Monday, June 18, 2012

Kyler England: Singer? And how! Songwriter? Not so much

Kyler England’s new EP, the Spare Key Sessions, is a collection of tasteful arrangements supporting her irresistible voice. England reminds me a lot of Sarah McLachlan, whom I admire for her sublime instrument and her emotive delivery, her initiative in organizing the Lilith Fair, and her philanthropy – but whose songwriting I don’t admire. England is one fourth of the band The Rescues, a Los Angeles-based group of singer-songwriters who made a couple of albums on Universal Republic records, broke up, and have re-formed to make another album independently

I feel kind of bad about not liking England more. I don’t want my personal demons and prejudices to obscure my ability to assess an artist fairly.  After browsing through some of The Rescues' material, I think it's much more interesting than the material on the Spare Key Sessions. Maybe England was exhausted from the group dynamics of a band comprising four singer-songwriters - a situation anyone who's ever been in a band can relate to - and this pushed her into minimalist mode for her solo album. But in terms of arrangements, lyrics, and vocal style, the band is far more intriguing.

 I Know It When I Hear It

There are probably billions of songs, billions of chord sequences, billions of lyrics out there already. How do we judge one song, one set of chords, one batch of lyrics, to be better than another? I don’t know. It’s kind of like obscenity – I know it when I hear it, for example when I listen to Paul McCartney playing “Blackbird.” But how can the European diatonic scale, with its measly twelve notes, provide the foundation for an infinite number of songs? How can European harmony and the African blues scale be such bottomless cups? It’s a bit easier to envision such variety in the verbal realm – we do have twenty-six letters in our alphabet, and I don’t know how many words there are in English, but the possible word combinations must be a very large number. Perhaps all those monkeys with typewriters know. 

Generally when I’m listening to a new singer-songwriter, I ask myself two questions: 
  •  Would I put this song on my mp3 player?    
  •  Do I want to learn this song?
 Unfortunately, the answer is no for all the songs on the Spare Key Sessions. Now that doesn’t mean England’s not talented. She’s very talented. She’s technically competent on several instruments, and her voice is a divine vehicle. Maybe my indifference to her material stems from ugly personal issues. Do I feel ho-hum about England because she’s a streaky blonde with beautiful teeth and a gorgeous voice and I’m not? 

Girl With Guitar

Way back in my life history, I sent, completely unsolicited, a demo tape to all of the major labels who carried artists I felt I resembled in one way or another. Back then, the music industry’s “business model” was very different. To become a national figure, an artist had to impress three very important people: 1) a competent manager; 2) an artist-and-repertoire person working for a record label; and 3) a booking agent/tour promoter. Over-the-transom demos like mine were almost always simply returned to sender unopened. There was no such thing as fan funding of recording projects.

I had several astonishingly positive responses to my demo. An A&R person from Geffen Records even called me. But another of the A&R people who liked my tape said I sounded too much like Joni Mitchell. At the time such a resemblance was more of a liability than an asset, because it had already become uncool to admire her. Mitchell was being cast as a lightweight girl singer whose songs were too introspective and not danceable.

That didn’t stop me from seeing her as my north star, even though I secretly didn’t believe I could pull off being a girl singer. I didn’t see a singer in my mirror – I’d been trained on classical piano, played the flute in band, and learned to play the guitar from my boyfriend. Even as a child, singing per se had seemed too wimpy somehow, and as I misspent my youth during the second wave of feminism, it seemed important to break the stereotype and show that women could do it all, not just be decorative or serve as Trilby to some ambitious nutcase’s Svengali. 

We are all full of contradictions. I wanted to be both autonomous and womanly. At the time, this was a difficult combination to achieve. As with so many things, the personal was political. Which door – Feminine or Feminist? For women musicians of the era, the pretty girl with the guitar was a sort of black hole with so much cultural gravity that I felt I had to resist it ferociously to stake out my own territory. And since I didn’t think I could successfully embody the stereotypical image, I felt that giving in to its gravitational field would consign me to complete oblivion. Moreover, I knew that entry into the national scene would inevitably entail marketing efforts based on sexual allure, to which I objected both on feminist grounds and out of body dysmorphia. I doubt if many of the male singer-songwriters of the period heard that particular giant sucking sound.  

If I had viewed myself as acceptably feminine, it would have been much easier to just go ahead and be a girl with a guitar. Instead I tried to be one of the boys, struggling to stop worrying about my appearance and my voice and concentrate on the song – the lyrics above all, but the chords as well. If you can write a really good song, I thought, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t pretty and you don’t have a pretty voice. Many highly skilled songwriters aren't great players or singers. Consider the brilliant John Prine. I saw him in concert once with the late Steve Goodman, and noticed that Prine could play the guitar only in the key of G. If he performed a song in another key, he simply adjusted his capo. And he never could sing. But the songs! Nothing mattered once you experienced the actual songs.

