One thing I keep hearing lately is that you’ve got to have a good story if you want to make it anywhere in music these days. An easily palatable back-story is just as important, maybe even more important, than the music itself in this age of attention deficit multimedia over-saturation disorder.
I was talking with some musician friends who are more successful than myself a few months ago and this came up. One of these buddies expressed relief that he was not always being pegged as the “post-christian angst” guy anymore, though it had served the purpose for a time in helping establish his fanbase, and another mentioned that people grabbed on to the fact that he used to be a fashion designer before going into music.
When I was on my first real tour last year, the main act I was on tour with was struggling a bit with a lull in ticket and album sales compared to previous years. In talks with his management team, they brought up this same point. Maybe he didn’t have a good story anymore, or that times had changed and that having a good story is really what is making things sell, that this is what they were observing in the marketplace today. This is a man who has written a hundred great songs.
I am probably just as guilty as the next guy for feeding into this–maybe it is an unavoidable part of our nature and our curiousity. The mythology of people like Nick Drake and Edith Piaf are probably a big part of why I’ve obsessed over their music. Even James Taylor (who I am somehow frequently compared to), the quintessence of Dad-folk, is the recovering heroin junky of “Fire and Rain” fame.
I’ll admit that in reading the bio blips for “Father John Misty” (Josh Tillman), I found them compelling for some reason. That this guy, after becoming so disenchanted with the state of acoustic folk music and depressed over living in Seattle and playing in a super famous band, hit the road with nowhere to go and a bunch of mushrooms and tripped his balls off and wrote a “novel” and then made a really silly and great record (it really is great though, maybe my favorite album of 2012).
Naturally, as an aspiring musician and songwriter trying to get my name out there, seeing these over-arching micro-histories as being of such apparent importance, has got me thinking about what my story might be. I’ve even hung my head a few times in despondence, with the uncomfortable thought that pursuing any career success in music might be an exercise in futility simply because I don’t have some kind of good story.
Then I want to smack myself. I can’t believe I’ve actually considered that to be a possible reality.
We’ve all got a story, and real life stories are complicated, and not gimmicky. My story runs deeper than anything else that I know, and thats why I’ve written a ton of songs, and why I feel like I have a million more in me left to write.
Sure I’m a white kid who grew up in the suburbs and I have a nice family, and I am thankful for all of that, but those things hardly define me as an artist. How do I even begin to tell my story in a way that the masses can swallow it up? Which story do you want to hear? Do you want to hear the story about the first time I took L.S.D. when I was 13 years old and saw carpets made of worms, trees that moved like organic machines and clouds that were made of skulls and bones (I made up an interesting phrase that day: Exspiralmenting Tetrahydracles), or about how every teacher I ever had told me that I was one of brightest kids they had encountered, yet I failed out of school over and over again and to this day I cannot get into a University without serious remedial work?
I could tell you about the day in second grade when I came to school on “Whacky Dress-Up Day!” and it was not Whacky Dress-up Day after all. My hair was spiked and had glitter in it, I was wearing my M.C. Hammer pants and a pair of Ninja Turtle slippers. That was an embarassing day, especially when I got up too fast for recess and my Hammer pants got caught on my chair splitting them at the crotch and exposing my tighty-whitey underwears. Walking home a sixth grader added insult to injury and said “I’ll kick your ass in those Ninja-Turtle slippers!”.
I could tell you about watching the members of my childhood church being “slain in the spirit” and hearing the pastor’s thunderous yells about tithing, and how these things planted the seed of doubt in me, or about my mother’s agony over the still-birth of what would have been her first daughter.
I could tell you about the first time I remember feeling left out, for not being picked for a soccer team in 4th grade, and how 15 years later I’d feel the same thing on literally dozens if not hundreds of nights sitting alone on a barstool, glancing over at groups of laughing night-lifers and wondering why I don’t have the guts to just introduce myself to somebody.
I could tell you about the 7 months I spent living in Haight-Ashbury, lying to the only few friends I had, about those nights when I would knowingly overdraw my bank account so I could score, and having nosebleeds in both nostrils and a heart beating out of my chest was not enough for me to stop putting that filth up my nose, even at 10 AM the next day after not sleeping. I could tell you about how when I was 14, my best friend was beaten to death in front of his mom by some asshole who breeds pitbulls and the 7 years the guy got in prison for it. Brandon left his guitar at my house that same afternoon, I still have it and will always keep it.
I could tell you about the thousands of pretty girls I wanted to say hi to but was too shy, the ones I did say hi to that ended up loving me, the ones whose hearts I broke and the ones who broke mine.
I could tell you about going to raves in the 90s, computer hacking when the FBI actually got involved, crowd-surfing at a slayer concert, writing my first few songs at 3am sneaking cigarettes in my parents garage in the dead of winter with numb fingers barely able to press down the strings of my Yamaha FG-200, or about how when I first rode a bike without training wheels I jubilantly exclaimed to my grandfather “I FEEL THE KEVINEST!”.
We have all got a story, and it’s a damn shame we don’t hear more people’s stories in depth. I’m thankful for the chances I have had to tell pieces of mine through music, and really want to do a lot more of that. I just hope I don’t get throttled by this construct that I keep hearing about, that “you’ve got to have a story”, if mine doesn’t easily fit into the mold of it, as if we all don’t have an amazing one to tell if we are given the chance to. I didn’t escape a shark attack and wasn’t born in David Koresh’s WACO compound, but man, I’ve been trying to do this music thing for a long ass time.