"You're better off broke with soup in your belly
Than sitting there hungry around a pot of gold."
Thus begins the new album, Instead The Forest Rose To Sing. I decided to start things off with Better Off Broke, as the album as a whole is a collection of songs interwoven together around the question: "What is the value of our work? And what the hell is 'wealth' exactly?"
There's a million different ways that we conceptualize money. Money is fundamentally a symbolic notion, a representative idea. For some people it represents the hours they've spent behind their desk. For some it represents the education of their children. For some it represents their own luxury and comfort. For some it's their security and insulation from the uncertainties of the world. For others, the money is their ticket to engage with the powers that be to try and have some measure of control over the uncertainties of the world. And for some, the money itself is just a trophy. It just represents winning a game.
As I've gone through different phases in my own life, my own conceptualization of money has gone through different incarnations. I used to live communally for several years on a large cooperative farm with a high value placed on our self-sufficiency. And money, then, represented a sort of efficiency quotient. We lived a very comfortable middle class lifestyle on what amounted to about $6000 per person per year. And when that figure was smaller, I didn't feel poorer, I felt prouder about our ability to organize and share our efforts and resources. A lower income wasn't a mark of austerity, it was a celebration of the efficiency of collectivity and cooperation.
But then in 2003 when I was hit with some major health issues right when I was in between jobs and uninsured, and ended up with a huge amount of debt, it changed the way I thought about money, significantly. Money became just a big mound of dirt that had to be moved from one pile to another hole . . . an insurmountable amount, at the time, actually. And I had to figure out a way to move it. And it made me think about my work as a shovel. I'd always had lots of different jobs. And each kind of job represented a different sized shovel. And it was never very important which combination of shovels I used, cause I didn't really have to move very much dirt every month. All of a sudden, I needed to move a small mountain . . . and it made me think very carefully about which was my largest, most efficient shovel, and shouldn't I maybe be keeping that one in my hands more of the time. That's what drew me back into the music business, actually . . . which is kind of ironic. It's the kind of thing that, more typically, drives people out of music. It goes to show you how unskilled I am at basically everything else in the world!
And now, more recently, the last couple years, as I've been touring and traveling all the time, money has come to represent the freedom to choose my time and place and purpose. Walking away from a lucrative gig at some concert series with cash in my pocket doesn't conjure up images of a snazzy car and a new pair of shoes, it represents my own ability to choose three months down the road whether or not I can stay home for a week and put pen to paper, or sleep in late and take the dog to the park, and go catch up with some friends in town.
That notion of "wealth" has basically become synonymous with "self-determination." And that's fine. I'm comfortable with that. That doesn't contradict my values at all. I believe it can go a step further, though. And I hope to one day get to a point where I can naturally think of wealth as a vehicle for philanthropic-determination. That's where the title of the album came from, I guess. The song Serpentine Cycle of Money is a sort of meditation on the evolutionary thinking of wealth, following a character as he goes through different circuitous phases in his own relationship with money. He comes full circle, eventually, back to a conclusive place where I hope to one day come to in my own life . . . back to a place where wealth is not personal, it's communal.
From the Serpentine Cycle of Money . . .
So I went back to the stone again
And sat down on my gluttony
And begged the forest floor to fall
Instead the forest rose to sing . . .
. . ."Give it back!"
click each song title to read lyrics
1. Better Off Broke
You know, you hope you've gotten smarter and wiser as life's gone on, but I always seem to realize that, in the most fundamental ways, I lived with greater clarity back when I was young and stupid. This song maybe starts off as a bit of a lecture from my older self to my younger self, but winds up being a lecture back.
2. Swing Me Down
This song is about the urge to call every girl in the world out onto the dance floor. I've always found that the only way to dismiss a dangerous impulse from my mind is to acknowledge it respectfully first.
3. Grampa Built Bridges
It's my assertion that as our culture has gotten more urban and technological, and as our more direct connections with nature have been severed, we're not so in touch anymore with the autumns and winters of life -- the decomposing leaves, the turning back into soil -- and when we envision the path of a life, our model seems to only celebrate the bloomings and blossomings, and no longer celebrates the dignity in the inevitable curling and falling of the petals. And in that, our culture doesn't seem to prepare us to cross gracefully from one state of existence into another the way some older cultures have.
4. Southland Street
This song is neither pro-globalization nor anti-globalization. It's simply an observation that the process of transformation from national economies into a single level and balanced global economy is leaving a trail of victims in its wake. I would also say that the collateral damage could be minimized by some gentlemanly agreements about fair labor practices, reasonable environmental standards, and some conscience towards the cultural impact of industry moving so rapidly from one place to another.
5. Two Timing Bank Robber's Lament
This is just a silly ditty about a poor sap who does all the wrong things for the wrong person for all the wrong reasons. And even when he tries to make good, it all goes wrong again.
It's only through the strength of love, maybe, that we can build the capacity to reform. And only through protecting that love, maybe, that the passion and power is great enough to tear ourselves back apart at the seams.
7. Serpentine Cycle of Money
This song is about an evolving and circular relationship with money . . . from its elusive allure, to its lavish excess, to its aristocratic boredom, to its despondent worthlessness, to the grand realization at the end that there is much power and potential in money to be a prime driver for good. In the end, money is as valuable as its first shiny glimpses would make it appear, but only if its used in a way that expresses our community values.
8. Oh Bally Ho
I don't honestly know what this song's about. And I'm pretty sure the main character doesn't either. But we both seem clear that we've gotta keep chugging ahead anyway.
9. Accidentally Daisies
You try and buy a girl some roses, only to find out you bought daisies by mistake, only to find out that she loves daisies more than anything. Lucky you.
10. The Night's Beginning to Shine
I've always been a great lover of that time between last night and tomorrow. That's when all the magic in life seems to reveal itself. This song is a raised glass at the strike of limbo.
The Studio and Producer:
The album was recorded in the summer of 2008 at Congress House Studio in Austin, TX . . . a venerable institution at the southern outskirts of town. The album was co-produced and engineered by Mark Hallman, who has worked with the likes of Carole King, Eliza Gilkyson, Ani DiFranco, Tom Russell and many many others. Part kook, part drill sargent, Mark gracefully managed the dance between letting the songs themselves guide the production decisions, and asserting ourselves as directors and taking control of the songs and guiding them in a way they might not've known they wanted to go. It's a tribute to Mark that the inherantly stilted process of grinding down songs to make them fit onto a platter somehow ended up feeling like a perfectly natural and organic process.
Mr Mark Hallman
Also, of essential assistance were assistant engineers Ned Stewart and Andre Moran who lent their golden ears and infinite patience and emotional support to the recording, always in ninja-like transparency.
Some of Austin's finest musician contributed their considerable talents to this project, including:
Mark Hallman - drums, bass, mandolin, steel guitar, harmonies
Joia Wood - vocal harmonies
Carrie Elkin - vocal harmonies
Elana James - violin
Eleanor Whitmore - violin
George Carver - harmonica
Damien Llanes - drums
Brian Standefer - cello
Kevin Flatt - trumpet
Oliver Steck - accordion
Mark Williams - stand up bass
The Cover Art:
The cover art for this album is the work of brilliant surrealist painter, Jacek Yerka, who works (when the weather is warm) under the shade of an "an old and mysterious apple tree" in a rural enclave in his native Poland. I came across his work during the search for cover art for the last album . . . and fell in love. I think this particular piece, The Piano, suits the theme and tone of the album perfectly. Please do yourself a favor and explore more of his magical work:
Mr Jacek Yerka