Why? (to Mary Oliver and Carlos Castillo)
A new friend reminded me recently to continue to reckon with “why?” Why make music? An important question. So, for myself, for Featherburn, for anyone who might be into reading, I’ve come up with some thoughts. My own take for now, and maybe we can look forward to hearing just where and how the band weighs in. The first, simple reason? I and the good people of Featherburn all love making music. The act of playing music, of creating and playing together is enjoyable to us at the very least. One or more of us might argue that we need to do it. Enough to keep us meeting, practicing, writing, wrestling with chord progressions, song forms, melodic phrases, vocal harmonies. Creating and playing songs is for us, an enjoyable act. It may seem like a given, but I think it’s worth pointing out. If each of us didn’t simply love completing the tasks, I don’t think we’d be doing it.
Beyond that, the question for me is “Why do I make art?”, which is indeed more personal. I first began performing in college. I had a curious and good audition for a theatrical spin on the story of Red Riding Hood called “Little Wolf”, about a young wolf who thinks he knows everything, but subsequently learns from his grandmother to stop and listen to the wind. I wish I still had that script. I landed the part of that little wolf (was I type-cast?) and though I remember literally shaking on stage for the first few performances, by the end of the entire run, I was feeling pretty good about my work. And very much enjoying the applause and praise that came after every show. Many lessons, indeed.
Renowned Japanese theater director Tadashi Suzuki writes, “There are no good or bad actors, there are only greater or lesser degrees of profundity for an actor’s reason for being on stage.”
After my final bow and howl in wolf costume, I continued to work diligently at acting for years, getting on board with every production I could. Being a male who could walk and speak clearly in a small town with a small college with an even smaller theater department offered a great deal of opportunity. And what fun, too! For a while, anyway. Always landing good parts, always enjoying applause and praise, always onto the next show. It didn’t take long though, before I began to experience feelings of doubt and need tucked within those curtain calls. Still improving with time and experience, but soon feeling a greater need to hear from more people that they thought I was a good actor. A growing disparity between what I got out of performing v. what I wanted to get out of it. In hindsight, the components gained and wanted, were both from the same side of the stage. In hindsight, it was ego, in the stereotypical sense of the word, just being its good old insatiable entity. Feeling that sense of hollowness and doubt in my work and ability, I had just enough time and insight to start to sit quietly with it, and listen to the wind, to recognize a pattern first, then wonder what in the hell was going on, and then to ask myself sincerely “Why does it seem to never be enough praise for me to feel good?”. Then I had a deeply transformational experience.
College debauchtastic, post-party wind-down in my housemate’s room, I stumble across the last song on the 2nd disc of “Peter Gabriel Plays Live”. Looking at the title, “Biko”, I experience a quick childhood flashback – lying in the way back of the big blue family station wagon, turning slowly up the driveway home, and over the radio, a repeating melody to the repeating words “Oh, Biko, Biko, because Biko”. Just a flash of the melody, a flash of the memory, and back to the cd player college post-party, but now in the mind and body of a budding artist, wondering what that missing thing is, the missing thing from the quest making such an inner ruckus with its accompanying big and hollow feeling. At this point, I’m not a musician. Not an avid music listener. Not familiar with a significant number of artists. Hadn’t ever heard of Peter Gabriel. But in goes the disc, forward scans the track, press gets the play, and zeros in the sound. Crowd cheers fading out from the previous song. "Cheering, I can relate to that." Cool, steady, exotic, drum pattern. A low, electronic drone comes in. Gabriel says “This is for Stephen Biko!”, the crowd erupts in recognition. And as if to answer “Yes. Yes, this is your life about to be changed here and now," comes David Rhodes' slowly executed, single barred D chord downstrum, and I am enveloped. Enveloped by the music, by the vivid images, by the story he tells, and the message he relays about a freedom fighter died 1977, in prison almost in deliberate sacrifice, fighting against apartheid. And events which continued to incite a revolution against oppression, changing the world.
Inspiration like I’d never felt it before, coursing through me. Making me want to fight every injustice, join every rising movement of positive change, share every message of wakefulness and fearlessness, but also to sing. Rarely in my life do I feel such a clarity of purpose, but here it is. Specifically, the thought is as follows: “THIS. THIS is what I want to do. For my life. I want to make music, like this.” Looking back, it was partly the story about fighting injustice and partly the drugs. Mainly though, it was a feeling, an answer to the hollowness, which changed me, upon hearing another artist dedicate his work to another, to something greater than and outside himself. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d found the missing piece. From the back of the station wagon, to the curtain call as a little wolf who knew everything, to Tadashi Suzuki’s declaration about stage-worthiness and, then for the sell - in witnessing an act of humility and generosity by an artist and hearing the inspiration as it hit his community. Why make music? This is why. The mission is clear.
It’s been twenty years since then. I’ve struggled at length with the question, especially during the long transition period. As my own motivation as an artist has changed, I’ve wondered deeply if I should continue to create. “Can one perform the same action, for a different reason?” It’s not really my style to decide upon definite conclusions about the philosophy of life and right action. I’m highly suspect of people who believe in things with a great deal of assuredness, especially those willing to say so, and especially those willing to say so without being asked. Action demands decision, though. Can’t decide? Don’t DO anything. I don't know much, but that isn’t the way to go (see my favorite excerpt from “The Summer Day”, by Mary Oliver below). So, it is the part of me which is deeply hesitant to proclaim what I believe that I stand aside from now, that I set aside now, in order do just that. I believe that one can perform the same task for many different reasons, but from different motivation comes different action. The action is part "what you do", but also part "how you do it". In short, you can play the same song for different reasons. Different reasons (in and for your practice, in and for your performance) change how you play the song. And how you play the song makes a world of difference.
I think there’s a balance. Peter Gabriel has got to be like the rest of us. He’s got to enjoy a crowd of cheering fans as well as his bank account that can afford all things big time. But in writing a tune like “Biko” into his concert, he showed me a component of performance that has made the biggest impact on my decision-making as creator, and as a ringleader of Featherburn. For every set, I’m asking myself “How are we going to wrangle the attention, and then the hearts of our audience so that we can all experience something transformational?” I ask myself for each song we create and add to our line-up, “How is this contributing to a transformational experience?” Some of our tunes are for raising heart-rates, some are madcap and silly, some are slow and quiet with messages of deep, personal meaning. But we’re shooting to give. Give a great ride, that ultimately leads to inspired transformation. To lead us to good reasons for action. Like Biko, like the little wolf who learns to listen to the wind, like Tadashi Suzuki stomping around the stage, and like Mary Oliver penning some last lines to The Summer Day which happen to go like this:
"Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?"