The Ever Changing Landscape of Influence

Lately, I've been listening to a lot of music that is new to me. I am purposely trying not to revert to only my old stand bys when I put tunes on while working. For instance, I have my Bandcamp feed playing as I type this. It's a great place to discover artists that would otherwise never hit my radar. Besides being introduced to artists in genres I don't normally gravitate toward, I'm finding a lot of hard rock and metal back in my ears. It makes me contemplate, not for the first time, the fact that those formative influences stay with us no matter how much we change. But also, how limiting they are. As a younger man, I was extremely closed-minded to anything outside the scope of the flavor of the moment. I had the ridiculously few things I liked and nothing else was even considered worthy of, well, consideration. I missed out on a lot of great music that way. I'm frequently embarrassed to be hearing something for the first time now, in middle age, that was released or was popular in my teens or my twenties. And that only accounts for mainstream music. How amazing is it to have such easy access to under-the-radar music? I'm astounded. I don't have to rely on word-of-mouth transmission of something new. It was a great system, like when my friend Jim introduced me to Metallica before anyone really knew who they were, and it still works now. Yesterday my co-worker Steve turned me on to Kevin Gilbert and his incredible legacy. You have to check out his album Thud from 1994. It's well worth it just for the bass tones.

Places like Bandcamp and Soundcloud now offer unlimited possibilities for music discovery. As with all things internet, it is overwhelming and can be intimidating. Where to start? The answer I have found is anywhere. There is so much great music out there made by amazing artists, it truly doesn't matter where you start. The important thing is that you do start if you want to discover the unique and wonderful sounds the world of musicians has to offer. The main streaming services are using algorithms that self-fulfill the perpetuation of only the most popular music of the moment. Sure, there's far more music on the platforms than you'll ever know, but that's the problem, it's too hard to find.

 And that brings me to my point of what influences me creatively. As anyone who appreciates music has to work hard to expand their tastes beyond what is spoon-fed to them, I have to work hard as a creator not to subconsciously default to my comfort foods. What I didn't know as a hard-headed teenager, obviously, was that my tastes would evolve. I would come to be more and more inclusive in what I can appreciate, and be influenced by. I haven't lost any of the loyalty to 80s metal that I felt back in the day, but the music I create doesn't reveal it as a source of inspiration. I guarantee it is. The songcraft and level of musicianship are still there as goals I hope to someday achieve. And the best of the genre is rife with intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics and is not afraid to confront social issues head-on. It is where I learned that the lyrical content of songs didn't have to be vapid, meaningless, and more often than not, damaging tropes that amplify our worst social impulses. That's another problem with the mainstream; homogeny is not vital, it is easy and thoughtless. I always want to be putting thought into what I create.

I feel fortunate that my path has exposed me to a variety of influences simply through proximity. Having lived in a few different parts of the country I've seen what life is like outside of where I grew up. Being on the road as a performing musician has done the same. My experience is narrow in that I still have not been out of the country, but the U.S. is so much bigger than I realized, and the diversity of ways of life is a cultural smorgasbord I'm glad to have tasted. Playing music not just in different localities but with different people is a boon of inspiration. I have learned something from each and every musician I've worked with. And the variety of musical styles, even within a genre, created by the melding of minds between the members of a band is a quality that cannot be replicated without those specific people. And so, I find my influences are tied to the moment I'm in. I used to be able to answer without hesitation who my favorite artist is, or what album or song tops my chart. Now I have to add the qualifier of “today”. 

I've been thinking about this because I feel my creative output shifting into new territory, which leads me to believe I am incorporating influences I have not before. I can't name them outright with much confidence. I have spent an inordinate amount of time listening to both Tom Waits and Nick Cave in the last few years. But there is also Josh Ritter and Craig Finn, both of whom hit my radar thanks to Rob Williams and playing in his band. Similarly Tony and Pale Blue Dot are filling in gaps in my appreciation for bands like Pearl Jam and Radiohead. My sphere of influence includes women's voices more than any previous time in my life. Adia Victoria, Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Lucinda Williams. These are but a few. I'm kind of obsessed with Amanda Shires as an artist. It's exciting to be on the edge of discovery. I don't know how all these influences will converge, or what the outcome will be. I do know my new collection of songs, Cold Comfort: Tales From Whitelandia feels like a natural progression from Suburban Rebel. And the songs I'm working on now were conceived in the same mindset that produced those two albums. What comes next is yet to be discovered. The words getting set to paper with my typewriter are not lending themselves to the same musical treatment in my mind. I'm grateful to feel as if I'm still growing as an artist, which means I'm still collecting influences.

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