Something’s been missing in my music-listening life since the digital age changed the way I go about accessing new songs. Sure, Spotify, iTunes and Amazon offer avenues of listeners-like-you-also-bought discovery, but there was still a certain unnamed lack. Refusing to moan about how much better things were back in the day when we all tuned in to the same radio stations and talked about the same songs, I’ve been compiling my own playlists and asking anybody who’ll humor me what they’ve been listening to these days.
And then one day I heard indie singer/songwriter Kevin Heider pose a question in a new podcast promo:
What can a song reveal about the human condition in all its glory, tragedy, comedy, error, absurdity, and mystery?
That question spoke to my void and gave me hope.
It turns out that Song & Story, Heider’s “podcast devoted to conversations with songwriters about their songs” explores those possibilities in gloriously hype-free conversation that’s, well, music to the ears.
Heider’s been on my radar for a while. I first heard “The Great Flood” five or six years back. It was so powerful that I never forgot his name and on the strength of that song later bought his double album Spark, which still amazes me with the range of Heider’s own songwriting powers (check out “Baltimore,” “The Dark Side” and “The New World” and I think you’ll agree you don’t find that kind of scope every day).
Heider’s conversation with Jimmy Mitchell on the the Love Good Podcast was one of my favorites of its first season, so when I learned he was venturing into podcasting on his own, I had to check it out.
From the moment I heard A Brief Introduction & a Piece of Maria (in which Heider riffs on Counting Crows’ “Round Here” and “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” and discloses how Maria found her way into one of his own songs) I was hooked. But that was just the beginning.
Song & Story is genuine conversation about music–not about promoting an artist’s celebrity or hawking the must-hear hit of the season.
It’s a chance to listen to a phenomenal song by an artist you may or may not have heard before. It’s a conversation about the way an artist turns an idea turns into a song, about its lyrical structure, the musical choices made as it develops, how back-up artists contribute to the version we come to know, how a great song moves the soul when words and music combine into a work of art that just “says it” for you.
Here’s the 3-minute (so worth it) trailer reavealing the unique spirit of this podast:
Heider’s interviews have an intimate feel. He’s choosing songs he loves, and that’s part of the magic. Having traveled almost 9 years with his own music, meeting and sharing the stage with fellow musicians along the way, he has an angle on music and musicians not available to listeners like me, beholden as we are to Spotify/iTunes/Amazon/etc. He’s a warm and engaging conversationalist, literate and wide-ranging, able to reference Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Eliot as easily as Springsteen or golf legend Bobby Jones.
So how does an essay question on the SAT about controlled burns eventually become a song about new growth after loss? Heider dicusses it with Alanna Boudreau on Episode 1, A Forest Full of Second Chances. The conversation filled me up so much that I’ve been astounded at how each conversation since has accomplished the same thing in completely different ways.
“Beautiful Life” by The Collection’s David Wimbish is exactly what I needed to recover my gratitude and let go of perfectionism, employing the opening line of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” as its own opener. I listened to it every day for a while (agreeing with Heider that I could begin and end every day with this song). And then…Rebecca Roubion’s “Cripple Me” in the next episode titled The Price of a Memory blew me away with insight into yet another aspect of the human condition, as Heider had promised in his opening question.
At this point in the season I thought I had a handle on what to expect. That’s when Heider offered an astounding conversation about technology and creativity with Derek Webb, whose “I Feel Everything” could not be a better song about about the overwhelming problem of having so much access to so much content in the digital age. (You must hear this song!)
And then, a powerful conversation about grief, addiction and processing pain with Maria Price’s “This Way.” Both the song and the conversation brought me to tears, returning me in memory to my own painful losses and those of so many others whose grief I’ve shared in my work as a counselor. It’s the raw real deal, written after the death of Price’s 19-year-old brother and it’s definitely one of those mysterious Beautiful Things in Horrible Places.
So then I began to ponder just what it was about Song & Story I was needing even before I knew it.
It occurred to me that without my realizing it, my unnamed lack was concretely connected to how the digital age began changing the way I discover and listen to music.
Nostalgia aside, I had to acknowledge that from vinyl album covers to the accordian sleeves of cassette tapes to the booklets tucked inside the clear cases of CD’s, access to lyrics and liner notes to sit with while listening had always been an important part of my enjoyment of a music purchase.
The advent of the digital download as an instant-access, reduced-price buy had diminished that experience (even when a pdf comes with it), and I had accepted the loss as an inevitable casualty of the technological revolution.
Lyrics can be googled, of course, but copies of them aren’t the only thing that had vanished: it was the photography, the artwork, the songwriting credits, the list of backup musicians who perform on each track that completed the picture and not only enriched my appreciation of an album’s songs, but gave me recommendations about other artists referenced there.
And yes: another casualty was conversation about songs, which had also vanished (at least in my world) with the isolated way I’d been listening, plugged in and alone.
A podcast is only an opportunity to listen in to someone else’s conversation, I’ll grant. But on this one it’s good conversation, enriching and meaningful. It’s led me to my own conversations with friends as I share what I’ve discovered and ask which songs have had the most staying power in their lives and why.
If that strikes you as a good thing, you can give Song & Story a listen on iTunes, Stitcher and pretty much any other way you catch your podcasts. I hope you do, and that you’ll share it with the music lovers you know, the ones whose souls still hunger for a well-crafted song. And then…invite them into a great conversation. After all, the best music reaches beyond market-driven categories and demographic profiles that keep us boxed into somebody else’s expectation of what we should like. Furthermore:
Music is meant to be shared. Art is meant to be discussed.
Song & Story gave that simple truth back to me. I’m betting it will do the same for you.
Reads & Other Seeds
Song & Story has a beautiful website with links to the poetry and other references in each conversation (and if you like what you see/hear, consider supporting the podcast on Patreon. I am.) For more on Kevin Heider, check out his website here.
Remember Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”? Just as I was finishing this post, Song & Story released another episode. This one, I Won’t Soon Forget, connects the universality Cohn gave Memphis with Patrick Mahon’s “Allegheny River.” Great songs that move the soul and lift the spirits are still being written. These artists deserve our support, and I’d advise subscribing to Song & Story now before you’re forced to binge listen for days just to catch up. It’s that good.
Sparrowfare’s review of another great podcast and new music source: Recover Your Optimism with the Love Good Podcast.
A tribute to my favorite songwriter twenty years after his death: Grant Me the Grace to Hurt Like Rich Mullins.
What songs have had staying power in your life? How are you accessing new music? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, on social media or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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