KNABLE GAZING: Songwriters Under the Influence of Songwriters
I was at an open mic once in my early NYC songwriter days at which a singer introduced himself by saying that he was running out of influences because mainly he just listened to tapes of his own songs when he was driving in his car. I remember nothing about the song he sang, but his admission stuck with me, perhaps as a cautionary tale.
In the intimacy of this digital column of solitude, I will confess to listening to myself sometimes—what I’ve recorded into my phone most recently, to see if it actually sounds like a song, or I’ll listen to a released recording I’ve made that has a more professional sheen to it, just to confirm that I am capable of seeing my sketches through to fully produced products.
I like to think my tastes are broader, though. I do listen to other people. I love finding a songwriter who I’ve missed discovering somehow and then being delighted by their deep back catalog and plentiful interviews. Lately, I’ve been on a Steve Earle run, which is having a direct influence on my songwriting. I don’t even know that I’m writing songs like him, but he’s underlining what I already do and helping me play to those strengths.
It doesn’t always work like that. I went on a RZA kick a while ago, which I’m fairly certain had little effect on my songwriting. But I liked what I was hearing, so I kept listening.
And then there are the other songwriters who I actually know. Most immediately, the Big City Folkers, and those in concentric or adjoining circles. It’s good to actually hear what your peers are doing. (Sadly, Steve Earle is not nor never will be my peer.) Songs like E.W. Harris’ “Bad Ghost” or Karen Dahlstrom’s “No Man’s Land,” not to mention several of the songs on Niall Connolly’s Sound album have had an influence on me that I can’t explain yet, other than I can feel them opening doors to other rooms I might explore in the future. Any number of other Big City Folkers influence me in similar ways. But just try asking them how they feel about their influences.
Says Chris Q. Murphy, “Depends on who’s asking. At this stage in the game it feels like an endless list. I also have to wonder if people are really asking “who do you sound like?”, “who do you WANT to sound like?”, and/or “who do you/did you listen to/study?”
I was listening to Nate Wilcox’s Let It Roll podcast last week—a 2019 interview with biographer Jonathan Gould about his Otis Redding book. I learned that Redding not only studied (and probably wanted to sound like) Sam Cooke, but also obsessively poured over Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when it blew up in 1967. Would he have written “Dock of the Bay” without that combination (plus untold other influences)? His tragic death deprives us of the full answer, and what could have been a move into Otis Redding as a concept-album-maker. Then again, maybe The Beatles had nothing directly to do with what Otis Redding wanted to sound like at all. Apparently, he gave a pass to Bob Dylan’s tape-in-hand suggestion (as prompted by Robbie Robertson) that Redding cover “Just Like a Woman.”
Says Big City Folker Robert Bock, “I think anything you’ve listened to is essentially an influence. Even if it’s something you don’t realize is affecting you. The subconscious is certainly at play here by not only pushing you in one direction but also pulling you away from another.”
I have obsessed to varying degrees over Nick Cave since his 2008 Dig, Lazarus Dig album, but aside from one fairly embarrassing attempt at writing and performing a mustache-era Cave-like song with my band, I feel just fine about not trying to emulate his music. It’s good to know who you can’t get away with sounding like. The RZA included.
But then there are influences we never even knew were influences because we never listened to them.
Songwriter’s songwriter’s songwriter Graham Brice reports: “About 20 years ago, based on only one song which was pretty different from the rest of what I was doing, my good friend Nolan Green told me he appreciated the Robert Wyatt influence. I was unfamiliar at the time, so he lent me a couple albums. As a result, I am now a die hard Robert Wyatt fan.”
Being told you sound like someone you’ve never heard of frequently happens to singer-songwriters, who by nature traffic in realms of obscurity.
New Haven’s own Lys Guillorn, in her promotional material, lists with whom she has shared bills (Robyn Hitchcock, Laura Cantrell, Amy Rigby) rather than who she sounds like. Says Lys, “Things that make sense to other people in terms of what I sound like to them might have nothing to do with my influences.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lys was once told she sounded like Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses.
“When I checked her solo work out, I really loved her,” says Lys. “I gained strength when I saw her perform solo live because it helped allow me to do my own freaky thing.”
Says Cordelia Stephens, “I got Sarah Harmer recently. I was glad to get to know her music!”
When my band released its first album, our drummer at the time, who actually dayjobbed in the music industry and helped us greatly with his contacts, made sure that All Music namechecked Guster in our band description. At the time, I had never heard of Guster. So I listened and could hear how what they were doing related, and they were certainly a more recognizable act than ours, so referencing them made sense. How weird was it when a decade later Guster’s drummer and I were in the same charter school parent fundraiser band for one covers gig. I told him how my band is now permanently on record as sounding like his band. He wasn’t impressed.
May Cheung and Lara Ewen attest to never having had the experience of being told they sound like someone they never heard of, though May elaborates that she did get told she looked like Olivia Munn when she was waitressing with a bob cut. May, like I, didn’t know who Olivia Munn was until she looked her up. May has been told she sounds like Shawn Colvin, but she knows who that is!
Of course, getting told you sound like someone you are likely to know is just as if not more common.
E.W. Harris has gotten “early Van Morrison, Jeff Buckley, My Morning Jacket, any number of freak folk/psychedelic artists, and Harry Nilsson.” (I can now only picture E.W. in a bathrobe on the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson, for obvious reasons.)
I know my Neil Young obsession was jump-started by someone telling me I had a Neil Young thing going on with my stage presentation. I was familiar with Everybody Knows this is Nowhere at the time, but, spurred on by wanting to capture some semblance of Neil Young in my bottle, I worked my way through his big 70s albums and was then seeking out obscurities like Time Fades Away, the live album of never-otherwise-released songs recorded and released during Neil’s “audio verité” period presaging his ditch trilogy.
Being asked who your influences are and being told who you sound like is a burden any creative artist being interviewed by anyone should get used to, but it doesn’t mean they have to like it. I made the mistake of asking a fellow Big City Folk artist who his influences were in preparation for a piece I didn’t end up writing about him (for other reasons) and he told me to ask a more interesting question. Fair enough.
I’ve tried going broad when asked that question myself. As a playwright getting his first regional theater production, I was asked in a talkback who my playwriting influences were. I said Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Pablo Picasso, and Sam Shepard. I was 25 and full of myself, what can I say? Other than it was a totally true answer.
Acknowledging our influences is acknowledging that we live outside the vacuum of our own minds. Our genius is modest in comparison to those who have accomplished more than we ever will. Our sense of accomplishment hinges on our expectations of living up to our influences, whether or not we admit them.
And then there are “influencers.” But that’s a totally different thing.
Jim Knable is a performing songwriter who recorded two albums in 2020: Songs of Suffrage for Luna Stage and the Andrew Goodman Foundation and Blue Reunion, by Jim Knable and The Randy Bandits. He has released two other studio, one live, and one secret album with The Randy Bandits since 2006 as well as performing as The Jewbadour for the Unorthodox Podcast circa 2015-2018 with a matching album of demos for the show. He is a produced and published playwright, currently the Staff Writer for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and has had articles published in The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine, The SDC Journal, and other online and print publications. KNABLE GAZING is a regular column appearing on the Big City Folks blog.