By: Jake, manager
Up until a few years ago it hadn’t ever occurred to me that many (if not most) songs are non-fiction. Inspired by real events. True stories.
I’m not sure why but music always just seemed to me to fit in with movies or novels—things written by real people but not about real people. It also didn’t occur to me that the people writing the songs weren’t writing about other people. They were often writing about themselves and sometimes in very personal ways.
Now that I’m managing The National Parks I get to see songs develop from the very earliest stages. Brady will often send me rough phone recordings, usually just a chord progression and a mumbled lyric-less melody, and then months (or even years) later those recordings evolve into large masterful productions. It’s really cool. I love watching that creative process.
Sometimes Brady tells me what inspires his songs, sometimes I ask, or sometimes I don’t have to ask because we’re now close enough friends that I know intimate details about his life. I used to feel like this was privileged information. I knew the backstories so I knew what the songs were really about.
But I don’t feel that way anymore and here’s why: I don’t think that Brady gets to decide what the songs he writes are about. I think that the second a song is shared it isn’t just the musician’s song anymore.
Of course I’m not talking about copyright or anything like that. I’m saying that an artist doesn’t get to decide what their piece of art means any more than anyone else. What inspires an artist to write the song is up to them but when it comes to interpretation, we all get an equal crack at it.
Let me give you a strange hypothetical example:
Imagine that I invite some people over to my home for a dinner party and during the course of conversation I make a joke but nobody laughs. It totally bombs. And let’s say that I’m so embarrassed that I excuse myself to go to the kitchen for more ice or something and my wife follows me in there because she’s just as embarrassed by my dumb joke as I am.
She looks at me like, “what was that?” and I try to explain to her why I told the joke and why I actually still think it’s pretty funny if you understand the context. And let’s say she changes her mind and agrees it is actually funny (I told you this was going to be a strange hypothetical) and she convinces me to go re-tell the joke but this time to include the context as part of the joke and I go back out there and give it a whirl and they all laugh this time.
Except for Steve. Because Steve left. He isn’t even there anymore. So Steve doesn’t get the second version and to him that joke is lame and he thinks everyone agrees.
Question: Is Steve wrong? Should I call Steve and tell him that, as it turns out, the joke is funny after all?
Never mind that this whole example is ridiculous, the point is that the joke that Steve heard was a completely different joke than the one that the rest of the guests heard the second time and if tomorrow Steve tells his co-worker about a really awkward dinner party moment involving a bad joke then we probably can’t really hold that against Steve, can we?
He never got the inspiration or extra context and that’s my fault, not his. I told a joke and Steve and the others didn’t laugh. Then Steve left and I told a different joke and everyone did.
It’s not a perfect metaphor but I think it helps explain a big part of the reason that it can be frightening/intimidating to share art—the final product is just a small fraction of the thought and feeling that combined to create the piece and it’s hard to know how people are going to respond to that because as the creator you can’t “unsee” the inspiration that sparked it. You can’t completely forget the thousand half-baked ideas that were shedded off in the drafting/writing/recording process.
And I think this whole discussion about meaning and interpretation and audience reaction helps demonstrate another really important fact: the person on the other end is a crucial element of the artistic experience and whatever they bring to their experience with the art is, for them, part of it. If a song is well crafted (loaded term, I know) then anyone can grab a hold of it and graft their own life into it and this, in my opinion, is why music can be so powerful and so unifying.
Let me give you another example, but this time it will be less weird and not-at-all hypothetical. Let’s take a look at Coração from the band’s most recent album.
The word “coração” means “heart” in Portuguese, which is a language Brady speaks because even though he grew up in Denver, he spent two years living in São Paulo. Brady tells me he wrote the song after thinking back on that experience, which was both very difficult and very rewarding. This is all fine and good. Nothing wrong with using that as inspiration for a song.
Now, maybe you find that stuff interesting and maybe you decide to include it as part of your experience with the song. But maybe you don’t. The point is that it’s up to you because neither of those things is actually in the song. It’s extra information.
Brady could have translated that word for us in the chorus or explicitly described his personal experience in Brazil in the verses. But he didn’t. Including those things were his privilege while writing but are not his privilege now. The song is what it is and it’s everyone’s to respond to.
What actually exists is something that conveys an emotion that just about everyone has probably experienced, even if the specific details that provoked it are inevitably very different from Brady’s. It’s a song about those times when you have to let go of something really good because somehow you know that the very act of holding on to it would ruin it. You sense that brevity is intrinsic to its beauty.
This might be something like Brady’s experience in Brazil but it also might be like the young married couple joyfully expecting their first child but at the same time knowing their lives together will never be the same. Or it might be as plain as driving by a little league baseball game and legitimately missing your own little league days, even though you know that being a 10-year-old forever would actually be pretty lousy after a while.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. It’s basically just Robert Frost’s famous line (“nothing gold can stay”) but with guitar riffs, vocal melodies, and Brady’s individual experiences coloring the concept. He’s pointing us to something fundamentally human, some shared element of this crazy life, and (assuming you agree he was successful) he does so in a fresh enough way that we actually, amazingly, ignore a million distractions and pay attention to that.
This is, to me, when music is at its best. When a song really succeeds it does way more than just entertain. People are entertained by cat videos and Flappy Bird. The bar for entertainment is low. Art does entertain but it is supposed to do something more.
I think that when music becomes art it somehow pulls together a mix of sounds and words in a way that encourage us to look square at this big bustling world and say, “Sheesh what an intricate murky mess,” but also, “hey wait maybe it’s actually sorta beautiful from this angle,” and maybe even, “wow it sure is nice to know that someone else is seeing this because for a while there it felt like I was going through this thing alone.”
This essay functioned as the introduction to a campaign leading to the release of a music video for Coração. The video was a collaborative project between five different directors. Each director was able to read this essay and then write/direct their own segment in response to the ideas here and the lyrics/themes of the song itself. After each wrote and produced their own segment, those five segments were brought together to make up the official video for Coração and that video premiered on The Rumpus on March 10th (it can be viewed on our YouTube channel or here on our site). Also, as part of that campaign we asked fans to submit their own art and experiences and were amazed at what we saw. We’ve collected that on this page for all to enjoy.