Nate: Hey, everybody. This is Nate Silas Richardson. Thanks for lending us your ears for this very first episode of “The Power of Song.” I am beyond stoked to be doing this, and I just want to say that it feels like the right thing at the right time for me. I’ve been an aspiring songwriter for the last 20 or 30 years, depending on how you count them, and I’m hoping that through the process of producing these podcasts we, that’s you as a listener and myself as a producer, can unlock and empower our creative voices, which in my case has been undermined by my own hyperactive inner critic. I imagine I’m not the only one. So it’s only fitting that I would choose as our first guest the inimitable Will Musham, whom I’ve been producing music with for several years now and who, more than anyone else I know, and I know some great songwriters, but I would say more than anyone else I’ve worked with in the studio directly, Will writes songs that speak to me on many levels. Incidentally we recorded this conversation less than a week after Will suffered a minor stroke, which landed him in the hospital for several days, and in that same week we cut the basic tracks for six brand new songs. So it’s safe to say the Force is strong with this one.
So before we get started, I want to acknowledge the support of Dr. Bill Thomas and the Age of Disruption tour, ChangingAging.org, the Idea Farm, and the Center for Growing and Becoming. The Age of Disruption tour is a major force in changing our cultural views on what it means to get old, and answers questions like, “What are old people for?” quite brilliantly. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the tour since its inception, and I would love it if everybody who hears this would go to ChangingAging.org to check it out and plug into a very inspiring movement. Okay, so here we go with episode one of “The Power of Song.”
Will Musham, welcome. Thanks for doing this on short notice and thanks for being willing to be my guinea pig.
Will: No, I’m honored, Nate. I think it’s a wonderful idea, and I feel all inflated. So thanks for asking.
Nate: You had to be the first guest. I mean, we’ve been working together for four or five years, something like that.
Will: We have.
Nate: We’ve put out a number of really fun records.
Will: We have put out actually what amounts to four full CDs and one EP. That’s a lot of work and plus a lot of assorted Christmas songs and whatnot. So our output has been really good.
Will: Yeah, it has.
Nate: So the reason that I asked you to join me here is because I have kind of an intimate knowledge of your songs.
Will: You do.
Nate: And great respect for you as a songwriter, and I just thought you’d be the perfect person for me to start with because we can go deep on your catalog, which ranges from straightforward folk material to rock and roll to even Tin Pan Alley style.
Will: Some cabaret style.
Nate: So I guess I would start by asking where were you in life when you realized that you could be a songwriter or when you first got the bug, say.
Will: Well, I’m thinking about 9 or 10 years of age. I liked to riff on the piano. I didn’t know a C chord from vitamin C, okay? But I found that if I hit my little makeshift chords, little melodies would form in my head. Now, that didn’t strike me as anything really that significant at the time. You know how you are when you can do something or you have some kind of perception, you assume, at that age, everyone else has it. Now, so I did do it for a while. Now, my parents, to their eternal shame, did not give me piano or guitar lessons, even though I was making noises. Certainly, I wanted, I could have used them. So I really didn’t return to it until later, in high school, when I did learn how to play the guitar, which I know there are examples of songwriters who do not play an instrument at all or are very limited. What is that song by Charlie Chaplin? I can’t remember the title of this, but very famous song. He doesn’t play an instrument. He just hummed it to musicians who played it. Or like Irving Berlin, for example, one of the great songwriters, could only play the black keys on the piano, and when he…
Nate: Which makes a major pentatonic scale or minor pentatonic scale, depending on where you start.
Will: Exactly. They arranged his piano with a lever that he could shift keys.
Nate: I did not know that.
Will: Yeah, for a singer, so they could come in and make sure that his songs were in their vocal range. It’s all in the imagination, basically, but two examples I just gave you are fairly rare. They don’t happen to any songwriter. At least learn your triads on a piano or guitar.
Nate: Yeah, it’s not uncommon to see people that teach themselves that and they don’t even know what it’s called, but they know the sound, they play it, and they say, “Oh, that’s that sound,” and then they play the next chord. Oh, that’s that sound. If you just do even all the white keys, you’re playing diatonically in the key of C, no matter what you play. Interesting. So what was the first song you ever wrote? Do you remember?
