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Essays


A Deeper Dive into the Story of Albatross

Another essay written for the release of my 4th record, best enjoyed after listening to the album (and only by those hungry for more gritty details).

 

It’s 2014, and I am almost 33 years old, and I am patently aware that the voice of my generation is sarcastic, detached, and cynical.  It’s the voice of a person that is “over it.”  This is the only acceptable way to be, lest ye be ridiculed. 

I am not the voice of my generation.

I still believe in the power of earnest art.  I have never had anything to offer except sincerity.  I can’t really play the guitar, and my piano playing makes my guitar-skills look impressive.  I was born with a likeable voice, and I’ve worked hard – in my way – to maximize its capabilities.  But I will never be mistaken for a truly talented singer.  These truths do not bother me.  In the words of the great spinach-eating brawler and creole food enthusiast, “I am what I am.”  It is my very lack of polished musician-skills that have no doubt led me to embrace “sincerity” as the thing I have to offer the world.

I also (probably) take myself too seriously. If you’re a singer and songwriter, it’s common to take yourself too seriously. If you’ve ever described yourself, non-ironically, as a “poet,” it’s very likely you take yourself too seriously.  If you work in academia, it’s exceedingly likely you take yourself too seriously. 

Finally, if you can’t seem to put out an album without pontificating for thousands of words about said album in the form of several essays, you are most definitely an example of someone who terribly, insufferably takes himself too seriously.

This is another disclaimer, albeit a long-winded one.  I want to go deeper on my fourth album, Albatross, which – if you’re reading this – has been released and is now available HERE for whatever dollar amount you’d like to give.  This extended narrative is really for those who have listened to the record already, and perhaps want to know more.  If you like your art to be nebulous, you should probably stop now and read something else. For those of you who have listened to the record and won’t be swayed from your fact-finding mission, allow me to continue.

So – as I was saying about being sincere, even if it means taking oneself too seriously…I want to tell you about the background of Albatross and I want to do it in the most sincere way possible. I want to tell the truth, in my voice, and to do so without being concerned with how silly I might sound: Because this is 2014, and we’re over everything, and I take myself way too seriously anyway.

Nevertheless, I want to tell you more about how Albatross probably saved my life, at least in the sense that it bought me some time until things turned around.

In 2006, 2007, and 2008 I enjoyed one of the most fruitful times in my creative life.  I wrote more songs, more quickly, and of a higher quality than I ever had before. These songs would appear on my first three albums, Welcome to the Danger Show, Beneath a Balcony and Anthems.  Because it took until 2009 and 2012 for those last two albums to come out, there appeared a misleading representation of my production as a songwriter.  The fact is: I stopped writing songs in 2008.

This happened naturally, in the sense that it wasn’t deliberate.  It could be argued that I was too focused on playing shows and recording the songs I had - and fighting for those songs to be released - to even think about writing more songs.

It could also be argued that my life was going down the tubes, and maybe that had something to do with it.

People have poked fun at me over the years – jokingly insinuating that I courted misery as a means to be inspired.  Every songwriter/poet/artist has probably been accused of this at some point in their life by a clueless acquaintance.  The truth is – while a little emotional up and down is good for business, true misery is not.  In my experience, depression is debilitating.  It doesn’t make you want to get up and sing, it makes you want to run and hide. Or, in less dramatic terms, it makes you want to stay in bed, to put your head in the sand, to stay buried.

Some bad things happened to me in the latter half of 2008.  I officially ran out of money. I sold most of my possessions to make rent on my “what was I thinking” rental house in the hills above Laurel Canyon.  My relationship – tempestuous at best and something truly horrific at worst – had been thrust into different territory when we became unexpectedly…well, expecting.  But knowing you’re bringing a child into the world has an amazing effect on two people, and despite our troubles we banded together and enthusiastically stepped into the role of parents-to-be.  I even bought a ring.

And then we lost the baby.

I have never talked about this experience publicly, which is to say I have answered questions honestly when asked, but otherwise avoided the conversation.  I don’t believe in fishing for sympathy or drawing attention to matters that personal and that private – except wrapped in the translucent armor of poems and songs.  I bring up the experience now, because it was over five years ago, and my life was changed, and I cannot examine my history ever again without fixating on this event.  It was crushing, and I thought my life was over.

Relationships, in situations like this, tend to get stronger or fall apart completely.  In this case, my fiancée and I seemed to initially bond, but I think we’d both agree now that our decision to get married already seemed like a bad idea six months before we actually went through with it.  But we did go through with it.  And a month later, we were pregnant again.

We had lost the first at about 12 weeks. We lost the second at 10.

Though we wouldn’t actually split up for several months, that was pretty much the end of my first marriage.

