We’ve covered a fair amount of musical backstory over the course of the past three posts, so I think it’s high time we try to derive some meaning from all of it and see how these events have led me to where I am now as a songwriter. That’s what this fourth part will attempt to do, as well as answer the question I posed in the very beginning: why did I elect to keep most of my non-symphonic work out of the public eye, despite the fact that I’ve been a songwriter for almost 28 years.
There are two concepts that I believe will be helpful when it comes to analyzing the path I took as a songwriter: artistic identity and artistic integrity. Artistic identity might be thought of as the set of defining characteristics that a person comes to represent or embody through their art – the values and beliefs driving their work, their personal style, artistic goals, etc. One’s artistic identity isn’t necessarily chosen consciously, and it can certainly shift and evolve over time. Artistic integrity, on the other hand, defines how closely one adheres to their chosen artistic identity throughout the creation of their work. I’ll highlight how these terms come into play as we go along.
When I started writing, I never sat down and consciously chose an artistic identity. I simply started writing and let my work more or less define itself. Whether the style of music I was writing could be called “atmospheric,” “New Age,” “electronic fantasy,” or whatever else, it didn’t really matter to me as long as it all accomplished what I wanted it to do, which was to portray wondrous, imaginary places, characters, and events through sound. Even when I started adding the traditional Irish songs to my collections, my primary focus never strayed from being a songwriter. Those songs were included simply to complement the rest – never to replace or challenge them in any way. My foray into vocal music with Into the Dungeon remained only an experiment at the time, so once again, I don’t think that necessarily challenged my core artistic identity. Assembling my three-song record company demo stands out to me as the point when things started to get a little shaky. Both of the lead tracks I selected were not indicative of my typical style of writing, and I have to wonder what might have happened had one of the companies been interested enough to want to sign me with the idea that I would have plenty of similar material to offer them. For a number of reasons, I decided to move away from composing instrumental music shortly after creating my final demo and spent most of the 1990s struggling to write lyric-based pop and rock songs, with very little finished work to show for it. Perhaps in the end I simply strayed too far afield and lost my way back.
In terms of artistic integrity, I’d say that most of my recordings stayed reasonably consistent. I think if you pick any two songs from a given collection, they will sound fairly similar in terms of instrumentation, overall feel, and compositional approach. Once again, it’s not until my later instrumental work that things started to noticeably destabilize, and trying to transition from being a composer of atmospheric soundscapes into a pop songwriter certainly cemented that trend. Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with changing one’s artistic identity – sometimes it can be almost seem quite necessary – but I think it should be done with intention and commitment, not haphazardly, or as the result of fleeting musical trends or opportunities.
I would cite two factors as being the driving forces behind at least some of the major changes that occurred within my writing. One was the advent of the MIDI sequencer, which allowed me to record instrument parts one at a time and then play them back simultaneously, thereby improving the accuracy and complexity of my arrangements. The second factor was the increasing realism available in synthesizer and drum machine sounds. This actually impacted my artistic identity, as having access to a virtual rock drum kit, bass and electric guitars, and so on encouraged me to write based on how each of those instruments might actually be played, instead of writing lines that could be played on any number of ambiguous synthesizer sounds. In other words, where my palette once consisted of nothing but synthesized tones and textures that could be adapted and used as needed, it eventually became much more tailored toward producing convincing rock and pop music.
I think that brings us to our final question. When I started writing, I really had no need or desire for the public acceptance or validation of my music. It was always nice to hear a positive comment or a bit of encouragement, of course, but whether or not I received those things, I still felt the desire to write. The only way to have one’s music heard back then, at least in a widespread way, was to either get signed and/or start performing out live. I tried both avenues and always found performing solo to be enjoyably challenging and rewarding. Public use of the Internet and digital music technologies didn’t arrive until much later, and by that point, I was already involved with other projects (primarily Midnight Syndicate) that were demanding the majority of my creative attention and effort.
I know that a big part of my reluctance to share my other work has to do with the fact that I have always struggled with writing effective, meaningful lyrics. It took a long time for me to get to the point where I felt my vocal abilities were sufficient to use on finished recordings as well (as opposed to simply being “good enough” for working tracks). While my work with Midnight Syndicate has gone on to reach a fairly wide audience, I don’t think that any of the artistic identities I’ve tried on since abandoning my atmospheric days ever really felt like a perfect fit. Or maybe I should say, a complete package. I think that instead of chasing the illusion of outward success, record contracts, and careers, or looking to make music that I think (hope?) listeners might enjoy and find a connection with, the key lies in simply telling my stories, the way that I feel they are best told. That could be through simple pop songs, or it could be through expansive, complex progressive compositions – it could even be through the kind of fantasy inspired instrumental pieces I was happily writing so long ago. There are a lot of things I could say or do through my music – a lot of different artistic identities I could choose to embody. Which one is the right one for me? The one that allows me to speak from my heart without holding anything back, I think.
Thanks so much for reading! Best wishes for 2015 and whatever journeys await.