Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

"End Times Are Here Again" - Article in Punchnel's

I have it on good authority that the world should have ended December 21, 2012, but by early January most of us forgot about it and moved on. Not me, dammit I wrote a retrospective about that weird moment in history, and you can read it in Punchnel's magazine. The 2012 meme may have gone out with a whimper, but I hope you find it fascinating to look back now we're just past the one-year anniversary.

I wrote this in a creative non-fiction class led by Wayne Grady, so many thanks to Wayne and to my peers for their help with this one!

Check it out here:

http://www.punchnels.com/first-person/end-times-are-here-again/

Sunday, 17 November 2013

"Free to a Good Home" - Short Story in Existere Journal of Arts and Literature

I'm happy to announce that my short story "Free to a Good Home" has been published in the latest issue of Existere Journal of Arts and Literature. I know the blog looks a little lonely these days, but while I haven't been posting I've been busily writing my brains out elsewhere and I'm gratified to see that effort pay off.

If you'd like to grab a copy of Existere, there's a list of retailers on the journal's site and an option to order. Although Existere's main page hadn't been updated at the time of this writing, I can assure you the latest issue is available, as you can see on their Facebook page. I can also promise you it's a good deal - I'm proud of my work and there's plenty of other good writing in there besides.

More info here:


http://www.yorku.ca/existere/index.html
https://www.facebook.com/groups/2251721361/

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Writing and Playing New Songs in the Old-Time Tradition


(It's been awhile, so I figure I owe you something good. Below you'll find the notes I gave out at my writing workshop at the Peterborough Folk Festival this summer. I took care with these, so I hope you'll find something to enjoy if you're a player, or even just an old-time aficionado.)


On the surface, old-time music is easy. You only need to know three chords in one or two keys, the solos aren't fancy, and a creaky singing voice is an asset. Anyone who sits in with an old-time band for the first time, though, will realize it takes a lot of subtlety to get the right feel. How do contemporary musicians engage with the music without being hackneyed? Many of the songs we play were written by people in a different country and a different era. Clich├ęs abound. How do you keep the music fresh, without betraying what made the source material so great? Can we write our own songs in the same spirit?

We wouldn’t be a folk festival if you couldn’t. I’ve put together some notes on the subject I hope will be useful to old-time aficionados, but first, let me admit that my definitions are not all that rigorous. I often lump genres like blues and bluegrass into the same broad category, in ways that will frustrate a purist. These are differences that are important to musicologists, and maybe to you, depending on the type of musician you are. My main interest is putting on a good show and following my muse; my muse tends to like music from before 1950. I assume you fall somewhere on the same spectrum, and hopefully players of all stripes will find something of interest here.

The great thing about giving artistic advice is that you can find an example to prove any point you want to make. Whatever you set out to do, somebody, somewhere, has already done it with genius. As such you may find some of my suggestions contradictory. The only thing I won’t do is give highly technical advice. There’s a wealth of resources out there on the mechanics of playing old-time music (check out Happy Traum’s Homespun Tapes, for a start). If you don’t know the basics of music theory, it’s well worth taking the time to familiarize yourself. There’s a myth out there that old-time musicians rely exclusively on their ears, but in practice not knowing theory just means shifting the burden to other people. Watch the fiddler or the banjo player’s face darken as you slide that capo around and call a tune in the key of H flat – you’ll see what I mean.

Notes for Players

Dress the part. You don’t have to wear suspenders and a bowler hat to play old-time music. The perfect pair of slacks will not make you a better banjo player. However, it is worth asking if there’s continuity between the way you look and the way you sound. Old-time music is frequently a storytelling medium, and the audience has to believe that you are invested in the story you are telling. Otherwise, the lyrics don’t seem to bear on the one who is speaking, and what you’re saying becomes meaningless. Here’s an example: I went to see a band of young guys wearing Billabong t-shirts and backwards ballcaps. The lead singer asked, “Do you guys want to hear some old-time music?” and launched into his song: “I went down to the river, to wash away my sins...” I had the strong suspicion he didn’t live near a river, and from the look of him he hadn’t committed any sins worth washing. I may have misjudged this guy, but it seemed to me his artistic statement was unreflective. Presentation matters.

