A Performance, Reading and Conversation with Josh Ritter and John Wesley Harding, May 5th in Hartman Lounge
“Playing music is relaxing. Reading is inherently tense,” John Wesley Harding said at the beginning of last week’s WAMFEST event featuring Josh Ritter and Harding in a performance, reading and chat together in Hartman Lounge. ”We’re going to play a couple songs for you first, to help loosen up.”
Ritter pulled his guitar onto his lap, described what he wanted to play then asked the audience with complete sincerity, “Is that cool?”
A few people giggled. Everyone nodded eagerly. Of course it was cool, anything he wanted to do would have been cool, he’s Josh Ritter. But fame didn’t seem to affect him at all. He spoke warmly and openly, gave a hug to everyone who approached him and asked, “How’s life?” He seemed like that nice young man who lives next door to Granny and helps her pull weeds out of her flowerbed. But when he started playing, it quickly became obvious why he’s a star: the man is freakin’ talented. Yet, despite all this, he remained kind and genuine throughout the afternoon, smiling so broadly when he played that his cheeks bubbled up and his pupils disappeared in the creases of his eyes.
Harding followed Ritter’s opening song with a hilarious, upbeat and charming number of his own about gettin’ buzzed and havin’ fun. One of the most impressive things about Harding was his natural ability as an overall performer; his crisp, beautiful voice nailed every note, his versatile guitar work provided a steady, rhythmic backbone or a melodic lead, his witty banter and dynamic, vibrant way of speaking kept his audience engaged and excited. Harding is the kind of person who can turn a mistake into a funny joke, leaving his fans feeling special to have witnessed something so in-the-moment. Plus, his sharp sense of style, ranging from white suits with beaded shoes to the more classic jeans and button-up, only enhances his aura (I strongly encourage all the hairy, hipster boys out there to watch a Harding performance and take notes).
Oh, and let’s not forget the two are also incredibly gifted novelists. Harding’s recent release, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, has received wide acclaim from The New York Times, NPR and many other reviewers, while Ritter’s new book, Bright’s Passages, will be released this June with high expectations.
“It’s all about the meter, the rhythm of the language,” Ritter said about his writing process. “A song is like a hallway with many doors you can go through to explore. I approached my novel like that without realizing how much more work it is.”
“In a song, you can say the least about something but in a novel, that’s not the case at all,” Harding added. ”You can’t hide in a novel.”
While being a great musician provides some understanding of novel writing, it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll also be a great author. However, neither of these men was a stranger to story writing when they first began their novels. Throughout their careers as musicians, both have captured real, honest moments in their poetic lyrics, often relaying a full story within a single song. Despite the similarities between writing lyrics and novels, however, both spoke about how hard it was to sit alone and work on their books.
“Music is done in public, often with alcohol,” Harding laughed. “You collaborate a lot, you make a friend or even get married that night. But writing is lonely.”
“I had lots of false starts,” Ritter said. “Running a revolution is easier than writing a novel, that’s for sure!” He laughed along with everyone else, though he seemed serious about the statement. “That nervousness is good, it keeps things scary a bit,” he added.
Ritter then read a passage from his novel that follows a War World II vet, Bright, on the run with a child and a ghost. The pace and flow of Ritter’s antiquated language rang true to his songwriting yet took on a new voice of its own, painting vivid, specific images of Bright’s surroundings, emotions and overall experiences.
Harding followed up with a passage from the beginning of his novel that instantly brought the audience to the hills of Ireland where the narrator meets the young composer, Charles Jessold, and experiences a magical and touching performance of an old ballad, Little Musgrave. Harding’s prose was magnetic and humorous, bouncing along much like the way he speaks. When he finished reading, Harding played a gorgeous rendition of Little Musgrave that showcased his vocal, guitar and storytelling skills while also bringing his novel even more to life.
The two performers then engaged the audience in a lively and interesting Q&A before closing out with a Harding original, complete with a lovely vocal harmony.
Everyone knows The New Yorker. Its interesting and engaging essays, high quality reviews, topnotch short stories, funny cartoons and colorful covers make it the most iconic magazine of our time, the time before us and probably the time before then, too. Dating back to 1925, The New Yorker strives to be humorous, cosmopolitan and sophisticated while featuring some of the most well-known and respected writers in the world. There are those who find it pretentious, too cerebral or self-indulgent, but anyone at Monday’s WAMFEST event held in Lenfell Hall, featuring contributors Ben Greenman, Alex Ross and Nancy Franklin in conversation with John Wesley Harding, could argue otherwise. Despite their prestigious positions, the three spoke about their experiences in an open, warm and friendly manner that exposed them for what they truly are: writers constantly struggling to create something worthwhile in time to meet their deadlines.
