Saturday, November 10, 2012

Searching for Singer Songwriters

In fact - it hasn't so much been a search but a flood of live performances and movies.  Over the last month I have been immersed in the work of one singer songwriter after another, have learnt lots about their lives, and how their music reflects their times.  Oh, and I have also been learning to swim.

I'm actually a bit surprised myself when I list out all the shows I've seen (and also by the swimming but that comes later).  Here is what I've been up to:

  • First, Steve Kilbey in a bookshop, as written about earlier.  After this gig I discovered that Steve has a fabulous blog where he features extraordinary existential poetry, moment after moment in his life, colorfully described, and just waiting to be harvested into song.
  • Then Mal Webb, at The Artists Shed, playing at a relatively new venue in nearby Queanbeyan.  The Artists Shed is an eclectic place - in an industrial part of town it combines gallery, small theatre and performance space with the feel of a party in a 60s group house.  Not yet fully discovered, but certainly another venue to add to the growing number of boutique spots emerging in Canberra.
  • This was followed by a fabulous theatrical show featuring Michelangelo and the Tin Star at the Polish Club.
  • Then I saw a show about Woody Guthrie to celebrate the 100 years since his birth, again at The Artists Shed - performed by Shortis and Simpson, a local theatrical duo.
  • Soon after I saw a new movie out about Paul Kelly - Stories of me.
  • And then another movie Charles Bradley:  Soul of America.
  • And this week, Homemade Jam, a local singer songwriter competition, featuring some great talent, all ages - old and young.
  • And lastly another movie - this time about 70s star Rodriguez - Searching for Sugarman - an amazing story of a great American musician who didn't know he'd made it big in South Africa (and Australia).
So what makes a great singer songwriter.  Is it a compulsion?  Is it the incredible ability to observe and recast what is happening to the people around you? Is it a life lived hard with love and passion? From the shows I've seen I've learnt that:
  • if you are a singer songwriter, and you are short of material, the bible provides an endless source (Steve Kilbey, Paul Kelly), 
  • or else try the back catalogue of other great performers (Woody Guthrie, Paul Kelly).
  • don't hesitate to use cliches - they resonate with people.
  • it is never too late to gain recognition (Charles Bradley, Rodriguez).
  • and recognition can come when you least expect it and in unexpected ways (Charles Bradley, Rodriguez)
  • you don't need a big audience to have fun (Mal Webb),
  • if you have a back catalogue, the audience will want to hear the songs they know which means playing them again, and again and again.  You can get away though with just playing part of the song and the chorus(Steve Kilbey, Mal Webb, Shortis/Simpson interpreting Guthrie).
  • you may become an influence to others (Woody Guthrie, oh and probably all of the others)
  • you are unlikely to get rich writing songs, but your songs will be a rich reflection of your times.
  • everybody has to start somewhere (Singer/Songwriter competition)
  • a good singer songwriter has a memorable voice and a feel for music and a soul that shines.  It is always fleeting, but a magical thing when the world connects with them.  And outside these moments, most are humble and surprised at the attention.
I enjoy music, seeing it live, learning about how others have lived musical lives, and listening to the tunes that hold their souls.  Music is both an intimate and a collective thing, and a way to remember we were here.  It is the beat within us all.

As for my own musical journey, I continue to play guitar daily.  I have joined the local guitar society and am rehearsing with the ensemble every fortnight.  There will be a performance in December and hopefully I will be ready.  If I am ready it will have a lot to do with the young school of music student who has been teaching me for the last few months.  She has been great at helping me interpret the sheet music, become better at rhythm and learn to play notes all over the neck.

It is too early to be writing songs, though one day I will (I hope).

And as for the swimming - I am training for novice triathlons and as part of that am learning more about freestyle.  I have always loved water and can swim breast stroke forever but have always struggled with breathing when it comes to freestyle.  It seems the first thing to do is to treat swimming as an art, and to concentrate on floating forward gracefully.  From that with some focus on the arms and the body the swimming comes - and I'm pleased to say doing this has had an effect.  I am swimming laps comfortably.  What a revelation!