Don’t overdo it on the character, though. I’ve just told you to dress the part, but unless you’re really a Texan, don’t drawl like one. It’s easier than you’d think to slip into, and you’ll hear it often. Unlike looking the part, however, this feeds the meaninglessness. It says you’re doing a cornpone impression rather than engaging seriously with the material. Trust that high lonesome feeling to express itself through the song, not yer TV stereotypes.

Slavish devotion to period details is not enough. You’re wearing a pair of vintage brogans and a moth-eaten vest. The promotional photos you put on your website are all sepia-toned. You put out your last album on wax cylinder. Every detail is correct, yet the music feels inert. The problem is that the people you’re emulating were alive, but you’ve turned yourself into a museum piece. Roscoe Holcomb sounds like a buzzsaw because his lungs were scorched by a lifetime working in the mines. Bukka White sings songs about prison life that you must never, under any circumstances, attempt to cover, because you didn’t live through them first. Get the sound and the look you want, but remember the map is not the territory. You have to find ways to make these songs live for yourself. Maybe you do it by choosing your repertoire carefully, by finding ways to empathize with the characters in your song. Maybe you’ve altered the melody just enough to make it your own. Some songs will buoy you up, and you’ll have no idea why. Just remember, the spirit is the last word. Without it everything else comes to nothing.

Play with drive. You can probably come up with examples that disprove this rule, but I have a suspicion that really slow, drifty ballads belong more in the sixties folk tradition than in old-time. Whenever I hear a truly tragic old-time song, I’m amazed at how much drive it still has. Old-time music usually has no rhythm section, but that just means string instruments have to supply the forward thrust. This is a subjective quality and a hard one to explain away, but if you haven’t consciously listened to how musicians create drive, give it a try.
Listen to the Tommy Jarrell track “As Time Draws Near,” then play it yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll start off too slow and the song will bog. Too fast, and the tempo feels unsuited. The secret ingredient is drive. Jarrell has it, even in the depths of one of the saddest songs I know.

Remember, you’re an entertainer. An old-time performance has one of two purposes: to engross people in a story, or to make them dance. When a show doesn’t serve one purpose or the other, it fails to hold my attention for a full set. This is a common pitfall in bluegrass: the performance becomes a display of technical virtuosity, which is perhaps of interest to other players but less so to the general public. On the other hand, old-time musicians sometimes have a misguided notion that showpersonship is a form of insincerity, and so they fumble onstage, apologize, and take forever to tune. The desire to entertain comes from a sincere place. There is nothing the audience would like more than to see you relaxed and comfortable. Crack some jokes, play out and communicate with the people who came to see you.

Old-time music is weirder than you think. You’re excited to check out the latest old-time band when they come to town. They’re all gifted players, yet somehow the result is polite, proficient, and unmoving. Chances are the band has taken too few risks with the form, and failed to personalize their set. Some instrumental line-ups are standard for a reason – for instance, the bluegrass combo of stand-up bass, guitar, banjo, and mandolin brilliantly covers the spectrum. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that the standard approach is the only authentic approach. If you dig a little, you’ll find examples of weird and wonderful departures from the formula. The term fiddlesticks comes from standing beside a fiddler and tapping out a rhythm on the strings while he or she plays. Check out what Washington Phillips did on the celestaphone, a zither-type instrument. Listen to the haunting bell sound in Blind Mamie Forehand’s “Honey in the Rock,” or the clarinet and slidewhistle accompaniment on Blind Blake’s “Hot Potatoes.” Try out an odd instrument or take a stylistic departure now and then – chances are your heroes did at one time or another.
There is a danger, of course, that you’ll push the genre farther than it will go. Check out the travesty that is the Holy Modal Rounders’ album Indian War Whoop for an object lesson. However, you may also find a niche that distinguishes you from more generic offerings. Listen to how gleefully the Jim Kweskin Jug Band mixes it up. Or take C.W. Stoneking, a contemporary Australian blues musician with a turn-of-the-20th-century style so complete it borders on creepy, yet who acknowledges 50 Cent as one of his influences. See the Canadian musician Petunia in concert, and watch how he makes a Bill Monroe tune his own. And don’t miss Sheesham and Lotus at the festival today!