In the spring of 2010, my world was fracturing in a number of ways.  My family, once concentrated in California, was now more scattered than they had been in years.  My career prospects – and the assets of a record label, a dedicated manager, and a high-powered booking agent – all were unraveling down to nothing.  My label more or less went out of business.  My agent went from barely talking to me not talking to me at all.  My manager had to leave me behind to focus on his clients showing promise, as opposed to me, who was showing nothing.

I was quickly all alone, penniless, and letting go of every major dream I’d had for my entire life.  I was not going to be a successful musician.  I was not going to dwell contentedly by the beach in California. I was not going to live happily ever after with a wife and family.  These things happened to some people, but they were not – despite earlier signs to the contrary – going to happen to me.

And so, I decided to give up.

Giving up means different things to different people. A whole host of personal and historical factors go into what a person does when a person decides that nothing matters anymore.  Some would no doubt off themselves on the spot.  Some would load up on drugs and booze and have the binge of a lifetime.  Some find religion?  I’m not even sure. 

For me, giving up meant going out in my own stylized blaze of glory.  I would get in my car and I would drive.  I’d play shows and optimistically call it a “tour.”  But there would be no destination really, and no real purpose, except to go out doing what I always wanted to do.  As I sold, tossed, or gave away 90% of my possessions, moved out of my apartment, and planned my routes, the last true purpose finally revealed itself.

I would write a record about it all.

Who knew what the road would bring?  Adventure, excitement, despair, romance? None of the above? All of the above?  I had no idea.  But I knew I had one more record in me, just one more document to say I was here. This was me.  This is what I gave it all up for and worked so hard for. This was my life. I made music, I wrote poetry, I sang my songs in smoky rooms for strangers. For pennies. This is the end of the road for all the decisions I made.

And then I set out.  There were good times and very bad times.  There was a lot of worry and uncertainty.  I made some money, I spent some money, and I just kept going.  There were plenty of times when I had to ask myself what in the world I was doing.  So many nights the whole dance seemed absurd: sleeping on the floors of friends I hadn’t seen in years, people with real lives, and wives and jobs and children. Making my nightly appeal to the half-empty bar from the microphone on stage: So, I’m homeless and traveling.  If anyone would like to buy a CD, or take me home tonight, or fight me in the parking lot, just find me at that booth over there.

There was intense loneliness and tremendous beauty.  There was the next town and the next bar and the promise of the next old friend or two I might stop in on.  But hanging above it all was a small promise I’d made to myself. You can’t die yet. You have to make the record. The last one.  So I kept going, and I kept singing, and I wrote.

I wrote about what led me there.  I wrote about my divorce and about the babies that were never born, and about how my whole castle made of sand crumbled so completely and dramatically.  I wrote about my new, strange day to day life: the boredom, the fear, and the strange, small glimmers of magic when I’d meet someone intriguing and spend a night dreaming of possibility.  I wrote – or tried to write – about what it all meant.  I wrote about the journey – in every sense.

And then things changed. I found a reason to stop, to stay, and to start over.  I found a reason to stop thinking I had nothing to lose.  And just like that, this particular journey was over, and something new began.

I may not have gone out in a blaze of glory, but I did have a story to tell.  I moved to Buffalo, and then Boston, and then Oklahoma.  Along the way, I hit the studio with old friends and new.  And finally that story - the one that kept me going because in my tragi-poetic mind, it had to be told – that story was finally here, to be shared with the world.

This record, or the artistic promise of it, was all I had at a point in my life when things had really fallen down.  It has been exceedingly important to me that I finish it and release it.  At the risk of playing the high drama again – I have waited for this day for a long time.

In a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman I read a few weeks ago, journalist Alex Pappedemas reiterated something PSH said to him several years ago when talking about his role in Capote. Hoffman talked about “how there comes a time in every man’s life, around your mid-thirties, when you start to ask yourself, Have I done the great thing I was supposed to do? Am I ever going to do it?”

I like to believe that with Albatross, I have. As I’ve said in an earlier essay, for much of the process of making this record, I was convinced it would be the last one I’d ever make.  I’ve more or less reneged on that threat, but I still can’t help but think it’s the best record I’ll ever make.  Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.  The point is, as always, is the journey.

Thank you for listening.

 

Storytelling: Albatross as Concept Album

an essay on my fourth full-length record, and my first concept album (Feb. 2014)

 

I could probably write a book about Albatross.

I nearly have already.  I have been obsessed with this record from its earliest stages, ever since it was just the faintest spark of an idea. And as I have been obsessed with it, I have obsessed over it.  For me, that means writing: lists, charts, and ramblings that could generously be described as "essays."  Before 90% of the songs on the album were written, I'd already generated thousands of words of commentary on what this album would be, what it would mean, where it would fit amongst all the other work I've produced, and what it would aim to capture.