Will: I think I was kind of, I remember I was in love with a couple of girls at age 9 or 10, and I kind of named it after them. It was something, “The Girls from Evanston, Illinois.” Given time, I think I could probably remember the melody, but I don’t really. That was the first really complete song I wrote, but I mean that’s kind of long ago, far away.
Nate: Nine or 10 years old, wow. So then you actually dropped music until you said you got…
Will: Later in high school. Now, that’s when I had joined a band and I was the songwriter for the band. At that point I was really taking it seriously.
Nate: So this was in the early ’60s, mid ’60s?
Will: Probably mid ’60s.
Nate: So this is the band that I think I saw something about it. There was an inclusion in a museum piece?
Will: Yes, exactly. We had one single recorded on the Parrot label.
Nate: The label was called Parrot?
Will: Parrot label, yeah. At the time it was a big label. Tom Jones recorded for it, and so did Van Morrison before he was, I think he was in the band “Them” right before he became…he recorded for them, yeah.
Nate: Was Gloria on that label?
Will: I think it was. Yeah. So we had our one single, and the titles of those songs, the A side was “Father Death,” and it’s just as pretentious as it sounds, but it was a decent song, I think, for its time.
Will: I think it was 1967.
Will: I was still in high school at the time, a junior in high school. It was psychedelic, yes. Not obnoxiously so, though.
Nate: A lot of reverb?
Will: Yeah, and it was only about two minutes long.
Nate: What was the B side?
Will: The B side was called 900 Mice. Our lead singer had quite a high voice, but if you slowed it down to 33, he sounded like Roosevelt Grier. Do you remember the football player/soul singer?
Nate: Past my time.
Will: Okay, brother of Pam Grier, the actress. Ring a bell?
Nate: No. Born in ’72 over here, so a little bit late to the party.
Will: Okay. But it sounded like the coolest R&B piece when you slowed it down. It didn’t sound like a psychedelic, little whimsy.
Nate: So did you label the disc “Play at 33 RPM?”
Will: No, we didn’t. We should have done it.
Nate: Do you have copies of that somewhere?
Will: I don’t, but they are obtainable if you’re a record sleuth and know how to…
Nate: Let’s give the people the info. Where do they look on eBay?
Will: If you put Dharma Bums, D-H-A-R-M-A Bums. It’s a title of a Jack Kerouac novel.
Nate: Exactly. Named for a band.
Will: Listen, we were cool being uncool at that time. It sounds like an immodest thing to say, but again, at the time, when you’re in the middle of it, you’re not really aware of the real impact you’re making, but in retrospect…
Nate: Did you remember having an influence on any of the bands that were coming up after you? Would you take responsibility for a certain style shift in the Chicago music scene?
Will: If we had lasted long enough. The Vietnam War was in full, it was raging at that time, and our bass player and our drummer were drafted, and nothing we could do about it, and that kind of just hampered the progress of the band. You know how some bands, the chemistry is just magically, perfectly right and you cannot really tamper with that? That’s unfortunately the way it happened. We just didn’t go on.
Nate: So you had the chemistry but the logistics didn’t work out.
Nate: Interesting. Another one bites the dust. Okay, so after that you got into advertising?
Will: I was, yeah.
Nate: So how many years were you in advertising and what were you doing?
Will: Oh, good lord, 25-30 years.
Nate: Was it creative?
Will: I was a copywriter.
Nate: Okay, so there’s a relationship there. I mean, you’re writing.
Will: Yes, and I was dealing actually sometimes with musicians, especially in Chicago. Boy, the people who put together those commercials are amazing. They get a call in the morning and they have to be there with a product by the end of the day. So they have to be familiar with everything that’s happening.
Nate: You’re talking about the studio musicians?
Will: The studio musicians, yeah. Now, I would deal with them sometimes.
Nate: Is that where you got your theoretical knowledge? Because you’re no slouch when it comes to chord progressions. You have a vocabulary. So is that where you picked that up?
Will: Not really. I did go to music school. I did. I was a graduate of the Chicago Conservatory of Music.
Nate: I did not know that. I mean, I assumed there was some kind of something there because…
Will: That’s where I learned my harmony and counterpoint.
Nate: I see. So that came into play a little bit in those days and gave you credibility with the studio musicians?
Will: Yes, it did.
Nate: With a Conservatory degree, why wouldn’t you be behind the glass in terms of performing it?