Notes for Writers

Enduring songs are universal. The most popular songs in the old-time canon have survived because they’re sturdy as hell. Whenever they were written, they seem eerily timeless. “You Are my Sunshine” is my favourite example. Many people haven’t looked beyond the chorus, but they should. That song is hard as diamond, pared down to the barest essentials. You’ll find no extraneous details, no slippery poetic conceits beyond the plaintive central metaphor. Writing with this kind of directness and sincerity is vastly more difficult than it sounds, and it’s a lifetime goal for songwriters to strive for. Luckily old-time music provides us with some of the best examples.

...But great songs are personal, too. It’s well and good to strive for universality in your songwriting, but if you miss your mark you’re bound to hit platitudes. A lot of old-time songs are about heartbreak, but do we really need another heartbreak song? Not unless something compels you to write, beyond the desire to participate in a tradition. As I mentioned above, the blues musician Bukka White recorded some of the most powerful music I know. Listen to his song “When Can I Change my Clothes?” and marvel at how he’s set his experience to music. You don’t have to have suffered in a Mississippi work camp before you can write good songs, but if you’re able to tap a personal experience rather than trading in ambiguities, chances are your listeners will perk up.
Don’t take this to mean you have to stick to the literal details of your experience, though. I wrote a song I’m proud of called “Circus Coming to Town,” about a guy who fantasizes about running away to join the circus. I’ve never come close to running away with the circus, and the narrator of the song isn’t quite me. However, I gave the song some weight by connecting with his dissatisfaction with his humdrum life, a subject I can unfortunately sometimes relate to. When I sing it, I’m being genuine even though I’m in character.

Lastly, don’t think that real art must be crushingly serious in tone. Let your sense of humour find its way into your songs, if it wants to. Fun and seriousness are not mutually exclusive.

Protest songs are angry. Folk music has a long history of being involved with protest movements, but unfortunately I think it’s taken something of a wrong turn. Many songwriters today seem afraid that an aggressive song will violate the folksy sense of solidarity their listeners feel, and so they turn in a polite suggestion that it’s time to change the world. “Golly whiz, wouldn’t it be nice if Enbridge didn’t build that pipeline?” is a nice sentiment, but it’s no wonder that protest writing has largely migrated to hip hop, where the message lands with more force.

Classic protest songs are alive with pathos and rage. Even funny ones, like Harry McClintock’s “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” are seething underneath (you may not know that song is actually set to the tune of the Presbyterian hymn “Revive Us Again,” which adds to its vitriolic attack on hypocrisy). If you’re passionate about a subject, give it full expression. Don’t write a song the same way you would write a letter to your MP.

On the other hand, don’t hector your audience. It’s hard to tell people something they don’t already know in three minutes’ worth of rhyming couplets. Don’t tell me that consumers need to change their spending habits or the planet will suffer; I know that. What music can do is make me feel gutsick about it, so your song runs through my head when I try to justify a new flatscreen TV. A good example is Woody Guthrie’s song, “1913 Massacre” (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott does a great version, too). He tells a story guaranteed to fill you with outrage – striking miners and their families are enjoying a well-earned Christmas celebration, when anti-union thugs shout fire and cause a stampede. Listen to the way Guthrie sets the scene: “I will take you in a door and up a high stairs/Singing and dancing is heard everywhere/I will let you shake hands with the people you see/And watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.” Perfect – my response is no longer purely intellectual. Think of it this way: other mediums are better at informing people, and you’re usually preaching to the choir anyway. The best you can do as a songwriter is inspire the people who are doing the heavy lifting.

