I Just Don't Know How to Describe My Music

You would think that by now I'd have come up with some go-to descriptors of my music. But you would be wrong. I am happy to tell people that I am a musician, songwriter and performer. But when they inevitably ask me what my music sounds like, I have no idea what to say.

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Typically, I spit out some long-winded thing about how I'm really influenced by classic post-war blues, 90s alternative rock and the Grateful Dead with a dash of punk rock and just a hint of modern-pop flavor. I go on to say that I play in a high-energy, rhythmic style and I write quirky, yet soulful songs that often delve into psychedelic and spiritual subject matter. I mention that I wear a jumpsuit and perform standing on a tie-dyed rug. Then I remember to mention the Talking Heads and how I'm actually a lot like the Talking Heads. But then I think, "that's a whole band with electric instruments and I am just a dude with an acoustic guitar," so I start explaining all of that.

Sometimes I describe myself as a "singer/songwriter," which is fine, I guess, but people get ideas in their heads about what that's supposed to mean. And I get ideas in my head about the ideas in peoples' heads about what that's supposed to mean. So I start getting a little defensive and I tell people that I am not at all like James Taylor or Tracy Chapman or whoever populates the "singer/songwriter" section of their imaginations.

A Better Way to Convey the Matt Kollock Vibe

There's this guy named Ari Herstand who has a popular DIY music-business blog called Ari's Take. He wrote a book titled How to Make it in the New Music Business, which is now in its second edition. I recommend it. He knows his stuff and I respect the shit out of his advice for indie musicians. He is also, like me, from Wisconsin!

Anyway, here's what Ari tweeted the other day:

As a musician who has a difficult time talking about their own music, I was not surprised to learn that many musicians have a very difficult time talking about their own music. And I was pleased by Ari's advice to use comparison as a means of description.

Just pick a couple of familiar artists who sound like me? Mash up some recognizable musical descriptors? Wonderful! Great! Easy!

Here's what I've come up with: My music is...

  • If Creedence Clearwater Revival emerged from the Seattle grunge scene of the early '90s
  • If Tony Joe White took psilocybin mushrooms with Joey Ramone and had a jam session with R.E.M
  • If Fiona Apple was a psychedelic, spiritual carnivore who picked up the guitar instead of the piano
  • If Joe Strummer took Bob Weir's place in the Grateful Dead
  • If Bob Weir took Mick Jones's place in The Clash after hanging out with Rick James and Ram Dass over a long, lost weekend
  • If Mick Jones took Joey Santiago's place in the Pixies after experiencing a ten-day silent meditation retreat led by Bernard "Pretty" Purdy
  • If Joey Santiago joined Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble and demanded that Marianne Williamson be brought along as chief lyricist
  • If Hall and Oates took DMT and recorded a punk album produced by Jeff Buckley and Leon Russell and featured Ani DiFranco on rhythm guitar
  • If Jeff Buckley were a little more skilled as a swimmer, a little less skilled as a vocalist and about the same as a guitarist while being a much more prolific songwriter. On acid.
  • If Prince were about six inches taller, 90% less confident and 100% less cool. On acid.
  • If Ween spent the summer on the road with The Meters in Germany in the late 1980s and the endeavor was documented on film by Bernard Shakey
  • If Talking Heads went to India with The Beatles and listened to a bunch of Stax-Volt records on the return trip while passing the bong around and never changing the water
  • If Cat Stevens and David Letterman were Simon and Garfunkel 
  • If Oprah joined the Quarrymen and met Freddy King at Studio 54 but didn't remember it
  • If Pearl Jam were all about the groove, man
  • If Andy Partridge replaced George Clinton in the P-Funk universe and recorded an album at an ashram presided over by a new, divisive guru who replaced the old guru, who was expelled after allegations of inappropriate behavior surfaced but the old guard continues to defend the former guru and who listens to classic-rock radio 15 hours a day. On acid.

So you see I continue to have trouble with this thing. But I'll keep working on it.

Aesthetics and Context

For all the worrying I do about the possibility of someone thinking me and, say, James Taylor do the same thing with music, I have to admit that there actually isn't a whole lot that's different between Sweet Baby James and me. We are both white dudes who write songs and perform them using acoustic guitars. Most of our songs are between two and five minutes in length. Most are in 4/4 time. Most feature basic, sort of classic song structures (Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, throw a bridge in there, yada-yada). We both sing in the baritone/tenor range. So what makes us so different?

To me, it's all about aesthetics and context.

I believe that for most people, the enjoyment of music comes from the aesthetic with which it is presented. I'm talking about the production style and use of things like compression, equalization, instrumentation and arrangement. It's not about the song as much as it is about the way the song sounds. And then there's the context. If people hear a song for the first time on the radio at the dentist's office, it will have a different meaning to them than if they heard it for the first time in a crowd of passionate concert-goers.

Music is also more than sound. People select the music they enjoy based on a number of factors that have nothing to do with the songs or sounds. They like to listen to the same music their friends listen to. Or they like to listen to music that serves as auditory opposition to the music their parents listened to when they grew up, or that their enemies listen to today.

At the end of the day – and I'm so, so sorry for all of you who will be hurt by this statement – there is not a lot of difference between the music of The Grateful Dead and the music of Jimmy Buffett. But try and find a person who listens to and enjoys both artists. I dare you.

What is my point? Honestly, I'm not sure. I kind of lost it there. But anyway...

I realize that I need to build my aesthetic. Right now I'm a dude with an acoustic guitar and some songs. I play in breweries and restaurants just like lots of other dudes who play the acoustic guitar and have some songs. So I want to start making my music in a way that does a better job of signaling what I'm about and what my values are. This means working on performing in different types of venues. And it means putting context around my music. Other instruments. Other musicians. Production choices. Stuff like that. Then my music will do a better job of speaking for itself. And I will come up with references that make sense so I can finally describe my music and my style with some semblance of accuracy.

Until then, Matt Kollock music sounds like if Carly Rae Jepsen served in the Korean War with Marlon Brando in a super-secret regiment of the Army that investigated occult/paranormal happenings while listening to The Joe Rogan Experience on a shared Sony Walkman that was delivered to them by a time-traveling Alex Trebek. On acid.

How Would You Describe My Music?

I am going to work on describing my music better. To be pithier about it. To paint a picture of my whole vibe with 10 to 15 words and a couple of pieces of punctuation. That will take some time. Until then, I would love to hear your suggestions for how I can describe my music! If you have seen and-or heard me perform, I invite you to chime in with your ideas. Just leave a comment or whatever, okay? Great! Thanks!

2 comments

  • Melissa
    Melissa NM
    "Like Robert Randolph & Jack Bruce started writing songs together as the result of coincidentally being stranded in a broken elevator for hours." Your descriptions made me laugh :) Peace!

    "Like Robert Randolph & Jack Bruce started writing songs together as the result of coincidentally being stranded in a broken elevator for hours."

    Your descriptions made me laugh smile Peace!

  • Matt Kollock
    Matt Kollock
    Thanks for reading, Melissa! 😀

    Thanks for reading, Melissa! 😀

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