Christopher’s Musical Influences

People sometimes ask me which artists have most influenced my writing. Although I’ve enjoyed—and been influenced by—dozens of artists, including Billy Joel, Francis Dunnery, Sheryl Crow, James Taylor, Paul Halley, John Flynn, Alannis Morrisette, Christine Lavin, Sting, and many others, four people in particular had a profound effect on my style, taste and understanding of the craft of songwriting. They caught my attention — each at the right time and with the right content — to have a big impact on my development as a songwriter and performer.

Paul Simon—Although I liked certain songs that I heard on the radio when I was growing up, the first time I really noticed the artist was when I heard Simon and Garfunkle. Artists who wrote their own material were just starting to become common at that time, but only a few (like Bob Dylan) projected a strong sense of individual personality. Paul Simon’s songs projected a personality I could really relate to: intellectual and skeptical of society’s “rules,” yet still romantic.

It didn’t escape my notice that his songwriting was excellent. I was classically trained, having sung with the American Boychoir for four years, so I didn’t care much for sloppy singing or two-note melodies. These songs had carefully crafted lyrics, real melodies, interesting chord changes—and real heart. Perhaps more to the point, I sensed that I could write like that if I put my mind to it. I became a serious student of his songs (as well as his album production, which was extremely inventive) and learned an enormous amount. (If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 30 years and you’re not familiar with Paul’s work, I recommend checking out his albums Still Crazy After All These Years and Graceland.)

Jimmy Webb—The next person whose work caught my attention was Jimmy Webb. Although he never achieved huge success as a recording artist, his dozens of first-class hit songs (including By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston, MacArthur Park, Up, Up and Away and The Highwayman) made his name a “household word” in the songwriting community.

At first I was intrigued by his big hits. I believe it was MacArthur Park that really made me take notice. While some people have made fun of this song because of certain lines in the lyrics, the fact remains that this is one of the most amazing pieces of songwriting to come out of the 20th century. The music is staggeringly original, and the emotion in the song is intense. When I heard it, I knew the writer was somebody I should be learning from.

Jim’s impact on my work moved into high gear when I discovered he had several little-known solo albums out. Tracking them down, I discovered a treasure-trove of songwriting, arranging and producing information. In addition to being a terrific songwriter, Jim is also an expert producer and arranger; in fact, he frequently arranged and produced (and played keyboards on) the recordings other artists made of his songs — recordings that went on to be big hits. On his solo albums he could really let his creative genius as a writer, arranger and producer cut loose — and he did.

The thing that made those albums especially educational was that he experimented freely. He wrote wildly original songs, added arrangements that were always unique and frequently outrageous, and produced the heck out of the recordings. Yet the results still managed to stay within the stylistic bounds of “sensible” rock/pop songwriting! He stretched the boundaries without breaking them.

I was hooked.

Even more important, along with all the brilliant things he achieved on those albums, some of the experiments he tried failed — a few of them just didn’t have the intended effect. Because of that, I learned what didn’t work, as well as what did work. I owe a great deal to Mr. Webb, and I still have tremendous admiration for him and his writing, arranging and producing skills. (A recent solo collection of original songs, and a nice example of his work, is Twilight of the Renegades.)

Joni Mitchell—Shortly after discovering Jimmy Webb, I heard Joni Mitchell’s work. Not only is she a fabulous writer, she brought a new level of intimacy to songwriting. Her songs contained so much personal detail that she felt like a best friend — and she was the kind of person most of us would love to have as a best friend: honest, sensitive, insightful, witty and intelligent. And, of course, the quality of her lyrics and music was far above that of many of her contemporaries.

The amount of personal detail that she exposed in her music was a key part of what drew her fans to her music, but eventually it backfired. When she became very successful, the lack of privacy that often accompanies fame was amplified by the amount of personal information revealed in her songs, and she finally went into seclusion. Ultimately, she switched to a less revealing style of writing, which cost her many of her fans. Nevertheless, she showed the power of personal honesty (as well as phenomenal craftsmanship) in songwriting.

It was a lesson that was not lost on me. In fact, my song Portrait, on the album INTUITION, is written and recorded in her style, as a tribute to her. (To sample some of her finest work, try Ladies of the Canyon for a straightforward, less-produced album, or Court and Spark for a complex but compelling disc.)

Isao Tomita—The fourth artist whose work impacted me tremendously was doing something utterly different from Paul, Jim and Joni. When I moved to New York, a new friend turned me on to Japanese synthesizer artist Isao Tomita. Tomita’s albums featured well-known classical music, reinterpreted on synthesizer (a relatively new musical instrument at that time). However, that doesn’t begin to describe what was really going on on his albums.

Tomita understands some things about music that are difficult to put into words. Most of us think of music as a concrete sort of thing that is produced by an instrument or voice. This keeps the experience of the music within certain boundaries; it’s difficult to experience the music separately from its presentation. We’re always aware that an orchestra or person or instrument is creating the music.

In contrast, a synthesizer can produce sounds that aren’t associated with anything concrete — unless you want them to be. (Many people dislike synthesizer music for exactly this reason!) Because a synthesizer can sound like almost anything, it can be wonderful or terrible in many more dimensions than, say, a saxophone. That’s where the imagination of the artist comes into the equation. Freed from conventional boundaries, the possibilities for creating something extraordinary—or awful—are endless.

Tomita took music to an experiential level that I had never encountered before. In a way, the dazzling production and arrangements of Jimmy Webb had whetted my appetite. Jimmy Webb pushed the boundaries . . . but he still produced his music in the familiar, concrete way. In Tomita’s music, the synthesized sounds take on a life of their own. The textures and tones are used to shape sensory experience directly, without the “interference” of the someone is creating this experience. The sounds move freely around you when you sit in front of stereo speakers or listen over headphones, unrestricted by a traditional physical sound source. So in Tomita’s hands, the frantic, fast-moving melody lines of Mercury from Holst’s The Planets actually race around the room!

Tomita also uses sound in a number of other unusual ways. He’s familiar with the concept of synesthesia, which is, put simply, the experience of sensory information through the “wrong” sensory center in the brain. If this happens consciously, as it does for some people, you might experience sounds as blobs of light, or colors that you see might cause you to “hear” specific audio pitches.

This is a very complex subject which I talk about in my songwriting workshops, and I don’t want to explain it in detail here. Suffice it to say that it’s possible to use sound to convey visual or tactile information in a very direct manner, and Tomita does this quite effectively when he chooses to.

Tomita also sometimes uses sound to convey visual information in a more traditional, indirect way, by making the notes of a piece of music resemble familiar sounds. Thus, his version of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, becomes a cat chasing a bird and a chicken around the room! (If you’d like to sample Tomita’s work, avoid the “greatest hits” collections; instead, try Pictures at an Exhibition, The Planets, or Grand Canyon.)

Tomita’s music is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it had a profound effect on me because it changed my entire conception of what music is and what music is capable of. The best analogy I can think of is Isaac Newton’s laws of physics, vs. Albert Einstein’s. There’s nothing wrong with Newton’s physics, but his rules only apply within the framework of ordinary, day-to-day experiences. Once you go beyond that framework, into enormous distances, sizes or speeds, you need Einstein’s physics to comprehend what happens. And once you grasp what Einstein was saying—and what makes his physics so different from Newton’s—you realize that the world is fundamentally different from the way it appears on a day-to-day basis. You can’t see the world the way you did before.

This is what Tomita did for my understanding of music, and I’m forever in his debt for taking me over that threshold.

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