by Isabella W.
If the American Museum of Natural History featured an exhibition on the singer-songwriter it would likely feature a spotlight shining on a stage and a slouched man or woman with a guitar. You stare through the thick glass, adjusting your glasses to better see the simple clothes and shaggy hair of the creature. He or she is strumming a melancholy song about an ex-lover with a pad of scratch paper to the left. In the background of the exhibit room are coffee house knickknacks and a brewing pot of herbal tea. Audience members are posed, searching their pockets for a tip to throw into the guitar case at the base of the makeshift stage. However, this scene is only the surface of what a singer-songwriter must be in the contemporary era. The exhibit must be modernized to include not only this typical coffee house performance, but a business that requires skill in music, technology, branding, and distinct creativity.
In mid-November, I ventured to downtown Portland to hear the singer-songwriter specimen, Tyler Stenson, play at the Old Church. The building contrasts the industrial, square architecture of downtown Portland with its antique and intricate appearance. Slim columns line the entrance of the snow-colored building and the teal door is propped open to a small ticket table for Stenson’s concert. I take my seat in a curved pew with thick green cushions at the back of the room, pulling my scarf closer to my neck as an icy breeze drifts through the opened door up to the tall curved arches of the ceiling. The performance space mirrors an idyllic holiday postcard from New England, and I half expect a spontaneous Christmas pageant to replace Stenson’s original music. Around me sit relaxed couples, holding beers and teas. A middle aged man with greying hair in a taupe cashmere scarf and his girlfriend purse their lips and hold their Budweisers up to the camera for several pre-concert “selfies.” Meanwhile, a mother prys her bantam, blonde children away from her leg and hands them to her husband to wrangle into seats. At the front of the room rests a fairly small wooden stage, propped in front of the central ornate organ. The stage abounds with musical instruments: a grand piano, a keyboard, a bass, at least three guitars, a drum set, an accordion, several microphones, and two brass candle holders (the remains of wedding ceremonies held at the church).
Soon, the opening band wanders on stage, featuring a svelte man in a black fedora, a tall blonde woman in a lilac blouse, and a petite, calm-faced accordion player.
The man in the fedora explains that the scheduled opening act has been caught across town due to ice and traffic—a combination most Oregonians have yet to beat. The impromptu performers are members of Stenson’s band—sans the leading man. The band begins playing a song called “Liz Lemon,” an homage to a dear friend’s cat. The audience is warm and cheerful, despite the biting cold, and the opening band is relaxed and talented, bantering with each other and the audience.
“I feel like I’m on a first date, you know,” says the fedora-clad man. “You gotta make sure you don’t sound too depressing or too crazy. And then you play something and hope you click with the audience. So, here’s to a great first date. We’ve only got one more song for you and then Mr. Stenson is up next,” he says as the audience laughs.
Stenson lounges at the back of the Old Church, in a white button down shirt and khakis, before taking his place on stage. He is calm and confident as he introduces himself with a voice like river bed clay, low and slightly gritty, with the hint of a southern accent. “Thanks so much for coming out everyone,” he says. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you all.”
The acoustic, gentle songs fill the arched ceilings and sway the spectators in the room. Before each song, Stenson introduces the story behind it, making his audience laugh.
“I wrote this song in 2010 when I was down playing a gig in San Luis Obispo and this little kid came up to me from the audience, and—” he pauses and smiles, “Well, I won’t give it away—that’s what the song is for—but it was just one of those bizarre stories.” He nods his head three times to signal the beginning of the song to his band. The ariose guitar pattern and minor chords of “That Moon” are a fitting accompaniment for Stenson’s poetic and mysterious lyrics about a spontaneous trip at night through the Poly Canyon following an invitation from a strange little boy:
“I looked up at the two mountains
With that moon high up above ’em
And it looked much like a pendant
Dangling from the neck of a woman.
With so much beauty there to offer,
There’s that much more to lose.
I said, This might be a stupid question
But do you suppose we’ve landed on that moon? (“About”).
