Tag Archives: Art

Solace in Traditional Forms

25 Sep

As a young songwriter (I’m talking teens and early twenties) all I wanted to do was re-write the book on how songs were made; to make something so outrageously original yet accessible that  young and old alike would think “this is amazing. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before”. I went so far as to shuck traditional theory and lessons when learning the guitar in the hope that my lack of formal knowledge would allow me to stumble upon some sonic truth that had laid undiscovered throughout civilisation.

Yet somehow even using this method of songwriting I was drawn to the traditional forms. Major and minor chords would still form the root of whatever I was creating. It had nothing to do with selling out my ideals, but everything to do with solving the particular problem I was facing in bringing the musical idea that was trapped in my head out into the world. I had been willfully blind to the fact that every chord under the sun can be quantified by traditional (still largely current) musical theory.

I still did the best I could to steer away from the traditional forms. I didn’t want to have anything to do with my parents or grandparents generation. I wanted to help define the sound of my own generation. Yet despite dabbling in (and usually mixing together) every trend of that decade, I found myself drawn to traditional forms as if by gravity.

I hated Country, yet I would write it. I hated old american folk music and yet I would write it. Ragtime was boring. Most everything that wasn’t the result of some sort of punk attitude or aesthetic I had no interest in, yet somehow over time I began to appreciate it. And it wasn’t just me.

All my friends began having less and less interest in the latest hottest thing. We became fluent in the pathways of music past, and how to interpret their influences on those hot new things. The hot new things became hollow. Not hot or new at all. Just a jumble of old influences that their friends and contemporaries hadn’t yet cottoned on to, or if they had it was intentionally ironic or post modern or whatever other excuse was needed to form a membrane between what they were doing now and the context within which the earlier influence arose.

Something else was also happening. We were living. Things in our lives weren’t going as we’d planned. Life was more complex than we had been led to believe, and it was harder to succeed than we had thought. All of a sudden the new music with its vocals set deep back in the mix, its illusive meanings, or straight-up shallow raps didn’t seem to reflect where we were at emotionally. It didn’t shed a light on what we were going through and we were old enough to know what was going on behind the curtain; “That’s just a TR808 with a Juno bass line” etc.

There was however a pre-existing cure for our ailment, and it has come back time and time again when it has been needed, and that is the traditional folk song in its many forms. Blues, country, appalachian, jazz, gypsy and soul etc, are all folk formats to one set of peoples or another, and they all offer a reliable platform upon which an artist can say what they feel they must.

It tends to come back into popularity in times of great social change and turmoil, when people are looking for something familiar to hold on to (GFC anyone? That’s still happening right?). It’s hard to identify with a guy singing about getting a bitch on a dance floor when you’re being bullied at work, have money troubles and a rocky relationship. Sometimes you just want to hear your life sung back at you.

There is currently a healthy resurgence in these folk musics and the cringe formerly attached has greatly lessened in the younger generations (at least in my own). I have felt a shift in the current generation of pop artists whereby the aim is to be as respectful to the source influences as they can, to pay homage to them while also attempting to bring something new to the canon of that genre. Aloe Blac, Sharon Jones and the Dap kings and Mark Ronson come to mind as examples of respectful referencing of classic soul music for instance.

I have been doing live sound for countless acoustic acts over the past 7 months, all of whom have sought to bring irony free truth in communicating the subject matter of their material. When tongue-in-cheek does creep into a set it is usually in the form of an ironic acoustic cover of a Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls or Britney Spears style pop song.

They tackle the traditional art form in all seriousness because they are relying on it to help them deliver their message in the most economic form of emotional communication as they can. It is this economy of communication that has ensured that the traditional artforms that gave rise to the 2 minute pop song still endure. It is also why I myself have gravitated towards it.

I have been heavily influenced by artists such as Harry Nilsson, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Neil Young and  Burt Bacharach in the past few months. Not one of them would I say was all that original. Of course they all exhibit something unique to themselves, but every single one of them relies heavily on the frame provided by the traditions that came before them on which to hang their ideas. These guys were just particularly good at using the format to communicate.

I am still in the throes of dealing with a number of years of complex and deeply upsetting trauma through song. I can’t stop writing (I wrote a song yesterday while repairing a broken window!). And the only format that I have found that can adequately allow me to match my ideas with lyrics and melody is the traditional pop song. Often I have found Country to provide the easiest backdrop to what I want to say, and allow me to marry complex lyrical ideas (such as a narrative) with a strong melody. It’s like coming home. Like that moment when you’re old enough to realize that your parents aren’t really bad people, that they had tried as hard as they could for you given the circumstances and while struggling with their own demons. The traditional pop song was never boring. We just didn’t get it. We thought we didn’t need it. We were sure there was a better way that completely avoided it; and there might be, but it is my belief that you need to acknowledge what the traditional form is before accusing it of what it isn’t. To move forward sometimes you need to look back lest you go around in circles. Wait a minute….but we are going around in circles! Well I suppose he world isn’t flat.

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