We love the way different artists interpret the High Fives brief. Yesterday we had post-gig diners, today we have something very different. Allan reviewed and loved the last two Ed Dupas albums, but even he was surprised by the effort Ed put into this piece. It’s an artist’s appreciation of artists and great piece of writing. This hasn’t been edited in any way, we only had to paste it in:

Ed Dupas: Top Five Conscious Musical Artists

Throughout my life, I have watched the value of the arts decline, whether in schools, synagogues, or in matters of social priority. In a world ever more driven by technological advancement and headless growth, strong, conscious artists are in dire need. The role of the artist is no triviality, despite modern devaluations. True artists live on the front lines of evolution, travelling beyond their comfort zones in hopes of gaining new perspectives which, once filtered through the lens of their unique consciousness, become gifts which they offer to society. These gifts give us hope, act as beacons, and help us make sense of our own lives in the face of turbulent times. In this way, true artists do not seek fame or fortune, they seek to make gifts of their lives, gifts of themselves. Here are five such artists that have been gifts to my life.

Dar Williams

“It’s funny how life at its best expands, explodes, and it overspills

But we try to fit it all in a grid, and we say it’s the strength of our will”

This legend of the folk genre has been a favorite of mine since the 90s, when an old college girlfriend dragged me out to one her shows. My defenses were up as I entered the venue, but Williams, standing alone on stage in her then trademark chocolate brown dress, dismantled them. She was poignant, thoughtful, talented, open, and honest. She was herself: at ease in her own skin, even when she wasn’t. Her openness and grace allowed her to make an authentic connection with the audience and, as the years have passed, I have found her music to be both a friend and an ally. For my own part, I have watched life’s circle fold in upon itself as only it can, eventually finding myself standing on stages and talking to crowds. As I do so, I remind myself of that Dar Williams show, and I do my best to give to people in the way I watched her do it so many years ago.

 

Sturgill Simpson

“Woke up today and decided to kill my ego

It never done me no good no how”

In observing the rise of Sturgill Simpson, I’ve likened the Kentucky-born artist to a battering-ram: an irresistible force hurtling headlong into an immovable music industry. At the present moment, there is no musical story more compelling to me than Sturgill’s. Not because he writes great songs or sings well, although both are true. What intrigues me about Sturgill is the way he moves through the world, his dogged adherence to honesty and authenticity in an industry defined by plastic songs and copycat artists.

Contemporary music is largely defined by competition, yet, that is not the game Sturgill appears to be playing. In contrast to the industry at large, Simpson seems to view things through an altered lens, seeing himself as his greatest barrier to success, rather than other musicians. Approached this way, one’s artistic journey isn’t defined by besting the competition – but by competing to be one’s best self. For an artist, this takes the form of constant self-assessment and self-creation. One who understands the nature of art to be uniqueness, knows that true art has no natural competition. This being the case, I respect artists who aren’t concerned with trends or sounding relevant, but with being better versions of themselves — with digging a little deeper. In this way, they create trends. In this way, they are relevant. Sturgill is as good an example of this as any.

 

Bruce Cockburn

“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight

Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight”

Bruce Cockburn sets an important example in the way he manages the weight of his artistry. In modernity, we place a great emphasis on physicality, to the extent that in some scientific circles, what cannot be measured is not be considered relevant. Artists do not have the luxury of such beliefs. Mystic tradition speaks of thought, word and deed, illustrating an oft overlooked mystery regarding the nature of matter, and underscoring the reality that every physical creation was once just a thought in someone’s mind. In other words, everything physical arrives at that state via non-physicality. Artists are those who inhabit in that gap, wrestling with feelings, shaping them into dreams, and leveraging those dreams towards creative action. Cockburn’s Stab At Matter takes a playfully arranged look at this process, suggesting not only its relevance, but its centrality to the human experience.

Artistic pursuits can be isolated and troubling, for the artist’s journey is by nature one of solitude. Cockburn, to his credit, has walked an authentic path while remaining largely transparent regarding the challenges of a life dedicated to creation and honest expression. His songs present as timeless, each one illustrating a particular aspect of human struggle in the modern age. A song such as If I Had A Rocket Launcher explores the limitations of a pacifist ethos in the face of oppression, while Pacing the Cage gives voice to the weightiness of existence itself. Bruce Cockburn stands his ground, tackling tough subjects, while holding firm to his place and openly owning his limitations. Artists such as Cockburn provide solid examples for the rest of us, viewing the world through unfiltered eyes, giving a voice to the voiceless, and painting pictures from a more enlightened perspective, one we may learn hold together someday.

