already. (See, e.g., my columns of January 29 and August 28, 2009.) Not long ago I was visiting there and met up briefly with Vicki Brown, a violinist of whom I have written above. She in turn brought along a singer-songwriter from Oregon called Amy Rude. Rude, in the course of the evening, gave me two of her albums, Snakeheart, the first she made in Tucson, and her newest album, just released, Can You Hear Me Crying through the Walls? It took me an appalling length of time to attend properly to her visually unprepossessing CDRs, but when I did, I deeply regretted that long interval of inattention. The earlier record, Snakeheart, has the allure of an old country and folk album, with some genuinely dark lyrical material fused to its ancientness. Can You Hear Me Crying through The Walls?, on the other hand, is altogether more about being in a band. Given how lonely Snakeheart is (and the same is true of the even more harrowing album that followed it, Heartbeast), one can only imagine that it was a relief to play and sing with others and to be a little less spiritually bereft than the singer on those earlier releases. On all three, however, Rude sings with a voice that is both as woebegone and soulful as Lucinda Williams’s is, but with a bit of a punk rudiment, too, as if she has been listening to both country and a lot of things happening on the margins of rock and roll in the last twenty years. Snakeheart is my very favorite discovery of 2010, and I was therefore eager to talk to Rude about her life, her art, and her job (she teaches at a Tucson high school). And now this is especially the case. Now that my friends in Tucson are all living with a great dread, she seemed even more like the right person to check in with. Go get her new album Can You Hear Me Crying through The Walls (it’s on CDBaby, and will be imminently available on iTunes)–it’s really beautiful, as are her others. And, in the meantime, here also are some of her thoughts from the front lines.
The Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about listening to music as a kid? Were your parents listeners? Were there things out of the ordinary that interested you then?
Amy Rude: I grew up in a Presbyterian family and my first interest in music was oriented around the church experience. I had parents who sang very expressively and passionately in church: my father had a booming, sonic low-end baritone, my mother a beatific voice typical of her generation. My parents valued singing and music but subscribed to the idea that theirs was the generation that had lost the musical gene; my father’s father was a jazz clarinet player in West Point’s band and extended family members played piano and had favorite hymns. A generation before that there was a lineage of fur trading “bluegrass” musicians—as family lore would have it. My father was an academic sort, my mother an artist, so the musical repertoire in the household was not expansive, not commercial and focused around liberal tastes: a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, Elizabeth Cotten, Odetta, Woody Guthrie, a dusty copy of Missa Luba (which I still have), quite a bit of Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi. My friend’s parents listened to a lot more rock and roll and country: Creedence Clearwater, Lynryd Skynryd, Crystal Gale, Neil Diamond. I don’t think my parent’s had any sort of pulse on the current music scene of the 1970s and 1980s.
I went to a small, private liberal school taught by two graduates of Evergreen State College. Most time in school I spent in a corner writing small, illustrated novellas involving twin teenagers and re-writing the lyrics to David Bowie songs. My teacher had a song hour each day and we’d learn about songs like ”The Golden Vanity,” “Midnight Special,” “Freight Train.” This was the absolute most precious part of each day. I also sang in the mirror a lot. I held a lip-syncing contest in my basement where I worked out a routine to every song on Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. I was in a sense, a typical star-struck kid from the 1980s but with a little more avid focus on what a good song was and was not constructed of. I spent hours taping just snips from the radio of songs that I thought had good hooks and changes: “Ebony and Ivory,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” songs by Tom Petty and Huey Lewis. I named a teddy bear after Huey.
In junior high, I first encountered public school and joined choir. My choir teacher happened to be a former babysitter from that same church I grew up in. He was a gregarious piano player who loved to sing the hits of the day. Because of my naturally low range, I was relegated to be an alto in with all the other girl-dorks who wore headgear and had duck prints on their turtlenecks. I resented the popular sopranos who got to steal the melodies but over time learned to love the sideway methods of the alto: the strange and tricky parts that snuck up beneath a song. I think this was the origins of harmony for me.
In high school, I tried out for choir and was told curtly that I couldn’t sing. I gave up then.
Rumpus: What kind of academic was your dad? And what kind of artist was your mom?
