Monday, July 14, 2014

A Pond's Reflection

Walden Pond
[This article first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the July/August edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

There are moments in American history where everything turned on a dime – the first shot at Concord, the Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor, Rosa Parks’s decision to keep her seat on the bus. In the history of American spirituality it’s no different. When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond to conduct his famous, two year experiment in sustenance living he brought with him one book, the Indian spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita. What happened at Walden Pond would ripple around the world and change everything.
Just eight years before, Thoreau had been a student at Harvard. It was there he stumbled upon the Bhagavad Gita. His was the first generation of Americans to have access to this 2,000 year old masterpiece, newly available in English. Like a handful of others – his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the preeminent American poet Walt Whitman – he was immediately struck by its depth and relevance. Here was a vision of divinity at once strange and familiar, a bracing call to courageous action in the midst of a messy world, and a ringing affirmation of the sacred nature of reality itself. Under the spell of the Gita, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman would go on to create their own masterpieces reflecting a dawning realization – there is only one presence and power in the universe, and that it permeates all of reality, including us. This exalted humanism, this boundless mysticism, would become the hallmark of a uniquely American spirituality culminating in the New Thought movement, and everything that was to follow.
Today, when people say they are spiritual, not religious, they are reflecting an ancient truth – that wisdom is not found in institutions but in direct experience. Whether through scriptural study, meditation, devotion, social justice activism, or unmediated immersion in nature, every individual stands at the door of an immense transcendence and has only to walk through on their own two feet.
In 1846, during his second summer at Walden Pond, the tax collector came to see Thoreau. He was behind on his taxes. Thoreau refused to pay on the grounds that he thought it immoral to support the immoral actions of his government – an illegal, imperialistic war against Mexico and the ghastly institution of slavery. In Thoreau’s time one out of six Americans was a slave.
He was arrested and put in jail, albeit only for one night. He went on to write an essay about his experience known today as “Civil Disobedience.”  As a young anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay during one of his many incarcerations. He later wrote that it “galvanized” him and formed the blueprint of his own campaigns. At the age of 15, Martin Luther King first read Thoreau’s essay at Morehouse College. He too was changed by it. Later in his career, King became an ardent devotee of Gandhi and the principles of non-violent non-cooperation first articulated in “Civil Disobedience.” It is a remarkable turn of events that an ancient Indian book, the Bhagavad Gita, would come to America to inspire Thoreau who then went on to influence Gandhi, an Indian working in South Africa, who went on to influence King, an African American working for justice in the Jim Crow south. We are indeed all one, and our story is one story.
In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau articulates the four key principles of ethical political activism. First, use only moral and non-violent means, like boycotting and other forms of non-cooperation. Second, always work within the system before, during, and after your civil disobedience. Be politically engaged – vote, go to meetings, back candidates, or even run for office. Third, be open and public about your actions. No ski masks, no digital anonymity, nor clandestine vandalism. And four, be willing to accept the consequences of your actions, up to and including prison, fines, deportation, and unemployment. The whole purpose of non-violent civil disobedience is knowingly violating immoral laws with the sole purpose of overturning them. When we sacrifice ourselves, we raise the consciousness of others, even our so-called opponents.
         Thoreau, Gandhi, and King show us that spirituality and political action go hand in hand. If we are truly interested in awakening, we are interested in everyone's awakening. We cannot turn spirituality into a means of avoiding the messiness of the world. We have to take a position and take action, no matter how imperfect. Justice is the end and we are the means. We will never have perfect understanding. There will always be questions. But we must act anyway, not out of hatred nor rooted in simplistic, melodramatic judgments of good and evil, but in the knowledge that the Good is trying to be born, and we are all midwives. Each drop of water reflects the whole of the cosmos. So too, we are the eyes, ears, hands, mind, and heart of God. If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sad Songs

The best songs hurt. They bring us into heightened awareness of our own pain. They strip away the sugar coating and lay bare the hard truths of life – love often ends, youth fades, and death awaits us all. Yet we keep listening because as John Mellencamp sang, it hurts so good.