 

Leonard Cohen

“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen exemplified a spirit of curiosity, openness and honesty. His fourteenth and final album, You Want It Darker, was released just 19 days before his death in 2016. Cohen’s lyrics betray a mystic, wandering spirit, typical of artists. In his song, Suzanne, Cohen opines as to Jesus’ intentions, “and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.” In a similar vein, Anthem states, “every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” In broad, heartfelt themes, Cohen sings of bravery and solitude, requirements for any person seeking to possess an open-heart and a free mind. Cohen paints this journey as one each person must make alone: a passage into darkness that gives way to light in some circular, counter-intuitive fashion. This theme is reminiscent of Sting’s All This Time, “men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.” Interesting that Cohen, with his final effort, left us with such a striking, parting message: You Want It Darker.

 

Jackson Browne

“Just do the steps that you’ve been shown, by everyone you’ve ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own“

In the 1990’s (during my plaid-coat-wearing, barista days), I found that I wasn’t quite up for the intensity of the grunge scene, despite proudly wearing the uniform. While friends listened to Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana, I lost myself in the singer-songwriters of the 70’s such as: James Taylor, John Denver, and Jackson Browne, to name a few. As the decades passed, I moved away from much of that music, even coming to embrace grunge, more or less. However, Jackson Browne has remained a fixture in my music collection.

Browne’s songs manage to be thoughtful and introspective while possessing an activist sensibility in keeping with his generation. In his song Looking East, Browne critiques his homeland as being a place “where the search for the truth is conducted with a wink and a nod, and where power and position are equated with the grace of God.” As is the way of the artist, Browne seeks to understand his place in the world more clearly through his songs, “I’d have to say that my favorite thing is writing a song that really says how I feel, what I believe – and it even explains the world to myself better than I knew it.” In living and creating this way, Browne not only helps and serves himself, but his fellow humans as well — myself included.

 

 

4panel_2halfmoonPockets_EcoWalletIt’s hard to reconcile the fourth Christa Couture album with its accompanying press release; if you’ve read about her personal history and you know that this is a break-up album, then you could be forgiven for expecting Leonard Cohen meets Jackson Browne, but “Long Time Leaving” certainly doesn’t fit that mould. Lyrically, it’s a very honest portrayal of a breakup, tapping in to all aspects of the end of a relationship, including the opportunities for experimentation presented to the newly-uncoupled. Even when a song’s subject matter’s dark, the musical arrangements can be quite upbeat, even jaunty, with an eclectic mix of musical stylings and a clear, intimate vocal hinting at early Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos.

The musicianship is superb throughout the album; Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (basses) along with producer Steve Dawson (guitars and keys) with a guest appearance from renowned Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin, shift seamlessly from style to style as they build an evocative backdrop for Christa’s vocals. “Zookeeper” is a perfect example of this; the arrangement builds around a heavily reverbed guitar to create a dramatic, doom-laden setting for a song portraying a couple’s counsellor as a zookeeper forcing them to face up to the wild animals that symbolise the reasons for their breakup.

Alone in This” is pure Nashville, with pedal steel throughout, topped off with a beautiful solo, while “Lovely Like You” bounces along with help of Fats Kaplin’s fiddle fills and the call and response between fiddle, vocals and slide resonator. These are all elements that you wouldn’t be surprised to find on any Americana record, but there’s a joker in the pack as well. There are occasional flashes of musical theatre breaking through in the instrumental arrangements and the vocal delivery. In the lines ‘The hallways are lined with boxes neatly stacked/this is what eight years looks like packed’ that open “Separation/Agreement”, there’s a one-beat pause before ‘packed’ that’s pure theatre, and it’s perfect.

