Song & Story: A New Podcast

If you haven’t already heard, I launched a podcast back in April. It’s called Song & Story. And I haven’t been this excited about a project in a long time. Here’s the trailer.

You can listen + subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn, SongAndStoryPodcast.com, or wherever you get your podcast fix.

THE CONCEPT

Every song has a story. That’s the premise (hence, the title). I want to dive into songs that have piqued my interest over the years and learn more about them by discussing them with the artists who brought them to life. I’m following a unique format designed to give the listener an immersive experience into each episode’s featured song.

THE FORMAT

I. Introduction  //  Every episode will begin with a brief introduction.

II. Song  //  The featured song will be played in full.

III. Discussion  //  I’ll ask the artist about the story/stories behind the song. I’ll poke and prod and ask about specific lines, phrases, themes, metaphors, production decisions, etc. I fully anticipate each conversation veering off onto backroads and tangents — an inevitable result of our subjective experiences with art — though it will always come back around.

IV. Song (again)  //  Having digested and discussed the song, we’ll close each show by listening to it again with fresh ears and a new perspective.

THE “WHY?”

I’m a songwriter. As such, I’m a storyteller. I know how much time, energy, and thought goes into crafting a song. Some come out quickly, in minutes. Some take days, weeks, months, even years to be fully revealed and refined. I know what each of my songs means. I know the stories behind them. Sometimes I share those stories when I’m performing, though I never quite reveal every detail; I never really tell the whole story.

I’ve been traveling with my music for almost a decade. In that time, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and collaborating with some incredible songwriters. The opportunity to meet an artist I admire and talk with them about their work is something I cherish. Contemplating a song and discussing it — the thought and intent behind it, the stories around and contained within it — is essential to valuing music as art. What a song can reveal about the human condition in all its glory, tragedy, comedy, error, absurdity, and mystery: that’s what I want to explore.

You can support this project on Patreon. And you’ll get cool things for doing so. For your consideration: patreon.com/songandstory

“Created” Book Review, Part 2 (of 3): Challenge Your Audience

If you haven’t yet heard of the Created project — Likable Art‘s cool new book for artists and creative types interested in the unique intersection of art and faith — I recommend checking it out. Submitted by 62 different artists [of various mediums], the articles written for the book are just as diverse in style and substance as the artwork created to complement them.

I’m about half-way through the book so far. Since it contains so much rich content from so many uniquely enlightened contributors, I’m taking it slow. I want to make sure I soak in each perspective, to consider each contribution on its own and in light of the greater collection. After reading each article, I’m sitting silently for a few moments to contemplate the corresponding artwork. I’m trying to not simply consume but digest the material.

Part three of this “review” will have more of my thoughts on the other contributors’ thoughts. For now, I’ll simply share this: As someone who experiences creative inclinations in a variety of artistic mediums and appreciates authentic artistry in any form, reading the learned wisdom of others has been invaluable. I definitely have some favorite nuggets so far, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.

Part one of this review featured one of the two articles I submitted that was not chosen. I’ve dubbed these “the rejected articles.”

Here’s the second…

Challenge your audience. Be controversial.

Flannery O’Connor once remarked: “I am not afraid that the book will be controversial; I am afraid it will not be controversial.”

That resonates with me. I get it. I’ve felt it — that need to be controversial, to push the envelope, to provoke discomfort, to challenge myself and my audience. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, this need exists to ensure resistance against the formulaic, to prevent the asexual reproduction of art wherein passion and the joy of discovery are absent from the creative process and the offspring lack the beauty and necessity of genetic diversity.

In the quest to understand what it means to be fully alive, what it means to be human in light of the divine, there are no heights without the depths. And the depths will always be rife with controversy. Don’t shy away from it. Don’t fear it. Bring it to the light. Present it for discussion in your own uniquely creative way. To merely bask in the glory of the heights without ever diving into the depths is to remain comfortable: “But you were not made for comfort — you were made for greatness.” (PBXVI)

(To be continued…)

“Created” Book Review, Part 1 (of 3): Leave Something for the Imagination

“Wanna see a sign of the end times?”

That’s what I asked my mom as I showed her my advance copy of Created, a new collaborative book for anyone who has ever been interested in the mysterious intersection of art and faith. (The “sign of the end times,” as I interpreted it, was the strange reality that something I had written was just published in the same book as something that Bishop Robert Barron and Dr. Peter Kreeft — two brilliant minds — had written.)

When Cory Heimann (founder + creative director of Likable Art) reached out to tell me about the project and see if I might be interested in contributing, I jumped at the chance. The concept was so cool and so simple:

(1) pick 5 words to share with other creatives trying to do great work
(2) unpack those 5 words in 200 words or less
(3) a graphic/visual artist would create an image to complement + accompany my article

After taking some time to think about which 5 words I felt moved to share, I came up with a couple different options. I sent Cory two sets of five words and three different articles expounding on them. And I let him decide which of those three articles would be my official contribution to the project.

