Later Les

"The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear."

-U2

Les Paul, the inventor of the solid body electric guitar and a pioneer in the field of multi-track recording, passed away today at the ripe old age of 94 surrounded by friends and family with a life that took risks, defied the status quo, and changed everything.

That's a good life. 

What captured my attention the most in reading the Associated Press article on his life was his quote about his first invention, "The Log," a four-by-four piece of wood strung with steel strings that he debuted in 1941. Paul stated, "I went into a nightclub and played it. Of course, everybody had me labeled as a nut."

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Conversant Podcast: Missional Living with Shane Claiborne

Conversant sits down with author and culture maker, Shane Claiborne, and talks missional living, circus theology, and virtual community. For more information on Shane visit thesimpleway.org.


Q+A with Greg Laswell

Greg Laswell is a three-dimensional artist. While culture continues to crank out American idols, Laswell’s art takes a more hand-drawn approach.  Contributing everything on his albums from guitars and drums to banjos, pianos, and harmonies, Laswell plays both performer and producer with the ability to amble that fine line between indie novelty and pop sensibility (you know, the kind that makes prime time television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill love guys like him). Greg’s passion for fostering the unique, the different, and the risky as well as his battle with loss and hope come out in our conversation en route to his next gig, his GPS interrupting every so often.

You’re a big fan of the banjo, which seems to appear on almost every song on Three Flights from Alto Nido.  What’s the story behind the affection?

There’s not a lot of banjo in pop music, but I like the banjo a lot so I put it in there anyway. When I was recording in the studio the first song that I added the banjo to was “It Comes and Goes in Waves,” and I liked it so much that I think there’s only three or four songs on Three Flights From Alto Nido that don’t have banjo on it, because I went back and put some on almost all of them. That one banjo lick on the chorus of “That it Moves” used to belong to an acoustic guitar that I recorded it with. I replaced that track with a banjo and it gave it a little more life. It didn’t really fight the track like the acoustic guitar did so I kept in.

There seems to be this profuse longing for something woven throughout your songwriting, almost as if you’re recovering from something or someone. What’s the soul behind your songs?


I’m just acknowledging loss, recovering from it, and also at the same time trying to find hope.  That’s pretty much the theme of Three Flights.  “Comes and Goes in Waves” is pretty much the center of the album, and all the other songs branch from that song.

So through brokenness there’s this element of restoration.

Yeah, it’s like a break up record but some songs don’t have anything to do with that at all. “How the Day Sounds” is actually a happy song.  “Days Go On” is a happy song too if you listen to the verses. If you listen to the chorus it sounds like a sad song but that’s actually a happy song about a surprise…but, yeah, the rest of them are based on breakups.

“Comes and Goes in Waves” is one of those hopeful songs that sounds you’re writing a letter to someone. Who’s it for?

I’m writing it to all my friends and family who all had a really difficult year in 2007 for some strange reason. I kind of wanted to write a song to them to let them know it’s going to be ok.

Speaking of friends, I hear you’re pretty good buddies with actor, Dominic Monaghan, who starred in Lost, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and X-Men: Wolverine. How did you two meet? Was it a bro-mance at first site?

[laughs] He’s a really dear friend of mine.  We met a couple of years ago when he gave me a shout-out in Entertainment Weekly where he said one of his favorite artists was Greg Laswell. I sent him a thank you note through my label and then he got my contact info and just called me one day and was like, “Sorry man, I don’t normally do this, but would you want to grab a beer sometime?” We became friends instantly.

When you’re not performing you’re producing other artists. You just finished producing Molly Jenson’s debut album, Give it Time. How did you hook up with her?


I met Molly years and years ago. We went to college together for about a year. I was writing a bunch of songs I couldn’t really do anything with, so I ended up throwing them out because they were a little too “pop” for anything I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to write with someone to get these songs out of my system, so I called Molly out of the blue, because I remembered she was a really great singer and asked her if she wanted to make a record. She had been trying to find someone to write with and had already started with a few different people that really didn’t pan out. We met a few weeks after and wrote a song together the very first day and recorded it. From then on out we kept writing and recording and ended up with this great record now. She really allowed me to tap into this unexplored female-singer side of songwriting.

