You wouldn’t know it from this–or any–blog, but I hate talking about myself. I’d love to blame it on a polite upbringing, but it’s really a combination of insecurity and indifference. I don’t think I’m interesting, and I don’t trust anyone to disagree.
Years ago, my mom gave me some advice: when in doubt, ask questions. Today, most of my conversations are casual interrogations: What do you do?…how’d you get into that?…and for how long?…what’s Tacoma like?…good gas mileage?…but does she even know how you feel?…pass the ranch? Etc. The one topic most folks love talking about is themselves. Mom’s advice has served me well. Maybe too well.
Since we’re friends and all, I’ll ask you: how much do you know about me? When was the last time I gave you a straight answer? When was the last time I didn’t disappear from conversation in a fog of stupid jokes, self-deprecation, or polite excuses? I don’t let much out, and I let even less in.
Personally, it’s problematic; it’s something I’m trying to improve. But creatively, it’s fatal. I tend to hold back as a songwriter. I project. I tell other peoples’ stories. I hide behind figurative language. I fictionalize. I lie. It’s not that I lack faith as a songwriter–on a good day, there’s a lot I think I do well. It’s that my Achilles heel is me.
Because (again) I hate talking about myself. At best, it’s tedious. At worst, it’s painful. This is my hangup. I’m working on it.
And it’s why, whenever I hear Mark Edgar Stuart, I think “that’s what I want to be when I grow up.”
Song of the Week: Mark Edgar Stuart, “Remote Control”
Mark Edgar Stuart is a singer/songwriter/bass-thumper/multi-purpose-badass from Memphis, Tennessee. Some of you might know him as the bassist for nearly every awesome band in the history of ever (plus this). His debut as a solo artist–Blues For Lou–comes out March 5. It’s a collection of songs Mark wrote in the wake of his father’s passing. As the first track released and a crowd favorite at his live shows, “Remote Control” is a great example of what makes Stuart’s songs so rewarding, and what makes his talent so unique.
Let’s start here, because good things shouldn’t go without saying:
1) It’s gorgeous. From Mark’s breezy, cyclical melody–echoed by his acoustic and Al Gamble’s keys–to the tennis ball keeping time in the background, everything in the performances and production is pitch-perfect. It’s beautifully restrained, intimate without being intrusive. For such a heavy song, it’s an easy listen.
2) It’s deeply moving and universally accessible. Which is to say, anyone with a dad stopped reading two paragraphs ago and is sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of their cubicle/coffee shop/bathtub. Again.
3) It’s grown up.
Some artists write lyrics straight from their heart. Line to line, verse to verse, song to song, the words could be interchangeable: we’re at a bar….now we’re in your head…now it’s last Tuesday…now there are dreams…WAR SYMBOLISM…is that a horse? Etc. Concrete, abstract, literal, figurative, past, present, etc. They skip around. They write what they’re feeling in the moment and, at best, communicate that clearly, viscerally to the listener. There are tons of these songs that I enjoy; it depends on the artist, and it depends on what the artist is going for.
But my favorite songs are those crafted around a central idea. The song is a house, and every word is a brick. Foundation, walls, ceiling, roof–they all build something. No line is interchangeable, because no piece is indispensable.
For example, when he heard Jack Kerouac’s unfiltered method of drafting On the Road, Truman Capote famously said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Because I’m an idiot musician, I don’t read much. But I do know this: a lot of songwriters type. Mark Edgar Stuart writes.
“Remote Control” tells its story through one expertly extended metaphor. It’s sweet but never saccharine, even-keeled but deeply affecting. Stuart sings with the confidence of someone who knows that the story is enough. It’s sad, nostalgic, at times funny, even cheerful. The subtext shines through the text. No dressing up, no embellishment, no melodrama. No tear-stain on the Barcalounger. Just a powerful story told through simple, elegant language.
(Footnote You’re Free To Skip: I can’t listen to Mark Edgar Stuart without thinking of my favorite professor in college, Tony Earley. Professor Earley is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. When I think of all the lessons he spent three years trying to teach me, they basically boil down to “Remote Control.”)
Stuart isn’t the first artist to write openly and honestly about something so personal; many songwriters do this. He’s also not the first to tell a story expertly through an extended metaphor; a few songwriters can do this. But Mark is one of the only songwriters I know who can do both at the same time.
It’s a challenge I face every time I sit down to write: how to speak from the heart but write with my head? I’ve been songwriting since middle school, and I’m still learning.
As I try to open myself up more–personally and creatively–I look to a few friends, family members, and fellow artists as guiding lights. It’s hard–this entry alone makes me jumpy. Even now, as I’m tagging the post and about to press “publish,” I’m tempted to press “delete” instead. For me, it doesn’t come easily.
But Mark Edgar Stuart makes it look–and sound–effortless. Take this ode to Levon Helm that doubles as a tale of cancer survival. Or this castoff bit of dialog that comes to describe everything a hometown is and isn’t. He does it time and time again. He doesn’t just give himself to his music; he gives himself in his music. He does it generously, honestly, and thoughtfully. His music is grown up in the best of ways.
I hope to be, too. Someday.