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  • Writer's picturedjSwade

Influences and Inspiration

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

You are what you listen to. I believe that. I have been listening to and enjoying music for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can't imagine life without music. It would be desolate and excruciating.

My dad listened to a variety of music. He loved country and western. Johnny Cash. Waylon Jennings. His favorite was Kris Kristofferson. All I have to do is think of Kris and I'm back in our den on a Sunday, listening to "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Besides country, my dad liked the Beach Boys, the Irish Rovers and the Journeymen, a folk trio that included pre-Mamas & Papas John Phillips and Scott McKenzie, who sang the hippie anthem "San Francisco." The Journeymen were one of my first influences. I loved their harmonies and the simplicity of their arrangements.

I can't remember exactly when I became infatuated with the Beatles, but I can pinpoint where it started, a warm summer day when I was about seven. I was sitting on our back patio when I heard this otherworldly sound coming out of my cheap transistor radio: "Strawberry Fields Forever." Next came the Red and Blue "greatest hits" albums, a Christmas gift from my parents. I was hooked. There are so many reasons I love the Beatles and consider them my greatest influence. Their songwriting. Their perfect harmonies. The way they became one when they played together. Like so many others, I believe I play music today because of the Beatles. Somehow, they were urging me not to just listen to the music, but actually participate and play. Today, I'm hard-pressed to point to a specific example of the Beatles' influence on my music, but I know it is there.

When I got a little older, I started hearing this strange music coming from my older brother's room every night. It sounded like outer space. I'd never heard anything like it. Turned out it was Jimi Hendrix. What an tremendous talent Jimi was. I am fascinated with the way he immersed himself in the music and how organic everything sounded. It seemed like all his emotions, his joy, his pain and his sorrow, all flowed through his guitar and out of his amp. I try to take that cue from Jimi whenever I'm playing or composing. My favorite Hendrix songs exhibit his softer side: "Little Wing" and "One Rainy Wish." I can't even imagine what he would have done with his music if he had lived.


There have been many other influences since then. Some of my most prominent:

Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) - combining rock and classical music opened up so many new doors for me. I am forever bonded to "Mr. Blue Sky." Their early work, like "Mama" and "Kuiama," is also excellent.

Classical - I don't have a favorite in the classical music realm, although I am partial to Debussy, Chopin, Fauré and Saint-Saëns. Two of my best loved works are "Aquarium" from Carnival of the Animals (Saint-Saëns) " and "Impromptu No 3 in A Flat Op. 34" (Fauré). My general takeaway from classical music is that it helps me envision a cohesive approach to composing. By looking at the big picture first, I can envision what I want to accomplish, then assemble the pieces that will get me there. The other thing I get from many classical pieces is a glimpse of the infinite. By that, I mean there is often a passage during a classical piece that opens a door to the infinite or perhaps the perfect. You know? Where I get chills and everything suddenly comes together. Such moments are rare and beautiful.

Nickel Creek - What a great modern bluegrass band. Each member is a virtuoso and they are consummate musicians. They play and sing so beautifully together. I also love the way they compose and arrange their music. One of my all-time favorite songs is "The Lighthouse's Tale." From them, I learned about music virtuosity and I also discovered that just about anything can be subject matter for a song, including a lighthouse, a river and a dartboard.

Slack Key - Slack key is uniquely Hawaiian and refers to open tunings on a guitar. The type of music that results is relaxing and peaceful. Besides being a calming influence, I take from slack key a sense of adventure and experimentation that results from getting out of standard tuning. It opens up whole new worlds. A really wonderful slack key artist is Gabby Pahinui. One of his best songs is "Ipo Lei Manu."

Tycho - Such a cool band, Tycho is mostly instrumental, but has ventured into vocals more recently. I love the soundscapes they create. Their sound is all their own and each song has its own character, easily identified. I learned that you don't need vocals to give a song personality and its own stamp.

St. Vincent - What a talented artist Annie Clark, the driver of St. Vincent, is. I recently discovered her. Not only is she a great guitar player and vocalist, but she also takes a one-of-a kind approach to her compositions. And talk about experimenting! She is not afraid to go wherever her inspiration takes her, whether it is commercial or not. "The Melting of the Sun" off her latest album Daddy's Home is fascinating.

Books - Books really inform my music. If I'm not playing or composing, I'm reading. Hunter S. Thompson. Ernest Hemingway. Haruki Murakami. William Blake. Herman Hesse. Lewis Carroll. One of my most recent reads was Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa. Haruki Murakami completed a series of interviews with the renowned conductor and the results were amazing. I loved hearing how music and writing intersect, as well as the way Ozawa prepares to conduct.

There are so many other influences that I haven't mentioned here. That's just a sampling. I like to think of myself as a sponge. I listen to all kinds of music and just soak up whatever I hear.

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