So it just clicked with Molly.

Yeah, it’s effortless. We have the same taste in music. We’re both working for the same thing. There are a lot of things she thinks of that I couldn’t think of on my own. She also doesn’t really have an ego in the studio. A lot of people do.

Any plans to produce more artists in the future?

I’m going to be working with Ingrid Michaelson this summer. She just finished up her record already, but we’re going to start on some new stuff.

What do you look for when considering artists to produce?

They just have to click into my strengths style-wise. If I like an artist and I think I can do something good by them I’ll always produce as long as I can.

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Just Messin' Around: An Interview with Fiction Family

Fiction Family, the culmination of two of our generation’s most prolific and respected songwriters, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, debuted in January as a masterful collection of tales about murder, adventure, lost love, and war highlighting each contributor’s strengths and personalities while managing to defy perceived expectations. The best news? It’s only the beginning.

There’s a beautiful carelessness to what is now Fiction Family (originally named “The Real SeanJon” with a goal of being sued by Puffy) – a creative endeavor birthed out of rest, friendship, and unabashed innovation. With no immediate deadlines, rules, or formats to follow, Foreman and Watkins decided to embark on a musical journey of the purist, most unadulterated kind.

“We just started writing stuff we wanted to write about,” says Watkins from the porch of his San Diego home. “It was never going to be a record either. There were a lot of conversations that never happened. All that happened was having fun playing music and writing songs.”

“One of the endearing things about this record is that because we were doing it in our bedrooms, we were literally just screwing around,” adds Foreman. “I mixed the whole thing at my folks’ house in a couple of days just to get it done and shop it around to people. Those mixes ended up being the record. The demo became the final thing. I like to think that added a little bit to the charm. “

The result is a perfect union: two notable songwriters strapping each other’s strengths to their own songwriting utility belt, each coming out of the process even more equipped then they were before.

“One of the things I love about bluegrass music and where it’s coming from is the simplicity,” says Jon like an eager new student of the genre. “[Bluegrass] makes every note count. I think that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to learn more and more…trying to say one thing well. I’m captivated by the way melodies intertwine, and many times I end up trying to say too many things melodically. Sean is really good at pressing the mute button. It was a really freeing thing to have him there playing the producer role saying things like ‘yeah, that’s kind of endearing but it’s not needed.’”

Watkins feels equally appreciative: “A lot of times I’d bring [Jon] a verse and chorus of something and he’d say ‘that’s really cool but can we make this part bigger?’ or ‘Can there be a change in the middle that really departs from where you were?’ Those are things I think about now when I write songs. That’s the good part about working with someone. You get to collect pieces of who they are musically. You get to pick and choose what you want to add to your collection of songwriting tools.”


There’s an idea that the farther one departs from the traditional pop format, the less tangible their work becomes to the average listener. Not so with Fiction Family. Wildly inventive and spontaneous, the two recording artists who once enjoyed the luxury of major record labels now stand in victorious defiance against a crumbling conventional music industry. “This year has marked our first year of our independence from Sony,” explains Foreman speaking of Switchfoot’s long time relationship with the label. “It was the chance to let loose some projects that have been bottled up for a long time.”

An outpouring of that pent-up creativity, Fiction Family reflects a strong sense of musical maturity from both its contributors.  It’s the stories and raw emotion embedded into that music, however, that give the project a sense of profound timelessness. “At the end of any given record you’re left with the question of whether you believe it or not,” says Foreman. “Part of what you’re investing in that question is whether or not that singer/songwriter is putting a piece of him on the line. Voices like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan do that. Whether they’re singing their own song or someone else’s, you can hear a piece of them when they’re singing it. It’s a matter of vulnerability. That’s something I try to put into all my songs … which is kind of nerve-racking sometimes.”


Part of that vulnerability means wrestling with the deep spiritual complexities of human nature, familiar territory for both the Switchfoot and Nickel Creek members. On “Closer Than You Think,” a track from their album debut, Watkins muses over the widely held notion of heaven as a distant and out of reach destination, suggesting it may be “right under your feet.”


