Taking Your Questions: Blog #1 – Does musical magic come from technical excellence or the soul?
My intent here is to take questions from curious individuals and share my perspective. Please note that these are my OPINIONS and certainly not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. I never want to do that. I also don’t want anyone to hurt MY feelings so if I receive feedback with which I’m uncomfortable I’ll probably just remove it. That’s the beauty of having your own blog, you get to do things like that. Also, keep in mind that it’s a challenge to convey one’s desired tone with the written word. I may misinterpret the tone of a response as being negative as I am a sensitive soul. I hope you’ll read MY words with the intention of a tone that is generally light-hearted, self-deprecating and compassionate.
So without further adieu, here’s our first question. It’s from David Reilly who writes:
“I’ve wondered over the years what makes a performance connect with an audience. For example, I’ve seen some people with great voices and good songs who just didn’t do anything for me, while others create a magical experience. I think you have the background to tell me if the magic comes from technical excellence or if it comes from the soul.”
Oof. Guess we’re not starting with “What’s your favorite color?” (It’s a combo btw; black and pink)
Ok. Well. This is a question which for me is many-layered. It’s also personal and specific to each individual. It’s a really great question. And It’s especially loaded for me as a band member because there are nights when I’ll come off stage and say to the rest of the band, “Man, I had a rough show tonight. I was having trouble hearing such-and-such, I made a mistake on the second song of the show and was overthinking everything for the rest of the night, etc…” Only to be met with an incredulous “Really? I had a GREAT show! I thought that was maybe our best show EVER! And it sure seemed like you were having a great show too!” As I said earlier, I can give you my opinion on what makes ME connect with a performance. But everyone’s experience is different.
There’s also the live versus the recorded experience. Most people experience music primarily through recordings with an occasional opportunity to see a live show. So I’m choosing to use David’s word choice of “performance” to apply to both mediums. And the best way for me to begin to attempt to answer him is to ruminate on the times when I myself have been so floored by a song that I can recall EXACTLY where I was when I first heard it.
Here’s a hodgepodge of memories, images and impressions in no particular order. If you want to explore some of the music that moves me, go ahead and check out all of these songs.
I decided to go see this band at 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville as everyone I knew was buzzing about them. I expected a twangy, country writers round as the band is comprised as some of the top country writers and players in the business. When they kicked off their set with a power-pop piano-driven tune I rounded on my friend Becky Fluke in a panic. I knew instantly it was going to be an evening of the greatest music I’d ever heard and it literally sent me into a tailspin. I grabbed her, almost angrily, with a feeling of utter delight and sheer terror, my heart racing, and as she began laughing hysterically, choked out “Oh, you didn’t know it was gonna be like this, did you.” No. No I didn’t. I imagine that it was a feeling akin to what people felt when they heard The Beatles for the first time. The music IMMEDIATELY got my heart racing so fast that I was completely overwhelmed. I wanted to get out of my own body, my skin was crawling, I was totally transfixed yet wanted to run away at the same time. It was this panicky feeling, I had to act NOW. I had to DO something, but I didn’t know what to do. (This is the same feeling I get at any Little Big Town or Marc Broussard show and I start flailing around hideously and no one will stand next to me.) When Skyline busted into this sexy-ass R&B tune called “Sleep With Me” that was it. I was a goner. I started writhing uncontrollably to the groove, half-seizing, I didn’t care what anyone thought. I was one with the band, demanding right along with them that someone should “Sleep. With. Meeeeeeee!!!” I sang the song the whole way home, only having heard it that one time. The most frustrating part was that it wasn’t made available for sale until nearly a year later. The longest year of my life. At least it was imprinted on my soul.
But WHY??? Because, it’s my cup of tea. I was raised on a steady diet of Beatles and Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and as it turns out, so were the good folks of Skyline Motel. They tapped into the nerve of the music which is embedded in my DNA and there was no way I could resist. It was like going to someone else’s Thanksgiving and your mom secretly made all the food and you take a bite and suddenly you’re transported home and excited and confused and everything is familiar and delicious and you’re shocked and comforted at the same time. (It’s called “soul food” for a reason.) The harmonies were sterling, the band was moving as one, the bliss on their faces was clear; they were making music for the sheer joy of it, taking all of our influences and infusing everything with their own life stories and passions, filled with fun and raw emotion and sexy, quirky twists and turns. And it was happening LIVE, perfectly, right in front of my face. I didn’t stand a chance.