Recommendations

Once again, these are organized more in terms of what’s influenced me personally than strict genre lines.

Classic

  • American Primitive, Vol. 1
  • Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina
  • Blind Willie Johnson - The Complete...
  • Blind Willie McTell - The Definitive...
  • Buell Kazee - Sings and Plays
  • Bukka White - The Complete...
  • Clarence "Tom" Ashley - Greenback Dollar
  • Clawhammer Banjo, Vol. 1-3
  • Dock Boggs - Country Blues
  • Hard Times Come Again No More, Vol. 2
  • Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
  • Hobart Smith - In Sacred Trust and Blue Ridge Legacy
  • Joseph Spence - The Complete Folkways Recordings
  • Mississippi John Hurt - Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings
  • Reverend Gary Davis - The Complete Early Recordings
  • Roscoe Holcomb - An Untamed Sense of Control
  • Son House - Delta Blues
Contemporary(ish)

  • Bill Monroe and Doc Watson - Live Recordings 1963-1980
  • CW Stoneking - King Hokum and Jungle Blues
  • Dolly Parton - The Grass Is Blue
  • Iris Dement - Lifeline
  • Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band - S/T
  • John Fahey - The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
  • Kossoy Sisters with Erik Darling - Bowling Green
  • Leon Redbone - Double Time
  • Petunia/Petunia and the Vipers - I Live in the Past and S/T
  • Sheesham and Lotus - Everytime! and Five Miles from Town
  • Southern Banjo Styles - Mike Seeger
  • Steve Earle - Train A-Comin’

Monday, 19 August 2013

Your Host for Peterborough Folk Festival Scavenger Hunt Secret Shows (Presented by Exclaim!)


I'm honoured to announce that I'll be hosting the Scavenger Hunt Secret Shows at the Peterborough Folk Festival this year. Set away from the main stage at top-secret locations around Rotary Park, the list of performers includes Gavin Gardiner from the Wooden Sky, Rae Spoon, Jennifer Castle, The Grey Kingdom, and Dave Tough.

I could tell you exactly where these mercurial musicians will be appearing, but then I'd have to kill you. Decode these devilish clues if you can:

Show #1 - 5:15pm - Just off the beaten path is where our first performer will be, Light will call out darkness in a clearing near a tree.
 

Show #2 - 6:00pm - Not the Thames of London, but near our dear footbridge. Our Wooden singer isn’t Neil Young, but he’ll be singing On the Beach.
 

Show #3 - 6:45pm - He may be Tough he may be rough, and a woodsman perhaps he’ll be. Look for our next performer along a unkempt path, next to the Mighty Otonabee.
 

Show #4 - 7:15pm - Across a wooden bridge, if you hurry you’ll get there soon. For our Prairie Home Companion will leave you howling at the Moon.
 

Show #5 - 8:00pm - Find a willow on a turtle’s back. That’s where our final singer will be. For kingdoms or castles made of sand must fall in the sea (or the Otonabee), eventually. 

If you have the Mensa-level abilities it takes to crack the code, I'll see you there. This is gonna be fun.



Writing and Playing New Songs in the Old-Time Tradition: Peterborough Folk Fest Workshop

On the surface, old-time music is easy. You only need to know three chords in one or two keys, the solos aren't fancy, and a creaky singing voice is an asset. Anyone who sits in with an old-time band for the first time, though, will realize it takes a lot of subtlety to get the right feel. How do contemporary musicians engage with the music without being hackneyed? Many of the songs we play were written by people in a different country and a different era; cliches abound. How do you keep the music fresh, without betraying what made the source material so great? Can we write our own songs in the same spirit?

