Category Archives: Music

Songs, songwriting, and writing on music generally

Music & Gratitude

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Here you go, world.

With the recent public announcement about Ancient History, and the release of American Troubadour, all my songs (or most of them anyway) are finally “out there,” available, part of the digital universe. Six albums, sixty-five tracks.

I’ve been making music and writing songs professionally for a long time, over 35 years. Songwriting has never been my main source of income. But it has always been a major source of satisfaction.

And I’m at one of those moments in life where I am feeling enormously grateful, for many things, including the chance to make music and share it with friends, family … and the world.

I’ve been writing letters to friends and contacts who helped me along at various times, some from 30 years ago … sending out CDs and digital download links … and receiving wonderful letters in return, too.

So much gratitude.

There is no way I can write to everybody. So please consider this a letter to you, personally: thanks for reading this. For being interested. For giving my music a chance to send you somewhere, help you feel something, visit some new mental landscape.

Thanks for listening.

 

AtKisson releases second “surprise” album

PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

15 July 2014
Contact: Cassandra [ at ] AtKisson [dot] com
Tel: +1 917 226 2057

AtKisson releases a second “surprise” album just two months after American Troubadour

Alan AtKisson surprised his fans and the music world by releasing a second, “surprise” album just two months after the release of American Troubadour.

Ancient History: Demos and Studio Recordings 1982-1996 is a collection of his earliest work, much of it recorded at home and never before released publicly.

** AVAILABLE NOW ON ITUNES, SPOTIFY, AND ALL MAJOR DIGITAL MUSIC SERVICES ** OR BUY THE MP3-FILES DIRECTLY FOR $9.95, CLICK THIS LINK FOR INSTANT PURCHASE & DOWNLOAD (PAYPAL)

The eleven tracks include AtKisson’s best songs from 1982 to 1995, such as his debut folk-club hit “Whitewing” — a retelling of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus — and the haunting “Gallipoli,” with lyrics drawn on the diaries of soldiers killed in the doomed World War I battle (made famous by the Mel Gibson movie).

“We actually released this album digitally on iTunes before we released American Troubadour,” says Alan. “It’s been out there a while. We just didn’t tell anybody.”

Alan’s record label, Rain City Records, was forced to release Ancient History early according to the terms of a licensing agreement with Smithsonian Folkways, which owns the rights to a beautiful ensemble recording of “Epiphany Dream,” originally featured on the “Fast Folk Musical Magazine” in 1985.

Some of the tracks on Ancient History are plain acoustic guitar and vocals with little or nor effects. Others — such as the power-rock ballad “Invisible Man” — are polished 24-track studio recordings made as demos during Alan’s New York music career. Many were recorded on a Tascam PortaOne, a four-track cassette recorder that popularized home recording long before Apple’s Garage Band.

“Some people tell me that of all the songs I’ve written, these songs are their favorites,” says Alan. “And these tapes were just sitting around in my studio gathering dust. It’s really nice to give them a new, digital life.”

###

How we made American Troubadour

AmericanTroubadour“There’s a story behind every song” (see AmericanTroubadour.com) … but there’s also a story behind the album.

And it’s a good story.

In June of 2001, in Stockholm, on Midsummer Day, I got married. Nine months later, Kristina gave birth to our first child. To say that everything changed in my life, in and around that Midsummer of 2001, would be quite an understatement.

With marriage came not only partnership and fatherhood, but also a new country, a new language, a new culture. From that day on, I started to feel more and more Swedish. (I didn’t stop being American; I just added a new, second national identity, one that felt eerily familiar, since it echoed the Icelandic — they say — cultural patterns of my father’s family.)

One of the new traditions I had to learn about was the “svensexa”, the Swedish bachelor party. The bachelor in question is put through numerous tests and trials. One of the kinder ones involved being required to improvise a song to my beloved, at midnight, in the middle of downtown Stockholm, after numerous beverages had already been imbibed. (Where my friends found a guitar, I’ll never know.)

Amazingly, a song to my beloved actually emerged. Not all at once, but over the next couple of days. Obviously, I had to play this song at our wedding. Just as obviously, there was no way I could manage that. Solution: record it.

So I looked in the yellow pages (we still had those back then), or maybe I web-searched too, but in any case, I found a little studio, run by Andreas “Bauer” Bauman. We whipped up a decent recording of that song, which is about my wife’s numerous names (“Anna-Kristina-Kicki-Du,” a song that has not been released publicly). And the DJ at the wedding party surprised her with it, during our first dance.

Oh, the look on her face … that’s a beautiful memory.

Fast-forward more than ten years, to November 2011.

I’ve accumulated a bunch of new songs by then. I’m also a busy consultant, running a couple of international organizations, globetrotting, the usual. But I feel this unquenchable urge to go into the studio and record.

I’ll just document these new songs, I say to myself. Guitar, vocals, maybe a little bass — like my first CD album, Testing the Rope (1997).

