I watched the Ed Sheeran documentary

Laremy mentioned to me after reading the last blog that I wrote about Ed Sheeran quite a bit and that might be confusing to some people, so I thought I’d come back with the why. I’m teaching Songwriting this semester and one of the first things we do is listen and look through the students’ favorite songs. This is only my second time teaching the course, but Sheeran has shown up both times—and the first time I was admittedly a smidge pretentious about it. (I hope you hear the understatement in that.) So this time, I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about and VOILA! his cousin made a documentary about him entitled—drum roll, please—Songwriter. You can catch it on Apple Music if you’d like, but what I can say about it is that it was utterly fascinating for me to watch. I come from the desert fathers songwriting/art-making camp, which is that you hole yourself up alone in a room and work it out. The documentary is a testament to what happens in pop music at this point in time—a gaggle of songwriters on a boat or a Malibu retreat center just hanging out, working on hooks. On one hand, I love this—I wish I had been more open to co-writing when I first started writing songs—I didn’t even play in a real band until I was in my mid-twenties and by then I was sorely lacking in the creative flexibility required of taking feedback and using it well. On the other hand, I want Ed Sheeran and all his friends to GET OFF MY LAWN. Mostly, I want to hold on to my belief in “the artist” or whatever—the voice of one person crying in the wilderness, the singular—monomaniacal?—vision of perspective of the world. But of course, that’s a lie, isn’t it? I don’t write songs in vacuum and it doesn’t take some extra heavenly ordained “talent”. It takes focus and work and craft. And time. And lots of conversations with people about ideas.

There’s something else too. Mr. Sheeran seems to really love songwriting and actually seems to love many of the same things that I do about the craft: The single right word, the prosody of a line, making sure everything fits in its right place. So why still all the judgy feelings I have? The content? The success? Hard to parse. But it’s something about him and his cronies not taking the making seriously enough. Maybe it’s just that I judge the song on ÷ that he seems to love the most as the most trite and uninteresting of the batch. But that’s just petty. So what about heavily academic explainers—those always help, year? John Gardener wrote The Art of Fiction, my personal holy tome on fiction writing, but he also wrote On Moral Fiction in which he tried to make the case that people ought to take fiction more seriously, that they ought to recognize the moral heft of a story—not moral as in the moral at the end of the story, not the didactic This is how you ought to live, but the weightier idea that there is big T truth happening in fiction and a writer ought to recognize that and tread carefully. And something in Sheeran—or maybe not in Sheeran, but in the way pop Bangers are made—smacks of triviality. And now we’re back around to GET OFF MY LAWN. TAKE THE ART SERIOUSLY. Don’t write the hook just because you know a billion people will sing it and a million people will buy it. Write the hook with care and concern and the knowledge that people will have that idea stuck in their heads at night and they’ll sing it to themselves in the shower and they’ll carry it with them and it might just change the way they move through the world.

But also: what a load of poppycock that is. Music is—and should be fun. I know that, but it doesn’t stop the old codger in my heart from shaking his fist.

Late-Stage Art and Rodney Dangerfield

I keep seeing the phrase Late-stage Capitalism in things that I read. It has nothing to do with this oncoming thought, but I like that prefix “late-stage”. My excellent friend and former bandmate, Josh Engen (click the link to check out his band, Parachutes Fail) texted me yesterday with this gem:

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an artist when you’re 40, and it kinda sucks.

I reminded him that I’m 37.

But the point still stands. I remember being terrified of turning 25 because that would be the end of my window as a songwriter and musician—if I hadn’t “made it” by then, I wasn’t ever going to make it and I should probably just quit. Even putting aside the problematic nature of the idea of making it, the idea is absurd. It seems like it’s probably a testament to America’s (or pop culture’s) obsession with youth, but in what other world does experience not equal quality? I wrote lots of songs in my teens and twenties and some of them were alright, but I can say without a doubt that I’m a helluva lot better songwriter at 37 than I was at 17 or at 27 for the matter. Some of that is time spent with the craft (Ed Sheeran talks a lot about Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of 10,000 hours), but a lot of that is age and perspective. So it should mean that making art at 40 (or 37) is better. Why then does it suck? Is it a matter of audience? Certainly the demographics for Mr. Sheeran’s songs run quite a bit younger than 40 and they seem to be much more rabid in their fandom. Should we chalk that up to hormones? Or available time? I don’t have a ton of time to go to shows and discover new music, but my 15-year-old neighbor (and our current drummer) does. What else does he have to do? Is it about wanting to listen to someone having the same experience as you? Because most of the folks working on songs with Sheeran are closer to my age than to my neighbor’s age (who would have a fit if he knew I was mentioning him and Ed Sheeran in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence).