I've thought a lot about this, and on August 24 at the Peterborough Folk Festival, I'll be hosting a workshop on the subject. I'll bring my own ideas and examples, but I'd like to hear your take, too. Bring an instrument and a song you've written in the old-time tradition, or a classic tune you're working on. We'll be in Nicholl's Oval Park (725 Armour Rd), at the top of the hill. Start time is 2:00 pm.

And oh yeah - there'll also be tons of incredible music all day. The Folk Fest is a great way to cap off the summer, so don't miss it!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Film Review: The Act of Killing

This weekend I saw one of the best movies I will ever see, a documentary entirely specific and unto itself. No other film can borrow its techniques, at least not without wildly different results. Even that is unlikely to happen, because the kind of intelligence and nerves-of-steel resolve it takes to make something like this are rare.

The Act of Killing follows several perpetrators of the 1965 communist purge in Indonesia, a genocide that killed at least half a million people. Far from being held accountable, the killers are still feared and respected in Indonesia today. The state is so supportive of them that when director Joshua Oppenheimer tried to make a documentary about the survivors of the massacre, he was frustrated at every turn. His solution was to approach the killers, who were only too happy to boast about their exploits. Together they made a harrowing film.

Oppenheimer offered to let the killers re-enact their crimes for the camera however they saw fit. Their bizarre interpretations involve 1940s gangster costumes and dance interludes. As compelling as the concept is, it mostly acts as a framing device for the action behind the scenes: executioner Anwar Congo sees nothing wrong in screening a gory murder scene for his grandchildren. An actor playing a communist confesses that his stepfather was murdered. The killers discuss the need for comic relief.

The film is short on historical details, but the decision works in its favour. Its purpose is not to inform you of names and dates but to show you, quite painfully, what living in a distorted reality looks like from the outside. There is an inherent guilt that comes with thinking you are having a profound experience through film, when that film is showing you things more horrifying and violent than you could ever truly guess at. The The Act of Killing reckons with that by showing the executioners not as sadistic visionaries, but stunted adolescents. Their method of dispatching communists was borrowed from The Godfather, their self-image as gangsters borrowed from American cinema. The question of how their glorified interpretation of the past will actually be perceived occurs to them late, and only hazily. What makes this doubly sickening is how easy it becomes to see where one's own reality might be distorted. I thought of recent stories about unchecked surveillance of citizens in Canada and the United States, and could imagine some choice news clips slotting into a wrenching documentary forty years from now.

That's the cynical, despairing side, but there is also a hopeful one. In The Act of Killing you can see Anwar Congo, however dimly, coming to reckon with his crimes through the reenactment. It happens through the images themselves, and simply the process of trying to corral his memories into a final product. It's powerful stuff, and it makes the documentary much more than a commentary on itself. Something about the blend of surrealism, politics, and psychology makes it operate on more levels than I can name or guess at.

I'm intimidated simply writing about it, because anything I say is bound to be reductive. I can only recommend The Act of Killing as one of the most potent and thought-provoking things you're bound to see. When I left the theatre I was stunned into silence, knowing I could probably count on one hand the number of films that had affected me like this. Werner Herzog agrees: "the film is so powerful, so frightening, and so surreal that it will take decades until you see something of that caliber again. It just doesn’t happen very often."

Watch the trailer, then go see the movie:


Real Coyotes Return to the Carpe Diem Cafe

Earlier this summer, the Real Coyotes had an awesome run of shows at the Carpe Diem Cafe (552 Armour Road, Peterborough). I messed it all up by going away in July, but I'm please to announce we're back Friday, August 9. The Carpe Diem is a cozy venue, and JC and stretch out for three full sets from 7:00-10:00 pm. If it's anywhere near as much fun to watch as it is to play, you're in for treat. C'mon out and we'll make the most of what's left of the season!