Watkins explains, “I felt like there are a whole lot of people putting all their eggs into a basket of after-lives while completely overlooking what we’ve been given today. I’ve seen so many people sell this life short of possibilities saying ‘man, someday it’s going to be great, but it’s just going to suck until then’ and that’s not the attitude we’re supposed to have. That isn’t to say the concept of heaven isn’t an amazing thing and shouldn’t be kept as a paramount in our mind, but we’ve also been put on this earth to do something, to live in the here and now.”

Along with focusing on “the here and now” Fiction Family is looking forward to the future. So what’s next for the duo? What once began as two friends jamming over coffee on their days off is now considered by both an adventure too fun to stop.

“We had a blast on this tour with Aaron Redfield playing the drums and Tyler Chester playing the bass,” says Jon. “It felt like a really natural fit. I’d love to make a record as a four piece.”

Watkins agrees, “We’ve been working on some new songs on this last tour and have a list we think would be good for the next record. During the course of this tour we really started feeling like a band so when we record we’ll record it more like that.”


With Nickel Creek on indefinite hiatus and Switchfoot adjusting to life apart from a major label, the continuation of Fiction Family sounds like an excellent way for these two songwriters to experiment, explore, and continue to learn from each other. In the meantime we’ll be anxiously awaiting the results.

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An Interview with M. Ward

For some people life is best understood through metaphors, through stories from the past or visions of things the world has yet to see. M. Ward seems to communicate best this way. The accomplished auteur-songwriter emits a laid-back passion for creating space, pockets to reflect on truths he believes posses timeless qualities. M. invites his listeners inside his mellow creative mind and asks them to linger while his tranquil acoustic conceptions play warmly in the background as if methodically pulling against the needle of a record player—his newest release, Hold Time, is no exception.


“For me,” Ward says, “I wanted to take the big sounds of the record and make them larger and the subtle sounds subtler to see if I could put them in the same song, the same record, to create a new balance. I learned a lot on making the Post War record and learned even more making this one.”

M. Ward and his suitcase full of Americana licks and tricks travel light with a simple endeavor: to create songs that last. At the core of every serious songwriter is the desire to impart anthems of a timeless quality, works of art that stand on their own and beg the question, “When were these created?” Many of these artists point to the wax libraries they grew up with, vinyl contributions that still communicate powerfully amidst the noise of modern culture.

“I think my biggest inspiration is old records,” affirms M. “What’s ingested is always going to come out in some way. I’ve been lucky to grow up in this big family where there was a lot of music going on.”

M. Ward might be considered a leader in “the timeless campaign” with a body of work that most recently includes the critically acclaimed 50’s soul-pop collaboration with Zooey Deschanel, She & Him (which M. reveals is “currently in the demo stages of Volume 2”) as well as a knack for blending the new with the old.  Ward reflects, “A lot of my favorite records… you’re not sure exactly what time they were made or how old these ideas are and I think that’s a good goal for me.”

His latest installment, Hold Time, merges some of the biggest sounds ever heard from M. alongside some of the subtlest as well, oftentimes juxtaposed against each other within the same song. “The background is just as important as the foreground,” says Ward. “I spend a lot of time creating both elements in the studio.”

Perhaps it’s his deep affection for crafting timeless standards that causes M. to often saturate his songs with biblical themes and motifs that have long since accompanied traditional folk music throughout history.  When Ward posted the lyrics to “Hold Time” on his Myspace blog, a debate between fans ensued as to whether his rich use of spiritual metaphor and story was oppressive or liberating.  

One fan complained, “I love the tunes. But am I the only long-time, every-album M. Ward fan who's finding all the biblical/Christian references in the lyrics on this one to be...oppressive?”  

Another retorted, “Oppressive?! To me biblical themes have always been deeply rooted in American music. They make M. Ward’s songs even more timeless. I love how [he] is not afraid to sing what he feels. Am I the only agnostic every-album fan who finds his lyrics liberating?!”


It’s a viable discussion. Hold Time imparts lyrics like:

He Put His Name in my Chorus like the Dark before the Dawn
So that in my Hour of Weakness: I'd Remember It’s His Song

and

He Shifts in His Sleep and the Earth Begins to Quake
So How Much Difference Could it Possibly Make
To Save Me from sinking over the edge?