Rude: My mother and father both met at a Presbyterian college–set unto a path in ministry or education. After college, my father went into the Peace Corps, in 1967, in Eritrea under Haile Selassie’s reign. My mother attended McCormick Seminary College in Chicago. They married shortly after my dad’s stint in the Peace Corps.
He’s pretty specialized–ended up getting a PhD in Education and Development and has since been a very specialized grant writer for community colleges. So, not an academic as in a career in academia per se, but a very committed educator and thinker. He helped start the private school I attended.
My mother, Emily Sweet (yes, it’s a true story—my mother’s real name is Sweet and my father’s name is Rude) is an assemblage artist in the vein of Joseph Cornell and Kurt Schwitters. She has a menagerie of assorted items that she works with: old baby dolls, foundry parts, found photographs, wings, springs, war-time glass, buttons, spikes, joints, anything that is used, old and dream-like. She’s never found the public recognition she deserves. We’ve had many conversations about self-promotion and share the same hang-ups around promotion. I think her work is brilliant and reflects the kinds of dreamers we both are. I don’t know why I didn’t become a visual artist growing up with her. I became a musician instead.
Rumpus: So what was your conversion experience as regards writing and singing songs?
Rude: I fancied myself a writer as a young girl, as it was my only real academic strength. Reading and writing and music were the only things I showed any curiosity and aptitude for. I’ve kept a journal since 4th grade. (I tote around around a large box of embarrassing spiral bound notebooks archiving my life from age 9 to 18. I have explicit instructions to those closest in my life, upon my sudden death, to find that box and destroy the contents. Conversely, I often think of how that box would be the first thing I would salvage if I found myself in a house fire.) Those adolescent tomes were a way for me to process the confusion, apathy, and reckless anxiety of the common teenager. Now my notebooks (I’ve upgraded from Mead to Moleskin) are less process-y emotion-wise and more focused on songwriting. Of course I still get the schlock out as any writer ought to, but I reserve notebooks and space for more intentional song crafting. Otherwise I’ll run the risk of what I always had adverse reactions to: confessional songwriting. That fear, the fear of penning quirky “Jewel-esque” lyrics haunted me during the girl folk revival of the 1990s. I was more attracted to PJ Harvey grunting about her boyfriend’s motorbike than what I more commonly saw: a plethora of bookish, girls young ladies strumming acoustic guitars and singing softly about love. The result of my early efforts however, managed to neatly combine both influences.
I wrote cryptically as a way to avoid confessing. That got me interested in narratives other than my own, which got me interested in early folk songs–especially The Carter Family, early blues and other folk music archived by Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. I became interested in murder ballads and songs about work, hard times and disenfranchised lives. I was interested in women who sang who were older–women like Hazel Dickens, Malvina Reynolds, and Blossom Dearie (one of my favorites). These became my anti-pop heroines.
The result of writing cryptically was some songs that were a bit more desperate, sad, dark around the edges. Later, once I was writing and recording for Heartbeast, I wanted to come closer to my own experience. I began to write a lot about Oregon and the hometown I grew up in, Salem, Oregon. I wrote about a friend who became a prostitute and drug runner and went missing for ten years. I wrote about the landscape of Oregon, about abandoned mill towns and mental institutions–essentially, the things that I remembered being alive when I was young, that were now derelict upon subsequent returns to home; a slow decay of nostalgia into post-modern, grown-up reality. I’ve never written ballads or stories in entirety. I prefer fragments and missing pieces to fleshed out narratives. This is true in my taste of art in general.
However, heartbreak can do magic and damage for songwriting and the last record was a result of that. I managed to churn out a few desperate love songs for an Austrian with whom I had a fantastic affair in Paris (highly recommend to people an affair in Paris someday, but don’t expect great results for long-lasting unions). So that got me stuck on the metaphor of oceans and water, continents, atlases, the blues built in this new world, the jealous longing for the blues in the “motherland.” Lately I like writing about my poor old ruckus neighborhood. I also am working on a song called “I Miss Your Wife” which is a love song to my best friends who seem to be all married now and sort of a swan song for maidenhood in general. I’m trying to write with a little more sense of humor and less of an edgy, discordant rock and roll parlance. I’m attracted to country-blues, the good ole’ 1-4-5 with a gospel ending. I’m writing quite a bit on piano for the next record and plan on having less dramatic, rock and roll engineering and more of a “this was made in my living room” sound (which is a great living room…it’s an old school house of all things, with high ceilings and lots of space perfectly suited for home recording!).
