A friend of mine for quite some time is a pretty serious musician. Google “Christopher (or Chris) Denny” and you’ll see what I mean. He’s had good interest from major record labels and has toured the country. He’s done well in New York and California and any and everywhere between. I’ve heard his voice described as “golden” and “ethereal” and a “national treasure”. He’s been reviewed (positively) in Pitchfork, played by Pandora, interviewed by NPR, and recorded a Daytrotter session (that’s where that illustration came from). You can buy his music on Amazon or iTunes or your local indie music record store. All of that is fascinating to me, of course. But what’s always struck me even more is the growth/development/change/adaptation/metamorphosis/etc. his voice has taken over the years.
You see, I remember hearing Chris sing Better Than Ezra in my driveway in middle school. I remember listening to him channel Bono as played U2’s “One” on stage in High School. I remember joining him in a Jeff Buckley song for the Homecoming Assembly as Seniors. All the while, I remember that voice. It was incredible and incredibly distinct. It was completely his, but also completely accessible. And then I went away to college.
While I was off in the frozen tundra of Lake Michigan in the winter time, Chris was back home in sweet Arkansas honing his voice. He buried himself in old records and Roy Orbison. And slowly, his voice began to change. I’m not speaking metaphorically or symbolically here. I mean literally. It began to change. As his voice transformed, so did the attention he received. Avenues opened up for him and success began to find him. I was happy for him and excited to see my old friend on a new path to greatness.
As I listened to each new song, each new album along the way, each new live performance that I attended, I couldn’t help but feel an undercurrent of tension. I’m not talking about any sort of negative ill will or anything like that. More along the lines of something pulling at me. It was that voice. In one essence, it was one of the most incredible things I’d ever heard. In another, it was simply not Chris. At least, not the Chris I grew up with and always remembered. This was something new and different. Was that bad? Was that good? Was it still Chris, just a newer version of him? I’m not sure. That’s why I’m coming to you here today.
I’ve got a listening project for you. Below is three different recordings along the way of Chris’s song “Time”. It’s simple and strong. There’s a reason he’s recorded it for three separate albums. It’s good. Listen to about a minute or so of each version. Get through that first chorus, and then try the next version. Along the way, pay attention to that voice. I’ll catch up with you after you finish with your assignment.
Self-Titled Debut Release
from national release, Age Old Hunger
So…did you hear it? Did you hear it becoming something else? Did you hear him becoming someone else? Perhaps. And perhaps that’s the question of this post. Is that still Chris? Did he simply find his voice over time, or did he adapt his voice into something that simply worked for him? Are all three versions “authentic” or is one more “real” than the others? I’ve heard both answers from both sides. I think it’s a fascinating study and, in general, a really interesting question about music, and even larger, art itself. Here’s one last idea from my own life that may help us.
I don’t really consider myself a painter. But, for the sake of taking a class with my girlfriend, I took an Introduction to Painting class with her at Northwestern. I loved it. I still didn’t really consider myself a good painter, but I was in love with art (and her). So, the next year I took another painting class. This time around I was on my own. Even more, I was committed to finding my own way as an artist and as a painter, instead of just gawking at Amy’s work (and Amy!).
Our first assignment was to find a painting we really liked and to mimic it. Mine was this abstract, early-Rothko-ish painting of vertical bars and lines. Kinda looked like an abstract cityscape, or better yet, forest. Our next project was to paint something inspired by the previous painting. I painted a pretty straightforward, flat, 2-D forest with trees taking over where rectangles sat in the previous painting. For my next work, I focused in on the trunks of trees. They reminded me of those early vertical bars, but these had more life in them. Again, I had several bars of trees all across the canvas, outlining each one by scratching at the canvas with the palette knife. On top of the trees, I painted a mass of green that served as all the greenery atop each trunk.
Moving on, I just narrowed it down to 3 or so vertically stretching tree trunks. One large one took up the foreground with a couple in the back next to it. I’d finally learned something about depth. I worked this idea for another painting before focusing in on just one tree. I even used real wood and painted directly on it, allowing the texture of the wood itself to reveal the lines of the tree. For my final project, I just made a giant floor to ceiling version of one of these. One giant tree trunk, about 1/3rd of the way in on the left side of the canvas, stretching all the way up the painting, real wood giving texture to the tree in vertical lines, these lines aging it like wrinkles.
You may have gotten lost there in the descriptions and the details, but come back to me with this. When I first started those paintings, I was just drawing. I had no idea what I was looking for. I was just teaching my hands and eyes to work together with my heart and brain. But as time and work progressed, I began to pick up something from the painting before. I’d use it to inspire the next one. By the end of it, I’d found what I’d always been looking for: not giant paintings of trees on actual wood. No, I found myself…as a real painter. I was surprised by the outcome.
Maybe Chris wasn’t on a mission to change the way he sang. Maybe he wasn’t searching to be the next Bob Dylan. Maybe he was simply on a mission to play music and listen to things that inspired him. Maybe his sound shifted as “time” took control of his life. But maybe, somewhere along the way, he looked up and realized he’d finally found his voice.
I have no idea if my process was the same as Chris’s. I don’t know if you can even compare the two. I’m curious to open the discussion up, though. What do you think? Is there authenticity lost somewhere in here? Or was the final version even more “real” than the earlier? Was his “true voice” found? Let your voice be heard.