Where to do the recording? A quick web search: Andreas is still there. What’s more, his studio is just five minutes from my house. He remembers me. We’re both a bit more grizzled, we’ve both had a couple of kids … we connect.

A few songs into this little documentation project, Andreas starts saying things like, “riktigt bra” and “klockrent” (which means he thought the songs were really good). He says they are too good to leave on the shelf. He starts gently suggesting some additional musicians. It’s clear he’s not fishing for extra work; he’s offering to do this without pay, because he likes the music.

And he starts pulling in some amazing people. I’m clueless about what’s happening. “I’ll see if Ronander can play on this,” he says (about “Entebbe Blues”). “Uh, who’s that?” I say. Mats Ronander is, of course, a household name in Sweden; he once toured with Abba.

As the project grows, I start pulling in folks too. Turns out some of my neighbors are excellent musicians — a female vocal trio, an old-time fiddle-player, an opera singer.

Everyone makes wonderful contributions.

Andreas and I meet every month or so, in between my travels. Ideas zip around faster and faster. The musicians work magic. Andreas orchestrates us all gently, beautifully. Encouraged by Andreas, I started dreaming bigger. For the title song, “American Troubadour,” I start recording voices on my iPhone, gathering them from both the US and from Sweden, people reading the text of the Declaration of Independence. (In the spoken-word middle section, which Andreas mixed so well, you can hear the voices of sustainability pioneer Hunter Lovins, the American-Swedish artist Vincent Williams, and many others, including my own daughters, Saga and Aila AtKisson, in the lead role.)

The process takes two and half years, because we’re both doing lots of other things, Andreas and I. At the end, the whole thing seems to be built on a combination of love for music, creativity, and professionalism. The other musicians have gone the extra mile to make something wonderful out of their sessions, which (I learned) were “old school” pleasures for them: real live recording sessions, creative dialogues, that even involved talking about the ideas and feelings in the songs. Not just responding to someone’s email request with a track recorded at home in front of a computer, and “mailed in.”

Even the graphics are a labor of love. Andreas’s wife introduces us to one of Stockholm’s hottest PR and graphics bureaus. They take time from their busy corporate practice to work on “American Troubadour,” at rates far less than they would normally charge … because they think the project is cool. They (Christian Hammar and Björn Lundevall of FLB Europa) like the whole American-Swedish thing, and they work far harder on it than I have any right to expect. They even come up with a great new symbol for … well, for me.

Icon_YellowFieldMy music. My travel-influenced perspective on the world. My dual-citizen life, which has been so deeply enriched by the marriage that starts this story (listen to “Midsummer Island”). Which has helped to sustain me … in my work to sustain others … who are working on sustainability (listen to “Set the World Right Again,” and “Going to the Top”).

What a journey “American Troubadour” has been. So unexpected. So fun, and musically satisfying. It’s so wonderful that it’s finally out there, finally finished.

And yet, I have the feeling it’s just another beginning.

Inside Llewyn Davis: Not the Greenwich Village I Knew

BlogPic_InsideLlewynDavisYou might expect that I should love the film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seen through the eyes of a young folk singer, who is a reinterpreted version of the young Dave van Ronk. Van Ronk was a legend by the time I hit that scene, as a young singer-songwriter, in the early 1980s. I barely knew him, but I did work the soundboard for one of his performances at the Speakeasy — a folk music club and artists’ cooperative, which put on nightly shows behind a falafel stand on Macdougal Street. I thought Van Ronk was an awesome performer, with a dominating stage presence. I found him intimidating at the time.

Folk music was serious business to the artists who were keeping it alive in those clubs. As a newcomer, you had a steep hill to climb, to prove yourself worthy to be in their company. Van Ronk’s memoir, on which the movie was partly based, is called “The Mayor of Macdougal Street.” I haven’t even read it yet, but I thought of him more as the Pope. I didn’t dare approach Van Ronk, partly because I was not even a true “folky” — though I did get one song, “Epiphany Dream,” onto a “Fast Folk” record album, a periodic collection that was published as a “musical magazine” by the Speakeasy cooperative, and which you can still find online. (I thought of Jack Hardy, editor of Fast Folk, as the mayor.)

I spent several fun, formative musical years in that colorful Speakeasy / Folk City / Macdougal Street music scene, which is painted in brownish-grayish tones in the Coen Brothers film. I have some beautiful memories, too: the legendary Odetta watching my show, complimenting me, hugging me, the memory of which gladdens me still. At the same time, however, I was also fronting a rock band, playing at clubs in the rougher parts of the East Village and Soho, clubs with names like CBGB, 8BC, Kamikaze. (This double life probably made me suspect in the folk world, but that’s another story.)

Yet despite this semi-personal connection to what was being portrayed on the screen, I did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I found myself skipping and fast-forwarding through big hunks of it, in 10-20 second stuttering hops, trying to find parts I liked.