Will: You mean with the studio musicians? It just wasn’t my role. It wasn’t what I was being paid to do. That’s a coveted type of profession. It’s pretty hard to get into.
Nate: Site reading is…
Will: Advertising, it was just pure luck that I got into that at all. To become a studio musician…And I wasn’t at all adept enough at an instrument to play with them.
Nate: You’re the songwriter.
Will: I always have been, and I’m very content, although I’m so envious of you and your multi-instrumental talents. And I keep thinking, “Man, if I could be that good, that would really enhance what I’m…”
Nate: What you write.
Will: Yeah, exactly. I know you’re not really a songwriter as yet, per se. I mean you are a songwriter, but…
Nate: I’ve written a few.
Nate: I’ve written more than I’d like to admit because I won’t play most of them for anyone.
Will: Okay, well, I’m always willing and I bet there are a lot of people out there who would be willing to listen, but the musical imagination that you bring, particularly to arrangements, to me that’s as creative as songwriting.
Nate: For me, that’s instinct. Would you say for you the songwriting is instinct?
Will: It’s basically instinct. Sure.
Nate: So what is your process like? You’ve been writing songs pretty much your whole life, with the exception of a few years between elementary school and high school.
Will: Well, particularly the last…since I’ve been working with you, since I’ve been in Ithaca. This is the most serious concentrated effort I’ve made.
Nate: So while you were doing the advertising work, you weren’t writing so much.
Will: No. I really wasn’t.
Nate: Gotcha. So retired from that, moved from Chicago to Ithaca, had time on your hands presumably, and out start popping songs. Was it an effort or was it just like they started arriving?
Will: When I moved here, I knew this was a very fecund musical environment here, so I kind of pre-prepared by writing quite a few songs that I’d have something to record when I did get here. I like to think I’ve improved since I’ve been here and I will continue to improve. That’s another thing. It’s like the 10 degree black belt in Taekwondo. You have a certain ideal you keep working for, and you never reach it, but you keep getting closer and closer to it. That’s kind of the idea I keep in mind. Just to get back to what you asked me about, it is instinct. It is always still instinct. You have to make a space to allow that instinct to…
Will: Yeah. You can overthink it. Let’s put it this way. It’s like programming yourself a little bit. You have it in mind, let’s say, “I’m gonna do X number of songs this month,” and then you just stop thinking about it and you just try to see if it happens. I give it a shot every day. I’m not always inspired, but my craft has gotten…I’ve honed the craft a little bit where I can always do a little bit of something or maybe even rework a previous song or something like that, but I don’t want to get too far afield from your question.
Nate: No, I’m very curious about the process. So do you find mornings better?
Will: I think anytime.
Nate: Late at night?
Will: Usually it’s more late at night. That kind of liminal state that our minds get into. When we should actually be asleep and dreaming, instead we’re awake and dreaming. That seems to work for a lot of people that seem to work at night. I know a lot of people who are just more inspired in the morning.
Nate: Okay. Let’s talk about rhyme. When I’m writing/not writing, when I’m creating stuff that I just toss, just ends up in the bin, I’ve found recently that I can be more creative and more expressive and feel better about what I write when I say, “Okay, screw the rhyming.” As soon as I’m thinking about rhyming, I end up with da-da-da, da-da-da, whatever that’s called. First of all, why do you rhyme? I mean obviously it’s the thing that’s almost a rule in songwriting. There’s got to be some kind of rhyme.
Will: It’s not a rule in poetry anymore. I mean free verse is pretty much the way it goes.
Nate: So why rhyme and how do you manage to get around the straightjacket that I’ve found it puts me in in terms of, I find myself writing to the rhyme, and I think some people probably say the same thing when you have a melody and you’re writing to the melody, you have so many syllables to fill and you’ll start inserting more kind of filler syllables. It’s like the less of that you do, the better, right?
Will: I have to be honest, rhyming is a discipline. Most things, if you can discipline yourself, that leads to more freedom. So I suggest just keep at it. Now, as to why rhyming, that’s part of the great mystery of what music and poetry and incantation is about. There’s a magical power that comes into it, and that’s one of those things that’s just in the realm of the ineffable. You can’t really explain it. You just know that it works when you hear it, particularly when sung. It could be a very simple rhyme, but in some way that rhyming scheme…I really have to think about this, Nate. I could probably articulate it a little bit better, but leave it to say for now it’s a mystery.
