The transformation game

Recently, I was hired by a well-known Hudson Valley musician to write liner notes for his new, long-in-the-making obsessed-over solo record, a fine and fresh piece of work that I had no problem getting behind. I’ve been offering these services for going on seven years. Without ever putting up a shingle and announcing myself open for business, the business has come steadily anyway, via word of mouth or just via the one-plus-one-equals-two intuition of anyone who happens to like my music criticism.

I never wanted to write about music, any more than an actor with some damn respectable carpentry chops wants to build sets for a living. It’s really the last thing you want — to be that close but not “there.”


In the discovery phase, we try to figure where the most resonant part of the story lives. Maybe you have no music-industry narrative of note, and it would be transparent, hyperbolic pastiche to dummy one up. That’s the worst thing you can do — building a rickety case for why you already “matter,” supported by three-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon connections and optimistic “shared the stage with” claims far more likely to elicit contempt than admiration from anyone in the know. Jaded ennui runs high in this world. Really high. If your credits are not super legit, best to avoid playing that angle at all.


And maybe, in this storytelling, confessional, and identity-obsessed age, your personal life isn’t quite stepping up with the goods, either. Maybe there were no compelling circumstances surrounding the making of your record, no vicissitudes, crises, epiphanies, tragedies, great risks, or journeys of discovery synced to the greater cultural moment. Maybe you — a beautiful and fully justified being with nothing you need to defend — just don’t register as terribly interesting or resonant, on the whole, by the criteria and obsessions of the day. I know I don’t. Goodness, no.

That’s fine. Better for me, even. We’ll just talk about the music. We’ll make someone want to hear the record, and then your music will do the rest. The best thing we can do is to get a reader to complete the simple physical act of putting on track one — no small feat — and  to do it with a positive, prepared assumption about what they’ll find there.

Once that happens, phase two of my purpose kicks in — to give that listener a rich context in which to experience and understand the music, where it sits in the tradition, what’s fresh and different about it, and why it matters, or could. That’s the part where I kick ass.

So, anyway, this guy comes to me with a great record, and it turns out he made it mostly during not one but two periods of extreme isolation — two long blocs of time spent deep in Vermont house sitting for a friend. A lot of great works of art, I suggest to him, seem to arrive with a “cabin myth” of some kind — an origin story about an off-the-grid interval of retreat, isolation, and abdication of worldly responsibilities, or as many as can be safely abdicated without losing partners or roofs over the head.

As with so many things, money can help us find these actual or virtual cabins, but the most compelling cabin narratives are not paid sabbaticals or extended escapes to the family lake house. They involve ordinary people taking a genuine gamble on withdrawal and reinvention, like Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge. The yield of the cabin myth is personal transformation just as often as it is creative production.

We ran with that.

It occurs to me now that every album made in 2020 is going to come with a cabin myth.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.