The Singer/Songwriter in the 21st Century: Two Voices

Bhi Bhiman

Emily Arin

The role of the singer/songwriter has been democratized as never before. As more and more musicians have taken to writing, recording and releasing their own work, what constitutes success has been redefined. We have entered an era of microstars and niche cults, where a performer can sustain (or at least justify) a career with a small but loyal fan base nurtured show by show and song by song. For every Sufjan Stevens or Sara Bareilles enjoying high-profile careers, there are thousands of artists who are building devoted followings below the level of mass exposure.

Bhi Bhiman is the sort of singer/songwriter who stands out from the crowd. The fact that this 29 year-old St. Louis native (now a Bay Area resident) is of Sri-Lankan ancestry helps set him apart from similar acoustic guitar-strumming solo artists. But it’s the big wailing quality of his voice and the literate, bitingly satiric nature of his songwriting that makes him truly noteworthy. Songs like “Guttersnipe” (a modern-day hobo’s anthem), “The Cookbook” (a dead-on dissection of a corporate fat cat) and “Kimchee Line” (a vignette of a harried North Korean worker) combine a strong command of craft with an underlying compassion and sense of the absurd, inviting comparisons with Randy Newman and John Prine.

Bhiman has earned the praise of long-time rock critic Robert Christgau and a featured spot on Britain’s popular TV show Later…with Jools Holland. In days gone by, his career path would probably have led him straight into the arms of a major label. He may end up there yet, but in the meantime he’s accomplished a great deal with independent releases and opening gigs with the likes of Josh Ritter and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. He has a career strategy in tune with the realities of the moment. “I’d rather have 1,000 people who really like me than 10,000 people who think, ‘that’s pretty good,’” he says. “My secret goal is, I want to me the best singer/songwriter out there… I like to win. My parents come from Sri Lanka, where they rank the kids as number one on the island if they test really high. ‘Number One on the island’ – that’s the phrase in our family.”

Bhiman could be content to be top dog on his own island of cult popularity. He has learned to keep his fans engaged through Facebook posts and Twitter tweets, letting them know his sports preferences (he’s a Cardinals fan) and sharing photos from the road while updating his touring schedule. His two albums – especially his sophomore release, 2012’s Bhiman – have received strong reviews. Still, he doesn’t seem the type to be content with scaled-down success.

Like many of the artists who have made a go of it on their own, Bhiman is leery of signing a record deal. “That’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “I don’t want to give up a lot of freedom. However, a big label deal would bring me quite a lot of money, unless they shelve me… There’s a lot of sneaky moves people (at record companies) make, like trying to own my songs for the rest of my life. So I’m not paranoid, but careful about stuff like that.”

Despite the sharp drop in CD sales, Bhiman is among those who haven’t given up on the album form: “I was definitely trying to make a good album with Bhiman. But at the same time, it’s not necessary to do that, at least for some people. It’s a singles society in a way and you can record an album, never release it and just release singles every month if you wanted to. But I’m not a singles guy very often. Next time I record, I will be trying to make a full, coherent album.”

Confident yet realistic, Bhiman views his career with mixed emotions. “I’ve been doing this for a while now,” he says. “I’ve had doubts and I’ve considered quitting, not really believing in myself. It’s been tough – there’s been massive highs and sad lows. I’ll put it this way: If I have a kid and they want to be a singer/songwriter, I would not be super-happy. When you have to be on the road all the time, it’s not a great way to live, in my opinion.”

Beneath the level of singer/songwriters aiming for the big, life-changing break is another strata of artists whose goals are more modest, or at least less defined. These talented men and women are making up their own guideposts of success as they go along, taking detours in and out of active careers. They may not know anything about the ways of the commercial music industry – in fact, they may not see themselves in show business at all. Yet their talent is genuine and their ability to touch others with their music is real.

