What I’m Reading: Singer-Songwriter Matthew Ryan

It’s probably not fair that Harlan Howard’s name gets mentioned most often now in reference to his famous observation that a great country song is just three chords and the truth, but I’ve always taken what he was saying with the same tone the great sportswriter Red Smith had in mind when he said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and just open a vein.” I’ve also always felt that Howard’s general idea extends far beyond just country songs, and that there’s a slick, formulaic cynicism listeners – the kind Moreland or Howard play(ed) to – know when they hear it.

It’s a short trip from underestimating how much effort goes into doing a thing well to simply devaluing that same thing. So it’s not surprising, years on from Howard’s pithy summation, to get a John Moreland, singing that “I heard truth is what songs are for/Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore.” Fortunately that doesn’t stop Moreland or many others who write songs from giving a damn about them.

You’ll find Matthew Ryan high on that list of writers and performers who give a damn about songs, and who approach writing them with real concern for both sound and sense.

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– Photo via matthewryanonline.com/photos

Reviews of his early albums (May Day and East Autumn Grin in particular) made Springsteen comparisons. Tom Waits’s name cropped up at some point as well, if I remember right, but he never got stuck in, “Steve Forbert is the next Bob Dylan territory.” He stayed restless; wrote a song about Lucinda Williams and recorded another with her; named another one after a Wilfred Owen poem; brought in electronic elements as needed and played pure rock when that felt right; tinkered with song structure; and generally carved out a space of his own among the crowded singer-songwriter field.

The “business” side of the music business has never been kind to artists, perhaps especially the ones of Ryan’s stripe, who don’t put themselves through the mad contortions of chasing trends. In 2014, Mischa Pearlman’s interview with Ryan for Consequences of Sound was called, “Matthew Ryan and Seventeen Years of Kicking on the Door.” In that interview, he talks about a time when he had the urge to pack it in, to step away from making music. The door may never give way, but if you want to bet he’ll stop kicking, I’d be happy to take that wager, and your money.

The rasp in his voice is still there on Hustle Up Starlings. The introspective quality is, too, but there’s a generous helping of defiance as well, the kind that runs through his previous album, Boxers, and which, in truth, it turns out I’d missed at times, and which he hadn’t added as large a dose of since May Day, to my ears.

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– Photo via https://matthewryan.bandcamp.com/album/hustle-up-starlings

And so, there are fewer laments and more declarations,  maybe, at the risk of oversimplifying (and the added risk of detecting something tonally that he never intended). This year marks twenty years since May Day, ten since Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State, but here Ryan is, in full stride, with a new album as vital as anything his younger self cooked up.

As a writer, Ryan mentions Raymond Carver’s poems, and they’re a perfect touchstone, but it’s easy to see him as a kindred spirit of B.H. Fairchild, too, witting or unwitting on Ryan’s part, and others, Robert Olmstead or Jim Harrison maybe. Hints of the late, great, criminally neglected Thomas Williams, maybe, who so loved the people and ways, the joys and hardships of of New Hampshire. Ditto John Casey (Spartina and Compass Rose in particular), and Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief. Maybe a dash of Richard Ford.  He’s an American songwriter, resilient and largehearted, and even though he carries around such a large target, somehow he keeps going, keeps searching. As to what he’s reading and why, I’ll let him tell you more:

1) What are you reading? 

I have a collection of Raymond Carver poems called All of Us on the desk next to the pencils and clean sheets of paper on the desk in my writing room. It’s always there or within reach. Brian Eno has an amazing collection of flash cards called Oblique Strategies, it’s intended as a tool while recording music (or any creative effort I would imagine) to help undo a block or dead end. Both Carver and Eno have a knack for cutting to the chase. There’s a kind of lightning in the fact regardless of desire. 

2) Why are you reading it? 

Carver’s poems hit me like others might receive a psalm. They always center and calm me. They feel like the world that I feel and observe. I’m so grateful he picked up a pen or typewriter… However he did it, I’m grateful. Always.