The tranquil accordionist turns out to be a virtuoso in nearly every instrument, as he picks up a trumpet and plays a solo from his seat at the grand piano. In fact, every member of the band is highly involved, nodding their heads and moving their bodies to the rhythm, clearly passionate about the music they are playing. The audience is moved too, and I can feel my seat shaking as a man behind me taps his foot with gusto. Stenson’s passion for his music is palpable as he steps away from the microphone for the chorus of “Often and Much” and the band falls silent.
“Because you’re my hope.
You’re my sail.
You’re my crutch,” he sings.
He strums his guitar and crinkles his nose as his voice spirals to the top of every creamy, alcove of the room. The song transforms from when I last heard it through my computer speakers, becoming distinctly more alive and powerful.
“Ow! Ow!,” shouts a middle aged woman at the side of the room, nursing her second chilled beer. The rest of the group echoes her sentiment as they cheer and clap profusely. It’s one of those concerts where you can’t help but smile. Perhaps it’s Stenson’s stage presence, the band’s enthusiasm, or the graciousness of the setting that causes the glow of the audience. Or maybe it’s the music itself: a blend of storytelling and lilting instrumentals that even the coldest Portlander can’t help but appreciate.
I walk into the Starbucks for a further inspection of singer-songwriter specimen, Tyler Stenson, as the rain pelts the windows furiously, typical for a late-October Portland day. Stenson introduces himself and sets his worn leather briefcase and coffee on the counter, smiling warmly and adjusting the hood of his grey sweater. He has buzzed ashy blonde hair, matching stubble on his chin, and a distinct glint in his eyes. With a broad, toothy smile he settles down to talk, perfectly comfortable on the metal Starbucks stool, as if he has happened upon an old friend.
Stenson was raised in Portland and moved to Nashville for two years before coming back home. He saw a noticeable difference in audience reception between the two cities. “In Nashville, the people start with their arms like this”—he crosses his arms and gives a goofy frown—“and you hope to crack them. They are exposed to so much music there, a lot of it bad, that I think they’re entitled” to cross their arms. “And it’s really rewarding to crack them.” He laughs and shakes his head, saying, “The funniest thing was, in Nashville, they said I was left of center and outside of the box. Meanwhile, in Portland, critics were saying I was too commercial and calling me Mr. Safe. Portland has changed a lot — it’s not what it used to be. I got my start when Portland was really receptive, and now it’s much more exclusive.”
As Portland becomes more popular, Stenson believes the amount of “noise” has increased. While it’s true that advancements in technology and an increased interest in the singer-songwriter have made music more accessible to artists and listeners, there are also “exponentially more avenues to collect money, [and] exponentially smaller pieces of revenue.” If anyone can be in the marketplace, it becomes convoluted for artists. “On Spotify, for example, they pay in ratio. So if I take up 1% of the catalogue, then I’ll get 1% of the income. So there’s lots of noise, and the noise gets paid and it’s damaging because there is so much to differentiate yourself from,” Stenson says. As opportunity increases for singer-songwriters, so does competition, and the line between technology’s benefits and detriments to the species becomes hazy.
The technological shift from sheet music and desk to microphone and computer forces the singer-songwriter to not only be a composer, but also an arranger, programmer, and sound engineer (Shepherd 199). Any Natural History Museum exhibition of the modern singer-songwriter would have to feature a computer and numerous flyers, as the singer-songwriter must now be his or her own brand and business. “There are so many things that make a successful brand; you need a quality product and you need to present it well,” says Stenson. “A person that doesn’t know graphic design needs help running their website and their publicity.” Stenson, who majored in journalism with a focus on advertising, strongly believes that his marketing skills set him apart from the pack. “I can’t say it’s the golden ticket, because I’m not where I want to be, but it helps,” he says. Stenson also credits search engine optimization (SEO) for helping him book countless gigs. Search “Portland Singer-songwriter” on Google, and Tyler Stenson will be the first result. This is how I discovered Stenson and his music to begin with. Stenson credits his nerdy side as the reason for his taking a class specifically for SEO. “I’m never the best musician in the room, but I use my computer and marketing skills to get the gig. There are always 100 people better skill wise, but when I pop up first on a Google search, I have a better chance of getting the gig,” he says. To thrive in the modern era, the singer-songwriter must now find a balance between his or her creative talent and technological prowess.