“I knew from pretty early on that I wanted to write fiction but I also knew that fiction doesn’t pay,” Greenman said in his jovial way when asked about his past and how he came to be editor of Goings On About Town, a section of The New Yorker with blurbs on local happenings. “I started writing journalism, went back to grad school, didn’t like that, moved to New York and kept writing.” He wrote both critical and humorous nonfiction during his first few years in the city while working his way up the editing ladder. “I always had the day job and then fiction.”
Television critic Nancy Franklin (pictured below) also had the day job from early on, at The New Yorker no less. “I knew nothing about anything,” she said with a smile. “I just wanted to be at The New Yorker.” She started out in the typing pool, soon moved on to fact checking then stepped into the nonfiction editor role seven years after her first day. However, when a new editor took over the magazine ten years later, “she was not enamored with my editing,” Franklin said. Up to that point, Franklin had only written a few articles, mostly on popular music, but was reassigned as a critic, anyway.
“Overnight I became a theater critic, which was pretty daunting and sent me right back to therapy.” She, the other performers and the audience members all laughed out loud. Everyone in attendance, from undergrads to professors to members of the local community, seemed to appreciate and even relate to Franklin’s funny and endearing self-deprecation. Her poise and delivery only enhanced her punch lines and affect of her words. While maintaining this candid, conversational tone with the audience, Franklin went on to say that during this transition, a good friend told her “the one with the job is the expert.” She soon gained more confidence and developed her own writing style.
“I think starting to write later in life left me with a lot in my head. I had some stuff to work with. And I’ve been very lucky.”
Critic Alex Ross took the musical route at first, studying the piano and oboe during his childhood. Still, he “was always immersed in writing, writing way too much for my school papers, turning in way more pages than required.” He first presented his words to the public via a radio show he hosted in college.
“I read essays aloud for the three or four people who were listening,” he laughed. In a humble, gentle demeanor, he continued with his story, saying, “I never thought I’d go into journalism, always thought it would be academia, but then I started writing freelance music reviews for money and contributed some to The Times.” An editor from The New Yorker soon read one of his articles and contacted Ross for a story (every freelancer’s dream, right?). Now he contributes regularly to the journal in addition to having published two books analyzing 20th century American music, entitled The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century and Listen to This.
“Alex treats the various genres of modern music not as separate things but as a continuum in his books, with classical here and pop over there,” Harding said. While Ross hones in mostly on modern classical in his essays and articles, he takes a broad, bird’s eye approach to the way he reviews.
“I go to concerts with a particular theme in mind. I try to use a single performance to look at bigger trends. In a culture where everyone is so fast-paced, The New Yorker tries to give a more long-distanced look at things.”
When Harding asked the three guests what it was like to work for a publication with such a long and impressive history, they all seemed to agree that no writer can be too bothered with what has come before.
“The comfort and burden is that everything has been done before. Sometimes you want to know if someone has done that same bit and sometimes you just don’t,” Greenman said.
“Sometimes I look back at the oldest stuff to feel better about myself,” Ross (pictured left) said smiling. He tossed his arms energetically in front of him and recited a few lines from an article published in The New Yorker’s early days, much like a Coney Island carnie would describe a game to prospective customers. “But then there are Cole Porter’s reviews from the 80’s and 90’s,” he said with a hint of resignation in his voice. “He was just great.”
The conversation naturally progressed to the personal challenges the three face as reviewers.
“Most people aren’t going to see the work you’re writing about,” Franklin said. “What’s most important is letting a voice come out, showing a passion for the subject. The piece is the problem and you’re always looking for a solution to it.”
“It becomes an interesting and challenging game to describe classical music to people who know nothing about it,” Ross said. “My opinion is in there but I don’t lead with it. I see myself as a reporter. There’s real value in sitting back and looking at the world. I try to write something that will be of interest to someone who thinks the opposite of me. I try to avoid being too dogmatic or flat about my opinions.”
“The idea of, should you watch this or not, doesn’t matter. It’s what you get out of watching or not watching it,” Greenman added.