“Long Time Leaving” pulls together widely varying musical styles linked by Christa Couture’s fluty voice, inventive lyrics and tales of the aftermath of a breakup. One of her aims was to make an album to accompany doing housework and she’s actually managed to make it work. With a few exceptions, the music is catchy, packed with hooks and upbeat, while Christa avoids the obvious pitfalls of the subject matter by steering clear of the blame culture and exploring areas like binge drinking and sexual experimentation. It’s an intriguing roller-coaster of an album and when you step off at the end of the ride, you’ll feel exhilarated and uplifted. You’ll probably get through the ironing twice as quickly as well.

Long Time Leaving” is released on Black Hen Music (BHCD0079) on Friday May 20th.

Who?It might seem like a really obvious statement but this album is all about the songs. What it isn’t about is overblown production techniques, flashy solos or drums like cannons. It’s a group of musicians playing live in the studio, trying to get to the heart of eleven songs without bludgeoning the songs into submission. Danny Schmidt is a songwriter from Austin, Texas who fits perfectly into the seventies singer-songwriter mould (often used as a lazy comparison, but this time it’s absolutely spot on) with hints of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and perhaps even Jackson Browne. On “Owls” (his seventh studio album), his band of Mike Meadows (drums), Andrew Pressman (bass), David Goodrich (electric guitars), Lloyd Maines (lap steel) and Carrie Elkins and Daniel Thomas Phipps (backing vocals) provide a backdrop that ranges from the ethereal, Mexican-accented “Girl with Lantern Eyes” through the Dylan-era Band of “The Guns and the Crazy Ones” to the moody, foreboding and doom-laden “Paper Cranes”. There’s even a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll flavour to the environmental anthem “Soon the Earth Shall Swallow”.

Lyrically, “Owls” is an album that’s worth digging into because not everything reveals itself at the first listen; Danny Schmidt makes extensive use of parable, metaphor and intricate rhyming schemes in his quest to convey his insights, which range from the political concerns of “The Guns and the Crazy Ones” and “Soon the Earth will Swallow” to the very personal “Girl with Lantern Eyes” and “Cry on the Flowers”. These songs will make you sad and make you angry; they might even make you think.

And this is where we get to the really subjective bit. While Danny’s fragile tenor works really well most of the time, conveying emotion and fragility, there are times when the vibrato becomes a distraction from rather than an enhancement to the song. I know some of you might like this, and I’m not saying you’re wrong, but  it’s a bit overdone for my taste. Otherwise it’s a bunch of great songs on interesting lyrical themes played tastefully by a great band providing frameworks which enhance the power of the songs.

Out Monday May 18 on Live Once Records (LORCD09).

 

So it’s time to move on to the second half of the seventies and the early eighties and we start off with the P-word.

AM – How did you react when punk came along then?

PB – Loved it; I actually loved it and weirdly I wanted it to do what it wanted to do because up to that point my heroes were not punk at all and the very antithesis of punk. I wanted it, because I would have been about seventeen then, leaving school, and just starting to think about playing music in pubs and got a band together; well, actually, I got a duet together with Martin Gore (yes, that Martin Gore) and we were trying to write songs. He liked, I don’t know who he liked, I think it was Simon and Garfunkel at the time and he did like Sparks and David Bowie. I liked David Bowie but I wasn’t sure, I didn’t trust him which now, I think, was probably wrong, but I didn’t get the idea that superficial and chameleon-like was his theme. At the time I thought ‘I don’t believe he really means this’ and at that time it had to mean it and that meant a lot to me and I was probably wrong and Gore was probably way ahead of me on that. So we wrote songs which I tried to make melodic and soulful and he wanted to make strange and weird. I taught him how to play guitar and he was a better guitar player than he is, well, what he’s ended up as. We were writing some interesting songs at the time and we went out as this strange band and the punk happened, halfway through this band.

I had hair like Marc Bolan at the time and he had a bubble-cut but we found ourselves on these punk bills. I’d started writing a few songs as well, so I found myself as a solo person on these punk bills for no reason whatsoever because I had nothing to do with punk musically but I liked the fact you could play somewhere and there was energy there and I started listening to other people who were playing and I thought I’ll have a listen to this, so I went along to see some bands. I saw The Buzzcocks, The Ramones and The Talking Heads when they first came over, I saw The Clash once and there was a big fight so I didn’t hear much of The Clash, but that wasn’t the point in a way. I tended to like a what went on afterwards in the post-punk era; I got really well into that because there seemed to be room for bands like Television and The Fall with some of their lyrics which, at that point, were suddenly taking over for me and I went from trying to write songs like James Taylor with three words in them to two chords and “War and Peace” over the top of them; “Ulysses” or something like that, but then there were bands that that was feeding into at the time like The Fall. I certainly got heavily into The Fall and the more experimental bands but I would still listen to “The Modern Dance” by Pere Ubu and then go home and listen to “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” by James Taylor because I think that’s what it’s about; they’re not dissimilar in the sense that the person who’s responsible for the music does what he wants it to do. There’s too many categories, in a way.