Rumpus: You’re skipping ahead! Don’t! So were the first completed Amy Rude songs written in college? Did you go to college? What did you study in college? Did you play in bands then? Or were you writing by yourself?
Rude: The first completed Amy Rude song was written in fourth grade and it was a ripped off version of “Dancing in the Streets”, called “Slipping in the Snow” and it was essentially a fantasized account of rolling around in the snow with David Bowie. The second was called “Give Me My Allowance.” It was a punk song. Also there’s some early musical notation penned on Hello Kitty notebook paper circa 1979 or so.
But seriously, the first songs were written before college, after high school, in a little slacker period where I lived in a small house in Bend, Oregon, and spent my days snowboarding, my afternoons delivering pizzas, my weekends working in a record shop and most evenings honing skills at guitar–leftover from a poorly acquired Spanish/classical lesson period in high school. During this time I was listening to a lot of music, a wide range, from British Manchester stuff like the Stone Roses, to a lot of Fugazi and my usual exploration of female artists (Mazzy Star was a pretty big inspiration and okay, I’ll say it here–I learned a lot about harmony from the Indigo Girls). Whatever chords I learned started to manifest in song right away; I’m pretty sure that the first three strung together resulted in a song that resulted in a performance later that evening at an open mic in a local coffee shop. I was very eager to do the songwriter thing and it didn’t occur to me that being green and naive should impede the process.
In 1995, I was at a small crossroads/crisis pretty typical of my generation (x). I could have continued to live in a small mountain town, snowboarding and whatnot but I did yearn for more. I was taking composition and anthropology classes at the community college, doing okay, not great. My parents were frustrated and worried. (My brother was pretty much in unison with me, but in Utah. He’s a musician too). It was at this time that my dad was involved in the election monitoring process in Eritrea, east Africa. He was going there for the summer and likely as a way to give me some kind of civic-minded wake-up call, offered to fly me over if I could only find something useful to do. The result, made pretty much from some tenuous connections over the internet, was my joining a group of 30 Germans who had some supposed agenda to teach English in the terraced hills of Nefasit, a small village four or so hours from the beautiful city of Asmara. The next two months were spent in these hills; feeling ostracized by a cold league of German youth, I found myself instead joining up with the Eritrean youth doing their national service duty, planting trees and terracing the hills. We talked a lot of Michael Jackson. To their requests, I played quite a bit of John Denver. There were some pivotal moments in the evenings in various places, especially a bar in Asmara, where I was exposed to the beautiful sounds of Tigrenia music. In the last years there’s been a comeback of Ethiopian jazz. It’s pretty clear to see the connections between jazz and African music– frenetic polyrhythms, the twang of a “Kirar” (a four stringed harp of sorts. I’ve seen mouth-watering hybrid Kirar-Telecaster guitars. So jealous anyone can understand how to play that), circuitous pentatonic scales and most riveting for me: the vocal styles of Eritrean and Ethiopian singers (like the most talented Alemayehu Eshete). I fell in love with this music there and it continues to be the biggest aspiration in my attempts at blues and rock and roll.
After Eritrea, I went to a small, liberal arts college in southwestern Colorado. Spending time in Eritrea did make me want to do more although I still was unsure what that was. I started college with my basic interests and studied with enthusiasm disparate subjects: geology, anthropology, women’s studies, queer studies, literary theory, composition and theater. I never studied music, was intimidated by (music) theory and musicology but during this time I did form a bluegrass band with a nice provincial bluegrass name: ‘Amy Rude and the Reds.’ I learned to flat pick a little, sing bluegrass harmonies and was introduced to a canon of traditional music that is still very dear and important to me.
After three or so years of studying and doing extreme sports and trying to piece together a degree, I left with a degree in English Communications. The ‘communications’ part was from three years working for college/community radio and spending time in a clique that pursued a communications degree because the school didn’t offer a cultural studies degree. The ‘english’ was the zygote of a career in teaching that I think I was trying to in part avoid but at the time, felt I didn’t have a choice about.