Nate: Well, I would add, and maybe this will spark your inspiration a little bit, I think Bob Marley said something famously about, “If the children don’t enjoy my music, I’ve failed.” There’s something about a rhyme that I think appeals to children and adults alike. Like you said, it’s a mystery.
Will: It’s like you’re sensing there’s an order, in an odd way, that we usually don’t experience, that kind of order. But things just generally rhyme in our lives, if our lives are going well, if you think about it. Now, this in music is just sort of a concentrated replica of that type of rhyming. A good relationship is a rhyme. A good conversation with people, there’s a rhyme and a rhythm and a give and take and a back and forth. Music is in a sense almost an archetype of that. You see what I’m saying?
Nate: I do. There’s an inevitability factor. Have you ever played the country music rhyme game where you play the radio, put it on pop country music, and you have a race with the person you’re driving with, you hear the first line and you blurt out what the rhyme’s gonna be before… The first person that gets the rhyme…
Will: That’s interesting.
Nate: “So I woke up this morning and I thought about you, and I took out my car and…”
Will: That’s cool. I went to a seminar recently by a guy named Jeffrey Rogers Pepper. Have you heard of him?
Nate: Sounds familiar.
Will: He gives some songwriting seminar. He won the John Lennon songwriting contest and he’s got CDs. He wrote a book. I went over to see him at Anna Cougan’s house. That’s where he was having a seminar. He said one thing he counsels when songwriting, he said, “Don’t even worry about if you’re making sense when you’re trying to come up with the lyrics, because the music is gonna suggest words. Sometimes they might be nonsense words or they might appear to be nonsense words to you. That’s the way they kind of resonate with you, but get them down on paper.”
Nate: Like scrambled eggs.
Will: That’s it. Scrambled eggs and a falling piano. Who knows where that could lead.
Nate: I was referencing Paul McCartney, “Yesterday.” He wrote that as, “Scrambled eggs,” before he got it.
Will: One thing I think I read, I think it was an interview with McCartney and he was talking about how, when he and Lennon first got together and were trying to write songs together, they had no faith in their own stylings and their own compositions. They kept trying to imitate calypso music, trying to become the next best thing and they finally decided, “Look, we may as well just go with our own stuff,” as if they were just giving up and they had no chance. It turned out their own natural style was the next big thing. So there’s a lesson in that. Have faith, even if you’re…
Nate: Where in their career did that occur? I mean I’m assuming you’re talking about like “Roll Over Beethoven” was…
Will: Oh, before they even signed with Brian Epstein.
Nate: Because a lot of their early material sounds like, it’s like, “Okay, now they’re doing an Elvis thing, now they’re doing…”
Will: Right. They did a lot of covers. We’re doing a lot of covers at the time. Buddy Holly was…
Nate: But even some of the originals. In some cases I may think it’s an original, but it’s actually a cover or vice versa, but “Roll Over Beethoven,” did they write that one?
Will: No. That was Chuck Berry.
Nate: Yeah. Of course. So I guess there were covers a lot, but I think probably a lot of their earlier originals also had a kind of derivative-
Will: A song like Lennon’s “Please Please Me,” is very much like Buddy Holly, but it ranks right up there with a Buddy Holly song. It’s that good, I think. Obviously as their songwriting went on, they became much more distinctly themselves.
Nate: Are you more of a Lennon guy or McCartney guy?
Will: Probably McCartney, although I love Lennon. How long did the Beatles last, 10 years? I would think it was something, and they had…
Nate: ’50s, right?
Will: It was 75, 76, 77 songs. That’s the entirety. In the beginning, Lennon was writing most of them because he was kind of the leader of the group, and I assume that he was an authority figure, but McCartney just kept coming on and on, and even though Lennon did kind of have the reputation as being the most Avant garde, I always found it was more McCartney who was really a little bit more innovative than Lennon. The idea of a concept album, Sergeant Pepper was all McCartney’s idea. But again, Lennon was a fantastically good songwriter. It’s just a miracle that those guys found each other.
Nate: I know. So what about Springsteen? I was gonna say Springsteen or Paul Simon? That’s a very odd pairing.
Will: I would be a Springsteen. Here’s something I have to admit. There is something about Paul Simon. I will grant he is an absolute adept at songwriting, great guitar player, but something about him just rubs me in the wrong way. I don’t know. I think maybe it’s that…
Nate: “Feeling groovy.” Is that where it starts?