AM – I know Television, “Marquee Moon”, everybody claims now that it’s always been their favourite album and at the time…

PB – They’re fucking lying; I tried to get everyone into that and a couple of people got it, but for once the rabid NME press was right about this.

AM – For me it’s still one that I’m happy to get the vinyl copy out and stick it on the turntable.

PB – It is actually an album I can listen to at any time and that’s a rare thing. Sometimes, even your favourite albums you think ‘I’m not in the mood for that’, but I can be depressed, I can be happy, I can be whatever, but when Television comes on, that’s it.

AM – So, that was punk, what about what came after that.

PB – Punk was exciting and I was involved in the energy of it; everywhere you went there were gigs. I sounded like Leonard Cohen at that time but anything went and that was the beauty of it. I wore flares and had long hair at the punk gigs I did and it was, sort of, ok. You’d get comments, but that was sort of the point; wait until Dexys Midnight Runners sing about ‘you’re so anti-fashion, wear flares”. You could do anything you liked, it was sort of Dadaist spirit. It was very early on when the fashion thing kicked in, the Kings Road punks, and it was weird because I felt like I’d transcended that because I hadn’t changed. I didn’t even cut my hair so I was like David Crosby amongst the punks.

AM – So presumably when the synthesisers kicked in that wouldn’t really have been your thing.

PB – When the post-punk thing happened, I used to like some of the bands that became known as Krautrock, Can, Neu and the newer ones as well, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft and Einsturzende Neubauten who were pure noise and distortion and the English versions of that like Cabaret Voltaire; I loved all of that. I thought there’s a synth thing going on and Martin got into it, so he buggered off and did Depeche Mode. Suddenly it turned into this really twee pop with no substance. I don’t hate pop music but I thought, with everything he knew, and the stuff he liked, I thought he would have gone towards Throbbing Gristle rather than this thing that happened, which seemed like it was going to be over in five minutes. For all I know he’s now a multi-millionaire and I’m sitting in a pub in Leigh.

AM  It’s a general thing that innovations like that come along, people make really good music and then somebody grabs bits of it for the mainstream and just dilutes it.

PB – That’s always happened. Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been anywhere if it wasn’t for The Byrds; fabulous as that was, I’d rather hear Dylan. I’m probably alone in the world in preferring “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan to the Hendrix version, even though I like Jimi Hendrix. I’m alone, even Bob Dylan said it’s a better version.

AM – Dylan’s songs have been interpreted by a lot of people; are they better versions or are they different versions?

PB – They’re different versions. Sometimes you can say they’re better versions but the thing I always try to get away from is ‘Dylan’s a fabulous songwriter and an icon of the twentieth century but he can’t sing’. So that means that if Judy Collins or some such does a version of “Idiot Wind”, it will be better, de facto, because she can sing. I could not disagree with anything, outside of UKIP, more vehemently than that. Bob Dylan and Sinatra are probably the best vocal stylists of this millennium. The reason I say that is because you try to play a Bob Dylan song and sing it and not sing a bit like Bob Dylan, not phrase it like him. The same with Sinatra, once you’ve heard “You Make me Feel So Young”, you try and sing that differently. Put your own slant on that; you can’t.

AM – I play and sing badly but I try Dylan songs like “I Shall be Released” and it’s always going to sound like Dylan.

PB – The Band did that; they’ve got some great singers in that band, and it sounded like Dylan; they couldn’t change the phrasing at all. You can sing it in a bland way or you can over-sing it; my worst nightmare is that I’ll wake up and “Positively Fourth Street” is covered by Mariah Carey. She would do it and you can guarantee you would have a queue of people saying ‘Oh, at last this song has been realised by a true singer’, but I would hunt her down and you’d see me on the Six O’Clock News if that happened.