And I did find a few gem moments, most of them musical performances, including a surprising folk turn by Justin Timberlake. The film certainly captured the look of the New York folk music scene as I remember it, which (I now realize) had not changed that much by 1982. Indeed, my experience of New York itself was pretty much just as that movie portrayed it: a little run-down, funkier, more dangerous than the shiny place it is today.

So, I didn’t hate the film. But several others from that scene and time — most publicly Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega — did hate it, and they went public with harsh criticisms. I mostly agree with their general complaint: the movie doesn’t reflect what I remember of life in that community. We were all young, aspiring songwriters, by turns cooperative and competitive, enjoying the feeling that we were part of something with a history. The Greenwich Village folk scene was a kind of musical nebula that occasionally gave birth to a star (Suzanne Vega broke out with two worldwide hits, “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”, about the time I began turning from aspiring New York musician into an aspiring Seattle sustainability wonk who still did music). But mostly, that community was all about dedication to tradition, craft, songwriting, artistry, mutual support. Being a musician in New York — especially being a songwriter outside the mainstream of pop — was a hard business. We needed each other.

This is really my chief complaint about “Inside Llewyn Davis”: I felt nothing of that. In fact, I felt nothing at all. I really wanted to just get through the film and go back to work. (I was watching it on a long plane flight.) A reviewer who loved the movie noted that it’s just a fiction, maybe a profound one, and even called Lavin and Vega “narcissistic” for criticizing it — that is, for not accepting it as an original, aching, coming-of-age story, that has nothing to do with their reality. The Coen Brothers, in that reading, just borrowed bits of Van Ronk’s memoir, and images of that time and scene, in order to tell a different story about misplaced ambitions and the hard treatment dished by the real world on youthful dreams.

But I have to defend my old Speakeasy colleagues, Lavin and Vega, on this point: if someone takes your youth, full of colorful people and memories that you love, and repaints it as tawdry and sad, and then presents this portrayal to the world as The Truth On Film, you are fully entitled to hate that movie. And to attack it, critically. (Thanks, Christine and Suzanne, for doing that. I called you “colleagues” above, rather than friends, because while I knew you, I never really knew you. I always wished I had — I so admired your work, you were role models — but I doubt you even remember me. I was a junior, marginal player in that league. I was a Wednesday and Thursday night kind of performer; you were Friday and Saturday night. Still, it gives me pleasure to remember that we played on the same stages, sometimes in the same multi-artist shows …)

So the true Greenwich Village Folk Music Movie remains to be made. Or … maybe it would be interesting to make a movie about a folk musician who lives a double life as a rock ‘n’ roll artist, flitting between gigs in different parts of New York, dancing with the ghost of Dylan’s controversial flip to electric guitar, moving furniture to make a living with a fellow songwriter and, improbably enough, future Earth First! activist (my old friend Darryl Cherney, who recorded my first cassette album in his bedroom studio, and who was the spitting image of the guy playing Llewyn Davis), avoiding the muggers and the groupies and the drugs (I was a total nerd in that regard), performing at weddings and funerals and hospitals for the mentally disturbed, until finally getting a big break with the offer of a serious management deal (the guy that offered me that deal is now head of a major Hollywood movie studio), but then realizing he had a different calling in life, this thing we call “sustainability” …

Well, if you are into making movies, I’ve got a story for you.

PS: Hey, my new album — which which owes a debt of gratitude to those old Greenwich Village days, but is sort of “global folk-rock” — is finished, we are just working on the packaging and marketing now … Stay tuned …

 

My To-Do List, Fall 2013 …

FallToDoList2013_BlogPicThis page from my notebook (see photo) sums up the headlines on my to do list for the coming year: launching a new music album, building a global volunteer campaign for sustainability, participating in a number of important scientific processes, publishing a little book, and all the while continuing to do the usual consulting, training, and other work I do, connected with the AtKisson Group.

Can’t possibly do this alone. Success on all these points will absolutely depend on the support of many friends and colleagues. So, for those who are interested, let me walk you through this to-do list item by item …

Launching a new album:  Sometime in the next couple of months you will be warmly invited to listen to ten new songs, written over the last decade, recorded over the last two years, backed by some of Sweden’s best studio musicians. And for once, I will not shy away from asking people I know to tell everyone they know about this album. That’s how strongly I feel about it.

Building a global volunteer campaign:  We have raised the sails on our new Pyramid 2030 initiative, which aims to get hundreds, maybe thousands of groups around the world meeting together in workshop groups, building new understanding together, and generating new ideas, new energy, even new plans and projects for sustainability. Check out the new website at http://Pyramid2030.org. Doing one of these workshops is both fun and very meaningful. You can do it any time, and at any scale, you want. So don’t hesitate for a minute: join up!

