Kleenex Girl Wonder just released 13th LP The Comedy Album. Graham Smith, who’s been making pan-genre pop rock in bedrooms, studios, forests and everywhere in between under the KGW name with various people since 1994, joins MAGNET as guest editor this week. Climb inside his skull as he figures out what it’s all about, whatever “it” may be.
Smith: It has been quite an honor and pleasure to catalog inspirations and amusements for you in these posts. In this last one I want to outline more specifically and directly what motivates me to continue recording and performing music, and what I am hoping to accomplish. To do so, I want to talk about a little-seen yet much-maligned television show called John From Cincinnati.
Premiering in 2007, and running for only one 10-episode season, JFC is one of my favorite shows of all time, if not my actual favorite. I like to say that I enjoy it more than any other show, but it’s difficult to compare it to any other show because it’s such a completely different beast from my other favorites (Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Venture Bros, Futurama, Fargo, to name but a few). I’ve never gotten confirmation that my interpretation of what it’s “about” is correct, but as I hope I’ll show, it doesn’t really matter.
I actually won’t spoil any of the storyline because I think you should watch it. It’s only nine and a half hours or something, I think you can spare it. If you absolutely hate it (as many do) you can email me and yell at me. But I think it will be worth your time, especially if my interpretation intrigues you. In my reading, it’s about the best way to communicate important messages to people. The popular wisdom is that if you have an important message to relay—let’s say, for example, “The world is about to explode, killing everyone, but there is a way to prevent it” (note: this is not a spoiler for the TV show in question)—you should say it in the most straightforward way you can, and ensure that the largest amount of people hear it. However, there are lots of factors that go into how people receive a message, especially if that message requires a nuanced consideration and application to their lives, which, admittedly, a world explosion probably would. So, bad example. But in a lot of cases, it’s better to put a thought out there and let people determine the underlying meanings for themselves—indeed, even meanings that you are unaware of and not intentionally broadcasting. You run the risk of confusing people, but on the whole, is confusion such a terrible thing? Particularly if the message you are interesting in conveying is of a philosophical nature, being confused, and subsequently challenging yourself to burrow out of that confusion, may leave you more enlightened than being screamed at.
Maybe this is an overly complex reading of the JFC story, but I think it fits, and I apply similar logic to the way that I write songs. I was doing it before I saw the show and started thinking about this methodology in a conscious way, and I’ve doubled down since I saw it. Think about the songs that mean the most to you—some of them may be relatively specific, and some of them may be maddeningly vague, but there is likely a common thread running through all of them. That thread can be described as: I hear the music and lyrics, I project something that is emotionally resonant or otherwise meaningful to me on to them, and as a result of this alchemy, I have a pleasing response. That pleasure can be, somewhat unintuitively, painful—you may feel better because a song makes you sad, for instance. Or you could just like dancing to it, or just snapping your figures, or thinking about the complexity of the arrangement or melodies in an analytical manner.
That’s what I try to aim for. I talk about a lot of specific things in my songs, but I shy away from linear narratives (with a few exceptions over the past 22 years). That’s because my ultimate goal is to provide people with a tool that they can use to improve their lives, or at least feel better about their lives. I think that most musicians do this, so I don’t think I’m some innovative genius (at least not on this front), but there are a lot of other factors in play for most musicians, too, i.e. the need to pay rent and buy food, a desire for the attention that any level of fame engenders, etc. (I once had an argument with a co-worker because he told me that it was literally impossible that no part of my motivation in making music was “to get laid,” as I claimed; a stance I still stand behind, even though it is difficult to support with facts, but hey, my motivation is my motivation, you can’t tell me what drives me.) I know that regardless of how many people listen to my music or how much money I make off of it, I will continue doing it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care how many people listen to it. I want to make something that is useful for people to listen to, whatever that “use” may be, and then I want people to make use of it, and tell me what is useful about it, so that I can try to do more of what works, for as many people as possible. I would prefer you pay a price that you think is fair for my music, provided you find it useful, but if you cannot afford to, or afford to take a chance on it if you’re unsure, then fortunately there are plenty of ways to give it a shot free of charge. I only ask that you let me know what works and what doesn’t, if you get the chance to do so. You can reach me pretty easily, if you’d like to share any such thoughts or ask any follow-up questions. Thanks for listening.