The magic of folk music is derived primarily from the center stage that lyric takes in the performance of a song, a quality so rare in this day that it harkens back to a time past, back to the days of confessional poetry & its giants: Sylvia Plath & John Berryman & Anne Sexton.
If one were to analyse it, one would find that good folk lyrics perfectly balance the extremes of self-obsession & low self-esteem, landing on that stark line of idiosyncratic story-telling. To put it simply, good folk lyrics are honest & by that effect, allow others to express themselves in the same way. Music doesn’t always have to be about making a political statement. Instead, let’s talk – talk about childhood, faith, love, depression & death.
I don’t know how to be What I wanted to be when I was 5 Sometimes blue eyes sometimes green
Bike rides Snow hikes & Christmas lights Sometimes freezing sometimes warm I don’t know if I can love that anymore
Cause I got it all I’ve got it all mistaken for a meaningful life & a fun family vacation like when I used to ride roller coasters with my dad when a swimming pool in a hotel was a gift from God
like love or like a family I don’t know how to be…
(Vacation – Florist)
You don’t know how to be, but neither do I. I’m figuring it out, so take your time.
Here’s one more.
Call me in the morning I’ll be alright Call me in the morning I’ll be alright Call me little honey & I’ll be fine
Call me in the morning I’ll be okay Call me in the morning I’m far away Call me little darling & I’ll be fine
Untwist yourself from the life that you had Oh we’re falling, yeah we’re falling in the in-betweens
Let the sun sun sun Wash away our shame
I am a terrible performer. I’m not saying it in a self-deprecating way but because it is the truth – I really am. I don’t have natural stage charisma & I have difficulty telling song stories & maintaining an on-stage persona or even calling my song “my song” in front of other people because I don’t like the way it sounds when I say that. I shudder when people call me an “artiste” or a “singer-songwriter”. I have been surrounded by many people who do all the above things with ease & of course, it wasn’t fun that these things just eluded me when it seemed to be a prerequisite for the creative field that I was in.
Whatever the case, I stopped gigging in early 2014 & shoved it aside for a couple of years because it all seemed too trying. People urged me persistently to give it another shot but there just never seemed to be enough time, or it wasn’t important enough, or I just couldn’t muster the courage to. The real push finally came at the tail end of 2015, when an artiste & friend who I really respect told me rather firmly that I had better get over my stage fright & get my music out there or I would regret never trying in the years to come. Faith was then brought into the picture. She said that ministering to people often happens through the most unexpected songs in the most unexpected places & challenged me to not put God in a box i.e. ministering only through worship songs. Who was I to say that my “secular” songs couldn’t reach people in a profound way? If I got my act together, maybe something could actually happen. Ouch.
So I reckoned that if God really wanted me to do it, He would open up doors for me. So right there, over supper at a crowded dim sum restaurant, I kinda struck a deal with God (obnoxious, I know) & told him: OK God, your move. Three shows for 2016. Your move. Within a week, I had gotten a really unexpected call to do a gig by Kevin Mathews. It kinda turned out to be a big deal & even though I was incredibly nervous & mucked up all my lyrics & talked way too much / way too little at times & had a loud ringing sound in my left ear the whole time – told you I’m a terrible performer – I managed to pull through the 45-minute set, breathless but still alive. The biggest compliment I had that night wasn’t about how catchy the melodies or poetic the lyrics were, but that it seemed that my songs were different as compared to the others in the way that they “emanated joy”. Bless your soul, stranger. I choose to think that this uncontainable joy comes from a love for Christ, & a subsequent overflow of that very love.
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him & rejoice with joy that is inexpressible & filled with glory.
(1 Peter 1:8)
I managed to score two other gigs in 2016 (The Rooftop Sessions & The Night Festival) but unfortunate circumstances forced me to drop the latter. It was a tough year, & it was such a bummer to not fulfil a resolution that seemed just about attainable. So when the opportunity came up to do a spot in January when I was still in the thick of things, I felt like it was a fight against the flesh to say yes. Truth be told then, I had sincerely felt that I had been silenced by my transgressions, that God had taken away my gifting. I could feel a very tangible mental blockage whenever I tried to do anything creative. Simply put, my river of songs & poems had dried up. It was only a week before the show that I agreed to do it, mostly because I was seized one night by the feeling that this would be extremely important for me, spiritually & emotionally, & that I had to trust that the big guy upstairs was about to teach me something. So there it was – the moment to jump. & I did.
Long story short: with the help of my ridiculously talented friends (Nick the basslord who sacrificed his usual funk grooves to play folk bass for a night & Anthea who is a much better singer than me by miles), we put on a half-hour set of six originals & a cover. It wasn’t great, but it was a grand time all the same. My friends came & I made new ones; I sang & people listened. There was beer & food & chatter & laughter & for a single night, it was enough. I survived. I am still a terrible performer but at least I was still trying, & isn’t that what matters, the trying?
Artistry was one of the smaller shows I had ever done but in many ways it might have been the most significant because unlike the others (which was mostly a mixture of fanfare & fear), it was then, on 21st January 2017, emerging right out of a rough season, that something in the spiritual realm shifted & I was hit square in the chest by this realisation: Hey, I can still sing. Not fantastic, not fancy, but look – the voice is still here. I’m still here.
“I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool, sweet milk, & a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, & at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, & so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…”