About the item called “keep up with major scientific developments”:  I serve on President Barroso’s new Science and Technology Advisory Council here in Europe (it has just launched a website: http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/president/advisory-council/index_en.htm) which is tasked to “examine areas where research and innovation can contribute to Europe’s growth — with a particular focus on benefits and risks of advances in science & technology and how to address and communicate these.” As a sustainability expert, I feel a particular responsibility to dive deeply into these questions, and gather advice from many, so that I can offer meaningful input to the President of the European Commission. That is a big “to do” item, and a continuous one. (As a science and sustainability communicator, I also have to keep updated for the various keynotes and seminars I am asked to do, sometimes in connection with specific topics. On my speaking agenda this fall, for example:  the American Society of Agronomy annual convention, and the launch of the EU’s enormous Graphene research program, coordinated by Chalmers University here in Sweden.)

“Sustainability is for Everyone”: This is the title of a little book I drafted earlier this year, and it is due for release also this fall, most probably in a free e-Book edition. (You can read comments reacting to the draft here). The book integrates nicely with the Pyramid 2030 campaign, because they both aim to empower “sustainability people” to reach out to other people.

Master Classes, Clients, etc.:  On top of (or perhaps underneath) all of this is my job, consulting to organizations on sustainability strategy, training officials and executives on how to apply the ISIS Method and ISIS Accelerator tools, and generally keeping my shoulder to the wheel of the sustainability movement — together with the millions of other people whom I believe that movement now consists of. Included in that work is teaching ISIS Academy Master Classes, promoting AtKisson Group research reports on energy and new economics, and promoting the work of our clients, such as WWF and CDP’s highly influential report The 3% Solution (on why companies should invest more in carbon emissions reduction).

So, a busy year for sure. A big year in terms of ambition, admittedly. Will it be “big” in terms of the success of these initiatives?

I profoundly hope so. I’m working my tail off to make that happen. I am also profoundly grateful that my wife Kristina is working with me now (running Pyramid 2030); that I’ve had a great producer working on the album (Andrea Bauman here in Sweden); and that many, many friends taking on various roles in these initiatives and campaign. From the bottom of my heart, to all of you: thank you.

And to all my friends and readers around the world, who have this far … I’ll be profoundly grateful for any help you can give me on this to do list. Ideas? Suggestions? Offers? Please write to me:  Email to Alan

I’d also like the opportunity to help you … so that together, we can raise sustainability a few more notches on the world’s to do list, as well.

Because that’s the whole point.

Warmly,

Alan

What Music Means (to Me)

AtKissonBlogPhoto9Apr2013This article describes how music came back into my life — again — and the process of recording my new album with some of Sweden’s leading musicians. The album is to be released later this year (2013) .

A few years ago, I heard someone ask the veteran global trend analyst Lester Brown — who is known for dire warnings about the state of the planet — this question: “How do you maintain your optimism?”

“I have a one-word answer for that,” said Lester. “Bourbon.”

As someone whose professional life often involves analyzing global trends, and then informing others about them (while trying to help them change the direction of those trends), I often get asked the same question. So I adopted Lester’s snappy, whiskey-based answer and modified it. “Unlike Lester,” I would say, “I have a two-word answer for that. Single malt.”

My real answer, of course, is more complicated (as is Lester’s). It has to do with maintaining a long-term perspective, seeing the positive developments that have unfolded over decades, enjoying the “now” of the work in terms of human companionship and the pleasure of learning, and a deep commitment to family.

But lately, I’ve decided to change my snappy two-word answer back to one word.

Music.

As I wrote in my book Believing Cassandra, music came back into my life out of emotional necessity. I spent much of my 20’s working as a professional musician, performing in the rock and folk clubs of New York. Then I changed career tracks, and became a sustainability expert. But my early professional plunge into issues such as climate change, poverty, oppression, and biodiversity loss (starting in 1988) stirred up some strong emotions. Writing songs, starting with the dark comedy song “Dead Planet Blues,” helped me to express those emotions and deal with them … and probably helped me avoid drinking too much whiskey.

But music is, of course, its own pleasure. It has its own purpose, quite separate from any personal or global agenda we bring to it. I have been reminded about this while working on my new album over the past year and a half.

The songs on this album were written during the past decade, and some of them are deeply personal. For the first part of the project — which involved just me and my guitar, showing up at the studio once every couple of months — I just focused on the songs as songs. They are each different, ranging from up-tempo acoustic-rock to whispery ballads. After each recording session, I was happy just hearing the sounds of my beautiful Taylor acoustic guitar, captured on the rough mix tapes.

But in the past few months, it has been the turn of other Stockholm-based musicians to come in and add their sounds, talents and interpretations to my basic picking, strumming, and singing. And Andreas Bauman, who has been helping me produce the album in his studio, brought in some great musicians.

First there was Micke Ajax, an exceptionally sensitive percussionist, who read the mood and rhythm of each song perfectly and gave them a wonderfully compelling beat. Mats Nilsson, playing together with Micke, laid down rich, melodic bass lines … and suddenly the songs also had groove.

