Hello Troubadourians! This column marks the beginning of my third year writing this column. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it! Now, back to the real stuff…
As a performing musician, you often encounter people who haven’t heard you play. Inevitably, someone will ask you, “Who do you sound like?” Or, after hearing you play, they’ll come up to you and say, “Hey, you sound like so-and-so singer or such-and-such player.” How do you respond? Are you proud of your influences? Does it bother you that they show? Are you insulted? Do you care if people notice or if they don’t? Most of us have felt all of these emotions at one time or another and how we deal with those emotions will usually change with our evolution as musicians. As an experiment, I thought I’d pose that question to some musician friends who are at varying points on their journey as performers and musicians.
Younger musicians often more readily identify with their idols and are more inclined – and flattered – to be compared with them. We’ve all seen it happen; a new singer-songwriter will hit the airwaves and within a few months there are hundreds of virtual clones performing at every coffeehouse and open mic venue in cities across the country. (Think Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, etc…). Some of these performers wear their “sound-alike” status like a badge of honor. Others will simply admit to their influence if it means that they will garner some modicum of recognition or if it will help them get the gig that they’re seeking. It’s not a bad thing to closely emulate the people we admire. After all, these are the musicians who very likely are the reason we started playing in the first place. The Eagles were “it” when I was starting to perform and I could do a spot-on Glenn Frey voice, plus I knew every Eagles song and every guitar part on every record. When people would tell me that I sounded – and played – like Glenn Frey/Don Felder/Bernie Leadon, there was no higher compliment they could give me.
As we mature as musicians, especially if/when we start writing our own songs and music, we tend to move away from sounding like our influences. This is normal and healthy. (Those whose music doesn’t move beyond their influences often lose interest in music and drift away out of boredom. That or they join a tribute band…). This is a tough place to be musically as we no longer want to depend upon our influences for inspiration but we either don’t really know what our sound is, or we’re not sure that it would measure up to our expectations even if we could recognize it. It is at this point when we are most likely to take offense to the whole “Who do you sound like? Hey, you sound like…” conundrum. Been there, done that made an ass of myself more than once. The thing is, as you are finding your way to your sound, people will often hear their favorite performers in your music. This is a compliment even if you don’t know how they arrived at that conclusion (or even if you don’t particularly like the comparison); just smile and say thank you. Be glad that people like your music and take the time to tell you so personally. (You would be surprised by the number of different guitar players folks would tell me my playing reminded them of, most of whom were players I never listened to or even heard of, much less were an influence…).
Of course, there are those to whom these observations don’t necessarily apply, and that thought brings me to mention a conversation I had with my friend, Jeff Boyer. When I recently asked Jeff the “Who do you sound like?” question, he was unable to really describe who he thought he sounded like. I inquired further by asking, “Do you even know how to describe what you do or who you sound like?” He laughed and said, “Not really.” The closest he came to fitting the responses I’ve reported above was when he recalled the many times people would tell him that he reminded them of some player that he’d never listened to. His best guess as to a description of his playing is that he is a “folk guitarist.” He said, “I usually tell them, ‘Just listen to what I do and you tell me what I am.’” So, I listened to him play a song on a 12-string guitar and I decided that he was indeed a folk guitarist with a style similar to latter-period Leo Kottke. Jeff seemed pleased with that assessment. He smiled and said, “I was playing a Taylor ‘Leo Kottke’ model guitar…”
The desire to “get good” drives us to emulate those musicians and artists whom we admire. In turn, the desire to sound “like ourselves,” is – or at least should be – what drives us to replace rote emulation with the true expression of who we are as musicians. That doesn’t mean we abandon our influences in totality, not that it is desirable or even possible to do so. We chose our influences because they moved us at some level. And just as those who influence us, chose their influences because they were similarly moved. The masters teach us more than just what we can claim as their influence; they likewise teach us how to be an influence. Use that knowledge to move and influence those who listen to you. As long as we continue to play, practice, listen, and expose our musical minds to varied and challenging new sounds and songs, we will eventually sound like ourselves. Whether we think we’re good enough or not is really beside the point; having assimilated our influences, taking what we can from them, we will have distilled everything into a style that is uniquely our own. What we do with it from there is really a matter of how we embrace that style and how hard we work to continue our development. So, who are you? Who do you sound like? Why, I sound like myself, of course…
Coda: I’ve just returned home from the annual Troubadour Holiday Party. I want to thank all of you who took the time to seek me out and tell me how much you enjoy this column. Thank you, all! I look forward to every conversation and email correspondence. You are why I write it.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)