Sometimes if the trail goes cold or I’m feeling stuck in my own efforts, I’ll open the book and read the first verse that catches my eye. Other times I just want to read something beautiful. It’s never really to borrow influence for what I’m working on, but a clarification of ethos. Poetry is interesting to me, it depends on the music of the reader’s own mind and experience. There’s a real intimacy there. I think we need more space in our minds. I love that about Raymond Carver, he offers a space that allows us to really feel our humanity. All of it. 

What I’m Reading: Singer-Songwriter Rebecca Martin

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– Photo via http://www.rebeccamartin.com

Artists – musicians, painters, writers, you name it – have to live in the world, just like everyone else. Of course they do, but beyond, say, experience as grist for the mill, there are those who take an active role in improving the world around them. Take Rebecca Martin, musician/vocalist extraordinaire (that’s not me being glib – she’s exceptionally good at what she does). In addition to recording and releasing seven, going on eight albums, she’s also served as the first Executive Director of the Kingston Land Trust, “a formidable force for conservation, green spaces, and community building in the city.” Beyond that role, a New York Times piece from 2013 refers to “a period of community involvement so stressful that she lost her voice, using songwriting as a path to recovery.” And judging by her responses to the questions I posed recently, a lot of her energy still goes toward sustaining and improving life in  Kingston.

I mention all this because, when I asked what she was reading, it didn’t occur to me that she’d be so deeply involved in civic affairs that it would color her responses. My guess was that, as a songwriter I admire, she’d tick off a stack of beloved poets and writers, and I’d nod and say, “Yes, of course! I can see that in your songs.” Now, it turns out I’d overlooked a piece from a few years ago in which she discussed books which matter to her. On the list? Great stuff, not surprisingly. May Sarton’s journals, Journal of a Solitude in particular, though my personal first choice was After the Stroke, which I picked up, fittingly I suppose, after my mother’s stroke. She also names Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus (and nods to Henry Miller’s attractiveness as a potential lover) and wishes for time to reread Steinbeck, whose humanity we need now in America more than we have in a very long time, I can’t help thinking.

I actually asked her these questions because I’ve been listening to her music, I’m a little bewildered to realize, for about twenty years. She was briefly almost famous, during the n0w-almost-unimaginable ‘90s, as half of the duo Once Blue. That made her part of the first Lilith Fair, but in many ways that feels to me like a footnote to what she’s done since – half a dozen albums, ranging from original compositions to jazz standards, most recently the spare and reflective Twain (2013).

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Twain cover image, via http://www.rebeccamartin.com

She recorded Twain with her husband, the bassist Larry Grenadier, in the bedroom of a Brooklyn apartment, and it’s tempting to imagine you hear that intimacy in the purity of the arrangements and forthright vocals. I don’t mean this to devolve into music criticism, though. It’s pure endorsement on that level. Better still, there’s more to come on that front. Rebecca Martin’s new collaborative recording with Guillermo Klein (that features Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard)  The Upstate Project will be released on Friday, April 14th on Sunnyside Records. And now, those questions. Her responses weren’t what I expected, but they carried the gratifying surprise of the meaningful work she’s doing in addition to her music:

1) What are you reading?

In tandem with making music for the past decade,  I have been a community organizer in the City of Kingston – a Hudson River city about 90 miles North of NYC.  As a founder of KingstonCitizens.org, most of my reading has been municipal charters, process and the laws that are in place to protect the citizens in our community (and as of late, the region).   In addition, these days as a consultant working for great organizations such as Riverkeeper and the Kingston Land Trust,  new reading includes tributary and river water body studies as well as rail trail management plans.  From prose to technical papers! Good for the mind.  

2) Why are you reading it?

 As early as I can remember, I was always making music and organizing an array of businesses in each closet of my childhood home. It is rewarding to have created my work life developing both of these skills in the way that I have.  Given what I view as a critical time period in the world, it has been important to me to take responsibility as a citizen with a focus on local government.  To do that, there is much reading and research that is necessary to be effective as an organizer, and to write about as well as to share good, factual information with my community.   

