There’s a big story in the New Yorker this week, “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two.” Well worth the read, even if you don’t care for his music. One particular statement by his bandmate Steven Van Zandt caught my eye:
For Van Zandt, [Springsteen’s] intensity was a lure. He recognized in Springsteen a drive to create original work. In those days, he said, you were judged by how well you could copy songs off the radio and play them, chord for chord, note for note: “Bruce was never good at it. He had a weird ear. He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords. When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original. Well, in the long run, guess what: in the long run, original wins.”
I started out imitating my favorites, as just about everybody does, but I quickly got more interested in making my own music (and in fact, I became a songwriter at almost exactly the moment I took up guitar: my brother set a couple of my tortured teenage poems to music and taught me the chords, which set me on the path). I do try to make songs that don’t sound like things I’ve heard before. It’s impossible to be completely original all the time, of course; everything happens in the context of all that has happened before.
“Originality,” to me, means more than just writing your own songs. It’s about having a voice of your own. I write songs, I sing other people’s songs, and I improvise. I’m not content to write songs that sound like other people’s songs, and I’m not satisfied to sing other people’s songs in ways that are imitative of the originals. I had that impulse from the very beginning: to put my own twists on, and take various liberties with, the songs I adopted from others. I’ve spent my career developing my voice along with my skills.
After several decades of writing and performing, I feel very much that I am someone in particular, with something unique to say. I have a few covers in my set these days that aren’t particularly inventive, but most of what I do in performance is pretty distinctive. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be massively popular – I’m no Springsteen! – but it’s interesting enough to enough people that I am able to get plenty of work doing it.