At the new millennium, with degree in hand, I moved back to Oregon to join a burgeoning workforce desperately seeking fresh English Communications graduates. I didn’t find it. I moved back to Colorado and drove a backhoe for a tree nursery for three years instead, while still playing mostly bluegrass for money and fun, and also writing more seriously country-ish folk songs. I eventually pursued a Masters degree in English Education.
Rumpus: What happened to the punk rock piece of all this? Did it die under the North Star of traditional music?
Rude: Well I think I discovered traditional music is pretty damn punk rock. I wouldn’t call Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” or Bessie Smith with her pigfoot and bottles of beer as anything else but extremely transgressive.
However, my future studies in education and my interest in music and cultural studies did lead me to a deeper interest in post and pre-punk bands, especially girl bands like The Slits and The Raincoats. In fact my Masters thesis centered partly on work I had done at the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls (in Portland, OR) and researching the dual stories of those two bands. I was interested at the time in starting my own non-profit music education camp here in Tucson, with a focus on music education for girls. I didn’t do that though. I felt that getting behind such an endeavor would distract me too much from my own music. Plus I was just too scared to take on such responsibility (so I started teaching–ha!).
I got so into The Raincoats actually, that I started a Raincoats cover band with two identical twins here in town and two other girlfriend musicians (Vicki Brown being one of them). We covered about half of their first album for a local performance that was taped. I got inspired to send Ana de Silva and Gina Birch (founding members of the Raincoats) the tape and we actually struck up a nice little correspondence for awhile. It was so inspiring to me that women of that generation, who created such wild, seemingly untrained and playful (but not frivolous) music would be so accessible. This was the early days of myspace.com, where actually I made several important contacts and booked a few successful tours (one being to Europe with a band of Italians, one who died tragically the day I was to leave Tucson for Italy–that’s another story).
I’m not sure if any of my love for that music had a calculated influence on songwriting or guitar playing. I suppose it was around this time that I started to play a Fender Telecaster and got more comfortable working with various distortion pedals and the whatnot. I was inspired to take that sort of post-punk disco funk and infuse songs that had traditional 1-4-5 blues structures. Like “Black Hands” on the recent record. That’s really an attempt at a hybrid blues, post-punk sound. Our band and the way we get booked have changed too. I think most people assume that I’m a shrinking violet folkie until they hear us play live. Things actually get pretty hectic and loose. Over the years I’ve been booked with quieter, folkier bands but lately it’s been really fun to play louder bills with more energetic bands. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t shy from quiet porch strumming music, but I suppose I am a little wary or suspicious of the preciousness of folk songs these days. I like raw, premeditated disorder. And then I like to clean up.
Rumpus: So when did you start writing and recording your first album? And what were your ambitions for that record?
Rude: By the time I moved to Tucson in 2004, I don’t think I was thinking of writing with the concept that an album would materialize. That is to say, I was recycling and refining–both old songs and old styles. The collections of songs on Snakeheart, recorded with my buddies Golden Boots, were crafted over about a two-year time span. Quite recent to that recording were a couple of significant deaths: the death of my Aunt Bonnie of liver and breast cancer and the death of my 15 year-old dog, Chief (from eating a sock, incidentally). If there is desperation, albeit subdued desperation, on the record, it’s about those losses. My Aunt was a beautiful, complicated artist with a great deal of sadness. I wanted to capture the sadness that comes with being born in a time of hardship and depression. My dog on the other hand was one of those forgiving, unconditional loves that comes rarely in one’s life. I wrote the song “White Walls” with the idea of both in mind. The fact that in the end of life, you have all of these tragedies and reasons for having formed the way you did, and in the end, my Aunt’s death was little different than my dog’s death. Both evoked me to see the basic matter and meaning of life as returning to itself (that’s about as mystic as you will ever hear me sound—it astounded me just now).