With a slight shrug and snicker, Franklin chimed in, “I usually say you shouldn’t be watching anything, you should get outside.” Moments later, she confessed to “having a lot of trouble turning the TV off,” often staying up all night watching and writing wildly toward her morning deadline. Harding then asked about what happens between submitting an article and seeing it published, and the laborious subject of revisions came up.
“The editing at The New Yorker is so important,” Ross said. “The copy editors are magical people. A comma here or a slight change there is like bringing an out of focus picture into a clear image.”
Greenman (pictured right) nodded intently. “The editing process allows freedom for the writer to prove an idea.” He went on to elaborate that because other editors will be reading an article of his before it’s published or posted, he can dive full force into a topic. “But the internet has this culture of endless revision. I’m hostile to that, not that it’s a cop out but that it changes things too much. I like turning in a piece and being done with it.”
“I’m sort of an obsessive self reviser,” Ross confessed. “I write one word, cross it out, write another, cross it out. It’s not always fun but it’s important, as long as it doesn’t get too masochistic.”
“I find every part of it enjoyable except for the actual writing,” Franklin said bluntly. People laughed but she spoke in seriousness. “Each piece I write I think, ‘I can’t do this.’ I really do find it difficult. It’s your job to maintain enthusiasm and if you don’t, it’s time to stop. You pick up on the things that bring you pleasure, or you think, ‘That’s heinous and I’m going to write about it.’ And you have to keep that core.”
Being a young writer new to the publishing world and definitely daunted by it all, Franklin’s personal stories certainly touched home. If she says it’s hard then all those days I spent moping over an assignment are completely justified.
“You have something and you make something of it,” she said as her closing advice. “You can’t worry about who got to it before you.”
Damn straight. I left their discussion feeling like it was about time I sat down with my computer all night and finished that looming review.
It’s not very often that brothers and sisters get along well enough to become a successful pop/rock band together. What stands out more about Eleanor and Matt Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces, however, is that they know how to not get along and still make great music.
“We were better friends before we started the band,” Eleanor laughed at Friday’s WAMFEST event featuring The Fiery Furnaces in a performance and discussion with Artist-in-Residence John Wesley Harding. Matt agreed with Eleanor, adding that because they spend so much time together they often split up and work on the same song in separate rooms.
“Eleanor and I are comfortable being annoyed at each other,” he said in his dry, straight-faced kind of way.
“We’re quick to fight but even quicker to make up,” she added.
The two performed a handful of songs throughout the evening including “Chris Michaels,” an older tune full of sudden tempo changes, various themes and a mouthful of funny, introspective and odd lyrics. Harding commented on the unusual song structures The Fiery Furnaces are famous for and asked Matt to elaborate further on his process.
“I like lyrics that don’t fit,” he said. “Lyrics with too many syllables.” He discussed how the second half of The Beatles’ White Album, packed with catchy tunes that challenge the typical pop song structure while remaining accessible to fans, heavily influences his process. Additionally, writing for Eleanor’s voice can change the course of things. “I sometimes write lines I know will challenge her or make her uncomfortable because I know something will come out of that.”
While Matt has been making music most of his life, Eleanor took the sports route during her childhood, not discovering her creative abilities until Matt gave her a guitar when she was eighteen. From there she developed the vocal beauty and prowess she so easily demonstrates today while still maintaining an endearingly modest outlook.
“My songs are simple,” she said shyly. In comparison to Matt’s unpredictable and strange compositions, Eleanor’s songs are much simpler. But simplicity can be a great thing, as seen when she and Harding performed a sweet, upbeat kids’ song, “Dear Diary,” the two co-wrote for a new collaboration. She certainly has an ear for pretty, pleasing chords and melodies while still maintaining the unique vocal delivery she and Matt developed together.
In addition to her collaboration with Harding, Eleanor has also been working on a solo album due out this summer. Whereas the words and music she writes for The Furnaces are presented to and often altered by Matt, this project allowed her to more deeply explore her own musical direction. “The process was,” she said, hesitating slightly as she considered her words, “freeing.”
Matt has also embarked on a solo project with a final goal of recording eight albums, each on a single instrument. The first album features the guitar, the second the keyboard and the third, currently in the works, the harp. The Fiery Furnaces are still very much a band, however, complete with a full live schedule taking them throughout the Northeast. Just don’t go a gig expecting to hear your favorite tune exactly as it is on the album.