Then last week came Tobias “Tobbe” Fall, who plays guitar with Sweden’s truly top singers (like Tommy Körberg and the popular summer TV show Allsång på Skansen, where nearly every current Swedish pop artist shows up during the summer). Tobbe brought five or six guitars with him, each of which seemed able to produce ten or more unique sounds. But most of all, Tobbe brought his extraordinary musicality, virtuosity, and a genuine engagement with the material. He and Andreas (who is also a keyboardist, with an excellent sense for musical ideas) worked together like artist and architect, bouncing ideas back and forth for sound, mood, phrasing … which Tobbe would then execute perfectly.

For me, listening, adding my own requests and ideas, occasionally pulling out my own guitar to play a bit with Tobbe so he could quickly see which chord voicings I was using, it was just a joy.

It wasn’t just the joy of hearing my songs come to life in the hands of musical masters. It was the joy of music itself. It was the pleasure of watching Micke and Mats have a musical conversation based on backbeats and melodic bass lines. It was the thrill of watching Tobbe rip off several killer electric guitar solos in the space of five minutes, just after laying down beautiful ringing tones on his aquatic-sounding baritone guitar.

I confess I had forgotten just what joy listening to music can be. My own music listening habits were nearly atrophied. The joy of family life more than filled my non-work time. Music was something I still did … but really didn’t know what to do with (as I wrote here last year). I still sang sometimes in my presentations, as anyone reading this probably knows; but I didn’t go to many concerts, except for my daughters’ piano and violin performances (plenty of joy there, too). I didn’t listen to my CD’s, or explore music online so very much. My musical life was far from dead; I enjoyed listening to what my children listened to, as they graduated from kids’ songs to current Swedish pop. But my music ears were pretty far from being fully alive, too.

Actually, two things have happened to change that. First, my recent experiences in the studio sent me back into my CD collection and got me pulling out my guitar more often, just to play it. They got me surfing through the unending world of online music. They helped me rediscover the simple pleasure of listening to a well-crafted song or a virtuoso guitar piece.

Secondly, I was approached out of the blue by the new Swedish organization, Performing Artists for the Environment (Artister för Miljön). Sweden’s former top TV meteorologist, Pär Holmgren (who is now a full-time environmental communicator), started AfM with friends, and invited me to get involved … as an artist. Since I also work as a consultant to the UN, an advisor to the EU, and other similar roles, I am sometimes careful about also identifying myself as an “artist”, to the point of occasionally hiding the fact. Why? Because I sometimes run into people in positions of authority who find it difficult to accept that one can be a serious consultant if one is also a serious musician.

But Pär’s invitation spoke specifically to the more integrated artistic-professional life that I used to champion more actively. The afternoon in March that I spent with other performing artists — some of whom were learning about the real gravity of global environment challenges for the first time — was inspiring and refreshing. And as a benefit, because Pär and his colleagues had reminded me that I was indeed a performing artist, I began to see myself as one again.

Which was good timing, because soon, I will have a new album ready to launch. Thanks to Andreas and the musicians who have enriched it, it will be an album that one can listen to because one likes the lyrics and the messages and the stories in the songs … but also just because one likes the music, the way it sounds.

So now I wish to publicly thank Andreas, Micke, Mats, Tobbe, Mats Ronander (a Swedish music star, who plays a mean harmonica on one of my songs), and the other musicians still to come to Andreas’s studio, as well as Pär Holmgren and his colleagues at AfM, for reminding me what music means.

For reminding me that music is … music. Its own joy.

For reminding me that being a musician is a joy.

For reminding me that being a musician and songwriter who also seeks to support the great changes happening in our world in the name of sustainability, using every tool and talent one has — that this, too, is a joy, and an unending source of optimism.

And it’s much, much better than whiskey.

Flummoxed About My Music (plus, a free song)

Update 12 Apr 2013: I wrote this about six months ago, but now, I am no longer feeling so “flummoxed.” The musical path forward is getting much clear. See What Music Means (to Me).

I confess: I am flummoxed. (Translation: deeply puzzled about what to do.) Why? Because I don’t know how to reach my audience. I’m a family man, and a working sustainability consultant, and those are my highest priorities, in that order. But I’m also a writer, a poet, a songwriter, a musician. I don’t have the time (or the energy, or the drive for attention) required to run around tooting my horn and selling my creative products. But this world doesn’t notice you if you don’t.

So why am I making a new album, full of new songs? And what should I do with my old ones?

[Keep reading, or scroll down, and find the free (very old! 1983!) song to listen to, in MP3 format.]

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I imagine that my potential audience is somewhat bigger than the Twitter followers (833) and the Facebook friends (642 “friends” + 318 “likes” on my public page).  Or the average 500 per month who visit my blog. Or the 500 or so who actually open my company newsletter (out of 2,700 on the list).

Evening performance for Northwest Earth Institute, Portland, OR, 2003 (photo from the NWEI newsletter)

In fact, I am pretty sure my audience used to be bigger, back in the good old pre-Twitter days. My first book sold something close to 20,000 copies. My essays on the now-defunct blog Worldchanging were probably read by many more, and occasionally got noticed by the news media. My music … well, to be honest (with myself), not that many people know my music. My greatest “hit” is a YouTube video (my song “System Zoo”) that has been watched 7,757 times. Yes, my albums are available on iTunes and Amazon … and I have sold a whopping 107 songs and six albums through those channels, generating $118.

