(LSM Jan/Feb 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 1)
I was a 26-year-old proud homeowner, newly married and in graduate school when I decided to “try music.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I had never picked up an instrument at that point; I owned an un-tunable miniature guitar and grew up with music lessons (piano, violin, flute). But I had never seriously considered making a professional career out of it. For some subconscious reason, that was a dream only other people were allowed to chase.
What I had never done was write a song. In fact, the more I explored what was entailed in pursuing this new dream, the more aware I became of my “Nevers.” I had never gone to music school. I had never read No Depression. I didn’t know Dirty Linen didn’t refer to laundry. I had never gone to, much less performed at, an open mic. And I would never again be young enough to be a star (barring some kind of Sharon Jones miracle). Anyway, pop wasn’t my thing. Back in college (Texas Fight!), when even my guy friends were listening to the Backstreet Boys, I couldn’t name a single Jessica Simpson tune, and I only knew one Britney Spears song because I was in a skit that poorly imitated some of her dance moves.
Despite all these Nevers, music was rich in my blood. I grew up in a musical family, with a strong alto mother and three frighteningly talented sisters. As kids, we sang harmonies in the car with each other, and I sang standards while my sister Ashley breezed through fake books on the piano. We all sang and played instruments at church, where Mom was a soloist in the choir.
This next part is probably going to bother some people, but I’m gonna write it anyway. Growing up as a Korean-American in a neighborhood where there was exactly one other Korean-American kid in my class (and where most of my friends’ parents always asked, “Are you Chinese or Japanese — which one?”), I learned to watch other kids closely and take mental note of things they said so I could fake my way through fitting in.
The Learn Quick and Fake It method has proved invaluable years later. Am I a good songwriter? Of course. Graphic designer? Sure. I need to build a website? I’m on it. Sell music online? Done. Professional-looking merch? Yep. Copyright and publishing? Duh — who doesn’t understand the ins and outs of all that? All the while, I was going to every music conference panel I thought I could learn something from and swimming in How-To blogs to read up on what I wasn’t doing right and to learn all the stuff I didn’t know.
My other providential training ground was independent and public radio. Despite years of feeling unhip and out of it for religiously listening to stations that didn’t play Top 40 pop hits, without those stations, I would never have become as wide a listener as I needed to be to make the music I play now. I’m much less apologetic today for the kinds of music I like, and I am grateful to live in Austin where there are still some independent programming voices on the airwaves. These stations, along with older sisters with extremely varied music tastes, fed my hungry ears.
When I was about 15, my sister Helena sent me a mix tape with Shawn Mullins (this was way before “Lullaby”), Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, and a bunch of songs performed by local Atlanta musicians, where she was going to college. I went to a record shop and bought that great Nanci Griffith album, Other Voices, Other Rooms, the liner notes of which opened my ears to so many writers who have since been my heroes. Thinking about it now, I realize Griffith has been a huge influence for multiple reasons. Not only did I fall in love with her writing on other albums, but she demonstrated that collaboration is a very vital part of what artists do, and that recording songs by other contemporary writers is in keeping with the folk tradition.
Performing in the folk music circuit, I’ve encountered an incessant battle I find fascinating. It’s fought between listeners who only respect artists who write their own songs and listeners who think any music introduced after the Carter Family is not really folk music; between listeners who are hoping modern folk music will take them back to Woodstock days, listeners who only want old Celtic fiddle tunes, listeners who bemoan the lack of social message in the new songs, listeners who look to modern folk music as a cool, rocking and independent alternative to pop radio, and those who think drums and electric guitars have no place in folk music.
Where do I stand in all this disagreement? I own some Carter Family recordings, and I enjoy them. I recognize that at some point in history, those songs were new. I am glad people wrote those songs, and I am glad their friends kept singing them so the music has lived on through the decades. In the broadest definition of the word, folk music is the people’s music, so in a way, all music is folk music. Part of the folk music tradition, however, is the handing down of songs through the generations. Whether this will create the same legacy now in the recorded music age as it did before (when music could not be recorded and played remotely from its performance) only time will tell. But if any of today’s “new” songs will become “folk” songs by one of the narrower definitions, musicians other than the songs’ writers will have to start performing them.
Lie To Me, the album of cover songs I released this year together with my friend, Canadian dobro-player Doug Cox, was not intended to echo Griffith’s Other Voices projects. Looking back, however, I can detect her influence on my thinking about folk music as a genre and a tradition. During the past seven years or so, I have been shuffled from the country music crowd for being too folky, from the folk crowd for being too rock, and from the rock crowd for being too country, and I never even tried to enter the “trad” crowd. I’m okay not fitting in just perfectly — it’s not that new of a role for me.
Doug and I met in the summer of 2010, teaching at the Acoustic Alaska Guitar Camp. He likes to joke that no one else would hang out with us and we became friends by virtue of our shared rejection, but that’s not exactly true. Close to that explanation, though, when it came time for the nightly campfire jams, Doug and I knew a lot of the same songs that no one else seemed to have heard of, and we played them even though no one else wanted to jam along.
So when we decided to make an album together, on the one hand, it was easy to come up with a long list of great songs we both loved, but on the other, paring the list down to the songs that would finally appear on the album was a daunting task. On the other side of the album’s release, I feel confident we chose well.
Our duo, which we called Across the Borderline, toured heavily this past year, playing on both coasts of North America and lots of spots in between, through England and Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and one date in the mountains of Switzerland. At every show, listeners told us they had never heard of most of the writers whose songs we were performing. Not one writer on our album was universally known. Most of the songs were written by our friends, some by acquaintances, and others by our slightly more distant heroes, and it was gratifying to hear from so many that they were eager to explore more of the music by the writers.
While I have also heard from some who were disappointed we didn’t record any of Doug’s or my original songs on the album, I’m sure we’ll each have other projects down the line for our songs. For this project, we agreed the album should be a special collaboration and unlike any of our respective previous recordings.
We wanted to humbly join the folk tradition by passing along others’ songs and (we hope) ensure the legacy of their music. We wanted to open our listeners’ ears to songs we love penned by our friends. We wanted to bring our own voices to the songs and, at the risk of sounding rather lofty, we hoped to perform them in a way that adds to the canon rather than mimics what has already been done.
2012 will see a new project from Doug and myself with more songs by friends, several of them a few decades younger than the writers on the previous album. I also have plans to record a new album with songs of my own. While seven years is no lifetime, I’ve learned a lot about the music business and making albums I wish I’d known from the start. Now I am hoping to pass some of those lessons on. So I’ll return to the studio this year to start working on a new solo record, hoping some listeners and young artists will come with me to watch, listen, and experience my recording process. Who knows? Maybe I’ll become part of someone else’s folk music tradition.