(Photo credit: Kathrin Baumbach)
I recently had a very frank email exchange with a friend of mine who reviews music. “I am bored shitless of singer-songwriters,” they said. It was the most triumphant and illuminating sentence I have read in quite a while, and I endeavor to read as much as I possibly can (top tip* try Jelinek’s ‘The Piano Teacher’ or Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett). It is, however, a difficult title to break from when you stand on stage with an acoustic guitar.
I am well aware of the irony here, I cannot stand with a mouthful of cake while giving out about people’s greed. It is an age-old desire to want to box something into a familiar place that has a name – it looks red, it must be red – it barks, it has a wagging tail, it’s a dog. However, it can be exhausting and even suffocating to be defined by a genre, especially one that is notoriously attached to so much fragility.
For millennia, the male singer-songwriter has sat aloft his throne of heartache and misery, carved and whittled down through the years that began with something much more romantic – the roving troubadour singing to fair maidens. The guy who has had his heart broken (likely self-inflicted as a result of an inflated ego) rolls in with three verses and a chorus about those sweet lonely times. And believe me, I have been this soldier, plowing through fields of woe and torment for the sake of a killer hook line or at least a playlist placement. What kills me about this genre title is that it was once robust with political bite, voices that spoke for generations and movements!
Granted, these can also slip and slide into other genres like folk, soul, RnB, and psychedelia, but it does not excuse the stereotype that currently paints the singer-songwriter – emotional, deep, fragile, heartfelt… the list goes on, but what are they actually saying? Surely people aren’t that one dimensional? If you had a friend who was solely emotional or deep around the clock, you would not have this friend for long; this person is not real. We forgo the rest of the character for the sake of meeting the stereotype and ultimately coming off bland as fuck as a result. For all of the wonderful moments that happen in this genre, and the linguistic craft that it takes to form these acoustic tales, I still want to push my head into a pit of tar when I see a singer-songwriter with eyes closed, hugging his trusty wooden companion like it hurts (potentially with a sun setting in the distance). I see little of the actual person.
Phoebe Bridgers is a wonderful example of how to evade the stereotype because she actually has fun with her imagery – Lewis Capaldi is another fine example. As someone who has spent years trying to find a direction as well as the bravery to actually not give a fuck about showing some other sides of my personality, I wish I could punt-kick the sad guy with the guitar pose to one side. I exist in the world of the singer-songwriter, whether I like it or not. However, I refuse to have a lobotomy and come out the other side in a plaid onesie, walking in slow motion through a field of barley. The most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s actually ok to have fun within this genre, that it’s freeing in many ways, and that singer-songwriters can be smarter/funny/loud/dickheads/happy too.
“I know this seems self-centered but I am, so I don’t care…”
The narrative of the deeply honest songwriter is a road strewn with misconceptions. After accruing over 100 million Spotify streams over his last three album releases, award-winning artist (Northern Ireland Music Prize for his 2016 album ‘Let Bad In’) Ciaran Lavery returns with a new Double A-side. Lavery intends to alter this thought and express more of his full personality in these two songs, from the self-deprecating dry humor to the hopeful and god fearing. Citing John Grant, Anne Sexton and Bojack Horseman as references, this Double A-side “is an insight into the current path I am on, giving myself the freedom to be the schmuck/the asshole/the clown/the butt of the joke, without throwing my own heart or someone else’s under the bus for the sake of honest writing. I found myself at odds with the person I was described as, felt the suit of this character was becoming much too tight in all the wrong areas.”