More on Rebecca’s work in Kingston:

VIEW:   A Jazz Singer Fights Niagara Bottling

VIEW:   KingstonCitizens.org 

What I’m Reading: Artist Sue Coe

This week in the New Yorker (or on the website anyway – it may be in print as well), Evan Ross writes about “Making Art in a Time of Rage.” You’d be forgiven for immediately hesitating to accept the insights of such a staid publication on matters of rage.  “What is the point of making beautiful things,” Ross asks, “or of cherishing the beauty of the past, when ugliness runs rampant?” It’s a valid question, but it also proceeds from a limited view of art’s means and purposes. This is unfair to Ross, though, for the question is a mere jumping off point. Later he observes that, “not only are intensity, beauty, and devotion insufficient to halt violence, they can become its soundtrack,” and later, “Ultimately, artists of integrity will have no choice in how they respond to the Great Besmirchment. Those who thrive on politically charged material will continue in that vein.”

Sue Coe is one such artist of integrity. The world and its injustices are a constant forge for her work, and unfortunately we’ve beached ourselves in an era that’s providing her with more stimulus than usual. I say “unfortunately” and feel sure she’d agree; there’s never yet been a shortage of inequality or injustice for an artist who’s moved by these things to respond to, and I feel sure she’d readily forego the need to produce whatever art comes in response to this more extreme version of events.     

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Sue Coe
Going Down ”The Social” (Unemployment Office) 1993. Graphite, charcoal, ink and gouache on Strathmore Bristol board. Signed, lower right. Dated, lower right, and titled, lower center. Dated “Liverpool 93,” lower right. Red “M[urder]” stamp, lower left. 29.0″ x 23 1/8″ (73.7 x 58.8 cm). – Image via Galerie St. Etienne [http://www.gseart.com/gse-pages/Current_Exhibition.php]

The image above is part of Galerie. St. Etienne’s exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party.” Several of Coe’s pieces are there, including some recent prints made in response to the November Presidential election. You’ll find images of those below, and you can own copies of the prints at a reasonable price (an ongoing commitment of Coe’s – see the work for sale on her site if you doubt me). I asked her what she’s reading in these unusual times, and she told me I’d be sorry, because the list was so extensive. But no, in that, at least, she was wrong: 

After the Trump/Bannon coup, I resolved to read more physical books, not read books and articles online, as feel so mentally assaulted by the horror of America’s political situation.

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It Can Happen Here, 2016 Lithograph. Image courtesy of Sue Coe

It made concentrated reading online, fragmented and so full of anxiety, as one is interrupted constantly, by the latest Trump abominations and the reactions to them. My reaction to Trump is in making artwork. It’s labor intensive work, retweeting is not work, it takes time away from work. 

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So, I have limited my time on all digital devices down to reading two newspapers a day. It’s strange, as it requires carrying actual books around in a backpack, when go to demonstrations, and falling asleep with a book under the pillow. I should have done this long before Trump. My friends who are writers are returning to typewriters and longhand.

My reading at present, consists of four stacks of books.

First stack are my beloved friends, who have read and reread since childhood. These books provide comfort and are a source of happiness. I reach for them when am depressed and overwhelmed and need reach for the mute switch in my brain, rather than tossing and turning. There is always an Orwell in that group, either his essays, or Animal Farm. He is my favorite writer, if had to choose one, just as Soutine is my favorite painter.   Then there is Bertolt Brecht, my guide, the poems from 1913-1956, which are brilliant. He had two voices within him that struggle  for dominance, his obligation and responsibility as a political activist, not to be solely about ‘Truth’ but the truth of propaganda to change the world. As with all creative political people, those choices were taken out of his hands, in his statement to HUAC for example.   

