From “funk band” (ugh) to “singer/songwriter”, and how that says more about perception than anything I actually do.
In his essay on ‘Thunder Road’, Nick Hornby wrote that Bruce Springsteen “went from being rock ‘n’ roll future to a lumpy, flag-waving, stadium-rocking meathead in the space of a few months… with nothing much having changed” at Springsteen’s end, artistically.
Nick Hornby concluded the essay by saying that “sometimes it’s hard to remember that a lot of people liking what you do doesn’t necessarily mean that what you do is of no value whatsoever. Indeed, sometimes it might even suggest the opposite.”
I always considered myself a singer/songwriter, albeit one who builds songs from the beat upwards, rather than from the melody downwards. And while my music is, overall, exploring the Soul music tradition (and hopefully beyond), from day-to-day I’m actually more inspired by artists whose work fits into genres outside my own. I’ve reached out to artists from other genres, to play shows together, or collaborate, or just to keep in touch – and, more often than not, been met with the response: “Oh, you play funk, right?”
I’m going to state for the record: I hate when my music is categorised as “funk”. I hate it artistically, and I hate it culturally.
To me, “funk” is not a genre. It’s a style, an approach, a mere ingredient that can make music, or its message, far more potent. The most enduring music which incorporated funk did just that – incorporated it, used it as a vessel for a bigger message beyond “shake yo ass”. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was funky, but it wasn’t funk; it wouldn’t still resonate if its only mission was to get you to move. Curtis Mayfield used straight-up funk as a vehicle for cultural commentary; a tradition carried on in the hip-hop that sampled him and James Brown, from Grandmaster Flash to Public Enemy to NWA and beyond. As a listener, funk for funk’s sake bores me, especially when so much more can be, and has been, done with it.
Outside the circles of the devoted, “Funk” is a four-letter word. This is especially problematic when the devoted refuse to move forward with the times, and the rest of the world assumes that the genre is limited, dated, and that everything that can be said has already been said in the genre. It’s a vicious circle. To be fair, the majority of R&B or whatever today is shit – but then, the same goes for rock: the outstanding acts are, by definition, the minority; yet does this mean we dismiss the entire genre? Ultimately, in Australia at least, the “funk” label is applied reductively, and dismissively. And you cannot reach the ears of the unconverted in that territory unless the music is played with “irony”.
I’ve fought against this attitude with hipsters, tastemakers, and mass media gatekeepers in Australia, to limited success. And they’re not even the people I want to win over – it’s the unconverted listener I want to reach. Listeners are capable of embracing and understanding so much more than their vendors believe – but even that in itself isn’t the problem. It’s when listeners, and in particular artists, begin thinking as narrow-mindedly as their vendors, that we’re all in trouble. Even within my own circles, my “funk is not a genre” argument is met with resistance: I see funk (or groove, or whatever you want to call it) as a means to an end; others see “the funk” as “the end”.
And so it was amazing to me that, after years of being told “Oh, you play…”, just when I had started to believe that all I do is “funk” (not “Soul”, a word not many people seem to know – it doesn’t appear in the list of available genres on things like Myspace, for example; and the genre is all but completely unrepresented at Australian music industry showcases and international conferences), I began being invited to perform solo.
And it is amazing, considering that most folks wouldn’t think of “funk” music as “songs”, much less that, if you stripped “funk” of drums, bass and instrumental breaks, that there’d be anything left to call a “song” after that.
August 2009 was even more of a watershed month for me than my solo tour with Tori Amos three months later, which took this validation to a much bigger, national level. Here I was, through no change in anything I was doing, suddenly being treated as a singer/songwriter; the attitude that the same music I’d been playing for years was now suitable to be performed to an audience, not just at a party, appeared suddenly and through no change in anything I was doing. The idea that there might be some value, some substance, being such a hard-won victory is, I think, the exact opposite of what the past masters were working so hard for.
Perhaps that’s the limitation of trying to push this music in Australia. And now I’m on the other side of the world, trying to find out if that’s true – starting out here solo, playing singer/songwriter shows by default, where already I get the feeling that this music has an entirely different value than back home. I’ll keep you posted…