Back in the 20th century, when I would write songs with words (and was popular enough to have an audience that listened), people would frequently ask me what those songs were about. Scratch that — people would frequently tell me what they were about. This was inevitably followed by a lengthy monologue on why the interpreter didn’t approve of the song’s message. Naturally, these interpretations were often incorrect — thus revealing more about the listener than me, the writer.
I received numerous tongue lashings over a song called “Inside Me,” which a surprising number of people interpreted as a crass and blatant ode to sexism. Never mind that it’s a song about love, grief and loss — sung by a woman peering into the open casket of her husband, leaning in to kiss him and knowing this would be their final moment together. The sexism case was built around a lyric that asks, “wouldn’t you like to be in here inside of me?” Had anyone bothered to pay attention, they’d know this was not a question the woman asks, but a question she imagines her husband asking. She’s struggling with the thought of a life without him, and is drifting toward the temptation to join him in death.
INSIDE ME by Grace Darling
Although most people failed to spot the corpse in “Inside Me,” nearly everyone discovered its presence in another song from the first Grace Darling album — “I Bury My Love.” Except that song isn’t about a corpse at all. It’s about a woman condemned to the drudgery of a long and loveless relationship who meets someone new, but is forced to suppress her feelings for the sake of those who do not love her. The love she buried was an emotion, not an actual corpse.
After releasing that first Grace Darling album, I began to question the idea that songs needed to be about something. Which probably had a lot to do with why, instead of buckling down to work on the next Grace Darling album, I embarked on a new recording project called Bartholomew Fair. The formula was the same — me and a female vocalist — but the approach was entirely different. I decided that the lyrics to every song would be nothing more than impassioned random syllables. I wanted people to feel this music, not try to interpret it.
NEVER NEVER NO / THE WELL by Bartholomew Fair
It was around this same time that my photography obsession blossomed, which meant that many of my earliest photo experiments were shaped by a similar philosophy — that images, like music, should be “felt.” Alas, my commitment to this ethos waxed and waned over the next several years as I struggled with the chasm between creating what I wanted to create and creating what people expected. I returned to the Grace Darling project for a follow-up album (chock-full of songs about something), and I would occasionally take on photography clients, who obviously demanded my photos be of something.
Eventually, I realized I was simply too much of an iconoclast to ever earn a comfortable living creating content for others. So if I was going to be uncomfortable, I might as well create for me. And that meant adopting wholeheartedly the idea that songs needn’t be about some thing and photos needn’t be of some thing — rather, they should both just be the thing.
This is more easily conceived than executed, because there’s a curious malady that infects both photography and music. It’s a condition in which the audience expects a song to be familiar, or a photo to be pleasing. So without really intending to, we end up producing beautiful photos of horrific things, or jaunty tunes about paralyzing despair. We communicate boundless topics and emotions, but we wrap them all in the same meager assortment of ribbons and bows, which diminishes their intent.
Obviously, songs and photos can never actually be the things they communicate, but they can serve as proxies. And a proxy for something should have the same effect as whatever it substitutes for. Though noble in intent, it’s an idea fraught with danger. Could someone develop such mastery of proxy that their art inflicts psychological damage on the audience? It’s a scary thought. Fortunately, I’m not masterful enough to achieve this effect (though I am considering turning the idea into a schlocky sci-fi horror screenplay). But just to be safe, I’ve taken to creating some rather curiously banal proxies of late.
“Neuron & The Nyquil,” which I wrote earlier this year, isn’t a song about the druggy, spaced out feeling one gets when trying to function under the dual impact of a head cold and a shot of Nyquil — it’s meant to be that feeling. And because of that, it’s kind of unsettling and a bit disorienting to listen to.
My most recent track, “Between Tick & Tock,” is similarly conceived. It’s an aural re-creation of that agitated, otherworldly feeling you get when you’re forced into an interminable wait — such as a doctor’s waiting room or a delayed flight. It’s that sensation in which urgency collides with quiescence, time seemingly stands still, and fleeting snippets of anticipation bubble up from the nothingness only to be quickly swallowed by the vastness of limbo. “Between Tick & Tock” is not a song about limbo — it’s meant to feel like limbo. And because I’m quite certain no one actually enjoys the feeling of limbo, I don’t really expect anyone to enjoy this song.
The obvious question is “why?” Why write this? Why create proxies at all? If no one wants to feel like they’re in limbo, why write a song that’s meant to feel like limbo? Besides, I’m purportedly composing and photographing for myself — so why bother to create proxies for things that I, myself, have no desire to feel?
Maybe it’s time to apply my proxy making prowess to sensations more pleasant and to feelings less trivial. Can I create a proxy for joy? For compassion? For belonging? Or is it best to experience such moods directly, and not by proxy? I suppose the only way to know is to try. So if anybody needs me, I’ll be behind a wall of synthesizers seeing if I can’t proxy me up a girlfriend…
©2017 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE MUSIC & PHOTOS:
I wrote and recorded “Inside Me” in early 1990, as part of my Grace Darling recording project (which consisted of Val Martino on vocals and me on everything else). It utilized some rather archaic equipment — a Tascam TSR-8 1/2″ 8-track reel-to-reel, a piano patch from an original E-mu Proteus, and a poorly-wielded Lexicon LXP-1 reverb unit. It was meant to be a ‘respite’ from the more heavily (synth) orchestrated Grace Darling tunes.
“Never Never No” and “The Well” are the opening ‘songs’ on the ill-fated Bartholomew Fair CD, which featured Sonya Waters on vocal. I’m rather certain its predominant instrumentation comes from a combination of Kurzweil K2000 and E-mu Proteus 2 Orchestral synth. I was still recording vocals directly to an 8-track reel-to-reel, but I’d taken to digitizing the best bits of each track and mixing them in a precursor to Pro Tools, called “Sound Tools.”
“Between Tick & Tock” is, as indicated, a new song meant to sonically portray limbo. It’s a hodge-podge of synthesis techniques built around hardware modular synthesizers and software-based tools.
“Diversion,” “Imminence” and “Resignation” are only vague proxies — combining both the subject and the feel into a sort of hybrid image. I probably should have included real proxy images with this article, but I wanted it to be at least somewhat accessible…
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