More than Mirroring

As I was working in office today, Spotify popped up an ad for a new Alabama tribute album. I listened to the bits of the songs, but all they really did was make me want to listen to Alabama (which I did). For me, Alabama reminds of me of riding with my older sister. She took me to my first concert: Alabama at UA Barnhill Arena. Listening to the songs not many hold up to me. You can hear that slick 80s Nashville production, but one song still holds great sway over me, “My Home’s in Alabama.” Jamey Johnson’s version puts gritter take on a song that was already more subdued than other songs on Alabama’s albums. 

Yet why is it so hard to cover a song? Is it that the original artist  has such a hold on the song? 

I then listened to High Cotton, another tribute album of Alabama coming out next week. The artist are less mainstream but seem to embody what a cover needs to be: more inspiration than mirroring. Jason Isbell and Lucero, like Johnson, tend their own tendencies to the song. The artist on the other album seems to mirroring the tone of the originals than being inspired to make their own version. Austin Kleon wrote that it is impossible to perfecting copy another’s work. But it is possible to be too close in range that it feels flat.


Grab a Shovel and Start Digging

If you were ask someone how they were doing, you would probably get the response of “busy”. Everyone is busy these days. “Busy” has become the new “fine”. Laura Vanderkam in her piece in Fast Company says that “our sense of self-worth [comes] from being in high demand.” We want to feel wanted. so much so, that we fill up our schedule or keep busy “doing things.” Vanderkam points out that power is “not about having a million things to do. Everyone has a million things to do. The ultimate sign of success is having a million things to do but only doing a few of them.”

One of many effects of this “busyness” is the value of completing tasks, or what Cal Newton calls task productivity. What is left behind is value productivity, “the ability to consistently produce highly-skilled, highly-valued output”.  Newton points to Woody Allen in his article, but it made me think of my own life. I work in education, particularly writing. We as educators want to cover so much as possible because our students know so little and need to be caught up. (Oh how we love this battle cry). In fact today in class, I flew through a lesson telling them that we would hit it deeper later. What if I promised them that we would only learn four things this whole semester, and in that promise, they would masters of those skills? Or as Newton noted, to be able to reproduce consistently at a high level.

Now we get to the “how?” which is the really hard part. We have been trained to go fast and shallow. Motion keeps the bored look off their faces. We think that we must choose between deep and wide, but this is a lie.  Mike Rose, an educator once said, “If you go deep enough, you go wide.” If I teach my students four skills at master level, then I have taught them how to be writers more than fifty essays could do.

If you want to change the world, don’t grab a megaphone and shout. Grab five people who believe in you and go deep. Invest in them. Teach them what you know.

I am as guilty as anyone. I want to stop and grab a shovel and start digging.

Right the First Time

On a recent All Songs Considered podcast, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, members of the band Nirvana, discussed the making of their final studio album In Utero. One thing that stuck out was how producer Steve Albini would usually use only one take of the song. This is not to say that the album was a jam session. Nirvana was practicing extensively, and some of the songs dated back five years. Albini himself had a method of recording that included precise microphone placements and glass enclosures to capture sound effectively. Grohl and Novoselic mentioned how emotional it was listening to the tracks in preparation of the remastered album for the 20th anniversary. Drummer Grohl said that it sounded like a real band making real mistakes. In a sense, the album was not technically perfect, but achieved a perfection of the moment. 

In a separate podcast, Bob Boilen mentioned that Radiohead’s first song in recording OK Computer was “No Surprises.” In fact, it was the first take of the song that they used. Thom Yorke said that all subsequent recordings sounded like they were a cover band of themselves. 

Both these stories show that we need trust our practice and our guts. There is a need for revision and restructuring, but there is also room for greatness to sit along side imperfection. 

Where can you find an instance where your first try had “magic” in it?