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From the Road

I made many a mistake this night I am sure, but all the humans in the audience loved it. Maybe.

A.I. and Failure

May 17th, 2023 - Los Angeles, CA

Am I too proud to give digital technology some credit for my career? Nope. Do I feel slightly dishonest peddling my sense of earthly morality via the internet? You bet. It feels slightly sociopathic to be talking to phone and checking metrics on my posts like an insane person. I tell all my friends in music: "You have to have even the slightest amount of narcissism to think that anyone wants to hear your songs." I call it the "healthy narcissism" that pushes us to share our art with the world despite potential criticism. And sadly, sometimes that just involves a little bit of screen time alone in your house on some fleeting social app.  

Where I draw the absolute unwavering line is with AI technology. I will never accept it as an alternative or additional tool for any field. Everyone is given a crotchety card for something, and I am cashing in. Look, I understand the argued benefits: it can free up our lives by generating a lukewarm version of some skill that a real human can do better. I've seen some ridiculous captions and subtly-demonic headshots used by these services and I am not worried for photographers or writers' careers anytime soon. You can get me with one exception; accessibility for impaired folks. I nod my trucker cap. 


We live in an "anyone can do anything" world, which is a healthy attitude that can bring people from desolate poverty to health and wealth and truly make the world better for everyone. I am not a jaded man I promise! When it comes to art, science, and communication however, I think we need an asterisk in that line of thinking. The limitations of skills like writing lyrics or creating album art is what installs checkpoints that sends people to the drawing board, to someone they can hire for the task, or to a different career. I believe everyone has a human right to music, but the path to a professional, paid career needs to be lined with rocks and crevices that keep the trail traffic lean and sustainable.

My career has been lined with these obstructions. I've had to learn how to send an email that will warrant a response from talent buyers. Weeks of low engagement on social media has forced me to try to connect with my audience differently. I've written and recorded songs that will never see daylight due to some epiphany a few weeks down the road. By giving these demanding and unique skills over to AI, artists are stripped of the natural filter that is failure. We are being robbed of the necessary reality that we either adapt or quit. Having to learn these skills yourself keeps this already saturated industry from ballooning like August roadkill. I am grateful to be involved with the people I am, but imposter syndrome and myself run the same work schedule. I grapple daily with the possibility that I am not meant to do this, spurred entirely by challenges in gaining followers or maintaining listeners on streaming services. And if AI can do it better than me than maybe that's a sign. 


But it can't and it won't. AI will never possess that unique margin of error, that quirky placement of words, the blood-pumping, arterial authenticity that is the work of human choice. The decision to not use the "best" word, but rather the word that feels the best, even if the algorithm would tell you otherwise. It's that internal feeling that lets your system know that you are reading the conscious thoughts of another human, in their full erroneous, non-binary glory. It's why we write songs that are more than just correct; but catchy, memorable and sometimes humanly goofy. AI could have written "Watermelon Sugar" the same as Harry Styles, but the human element lets you laugh at the image of a room of songwriters and producers consciously penning "tastes like strawberries" for its opening line right below the title. Someone sent me a picture of that the other day and I laughed way too long. 

When AI improves and starts writing music the best 1's and 0's can, there will still be a hidden, meat-based part of your body that won't accept it fully. That ability to determine between human and not will exist as long as bags of bones and blood like us continue to walk the earth listening to other bags of bones sing and play their own goofy, heartfelt songs, with all the quirkiness that AI will never capture. 

May 12, 2023 - Nashville, TN

Real Life People

I hope to be around long enough to read the results of detailed and lengthy studies of the internet's most engaging platforms. Like the radio and TV brought the world into our living rooms, social media now brings us a projection of people like us - and not like us - into the palms of our hands and into our hearts. It's made my career feel like an Instagrammer scavenger hunt with a part-time music gig, collecting blue-check marks like precious trading cards. 


In the new, social media-centered music industry, I find myself more frequently jumping from DM's to studio rooms with rising songwriters. Take for example my friend Liam St. John; as two rough-edged bluesy songwriters with a taste for all the whiskey-soaked tropes of Americana music, we inevitably - and algorithmically - found ourselves exchanging messages and comments on Instagram in the best way two busy musicians who don't really know one another can. After some failed attempts to get together in LA, we coincidentally found ourselves in a writing session via our management. One look at the other's leather boots, wallet chains, and seedy lyrics was all it took to turn internet acquaintance to a tangible and friendly rapport. He smoked me at darts that night too, but that's neither here nor there.


Most recently, he kindly hosted me in Nashville for some recording sessions for his upcoming stripped-back album. The few days I was there turned into a collision of many relationships new and old. At one writer's round alone where Liam was performing, I was in a room sharing stories and chicken biscuits with folks that have existed only in the messages of various platforms: Tori Miller, Joshua Quimby, Stefanie Joyce to name a few. And every one of them friendly and earthly like old friends, despite our origins on the vast, inhuman plane that is the internet. I am grateful for this business and on occasion the internet.

I get that I probably gotta get used to this. A man deserves an occasional little moment of childlike wonder though! The internet is a place where people are met, but the world is where friends are made. And there isn't much better a way than over some Nashville hot chicken. 

Liam St John Tori Miller Asher The Producer Clayton Ryan

Recording with Tori Miller and Liam St. John in Nashville. Asher the Producer on the engineering. The stripped-back tracks were performed live with minimal processing. 

Clayton Ryan and Kevin Boehnke playing Decorah, Iowa.

Kevin Boehnke and myself performing at Pulpit Rock Brewing in Decorah, IA. Despite being tucked away in a rear room away from the bar, the folks of this Nordic heritage town filled every seat. 

Feb 15, 2023 - Pomeroy, IA

Never leave behind anyone that has supported you. And just shut up and play!

Of the soul-replenishing benefits of my frequent Midwest solo tours, these two lessons stand up on their own. The Midwest is one of those places where I expect nothing from an audience: not because I have no faith in them showing up, but rather because live music exists in pockets or "vortexes" of religiously-devout music listeners that rival the music capitals of the nation. Lower your standards, be pleasantly surprised. 

Such was the case with my last few runs with my enthusiastic comrade Kevin Boehnke. Edging towards the point of no-return for a jaded songwriter, I was brought back from the brink by some lively shows in Minneapolis, Rochester, and Red Wing in Minnesota, Decorah and Pomeroy in Iowa, and Unionville, Missouri. The last one, we were fortunate to play side man to the eloquent poet and musical craftsman that is Chad Elliott. 

Every room was full with energetic, responsive and borderline-rowdy Midwesterners, all incredibly enthralled in our stories; these were the kind of crowds one could easily ramble on to about song inspiration, offbeat humor and what have you. And did we! It was the series of shows you get when you most need them, one that reminds you why you played all the bar gigs and weddings to the tune of "Friends in Low Places." 

Don't ever write-off where you are from. And hit the damn road, even if you aren't sure it'll be worth it. To borrow and rehash a Brad Pitt quote from Inglorious Bastards - one which my dad and I joke about at least twice a week: "Nah, I'll probably just play a bad show. I've played a bad show before."

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