Will: “I am a rock, I am.” You know? There’s something I found a little bit overwrought.
Will: Yeah, and there’s something about that little “Mr. Lonely Hearts New York,” and it kind of comes through in his music, even to this day. Didn’t he announce his retirement recently or something? Having said that, more power to him because he made a great success out of himself. He was an absolute master at songwriting.
Nate: Springsteen, on the other hand…
Will: Springsteen, on the other hand, he certainly was more of a, let’s say, a Dylan protégé. Dylan’s basically my go-to guy for American pop songwriting. You could say Paul Simon had more finely-tuned melodies than Springsteen, but still in the end I’d rather listen to Springsteen because I find him a bit more honest.
Will: Approachable, even though he’s, I think, recently gone into doing these…every song seems to be a big anthem about the government, the people, the common man. You can overdo that a little bit. He could put the brakes on that a little bit, I think. Springsteen’s lyrics are sometimes very good. They’re not overly poetic like Paul Simon can be, I feel, at times. Look, I can be overly poetic myself.
Nate: I always think of that as a good thing. I think of a song like “When the Sparrow Falls,” or another one right around that time.
Will: “Because I’m a Man.”
Nate: Those songs are so poetic. That’s what gives them the power, I think, the mood and the poetry of the lyrics. I think I dressed them up, but really the appeal is…it’s always interesting when you’re looking at work you’ve done, your own self and we collaborated on that. There’s a bit of a narcissism, I guess, when I listen and I’m like, “I helped bring this into being,” and there’s satisfaction in that, but the emotion of it isn’t from that. The emotion of it is from the lyrics, for the most part, I think.
Will: You’re right. Of course, you have to have a good blend of, there’s sometimes the way the lyrics are married to the melody which you cannot conceive of any other type of lyric, but you could not replace those. That again, is part of the mystery, because sometimes when composing, the line, the poetic line, the lyric will come at the same time, it’s like they’re one entity. They will come to me. It doesn’t happen all the time, but that was the case I think with the two songs you named. Thank you for saying that they’re poetic, but there is a point at which you can become overwrought and a little too precious, and I’m always aware of that, using Paul Simon as my template. Sometimes I just say to myself, “This line is too much like overripe fruit and it’s about ready to ferment on me,” and I will discard it and I’ll just get a little something more plain in its place. Those two songs, “When the Sparrow Falls,” I think I did replace a couple of lines in there that I felt were a little bit too much.
Nate: I would imagine most of the best songs didn’t just, well, maybe this isn’t true, but I always expect people to pare down their writing. It’s like when you make an album, I think I’ve told you this before, I like to make 14 songs and put on 10 or 12, or make 12 songs and put on 9 or 10, just so that you take the cream.
Will: Yeah, and that’s the way it is with the individual song, too. You take the cream. There are songs where maybe I’ve felt I’ve just gone overboard with a verse or two, many. It just makes the song a bit unwieldy sounding. Now, those may be very good lyrics, but I’ve got to excise them if I really want to make it a nice, lean, and trim, presentable piece of work.
Nate: Sure. So on the podcast I’m gonna include some links. So I’m gonna link people to your Bandcamp site so they can go through all the material, but I would like people to check out that song, “When the Sparrow Falls.” What other songs are you feeling are particularly proud moments for you?
Will: Oh, my word. Certainly in our last effort and almost any song on Joker Moon I would not be ashamed to present anywhere at any time. “Fire in the Head.” That really coheres.
Nate: Well, that’s “Where the Sparrow Falls” and “Because I’m a Man.”
Will: And “A Drinking Man,” which I’m very proud of, all the songs on that. “Wild River,” which is a video on YouTube, if anybody wants to look it up. All those songs I think are worthy.
Nate: I want to get back to process, but I also want to look through a couple themes that I see in your music. I think that there is an ongoing theme not in all the songs of course, but you seem to return to, well, “In the Time That We’re Given,” was the other one I was thinking of from that record. There’s something, it’s not morbid, it’s recognizing the fleeting amount of time we’re here.
Will: The trenchant nature of life.
Nate: Can you talk about why that pops up for you a lot?