“Albums are just whatever for us,” Eleanor said, partly in jest. “We love the live shows.”
“We change the songs up for our shows, write new parts for them. We think that’s more interesting,” Matt added. He then went on to demonstrate his prolific songwriting skills by reworking “Dear Diary” after hearing it for the first time when Harding and Eleanor performed the song for the audience. He mixed in different tempos, notes and melodies, transforming it into an eerie, melancholy, experimental tune. When he hit the second chorus, he said with a smile, “When you’re not sure what to do, throw in a key change,” then strummed out the chords in C sharp. The group, with all three on guitars and vocals, closed out the evening with a hilarious number Harding created back in his busking days combining the lyrics of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” with the music of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Overall, this night, complete with hilarious banter between the animated Harding and deadpan Matt, was certainly one of the most wonderfully weird and fun WAMFEST events to date.
WAMFEST 2011 kicked off with an outstanding show, Tuesday April 26th, featuring Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys, Tony Visconti and Dave Marsh hosted by John Wesley Harding
“Alejandro [Escovedo] has a unique combination of abilities and human connection,” Dave Marsh said at yesterday’s WAMFEST event featuring Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys, Marsh and Tony Visconti, hosted by Artist-in-Residence John Wesley Harding. Marsh continued with a beautifully sad story about weeping alongside Woody Guthrie’s daughter at an Escovedo performance because the music had touched both of them so deeply. ”Writing is lonely and disgusting,” he added, “but Alejandro can write and perform.”
For those of us who understand the lonely disgust of being a writer, the ability to then turn around and perform is special indeed. For Escovedo, however, writing and performing is just a way of life. In fact, his creative process isn’t always separate from his performances, as seen at his weekly residency at the Continental Club in Austin where he and the Sensitive Boys performed three new songs each night. Considering his ease onstage and his childhood growing up in a musical (and large) family, it was surprising to learn he didn’t start making music until his mid-twenties.
“My brothers were my biggest influence,” he said. ”They were percussionists, taken right under Tito Puente’s wing.” But because they were the “cool ones,” Escovedo didn’t see himself in the same musical light until after a move to California where he and some friends “wanted to make a movie about the worst band in the world. Then we just formed it instead,” he said, laughing.
Rock outfit The Nuns brought Escovedo to the stage for the first time but his stint with them was short lived. He moved onto New York for “my experience in the art rock world” where he founded Rank and File, a more country influenced band “the punks hated.” After a tour ending in a night at Lester Bangs’ house in Austin, Escovedo had found his new home.
“There was quite a backlash at first, the kids saw it as their parents’ music.” But now, according to Austin-based reviewer Chris Gray and many others, “Escovedo is worshiped like a god.”
But even the gods need collaborators. Enter legendary producer and musician Tony Visconti. ”This is what I try to do as a producer,” Visconti said yesterday, “I try to build more interest.” By build more interest he means write the hook to Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World,” provide Bowie with bass lines for most of his other songs, add minor chords to Escovedo’s verses to create a chorus Escovedo himself was struggling to find, and create on-the-spot string arrangements for hits like T. Rex’s “Get It On.”
However, one of the special things about Visconti is not what he gave to these songs but how. When describing his process to the audience in Hartman yesterday, his face softened, eyes widened and body curved further around the guitar as he returned to the moment of discovery. His words were genuine and real, not laden with technical terms or fancy descriptions but thick with passion and excitement. He oozed coolness without even trying; clad in jeans and a t-shirt, Visconti’s down-to-earth, laid back attitude and friendly demeanor only enhanced his persona.
As a young writer and musician seeking to contribute something exciting and worthwhile to the world, yesterday’s event was a true inspiration to me, an invaluable lesson and an all-around stellar performance. While the focus remained mostly on Escovedo and Visconti, the performers all shared personal anecdotes from their years in the scene, going into great detail about their songwriting processes, the relationship between lyrics and instruments, the ups and downs of collaborating with others and how these collaborations have affected their work. The Sensitive Boys, comprising David Pulkingham on guitar, Bobby Daniel on bass and Hector Munoz on drums (who has played with Escovedo for twenty-three years now, a relationship “longer than my marriages,” Escovedo laughed), played a handful of songs throughout the discussion, often accompanied by Visconti on guitar. After their incredibly interesting and inspiring discussion and performance, the men closed out the evening with a sweet and beautiful version of David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” Click here to enjoy the track.