Not that I’m keeping count, but I believe I’m nearing 1,000 interviews total in my writing career thus far. It’s an interesting affair – to say the least – speaking to so many musicians, filmmakers, authors and the like, digging for the stories inside their stories. Most of the time, I thoroughly enjoy my job. Then again, when your assignment is the 18-year-old emo kid who just released his first CD, lines like “Uh… I don’t know man, I just play music” fail to contribute to any job satisfaction.
But an interesting thread has woven itself throughout most of my interviews with thoughtful musicians over the years – the idea of “serving the song.” I’ve heard that particular phrase several times, although it comes in many flavors and descriptors. But the primary idea is this: many artists believe the key to creating meaningful art is to serve the song and not the other way around.
Serving the song has no formula. There’s no Serving The Song For Dummies handbook available, nor are there QVC Esteban guitar-like DVDs you can watch to learn. But there is an art to it. Usually it involves some idea of stillness or Sabbath – the creation of space to simply listen and be still enough to allow the art to come or develop. There’s a lack of distractions in this process, a turning off of the cell phones, laptops and Twitter long enough to truly hear what’s out there.
The belief that accompanies this, of course, is that great art is “out there” somewhere, waiting to be grabbed. And only those who are clued in to truly seeking after it can find it. After all, every single writer starts with the exact same blank page and each stands equally able to construct the next great work of art in that moment. Of course, it’s what you do after that which separates the meaningful from the shallow or meaningless.
Editing is another topic that comes up quite often in these conversations. And usually the words “I don’t” or “I can’t” are also involved. Serving the song involves trusting that first instinct, writing down any and all inclinations from the outset and worrying about whittling down the raw materials later. It’s the willingness to follow the random bird that beckons you toward the window and then asks you to fly alongside it to some unknown destination without worry of packing the right items for the journey. Many, many artists detail truly surprising moments in the open space they create – unable to imagine themselves actually constructing the songs/books/art that they end up with.
What makes this even more compelling of an idea is the cross-section of artists that talk this way. Solo artists like singer/songwriter Josh Radin or Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk both have mentioned this very thing. So have eclectic indie rock artists like Broken Social Scene, Akron/Family and Heartless Bastards. All of those might be foreign names to many, but they’re all buzz bands to some degree in varied “scenes” and they all care deeply about the art they create – even if the audience is much different than an Andrew Peterson crowd.
Of course, Over the Rhine mentions this almost every time I speak with either one of them. But who’d have thought that The Verve, Counting Crows, The Cure, The Hold Steady, Old ’97s and Kings of Leon would also say these same ideas?
I wish more artists would tap into this idea and give the songs room to truly grow. I wish more artists would trust their initial instincts and leave any notions of agenda at the door. Above all, I wish Christians who were engaged in the arts would stop trying to force certain ideals, morals, constructs or moods from the outset and allow the truly meaningful art to emerge unexpectedly in ways that only the Spirit can illuminate.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.