That doesn’t much bother me. I write songs because it pleases me to write them, and play them, and record them, and occasionally even listen to them. If no one else ever listens to them … well, that’s fine.

Like any artist, I would certainly prefer that other people listen to my songs, read my books, etc. But — again — I deeply dislike tooting my own horn and doing self-promotion. And the older I get, the less energy I’m willing to spend on self-promotional activity. Hence I am flummoxed.

So, for example:  what to do with my music — old and new? Here is that free song I promised, the opening title track from my very first album, a 10-song cassette demo, produced in 1983, in New York, on a 4-track reel-to-reel system engineered by Darryl Cherney, in his studio/bedroom. He was living with his Mom in those days, and a big white cat whose purring was so loud it could be heard on the tape if we didn’t throw it out of the room. The song is called Whitewing, and it retells the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus (click the link to open the song in a new window):

AtKisson_Whitewing_1983DemoVersion

When I made Whitewing, I was just starting to dream of a career in music. A few years (and a few bands) later, I was finally offered the management contract of my dreams … and I turned it down. Cut my hair. Changed careers. Headed toward what we now call sustainability. The reality of succeeding in a career in music — endless touring, smoky bars, playing the same repertoire every night for months — was, when I finally looked that possibility in the face, far less appealing than the dream.

And yet, today I go into the studio again. I’m in the process of recording my sixth album — after a break of twelve years. You probably never heard of most of my albums — “Fire in the Night,” “Testing the Rope,” or the twelve Rilke poems I set to music on “Falcon, Storm, or Song.” (I recorded that one in the year 2000, but did not release it until 2006.) Three of them — the Rilke album, plus the humor album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” and the more serious singer-songwriter collection “Testing the Rope” — are available on Tunecore.

This new album is a return to the troubadour-style ballads of “Testing the Rope.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling the album “American Troubadour,” which is one of the song titles, and also a good description of how I feel these days in relation to music:  American.  You see, living in Sweden — which has a long troubadour tradition, yet not a lot of places for troubadours to play, and even less opportunity for 52-year-old, family-man, American-origin troubadours to play — has further complexified my situation, and made the whole music thing an even more private affair. On top of that, Sweden is not a country where you stand up and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not just this, I’m also that, and I’m actually this other thing as well, and please listen to my songs and read my books.” Sweden feeds my natural inclination to not draw attention to myself, even though I am in a profession — author, speaker, performer, etc. — that requires drawing attention to oneself.

Then there’s the issue of mixing your professional identity (which I’ve written about in my books). I do quite a lot of work that falls into a category that one might call “serious” — advising companies or UN agencies, writing reports on global economic issues, moderating high-level panel discussions, etc. But my best-known songs (as anyone reading this probably knows) are humorous. Singing humorous songs, especially live, puts one automatically in a sort of “clown-entertainer” role. “Serious” work and “clown” work do not mix together very well.

People tell me, “Oh, but your songs are so effective at getting these messages across!” (I heard this just yesterday, at lunch — and I say thank you very much to the person who said it!) It’s often true that when I give a keynote speech or do a training, people remember what I sing — when I do sing, which isn’t always — more than what I say. I know that because I meet people who heard me years ago, and the first thing they say is, “You’re the guy who sang that song!”

So, I’m flummoxed.

Flummoxed or not, I’m going to keep doing what I do. Maybe more so. All of it. Including music. I’m going to start putting more of that music here, on my blog, so you can access it (for free). And I’m making a new album. (It’s not a funny one.) I have no idea how I’m going to promote that album, or even pay for it — but there’s a decade worth of songs that are just demanding to be recorded. They won’t let me alone until I do.

And then … I’ll put the work out there. On Facebook, Twitter, the Blog, the Amazon, whatever channels are available.

And see what happens.

The Summertalker’s Moment of Revelation

In this country of traditions, which has captured my heart and caused me to set down roots as deep as a modern human can have (family with children, house, bank accounts, taxes, habits of behavior and mind), there is a tradition that is quite modern, as recent as radio.

“Summertalkers” is not a beautiful word, and yet its Swedish origin, “Sommarpratarna,” is somehow beautiful. Partly it is the association:  to experience the Summertalkers program, one sits lazily by the radio, and listens to a gifted writer (or actor or musician …) speak about life. Occasionally, the Summertalkers play a piece of music to illustrate what they are talking about.  Usually the talk is by turns deep, by turns amusing, or perhaps — if the person is quite famous — interesting only in that it reveals something quite personal about them.

As I write this, I am listening to one of most satisfying “Summer Talks” I’ve caught over the years, by author Torgny Lindgren. His 72-year-old voice hesitates in charming ways as he talks about writing and music and how these bring meaning to even the most tragic of lives — say, Joseph Roth, who drank himself to death in the cafes of Paris but wrote compellingly, humorously, and in full command of style, until the very last alcoholic drop.