I love thinking about this question David!!! It makes me so happy! I am forever grilling my parents on their experience of hearing The Beatles for the first time, constantly badgering them for information, any morsel or detail they can give me. Having grown up with that music from infancy, I’ll never be able to know the first time I heard a Beatles song, a fact I bemoan and celebrate at the same time. Every Christmas I ask my mom, “Did you KNOW you were hearing the most important music of all time when you first heard “She Loves You???” I am fascinated by this question, fascinated by trying to understand that moment when your soul is rocked, when your life is changed; the question David is essentially posing. To answer it in regards to The Beatles, I think everybody knew it was the best. Everybody certainly knows now, anyway.
Dear God in heaven. This song. The first track off of Midnight Vultures. I was at Berklee, my roommate Chris put the CD in our stereo. It was sometime in the afternoon, I remember the way the sunlight was still filtering into the living room, sitting on the faded couch we’d pulled in off the street, feet up on the splintery wooden construction cable spool we used as a coffee table. Again, delight and panic. I couldn’t process everything I was hearing, between the shimmering techno soundscapes, soul train horns and plucky banjo. A mashup of EVERYTHING. My senses overwhelmed, I stood up and started stamping my feet, shrieking and shouting at Chris that it was everything I’d ever wanted from music, all combined into one song. When the outro hit and the banjo and pedal steel really kicked in, I lost my mind. Again, that out-of-body experience, the confusion, the OUTRAGE of not having had access to this before, the “Where did this come from and why didn’t I know about it sooner???” feelings. I listened to that record on repeat for a solid year. It was so different yet it hit me the way all of my favorite music hit me.
Something incredibly fortunate for me and my life is that I get to PLAY so much music that touches people’s souls, including my own soul. If you haven’t yet, I DARE you to listen to Holly Williams’ masterpiece “Waiting on June.” I first heard this song while sitting on my dear friend Ali Harnell’s couch. Ali, thinking I would be a good fit for Holly’s band, wanted me to hear her record. She warned me I might cry, but I wasn’t prepared. Holly is Hank Jr.‘s daughter, the granddaughter of Hank Williams, but she never knew her grandfather Hank; he died when his son Hank Jr. was only 3 years old. So Holly’s mothers’ parents were the grandparents she spent her time with growing up and as she says when she introduces the song “This is the story of my pappaw and my granny. They were married for 58 years, had 4 babies and went through 2 wars and every word is true.”
And she, as a 33 year old woman, begins singing a song from the point of view of an 80 year old man.
And I believed every word of it. And I cried, hot, stifling tears on Ali’s couch. I could hardly breath. I thought I would suffocate from the pain and beauty of their love story. It was so honest and simple and true.
(Sidebar) When I set to learning the song in order to play it with Holly, I had to run it alone in my studio about 8 or 9 times before I could get through it without openly weeping. Then I had to play it night after night for audiences all over the world. And I cried some nights, anyway, even after playing it 100 times. If I even thought for a SECOND about my own grandparents, it was over.
There are many other songs, many other moments. Seeing a youtube video of Chris Stapleton for the first time, singing “Sometimes I Cry” thanks to one of Bob Lefsetz’s newsletters and feeling like someone had ripped my heart out of my chest, thrown it on the floor and stomped all over it. His voice just tearing right through me. Just a man and a guitar and lifetime of heartache to sell me on that song. Hearing Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy” while trying on a dress at a Bebe clothing store at the Green Hills mall, feeling the walls close in around me like Alice in Wonderland, wandering around the dressing room hallway in a half zipped dress, mesmerized, in a trance, literally looking up at the ceiling to find the source of the music – so haunting and seemingly speaking just to me.