Why do we like sad songs? Why are despair, loss, horror, and all manner of violence our staple form of entertainment? What primal, unconscious need fills the theater every time the next end of the world apocalyptic movie comes out? Why do we love seeing it all torn down?
Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragedy in art is catharsis, a purging. In other words, as we identify with the protagonist in a song, film, book, or play, and as we witness them suffer through trials and tribulations, we vicariously suffer along with them and undergo an emotional emptying out. In some way this is psychologically beneficial, just as vomiting allows the body to expel toxic material. No one likes vomiting – but you always feel a little better afterwards. Same with a good cry. If we kept all this emotional pain bottled up inside the toxicity would overwhelm us. That’s why sad songs make us feel better. Tragic art, Aristotle argued, serves an essential purpose – it keeps us from going crazy.
The sad fact is that life is predicated on the taking of other life. To survive we must constantly consume other living things – plants, animals, fungus – and all of that at once in a mushroom and shallot omelet. Our existence inexorably causes suffering for other life forms. None of us chose this, yet here we are. We must participate in it just as all of the rest of nature does. In many ways, art, myth, and religion help us cope with the horrible fact of this ceaseless killing. They help us contextualize and navigate through what would otherwise be paralyzing guilt.
And lurking behind the curtain is this one last disconcerting fact – we too are food. We may have eliminated many of our natural predators – here in California the only grizzly bear left is the one on the flag – but death still flags our every step. Sharks ply the waters, cougars stalk  the backcountry, and the most dangerous predator of all, man, well, they’re everywhere, and commonly armed. And then there’s this – our cells turn cancerous. Sometimes your heart just stops for no reason.  All of this impermanence weighs heavily on our minds, and we know that these forms are fleeting. But we have to go on. We’re going to swim in the ocean anyway, and hike these trails, and mingle with other people everywhere we go. We try to stay healthy, but only the most deluded among us believes that they’re in control. In the end, we have to be ready to let go of all of it without a moment’s notice.
That’s why art is so important. It helps us celebrate the beauties of being alive, and it helps us practice the fine art of letting go.
Art administers to the instrument of empathy. By flexing and strengthening our imaginations through engagement with art we become better able to empathize with the suffering of others. As we identify with characters in stories or songs from other times and places – people very different from us – we learn to look past surface differences and realize our underlying unity.
Art even has the power to ameliorate the unavoidable conflicts that naturally arise in our relationships with difficult people. By helping us imaginatively stand in the shoes of our nemeses, art deconstructs the machinery of hatred and violence. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Art opens up and makes alive those secret histories and suddenly we see our so-called enemies as wounded, frightened, desperate people employing unskillful means. We realize their hostility has nothing to do with us and the door to compassion, forgiveness, and healing begins to crack open just a little bit. Art wrests hope from the jaws of despair.
Art is a lot of things. It’s entertainment. It’s titillation. It’s preaching and pedantry. It’s aesthetic rapture. It’s play. It’s remembrance and commemoration. It’s all of that and more. And the best art accomplishes nearly all of those goals in one fell swoop. Art that merely preaches is condescending and ineffective. Art that merely entertains is hollow and manipulative. Art that merely commemorates is tired and boring. Art that pointlessly wallows in the horror of existence is juvenile and jaded.
For any of the various messages or purposes of art to successfully transmit from artists to perceivers it must have one over-arching quality – the power to redeem. There’s a reason we often hear the phrase in art criticism – that book, that song, that film has “no redeeming qualities.” It’s the ultimate dismissal.
For art to be redeeming it must bring us from disease to wellness, from chaos to order, from disintegration to integration, from dysfunction to function – in other words, it must heal us. In this sense then good art is transactional. It draws us into an unwitting exchange – our suffering for art’s transformative power. Drawn into aesthetic ecstasy, our private torment is universalized and our isolation is shattered. By some mysterious transference we are made right with the world, and with ourselves. Art pays the ransom and frees us from our chains. Art saves.