Torgny (these talks are so intimate in tone that they make one feel compelled use the first name) made me laugh as he recounted the turning point in his young life, the moment when literature gripped him. He was sitting in the outhouse of his family home in northern Sweden, “leaning forward, probably pushing.” The few lines of Swedish poetry that he happened upon in a social-democratic consumer cooperative magazine do not translate well, or at least, I can’t recall them well enough to do them justice in translation. But there he was, a writer-to-be, seized by the language that gives us meaning, having a moment of youthful literary euphoria, in the middle of doing his business in the outhouse.

The beautiful absurdity of it says something about Torgny’s character, his lack of self-pretension (though he sits in chair #9 in the Swedish Academy). But it also says something about summer in Sweden. It is absurdly beautiful here, just now. Everything is wonderful, in the midst of these endless sunny days of leisure, even the most clichéd old song, even American soda pop, even a decaying mini-golf course. One laughs at oneself for enjoying such things — Torgny began by noting that our capacity to fool ourselves about how important, or smart, or beautiful we are is probably one of our most important success factors as a species — but one enjoys it all nonetheless.

“Let’s be honest, music leads us nowhere. Music is completely useless. Ask the tax authorities!” says Torgny. “But we all have a drive to music, a ‘music libido,’ that is as strong as any other drive we have,” he notes, remarking on the remarkable fact that people go around plugged into devices to satisfy their constant, endless need for music. “If Sigmund Freud had discovered the music drive, then all of his work would have looked completely different.”

And the talk goes on, and on. Torgny is playing with words, adding the “muse drive” to the “music drive” — a drive to creativity. We simply must create, just as the Earth — and this is impossible not to believe, during these long summer blooming day-nights in Sweden — must create.

What else, in this endless universe, is there for us to do?

What Lady Gaga and I Have in Common

You might be expecting a humor piece — “I once dropped a piece of Parma ham onto my lap, where it draped across my leg as though it were a patch on my pants, just like Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress” — but I’m actually quite serious here.

I’m not really a Gaga fan, no “Little Monster” as she calls them (effectively creating a “brand” of her own fan-base).  I’ve seen one Gaga concert on TV, I’ve heard the hits on the radio. It’s catchy stuff, perhaps not my cup of tea, unavoidably sticky. But she’s clearly a real musician, versatile, skilled, committed.

And as I also still think of myself as a musician — even if my actual concert-style performances have been more infrequent of late, my playing rustier — I pay attention to the music business; and so I paid close attention to Stephen Fry’s profile article on Lady Gaga in the Financial Times on Saturday, 28 May 2011, followed by an article on the economics of her pop music/performance art empire in the same paper. (Online version here.)

And I learned some things that surprised me.

Let’s start with the tattoo. I don’t have one and never will; but if I did, I would be very likely to choose a line from the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, whose life and work I have studied intensively, resulting in one album of his poetry set to music. I even wrote a one-man musical play, based on his early life and letters, and performed it exactly once.

According to Fry, Lady Gaga has tattoo that consists of a long piece of Rilke’s writing, a quote from “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Then there is her approach to art and work, which one might call “Rilke-esque”. She lives her performance, 24/7. She is fully committed. She professes not to care about making money, and in fact went bankrupt last year — despite her enormous success — because she invested her own money in re-designing and re-tooling her tour, continuously, in response to her evolving sense of what needed to be done.

Without going into the philosophical details here about why, it should be obvious to anyone observing that I have for many years taken a similar approach to my work, at a much, much, much smaller scale of operation. (Just trying to make sure you know that I have no illusions of grandeur. My blog posts are read by, oh, several dozen people at the moment!) In fact, I used to conceive of my work as a kind of “global art project.” These days, I no longer make any distinctions between my “artistic” life and my “professional” life. Consulting on sustainable development strategy, writing, developing processes that bring people together to make change, making up songs and singing them to live audiences as part of a speech or a training session — even knowing when not to sing, because the role I’m playing and the purpose I am dedicated to achieving requires near-absolute adherence to the traditional cultural patterns of suit-and-tie and professional decorum — these all blend together now.

It’s not like I’m doing everything all the time, however. Sometimes a corporate client will specifically ask me to bring my guitar to the session on sustainability strategy (I have even sung to audiences of scientists, and military personnel, you-name-it). But sometimes, it is obvious that any hint of being a “creative person” should be left outside of the meeting. By the same token, when actually performing as a musician, I tend to leave the bullet points on strategy off the stage.

Basically, in each situation, I do whatever seems best to serve the overall purpose of advancing this transformation process we call “sustainability.”