The experience of Emily Arin is not unlike that of many singer/songwriters who fall into the above category. The 35 year-old Glendale, California native’s music is delicate, well-crafted and bittersweet in tone, somewhat reminiscent of Leonard Cohen or early Paul Simon. Forty years ago, she might’ve been snapped up by a label like Warner Bros. or Elektra/Asylum, showcased at a listening room like New York’s Bitter End or L.A.’s Troubadour and given a modest budget to record a debut album meant to earn airplay on freeform FM or college radio stations. Today, the sort of thoughtful acoustic-based music that Arin makes isn’t particularly useful to what remains of the music business establishment. Such artists are expected to go elsewhere to help cultivate their niches.

Arin’s journey to find an audience for her work has been a roundabout one. Connected with it has been a search for personal wellness that goes beyond the material rewards that record companies used to dangle in front of artists. Her experiences mirror those of many singer/songwriters who aim to find a greater sense of meaning in their lives by forging a bond with a relatively small but significant groups of listeners.

Arin studied piano as a young girl, switched to guitar in high school and had written a few songs before she began studies at Dartmouth College. A weekly gig at a campus venue gave her some performing experience, though her shyness eventually led to her being fired. After graduation, she passed through a series of jobs that led her back to California, where she took a position at her parents’ insurance company in L.A. “I felt very lost after college,” she admits. “I was still writing songs, just for myself. I would play little coffee houses, thinking, ‘I am such a poseur, this is something I am not really good at. But I got enough encouragement from friends to keep going.”

More false career starts followed, including two years at a Traditional Chinese Medicine school, another stint at the family insurance company and two weeks of classes at L.A.’s Musicians Institute. The one thing that stayed constant for her during this unsettled time was her music – “It wasn’t easy for me to write a song, but I was compelled to do it,” she recalls. Unemployed, out of school and desperate for direction, Arin experienced what she calls an “oh shit moment” in May 2006: “I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out some way for people to support me before I write.’ So I figured out how to set up a website and opened up a subscription series. I sent an email to everyone I could think of and I explained, ‘For 12 bucks, you’re going to get a new song every month with a story…’”

Running through her email list of friends and family, Arin got 70 people to sign up, enough to commit her to recording a dozen new songs in her bedroom. Without realizing it, she became an early adopter of the crowd-sourcing model that became the basis for Kickstarter and similar funding platforms later in the decade. Recording in her bedroom on basic equipment, she began sending out a steady stream of tunes to her subscribers over a year’s time. “Once I sent out a new song, I was immediately thinking of the next one,” she says. “I wrapped up a lot of my self-worth and validation in doing that. It was sort of my life raft in a way.”

At the end of 12 months, Arin had written and recorded a CD’s-worth of material. She got her sister to shoot a cover photo, pressed up her “clunky” home recordings and released the project as Time and Space in June 2007. She offered the album for sale on her website, though the majority of the 2,000 copies she printed were given away to anyone interested. “I’d hand out the CD almost like a business card,” she says. “I did want them to be a part of my livelihood, but I also valued the connectivity of exchanging CDs with people and having a good experience that way.” (This de-emphasis of CDs as a money-making product is common among singer/songwriters. For many artists, the CD has become a souvenir to be autographed and sold after a show rather than a reliable source of revenue.)

Running out of money, Arin moved to Montour Falls, a small town in New York’s Finger Lakes region where he parents had opened a café. While working as a grill cook there, her album was discovered by legendary freeform radio pioneer Vince Scelsa, who began playing her songs on his program Idiot’s Delight, heard on New York’s WFUV. Scelsa was known as a connoisseur of good singer/songwriters, so his endorsement carried considerable weight with his devoted listening audience. With his encouragement, Arin went on a month-long performing tour and began to think about recording another album.

Arin hired Philadelphia-based producer Greg Weeks to give her next record a more professional sound than her first homegrown recordings had. Weeks agreed to work with her for a small fee, then became disillusioned with recording in general and handed the project over to colleague Brian McTear. At this point, expenses began to mount and Amis cashed in her 401K to pay for musicians and studio time. She had already alerted her fan base to expect a new album, so there was no turning back.