I offer these opening statements as a disclaimer. I mean to write an essay on Albatross in this space, but I can't possibly say everything I want to say. It's a difficult enough prospect to get anyone to listen to an entire record in 2014, let alone read about one. Recognizing this is the best chance I have to say anything about the record and actually be heard, I will focus on just a few of my thoughts on Albatross for now.

For nearly my entire creative career (or at least in the pseudo-mature work I've produced since 2002), I have been trying to make concept albums.  I'm not sure what the root of this compulsion is.  I'm a casual (which to say, not obsessive) fan of those famous concept albums of the 60's and 70's, by bands like Pink Floyd and The Who.  I've spent more time dissecting modern examples of this paradigm: Cursive's The Ugly Organ, for example.  Yet, I can't say this is what inspired my streak of concept album fever.

I suppose I've just always believed in the notion of the album as art form, as opposed to the song.  I appreciate records that are greater than the sum of their parts.  A group of songs, in my opinion, can achieve a different level of artistic power.  Likewise, the increasing sense that music is a disposable, value-less entity is exemplified in the "single."  99 cents. 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Quick, weightless, inconsequential.  Albums aren't that way.  They have weight and substance. They require the sort of attention we're willing to give books and films.  A concept album reminds you that its songs are part of a whole - that they're best served together, not apart.

So I've always wanted to make concept albums, and in my naivety, I think I probably believed I was making concept albums all these years.  While I trust I've been successful in making records with thematic cohesion, I can't really agree here in 2014 that the two Neon Calm releases, My Perfect Muse and One More Rocket Summer, nor my three previous solo records have truly been concept albums.  When one throws out that term, something else is implied: a sense of narrative.  That has always been the concept album's aim - to produce not just a group of songs that belong together and share common ground, but to literally tell a story, with characters and setting.  The fact is, I have never made an album like that. Until now.

It may seem odd that I've written yet another record containing true tales about myself but this time it's a concept album. Yes, virtually everything I've ever done is autobiographical. What can I say? I don't have much of an imagination.  What's different here is that I took great care to shape the songs and the album as a whole in a way that tells a single, larger story.  If you experience this record in the way that I hope, that narrative will come across, however loose that narrative is.  It's not going to be made into a rock opera any time soon with fresh-faced theater kids, but it is a concept album all the same. There is a story here, and it's my story.  A true story.

I also want to make a point of saying how significant this particular story is to me. The process of writing and recording Albatross, along with the events that inspired it, make up the most important creative experience of my entire life.  This album consumed me for nearly four years.  During some of that time (especially early on), I'm convinced that it is what kept me alive, what forced me to get up in the morning and go on, when things had really fallen apart and nearly all hope was lost.  I decided I couldn't die before I made this record. I recognize that this stubborn notion alone - my need to complete this task - was vital to my survival in a dark time. The idea of telling the story and telling it well seemed the only redemption for everything that had happened to me in those few years. I held fast to that hope: if I could make this record, I could finally put that dark time to rest.

My friend Ben De La Cour once said he couldn't even begin to think about healing the world with his music, because he was too busy trying to heal himself.  This is one of the miracles of making records. The process has healed me my whole adult life. This was never so evident as with Albatross.

I know that every artist thinks their new record is the best they've ever made.  And I fully expect some people to listen attentively to all 45 minutes, take off their headphones and say to themselves, "Eh. I like it, but I like [Danger Show / Balcony / Anthems] better." That's fine with me.  Ultimately, art is subjective. I'm happy you're bothering to listen at all.

Nevertheless, I invite you to hear the story, and to understand what it has meant, to me, to tell it.  For much of the last few years, I was convinced this would be the last record I ever made.  I think I've probably backed off that notion a bit (I enjoy making records too much), but there's a certain feeling of exhaustion here, of finality.

A man gets in his car with all his earthly possessions and sets out.  There is no destination; there is only the journey.  He thinks about his life - what it has become, and what events have led him to this point.  He allows himself to fantasize about happy endings, but he knows this trip is probably one final, bombastic act of self-destruction. But then again, no man ever really knows how his story will end.

Thank you for listening.

Marc M Cogman

Tulsa, OK

February 22, 2014

 

Rock Bands + Love Songs = Anthems

an essay upon the release of my third full-length (March 2012)

 

In the last 20 years, we’ve all lived through an age of revolution in the music business. It’s common knowledge that the industry has been changed in unfathomable ways by the internet, the MP3, the iPod, etc., and the major-label system has essentially collapsed on itself.  But meanwhile, another revolution has taken place – also involving technology, one that has to do with the cultural shift from music made by live bands in mic’d rooms to music made with the heavy use of computers.  It’s come in many forms: the emergence of rap music (and its emphasis on producers and beats), the invention of pop-stars without any actual talent (and their use of auto-tune to make themselves sound palatable), and finally, the rising movement of electronic dance-music - an explosion of popularity that has led to some of the world’s most successful musicians only being able to claim “laptop” as their musical instrument.

