Last week Boston artist Isa Burke had an article published in the bible, No Depression, titled Using Your Microphone and it struck a chord with me. She discusses the place of protest song in the present day and reminds us that the very foundations of roots music is built on oppressed people opposing the elite – a voice through song.
A lot of what I write about is politically charged. It’s how I reconcile every day to be able to carry on into the next. Although sometimes it gets the better of me, it’s my way of exercising things to keep from breaking down or lashing out. It’s like once you’ve been woke to the things that don’t sit right with you, you become sensitive and aware of the evidence all around us. You are able to recognise things that perhaps others can’t and you feel a duty to share and educate them. The thing is, I constantly struggle with the when and where of the appropriate moments to do that sharing. And on a stage, amongst a set list of songs where you are already revealing more of yourself than you’re sure you need to, that sense of vulnerability leaves you wide open and potentially down on strength to be confident enough in presenting a clear argument for the agenda you are trying to push. Some days you feel invincible ….some days you don’t.
When I first set out on this solo tip I was pretty hard lined about telling people exactly what I thought. I was angry. I still am angry. But those punk sensibilities I’ve grown up with don’t always sit well with an acoustic crowd. In my experience it goes one of two ways. Either you get praise from your audience, or you’re met with raised eyebrows and a bunch of folks just switching off. I soon realised that, as nice as the praise made me feel, it was the other members of the audience that I needed to be reaching. Most punters coming out to see a show are wanting to escape the heaviness of the day and enjoy themselves, not be confronted with it – they didn’t come to hear me preach. I can’t remember where I came across the interview, but Billy Bragg explains that above any political agenda, the song needs to be good. That was advice that I latched onto. So now on stage, where concerning politics, I say a lot less between songs and try to let the songs stand up for themselves. If I can engage a listener first I will have a much better chance of getting my message across. After all it’s about opening the conversation and keeping it going, not shutting it down.
If what you believe is against the grain, it can be tough to stand up for, but I continually remind myself that it’s not about me. I’ve said it before, as a middle class, heterosexual, white male, whether people want to acknowledge it or not, I am far more privileged than most demographics and right here in Australia, with issues surrounding First Nations injustice, gender equality, marriage equality, domestic violence, homelessness, class warfare etc etc etc I want to put that privilege to good use. I need to put that privilege to good use.
Isa raises something that as a songwriter I find incredibly interesting and I think she’s nailed it. Please check it out here. Using Your Microphone by Isa Burke