Restless spirit wandering
He just keeps stringing them along.
Tim O’Brien, fluent with any stringed instrument, is the guest of honor at the free Street Beat concert at Check Point Charlie today at 6 p.m. He comes with the Tim O’Brien Band, including Dirk Powell, Casey Driessen and John Doyle. They plan to keep the crowd warm and wiggly with plenty of fiddle tunes, jigs, reels and other offerings, both traditional and contemporary.
O’Brien was on the roots music scene decades before the Amerciana explosion pushed that music into mainstream consciousness. His thirsty approach to finding “real music” helped keep him there. The singer/songwriter fuses the past with the present, and has a knack for phrasing and detail most aspire to. But what keeps his audiences returning is the honesty in his voice – he sings the hell out of his songs.
Before heading out on his latest European tour, O’Brien spent some time on the phone with the Vail Daily.
Have they told you where you’re playing?
I hear I’m playing outside. It’s been awhile since I did it on purpose.
“Traveler” is so unified thematically. Traveling is a theme you come back to again and again – history and stories keep popping up, too.
It gets more personal as it goes on somehow. I’m in the game of trying to write for other singers here in Nashville, but mostly what satisfies me is just writing about what’s going on in my own head, or the stuff that’s pertinent about what I’m going through. I’m sure two or three of these are being pitched around town, but mostly it’s pretty personal. Not your typical one-on-one love songs.
On your Web site you say you’ve gotten better at telling your story. Does that mean it’s easier?
Well, a couple of things. One is, I stopped forcing songs. Usually the ones I liked the best were the ones that weren’t forced. I’m not worried so much if the output isn’t so great all the time. I just wait for the good ones, the right inspiration. The other thing is, the stuff, the tangible details of your own life, seem to be easier to get to. People seem to relate more to songs that are more personal. I don’t understand this. Maybe because they’re about stuff that happens to a lot of people. But the detail in them is stuff that I’ve seen physically. The song about the shoes and the suitcase – they’re just about what happens with me. So it is easier. Instead of trying to put some sort of artificial situation together, it seems to be more real.
What does your family think of that?
Well, we don’t talk a whole lot about it. But you know, a song like “Let Love Take You Back Again,” that’s just about you having trouble with your loved ones. You’ve got to sit back and be done with your anger, be done with the walls you’ve put up and let yourself feel. They hear the songs around the house when I’m getting ready to record. It will drive my wife nuts because I keep playing the same song again and again. They’re real supportive. My son Joel is 13, he’s around and hearing the stuff while I’m writing it. He’s really supportive and really interested. And so he learns these songs when I do.
Does writing the songs crystallize the experiences you’ve had?
That’s another thing. If something’s bothering you and you write about it – I’ve gone through times of keeping a journal and writing everything that I think morning after morning for months at a time. That can help you to vent, just getting it out of your system.
Usually I don’t look at the journal very much, but the songs when you sing them, usually you can you can look at the experiences in new ways. And you do learn about new stuff, mostly by writing it out. You see what you let out and, using the craft of a writer, you shape it in certain ways, you add and delete what maybe is being suggested but not said. So yes, you do learn about yourself.
Do you ever worry about re-creating or changing an experience when you’re writing?
I can usually tell if it’s different. A lot of times, these things are mostly true. But I know usually what’s true or what’s not. Writing something gives it a perspective, and maybe it changes it in that way?
In “Less and Less” (on “Traveler”) you sing about trying several ways of living only to discover the simple way is the best for you. Do you think most people have to try everything on before knowing which path is theirs?
Some people have a little more of an idea starting out – a lot more of an idea – and they don’t waste time with the side roads. They’ve got a better sense of theirselves, so no, I don’t think everyone has to do that. But I think of myself as a real slow learner. It takes me awhile.
Obviously you’ve carved out your own musical style, and keep exploring that and pushing it. What’s likely to influence your music at this point?
As far as writing lyrics, it’s mostly books I read, people I know and stuff I’m experiencing in my own self. And those are a lot of themes I keep diving deeper into. History, it just never ends, you can’t really get to the bottom of it and it’s never really told correctly, so you keep looking at different points of view.
But with the music, what influences me the most is the people I’m playing with. This record certainly reflects playing with Casey Driessen and John Doyle and Dirk Powell for sure. The way it sounds has a great deal to do with how they play.
And as musicians, we travel in the van and have the CD player going with everyone’s picks for the week. Casey’s interested in funk and jazz kind of stuff. And John’s really into Celtic music, he’s really into old ballads and songs. And he just has a big body of stuff he sings during soundchecks, just for fun. So that influences me. And Dirk, of course, he’s into all of it. He’s into anything that’s real. John and Dirk are really into traditional music, and trying to reform it to their way of thinking and their audience, so I’m right there wtih that. And I just listen to what I can find. Songwriters are big, but they’re no more important than novelists.
You wrote a whole album, “Songs of the Mountain,” inspired by Charles Frazier’s book, “Cold Mountain.”