The reality that we were recording over an old cemetery was not lost on me either. We recorded basically live in one room, all looking at one another. There were times when we might’ve separated into a closet to clap or sing, but all the rest was done with a lot of feeling, with ample eye contact, out of sync singing and plenty of accidents. I had in mind, before we recorded, Howe Gelb’s project, OP8, that he did with Lisa Germano and Calexico. I’ve always loved that record (and not because I’m interested in aping some ‘desert rock’ sound that we Tucsonans are oft accused of) but rather because on that record it seems apparent the relationships between musicians are very distinct and intimate. I felt that way about my band mates and collaborators at that time. I mean, it was actually a bit more naive as one might expect: a band, like a family. Later it became more important to focus on a band more as a permeable social organism, rather than one unit. Being able to be available to play, rehearse, and get on tour began to trump some kind of kindred musical intimacy. Although I do admire bands that have been able to stay together and grow like a family. I doubt very much of that was going on with OP8. I don’t know. Or maybe everyone was sleeping with another and having a good go at a record. Who can say? In any case, it was a special record, a special “first time” because it wasn’t done in a studio; it was all done live and basically within a weekend. With songs that don’t need a lot of production or arrangements and have been played well over some time, a weekend is all it should really take.
Rumpus: Your mentioning Lisa Germano (an artist I too have prized over the years) reminds me that I wanted to ask about your vocal style. Germano might be one singer I could see as a touchstone for the way you approach phrasing, another would be Lucinda Williams. I would guess a lot of Old Timey singers are mulched in there too. Who do you think of as vocal influences? And how do you approach singing?
Rude: Let’s talk about Edie Brickell for a moment and her Saturday Night Live performance in, I think, 1990. I was really moved by her style. Not only did she have this really brazen way of flailing around…with a mouth as wide as the Columbia Slough, she also had this piercing, almost too-sharp voice that fit her songs perfectly–she lowered and veered her songs down to alto valleys during verses and then fevered her choruses up to crescendos with a frequency one could almost call shrill. It was also super-bad-ass that her band was called the New Bohemians. I mean, how cultured! It was a super authentic treat for a post-tweener girl coming down off the barrage of girly pop idols in the late 80s. Edie crafted SONGS after all, and her voice was tailor fit for them. So check one: Edie Brickell.
There was a host of country voices that I loved in high school and Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton were among them. Aside from Patsy Cline, most country singers had a higher range than I did, so I applied the smarts learned in choir every dorky alto acquired to get into the game–I learned how to harmonize the low parts. Along with learning how to harmonize, I also learned phrasing that came with country singing. Years after, I had one painful vocal lesson with a teacher who made me sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” over and over again, convinced I wasn’t an alto but actually a mezzo soprano. He chastised me for my bending up to notes, a style I’d obviously learned from country singing.
In grade school I also had a tape of Ella Fitzgerald that I wore clean out. I was very obsessed with her scatting and sang over and over again, “A tisket, a tasket, I lost my yellow basket.” I think she helped me to improvise vocally. To work complicated syllabic structures into short phrases, to stretch out syllables when they needed to be stretched. Essentially I discovered a voice could be used like an instrument (duh, that’s what scatting was all about!).
But honestly, by the time I was learning guitar, I had forgotten that I enjoyed singing and moreover, was convinced that I couldn’t. My initial focus was to learn good country guitar and perhaps I could just write songs that other people could sing. It wasn’t until I started playing bluegrass and traditional music that I discovered I had a range and a knack for singing in a certain clear, straight shooting frequency suited well for country and bluegrass music. It was at this time that all the old tricks from choir sprang up. I remembered my diaphragm and breathing techniques, I remembered how to shape my face and sing from the lower part of my body. Much of that was visual and intuitive and it just snapped into place for me.
During this time, the mid-1990s, I was discovering “alternative country” and all of the female balladeers of that genre. Lucinda Williams and Neko Case were incredibly influential singers and composers for me. I felt at home in their range (no pun intended) and memorized all their songs and albums. I spent one summer just singing Lucinda Williams. I never have seen her live although once I am almost convinced I drove behind her for an afternoon on Highway 1 in Northern California.
Rumpus: Okay, so what happened after Snakeheart came out? What was the reaction? How did you release it? And what led you back into the slightly more “rock and roll” directions of the later work?
Rude: The response from Snakeheart was positive and encouraging. I was managing self-promotion a tad better than I do now and a few favorable reviews, locally and a few nationally and internationally. I do think there is something organic about a record that doesn’t try, that’s made with friends, over a dusty weekend, that bodes well for the, er, well–record of a moment–which is precisely what I still feel a record should strive to be.