The best songs awaken us to our higher purpose by breaking through our carefully cultivated façade and disrupting our well-practiced routine. Especially sad songs. They unmask us. They remind us what love is. They embolden our sacrifice. They enliven our courage. They soften our fixation. They celebrate our humanity. They call us to our best selves.
We are a story telling species. Since the dawn of humankind we have used language, melody, rhythm, dance, painting and sculpture, to weave narratives out of our imaginations, mythologizing the forces of nature, personifying the animal beings around us, and casting our own likeness in the epic tales of the hero. As we live through our heroes we face every monster, conquer every foe, overcome every obstacle, and survive every test. It is through our art that we practice living our lives. Art is a test-run where we take on terror, play at savagery, explore the boundaries of our rapacious appetites, and learn where the traps are – the traps that lay low the arrogant warrior too proud and too in love with his own visage.
If you make art – if you write songs or poems or plays or stories, if you make films or photographs or sculptures or paintings, if you choreograph dance – stay true to your ancient calling. Let art lead us toward a bolder, more authentic life. Warn us of the pitfalls. Celebrate the beauties. And never let us forget that we are here for one reason – to thrive and serve and fully surrender to the rapture of being alive. The characters in the films, books, and songs we love are mirrors held up to our own agonizing questions, and they show us that there is a way forward out of the fog of our confusion and into healing, wholeness, and the sense that it’s going to be OK, no matter what.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Musings on the Value of a Truly Good Producer

[The May 2014 issue of Recording Magazine featured a long and technically detailed cover story about the making of my album Two Pines, written by my producer Sven-Erik Seaholm. I was invited by the editor of Recording Magazine to write a guest editorial about the artist's perspective of the whole process. This is that piece.]
Making an album is not for the timid. It’s going to cost you some sleep, and more than a little money. It’s going to occupy your every waking moment for months. It’ll damage your health, your serenity, and your relationships. Some days you’ll be gripped with self-loathing and the compulsion to throw in the towel. Other days you’ll secretly entertain the thought that you might be a genius and your record a masterpiece. Then your sanity returns and you get back to work.
A journey this treacherous should never be taken alone. You’re going to need a great producer.
A producer is many things. A friend, a technician, a guide, a strategist, an organizer, a cheerleader, a shaman, a mom, a barista, a host, a roadie, a therapist, a confidant, a diplomat, a savant, a maker of sandwiches—but more than anything else, a producer is a trusted collaborator whose decisions at a thousand forks in the road could mean the life or death of your record. Sure mic placement matters. EQ, preamps, signal paths, and compression settings are all important. But the single most important element in any successful recording project is the relationship between the artist and the producer. If you don’t trust, rely on, respect, and admire your producer, you’re doomed.
I hadn’t made an album in seven years. Life got in the way. My day job as a philosophy professor and the demands of my expanding work as a writer and speaker pushed music off of center stage. I’d even fired myself from my own band The Coyote Problem. It was just all too much. But the songs kept coming. Seven years is a lot of songs. I had to do something. It was time to make an album.
As the song list came together I realized I needed a title song, one last piece to tie all the themes of the record together. I tuned my Taylor to a double drop D and wrote “Two Pines.”
I decided to call Sven-Erik Seaholm, the producer of The Coyote Problem’s two albums, Wire in 2005 and California in 2007. We’d worked well together, we had exceptional rapport, and most importantly we got great results. The two trophies for Best Americana Album from the San Diego Music Awards didn’t hurt. Art contests are weird but hey, I’ll take it.