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Bertolt Brecht, 1954. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0409-300 / Kolbe, Jörg / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The warring contradictions in his poems of ideology and the human condition are painful to witness and make him a great poet. Orwell had the same struggle, but he generally chose truth, despite the consequences, and when he did not, he made transparent, the messy process of living within contradictions he could never resolve. His essay about shooting the elephant, is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever penned, his murder of a beautiful animal, changed the trajectory of his life. As he says, people become the mask they are forced to wear.   Then the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, as there is nothing quite like traveling back to foggy gas lit Victorian London and looking at those Sydney Paget illustrations. Conan Doyle just wanted to kill off Holmes as he was so bored with him,  but was forced to resurrect him by public demand.   He was so bored with Holmes and Watson that he forgot his own narratives, to the glee of his millions of devotees who alight upon his mistakes like locusts. I just read last night a short story by Graham Greene, called “The Destructors,” written in the 1950’s.  It perfectly aligns with and illuminates the Trump/Bannon mentality. An old man gives a gang of boys some sweets as a kindness, which places him on their radar for destruction.

Second stack consists of books that require serious commitment. They cannot be skimmed, they cannot be speed read.  In that stack are the works of Adam Hochschild.  He is a historian and journalist, I must have a pencil and paper on hand, to take notes.  His level of research, is stunning, yet the books are elegant and readable, very human and compassionate, not didactic.  His book on WW1 To End All Wars, is a marvel, he manages to include the rise of the Suffragettes and the Labour Party, as an organic whole,  then King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, reveal the staggering amount of research he did, and still he doesn’t bog down the reader, but keeps us hooked with the device of key characters. I just finished his Stalin book, to help me understand the present rise of thuggish strong men to power. Its one of his earlier works, so is more accessible for a faster read. It consists of interviews with Gulag survivors and the author’s travels to the locations of the work camps, which are not on any maps.  I will start his book on the Spanish Civil War next, Spain in Our Hearts.  In that stack is Scott Anderson’s Lawrence In Arabia. It’s waiting to be read, and will require the same commitment to understand the colonized western mind mapping of the middle east.  As an artist I can look at any art,  see how its done and learn from the technique, absorb it, but the skill of Hochschild as writer is so formidable it cannot be replicated, only admired. 

Third Stack consists of books, which originate from reading reviews in LRB, anything my friends deem of interest, we discuss and then mull over which one of us, is actually going to buy the book. I just ordered the history of Ravensbruck Womens’ concentration camp, by Sarah Helm. My interest doesn’t include Rushdie, which is one of my friend’s favorite authors, and she just can’t understand why I cannot appreciate his work.  Have tried, but no.  We all just read [The Pigeon Tunnel] the le Carré autobiography, which is a splendid read, its surprisingly up to date, no sentiment, no nostalgia,  a real insight into the psychology of government spy games.  His is a self depreciating and witty voice,  a very lean writer.  Unread so far, is a book I wouldn’t pick up, but as it came from a friend, I know I will like, Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie.

Fourth Stack is research.  As I make books myself, am obligated to read everything I can get my hands on about a subject and devour it. This is work reading. I read everything, memorize most of it, don’t discuss it, and then put it away, under a mental shroud, and  create my own version. It’s not what I read and remember, it’s what is left that I don’t know which am curious about, which will drive the next book. Writing is torture. When a new book of mine comes out, I look at it for a day, and then hide it, as it’s the memory of so much labor. It’s not something I want to remember,  see again, let alone talk about, which makes publicizing the darn book difficult. Books exist as their own persons. They will either find people who cherish them or not. Can’t remember how many books I have done. They are all art books, non fiction with text and images. The latest book, which came out last month, surprised me. It’s called The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto. 

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  • Cover of The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, courtesy of Sue Coe

I wanted to do a version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but in my version, the farmed animals achieve victory, and it turned out to be an adorable little creature, a pocket book. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

Its all images, woodcuts, with no words. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

It doesn’t seem like anything I could ever have invented, as the second half is full of joy. It’s in my pocket and by my bed, in book stack number one, I keep looking at it, the novelty of new book has not worn off.