It’s got to be about time on some level. I don’t have the time to make things like I did when I was 22. When I was 22 I was in a band that practiced every single night—we’re lucky to get one a week. But also it’s got something to do with Rodney Dangerfield: “I can’t get no respect!” (says the guy that agreed to this sitcom premise). I’m sure this is a chicken and egg question and all of my reasoning will end up circular, but it seems to me that the best way to not let creating in middle-age destroy you is to adjust expectations. We play a lot of shows in the Back Back of Laremy’s coffeeshop/cafe, The Fruited Plain and when we do, it is a genuinely wonderful experience. Our kids are often there (sometimes they join us on stage) and the room is full of people who know us and I think because they know us, the appreciate the thing we make more than other folks might. So is that enough? To make music a few times a year at the neighborhood venue that we built? Why, then do I pay so much attention to Spotify statistics and Shazams from Moscow? (I don’t really care about Shazams from Moscow—I just wanted to link Laremy’s brilliant photoshop job). We’ve been working up this new song where the bridge is: Is enough enough? Enough is enough. I was interested in turning the negatively connotated Enough is enough into a positive idea—I think you can hear it if you come out to Pork and Bands at the Back Back on September 14th. I read this piece on Bon Iver where Vernon’s songs were described as “prayerful—but not preachy”. When you hear the tune, know that it’s a prayer, not a sermon. I’m trying to believe that in Late-stage Art, simply making something is Enough.

Lazarus

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This is my guitar. It’s my guitar being reglued for the second time. I left it in a hot car this summer. Don’t do that.

I used to own a run-of-the-mill Taylor but when I played this 1981 Guild D-25 in the back room of Willie’s American Guitars, I immediately sold it one craigslist and bought the Guild. When my son, Judah, was 9 months old and moving around the house by holding on to things, he grabbed the Guild, which I had irresponsibly set against a radiator in the kitchen, and they both tumbled. The baby was okay, the Guild was not. The headstock snapped off.

I got a couple quotes on fixing it, but we had two kids under two and no money to fix a guitar that was older than me, so it went in the case and then in our basement and then in my parents’ garage when we moved to Iowa. I bought a different Guild—a mahogany 84 D-5–but it just never spoke to me in the same way.

Then one day I told Laremy about the headless Guild and he said, “We should glue it.”

What did I have to lose?

We did. And it came back to life and I know how dumb this is but it was like hearing the voice of an old friend who you haven’t spoken to in years. I sold the other Guild to pay for a neck reset and when the luthier, super good dude, J. Rieck, saw the headstock, he said in his most serious and deadpan voice, “I wish you wouldn’t have done that.” But it wouldn’t have been in his shop if we hadn’t.

It feels like blogs are supposed to have a point? Sometimes it’s best to just throw yourself into something. Or maybe it’s never too late to come back to life. Or maybe: Second wind? Try third.

I’m thinking about writing

I’m thinking about writing. This is what I spend a lot of my time doing. Thinking about it. The writing part—not so much. There’s an old idiom that was probably Twain or Shakespeare or someone: Writers don’t want to write, they want to have written. Yup. Sounds right.

So I’m starting small (a very good place to start). Right here, right now. One tiny blog at a time.

—Luke

T shirts!

Is it T shirts, T-shirts, or tee shirts? Who knows/who cares. We've got them. Check out the merch tab for the softest blue T/T-/tee shirt you could ever dream up. That's Merle, the rural squirrel, smiling back at you, cheeks full of walnuts and joy. Thank you to Jennifer Allen for dreaming/drawing him up and to Ella Swart for laying out the shirt. (And to Laremy for the font.) We're hoping to add some more shirts--different colors, different cuts--soon, but get one of these while we still them!

Hard Rock Round 1

We had a blast at the Hard Rock Hotel Sioux City's Anthem playing on a big stage (Titus' drum stage was about the size of our usual habitat) under the fancy lights out of a professional sound system. And ... we won.

The two other bands (Vibe Rations--pronounced like war rations--and Port Nocturnal--whose lead singer was celebrating his 22 birthday) were great and it's sort of a bummer to have to compete in something like music, but we were happy to have success outside of our home court. (Of course, most of our home crowd showed up, which was AMAZING.) We'll be back for Round 2 on March 30th, playing a longer set and competing against just one other band. 

See you there?