Friday, February 26, 2010

you've got the music in you.

Listening To: Martyrs & Thieves by Jennifer Knapp
Line Obsession: Every smiley moon, without fail, Claire dreamed of her childhood. - from Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

This week, I've been fighting another stupid winter cold - the kind where one side of my nose is persistently stuffed up, which makes me sound like Darth Vader when I answer the phone. Do you know the kind of cold I'm talking about? It's the one where your nose is so stuffy you can't breathe at night, so you turn over on your other side and experience 3 seconds of breathable bliss ... and then that other side of your nose puffs up instead? It's so annoying. I'm also listening to music via my headphones so I don't wake up Biscuit. [Question: Are the white headphones that connect to an iPod, the ones that go in you ear, still called "headphones"?] Thus, I thought it might be fun to talk about music. In particular, I thought it might be fun to write about ten musicians who make me want to be a better writer. There are so many musicians I adore, but these ten have been (and continue to be) big influences on my work. I would love to hear about the music inspiring you too!

10. Carole King
I have often said that my mom, Elaine, is beautiful like a folk song. There's this pic I have of Mom when she's my age, leaning over a porch railing wearing a white t-shirt and an old pair of jeans. Her hair is messy in this really chic 70's sort of way. Her smile is pretty and confident. She looks cooler in that pic than I will ever be, and she's not even trying to look cool. My mom has always had this very effortless, natural kind of beauty. So, it's no surprise really that my mom is a fan of Carole King - who gives off that same independent, free-spirit, vibe. When I was little, my mom would play Carole King's records, sing along with the songs, and dance around in the kitchen. Thus, I've committed many of those songs to memory. I'm sure, in some way, Carole makes me want to be a better writer because she makes me feel nostalgic. But I think it's more than that. My favorite thing about her work is that there's a raw, lonesome sound that runs through every song she does. Some songs are elegant. Some are weird. Some are sad. Even the happy ones make me feel melancholy. Regardless, I love how the first note of her song comes on my iPod and I know it's her. What Carole King teaches me about writing: find your voice. Follow your instinct. And if something seems off at first, don't stress. Sometimes you need to dance around in a story before you know where it's headed. Thanks Carol. And thanks mom :)

9. Iron & Wine
It is no big secret that love stories are my absolute favorite stories ever. I'm such a sap, even though my humor can be a bit dark. Evidence: I just finished reading this gigantic tome of a book called Roses, a new novel about three East Texas families who trace their lineage back to The War of The Roses. The novel centers on the tragedies in those families, particularly between two people who can't get past their blazing egos long enough to realize they need to be together. The book spans almost a century. It's like 500 pages long. And I was so sad when it ended. It was a great love story. But I'm not just drawn to Big! Epic! love stories. Quirky, epic, love-at-first-sight, hate-at-first-sight-that-turns-to-love ... I like all that. I just want something that's genuine, something I feel when I read it. Know what I mean? Someday, I hope I'm able to write very genuine love stories too (sweet love stories ... not the kind that would make my granny blush*). For my musical inspiration in this ongoing endeavor, I turn to Iron & Wine (which makes it sound like I hit the bottle :). Their songs about love are so sincere. The song below, Flightless Bird American Mouth, reminds me of falling in love in a subtle way. It's the kind of love you don't run down the street shouting about, which some people think makes it less amazing than what they experienced. People who think love is only Epic! sometimes miss the sincerity that comes with subtle beginnings. But I think my favorite kind of love story is the one that quietly takes you by surprise, the one that feels so sweet and fragile you just feel grateful you get to have it in your life for awhile. What Iron & Wine teaches me about writing: However you write about love; make it real.

8. Bethany Dillon
Her music is sweet, subtle, gorgeous, and honest. She writes about her faith in such a genuine way. I've been a fan since college and when I wrote Paperdoll, I listened to Bethany Dillon a bunch. When my editor told me Bethany Dillon read Paperdoll ... and blurbed it ... I did jumpy claps for weeks. Sometimes when I'm having a bad day, I open the book, read what she wrote, and get frenzied all over again. Bethany Dillon's music teaches me to be honest about my fears, struggles, and short-comings. And she reminds me of the most important rule I think I'll ever learn about writing: be observant. (One of my favorite songs she's done is about what she learns while sitting in the window seat of an airplane.) Bethany Dillon reminds me to keep my heart open for a new story. You never know what might spark something beautiful n your imagination.

7. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem
I'm kidding. Sort of.

6. Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
My brother and I went to Nashville a couple of years ago to hear The Swell Season. Chase was already a fan of The Frames (of course he was) and I was smitten after I saw Once (who wasn't? :). I knew the concert would be good, but I didn't expect it to be wonderful. It was unbelievable. Glen Hansard got a standing ovation after the first song. And he and lovely Marketa got two more standing ovations before the end of the show. By the looks of that guitar, he's been making music for a long time. I don't know how long it took him to write all those songs, to put together such a moving set list ... but all that hard work was worth it. What Glen and Marketa teach me about writing: work hard on your craft. Never stop making it better. And when you finally get to present your work to someone else, put every bit of your heart right back into it again. Stay true to your art, even when the crowd heckles a little bit. (And they heckled a bit in Nashville. At every concert I attend, I feel like I always end up in the section with the guy who gets drunk and starts shouting, "Freebird!")

5. Dolly Parton
When I was a kid I wanted to grow up and be either Dolly Parton or Lottie Moon (a missionary to China). I pretty much completely failed on both counts. But! I still think both women are tough, awesome, and crazy talented. And while Dolly is probably most famous for her, um, personality, I don't think she gets enough credit for being such a talented song writer.** I was so mesmerized by her when I was a kid. I remember watching an interview where she said she started writing songs when she was 10 (or something). And I thought - I'm 10 (or something)! I can write songs too! And I totally did. I plugged my little electric piano into the wall and wrote a cheesetastic song about a bird that fell out of its nest. (I still remember every word. I'll spare you. The bird survives in case you were concerned.) When my grandma told me Dolly Parton was an East Tennessee girl, like me, I was so sure the connection meant something (though I'm not really sure what). There aren't many celebrities I would go fangirl over but she is so one of them. (John Schneider, the original Bo Duke, is the other.) (Don't judge me.) Dolly P. writes about her experiences (good and bad) in a beautiful way. As far as writing, she reminds me that those experiences that broke me didn't define me. But sometimes, if I can tap into what I was feeling when they happened, it makes for a fantastic story. And stories can be wonderful bandaids for those little scuffed up places on a person's heart, can't they?

4. Nickel Creek
I don't really know what they've taught me about writing. I just know when I listen to them, I can't get back to a computer fast enough. They make me want to crank out beautiful work. And they make me want to dance. And I have a crush on Chris Thile. Please come back, Nickel Creek. This break has gone on long enough!

3. Chris Martin
My friend thisisntjimmy just rolled his eyes. I know Coldplay isn't everybody's cup of Earl Grey. (Save your Radiohead arguments, people. They mean nothing to me.) But I think they're awesome. Coldplay reminds me my favorite part of writing: which is that first initial moment of inspiration when I'm not worried about what other people think. Before I re-write something a zillion times, and before I'm bombarded with self-doubt, there's a brief, blissful moment when I get lost in the story. When I watch Chris Marin play piano, play guitar, dance around on stage, whatever he does ... I think he's lost in the story too. I doubt he has as many moments of self-doubt as I do, but his music makes me want to make something beautiful too. (Also worth nothing: when the live version of Viva la Vida comes on my iPod, I work a lot harder on the treadmill. Yay music!)

2. Brandi Carlile
There's so much I could say here. I think my favorite thing about Brandi Carlile's music is that she doesn't waste words. Saying something beautiful in a succinct way is difficult. It is for me at least (in case you haven't noticed). Every song Brandi Carlile sings tells a story; there is so much going on in one little lyric. I love that. There's a project I've been kicking around in my imagination for awhile. It was largely inspired by a scene in a short story Flannery O'Connor wrote and by the music of Brandi Carilie. Don't tell Brandi that if you happen to know her. She would probably see the project (which involves an old library, a glass artist, a ghost story, and two lonely people afraid the world will see their scars...) and be embarrassed to be attached to such amateur art. Still :) I know writing this project has, and will, stir something up in me. And her music stirs up something in me.

1. Jennifer Knapp
I was in high school when my mom bought me a CD called Kansas, by a singer/songwriter named Jennifer Knapp. Jennifer Knapp didn't look like many of the girls making popular music back then. Back in ye olden days, Brittany was just getting started, strutting down a high school hallway singing "Hit Me Baby One More Time." Christina was rolling around in the sand singing about a genie in a bottle. And lots of musicians I heard on the radio (b/c I really listened to the radio back then) looked, and sounded, like those girls. Except Jennifer. Jennifer was different. She had a guitar strapped around her shoulders and a steely look in her eyes. The cool CD cover pose back then seemed to be looking away from the lens, like the photog just happened to catch you looking forlorn and contemplative whilst wearing heavy eyeliner. Or the pose was to bite your finger and give the photog a coy/flirty/sexy grin. But Jennifer Knapp was no tease - she looked straight ahead, like, "Listen to me. I have something important to say." I loved that. I loved her music even more. I listened to Top 40 songs in high school (every time I hear the song that begins, "They made up their minds ... and they started packing" I squeal and call my best friend), but I never connected with songs like that. Jennifer Knapp's music wrapped around the experiences I was going through. The more I listened to her music (I have two copies of most of her CD's b/c I wore the first one out), the more I noticed some commonalities: 1.)Her lyrics are pure poetry. Example:

There are ghosts in my past
have owned more of my soul
than I thought I had given away.
They linger in closest and under my bed
and in pictures less proudly displayed.
A great fool in my life I have been;
I have squandered till pallid and thin.
Hung my head in shame and refused to take blame
for the darkness I know I've let win (from Martyrs & Thieves)

2.) Her songs mean something. Her albums always felt very cohesive to me, like no song was pushed on there just to make a full CD. I think she's a very cerebral artist.

3.) Her songs are rough. Her voice is grovely. Thus, her CD's never sounded too manufactured. They sounded professional but they sounded a little bit raw too.

4.) Her songs don't always resolve. There's not always a shiny happy ending which is odd because, quite often, she wrote about her faith. And most people want a faith that ties up neatly in every possible way. Jennifer wrote about other things too; but her relationship with God was usually at the forefront and she never pretended it wasn't (and she never acted pretentious because it was).

I started writing for a magazine called Brio when I was 17. My editor gave me one piece of advice before I sent my first article: be genuine. For awhile, I was quite freaked out about this task (grateful but super freaked). I knew my articles were going to be about my faith, which is very personal to me. Writing about something so personal was going to be a (cool) challenge. I didn't want it to be the kind of "faith" I saw some looneys embracing on TV either: a faith that was judgemental, cruel, and hypocritical. I think it was Mother Teresa who said if you judge someone you don't have time to love them (wasn't it?). I wanted to focus on the parts of my faith that were beautiful and weird and amazing to me: like love and service and kindness and grace. I wanted write through the constant questions I was struggling with: big questions, like why do people I love have to die? And smaller questions, like why do I fall in love with people who don't love me back? I was learning that it was okay to write through the questions and make peace with not having answers. To that end, I made it my personal goal to write like Jennifer Knapp sang.

I failed many times. Some articles I wrote were heavy on the cliche (sometimes I read those early articles and cringe ... do other artists go through that? Do you look at your early stuff too and think it sounds dumb?). But sometimes, I knew I'd done it exactly the way it needed to be done. Whether I'm writing fiction or non-fiction, I hope my work comes off as raw, honest, and unpretentious as Jennifer Knapp's music sounds to me. And I hope it's a little bit beautiful every now and then too. That's what Jennifer Knapp taught me about writing, but that's not all she taught me. As a very shy, very easily freakable 17 year old, she made me feel brave enough to hold my work out to the world, look them in the eye and say, "Listen up. I have something important to say."

Fun note: The other day my mom casually mentioned she had something for me. I assumed she meant vitamins. My mom is constantly giving me suppliments and vitamins b/c she's under the impression Diet Dr. Pepper doesn't have enough nutrients to sustain a healthy lifestyle (what?). When I realized the something she was giving me was actually tickets to see Jennifer Knapp in concert this spring ... I nearly flipped my lid. JK's been on a long hiatus. She's finally releasing an album and touring again. And this comes at exactly the point in my life when I'm making a big transition into the kind of writing I've always wanted to do, but been afraid to do. Just when I need another "look em' in the eye!" moment by way of great music, I get one! I think maybe it's a sign. Probably not, but I'm going to take it that way. :)

I would love to hear about the music and musicians who inspire you too. Happy Weekending lovelies! :)

* I laughed when I typed that. For the record, I'm 99.9% positive there is nothing in existence that would have made my granny blush.
** I don't know if it's available on iTunes, but Joan Osborne does a gorgeous cover of DP's song, "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?"
*** Also, you can see Jennifer Knapp's schedule here. Tickets are insanely cheap. And she's doing Lilith Fair this summer!


  1. I hate winter colds. And summer colds. They are the worst. The whole breathing out of only one side of my nose leaves me feeling off-balance. Hope you get better soon!

    I am excited to hear you liked Roses! Another friend of mine recommended it - so I am definitely going to have to check it out, especially since it's under $15 on Amazon.

    I can't judge you for being a Jon Schneider fangirl, because I love me some Tom Wopat. When I saw him in Annie Get Your Gun I could've DIED, he was fantastic!

    Love reading your thoughts - one artist that came to mind, that I think you might enjoy as well, is Melody Gardot. She is an amazing songwriter.

