In Conversation: Alan Cross

Alan Cross is the mind and voice behind The Ongoing History of New Music, a modern music discussion show that has been running since 1993. He has interviewed or spoken with seemingly everyone in the music industry, and profiled different artists and musical movements and genres. We met at Corus Entertainment's lakeshore office, where he works as a consultant. We spoke for an hour  about the relationship between the artist, her work, and the public, and about what it takes to make it to the top. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

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Why do we love learning about the context around an album or a period in an artist's life?

When you have an emotional connection to a piece of art, you want to make that connection as deep as possible, and that means going a little bit deeper than just looking at it, or listening to it or touching it or whatever it is. You want to know where it came from; you want to know about the creator. You want to know about what motivated the creator to do something like this; what were they feeling, what were they thinking; what sort of things did they experience that allowed them to feel and create this thing.

So I find it absolutely fascinating the motivations people have for making any kind of art. Like why do you feel you have to express your feelings through this medium? Is it a song, is it a painting, is it – whatever it is, I don’t know. And I think this is part of the reason we’re so fascinated with artists, because what we do essentially is, we pay or compensate artists to feel for us and to express those feelings in ways that we cannot – it’s just not in our DNA.

We have trouble expressing how we feel and that’s why we turn to artists; help me understand what it is that I’m feeling and if you can even begin with something like that, well, then I want to know a little bit more about where you're coming from and why you do what you do.

Do you think that songs can give us some idea of what artists are feeling or going through? Or is this almost like a façade that they put on?

Well, I mean, there are a lot of people that do paint by numbers. I mean, they – here’s a formula, here are all the data points that we have to hit along the way. We have to have a beat that’s x number of BPM; we have to use these pronouns – the you pronoun is very, very powerful, If you listen to a lot of pop music the word you comes up a lot. It has to be in this key and you have to get to the chorus in x number of seconds. And the chorus itself – the hook itself – has to have x number of notes.

And there are people like Max Martin, who’s a producer out of Sweden, who knows exactly how to put all these pieces together and create hit after hit after hit after hit.

And that doesn’t mean those songs done resonate with people, because there are certain audio cues that make people go crazy, and if you know how to assemble those audio cues, whether you're being genuine or not doesn’t matter, as long as it comes out in the performance, that it feels genuine, or it gets somebody to feel something as a result, well, I mean, then it works.

What do you think it does to an artist if they're making, say music, to express genuine feeling and then that feeling is misunderstood by the audience? So you spend all this time –--

Well, here’s the problem: once you create your song, it's out there in the public space. Artists have always been frustrated about the fact that people misinterpreted their intentions. It’s the way it is: once you release it, you lose control of it and that again is the subjective nature of music. People will interpret something the way they see fit, because that’s how it made them feel, and who are you to tell them that they're wrong?

Sorry, this wasn’t my intent. It doesn’t matter; I heard it and I feel it this way and that’s the way it’s going to be. And it happens all the time, all the time, and you have a lot of artists who are, you know, continually saying well yeah, I wasn’t exactly trying to say that, you know, and I wasn’t trying to hark on memories of the holocaust; I was really just kind of talking about the time that girl dumped me.

Well no, I’m sorry, I heard holocaust and that’s how I feel about it and you know, you holocaust and now you're Nazi. Like no – wait, no! That’s an extreme example of course, but it does happen all, all the time.

And there are artists who don’t want their songs to be – to have – or at least they don’t want their songs to have – they don’t want their motivations and their feelings about what a song is about, to be known.

Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip, he has absolutely no interest in explaining his lyrics, none whatsoever. He says whatever you get out of me, get out of me. But what do you think they were? it doesn’t matter.

It almost seems like as soon as you release something – like for an artist you must have the idea that this is mine and my opinion is kind of king, but as soon as you put it out, you're now just one opinion among however many.

It happens. I mean, it even happens with books. An author will release a book, not because it’s finished, but because they’ve abandoned it. You could write a book forever and ever and ever and ever. But it just comes to a point you're just like, okay, I’m done, and you put it out and then you get feedback about your characters and you go, no, that’s not what this character is about – that isn’t what this character is about at all.

So what do you think makes a compelling story around a piece of music or an artist?  

Yeah – you know, artists are not like you and me; artists are very interesting people who live different lives and look at the world in completely different ways; who don’t live by nine to five shackles and circulate in interesting spheres.

Artists are people that we pay because they're different, and as a result of their difference – and sometimes as a result of their demons – we find them interesting and amusing. God knows I’ve spent enough time with Courtney Love to tell you that that’s true.

But they're just – they're living lives – a lot of these artists are living lives that we will never live and we would like to know more about them. And whether or not – you know, some of them are singing about fellow famous people. Are you dissing somebody, are you dishing on something? Is there a secret message hidden there, or did you have an experience that you're trying to vaguely veiledly tell us about?

So you think that’s true – you think there’s a different kind of group of people, it’s not just any of us could do it?