At our first meeting we talked about what kind of record we wanted to make. Like Stephen Covey says, begin with the end in mind. I wanted a raw, warm, open sound. I wanted three things front and center—the holy trinity of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. We talked about Neil Young’s “Out on a Weekend.” We talked about Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” We talked about Nashville vs. Austin, hi-fi vs. lo-fi, and Steve Earle. We talked about the nearly impossible goal of getting a recorded acoustic guitar to sound like an acoustic guitar. Sven listened carefully, took it all in, and found a way.
As our first scheduled session grew near I upped my practice schedule. I wanted to be ready. I searched deep and long for the soul of this album. In any artistic project or process, the most important question is always the same. What to leave in and what to leave out? The pressure began to build.
I wasn’t nervous in front of the mic. I know how to play my songs. In fact, recording is really fun. It’s the editing that’ll get you. Especially when it came to guitar overdubs...
I’d do nine takes of Dobro on a song, and then Sven and I would start editing. It’s agonizing—which licks of which takes to put where. Thankfully, Sven has the uncanny ability to remember all of the moods and feels of all of them, and deftly moves through the song mousing and clicking and splicing and blending and bringing the best of the best together into one seamless performance. I’m always torn by indecision and haunted by the takes not used—what if there’s a gem in there we’re leaving out? Watching your producer edit is like handing him a scalpel and closing your eyes. This is why trust is so important.
I came to rely on Sven to do the right thing, and nine times out of ten we agreed. When we didn’t, he’d listen and either change his mind or gently make his case. It often felt like we were one person, one man with two heads and four hands, and we were making music together. People who don’t make records have no idea how deeply embedded a producer is. I was there for every edit, but there isn’t one note on this album that Sven hasn’t touched, nurtured, birthed, and brought to life. Sure, I sang it and played it. But in a very real sense, so did he.
In the end, that’s the greatest gift a producer gives an artist—a safe place to be who they really are. It’s the little things. Having the coffee ready. Knowing when you need another take and when you don’t. Supporting you through a thousand decisions, sometimes leading, sometimes following, until you don’t know who’s in charge. You just know that something good is happening, and you’re thrilled to be a part of it.
Peter Bolland is an Americana artist, writer, and educator who lives and records in the San Diego area. Keep an eye on for information about the upcoming release of his new album Two Pines.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Two Pines

When I turned 12 in 1972 my brother John gave me a very important birthday present – Neil Young’s brand new album Harvest. From the opening notes of “Out on a Weekend” to the haunting atmosphere of the closing track “Words” I was caught by its spell. I had never heard anything so achingly beautiful before in my life.
In the years before ’72 it was all about the Beatles, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and even the Monkees. But behind the façade of all that glamorous rock and roll a quiet movement was building, a rootsy, acoustic, country rock feel with more debt to Dylan and the folk scene than to anything else. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were its standard bearers, and when Young left the supergroup he fled to Nashville and began working on Harvest with a core group of seasoned country players. The album’s success took Young by surprise and maybe even frightened him. Harvest became the best selling album in America in 1972 and when “Heart of Gold” went to number one, his first and last number one single, he backed away from the fame fearing he was becoming middle of the road. “I headed for the ditch,” he later said, “a rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
Harvest went on to influence an entire generation of country rock folkies like me. My own guitar playing, singing, and song writing began to turn in that direction. It just felt like home. It’s all there in the opening track, “Out on a Weekend” – that emptiness, that loneliness, that simplicity, that bare bones honesty. A kick drum, a snare, a bass guitar, an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, a pedal steel, and simple lyrics about the redemption of the road – what else could you possibly need?
Many years later when I began making my own records I kept looking for a way to emulate that feel. I didn’t want to imitate Neil. Where’s the joy in mimicry? I wanted to find my own sound, my own voice, my own truth. But an apple never falls far from the tree.
My first album, Live at a Better World, was recorded live in the 90s at a wonderful folk music venue we were all playing at called A Better World Café. My folk duo partner at the time Mark Jackson and I stripped it down to two acoustic guitars and two voices – a simple, spare approach that let the songs shine. For my second album Frame, produced and recorded by Michael Krewitsky, we took advantage of the emerging technology of Pro Tools and the freedom it gives you. We both learned a lot about making rootsy Americana music with computers and software.