Will: I sure will. To answer that I’m gonna back up a bit. One time I’m at a point of reading, I can’t say it was really a study, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the hymnity of the Shakers. They were basically known for their woodwork but they had composed a great many wonderful hymns, and I wanted to look at the themes of those because in my music I want to get some aspect of, for lack of a better word, spirituality, across. Now, the themes of many of these Shaker hymns, well, all of them really, there was one that kind of a lamentation, it said, “Look, we’re lost, we need divine help in some way,” others were like just praise songs. It might be praising nature. We see God active in nature, whatever, in other people, in relationships. This was what I tried to employ.
Now, I’m not gonna try to imitate the lyrics of a Shaker hymn. So I’m gonna do it in my own modern method, but those are the themes that I want to get across, that we see through a glass darkly, as the Bible says. There is so much around it that we cannot perceive spiritually, but it is possible to, if we meditate and contemplate and just desire to see it a little bit. I was talking to some friends the other day about what is the meaning and purpose of art just in general? Now, to me, it’s, this sounds almost contradictory, but is to disillusion, because we’re hampered by illusion that keeps us from living more full spiritual, robust creative lives. Get rid of that illusion and we become more spiritually sober. That’s a theme I’d like to keep bringing back into my music. Now, of course just being aware of the fact that we live in a very transitory material world is something we should be reminding ourselves of all the time. We don’t have to be morbid about it, because I am all for living material life to 100%. Enjoy it, but it’s gonna go away eventually.
Nate: Don’t take it for granted.
Will: Right, exactly. We all have our wakeup calls. I had one myself recently. But that’s what I try to get across. Now, harking back to what we were talking about, it’s easy to get overwrought with this kind of theme. You might put it in the form of a simple love song. You can still get that across. To me, a lot of love songs, you can think of it as a, “Okay,” this is all romantic between two people. You can also think of a love song as you might be addressing the divine, the creative forces. You can read a song that way. Dylan has done some wonderful love songs which can be read on many, you can interpret on many levels of experience and interpretation.
Nate: You want to throw one out, reference one specifically?
Will: “Just Like A Woman.” I think “Tangled Up In Blue” is kind of an extended love song, but it’s his pilgrimage. Losing love, searching for it, and then sort of realizing you’re never in this life gonna be free from the search, and you can search but you will not really be able to find it completely in this life. You will find it eventually, but not in this life. That’s why this life, you have to meet its challenges and accept its restrictions and accept the fact that you are going to suffer, there’s no way out of it, and though modern life tells us we don’t have to, there’s one balm after another.
Nate: If you just get the right iPhone, everything will be perfect.
Will: Yeah, there you go. There it is.
Will: It doesn’t have to be Dylan. It could be just a simple Woodie Guthrie song, some two chord…Woodie, he gets the point across just as well.
Nate: How about Pete Seeger? Did you ever meet him?
Will: I like Pete Seeger and I have to give him credit for being one of the great American troubadours. I have to admit he still believed in Joseph Stalin up until the last couple years of his life. That indicates to me that he had some kind of a basic blindness.
Nate: He wasn’t much of a songwriter, was he?
Will: No, he really wasn’t. He had a couple songs. What was that ticky tacky? Do you remember the song, houses and they all look the same? He might have done it. I can’t remember.
Nate: Who wrote “This Land is Your Land”? That’s Woodie.
Will: Yeah, definitely.
Nate: He played that one a lot. But “Yo Yo” was an African song. I can’t think of any songs that I can credit to Pete.
Will: He had a wonderful voice. There’s just something about it.
Nate: The big banjo he had, a very rich sound.
Will: Yeah. When I heard his voice, I’d feel like somebody’s throwing a warm blanket over my shoulders. It was just wonderful. He got in a huge, maybe not public conflict, but he definitely had his differences with Bob Dylan. When Bob Dylan stopped what was considered at the time…
Will: Yeah, protest, politically activist songs and got more into his stream-of-consciousness dreamscape type of songs.
Nate: He got criticized by Pete Seeger.
Will: Pete Seeger did not care for that.
Nate: Was he famously the one that was gonna pull the plug at the…
Will: Yeah, at Newport Folk Festival. He may have done so, as far as I know. He tried to. But yeah.
