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Identity

September 21, 2011

I read something recently that got me thinking about artistic identity (this is paraphrased):

The old model was that a band would play live a lot, and go on tour before recording and releasing their album. Nowadays, instead of going on tour, bands record albums. … When they release a recording, it might get blown up in the bloggosphere (who’s always looking for the next big thing) before the bands has a chance to develop its artistic identity.

[If I could remember where I read it, I would like to the article.]

And this got me thinking about it even more:

I had the chance to watch the new Counting Crows DVD, August and Everything After Live at Town Hall. There’s an interview segment where Adam Duritz was talking about how he sat down and had to think about exactly what kind of band they were going to be. In the end he decided that he would force everyone to sit around in practice and really listen to each other. For those who aren’t familiar with the Counting Crows’ live performances, the band is famous for extensive changes to their songs live. That’s their identity.

I started wondering about what kind of band Midway Fair is.

A lot of this is particular to this band, but maybe someone else out there can take something from it, and maybe think about how it could relate to their own art.

It’s a tough question to answer. I’ve never really had to confront the question of defining my art in quite this way before.

I’ve certainly taken a stab at it. We’ve got handy little labels in the music biz, “genres.” Usually I tell people Midway Fair is a folk rock band. Well, sometimes that’s not true. Some people might decide that we’re just a rock band. Some might whip out the term “indie” (and I certainly use it to describe us, because even though I think it’s a lame descriptor, there isn’t another short word that means “challenging and idiosyncratic”). Some people call us “Americana,” probably my least favorite descriptor because it’s been coopted for a certain type of southern-derived alt-country, perverted from its original meaning of “representative of the folk art of America.” Technically, every musical form we play is represented in American folk idioms; but have you ever heard someone call a celtic band from Boston “Americana” — even though it would be perfectly correct to do so?

Brennan Kuhn from Petal Blight invented a term for us, “Baltimericana.” This is good because somehow it indicated that what we were playing represented Baltimore and wasn’t tied to being country-fied. I had started writing about my hometown more during the last record, and it felt right. There’s a lot of Celtic influence, and Baltimore has a wonderful Celtic music scene. Baltimore has a good indie rock scene. Folk artists galore and a surprising history of country. Several R&B and rap artists that have hit the big time. We’re pretty diverse.

But a genre isn’t an artistic statement. It can describe what a musician does — often better than most people will admit — but doesn’t get to the heart of matters. And it’s the heart that matters more. Right?

I don’t think we have a consistent artistic picture presented on our albums. Part this has to do with how we incorporated songs into the band before: I’d bring in a song with lyrics, chords, and a melody, and Tim and Jen would learn the song. This combined with my unwillingness or inability to focus on exactly what I like best meant that we would just all over the genre map, playing a little bit of everything. There was less of this on the second album, but the problem is still there.

However, lately, we started revisiting some songs we’ve played for a long time and making them sound more like “us.” We’ve played “Fisherman’s Blues” for a long time. Originally, we played it exactly like the Waterboys. It ought to have made perfect sense: It’s a folk rock song. We’ve borrowed the drum part (the end of “Edward Cain”). It’s how I would play the song on my own. And yet it didn’t feel right for Midway Fair. So we went back and reimagined it as if it were a our song, and we ended up with a different rhythm. Now it feel right. When a song clicks like that, it becomes more fun to play. The performance is better, and you’re more likely to communicate yourself to the audience. At least, that’s what I think.

I don’t know how to describe exactly what it means for something to be “a Midway Fair song” and not just “a song” yet, but it needs to have some of the tension that comes from all the people in the band. My songs with Jen, Tim, and Joe as backup musicians are not the same as a song where everyone is pulling in different directions and meeting in the middle. Jen and I in particular work very differently, and given that the bulk of writing and arranging (and, lately, performing) falls on us, most of the meeting in the middle comes from there.

Jen’s very precise, sophisticated, and clean. I’m not. I’m often a mess. Left to my own devices, I’ll get lazy about pitch and melody. But I can’t be like that if we’re going to do a lot of harmonies, which I’ve found is the thing that usually gets the best reaction.

It took a while to figure this stuff out. We’ve been a band for two years and only for the last couple months have we started acting like a multicellular organism. (And remember, we are an organism.)

That’s where it comes back to those indented parts up top. When you play a lot of live shows, it gives you more opportunities to take chances. Taking chances is how you learn what works and what doesn’t. Performance is a dialogue, where you and the audience learn from each other, in much the same way that being in a band means listening to each other and learning from each other. Creative expression is what comes out of synthesizing our unique experiences into something that others can’t have done before.

I don’t think live shows are the only way to find yourself as an artist, of course, but I do think that the best way to find yourself is by learning as much as possible from others, whether they’re your bandmates, your audience, a stranger talk to in a bar, a book, a song, anything external that communicates. Although there’s something to be said about your music pleasing yourself first and most, whatever you put out to other people should be representative of as much of yourself (whether you’re one person or a band) as possible. That way there’s no confusion about who you are, and the one person out there who likes that one thing you do will like the next song you do, and the next one.

It ought to have made perfect sense.

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