Artist Interview: The River Has Many Voices
Thanks to an outstanding performance in our Bob Dylan cover contest, we’ve been reintroduced to the immensely talented The River Has Many Voices. Enjoy getting to know this truly creative songwriter and lyricist. You’ll find much to like both in his music and in his writing here.
1) When did you get your start in music?
My older brother, Andrew, came home from college with a guitar: a pawnshop classical Martin. He showed me A-minor and, when I played it for the first time, I felt the sure promise of a thousand songs. I saw my life differently. That one chord was a direct link to all the musicians I’d heard growing up, all the songs I’d sung or heard sung by my family. Holding the guitar, I immediately felt like I was closer to my musical heroes than I ever had been. I set sound free just like them. I could play the same chord that Jimmy Page played, that Bob Dylan played, that Woody Guthrie played. It was powerful.
2) Who are your primary musical influences?
Three primary influences: Townes Van Zandt. He opened my eyes to what a song could do, how it could combine the feel of the land with the words of the spirit. Bob Dylan taught me that certain songs needed to be written. My father singing in the car showed me the joy you could feel while singing.
3) You seem like the literary type as well. Do books or specific authors influence your writing and imagery?
Books and poems have been some of my favorite music. They reach a depth of musicality that much music is too limited to reach. A line of prose doesn’t have the same rules as a line of lyric. It can move at its own speed, define its own rhythm, and then break that rhythm in the next line. It’s chords are made from images and ideas. Unlimited chord changes. James Joyce showed me how the number of chords are endless in prose.
Poetry, too, can use elements of spacing and syntax that don’t translate into lyrics and there’s much power there. Even more, poetry can use the visual magic of what two words can look like next to one another. Ginsberg taught me what two words side-by-side could do, how they could bring together two far connotations, emotions, and ideas, and pair them up: starving hysterical naked. I’ve sought, over the years, to integrate elements of poetry and prose into writing lyrics, to find a place where they all merge, a common ground I could communicate with voice and sound. My new album Ash St. is about leaving the lyric behind and making poetry instead.
4) Your music is definitely in the folk category. Do you have any reflections on folk as a genre?
I believe the genre of folk music is the most vital and necessary form of music. As such, it needs to be fought for so that it doesn’t become solely an homage to times before. It should remain a reflection in the waters of our own time.
There are two enemies of the genre: the traditionalism that seeks to keep it a thing of the past and glorify it only as such, and the modernity of Ooohs and Ahhhs that seeks to conform the genre to the radio industry.
I believe folk music is the music of the people, and no one else. It belongs in the hands of people, and a folk song should be a handshake from one to another. It should be intimate. It should acknowledge the humanity within us and not seek to profit off of our modern rush to co-opt the individual into a social media hero. I love folk music because when an artist writes and performs a great folk song, they become the song, and the singer isn’t as important as the song. For folk, the song is all that matters. Nothing else. This is vital because in our times, the singer’s narrative surpasses the narrative of the song too often.
5) What does your songwriting process look like?
It starts with me picking up my guitar. Maybe sitting at the piano. I have a feeling I want to follow and I play that feeling through. Words come out. Sometimes all of them. Sometimes some of them. Sometimes I keep just a couple. But, by then I know what the song wants to sing. That’s when I switch over to my computer and write. I use notes from notebooks and papers I’ve gathered when I need them. But, mostly I don’t use a thing and just follow what the song seems to demand of the moment. I tell the story it wants to tell. I play it through live, and go back to fine tune the syntax, the phrasing, the diction. I finish it right away or it gets lost in a pile of unfinished demos.
Sometimes, though, a song comes from waking up in the middle of the night with a melody or words in my head. Something handed me in a dream.
Other times songs come from a moment I was in. They start with that image. A bus ride. The lights of the city. A walk I was on. I keep that moment in me for a while until I get to my guitar, then I find a way to make that moment speak again. “A Thousand On Fire” came from sitting on the porch on the corner of Ash St. & 16 Ave. in Portland, Oregon, listening to the city. The whole city was talking. I heard a couple thousand miles, all the way back to Austin, Texas. I heard all of our stories, all of us talking in the night. I wanted to write each verse as if it were a poem from The Spoon River Anthology – yet, these weren’t stories from the dead, as in The Spoon River Anthology; these were the stories of the living: those I know, those I love.
6) Can you tell us the story behind “I Know?”
“I Know” was written at my family’s ranch house, on my grandmother’s piano that my grandfather gave her for their anniversary one year. I had a moment I wanted to put into sound. It was the moment I woke up next to the woman I was going to marry, looked into her eyes in silence and saw a flower in her eyes. I brought that moment back to my piano and thought of how little I knew about the world, but at least I knew that one thing. At least I knew that flower in her eyes.
I thought of Woody Guthrie’s words a lot at that time, the words Jeff Tweedy put into song in “Remember The Mountain Bed” :
I learned the reason why man must work and how to dream big dreams,
To conquer time and space and fight the rivers and the seas
I stand here filled with my emptiness now and look at city and land
And I know why farms and cities are built by hot, warm, nervous hands.
I crossed many states just to stand here now, my face all hot with tears,
I crossed city, and valley, desert, and stream, to bring my body here:
My history and future blaze bright in me and all my joy and pain
Go through my head on our mountain bed where I smell your hair again.
I knew the importance of that flower I had seen. How it would define the work I needed to do in life from there on out.
7) What projects are you working on currently? Do you have any upcoming albums?
Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new folk album: Ash St. I call the genre “Cosmic Folk”. In Austin, Texas, back in the 70’s, there was a group of country artists like Willie Nelson and Michael Martin Murphey who played a “Cosmic Country”. B.W. Stevenson and others played it as well. It sought to keep the musical genre of country alive but add a lyrical ingenuity that was existential and reflective. My album draws influence from that idea, but works within the folk genre.
Ash St. is folk music. Yet, the weight of our times isn’t the same weight of the 20s, 30s, or 60s. Our times can’t keep playing a folk music that borrows the political and social causes of any other time. The weight of our times is in the internal and existential stories that exist within us as we try and make sense and make meaning in our own lives. Ash St. is a folk conversation with the past, but it moves the conversation within us in the present. I wanted this album to be able to sit with other significant folk albums on my shelf. I wanted it to be in dialogue with the folk albums that moved the genre forward in our time, albums that Dylan, that Von Ronk, that Simon & Garfunkel, that Townes Van Zandt and others made. And, I wanted each song to be a part of a larger story. The whole album tells a story, and each song is a specific thread in that fabric.
8) Is there anything you’d like our readers to know about your work?
You haven’t heard of me. I’m not working within a genre of music that draws much attention to itself. I’ve been playing empty rooms for years. I’ve sung songs to no one for years. I’ve been playing songs into the wind above bridges and on mountains for years, no one else around. You haven’t heard me on the radio. I don’t have the weight of a label behind me. I don’t ask for anyone to buy my music. I give it away for free. But none of that matters to me. The music I play wants you to listen to yourself. It doesn’t want you to hear me.
Personally, I believe in the power of song in my life. I believe in the ways it transforms me, connects me to others, sharpens my eyes in every day life, and makes more sensitive my hands to all they touch. Music has been my teacher and my strength. Music taught me how to love and how to cry; it’s taught me how to live and how to die.