Nate: I would just say, for me, he’s just always stood as someone who, and this is part of the inspiration for doing the podcast is just kind of the appreciation for the craft song and the appreciation for simple in song, not having it have to be, like you said, overwrought. He would do concerts and sing 50 songs in a night, and one of them would just be one verse, and storytelling alongside that, interweaved between songs, during songs.
Will: He kept that flame alive during the great electronic revolution in American music, and may it forever stay alive. I think Bob Dylan does something still of the same kind. I’ve heard Dylan lament that young musicians, composers today tend to think that maybe music started with The Clash or U2 or something, and not denying those guys, but Dylan said, and I totally agree with him, that if you’re gonna be an American songwriter, you’ve got to familiarize yourself. You don’t have to study it, but you have to be familiar with basic American roots, root music, the blues, pre-1950s jazz, okay, and folk music of course. Be familiar with that. Dylan was familiar with it. Some people think, “Well, it’s too much of a straitjacket.”
Nate: The blues? You’re saying the blues was too much of a straitjacket?
Will: No, just basic American roots music. We don’t want to confine ourselves to that. It’s too limiting. Woodie Guthrie would say anybody who uses more than two chords in a song is showing off. Of course he used three chords in “This Land.” Look what Dylan did with a very simple form. He was incredibly innovative. Dylan never got into psychedelia, he just kept maintaining his basically blues, folky approach, but he continues to innovate within that. It’s not a straitjacket and it’s not too limiting at all.
Nate: I find that I make more progress, and again, I don’t claim to be a model for anyone, but I make more progress when I have those limitations. In fact, I’ve found that when I went to music school, that was, I feel, the first thing where I suddenly…before I went to music school I could just create stuff. I would just play it. Like you said, out of instinct I would just play something, and it was great. I had a friend who used to just improvise lyrics, and I would improvise guitar. We would record it with a tape recorder and play it back. We had our song. We would refine it, play it again, record it again, teach it to the band, and that’s how we made our albums. That was really cool, but then music school I started to realize how harmony works and what the rules are and what your options are, and I was like, oh, “I have all these options. Now I don’t know what to do.” So in a way, like you say, the blues, somebody says it’s limiting, but somebody else could say it’s actually giving you a structure to play on, like a jungle gym or something, where you reach higher heights when you have something like that.
Will: You absolutely need that. You need a structure and you need strictures.
Nate: What do you mean by that?
Will: Just limitations basically, because you have to know the limitations and you have to know the rules before you break them. I have nothing against breaking the rules. If that’s what you’re inspired to do, then go for it. That’s another thing about writing a song. It’s like maybe writing a piece of fiction or short story or novel. You can do anything you want, just make sure it’s consistent all the way through. You establish your own little universe with your own laws of physics. Just make sure you remain the same all the way through.
Nate: Through a piece, not through your whole career.
Will: Yeah, through a piece. It could be as wacky as you want it to be. Just make sure it’s consistent.
Nate: Interesting. So, working title for this podcast is “The Power of Song.” I heard you say something earlier, maybe it was the mystery of song. I’m not sure which way we’re gonna go with it yet, but I’d love to just talk about that for a minute. I work a lot with music as a healing medium. In my travels with Samute [SP], we do music for people that are suffering to alleviate the suffering even for a time, and there’s a lot of great science now about music therapy, how it’s a really huge emerging field that has giant promise for helping people. What’s your experience or what are you inspired by when I talk about that? Where does that make your mind go?
Will: That’s a good question.
Nate: Have you ever witnessed somebody have an emotional epiphany either while playing one of your songs or…
Will: Yes, I have. Let me say this by way of preamble. I think there’s two types of creativity, at least that I’ve personally experienced. The first type of creativity is probably more common. I’m just gonna reference songwriting right here. You write a song, you’re going through a horrible period in your life or reflecting on it, you write a song that really well articulates that, and you actually feel relieved. You feel a load off, and when other people listen to it, those who can relate to it also feel that…
Nate: Something has been expressed.
