I’m spending February way out in the snow-covered woods, at an artists’ colony in Upstate New York. They’ve given me a tiny cabin with a piano in it where I’ve been writing songs and recording some electronic music. I walk to dinner in a 19th century mansion, where I eat with the fifteen other artists staying at this place, in a wood paneled Victorian dining room. The massive dining chairs have the faces of knights, and coats-of-arms, carved into the sides. There’s an actual tiara in a glass case. We eat breakfast there, too, and afterwards they give each of us a lunch box–a lunch box and a thermos!–with something for lunch in our studios. The other artists are mostly writers, but there’s visual artists, and a composer working on an opera, too.
The whole scene is a product of early 20th century noblesse oblige; the rich people who lived on this state started a trust so that artists could come here for free to work. It’s effective; I’ve finished three songs and a bunch of tracks for my Dubious Luxury electronic thing, and I’ve only been here eleven days. Because there’s really nothing else to do up here, no TV–which I don’t really watch at home, but turn on whatever reality product is on VH1 and let it drone in the background as an electric fireplace–and, in what has been the greatest grace of this place, no internet in the studios–there’s one room in the mansion with WiFi. No killing time on Facebook, instead of finishing the ever-troublesome second verse.
I feel kind of out of place here; everyone else seems a more ‘legitimate’ artist than me, a lowly singer/songwriter from the grubby world of commercially viable music. But that’s just in my head; everybody’s cool. They’re all fascinating, too, and, invariably, really, really talented. Fun suppers.
The bookshelves in the houses (there are a bunch of smaller mansions surrounding the imposing main house, with multiple writers’ studios) are filled with weird things. One has a huge collection of classical 78s–I said 78s!–that must be seventy years old if they’re a day. There’s no 78 player in sight. I was looking at some books and discovered one, published 1908, called The Gay Gnani of Gingalee. It’s signed by its author, one Florence Huntley, with a personal note to the baron of industry that owned this place.
In my tiny cabin, I have a couple of mics and a bit of ultra-simple recording software, which is fine for laying down simple versions of things. I’ve been recording some covers as b-sides, to use as bonus tracks on the ‘real’ Mike Doughty album that I’ve been working on. (I’m using my name in the third person to describe my work, is that troubling?) The relative paucity of cover songs in the world has something to do with the way musicians get paid–most of us depend on ‘publishing’ income, which means songwriting income, to make a big chunk of our living. If you’re a genius interpreter of other peoples’ material, you’re shit out of luck in this music industry. I always think of my old running buddy in early 90s New York, Jeff Buckley. God bless him–and us, for having briefly shared the world with him–but his songwriting, in general (to me) just wasn’t as strong as his ability to get inside somebody else’s songs. But however transcendent his version of “Hallelujah” might be, there was no way he was going to put out an album full of ‘em–there’s no dough in it, and even geniuses have landlords.
I take pride in my left-field choices of cover songs, and I’ll have a handful of good ones, which I’ll spread across a couple versions of the album–the iTunes version, the physical retail version. I’ve gotten a couple of reviews where the critic has called me kitsch-monger for doing “The Gambler” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and I guess it would look like that if you don’t know me, but I really do find something wonderful and purely musical in all the covers I do–when I remake some 80s warhorse standard, I’m looking to reveal something weird or beautiful hidden under the surface of these things, to put a new light on it.
I did my first interview, for the upcoming tour of Europe, in German, ever. It was an email interview, which makes it easier to put together sentences, but I swear to you I did not touch a dictionary. Of course, I sound weird and half-cocked in German–I’m turning into kind of a Deutsch version of Roberto Benigni in Down by Law. But the introduction to the interview said it was ‘charming’ and ‘soppingly authentic.’ NICE.
Here’s a link: http://www.echoes-online.de/blog/index.php?/archives/676-Interview-mit-Mike-Doughty-zu-Introduction.html
Doing electronic dance music makes your ears incredibly tired. You listen to the same beat for hours at a time–boom bap, boom boom bap, it loops and loops all day long, as you make tiny adjustments and additions and subtractions. I find making this kind of stuff incredibly rewarding, but being in the face of all that repetition takes a toll. I have my speakers and laptop set up at a desk by a window where I look at trees, and fat woodchucks running around hilariously, and watch owls turn their heads in that weird way that owls turn their heads. When the boom-boom-boom stops, that slight, tiny note of ringing in my head is incredibly, incredibly loud.
Working on Ableton Live (it’s music software) you cut and paste and manipulate things in a way analogous to using a word processor–it’s really that easy. So the process itself is so simple that you end up rethinking and adjusting everything just because the motion of changing it is so simple. Cut that break after that one part, put it at the end; take out the drums here; put some more drums in there; take everything out where that big blast of weird synthy horn is, to make it more prominent; cut up the vocal into slices to make it sound weirder. The simplicity makes it ever harder to walk away from the computer, and so you sit there longer, and the repetition keeps repeating, and your ears get more and more exhausted. Sometimes I work for hours and realize that I’ve taken something, changed it, changed it again, changed it for umpteen times, and then finally, when I’m satisfied with it, I’ve turned it back into exactly what it was in the first place.
I’m digging that I’m in this cabin, with a piano, clearly put together with a ‘legitimate’ composer in mind, and I’m making all this quasi-freaky, quasi-dance-floor-y groovy music.
One of the odder pleasures of being up here is that I can walk around without keys–my whole world is the walk past the other houses to the mansion, to pick up my lunchbox (and to post this blog in the WiFi parlor). I leave the house everyday without my wallet. But there’s something about the pull of consumerism that’s made me go slightly insane–I went into a nearby town to pick up some stuff, and ended up spending 60 bucks at CVS–spending money is a primal need, and I was starved.