Whether you see this as evolution or Armageddon (and I’ll stay out of that argument) you have to recognize that it was inevitable.  It’s a sea change in the world of popular music, and it’s given us wonderful innovations that musicians of all genres can appreciate.  But it’s also turned guitar-based rock into a niche art-form, a novelty, and some would argue – a feeble attempt to cling to an earlier time. 

I came of age during the death rattle of guitar music’s reign as the cultural voice of the age.  Being in a rock band was the musical thing to do – the fringe kids were the ones interested in electronica or dance music (and jazz of course.  Those guys were theserious hipsters.)  I loved being in rock bands. I loved the noise and the camaraderie and the social allowance to be as dirty or wild or youthful as I wanted.  And thanks to certain bands who lit the fuse (especially in the late 60’s, the 70’s and the early 90’s), being a rock musician also meant you could be a serious artist.  I could write real lyrics, tell real stories, and not be too presumptuous in thinking I could actually have an effect on people in a tangible, emotional way. 

Over time, certain goals for my music became more important to me, and the importance of other goals waned.  After awhile, noise wasn’t as important as emotional impact.  Camaraderie wasn’t as essential as control.  To me, an infinite sense of possibility could only be reached by the removal of what I saw as limitations (literally, the democratic process of being in a band.)

Welcome to the Danger Show was an amazing experience in that I broke away from all of that.  I finally dreamt up a record, and then managed to make that record in exactly the image I had in my head from the beginning.  Being a solo artist allowed my lyrics and my voice to be front and center, with everything else as supporting elements, and I was able reach new artistic heights. 

Somewhere in there, I got enamored with Americana.  A big part of me started wanting things to be rootsy and dusty, with a sepia-tone feel and analog warmth, like those great singer-songwriter records from Laurel Canyon in the 70’s.  So I scratched that itch with Beneath a Balcony, and again I felt gratified that my personal vision was realized.

But a funny thing happened along the way, in the process of playing clubs in Los Angeles, supporting Danger Show and writing new material:  I was suddenly (and quite accidentally) in a band again!  But instead of opposing it, I realized it felt incredible.  I’d stumbled upon the best of both worlds – the camaraderie and support of world-class musicians, but an understanding between us that this was my ship, and I alone would be steering it.  There was a tremendous exchange of trust: I could create and control the material, and they could use their best judgment in adding their parts. 

And so it was: among the Americana experimentation, the sprawling Dylanesque lyrical epics, and the diversifying subject matter, complete with ars poetica self-examination and a growing sense of doom, that the inevitable happened.  I wanted to take my new, improved band and do something I’d always loved doing:

I wanted to make a rock-n-roll record full of love songs.

And so on March 6th, 2012, I give you Anthems.

In many ways, Anthems is the rock record I always wanted to make; the one – perhaps – I would have made back when I was just a member of rock bands if I’d been allowed to call all the shots. It’s a rock record that has does have guitar-solos, but only messy ones without flamboyant flourishes.  It’s a rock record with powerful vocals, but not the quadruple-tracked, auto-tuned wall of impersonal sound found too often nowadays. It’s a rock record that features two songs recorded with an entire band playing live in one big room together, and one song improvised entirely.  It’s a rock record full of love songs, but lyrically-driven as much as any of my solo records have been.  (I’m still a singer-songwriter after all.)

Personally, I feel there’s always been a symbiotic relationship between rock music and love songs.  They’re what audiences want to hear, because they’re what people can identify with most.  And poems about love are the perfect accompanying language to a rock song. In this context, with guitars wailing and cymbals crashing, with a band hammering away at simple chords and a melody cutting through the noise, simple love songs become something bigger.  They become the thing that made guitar-based music the music of a generation, however long ago that may have been.  Backed by a loud, awesome rock band, love songs become anthems.  The word actually means, “sacred songs” when you trace it back its Greek roots. 

So maybe guitar-based music is now just a novelty, or a stale genre with a shrinking audience, or worse yet, some lame-duck attempt to coast off a golden age from someone else’s revolution, one long-since given way to innovations like computer-based music or the cultural migration toward hip-hop. While I have no ill will towards hip-hop or electronica, I’d like to think that’s all a miscalculation.

Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t have to be a goofy parody of its former self, characterized by the gags from Spinal Tap and bad tribute bands.  It doesn’t have to be limited to a set of people entrenched in red-state anti-intellectualism.  And it doesn’t have to “evolve” into something made by a bunch of guys with laptops and robot vocals.  It can still be a pure, American art form, and it can still be taken seriously.

In any case, this much is true: not too long ago, it was something serious artists aspired to – the idea of making great rock music, and singing love songs. It was something special. Something sacred. 

Thanks for listening.