I hardly wrote anything for that record, but Dirk Powell, John Hermann and I did a record drawing on the references that run through that novel. If you know the music, if you’ve been around it enough time and you read that book, you realize that the author used it as part of the texture, and also as background material. We came to find out, after meeting up with him, that he listened to a lot of old music and used that to try and get the speech patterns, and just the sound of people from another time. He was really interested in listening to the music, the oldest recordings he could find by the oldest people. So you could go as far back as possible. Stuff from the early days, and in the ’20s when they were recording, he used a lot of that for his research.
So Dirk and I read this book separately and we both said, to ourselves, “Man, I’ve got to make a record that connects the music, so the people could hear what they’re reading about.” So we ended up finding out about that, that we were both planning the same thing. So we did it together. And it turned out really well. He’s been involved quite a bit with the soundtrack for the movie. I got slightly involved. It’s been a long road from us making that record to the soundtrack coming out and the movie coming out and everything.
But not just that – it turned out that the author had been well aware of Dirk’s and my music before he wrote the book. (Frazier) actually spent some time teaching at the University of Colorado, and at that time High Rize (my band) was playing around. He’d go see us at the clubs in town, and he had recordings of us that he’d listen to.
And then Anthony Minghella, the screenwriter, used “Songs of the Mountain” as part of his research. So music has been a big part of that book, and the movie as well. It turns out, there’s a lot of people, a lot of music involved. But we were part of that from the beginning, which is really kind of mind boggling, it blows me away. It humbles me, we were all sort of going after the same thing without knowing it.
Do you think people could listen to the music of today and get a grasp on our language?
Well, it certainly helps, if you’re going to go back and learn about stuff. There’s all the art, the music, the craft, the modes of dress – they’re all part of it. They reflect what’s going on. So I suppose you could look back from the future and see. But, it just reflects what’s already going on. If they get their finger on a pulse and people relate to it, it’s a closer match. It’s not like you come up with an original thought. It’s more like you put out what’s already happening.
That realization is liberating. Trying to create, you realize two things. You’re never going to do anything that’s completely original because you’re always going to refer to something before. And you’re never going to make it completely like it was before, so it’s just going to be your own way of expressing some of the similar things that have always been expressed. So, all those worries fall away, and you just sort of end up with melodies and a lyric.
That’s a beautiful way of putting it.
It’s easier said than done. But it is easier once you stop worrying about it.
And keep doing it.
Yeah, keep doing it. You know, I started out thinking, “I’m a musician.” You want to try to do your best and do what musicians do. And you think it’s playing a lot of licks and learning things other people know. And that’s part of it, those are the tools. And there’s the writing skills, you learn how to express through metaphor and detail.
But then, you realize you’re just communicating, you’re just reflecting what’s going on. And people need it. They not only like it, they need it. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you wonder about your place in the world. And then you realize, just as long as I’m getting out there and putting something out that people seem to tap their foot to, you’re probably going to get there. It’s helpful.
But the other thing is, I’ve traveled over the whole dang world. One year I went to Shetlands, Ireland, to the Folk Festival there, and we spent a week. You fly in and you take a ferry, overnight, and you get there at 8 in the morning, and you’re captive for a week. You kind of wonder why. And then you turn around and do the ferry ride and it’s right back. I didn’t go anywhere else over there. Why did I do this? Why did I go here just for this? It’s a really small place. Of course I wanted to see what it was like there. But I’d been invited to this several times and put it off. But finally I went. Towards the end of the week, we were with our hosts, sitting watching a show, another group playing. Our host started crying and I asked her what was wrong. And she said, “It’s just that you have to leave.” And I just went, wow, this is why I come around. I like it because it’s something I know how to do. I feel useful. And when I realize that it is useful, that’s great.
But that means you can’t quit.
Well, you can’t quit. That’s right. And I’d like to spend more time – I need a recharge sometimes, at home with nothing going on. I had most of a month here. I need that at least once a year. But I think as I get older I need a little more. The other thing is, things get more complicated as the profile gets higher. It gets more intense. I need it to grow into another incarnation or another stage where I’ve got stuff to do at home. And I do have stuff to do at home. I’ve just put it on the back burner for 30 years.
As a traveling musician – and you just described this – you must have a little bit of a restless spirit yourself. If you were a ghost, would you come back home, or do you think you would go somewhere else?
I don’t know much about ghosts. I’m not the one that feels them around. My wife has felt the experience of them. Some people don’t believe it’s a real thing. But she’s pretty convinced and there seems to be enough evidence of them. From what I’ve read, it seems ghosts are people that don’t accept that they’re gone. So they’re unwilling to let go. So I don’t know that I would – I try not to be attached to anything. I would rather not come back.
I mean, with the music, that’s the thing that these people like Bill Monroe or Duke Ellington, they’re immortal because their music lasts. It stays with you. And they changed things with their music. So as a musician, I hope that enough people remember what I did, or take a cue from that, so there’s at least a little bit of what I did in what they do. I think that’s probably going to happen. I see kids playing it already, so I don’t feel like I need to stick around.
But his music will. For more information on the musician, visit his Web site at http://www.timobrien.net.