To classify the singer-songwriter, one must first differentiate him or her from other musicians. Wildly popular musicians, such as Frank Sinatra, performed from a standard “songbook” of the mid-20th century (Schwartz), and many modern singers, such as Rihanna, have hits written for them by songwriters (Seabrook). The singer-songwriter is distinct from these species, as he or she writes and performs original music. While music performed by artists such as the aforementioned often appeals to the audience through witty lyrics or catchy beats, the songsmith is able to break barriers between audience and musician by creating connections in music through human empathy and emotion.
Direct personal connection is an important part of the singer-songwriter’s behavior and differentiates them from other musical species. According to influential publishing rights organization, Broadcast Music, Inc., “When a song is both written and performed by the same person, audiences assume that the material comes from the heart; that it emerges from the person’s own experience” (“History”). Singer-songwriters are “song poets” (Shuker 277) of sorts, crafting stories or personal narratives to music. Nina Simone is a brilliant example of the power of direct connection for the singer-songwriter genre. Simone began her career as a classically trained pianist in the 1950’s, before becoming the “griot of the civil rights movement” (Shatz). In the 1960’s, Simone began composing her own passionate songs of injustice towards African-Americans that surpassed the boundaries of entertainment and became powerful inspiration for an entire movement (Shatz). Songs such as “Mississippi Goddam” are rife with emotion, as seen in the lyrics,
“Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer” (Simone).
Simone demonstrates the impact that original music has when an audience can relate to the songs and feel the passion in the voice of the artist who composed them. The singer-songwriter possesses the ability to perform with talent, but more importantly, to create powerful connections between the audience and the music.
The naturalist must pay special attention to the music itself when classifying the singer-songwriter. I observe that contemporary singer-songwriter music is often acoustic, featuring piano or guitar and confessional, poetic lyrics (Shepherd 198). Stenson refers to himself as a “lyric first” writer (“About”). He believes lyrics can separate him from the crowd. “Mathematically, you can’t do something original, musically, because there are only so many chord structures,” he says. Stenson uses the guitar “as a vehicle” for his lyrics. “My music used to be autobiographical to a fault…I used to think that writing autobiographically was the purest form of poetry.” Stenson cites the inspiration for his more recent music as coming from everyday things such as imagined endings to books or thoughts from conversations. He still writes about self-reflection, but is cautious about betraying people’s privacy. “I got through many things, airing out my own laundry, but realized I probably shouldn’t be airing out everyone else’s,” he says.
Stenson classifies himself as an acoustic singer-songwriter, specializing in “elegant folk music.” His voice is raw and canorous, as is his music. Stenson purposely defines his style loosely, explaining, “It’s my way of being intentionally vague because I might want to write a country song one day and a song that would fit under pop the next.”
The classification of the singer-songwriter is a challenging task for even the most seasoned of experts. With so many platforms for delivering music to the public, pop music has become highly diversified. “If you sat in this cafe and played my CD and asked everyone what genre it was, you would get people saying acoustic, country, pop, or singer-songwriter,” says Stenson, gesturing to the man reading The Oregonian in the corner and the young couple nursing their child by the window. “There’re so many websites, and you have to classify yourself. I hate checking the country box, but I’m not rock. So if one site asks for pop, rock, or country, then I’ll have to check country. But another site could have the list folk, folk-fusion, etc.”
The category that singer-songwriters fall into is often unclear to the general public. Do singer-songwriters belong to a specific genre? Or are they their own unique group?
To determine where modern singer-songwriters emerged, one must first observe the evolution of the singer-songwriter genre. As the music industry expanded in the 20th century, so did the complexity of where singer-songwriters fit in. From the origin of the European troubadour tradition, the singer-songwriter genre has evolved into a complex assortment of styles.
