Robust singer-songwriters such as Jackie Greene tie their music to the fullness of presence. Their whole experience transfers deferentially through their fingers, throat and core. The audience can feel the call of this presence, and the journey of both the artist and the listener shines forth. The virtual onslaught of time ostensibly suspends.
“I think that time can be as abstract as you want it to be,” said Jackie Greene. “But in my case time and timing in music is the idea of the attention span and getting someone to ignore for the briefest of moments the chatter around. It’s forgetting about the way a lot of us live now – fast-paced environments. The live show feels like the slowing down of time. It’s not true. But it feels that way. No one is stopping it (time). ”
Greene’s catalogue of seven albums (most recently, 2015’s “Back to Birth”) provides more than mere proof of his existence; in sum, they are a collection of subtle truths and safe havens, a long table of musical companionship set and waiting for us to sit down. We are required to listen, and lay our head under the tree of art. Devote your time to the uncomplicated transparency of songs such as “Don’t Mind Me, I’m Only Dying Slow,” and the low key vocals and unpretentious lyrics respond expressively.
“To a large degree it seems like the longer people have been with you, the more invested they are in the show,” said Greene. “At the bigger gigs, it seems there are more people who are only along for the ride. I look at live music as a per day basis and I cater toward that environment. I’ll write a set list beforehand that in my mind fits that environment. If I’m wrong, it’ll change (the set list). Sometimes in a theatre people are standing, and they want to expend a lot of energy, and it’s a rock and roll dancing kind of show, and they want to move around. You don’t force something upon an audience.”
One of the assets of Greene’s music is that it hits on all the feelings of tenderness, the buoyancy of the ups, the cold chill of the downs, and the cynic-lover, believer-unbeliever, dervish-king contradictions of a life consumed. His focus is his quest. His quest is his legitimacy.
“I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon who hates the industry, but with the streaming of music, some of things like audio fidelity and other things have been lost. We were once physically attached to music, and in the era of the vinyl, you would turn the bucket side over and if you wanted a specific song you’d have to find it. You once had a relationship with the equipment that produced your music. I mean, people used to have arguments over which speakers sounded better and they’d get together to argue over which amps were better for rock music, and they were far more invested, financially, and emotionally, and were automatically more connected.
“The CD. The MP3. Today music is relegated to the background. You can play 40 days of nonstop music on a continuous loop. You can be anywhere, at a shopping center, or grocery store, or your own house. The goal is to store 1,000 albums on a thumb drive. There is a physical and emotional separation because of that. When you made a cassette for someone it took time and effort and there were more human elements to it, and it made it much more special. Music is a human thing and a lot of that connection is lost.”
Truth and honesty do not sleep. They are two of Greene’s only companions. It’s the honesty of his emotional hook that makes medicine out of pain and makes sunlight out of shade. It’s the truth in him that never pretends to know something that he has not experienced.
“When I’m writing I’m obviously not thinking about the listener, I’m thinking about myself. I know that sounds like a terrible, selfish thing, but it’s for myself first, and once I’m satisfied – though I’m never really satisfied with my work – I can move on. The production is a large part of the writing process for me. When I’m writing I’ll have an important line or a part of the song and I’ll write it 20 different ways and change the minutest details, and I’ll sing it differently, sing a slightly different word or change it from the present tense to the past tense. If I feel such an emotional connection to the line, I go with that.
“The language could be a little bit wrong. All I’m looking for is the emotional aspect of how it makes you feel. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct to get a point across. It doesn’t have to be an English lesson. But it does have to draw some kind of an emotional response out of a listener. A simple, well-constructed, emotionally-performed song will get me every time – and that’s a hard thing to do.”
With keen, fiery insight and a strong obligation of troubadour’s truth, Greene’s tales are marked by stories and images and conversations through which he tries to show his inner life.
“For me, songwriting and music are part of what it is like to be living the world, and I try to be receptive, and the inspiration to make something can come from anywhere, a strange headline, and overheard conversation in a bar or in the street. One thing that always inspires me is being in an apartment and hearing the neighbor playing music. When you hear a bass or bass drum, and you don’t know what song it is, you make up your own song. It suggests something to you. Like when you hear a car driving in the distance and it’s playing something. It suggests something, a rhythm or a movement, and I roll with that. I could do just as fine in the middle of nowhere and have no distractions and be in New York (he lives in Brooklyn) and have nothing but distractions. You allow the environment you are in to affect you in whatever or what way it sees fit.”
As individuals we often get bound and wrapped in complicated nets of technological connectedness. We are listening for the dings and texts and we are confronted by technology that is increasingly more intrusively each day. The faster we devour it, the less we savor, the less we discern.
“I think simplicity in my music is a reaction to how we live,” said Greene. “I’m 36 and while I’m involved with the technology of the day, I’m still old enough to remember when today’s technology didn’t exist. My music is a reaction to how fast and how insane the information age is affecting us. I believe I make art that is minimalist because of that. That’s where the aesthetics of its simplicity comes from me. I can remember making a cassette recording on my 4 Track cassette player and being super satisfied.
“I think there is a yearning for simplicity in an era of all these cheap, easy, complex recording tools. To enjoy a dude singing a song on a guitar and doing it with nothing, and being moved by it, that’s great. That’s all you really need.”
Life is not for waiting. Greene, who is comfortable on a number of instruments, including guitar, piano, organ and drums, would rather meander and seek life than wait for it to majestically appear.
“I’ve always looked at my career path as something that mimics my personality,” said Greene. “I am an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) guy and I get hyper-focused on different things at different times, and I’m just following my own bliss. And as an artist that’s what you need to do – whether you are a filmmaker, or painter, or a musician, or a writer – you must follow what you are interested in at the moment, and that’s a lot harder than it sounds. If your path is narrow and points in one direction, that’s cool. But mine has little turn offs and I like to explore those, and ultimately they all lead in the same direction.”
The strength of Greene’s repertoire is not only his ability to isolate his senses and feelings in his lyrics, but that he conveys it all with a voice that’s at once craggy, raggedy, sincere and soulful.
“I believe there are honest singers who believe what they are singing, whether they wrote the song or not. Truth in song has nothing to do with facts. It feels dishonest for me to be singing something that I’m not invested in emotionally, and I’m not good at faking it. If I’m not feeling it, then you are going to know that. I try to always be working within the realm of what I’m really feeling. There can be vulnerability, and honesty, and that is what transcends beyond all of the sound, beyond the loud amplifiers, and this and that. Truth is what creates the emotional connection.”
Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of “Shot in Montana: A History of Big Sky Cinema.” He may be reached at email@example.com.