Patch of Land appeared in January 2011. The album boasted an atmospheric folk-pop sound, dressing up Arin’s waifish vocals with pedal steel guitar, cellos and Mellotron. The songs were the real drawing card, ranging from wistful love ballads like “Hidden Flame” and “When You Knew Me When” to character sketches like “By the Fiery Glow” and evocative poetic pieces like “Waltz for Spaulding Gray.” Taken as a whole, Patch of Land is intimate and confiding, small in scale and effectively so. It gives the sense of an individual, uncorrupted voice making music for the right reasons.

The story of Emily Arin (thus far) is recounted here because it tracks the experiences of many singer/songwriters these days. Like her peers, she learned to improvise her own strategy for getting heard and to set goals that were both idealistic and grounded in dollars-and-cents reality. Beyond any dreams of breaking into the big leagues, writing and performing songs became a way for her to pursue self-knowledge and address her struggles with depression and related health issues. The activity carried its own rewards beyond conventional show biz success.

Creativity as an act of catharsis and healing is a very real compensation for the hassles of being a singer/songwriter. It’s easy to dismiss this as mere self-indulgence and naval gazing (a charge lobbed at “sensitive” artists like Jackson Browne and Graham Nash in the 1970s). But really, the link between unburdening yourself creatively and uplifting others has always been a defining characteristic of the singer/songwriter. At its best, it’s not so much an act of egotism as a way to build community: “You Got a Friend” writ large.

“What I really wanted to do with songs was offer transformation of some kind,” Arin says. “For me, it was giving myself permission to feel sad, because we spend a lot of time in our masks for the world. In turn, I would get feedback from people thanking me – it was almost like I was giving them permission to tap into those emotions for themselves. So my music was a way to reach out and connect with people.”

Arin sees an explicit connection between her work as a singer/songwriter and her interest of alternative medicine. In 2011, she relocated to Philadelphia and began a therapeutic practice that has grown to include reflexology, energy psychology and mindfulness-based coaching. It seems less of a career shift than a natural progression for her, an outgrowth of her desire to find a way of life that combines personal growth with a stable career and continued involvement in music. The archetype of the self-destructive singer/songwriter – played out in the tormented lives of Tim Hardin, Nick Drake and Judee Sill, among others – holds no appeal for her: “I don’t want one of those biographical arcs where I’m a good artist and people appreciate me but I’m miserable as a human being. So the last few years have been me building a firmer inner foundation. When I perform out now, I’m better and enjoy it more.”

It may be that artists like Emily Arin are the wave of the future – or at least one way for the singer/songwriter model to remain viable. Performing deeply personal songs to a small audience in someone’s living room isn’t so different than guiding a client through a mind/body work session. Once the rules of conventional show business are cast aside, the role of the singer/songwriter is free to take on a variety of new forms, including that of healer.

Of course, it can be said that artists should concentrate on making art, rather than try to affect personal change in others. When the writing of songs becomes ancillary to some other purpose – no matter how high – there’s the chance that the work becomes compromised and debased. This question is worth keeping in mind considering the precarious ability of songwriters – performing or otherwise – to make a living nowadays. Eliminating the possibility of being paid decently to create meaningful music dishonors the very idea of the singer/songwriter.

Singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb is among many music professionals who have condemned the underpayment of royalties by Pandora Internet Radio and other online music services. “It’s laughable, it’s insulting for a young girl to get six thousand streams on Pandora and get a check for two cents, a young girl who’s start a career,” he said in a September 2013 interview posted on ASCAP’s website. We are going to pay the price for this as a nation one of these days because one of these days, somebody’s going to look around and say, ‘Where’s James Taylor? Where’s Joni Mitchell? Where’s Lyle Lovett?’ There won’t be any. There won’t be any because nobody’s going to work for two cents.”

Whether this grim prophesy comes true remains to be seen. In the meantime, thousands of singer/songwriters are making the best of the brave new world before them.

