WRESTLING THE ANGEL
Recently I was at a conference in Cape Town which gathered together different role-players in the music industry. The message from those in the know was clear: in order to succeed as a musician today, one has to be a little bit of a salesman, a little bit of an accountant, a little bit of a publicist.
I felt liberated: this line of work was going to turn me into a Renaissance man, a well-rounded individual. Now, by the cold light of noon, I’m not so sure.
About five years ago, before I started collaborating with a lyricist, I wrote a song called Wrestling the Angel. It was about a man who goes to the outside of town, searching for an angel. He knows that he will have to “wrestle that angel down” in order to receive a blessing. The outcome is uncertain, but we know that the odds are stacked against the singer.
The song is meant to be ambiguous: it refers to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel in Genesis, but also to the myths about blues players selling their souls to the devil at the crossroads. Those two worlds – the world of Genesis and the world of the blues – collided in my imagination. I was simply there to capture it when it happened.
Barbara Fairhead, my lyricist and primary musical collaborator, loves to use a metaphor borrowed from an ancient Chinese text to describe the creative process. In the Chinese story, a man tries to catch and tame the wild ox. To begin with, he hears something rustle in the sedge-grass which tells him that the ox is nearby and that he must be on the alert.
It is a good metaphor for creativity because it describes the need to be absolutely available when it happens, the time that has to be invested for the imagination to be fired. When people ask me how I manage to write songs, I say that I do it by getting rid of the clutter in my mind and making space for something new to happen.
Which brings me back to my starting-point: how does a musician or songwriter maintain the momentum necessary to create new things when there is so much to be done in the market-place?
Of course being in the market-place can be fun, and one does learn some useful things there – for one thing, one learns that one is part of a wider community of musicians and listeners. The real problem lies deeper: how does our relationship to our craft change when our primary goal is to compete for space there?
I don’t know the answer to that one, but one thing is certain: the moment when a creative impulse comes to me, tends to be a solitary one. The man looking for angels at the crossroads is lonesome; the ox is shy of the crowd.
This is not to say that songs are written in isolation, in disregard for the latest fashion. Far from it. But there is a moment when nothing matters except the song for its own sake. Then you leap in at the deep end, and don’t look back at who can follow you down.