Perhaps the most influential time in U.S. history for singer-songwriters was the 1960’s. In the 60’s, the popularity of the singer-songwriter began to flourish in the music industry. One contributing factor was the distinct social unrest of the decade. With events such as the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the increasing call for feminism in the United States, there was a need for self-expression which prompted a new wave of singer-songwriters to emerge (Perone). From the example of the aforementioned Ms. Simone, one can see the impact original music had on the public during the 60’s, due to an increasing awareness of problems in society. U.S. record labels recognized the singer-songwriter’s rising influence and began to promote their companies through advertising these artists which increased popularity and profitability of the genre (Shepherd 199). Singer-songwriters became the reigning monarchy of the 60’s music scene, dominating the music charts. Bob Dylan is an extraordinary example of the widespread success of singer-songwriters, and broke new ground in the popularity of modern folk music (“History”). According to Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan personalized folk music which essentially “reinvented” the music of singer-songwriters (Kemp). Dylan’s lyrics used “boy-girl romantic innuendo, with the intellectualism of classic literature and poetry,” transforming the idea of writing and performing one’s own music from a folksy hobby to a lyrical art (“Bob Dylan”).
The singer-songwriter tradition is also highly influenced by the Tin Pan Alley Pop of the late 19th and early 20th century—“the commercial music of songwriters of ballads, dance music, and vaudeville” (“Tin Pan Alley”). Tin Pan Alley was a real street in Manhattan, overabundant with songwriters and the offices of major music publishing firms. Superstars such as Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby were a part of this major musical movement (“Tin Pan Alley”) that developed into what we know now as American popular music.
From the influences of folk music and Tin Pan Alley pop came the first major dichotomy in the singer-songwriter species. Artists such as Carole King, and Randy Newman are categorized into having Tin Pan Alley influenced music, whereas artists such as Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen are often categorized into post-Bob Dylan folk music (Hoffmann).
The singer-songwriter genre became even more diversified when groups that wrote their own music, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, gained popularity. Thus, the singer-songwriter wasn’t inherently a one-man band anymore, but could instead fall under the category of a personal act or a group act. The songsmith’s classification options had blossomed into a complex system to navigate for the artist and the public.
Any theories that the singer-songwriter would become extinct after such an influential time in the 60’s were unfounded. The species has, in fact, flourished. Although the age of the singer-songwriter is sometimes considered as having reached its climax in the late 20th century, the genre is very influential in the music world today. Shows such as MTV’S Unplugged, which features artists singing acoustic renditions of their songs, remain popular. The MTV Unplugged website states that “The explosion of renewed interest in Folk and acoustic music in general in the late 80s led to the birth of the series” (“About Unplugged”). This contemporary interest in singer-songwriters demonstrates the impact they have on the music business today. Modern singer-songwriters such as Taylor Swift, Amy Winehouse, and Ed Sheeran are extremely influential in the contemporary popular music scene (“Singer-songwriter Top”). According to the website for Broadcast Music, Inc., “The songwriter has evolved from being a servant to others to the master of his or her own domain” (“History”).
This is not to say that being a singer-songwriter leads to easy success and fame. The artist’s life is difficult, dependent on the whim and fancy of the audience. “It’s a polarizing experience,” says Stenson. “When I see the backs of heads, and hear the chatter, I feel one foot tall. When I see smiles, and the eyes are on, I feel ten feet tall.” The singer-songwriter puts his or her innermost thoughts and passion on display, hoping for people to relate, to appreciate, and to enjoy his or her experience.
The Natural Museum of History must take care to fill its exhibit with details of the many facets of a modern singer-songwriter. The curators at the museum must also recognize that these additions to the exhibit do not alter the importance of what is at the heart of any songsmith’s career. Despite the technological and business savvy a singer-songwriter must now have for success, the importance of creating powerful music and connecting with people still drives the genre. I ask Stenson to chose a word that might sum up his feelings when playing his music. “When the audience is hanging on my words,” he says, pausing to think for a long, silent moment: “Invincibility.”
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