  2. WHAT??? Jennifer Knapp is coming back! Just did a happy dance in my cubicle.

  3. you make a mother proud...and I can certainly see why you love J. Knapp and ranked her #1...she could sing with carole king any day... love you bunches...Moo

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  5. Good grief, I was trying to edit my post, not delete it. =) I forgot a couple things.

    I love watching Chris Martin play the piano. It inspires me to go play on mine (even though right now my playing sounds worse than usual because my piano needs tuning and my pedal doesn't work right). And I also really like Bethany Dillon. She's always seemed so real to me.

    Some music that inspires me:
    -Frank Sinatra (when he sings a love song, he means it. How ironic, since he was married like 4 times and led a rough life)
    -Elvis (his music has been such a huge part of my life)
    -Eisley (their music is otherworldly and strange and reminds me of Narnia)
    -Jon Foreman (Switchfoot and solo...his voice is so genuine and lovely, and his songwriting is amazing)
    -"Pride and Prejudice" soundtrack (my constant companion while doing homework, reading, writing, etc.)
    -Judy Garland (lovely seems that the most talented people have the most tragic lives)
    -Some country music (nostalgic for me. It's hard to find good, clean country music now, but I grew up listening to older country music. I'm a farm girl-not a redneck, LOL- and it reminds me of how much I love our Southern, country life)

    I'm not sure what reminded me of this, since it doesn't exactly inspire me...but I love some of Johnny Cash's CD "American IV-The Man Comes Around." I like Johnny Cash in general, and I usually don't like the voices of singers when they get past a certain age (I'm sorry, but even with some of my favorites...Elvis and Sinatra). Anyway, this is pretty much Johnny Cash's last recorded CD, and it is heartbreaking. His voice, I mean, and the songs he's singing. "Hurt" and "The Man Comes Around" in particular.


  6. Ruth, do you have any idea how delighted I am to know you heart Tom Wopat? They come no finer than the Duke brothers. :) My friend Jimmy lives in NYC - his old blog had the tag "thrills, spills, and Tom Wopat" b/c that was on the marquee for Annie Get Your Gun. Or something like that. I saw him when he toured with Chicago. The Dukes still have it. Thanks for the music rec. Let me know what you think about Roses!

    Ashley, she's totally back. The first new song, that I've heard, is so beautiful. I can't wait to get her new CD. I'm seeing her when she tours with Derek Webb and my ticket was just $15! Insanity!

    Mom! You commented on the blog!! :) Love you!

    Kristen, I heart your taste in music. And I so agree on old country music. I have a special place in my heart for country from the 80's and before (like George Strait, Alabama, Randy Travis, etc) but I like it even older than that - like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline. Patsy Cline's voice - my word, it's something. I think I like it because it had more of a storyteller vibe to it. Now it's all about a guitar riff or catchy hook, but back then it sounded more like a ballad. Johnny Cash is a great addition to the list! I agree with you totally - something about his voice, as he aged, made him seem even more authentic and real. I listen to the song "Hurt" and think, wow. This man knows what he's singing about. (Also - Eisley! Their songs are like fairy-tales. My favorites are Trollywood and Marvelous Things.)

  7. Natalie, I am totally envious of your writing. (There, I said it.) I hope I can write that way some day and evoke the kind of feelings in other people I get it when I read your work.

    All those musicians are artsy and cool and sound very inspiring. Sadly, I am commercial through and through and recognized maybe 3 of them. I do love Bethany Dillon and Glen Hansard/Marketa. Have you seen Once? I love that movie - it's so quiet and musical and authentic.

    Anyway, never stop blogging. Never stop writing. That's all. :)


  8. Sarah, you are way too sweet. From what I've seen on your blog, you're already writing incredible things. I think you're already in your someday ;) Thanks so much for the sweet compliment. I thought Once was wonderful too. I rented it thinking it would just be okay but by the end of that first song, I was smitten :)

  9. I have a terrible habit of googling and ending up on blogs of people I don't know, but here I am. :)
    As a girl (er, woman) who grew up reading Brio and listening to Jennifer Knapp on excessive repeat (come to think of it, nearly every artist on your list, really) your post resonated with me!
    I'm pretty excited she's playing again! And great post. :)

  10. Thank you, Katie! I'm glad you googled your way here! :) It's always nice to meet someone else who knows how to wear out a song. Once I find a band or song I like ... I truly listen to it until I'm sick of it. Somehow, I never got sick of JKnapp. You should take in her concert if she's close to you. I was wowed - it's the same sound as before, but better.

  11. Plans are in the works to catch her in SF! Can't wait.