Ironically, not having a conventionally pretty voice is an advantage in the struggle against gender stereotyping, because you can’t take the path of least resistance. Mitchell’s voice was strange. The first time I heard her, I thought her voice was kind of a caterwaul. It was utterly fascinating, but weirder than anything I’d heard before. This was because I’d been listening to Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” before I heard Mitchell’s original. Mitchell was so singular that she was an acquired taste. As I came to appreciate her, I saw a landscape that I might be able to inhabit – one where conventional looks and conventional music might not matter as much as lyrical mastery and harmonic idiosyncracy. 

However, as noted above, admiring and being likened to Joni Mitchell was a blessing and a curse. She played in a lot of open tunings, which I did not have the patience for, and which I had learned from the musicians I was hanging out with was something of a copout. Anybody can strum pretty chords in open tunings; only a complete understanding of the standard tuning and the notes on the fretboard will deliver guitar mastery.  As I recall, Mitchell confessed somewhere that she often just put her fingers on the frets randomly and didn’t know what notes or chords she was playing. Given my other influences, I thought this was a precious bit of know-nothingism. 

Many of the musicians I hung out with were jazz players, who can be extremely cerebral in their approach to playing. With respect to songs, most jazz musicians cut their teeth on standards originating in the Tin Pan Alley era. Even though Tin Pan Alley songs often are played through, meaning they don’t go back and repeat sections like a pop/rock/blues song does, they definitely progress, and usually employ a wider range of harmonic relationships than pop tunes do. The jazz players I knew placed great emphasis on knowing how to write and improvise over a chord progression, rather than simply a sequence of chords that might or might not be related. 

So through my early education and my musical apprenticeship, I was steeped in the notion of structure. But there was also an efflorescence of experimentation going on just when I was beginning to be a singer-songwriter. Because we were in the midst of the counterculture and the Miles Davis era, most of the jazz players I knew had experience at playing completely free, without regard to harmonic structure. 

At the same time there was a Golden Age of Singer-Songwritering underway, in which innovation and singularity were likewise highly valued. Looking back at that period, it’s staggering how many truly unique, powerful artists there were in addition to Mitchell – Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Lennon and McCartney, Phil Ochs,  Brian Wilson, Donovan Leitch, Buffy St. Marie, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, Laura Nyro, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, John Hartford. On and on and on. 

Harmonically, most of these songwriters used the simplest of diatonic structures: the tonic, the major fourth, the major fifth, the minor sixth, the minor second. Obviously you can go a very long way with these fundamentals, and because this is true, it’s very difficult to decide just what it is that makes a song brilliant when it doesn’t stray from the conventions. 

England doesn’t wander from those conventions, and I kind of wish she would just put her fingers down on the guitar or the piano without thinking about it. This is actually a good way to come up with melodies, which can often remain very simple themselves but sound more interesting with unconventional changes beneath them. Writing something in the spirit of Lennon's "Come Together" - what spiritualists call "automatic writing" - can generate fruitful images and emotions.


Less than Meets the Ear

England does come up with inviting song titles (listen at "Eye of Your Storm," "Alchemy," "We Rise Like Smoke." But once I'm past the leading image, her lyrics also seem vague to me, a bit loose. She abandons rhyme altogether much of the time, or employs half/slant rhymes. I don’t have a problem with that, but there’s something about finding really good rhymes that expands the meaning of the words, and I think half/slant and no-rhymes need to be sprinkled among full rhymes to be effective.  Because her voice is such that she could sing the phone book and make it sound good, as the old cliché has it, there’s also a looseness in England's phrasing that would be better supported by stronger lyrics. 

Obviously my preferences oscillate between structure and harmonic sophistication, the simple power of popular tradition, and the freedom of complete improvisation. And I am admittedly prejudiced against beautiful voices. I don’t know whether any of this explains why I am not enamored of England’s songwriting. I don’t know who her influences are, but if Sarah McLachlan is one of them, I’d like to see England broaden her horizons and take more risks.

Of course my opinion shouldn’t detract from anyone's appreciation of England’s strong points. I can see why her music has been featured in so many TV shows and films - her voice packs a lot of emotive power and her lyrics are surely strengthened when paired with visual imagery. England’s own thoughtful take on her songwriting process is available at

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