After that I went into the studio with some loftier intentions with Heartbeast and because, I don’t maybe, okay, yes, due to some real estrangement or also because of a desire to do a ‘studio’ record (it was recorded at a great studio in Tucson called ‘Loveland’). It was done sans band and instead with a great and very sensitive drummer friend of mine in Seattle, Jason Merculief. An interesting scene: building an album ground up with just a drummer; I’d spent the summer working on a hunger driven by nostalgia for my ‘youth’ in Oregon. Distance from home and living in a place that poses a set of duel opposites (searing heat in Tucson delivers a reverse atomic winter that drives counter to the biochemical rhythm I’d developed in gloomy climes up North) and also delivered a set of songs designed, not really to evoke, but rather to conjure, just for me, the essence of Oregon to sooth me at the time. Songs about blackberries and penitentiaries, Scottish lovers, prostitutes and rabid birds–It was distancing to an intentional degree. And it surprised me that some kind of gloss appeared in the record to shellac it; it was aided by the sonic trajectories of Mark Kramer (Galaxie 500, Bongwater, Palace, etc), who came to Tucson to do finishing touches and mixing/mastering with me. Over time, I can see that there was a sort of slow build to rock and roll that I was attempting. I was listening to A LOT of Bill Callahan at the time and Will Oldham, who has always been one of my guiding inspirations in songwriting. I was channeling obtuse lyrics but also craving a soft delivery. I think without a band to drive momentum up, I was the architect of my own estranging record.
After some alienating time I started to rebuild a solid band. It first began with songs and sing-a-longs in my home. I got a cheap but playable spinet piano and began inviting friends over to play and sing. Suddenly it was so satisfying to focus less on the construction of songs and a concept and instead, on common songs, words, pitch, harmony, congruity. The love for music as an essence, other than a form, began to solidify. Along with that, and I fear talking about it because it’s hard to describe how a place can foster music but it does—synonyms like “scene” develop and I bristle at that— but in Tucson there is a place with people that I’d call a community, and that community really really loves to play music (we also love to get paid and we’d love to get better known). As simple as this may sound, at a time of extreme personal estrangement, this sort of connection was fundamental to me.
Tucson is a pretty magical place to play music—and I assume any musician in Newark, Enid or Boise might attest to the same of their locale. In the recent past, there’s been a movement to local food (thank you Michael Pollan) but in the death of the compact disc (and other types of digital music) I think there is growing need to reclaim the localization of music. I may be sorely disillusioned and probably am, but I don’t have a lot of faith in producing CDs. I am somewhat caught between a whining old codger and a Mark Zuckerberg sort of visionary, waiting for the definitive response to the consumer’s general nonchalance toward a “record” like we’ve known the last thirty years. I’m optimistic about the results– just lazy to come up with my own. So playing locally has served as a valuable intermission.
I favor now dreaming of juke joints. I also love the idea of affordable 180 gram vinyl. I love even more the priceless experience of four voices in harmony in a living room. I cannot place a price tag or an ambition on a totality of life musical experience. I just wish more than anything else I could convey it to others so life in general became more musical.
Rumpus: So the new album is more band-oriented? And how has that band experience affected the compositions themselves? And are the lyrics any less elegiac and sad than on Snakeheart and Heartbeast?
Rude: Compositions begin in isolation recalling prior observations. Words and chords butt up against old familiar patterns ruts and grooves. In that incubating time I usually urge myself to forget about an “audience.” I give myself all license to write cliché songs, songs that make zero sense, songs that rip off other artists or rip off my own material, cardboard songs, nowhere songs, nonsense songs, fake pop songs, doggerel poetry, fake musicals, an hour or more of loops or a days worth of one made up chord played over on the piano. I consciously ignore all critics during this experimental phase; otherwise I’d get nowhere. That’s isn’t to say that I don’t write with an audience in mind because of course I think that’s any artist’s desire: to connect. But it’s twofold: the artist’s desire to survive the insanity of loneliness and to affect something in someone else through a medium.
What’s great about a band is that after awhile they tend to know you like a lover might–your easy ways out, your loopholes and excuses, your tendency toward shortcuts or your hesitancy toward something new. I usually compose in a stretch of time–a summer off, a week left to my own devices, a long weekend holed up in a motel (some of my best composing moments) or a long weekend going through old material and notebooks to methodically pick up lines. The songs themselves remain rather thin and skeletal. Then after a batch of three or five, I bring them slowly to the band.
