You’ve lined up three concerts at the Southern exploring songwriting, starting November 14 with “Lush Life: Interpretations of the American jazz canon.” And you’re featuring some musicians for that show that you wouldn’t expect to hear doing jazz: Omaur Bliss, Ill Chemistry, and, of course, your band, DeVon, the Heiruspecs, who will be the house band for all three concerts. How did this come about?
Adam Levy: The Southern has been expanding its musical offerings and they knew I really like conversations about music and presenting those in entertaining ways. It’s a chance to highlight great emerging songwriters and talk about the process. We were encouraged to have a few themes, and we came up with different performances, the first being Lush Life.
DeVon Gray: The next show [February 14] is songs about loss and love. Actually like 70 percent of all songs are about strain, struggle and strife, life issues. That’s what songwriters like to talk about.
AL: And the last is called the Rites of Spring [April 14], hosted by Chris Koza, featuring songwriters with some kind of string accompaniment. But really I think the effort was reach out to songwriters, well-known or just emerging, and we got a great response.
What is canonical?
AD: We had to set some parameters about what the jazz canon is. I think by the 1960s, the record labels were encouraging jazz artists to record people like the Beatles for financial reasons. I think the Beatles are brilliant composers and I think those jazz artists, with some exceptions, reluctantly made those recordings because they liked the songs. But I don’t consider the Beatles part of the American jazz canon.
DG: I think it’s because of the different harmonic language. The Beatles came from the blues, which has a simpler chord structure, the jazz structure, well, there’s a lot more chords to put it simply.
AD: Something happened in the 1970s. When we talk about the canon, we’re really choosing from a body of work created by the songwriters of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, a limited pool of people who were classically trained and were familiar with American song form and the birth of the blues. The question I find interesting is, what happened? I think Burt Bacharach in the 1960s is the last of these songwriters. All of the sudden, in the early ’70s, the pop artists who inherited this tradition, the Carole Kings and Neil Diamonds, did something else, saying, “I think it’s important to perform the songs that I write, not just write hits for the Monkees.” And all of a sudden, it’s gone, the whole tradition. I challenge you to find songwriting in the 1970s and beyond that’s considered part of that canonical tradition.
The influences and musical training may also have changed.
DG: I’ve had an inner monologue going on about this for some time now. Did you have musical appreciation classes in junior high, high school?
AD: Not at that time, no.
DG: That was huge in the 1950s and ’60s and then it stopped happening. Yes, you can be an outsider and find classical music later and find love there. But it’s somewhat difficult if you’re from a different culture, you need some kind of introduction and we used to have that as a country.
AD: Do you think there are fewer people who are musically literate now, the percentage of people who can read music?
DG: I think so.
People used to sing a lot more and play music a lot more, even if it was singing along with Mitch Miller or around the piano.
DG: I don’t think they could sit down and read piano music now, they don’t speak the language anymore.
AD: Is music any less important for people now?
DG: Absolutely not. But our perception’s changed and technology has a lot to do with that as well.
The way people listen to music now is by and large with singles, not a whole album. Does that change the game for songwriters?
AD: I think it’s shifted the perspective of a lot of songwriters. I’ve always loved the idea of an album, a body of work, knitting together music so it feels cohesive, sometimes a theme, songtimes a lyrical theme or vocal angle. I got a record deal, a publishing deal in the 1990s, a boom period when indie bands were getting deals left and right. Everything seemed golden at that point. I knew I could make records and make records on publishing. And because of the technological and the splintering of the industry, it’s a free-for-all. Now I’m not making virtually any money from my music. I feel my songwriting is better than it was when I got my first record deal, but I doubt I’ll make anywhere near the same amount of money.
So now what?
AD: I have to deliver those songs live. I have to reinterpret the recording in a live setting to monetize it. That said, I think there are people who are writing things and saying it’s not going to be a single, I’m going to put it somewhere else or I may never record it.
DG: We were talking about Arcade Fire earlier. They call themselves an album band. They don’t care about singles. We’re making art, here’s our body of work.
I recently saw Lady Gaga and whatever the merits of her songwriting, people are coming out for the spectacle. Where do you draw the line between being an artist and entertainer?
DG: I like the bones and the circulatory system of a song, why certain things resonate with people. That’s not to say, though, that if my keyboard could catch fire six feet above the ground, I wouldn’t do it.
AD: I tried to pretend for a long time that the packaging of music didn’t matter. Then I started playing music for children, with the Bunny Clogs. And it made me rethink the whole interactivity of performance, that the burden lies squarely on your shoulders to both think about the words and get people to sing along with you. Children are unforgiving, they have no sense of responsibility to respond and applaud.
What’s the state of songwriting in Minnesota right now?
DG: I’ve always loved Minnesota and there are great songwriters here, that was one of the reasons to do this series.
AD: We’re undergoing a huge renaissance right now. It’s one of the most exciting times in terms of unique songwriting, musical styles. It might be happening everywhere, but it seems unique to me, the caliber right now, it’s raising the bar.
Why do you think that is?
AD: Many people are no longer in a single musical identity. For me, it was being in the Honeydogs. And all of sudden I realized it was really cool to collaborate with all these people. There are so many session musicians now, for financial or artistic reasons, more income or more stimulation, are playing in a lot of different styles. There’s a lot of reinventing of artists who have been around for a long time.
DG: A lot of people had something in themselves that they’ve wanted to do but hadn’t had a chance to do. And now they’re taking that chance. People know me from the Heiruspecs but that’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I want to do in music.
AD: Most people are counting on making less money in music now, but they’re making some of the most enjoyable and rewarding art.