Wow, I’m looking over what I’ve been blogging here, and it looks like I’m taking what I’m doing really, really seriously. I don’t take myself that seriously, really, but I guess being in this environment where you’re encouraged to feel like you’re doing something important–the dinners, the lunchboxes, the fact that the people who work here are under strict orders not to disturb you–it’s easy to take your work seriously. I have a little disdain for myself, believing this, but it does feel nice.
The cab drivers are talking to each other. All night, every night, all through the night, driving around with their earpieces on, talking in Ebo, Igbo, Yoruba, Spanish, Creyol, Gujarati, Bengali. Sometimes I get in the cab and I feel like lecturing the driver on the dangerousness of talking and driving–they say it’s worse than being drunk–and point to the Rider’s Bill of Rights that says you can ask the guy to hang up the phone and turn the radio off. But it’s so haunting to me that all the cab drivers are driving around all night, talking to all the other cab drivers. If I get in a cab and it’s just a guy driving, no virtual buddy to converse with, he’ll be such a sad and mysterious figure to me.
I got up and went out to buy snacks for the inauguration party I’m throwing. The bodega lady looking mildly baffled that I’m buying Newman-Os at 8:15 am.
Now I’m glued to the TV, waiting with Tom Brokaw and Meredith Viera for the Obamas to get into another car, drive a miniscule distance, then get out of it again.
It’s so moving to see a gigantic crowd of black people waving American flags.
Belatedly, I’m thinking about Top 10 Albums of 20__ lists. I think they’re bunk. I don’t listen to albums, really–I listen to songs. In the past, when asked to come up with a top 10 album list, I’ll ask if I can just do songs, and when told no, I politely decline. When I discover an extraordinary new voice, I’ll listen to a whole album once, maybe twice, and then I’ll start culling out the songs I really love. I did this to Bon Iver’s record–now I just listen to “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks”–fantastic songs. In the iPod age, does anyone actually listen to full albums as their music mainstay?
So the top album list thing is really just a shorthand. The top albums are the albums that had the most songs you happened to dig on them–for me, an average is two, and a fantastically great ‘album’ will have four or five.
A few years ago, N.E.R.D.’s first record was on everybody’s top 10. My old manager Jim kept grumbling, “But noone’s actually listened to that album!” I think he was right (and I think, barring “Lap Dance” it was not so hot in the first place). People put it in the top 10, I believe, to honor the amazing productions that Pharrell and his co-Neptune (name escapes me) did that year–blast after blast of amazing tracks. But there’s no framework to genuinely honor that achievement.
Roni Size’s Reprazent won the Mercury Music Prize in the UK one year in the 90s (again, refusing to do research here)–a really big deal. The press spun it as an artistic breakthrough for jungle/drum and bass dance music–perhaps to ‘real’ music, ie, album-making, not just single-dance-track making. In fact, they were giving the award to drum and bass music in general, which was burning up England at the time.
Robert Christgau put “More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle” (from my last album, Golden Delicious) on his list of top 10 singles for 2008. Actually, technically, it wasn’t a single (ie, released to radio, video made for MTV and VH1, etc). It was just one track on an album. But the chart isn’t top tracks. Which I think it should be.
The notion of ‘Rockism’ infuriates me, because I hate the application of snooty academic language by rock critics seems dreadfully wrong-headed to me. Let me apply the term nonetheless. Rockism means things like: the primacy of a performer who can ‘pull it off live,’ who writes his own material, who creates albums with depth and breadth, rather than flimsy hit singles. Hence the top 10 album list, despite the fact that the rules of Rockism don’t work anymore.
Rockism is messing us up, and not just artistically and critically. The music business is built around albums–publishing contracts (that means for songwriting) are for ten-song albums, you get paid less if you put out shorter EPs or singles or something. I put out the Panderers’ Hotshot’s Boy this year, as a five-song digital EP (iTunes and etc)–I put out the five tracks I liked the best, and figured that this was the direction our musical age was headed, and also that, ironically, one is more likely to listen, in one sitting (or commute to work), to a 20 minute, five song batch than a 60 minute, 14 song batch. Instead, I found that, after the song “Come On” got on a SONY Commercial, and played on KCRW in Los Angeles and some other radio stations, stores weren’t interested in carrying it–because it was just an EP. “Got a full album?” they asked.
I subscribe to the theory that the lack of singles in the 90s is one of the things that’s sinking the music business right now. Back then, they’d make you buy a $15 CD for one song–almost invariably, the one you saw on MTV was the only good song on there. The cost of manufacturing CDs is ridiculously cheap. They were making big dirty money by marking up the CD to high heaven. So, when the music business weeps about how it’s tanking, how everybody is stealing from them, I’m not inclined to sympathize.
(Though, in fact, were it 1999, and I had my current solo career, I’d probably be a lot richer)
Had the industry (I hate calling it ‘the industry’, people call it that just so they feel like they’ve got a real job) switched over to $0.99 singles before iTunes forced them to, they might still be healthy.
Young Jean Lee, an Obie and ZKB award winning playwright and director (though those two titles don’t really describe her uncanny magic-making) and I are working on a musical. It’s gonna take a long time to write, so don’t hold your breath just yet, but in the meantime, I urge you to check out her show THE SHIPMENT, which is running for the next two weeks at the Kitchen in New York.
She has this fascinating thing she does where she takes on the thing she could least possibly want to write and then makes it awesome. Hence THE SHIPMENT is a black identity/politics piece–and Young Jean’s Korean-American.
UPDATE: Here’s a rave review of THE SHIPMENT in the New York Times’ theater section.
AND ANOTHER UPDATE: Another rave, this one in the New Yorker.