I’ve had a composing relationship with Vicki Brown, an experimental violinist, for years. She helps me with harmonies and tempo patterns. Naim Amor, a incredibly talented French composer and guitarist here in Tucson, helps with composing new or additional chords and “hooks” and Ryen Eggleston (bass player and one half of Golden Boots) and Johnny O’Hallaran (drummer) help with tempo, beginnings, endings and harmonies. I’ve got a journalist friend in Portland and a writer friend here who helps me with lyrics. It’s very collaborative in the early stages and sometimes infuriating. I’ve argued for the logic of phrases that hold zero logic. I’ve brought songs to the band with a nonplussed reaction right after I thought I’d written a groundbreaking song. Sometimes I drudge something up from old coffers and am surprised anyone thinks it’s playable.
I guess that’s just a long-winded response to saying something everyone probably knows: no matter how you attest to the fact that art is subjective, no doubt, there’s a balance. Process is key. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then by all means stop. However, you also must realize that what you provide to the world is a gift and if the world doesn’t get it, or put more precisely, if you can’t convince them how to get it, then it’s a waste of time. No, not time, I take that back; it’s a waste of ego.
In the composing of Can You Hear Me Crying through the Walls? I was in the midst of some turmoil but also was uplifted by all these musical moments I was having. Sing-a-longs at the house were at an all time peak as were weekly gigs playing old country standards with my friend Chris Black at an evening he called “Ashes of Love” at my favorite venue here: The Red Room. In the messy chaos of late-night playing, there came to emerge a real ecstatic urge toward the essence of rock and roll. I consciously approached CYHMCTW? with the hope that I could make a rock and roll record on a more primitive level than I had previously. And what’s with that term? Primitive? I suppose music historians refer to the sort of pre-studio (pre-polished Memphis era) rock and roll recordings that held all the passion and vitriol of youth in an unstudied but syncopated flourish of beat up blues songs. I guess that’s what I wanted. I was listening to the Band’s Basement Tapes at the time. As well as Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Doug Sahm, and Gun Club.
The tone of the record is of distance, alienation and disappointment–but all conveyed through a filter of upbeat reverb heavy guitars, distorted violins and bluesy singing. I wanted to capture the joy and pain of the blues and avoid self-confession again. It changed the way I play live now.
I had scheduled sing-a-long at the Red Room this past Sunday night. After Saturday’s tragedy, I was tempted to cancel. On the weekends, fights and guns and knives break out in the downtown bars in Tucson in almost vaudevillian acts of pseudo-violence. In fact, it was at the Red Room three months ago, I was playing piano, so caught up in a song, that I hadn’t noticed that a man had been stabbed at a bar next door, had staggered past the piano into the bar and by the time the police tapped my shoulder to evacuate, I hadn’t even noticed police tape had been put up around the spilled blood. It took me a few days to feel the gravity of that.
A year before that or less, same bar, a man shattered the front windows in a rage; the crowded restaurant/bar dropped to the floor in terror. Briefly before that, same window, same unspeakable rage.
In the last few weeks in fact, someone was accosted by Jared Lee Loughner at the Red Room. Now, it’s certainly a charged atmosphere here and like anywhere else, polarized by division, ignorance, and violence. But Tucson isn’t a dangerous place to avoid more than any place. I think if anything, despite being a large city, we’re very close and incidents stand out. “Mass” tragedies, like the shooting of 18 people on January 8th, serve to illustrate the resultant trend of fringe politics going haywire and of youth (whom I teach) getting ill-informed notions of what’s the appropriate agenda in a world that doesn’t appear to offer them much in terms of action or control or agendas. It could happen anywhere.
But I’m hopeful or maybe, naïve enough to think that perhaps music can muster some hope back in people, especially young people. As I mentioned before, despite the violence any city experiences, the community here in Tucson is an extremely tight knit one. To illustrate: last Sunday, the same room (that had recently held Loughner) held a room full of good people: musicians committed to community and art, bystanders not afraid to sing– we sang together for the sake of song and that song was ‘Amazing Grace.’ All thirty of us or so, sang with our mouths and hearts wide open, devoid of any pursuit other than the one of the moment. I’d only wish more people could experience that simple, very innocent, seemingly lost, pleasure. If they could, I think we’d all maybe have more to hope for.