I’ve always had trouble describing myself and my work to others. My friend Martin says things like “Hey Alan, why does your work always have to be hard? Like…you really like making your readers work!” He’s responding to my first book of poems and, perhaps, a framed original poem I gave him for his wedding years ago. A cryptic little piece on connectivity and rocks. I guess I am “hard,” but not hard in a way that, say, the great and mischievious contemporary poet John Ashbery is hard. Or even Emily Dickinson. I want to connect. I swear I do. And perhaps that’s what my music is for.
I used to be in a rock and roll band. Alternative rock. This was before indie rock nomenclature. 90s. We grew up in the wake of U2 and REM and The Cure. We called ourselves Surreal and eventually morphed into something too hippie for the indie rockers and too indie for the hippies. We wanted to explore for sure and help our listener see, as abstractionist Arshile Gorky describes, “with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes.” Mostly we wrote songs though. And these songs began to get influenced by aesthetic movements we came across as we grew up. Jam bands. Free jazz. Garage rock and punk. All of it. Eventually most of the Surreal boys established families and new responsibilities and the band sort of broke up.
I never stopped playing. Through teaching everyday (public school, 17+ years) and writing poems and essays and articles. Through sleepless nights and packed weekends. Through touring and recording and grading papers and meeting deadlines and relationships and family. I never stopped making music and sharing it with the universe in a way that I thought was sensible and right and true. Who knows if it is right and true. I read somewhere that this punk rocker once said not having to rely on your art for your sole source of money frees you up to make the best work you can make…the riskiest stuff. I think about that idea all the time.
I made four albums on my own after those early days of doing it with a band. The first is called Hero City and is a collection of weirdly experimental tracks recorded here and there – some live and some in strange places (the Walt Whitman Birthplace, where I was caretaker for a while, is one). I made 100 copies and sold them at shows. That CD is basically out of print. The next two (When There Was Something Wrong with You in 2005 and The Big Beauty in 2009) I self-released and made with the help of truly amazing musicians and friends whom I call family. The most recent album, Quiet Songs for Loud Times, I brought into the world with the help of a record label, Asheville’s NewSong Recordings. While I’ve explored partnerships in the literary world, it’s my first such partnership in the music realm. It feels right because the folks there have lots of integrity and a cool roster of artists on board. We’ll see how it grows.
2013 was, I guess, a quietly lovely year. The music quietly slipped onto playlists (thank you to a very conscientious radio promotion person) and into the ears of wonderful friends and fans. I toured quietly some more around the Northeast in the summer and established a great relationship with New York City’s exemplary sound cathedral Rockwood Music Hall. Some great gigs and moments spent there. Things hummed. I like when things hum. There’s a presence of life, evidence of energy. I can’t think of a better response to the loud booms of the machine called the industry than that. I’m blessed.
“There are all different kinds of ‘loud times.’ Over the past three years of writing, performing, and recording these songs, I found that the external vibrations in the world – the economic hardships of the country and the occupy movement, for instance – mirror what’s going on inside for so many of us, our interpersonal relationships and coming to grips with our own mortality…and vice versa. These songs are a response to those vibrations.”