It should be equally obvious that money is not my primary motivation. In fact, like Gaga, I’ve sunk a lot of my own money into developing the tools, methods, etc. that my colleagues and friends are now spreading around the world, with a kind of apparent insouciance to the current profit/loss/cash flow/balance sheet situation that has, on occasion, made my accountants roll their eyes. Why? Because the issues we are dealing with are deadly serious. They outweigh short-term financial considerations. So I do what I think needs to be done, where I see an opportunity to amplify and accelerate change, for as long as I can, and as long as I don’t put other people’s financial well-being at risk. (In truth, I believe or at least hope that this will prove to be a good long-term strategic investment in financial terms. I’m guessing Gaga thinks the same way. I’m also guessing she’ll end up making way more money than the entire sustainability movement will ever see in this lifetime.)

So, work, art, life … It’s all one thing. Sometimes it’s serious (e.g. working to help a country or a company fine-tune its sustainable development strategy), sometimes it’s just plain fun (e.g. singing the “Parachuting Cats” to an international conference audience). It’s not about “saving the world.” It’s about being *in* the world, as it is, in this particular moment.

Okay, let’s wrap this thing up on a lighter note, with the tiniest grain of potential truth in it. When I was a musician in New York in my 20s, I used to get my hair cut on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at the same place Madonna used to go to, before she got famous. And Lady Gaga, this generation’s Madonna, also comes from the Lower East Side.

So who knows — maybe all three of us have a hair-stylist in common, too.

“And the winning song is …”

Aren’t you curious to know which of my songs is the most popular? That is, the most purchased in its digital format, on iTunes, Amazon.com, etc.? You won’t believe it. I certainly didn’t believe it.

Let me back up.

It would be easy to scribble pages and pages of philosophical rumination on the importance of music — in general, and to me personally. But let me be a little crass and commercial here. Not only is writing and singing songs an emotional outlet or me; it’s a business.

Admittedly, it’s not exactly a big business. I can total up my actual cash earnings for 2010 in three digits. My musical income probably doesn’t even cover the family budget for dairy products.

So you can understand why I didn’t even bother to check the annual sales figures on iTunes etc. until the close of 2010. The relatively small amount of money wasn’t surprising — but the sales figures on individual songs was very surprising. (Getting more curious? Read on …)

You see, what music actually does, among other things, is differentiate me from other consultant/speaker types. I can think of several paid events I did last year where the thing that got me the “gig” — that is, the thing that helped me stand out against the growing sea of sustainability authors and experts and speakers — was being able to throw in a song or two as part of my presentation. I don’t do this automatically, because obviously, there are many professional situations where singing a song is exceedingly inappropriate. But I am often surprised myself when a client requests (or sometimes just sort of hints!) that they’d also like me to sing a bit, even in very formal situations.

So music does help me earn my living as a sustainability consultant, even if in a somewhat indirect way.

Which is what led me to expect that the top song for the year would be one of my sustainability-themed songs — like “Dead Planet Blues” (humorous, on the album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On”) or “Balaton” (serious, on the album “Testing the Rope”), both of which are mentioned in my books, complete with lyrics.

I was so wrong.

My top-selling song for all of 2010 was …

“The Strangely Popular Lichen Song” (see lyrics and link at the end of this post)

Yes, the Lichen Song earned me more money last year than the Parachuting Cats, the Extinction Blues, or Homone Havoc … and a lot more than any of my serious and soulful tunes about life, love, and the meaning of it all.

Which means it truly earned its name:  the “Lichen Song” is “Strangely Popular,” and always has been, since I first wrote it after attending a naturalist training course in 1991. The teacher had taught us a one-liner to help us remember that a lichen was the symbiotic union of two very different kinds of living thing:  “Freddie Fungus and Alice Algae took a lichen to each other,” he said. I repeated this one-liner to a friend, who said, “That sounds like it could be a song.” “Oh, no,” I said — for I immediately heard the melody in my head, and the song began virtually to write itself.

So there you have it — the union of a fungus and an algae became a song that went mini-viral in 2010. Maybe I’ll use the proceeds to buy a few mushrooms for the family …

The Strangely Popular Lichen Song

Music and lyrics © 1991 by Alan AtKisson – from the album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” Rain City Records, 1999

Available on iTunes:  Click here

Once there was a fungus — Freddy was his name

Said “There’s no love for me among us, all us fungi look the same.”

So he took himself a courtin’ down to where the green things grow

Met some algae name of Alice, and she set his heart aglow

CHORUS:

Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a LICHEN to each other

They grew so very close that now you cain’t tell one from t’other

Now those lichens lead a simple life, they never are alone —

Alice does the cookin’, and Freddy builds the home

Freddy said “Oh Alice, you’ve made my life complete,”

But Alice said, “Now Freddy, there’s something else we need.

Got to have some lichen children — little ones like you and me,”

So they broke themselves in pieces, and that’s how lichens came to be

CHORUS

So if you’re a lonesome fungus, and you’re hungry too besides,

Better hook up with somebody who can photosynthesize

And if you love each other, as all good couples do,

And take vows of symbiosis, you can be a lichen too!

CHORUS