Emily Arin


buffy 2From anti-war protest anthems to screaming psychedelic odes, the 1960s were filled with vivid and extreme musical moments. But some of the quieter departures from convention were just as important as the more outrageous ones. A new kind of love song was being invented, one that celebrated honesty above idealized romance. “Authenticity” – a much-used word back then – was the goal. In a political sense, authenticity meant expressing unpleasant truths with a blunt sort of urgency, as in Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” By 1965, the search for the authentic extended to matters of the heart as well.

The singer/songwriters were rewriting the book of love as well as saying their piece about the big issues of the day. Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “For Lovin’ Me” applied the theme of rambling to intimate relationships. Instead of promising constancy, these songs were confessions of guilt (or celebrations of independence) by a lover who could only give so much. They upended the whole notion of the love song as a promise to be true – and defied the American ideal of stable married life and good conformist behavior in the process.

No song better expressed this new, more clear-eyed view of love than Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” released on her second album Many a Mile in February 1965. Over a delicate lullaby-like melody Sainte-Marie sang about romantic impermanence with acceptance and quiet strength. In the song’s tender yet forthright lyrics she dispelled decades of Tin Pan Alley fantasies of eternal bliss and devotion:

You’re not a dream
You’re not an angel
You’re a man

I’m not a queen
I’m a woman
Take my hand

We’ll make a space
in the lives
that we’d planned

And here we’ll stay
Until it’s time
for you to go

“I just wrote that one straight from the heart, easy and unavoidable as a sneeze,” Sainte-Marie told me when I interviewed her in 2013. “Obviously I was in love with somebody, and the words are purely the poetry of what I was feeling. The emotion is a combination of two things: the mind-blowing discovery of unexpected love; and going for it anyway, even with a built-in goodbye.”

Written some three years before it was released, “Until It’s Time for You to Go” anticipated a new honesty in male/female relations that was emerging in the culture at large: “The hippy free love attitude didn’t hit big until a year later [in 1966], so the song’s attitude of appreciating the Now even if you can’t have the Forever might have influenced some of those kids who were a couple of years younger than me. I sure believed in the sentiment of treasuring love where you find it: but we were all dealing with the remnants of the Eisenhower generation, and even the Kennedys were outwardly pretty traditional…”

Sainte-Marie recalled that she felt a bit awkward performing the song in folk venues: “Some people heard ‘Until It’s Time for You to Go’ and thought I had sold out, because it was so tender and vulnerable… I think it made me a little suspect, not ‘folk’ enough, maybe bordering on jazz or pop.”

Suspicious or not, the song was part of her set as she packed coffee houses in the mid-‘60s. There was a definable audience waiting to embrace it, one that wasn’t satisfied with a steady diet of traditional folk tunes and yearned for an alternative to mainstream pop tunes. Rather than selling out, Sainte-Marie was helping to create a new genre that would reshape the marketing strategies of a music business still geared to selling standard-issue love songs. “Until It’s Time for You to Go” proved to be one of the pivotal songs of the singer/songwriter movement. It remains one of the most moving and influential ballads of its time.


Iris DeMent

Iris DeMent: Tellin’ Her Truth 20 Years On

Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta may well have been the most meaningful album I heard in 2012. That’s a subjective call, I know, but then Iris’ work is so personal it’s bound to impress people for highly personal, even whimsical reasons. It’s not that DeMent’s latest songs are extraordinarily innovative or that what she has to say is especially new. Actually, she’s been writing about pretty much the same things since she began recording 20 years ago: family roots, the land, life and death, the paradoxes of religious faith. (Romantic love is definitely a secondary concern of hers.)

DeMent has built a cult following on her individuality, which shades over into quirkiness for those who prefer their singing smooth and their songwriting slick. Her voice is a twang-seasoned warble that blossoms gloriously when she opens up; her writing harkens back to 19th Century American hymns and parlor music, with a streak of Loretta Lynn-style country present as well. This last ingredient – the Loretta part – is what made her seem like a viable Nashville act for a brief moment. I remember first hearing work in 1989, when some publishers around Music Row shared her demo tapes with me. I thought she was amazing – fresh, soulful and most of all real. It seemed to me she ought to be recorded with a minimum of production, just something to frame her voice and one or two instruments, like Tracy Chapman’s first album. I thought she was headed for stardom.