To find out which article he chose, you’ll have to get the book. You can order it here. And if you place your order by February 12th, you’ll also get an exclusive digital album featuring songs from myself and few other musicians  — Alanna Boudreau, Mike Mangione, Joe Zambon, to name a few — who also contributed to Created.

I’m still working my way through the book, slowly. I don’t want the wisdom of my fellow creatives to hit me all at once. I want to let each contribution sink in, to digest each morsel individually, to fully appreciate the whole meal as best as I can. That’s why this Created book review is in three parts. Before I share my full thoughts on the book itself, I’d like to share with you the other articles I submitted for consideration — the rejected articles.

Here’s the first…

Leave something for the imagination.

Honesty invokes resonance. Intentionality inspires active participation. Details and specifics help people relate to a story and its characters. But, sometimes, being too explicit, spelling everything out, or drilling a message or moral home with obvious intent can seem preachy, lazy, or worse…boring.

When you say enough to make them wonder, to make them want to know what exactly is being said while leaving something for the imagination, you challenge the audience to engage in a whole new way. You give them something to talk about, and the subsequent discussions allow us to learn something about art, ourselves, and the people we discuss it with.

With his use of parables — stories more allegorical than explicit — Christ challenged his audience to use their God-given capacity for thought. And when he said “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” he didn’t elaborate or explain what that meant. Rather, he actually said: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt. 9:13). He presented his audience with a truth, then challenged them to unpack it.

When you leave something for the imagination, you leave room for exploration, for growth and discovery. And isn’t that the point?

(To be continued…)

Arti Valorem

Arti valorem. It’s a directive, a suggestion, an ideal, something we should all encourage. It’s Latin (according to Google translate) for value art.

Two recent bits of pop culture that struck this chord in me this year were the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and the….uh….SAG Awards acceptance speech delivered by the cast of Stranger Things. (I know, right?) Let’s start with Hail, Caesar!, a film that I thought was subtly brilliant in its cultural commentary and hilarious in its subtleties.

In the scene featured below, George Clooney’s character — a bona fide movie star named Baird Whitlock (think Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments) — has become disillusioned with the motion picture business. Here he scoffs at the suggestion that the movies he’s been making for years actually have any “artistic value.” He’s promptly put in his place [and repeatedly, hilariously slapped in the face] by Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix, who tells him, adamantly:

“Just like the director does what he does – and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate – you’re gonna do it because the picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture. And you’re never gonna forget that again.”

The film revolves around Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) trying to clean up other people’s ridiculous messes, all while being courted for a job that would have him making bombs and airplanes instead of movies, a job that would make him a lot more money. But in the end, Eddie chooses to go on serving, in his own way, the inherent value he sees in the art of motion pictures, despite the disheveled and chaotic lives of all the folks involved in making them.

The picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture. It was a message I didn’t quite see coming. And it came, as I said above, in a subtly brilliant way. Also, this scene is so. freaking. funny.

While much of what comes out of Hollywood these days seems to fit snuggly in the category of escapism, even something that feels purely escapist at first glance can have a lot of substance simmering beneath the surface. This was the case, I found, with Netflix’s surprise hit Stranger Things.

The show was a fantastic throwback to everything 1980s. When it won the award for Outstanding Performance in an Ensemble in a Drama Series at the 23rd Annual SAG Awards back in January, one of the show’s lead actors delivered an acceptance speech that gave me chills and moved me to view the show in a whole new light, to think more deeply about the ideas at the heart of the entertainment. The speech is a rousing, impassioned battle cry insisting that art has value and that artists have a purpose: to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society.

Read this excerpt and then watch + listen to it below:

“This award from you, who take your craft seriously and earnestly believe, like me, that great acting can change the world, is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper and, through our art, to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture and, through our craft, to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired, they are not alone. We are united in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive. Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 mid-westerners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no homes. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the meek and the disenfranchised and the marginalized. And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy. We thank you for this responsibility. Thank you.”


Art has value. Value it.

The Blessing of a Broken Dishwasher: Mike Mangione’s “Time & the Mystery”

Our dishwasher broke right before Christmas. It wasn’t anything disastrous, but we did have to wait about two weeks for new parts to arrive. This meant two weeks of having to clean the dishes by hand, something I came to see, unexpectedly, as a blessing.

When we lived in an apartment, we didn’t have a dishwasher. The dishes were always done by hand, often while blasting music, streaming podcasts, or listening to NPR or lectures on YouTube. Once we moved into a house with a dishwasher, that experience — the experience of actively participating in an essential task — was no longer required. It honestly didn’t even feel like an option anymore. We had a dishwasher, after all, so it seemed ridiculous to not use it.

