I mentioned a few weeks ago that in the wake of Prince passing away, many people have begun to refer to 2016 as “the year that music died.” Taken literally, this statement is blatantly untrue— composers and musicians have been dying willy-nilly since the dawn of time, but music has persisted as the eternal flame that it is. However, I’ll clarify that the writers and bloggers who have used this phrase do not mean that music is literally dead, but that because icons such as Prince, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and others have died this year, music has suffered a massive, perhaps irrecoverable blow. This too is false. Not only are there many present-day musical giants who released music this year (e.g. Beyonce, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Esperanza Spalding, etc.), but there are numerous legendary musical icons from decades past still alive and performing (e.g. Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and somehow Kieth Richards). And furthermore, Paul Simon, a national treasure at age 74, is set to release his twelfth solo studio album tomorrow.

I admit I’ve been listening to a lot of Paul Simon this past week because his music has been the perfect soundtrack to a recent heartbreak. I’m not looking for pity from anyone— I appreciate your sympathy if you lend it to me, but unfortunately it is not going to make me feel better. For the only thing that can mend a broken heart is time… and Paul Simon. With music and art, we get to redeem our shortcomings, failures, and struggles by turning them into something beautiful to look at or listen to, and Paul Simon is an undeniable master of this alchemy. From brutal honesty (“oooh spare your heart, sooner or later everything put together falls apart”), to sincere pleading (“You don’t have to lie to me, just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty”), to empowerment (“Just slip out the back Jack, make a new plan Stan, you don’t need to be coy Roy, just get yourself free”), to self-deprecation (“She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright— alright in a sort of limited way for an off night”), Paul Simon has lyrically diagnosed every angle of romantic struggle.

He has also prescribed the cure: “Take your burdens to the Mardi Gras, let the music wash your soul.” The music is primary. It is not the words that wash our soul, it is the music. Simon certainly writes beautiful lyrics, but he knows that these would never reach our ears or move our souls were they not supported by amazing music. He even said in an interview with American Songwriter that he always writes the music before the lyrics. Above all Paul Simon is a supreme lover of music and his frequent excursions into diverse musical styles (traditional folk, blues, gospel, zydeco, South African music, synth-pop, etc…) clearly represents this fact.

Because he is an adept guitarist and brilliant singer-songwriter, Paul Simon likely would have had a wonderful musical career even if he had never chosen to collaborate with anyone. Yet a large part of his genius is in surrounding himself with musicians who are as good or better than himself. An incomplete list of his collaborators includes some of the most skilled musicians in the world: The Jessy Dixon Singers, Urubamba, Steve Gadd, Airto Moreira, Dean Parks, Phillip Glass, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and oh yeah Art Garfunkel. To listen to a Paul Simon album is quite simply to listen to good music.

Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some musical artists and fans have a major problem Paul Simon. Simon has been accused of plagiarizing British folk music, not properly crediting the South African musicians he recorded with on the album Graceland, and outright stealing a song from the band Los Lobos. I am not here to argue for or against Paul Simon’s innocence in these matters. I mention these things in order to point out that I am not romanticizing Paul Simon the person— I think he, like all of us, has insecurities and demons and has not always acted in the most equitable way. No, I am here praising Paul Simon the musician. Whatever Simon’s personal flaws or misdeeds may be, they do not take away from the amazing musical gifts he has given the world. The fact is, Paul Simon has impeccable musical taste, painfully clever lyrics, brilliant collaborators, and one of the creamiest voices of all time. I can’t wait to hear what he gives us tomorrow.

For those not yet privy to it, this blog is part of a nine-month long project in which I release a blog-post and a new song every week. So below is this week’s Opus if you care to listen, and even further below are links to posts from past weeks. Enjoy!

Week 1—Nine Months of New Music

Week 2—That’s Masturbation

Week 3—Oblique Strategies

Week 4—A Conversation with the Wolfman

Week 5—Turn Off the Music

Week 6—Thoughts on Prince

Week 7—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt.1)

Week 8—Grieving for the Afterthought (pt. 2)

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When I was in college at UALR, I minored in Information Technology. I learned a lot of useful stuff about web design, writing code, and creating databases (very little of which I use today). There was also a great emphasis in the program on group projects— which I hated. My arrogant belief was that I just as easily could have done these projects on my own and I’d rather not be slowed down by some dead weight classmates. In fact the most personally inspiring moments in IT class came when I was learning about web services that would allow me to get on with my life all on my own.

My dream was to write, record, release, and perform my own music, and I discovered things like TicketFly, Pond5, CD Baby, and Soundcloud which made me believe that my dream was a realistic possibility. Apps like these point to the “do-it-yourself” ethic that is the current zeitgeist in everything from music, to comedy, to fixing your toilet. I am certainly a part of this song and dance: I am a self-employed gigging musician attempting to keep a blog and record/release music all on my own.

Yet if you take do-it-yourself to mean literally doing it all on your own, then you are actually just talking about masturbation. Anything good and fun done completely alone is just masturbation. You’re cooking decadent meals, but not sharing them with anyone? That’s masturbation. You’re working on your jump-shot, but not playing in pick up games? That’s masturbation. You’re writing and recording songs but not letting anyone hear them? Masturbation. This isn’t a knock against masturbation. I think a moderate amount of literal or metaphorical masturbation is healthy, natural, and fun. But if all you are doing is masturbating, you’re missing out on the most important thing in life: connection. So don’t take do-it-yourself literally. Find some folks with similar interests and do-it-together.

You literally cannot do it alone in the field of music (or in any creative field for that matter) and expect to succeed. Your lifeblood as a musician is other people. You need other people to teach you how to play (and don’t come at me with that “self-taught” BS— if you claim to be “self-taught,” you’re just saying that instead of taking formal lessons, you learned by directly listening to other musicians); you need other musicians to play your songs; you need bar and venue owners to book your band; and most importantly, you need fans to support your work.

In addition to basic musician’s needs like these, there’s also the fact that you probably want your actual creative work to be good. If this is the case, you’ll benefit from bouncing your artistic ideas off of other creative minds. So as much as it pains me to admit it, being forced to do group projects in my IT minor program was not the worst thing. It is certainly effortful (and often a pain) to have to schedule meetings with other people, and lobby for your ideas, and come to compromises; but the purpose of group work is not to make the project quicker and easier—the purpose is to create better work than you could have on your own. John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney all had great solo careers (sorry Ringo), yet their greatest works were made when they were working together (with Ringo) in the Beatles. Music is simply made better when other creative minds, expert ears, and skillful hands are contributing to it.

Yet I confess that none of the songs I’ve released online to date have been collaborations. This is not a point of pride—throughout the course of this project I hope and plan to release many songs that feature other musical artists. Last week I took a serendipitous step towards this end when a couple of young bass players from Bloomington, Indiana came over to my house. My college buddy Noah McNair and his friend Brenton Carter were in town to play with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and they popped over to my house during the day to jam. I’ll forgive them for forgetting the beer, because I roped them into helping me record a song of mine. We started jamming on a song that I had written and I decided to hit record. After they departed the song was left with a much better bass line than I could have possibly played, recorded on a much better bass than I could hope to afford.

But you’ll have to wait until next week to hear that one (remember, I’m posting something every week for nine months). For now, here’s another one of my do-it-alone efforts. Enjoy Opus 2.