Iris commanded a good deal of attention  among the more alert A&R people the Row back then, but she didn’t get a regular Nashville deal – her debut Infamous Angel was released by Rounder (later re-released by Warner Bros.) as a folk album. This kind of distinction seems arbitrary to those who aren’t familiar with the do’s and don’ts of commercial country music—in fact, it IS arbitrary. At the time, the idea that an artist as thoroughly rooted in small-town Southern culture as Iris DeMent couldn’t be marketed as a country act struck me as completely ridiculous. The truth was, of course, that by the early ‘90s Nashville-style country had little to do with the old-fashioned, pre- rock ‘n’ roll kind of stuff that Iris wrote and sang.  So she had to take her own path, which she was probably meant to do anyway.

Sing the Delta is DeMent’s first album in eight years and seems the product of a lot of serious thought. Much of it is informed by the loss of her parents. She considers their lives with great respect and affection; you get a strong sense of their qualities as people, particularly her mother’s fiercely independent spirit. What’s especially powerful is Iris’ acceptance of mortality, expressed with a frankness that’s more than stoicism but free of cloying sentimentality. “The Night I Learned How to Pray” is both a recollection of her younger brother’s death and a meditation upon God’s unfathomable purposes, set to a strangely bouncy gospel melody. “Go On Ahead and Go Home” is a vision of the next world not unlike the small Southern town DeMent must’ve grown up in.

DeMent’s work has a homespun feel, but that doesn’t stop her from conveying big ideas and grand visions. “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven” embraces both the joy and sorrow of the everyday world rather than looking towards the afterlife for happiness. “The Kingdom Has Already Come” likewise finds something miraculous in ordinary folks enjoying life on a hot summer’s day. DeMint manages to seem both naïve and wise at the same time (which, according to her spiritual beliefs, makes perfect sense).

DeMent relies heavily on familiar gospel chord changes and traditional country-style melodies in her work. Rather than sounding tired, her music conveys the pleasures of the familiar, in contrast with her sometimes unorthodox lyric content. Iris definitely has issues with organized Christian religion that she doesn’t hesitate to talk about. It seems to be a family trait – in “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” she recalls her mother talking back in church when she had a disagreement with the preacher.

There’s a fearless honesty to Iris’ songs that makes them stand out from the work of her nominal peers. Popular music has never placed a high premium on accurately capturing how people think, talk or act. That’s usually not what writing and singing songs is about – the idea is to entertain people by playing upon their favorite fantasies or hopes or prejudices. Since the ‘60s, there’s been wave after wave of “sensitive” singer/songwriters who have been presented as “authentic” voices speaking from the heart about life, love and so forth. Most of them simply manipulate old forms to push the buttons of listeners.

Iris DeMent is an outstanding case of someone who doesn’t do this – who never did do this. This isn’t to say that she’s utterly unique; of course, the form and language of her songs aren’t radical breaks from the past. What sets her apart is the lack of contrivance in her work, the absence of manipulation and the need to make listeners feel any better about their lives than Iris feels about her own. The very fact that she returns over and over to the same topics reinforces the sincerity of her songs. She keeps going back to the same old stories, sorting through the same shoebox of faded photographs and family letters. As she grows older, the poignancy of her work increases. She has all but become the things she has been singing about for twenty-some years.

Anyone trying to connect with their own sense of self as a songwriter would do well to listen to Sing the Delta as well as DeMint’s earlier albums. Learning how to write songs that meet an acceptable commercial standard is relatively easy. Finding the nerve to speak your heart and mind through your music is much harder – it takes a certain gift of courage as well as talent. DeMent has this gift to a rare degree.