You might go and track down every one of these songs and feel absolutely nothing. But to me, they are everything. The combination of the intimately familiar and the completely alien that knocks me off my feet, that speaks to me and rocks my soul. It’s impossible to quantify it for once and for all as everyone’s life experience is different. To say “This is the best and this is the worst,” is a fool’s errand. Unless of course we’re talking about The Beatles. Because they’re the best. 🙂
But I will throw this word out there… Intention.
I’ve been thinking a LOT about the word “Intention” lately. In these texting, tweeting times, devoid of the emotion and the power behind the words that one would gleam from the tone of voice, the look in someone’s eye; the intention of a sentiment is easily lost.
I think it is also often easily found in music. So David. To answer your question.
I think music connects most effectively with an audience when the musician’s intentions are pure.
The Beatles didn’t become world sensations over night. They played 292 shows at the same club over a two and a half year period, just fighting to get out of a hardscrabble, working class town, to make their lives better. They had music inside of them that HAD to come out. Why else would you put yourself through such a struggle, banging out sounds on a piece of wood until your fingers bled, sleeping in a windowless bunker with 3 other grown men night after night, getting paid peanuts? Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell and Beck and Little Big Town worked their asses off for YEARS before the scales tipped, before it was just too damned good for too many people to be contained any longer. When tastemakers like Bob Lefsetz got the word out to people like me who should’ve known all along and are just left to sit and stare at a computer screen in sheer wonder and a touch of outrage like I did back in 2013 while Chris Stapleton gut-punched me with “Sometimes I Cry” and NOW, after YEARS of writing songs for everyone from Kenny Chesney to Adele is finally getting his day in the sun.
These people make music because they have to. It’s what’s inside them, it makes them tick. David, when you see someone who has a great voice and good songs, but they don’t knock you off your feet, they probably don’t have that same intent in their soul that you do, whatever that is. Maybe they’re trying to sound like someone else. Maybe they are more concerned with being famous than desperately trying to get whatever the thing is that’s hurting them or making them feel alive off of their chest. Or maybe they just weren’t raised on The Beatles, poor souls, and don’t have that coding in their DNA. 😉
Popular music is popular because it touches on what most young people want to understand; how do I become the most important person in the room, the most desirable, the hardest partier, the most beautiful; how do I hurt someone who hurt me? etc…
But now, thanks to the internet, we have access to so much more. There’s no gatekeeper deciding what music will or won’t be heard and everyone with an iPhone has an opportunity to touch someone’s soul in such a profound way. And I believe if you’re making anything from that place, from your soul – music or otherwise – it WILL touch someone. It WILL be heard.
But on the flip-side… to the question of soul versus technical chops, I ask… how can you make great music if you don’t know HOW to make music? You have to put in the time to learn your instrument, whether it’s your voice or a guitar or writing, or whatever it is. You have to have enough tools in your belt to build whatever it is you so desperately need to build. Some people are born with way better tools than others and they have an advantage starting out. But you have to respect those advantages and build on them. You can have a great voice but if you don’t learn how to take care of it you won’t have it for long. Some people, for whatever reasons, will never be able to successfully wield musical tools, even if they had all the money in the world to try and do so. The hopeful thing is that you don’t know until you try. Nobody does. But most people are too afraid to try. Therefore, beautiful things that this world could really use are never created.
You can shut yourself in a room and play a guitar for years and years until your fingers bleed and become technically excellent. But without soul, without authenticity, without some kind of pure intent, it won’t touch most people’s lives. I don’t know anyone who ever proposed to someone or made a baby, or ended a relationship or healed a broken heart to the sounds of someone practicing to finally beat the Guinness World Record for Fastest Performed Two Octave Scale on a guitar.
I would at last ask you to listen to Amos Lee’s “Windows Are Rolled Down.” This is his seminal masterwork. When we play this song, the whole band flies and the audience is levitating along with us. If you just let yourself feel the song with an open heart, I think you will understand that feeling of possibility, of limitlessness; THAT intention. And who doesn’t want to feel that?
I wish you all big dreams and the will to chase them and the bravery to admit to them and share them so that others can feel that they’re not alone here on this rock. I invite you to share moments here in the comments when music has resonated with you, songs that hit you like a tons of bricks. I hope this answer was somewhat helpful to you, David. Thank you for such a wonderful question.