Musician's Biographies

Posted on February 4, 2008

I am not a huge fan of reading artist’s biographies and suchlike. Or at least I wasn’t. But this has been changing somewhat, as I’ve been finding out a few very interesting ones to… well, read or listen to or even watch. This is an account of my most recent forays into the realms of biographies and life-story recounting of a few musicians.

Elvis Costello

Yesterday, while searching through the iTunes store for a complete version of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You” (of which I only had an admittedly rough version, which didn’t include the guitar-and-vocals introduction), I found out that he had put out a podcast a while ago (around June-August of last year) in preparation for the release of the (then new) “My Aim Is True” package.

The subject of this time-limited podcast was the first ten years of his carrer and although I’m not a huge fan of his earlier work, I decided to download the ten episodes which I then listened to today, as I drove to and from work. They are short, at roughly 10-15 minutes each, and consist of him describing various aspects of his life, song-writing process and career steps in the “early days”.

Setting aside the fact that this is an obvious publicity stunt for the new release I mentioned, and taking into account the fact that I, as I’ve said before, am not that much of a fan of his earlier work, I did find it extremely interesting getting to know more about the man, the road he travelled to get where he is today and all the stories behind his songs and albums.

Just as a small teaser (for something which is getting to be nearly a year-old… nice going, Nuno), hearing people like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and The Clash mentioned together as influences is always fun and there’s that mostly interesting statement about how we have to blame Bob Dylan and Johnny Mitchell for so many bad songs that came out of that era (if this shocks you, as well it should, please bear in mind that I’ve taken it woefully out of context –the phrase “emotionally incontinent” is uttered! Do check it out).
Finding out that the wonderful trumpet solo on “Ship Building” was played by none other than Chet Baker –and that it was mostly improvised, at that– was another good example of how interesting this series is.

Joy Division

Elvis is just one example of an interesting life-story, though, and another good one is the film “Control”, which I recently saw and liked a lot.

My knowledge of Joy Division’s music is not that far in depth and as far as Ian Curtis’ and the rest of the boys’ lives, well, that’s cursory at best.
In truth the film proved to be my major source of knowledge about them and Matie actually stumped me with the comment she left on my blog post about the film.

So now I have an item on my to-do list about reading up on the Joy Division story a bit more in-depth and, of course, New Order’s too. That should prove to be quite interesting, I expect.

Philip Glass

Then there’s the case of Philip Glass, whose book on composing and producing the three operas –“Einstein on the Beach”, “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten”– was my faithful breakfast companion for a while.

I obviously didn’t get to see any of these (even if I had wanted to at the time, I don’t think that they would have been particularly suitable for toddlers) :-) but the fact is that I would have loved to have done so and I like the music of all three of the operas through and through (which serves to further my interest in their stories, insomuch as the recordings that are available are faithful to the original renditions which, according to the book, they are… mostly).

The fact that I loved those scores before having read the book made me realise how important it is to know the story behind them, because now, not only do I love the music, but I also understand it a whole lot better and benefit from listening to it all the more due to that fact.

Contemporary Artists - The mp3 Blogs

So I think I found yet another hobby. Which is great except that I am (as most of us are in these day and age) flooded with information and barely know where to turn to when I get a little time to dedicate to it.

This gets particularly acute when we consider contemporary (and mostly new) artists, which also have their stories and about whom I like to read before (actually while) listening to their new music. Call it their as-it-happens biography.
Whenever I get the time to do some exploring I am faced the hard task of deciding which new music I’m going to listen to (and, consequently, which artists I try to get to know at least a little bit about).

It is hard, though, selecting just a few pieces from everything that’s being produced out there and that is why I like to turn to a few trusted mp3/music blogs, most of which I’ve already listed a while ago. The fact that most of them cherry-pick only a few songs from each new album and provide some background on the song and/or artists, along with a terse commentary on each song, is a god-sent for people like me and I do find I’m discovering lots of great new music, that I wouldn’t be otherwise, because of these blogs.

Of course the fact that many record labels don’t get this type of site and don’t allow them to put up the mp3 files is just plain bad business decision-making on their part, but that’s a subject for a different post.

So there you have it from the old school to the brand new, music gets a whole new meaning when I not only enjoy it per-se, but also understand it’s story and the tales behind it.
In some cases I provide this “context” myself as is the case with many a record I listened to to exhaustion on my teens (and that’s all the context I’ll ever need in those cases) ;-) but in other instances it is very interesting and even rewarding to know the “oficial” stories behind the songs/albums/bands.

Update: I just realized that my current favorite mp3 blog is not on the list which is something I just couldn’t let be, now cloud I?
It’s name is the very lyrical “I Guess I’m Floating” and you may find it here. Happy hunting!