Will: Something has been expressed, your load has been lightened. It’s like waking up in the morning, you know that feeling? You wake up in the morning and it’s a new day, it’s like the first morning all over again, you’ve got all these possibilities ahead of you. Something has happened in your dream state that has resolved issues. A good therapeutic song does the same thing. Now, there’s another type of creativity, and I find that I am doing more and more of this, in which I am not personally experiencing any kind of particular keen or poignant emotion, but some sort of inspiration is coming through. When I express it, it doesn’t necessarily make me feel lighter, because I already was not feeling that bad, but it does give me a high, for lack of a better word. Sometimes I imagine I can feel the crown chakra on the top of my head fluttering a little bit when this happens. It’s like a religious experience. Now, there’s one songwriter in town that I, Jennie Lowe Stearns, is really good at therapeutic, because she has emotional resonance to a great deal that I can tell. I don’t really know her, by the way. I know who she is and I’ve seen her. But we have never really officially met, but I’m a huge fan of hers. That’s one thing she does wonderfully.
Now, my songs, I don’t know if they’re that relatable on an emotional level, but they’re relatable on another level, if you can be attuned to it. I like to think if you can, it will change your consciousness, shift your consciousness a little bit. Let me give you an example. Gregorian chant, which was mandatory at monasteries for centuries and centuries. When the second Vatican Council, this happened in the Catholic church in the early ’60s, decided to make, they were liberalizing a lot of the…the mass didn’t have to be in Latin anymore, and so forth. But they made the Gregorian chant optional at monasteries. Now, keeping in mind that life in a monastery is like perpetual boot camp. You’re not just lying on a bale of hay contemplating the stars. You have to farm during the day, you don’t get much food, at least this is the way it used to be, you have strictly a vegetarian diet, you get very little sleep, you have to get up in the middle of the night and do the stations of the cross or whatever it is. I’m not really Catholic, so I can’t tell you the specifics. It’s a hard life. Anyway, for centuries monks have been up to this, and once they made the Gregorian chant optional, a lot of monasteries then cut it out. They found that the monks started losing strength. They had to put meat into their diets, they had to give them more sleep. In other words, there was something about the Gregorian chant which…
Nate: Fortified them.
Will: Fortified them, and I’ve met quite dedicated Christians, I said, “What do you think of the Gregorian chant?” and they said, “Well, it’s spooky music. We don’t really like it. We like the happy,” they’re missing out on something.
Nate: Well, let’s just say there’s a difference between singing it and hearing it, of course. They’re at least very similar in terms of the resonance, but the breath of singing it, I would attribute that to more of the physical aspects of it.
Will: Maybe, but I like to think there is something about whoever intuitively put those Gregorian chants together knew something about…
Nate: Wouldn’t it be Gregory?
Will: Maybe it was Pope Gregory. I don’t know. The sonic resonance could actually strike the spiritual centers, open them up, and allow divine energy to come in. Now, remember, breathing is of course important. It would be like in yoga, I suppose. These guys too, the monks, were very physically active and outdoors and farming and doing whatever they do.
Nate: But the meditativeness of singing long notes attunes you to your breath in a way that chopping wood doesn’t. There’s definitely a relationship there.
Will: I agree. Suppose the act, very much in the same way the Tibetan chant does. The Gregorian chant is the Western version of Tibetan chant, which is said to do the same things.
Nate: Yeah, well this has been an amazing conversation. I think we might be wrapping it up here. Any other local songwriters you want to recommend people check out?
Will: Good lord. So many. Anna Cougan is wonderful. Johnny Dowd. Those are the ones that come to mind immediately. Andy Railing I like, although I don’t know how local he is anymore. I think he’s in and out of town.
Nate: Well, Will, it’s been really great to have this conversation.
Will: It’s been an honor.
Nate: I could easily do this for another hour. I don’t know how long we’ve been going, but…
Will: Yeah, it’s been a while.
Nate: It’s really great. Thanks for joining us.
Will: Thanks for having me. I’m really honored to be your first guest. Maybe I’ll be a guest again.
Nate: I hope so. And there you have it, episode one. It’s a wrap. “The Power of Song” podcast is brought to you by the Age of Disruption tour, ChangingAging.org, the Idea Farm, and the Center for Growing and Becoming. The music you’re hearing at the beginning and end of the show is a song called “Look on High,” written by my friend, Will Musham, and you can purchase, stream, download, enjoy this song at WillMusham.Bandcamp.com. That’s W-I-L-L-M-U-S-H-A-M.Bandcamp.com. I hope you check it out and there are several amazing albums on there, if I do say so myself. Thanks for tuning in. Again, I’m Nate Silas Richardson. My guest was Will Musham, and we will be back soon with Tinden Chopak [SP] for our next episode. Until then, keep those creative juices flowing. Peace.