But in those two weeks of reverting to doing the dishes by hand, I re-discovered something: the joy of slowing down.

There’s freedom in resolving to put everything else on hold and do something that [may seem trivial or inefficient but ultimately] needs to be done. (Please, don’t tell my wife I wrote that.) I found myself thoroughly enjoying the break from all the other “stuff” I had to do. I pulled up a playlist of lectures on YouTube to listen to while I scrubbed and rinsed. A few days in, I seized the opportunity to finally start listening to Mike Mangione‘s new podcast Time & the Mystery.

Mike is a fellow musician, an internationally touring singer-songwriter, performer, and recording artist based in Milwaukee. While I really don’t know him all that well, personally, our paths have crossed many times over the last seven years. We’ve shared a few concert bills and I’ve had the privilege of hearing him perform (both solo + with a full band) several times outside of my own tour schedule. He’s a talented songwriter who expresses interesting ideas in his music. And he’s got a great stage presence. For those reasons alone, I’ve been a fan. But what I really appreciate about his new podcast is how personal it is.

In each episode, Mike sits down with someone and has a conversation. It’s as simple as that. He’s had conversations with comedians (Jim & Jeannie Gaffigan and Tom Shillhue), authors, professional athletes, bishops, and a plethora of musicians and producers (Matisyahu, Duane Lundy, Ben Sollee, and more). There’s no political agenda. Each episode simply provides an opportunity for the listener to sit in and listen as two people discuss life, love, family, inspirations, purpose, art, the creative process, community, and more. As Mike describes it:

“It’s not about sound bytes. It’s about sitting with people and taking time, slowing down.”

Our dishwasher has been fully functional for over three weeks now, yet I’ve still washed the dishes by hand over half the time. It gives my hands a chance to work and my ears a chance to listen. It gives my mind a chance to open, absorb, digest, and reflect.

Perhaps this goes without saying at this point, but if you’re unfamiliar with Mike Mangione’s music or his new podcast, I recommend them both.

A Violent Christmas

For many the world over, December 25, 2016 was a violent Christmas.

If you’re at all familiar with my music, you know that many of my songs (The New World, Enola’s Wake, The Dark Side, Brothers) deal with violence as it’s manifested in our modern world. As we move into the 17th year of the 21st century since the first Christmas, now seems as good a moment as any to reflect on the problem of violence.

To start, it’s nothing new. Men have been committing acts of violence for as long as men have existed. Even in the Bible — a collection of 73 books broken down into roughly 1,200 chapters — the first homicide occurs in the 4th chapter of the very first book (Genesis). As a chronology, as the story of a people, the Bible is an incredibly, intensely violent library.

But despite all of the genocides throughout history, the deadly wars waged, the various and grotesque forms of torture, abortion, and capital punishment that man’s creative capacities conceived, something changed, legitimately and significantly, in the 20th century. Violence and war became mechanized. The ability to kill in greater quantities and from longer distances slowly but surely made the concept of killing easier to swallow, perhaps, easier to rationalize and justify. The statistic below may well illuminate this point.

This statistic appears on the back cover of a book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman entitled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. The back cover of the book goes on to state:

“The good news is that most soldiers are loath to kill. But armies have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming that instinctive aversion. The psychological cost for soldiers, as evidenced by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. The psychological cost for the rest of us is even greater: contemporary civilian society, particularly the media, replicates the army’s conditioning techniques and directly contributes to our rising rate of violent crime, especially among the young.”

That last sentence brings to mind the city of Chicago, where more than 40 people were shot over Christmas weekend alone and where well over 700 homicides occurred in 2016. On the international scene, Grossman’s quote brings to my mind recent images of the harrowing events in Aleppo, events that have been ongoing and worsening for the last several years:

What does all this have to do with Christmas? Everything.

The message of Christmas is peace: “and on earth peace, good will toward men,” as Linus the Evangelist relayed it.

The prophet Isaiah foretold: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” (Is. 11:6) The metaphor speaks of peace — peace between adversaries, fear of death and the desire to take life relinquished. Isaiah was referring to the long-expected Messiah named “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:5) and whose “dominion is vast and forever peaceful” (Is. 9:6). You don’t have to be religious to see the appeal, to see the beauty and the poetry in the story and the message of Christmas.

As we continue on in this new year, my hope is that all who celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace every December will make a conscious effort to remember the peace of Christmas on a daily basis and reflect — sincerely and intensely — on the problem of violence in our world, on the evolution of man’s willingness to mechanize himself as an instrument of death, and on the recurring failure of human ingenuity to find non-violent solutions to problems.

For far too many the world over, December 25, 2016 was a violent Christmas. Was “Peace on earth!” only ever meant to be sung by angels? Or is man able to have a voice in the great song, if only he’d choose to sing?

From the Vietnam War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis. A photo posted by Kevin Heider (@kevinheidermusic) on