Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Hardest Question For A Musician.

Trying to explain what kind of music you make is similar to trying to describe your accent. We don't hear our own accents. We know we have them because we can hear differences in the way other people speak. An accent is a natural ever-changing and nuanced thing that stems from lifelong interactions with your environment. The way you speak is as natural to you as the way that you walk, or the position you sleep in, or whether you favor your right hand or your left. If you try to explain what kind of ways you do all those things, you'll get an idea of what it is like to try to describe what kind of music one creates.

To me, my music, like my accent, is just "the normal kind of music". It's as natural and ingrained as the way that I speak and move and breathe. There are categories, though. Where would the world be without categories? In the same way that I can say that I have an American accent, I can say that I play a version of modern music. Similarly, in the way that I might describe my accent as from the Northeast, I might say that my music is of the rock-folk variety. I don't often say "y'all", just like I don't play a slap bass. We can narrow things down and say that I speak like a New Englander and make music that is mostly Jangly-College-Rock-Indie-Rock-Power-Pop-Acoustic-Songwriter-Pop. But not all New Englanders speak alike, just like not all Jangly-College-Rock-Indie-Rock-Power-Pop-Acoustic-Songwriter-Poppers sound alike. Downeast Maine lobstermen speak very differently than Southwestern Connecticut commuters.

My accent has changed over the years, but it's subtle to those who aren't involved on such a minute level. I doubt someone from Liverpool would be able to tell that my Northeastern Massachusetts way of speaking has ever so slightly evolved into my current Western Massachusetts accent. To someone from Liverpool, I probably sound like a cowboy. And to someone who only ever listens to Hip Hop, my music probably can be lumped in with Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Frank Black and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

So what do you do? How do you explain your accent to someone? Well, first you need to know who that person is and what they know about accents and what they know about the region that you live in. The problem is that when you need to describe your music you don't have that knowledge. If you are labeling yourself on a website or in a newspaper article, you don't know anything about the people who are reading it. So, how do you convey to them in words what your music sounds like - especially when it sounds different to everyone who hears it.

I've been trying to describe my music in brief terms for more than half of my life and I still fall short every time. But, I do know that categories are crucial. The human brain needs to put everything in its place in order to make sense of the world. So, I try to create categories that are not too specific and not too vague and you know what? I always fail.

I don't want to do it anymore. I know that the number one most important thing in the world of promotion is to have a solid simple definition of what you are presenting. I know this. I even agree with this. But, man, I....can'!

All I can do is come up with are things like: "School for the Dead is a music band. They write, record, and perform music for animals and people. It's poppy and rocky and indie and folky and friendly." or "You can try to lump School for the Dead in with the indie-pop-jangly-beatlesque-powerpop-songcraft-bubblegum-heartbreaking-song school. You can try. Band members say their mission is to freeze time, crumple it up, and shake it out into a song - and entertain audiences in the process."

But neither of those things really give you much of an idea what the music sounds like or how it makes you feel. Because it sounds different to everyone and it makes every one feel differently.

Another option is to list off other musicians that you might be lumped in with. I can associate us with folks like: The Lucksmiths, They Might Be Giants, Fountains of Wayne, Freedy Johnston, The Beatles, The Shins, Robyn Hitchcock, and Of Montreal, but there is no sure thing that fans of any of those bands might like our music. Also those bands don't mean anything to someone who only listens to country or jazz or heavy metal.

All you can do is throw the stuff out there and see what sticks, see what people seem to pick up on. You might ask me, "Well, why don't you ask other people how they would describe your music?" Trust me, I've tried that about a million times, they either get as stymied as I am or their responses are so varied that no single definition can come from them.

It's exhausting. I talk like I talk. Just listen to my voice.

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