Ward joins a list of growing indie personas (My Morning Jacket comes to mind) that seem to enjoy seeping blatant theological themes into their albums while publicly smirking them off leaving them up to interpretation. Tracks off the new album like “To Save Me” and “Fisher of Men” possess strong attributes of the Christian God while the teachings of both Jesus and St. Paul are referenced in “Epistemology” and “For Beginners.”

While his lyrics are far from ambiguous, his commentary on them is. Like his contemporaries, Ward is cleverly quiet when asked to discuss some of his choices. Trying to explain his desire as a lyricist, he offers, “A good song is like a good movie or a book; times when you laugh; times when you cry; shadows in the light. A durable song for me has a long life; it somehow speaks to people’s lives. People’s lives aren’t all happy all the time and they aren’t all bad all the time. They’re both. I think that’s how my life is.”

A brilliant storyteller, thoughtful producer, and laudable guitarist with a warm crooner voice made that much more interesting by the mystical truths that accompany it at times, M. Ward has undoubtedly left  a one-of-a-kind footprint on the music industry. With  seven albums under his belt, not to mention several noteworthy collaborations, M. Ward continues to show off his creativity and ingenuity for throwing sounds and stories from different eras into the atmosphere, somehow stringing them together to deliver songs that are both unique and tangible, nostalgic yet timely.

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The Best Christian Album Art...Ever

Believe it or not, I do get paid to do my job here at Conversant. And I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't share the following with you. If you're a follower of Christ, it's your duty to know you too have the right to get down and funky with the Lord, as long as it's "Christian Music" like some of these real albums that follow: 

 

I want this suit. 

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Kings: It's Not the Message. It's The Medium

 Last Friday I wrote a review on my new favorite show, Kings, based on the life of King David in modern times. Less than a week later NBC decided to pull the plug after airing just 4 episodes.

According to The Live Feed, the choice was pretty ironic: 

NBC's Kings episode was seen by 3.6 million viewers and received a 1.1 rating among adults 18-49. Yet Dateline had a 1.5 rating in its half hour leading into Kings. NBC suspects an expanded Dateline will provide a better lead-in for 9 p.m.'s Celebrity Apprentice, which has seen some audience erosion in recent weeks that might be attributed to Kings...

...Incidentally, over on iTunes, the most-recent episode of Kings currently ranks as the most-downloaded TV show. 

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A Response to Idol Chatter

So apparently there's been a lot of hype over this MTV American Idol & Christianity story...so much that MTV posted a follow up article. Here's a clip:

Over at MJsBigBlog.com, one of the leading "Idol" fan sites, the discussion about the story was fierce, with nearly 150 responses. Commenter Tess said she was "appalled and offended" by the article. Tess had particular scorn for a comment from writer CJ Casciotta, who was quoted in the story as saying he thought some Christian viewers might go with their faith if presented with a top two featuring a pair of equally talented singers in which one was Christian and the other was not.

"If I wasn't a sane, God-loving individual, I would not vote for any of the listed contestants (Danny, Michael, Kris, Scott, Matt and Lil) just out of pure spite," Jess wrote. "I knew the country was going to be divided on this issue, but for the Christian right to pronounce that they support an us-vs.-them philosophy is absolutely outrageous."

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MTV Interview: The Church & American Idol

A while back I wrote a blog called American Idol: Good for TV, Bad for Church which came to the attention of MTV Senior Writer, Gil Kauffman. Gil wanted to know why so many Christians were not only tuning into "Idol" this year, but also performing on the show. He took a couple of quotes from our conversation and put them into his story for MTV.com. Here's an excerpt:

Just as this season kicked off, freelance writer CJ Casciotta penned an essay for faith site ConversantLife.com titled "American Idol — Good for TV. Bad for Church," in which he questioned whether the show's shunning of the "awkward, the socially inept, the ugly, the difficult" during the often cruel early rounds shouldn't be a call to action for the rest of us to embrace those whose lives are a struggle.

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