I recently spent an evening with a friend and fellow songwriter-we've been meeting regularly to discuss his songs, his performance, and how his sound might translate to a full album. When last we met he told me that he felt he needed to get “out of his little box,” referring to the collection of chords and techniques he keeps within his musical repertoire. This was an interesting observation to me, especially since we’ve been looking at Ryan Adams’ guitar playing and how he's managed to do so much with a relatively simple approach to guitar playing throughout his career.
While discussing Adams’ technique I felt obliged to point out to my friend that once you really familiarize yourself with Adams’ music you come to see that, at least when it comes to guitar, he operates out of a fairly small box. This point wasn’t made as a criticism of Adams, quite the opposite in fact. I think it’s uncanny to witness such a large and varied body of work emerging from a relatively limited set of chords and techniques--a “box” that has remained largely unchanged throughout what’s turning out to be a long, successful career. Contrary to being a slight, I view Adams' musical proclivities as downright economical, and I think he illustrates well the subtle power of yin in a world obsessed with yang.
Ryan Adams is not the first to approach music this way and he won't be the last. Interestingly, there's been a long line of musical icons who, like Adams, gained such stature without employing elaborate technical skills. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Pete Seeger, Tom Waits, etc., are all artists whose cultural impact far exceeded the complexity of the music they wrote, technically speaking. More interesting still are recent comments made by Sturgill Simpson regarding the simplification of his guitar approach of late. Simpson clearly states that in becoming the songwriter many of us have come to know and love, he felt he needed to set aside some of his previous technical aspirations on the guitar, although the reason he gives is a little foggy. Perhaps he just knew? In any case, it seems to be working out for him...
I suppose every musician has a box from which they write and perform, I know I do. I used to be obsessed with expanding the boundaries of my technique, but I think about it much less now. This change occurred in the aftermath of a fundamental shift for me as a musician, when for the first time in my life I came to know what I am musically. In other words, I don’t believe there are any musical surprises waiting deep inside of me to be discovered any longer, surely there are many songs to be found, but when it comes to my authentic voice and performance space (i.e. box), I think I've found them, for better or for worse. It seems all that’s left now is for my way of “being” musically to change and grow as I do, a process driven by the alternating sun and storms of life more so that by my own autonomous musical expansion.
Of course the term "thinking inside the box" is a misnomer, as the box is simply a place of ease and comfort that every performer must find, and in the end, the best evidence that an artist is homing in on it may be the absence of thought altogether. Instead, an artist may recognize the space as somewhere their muscles move more easily and comfortably, their voice flows more freely and openly, and their soul expands curiously and without limit, regardless of the box's technical size, musically speaking. Hell, if a person was so inclined they might even suggest that this applies to life as a whole and not just to art or music?
(Luckily, I'm not feeling so inclined at the moment, which is good, because it would make this post much longer.)
It’s a funny thing, and it feels positively unseemly to share, but once I “got” myself musically, I became less interested in technique and outward exploration. I know it may seem sacrilegious to think or suggest such a thing, but it's as if some inner just voice started whispering, “you don't need all that fancy stuff, what you are doesn't require it … by all means, have at it if you like, but proceed with the understanding that it’s superfluous to you.”
Perhaps the process is akin to coaching a team and picking players, where after conducting interviews, watching film, and considering the overall game plan, it simply comes down to selecting the best and cutting the rest. Why should the things an artist chooses to adopt and perpetuate be any more useful in defining them than what they’ve chosen not to adapt? In other words, isn’t that which we don't choose every bit as important in defining us as that which we do?
It's funny now, as I'm recognizing patterns more wholly in retrospect, I find myself wondering if it all adds up to a more focused self-knowing, or just simple laziness? I suppose time will tell. It's not that I don't keep up my technique still (er...sometimes), it's just that doing so now feels like I'm preparing myself for a moment that may never arrive.
Of course the moment will arrive in one form or another, as life is long and music gets boring if a person doesn't shake things up. The box will expand moving forward, and I recognize and welcome that eventuality. Perhaps I'll even come around to being a student of technique again someday, who knows? But I suspect the days of technique for technique’s sake are behind me, at least for a while. Perhaps I'm just feeling chafed that I spent all that time trying to find myself in the technical aspects of music when, in the end, the authentic me required exploration in the opposite direction to locate? Then again, without defining the boundaries of the box through outward exploration, could I ever have recognized the essence of its contents? T.S. Eliot said it well...
Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.
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