No, no, if everybody could do it, everybody would. True artists are different; they are totally different from us and I see that again and again and again, that there is absolutely no way. A lot of these people can't function that well; if they had no artistic talent they’d be on the street.

And I’m not saying that flippantly. The thing that they have carrying them through life is this ability to create art and to have been fortunate enough to find somebody who recognizes the value in their art and to help them make a little bit of money, or at least make a living from their art.

I can’t tell you the number of musicians that I’ve run into who are just useless. It’s a good thing you can play guitar, it’s a good thing that you know how to do this, or sing, or whatever, and I hope you're putting your money away, because when this ends you’ve got nothing. 

So that’s a weird kind of paradox then, because you have extraordinary people making art that normal people can relate to. So are they changing their experience a little bit? Are they being less genuine so that people like us can relate?

I think so. There’s a take it or leave it situation. I mean, there are a lot of artists that are putting out messages that we don’t understand, or that we don’t accept, or that we choose not to hear. It’s tough. I mean, there are some, you know, jazz players, there are some singer-songwriters, there are some punk artists that are putting on stuff there that is just unpalatable to most people, and they don’t care; they live to create. They may regret that they're not making a living from it, but they don’t regret that they're making the art that their body and their heart and their soul tells them that they have to make.

It’s weird – John Frusciante, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers - is the greatest artiste that I’ve ever met in my life. But he has this – just – thank god he can play the guitar. 

Speaking to him in an interview, I said John, interested in the guitar sounds you’ve got on this particular record. Oh yeah. Well, can you explain? “Oh yeah, I think I was using a Stratocastor for that one, you know, yeah”. And that would be it. I mean, he’d just drift off, and I was just like "okay, thanks for your time, we’ll see you later". There was nothing you could get out of him.

I don’t think Joey Ramone ever was able to pay his own bills at home. He always had a minder. He hardly knew how to write a cheque, because he was, you know, in a bubble for almost all his life and always had somebody – a manager, a road manager, a tour manager – somebody there to look after him. You know, and never had a nine to five job. And how do you manage something like that?

And then of course, that sounds cool not having a nine to five job, but that also means that you're pretty much on seven days a week, twenty four hours a day, and you're eating bad food and you're in a van and you're going from place to place and you're living it out of a suitcase if you're lucky. So I mean, that sort of stuff distorts your worldview and well, why do you think there are so many songs written about the road? Because you write about what you know.

David Foster Wallace has this great piece about really high-level athletes and their complete inability to describe what it is they do when they're performing. So you think that’s a part of it with music too, like what it takes to reach the top level?

It completely destroys their ability to do some things. I’ve sat so many times with a guy – it doesn’t matter who it is –I meet them ahead of the show and you know, they're kind of weird and flakey and all the rest of it. Or they're awkward and antisocial, or they're overly exuberant, or whatever it is.

But then you put them on stage, you give them an instrument, put them down behind a piano, and all of a sudden some magic begins to happen. Like how did you do that? And you don’t worry about making mistakes, you don’t worry about hitting the wrong note, you don’t worry about being in the wrong key. No, no, there is a connection from the brain to the fingers that we don’t understand.

And I think it’s the same way with athletes. You know, you ask Usain Bolt how do you run so fast? He goes, ‘I just move one leg in front of the other’. And what are you thinking about when you do it? I’m not thinking about anything, I’m just moving one leg in front of the other.

And you know, I think – and it’s very possible – that there are people who operate on a high level – all their talent, all their abilities, all their soul goes into operating at that high talent, which may leave them with a deficit in other areas.  It certainly happens with musicians, I can tell you that. And there are some very smart musicians, who are very well-rounded and have good lives. If you talk to any of the guys in Rush, Slash …

Slash, Really?

Oh yeah, Slash is together, he really is together. But then you talk to Axl Rose – well, if you wanted to – and you would end up with something else entirely. If you talk to some of the divas, like Mariah Carey - just a mess, just a total mess. But give her a microphone and if she’s on it, she can do anything.            

And is it that you're almost required to turn off everything else in order to reach that level?

I think so. I think there’s a certain amount of energy and spiritual channeling that goes into a performance, or goes into writing a song, that we don’t understand. I’ve seen again with these guys that look like schlubs, but then they sit down at a piano and what comes out of their fingers is just – wow. Just the confidence and the body language and the phrasing of everything they're doing. Even if they're just doodling, but you can tell that they're doing it with such panache and skill and confidence, that it’s just like, I’ll never do that. Never in a million years. I play drums, so I watch drummers a lot, and I’ll see guys play and it’s like “how is that possible? How do you do that?”

But it’s maybe all they can do. But damn, they do it well.

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You can find Alan at http://ajournalofmusicalthings.com/ , an on twitter. The Ongoing History of New Music  airs in Toronto on Sundays at 7pm, on 102.1 The Edge.

InterviewDuncan FieldComment