Songs form the core of your musical output, and you have used the term “artsongwriter” to describe other composer/performers whose approach resonates with yours. Long-time Collage listeners have heard us perform a lot of art songs — last season we heard a sensational performance by Janna Baty of Andy Vores’ new song cycle Life in Avondall, and Charlotte Dobbs gave Martin Boykan’s 1982 Elegy what the composer described as the best performance the piece has ever had — but your take on the “art song” is something different. You’ve written in detail about this elsewhere, but briefly, what would you like our audience to know about your approach to song?
Most of the things I believe about songwriting are fairly traditional. My songs tell stories. They paint portraits of characters. They strive to engage listeners on an emotional level. They represent attempts to enhance the meaning of both words and music by combining them inventively. Whatever my disenchantment is with traditional “art song” techniques (which I explain in the article you cited), I believe my goals are similar to the goals of all writers of songs. We all want to create music that is intimate, moving, sometimes surprising, and, of course, singable and earworm-y.
DM: You write your own lyrics, and sing your own songs, so there must be a lot of you in your music. But the point of view of the texts can be quite alien. Removable Parts is probably the most extreme example, taking the perspective of someone who voluntarily wants to have his body parts amputated. Last Words from Texas sets the final statements of death-row inmates, and Other People’s Love Songs tells the love stories of the real people who commissioned each song. Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, the music you’ll sing with Collage, reflects a whole catalogue of hypochondriacal tendencies that I hope you don’t actually suffer from. What is your relationship to the characters in your songs, and how much of yourself do you think is in them?
CD: I have always believed that empathy is the most valuable skill we can possess as both artists and citizens. Being able to relate to someone whose behavior I might at first find alienating is something I strive to do in almost all of my projects. That’s how I conceive of a new project: I think, “Okay, what’s something, or someone, that I absolutely can’t relate to? Wannabe-amputees? Death-row inmates? Hypochondriacs?” …and then, through research and interviews, I try to find a way to relate. And I hope audiences experience the same sort of journey, moving from feeling slightly alienated–although maybe also amused–to feeling much more sympathetic to the characters I’ve created. So far, Thirteen Near-Death Experiences is the only piece I’ve written where I’ve actually come away from it feeling like I relate too well to the subject matter. Now I find myself behaving and thinking like a hypochondriac. I guess that’s the danger of too much empathy, and that’s a topic I’m planning to explore next — the danger of too much empathy.
DM: A related question — your persona as a performer can be fascinatingly deadpan; the apparent distance sometimes between the singer and the words is something I find very interesting. Is this something you think about when you compose or perform?
CD: A lot of people, I think, mistake my deadpan-ness for irony. The point of it, for me, is not to make fun of what I’m singing about, or to call its authenticity into question. Rather, I’m merely trying to not be emotionally manipulative. The last thing I want is for people to think, “He wants me to feel this particular emotion right now.” But… it’s also important to note that I use humor in my songs because humor is a way to signal to listeners that it’s okay to let down their defenses a little and to fully immerse themselves in these songs and these characters. Essentially I want people to be as emotionally open as possible without feeling manipulated. That’s a tricky balance, a balance that I think about constantly when I’m composing and performing.