When I formed the Coyote Problem we made two albums with producer Sven-Erik Seaholm – Wire in 2005 and California in 2007. I told Sven I wanted a simple, dry, straight forward sound with minimal production sheen. I wanted it to sound like, you know, a band in a room. We succeeded. Both of the albums won Best Americana Album at the San Diego Music Awards in their respective years, a humbling honor.
It’s been seven years since California. Life got in the way. The Coyote Problem had a great run, but it was hard for me to keep up with the demands of running a band and a challenging career as a philosophy professor. I fired myself from my own band and focused on writing and teaching. I kept doing solo acoustic shows. And of course the songwriting never slowed down. In seven years a lot of songs piled up. I had to do something.
There are a lot of great producers. But in the end I went back to Sven-Erik Seaholm. We work well together, and I feel at home in his studio having made two albums there already, as well as spending countless hours as a session player on other people’s projects. We had a meeting and talked about the vision for this album. We talked about Neil Young’s “Out on a Weekend.” We talked about Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” We talked about acoustic guitar sounds and kick drums and amplifiers. We came to an understanding about what the goals for this record were. Like Steven Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind.”
Sven worked really hard to get a rich, authentic acoustic guitar sound using a complicated array of three microphones and signal paths (I try not to pay attention to any of that stuff – it just makes me feel stupid).  In many ways, getting a good acoustic guitar sound is the most difficult thing to do in the studio – the sound comes off the guitar in so many places and so many ways. But Sven did it.
Listening back to the initial tracks I realized something was missing. I needed a title song to unify all the themes of the record. So I wrote one. I tuned my guitar to a double drop D (the tuning Neil uses on “Cinnamon Girl,” “Ohio,” and “Cortez the Killer”) and I wrote a song called “Two Pines.” It came out so good we decided to open the album with it.
There are a lot of great drummers and bass players. It was an agonizing decision. But I finally decided on Bob Sale and Jim Reeves. They both have this amazingly powerful, muscular, confident feel and they play with the most arresting of all qualities – simplicity. They never clutter things up with busy, fussy, unnecessary flourishes. They find the essence and bring songs to life. We tracked them together while Sven and I sat in the control room. Our jaws hit the floor after the first song. I had goose bumps. This was it. They showed up early, stayed late, came in prepared, and exceeded all expectations. They tracked all 14 songs in one day, many on the first take. It is such a joy to work with professionals.
That session was followed by weeks of overdubs. I played Dobro, lap steel, 12 string, electric guitar, percussion, harmonica, and of course sang the vocal parts. We brought in Melissa Barrison to play violin on one song, and Sven played a piano riff on another. But the album is mostly bass, drums, guitars, and vocals. Our arrangement philosophy was “When in doubt, leave it out.”
In many ways, Two Pines is the album I’ve been trying to make all along. I’m proud of all of my earlier work, but with each album you learn a little more. You get closer and closer to the truth. The songs get stronger. The playing gets better. The singing gets truer. You relax more and more. And when you relax, the real you finally shows up.
All any singer-songwriter wants is to hear their songs recorded well, and to share those songs with anyone who’s interested. Real musicians don’t chase fame or money – they do it because they’re drawn into the spell that music casts, and they simply want to add their voice to the chorus. We all love music. We love what it does to us, how it frees us, unlocks our heart, opens our eyes, and shines light on the beauty of our own lives. We all have our favorite genres, styles, and artists. But beneath all the surface variations, it’s all just one song – our song. Music is memories; music is a new friend you haven’t met yet. Music is a feather bed and a field of stones. Music is many things, and one thing – a way to know a truth beyond words, a truth our soul is asking for, a truth that sets us free. That’s what your favorite music does for you. Let it.