Your Gateway to Music and More from a Christian Perspective
Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
By Steve Stockman
David Lamotte is an independent guitar playing singer songwriter from North Carolina...even if you haven't heard of him yet, and you should find out about him, you will be fascinated by this interview about art and faith and being a human being...
Tollbooth: You travel down an independent road, no record label backing. How tough is that?
Lamotte: It's been eleven years, as of last month, since I quit my last side job and started playing music full-time. For those first few years it was just me doing all the booking, publicity, book-keeping, etc. That was before cell phones and laptops, too, so I was constantly pulling over at payphones at rest areas to make booking calls, etc. That was a whole lot to do. From the start, though, I considered this my job, and I work at it like anyone who is committed to his or her work. The tough part, actually, is making sure I leave space for music. It's impossible to pour anything into a full cup, and keeping space in my life remains a challenge. It's funny, because people don't think of all the office work that is necessary to keep a songwriter on the road. It's not too glamorous, of course, and not anything I want to dwell on when I'm talking with people about what I do, but it's a big and necessary part of it. My father is a retired Presbyterian minister, and I remember my friends asking me as a kid "what does your Dad do for the rest of the week?" as though he only worked on Sunday. Little did they know.
In more recent years I've had great help with all the biz/office stuff, and for the last three or four years I've had a full-time employee working for me. That's incredibly helpful, needless to say. I've never really wanted a lot of money, and try not to get too attached to “stuff,” so as my career has provided a little more than I needed to eat and live and run the business, I've chosen to spend it on buying back my time.
Being an independent is tough in some ways. Labels open some doors for you that are hard to open otherwise. They also provide manual distribution, which is a great thing. I'd say it's getting easier, though. I'd love to have my CDs sitting in record stores around the country, but the Internet is arguably making that redundant. People are beginning to trust Internet commerce, and anyone anywhere can find my CDs on the net by typing in my name.
Tollbooth: Are there advantages of independence?
Lamotte: Definitely. I'm pulling my own strings. I have the final say on what a CD budget is going to be, what songs go on there, where I play and when. I'm quite attached to that independence, and it would be quite a trade to let go of it. I'm not closed to the idea of working with a larger label, but I'd have to be working with really good people and feel like they were committed. It's good to be in a place where my career is working really well the way it is, so I'm not approaching the idea from a sense of need or desperation. We'll see what happens.
Tollbooth: What keeps you out there? What drives you?
Lamotte: Honestly, what I really love is the connection with people. I love music for itself, too, but what awes me most about it is its ability to remind us of our connectedness. Cynics would say that the feeling of wholeness and energy that one sometimes feels at a concert is illusory and shouldn't be taken seriously. I feel just the opposite. We really ARE connected. It's the feeling of separation and isolation that is illusory, and music is a powerful tool to make us aware of the truth of our oneness. That sounds a little flaky as I write it out, but it's my honest answer.
Tollbooth: As a songwriter, a singer and a guitarist, do you have to consciously keep those strands in balance? Do you ever think, great guitar part. Who cares how good the lyrics are?
Lamotte: I think that's an easy trap to fall into. I can always point to a song I love that has such a great groove that the lyrics are sort of incidental. I feel that way about some Van Morrison stuff, for instance. I love it, but if I actually look at the lyrics I wince a little. I should clarify that I'm a big fan of his. I think that's a little lazy, though. I want to be very, very good at all of the parts of my trade. I've got a lot of work left to do, of course, and I think the way to get better is to not compromise; keep pushing each song to be as good as it can be and not ask a solid groove to carry a lame lyric. It goes the other way, too, of course. I've got a lyric I've been working on for three years. I think it's the best lyric I've ever written, but I haven't found the music that supports it yet, and I can't offer it to people “wrong.” I'll get it, but I haven't yet. That's the downside. When I take a critical look at a live show, mine or someone else's, I look at four areas; the writing, the playing, the singing and the performance skills. I think the last one is actually the one most people could stand to spend more time studying, but all four are immensely important. Sure, Dylan's widely reputed to be such a great writer that people can get past his voice (I love his voice, personally, but you get the point). This is my job, though I'm always trying to improve in each of those four areas. Usually one at a time.
Tollbooth: I have described your songs as old testament proverbs made flesh. Do they come to you as meditations and reflections?
Lamotte: That's a humbling and daunting description. Though I'm deeply honored by it, I'm not sure I can take that on entirely!
As for where they come from, though, I've had songs show up in all sorts of ways. I have literally dreamed some of them (“Lens Cap,” “New Lullaby,” for instance, and one I'm still working on that I'm calling “Only One Here”) and woken up and written them down. There is always some editing and finishing to be done with that kind of song, but it's undeniably a gift. Sometimes I write from a groove on the guitar and ask the song what it's about - look for the mood first, then the story. Mostly I write from a lyrical concept, though, and look for the music that supports it and the mood of the lyric. It's always interesting to just take a written lyric and try to sing it right out loud and see what melody and rhythm fall out of your mouth.
Tollbooth: Where specifically did “That's my Toy” come from?
Lamotte: I wish I could claim to have written that one, but my friend Steve Fisher wrote it. I do happen to know how it came to be, though. He was watching some little girls play in the yard and it occurred to him how similar their struggles with each other were to our own as adults. A couple of those little girls are now dear friends of mine as young adults, incidentally. He wrote it about fifteen years ago, and I thought a few more people should hear it, so I put it on the new record. I think it's a brilliant song in a true folk tradition. It's just a list of childish behaviors, but sneaks up on us as listeners as we gradually shift from judging “them” to recognizing ourselves.
Tollbooth: “Home by Now”?
Lamotte: That one was inspired by the encounter that's referred to in the second verse. I was on tour in the Northwest a few years ago, wiped out and road-weary, and had a couple of days to recuperate. In a cheap hotel on the coast of Oregon I met this older couple who were traveling around the country in a Winnebago celebrating their retirement. We talked for a while and I was a little saddened to hear him talk about his career in terms of penance he was doing to earn his current time. That's a lot of years at a job you don't like. He had recently had heart surgery and she had a bad ankle, and that made me sort of sad, because it's not a decision you can change your mind about. Then they brought me up short, though. I was feeling a little wiser-than-thou about doing work that I love when he asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was traveling around playing music, etc., and he looked at me with a strange mixture of shock and concern on his face and said "Alone?!" It was a lonely time for me, and that scene was a good reminder that whatever choices we make, there are sacrifices. They were traveling without their health, but with each other. I travel alone. Both choices are a little sad, and both are honorable. So the last verse is about me. As a young songwriter I wrote wistful brave songs about how cool it is to be a songwriter; taking the road less traveled by and all that. As I get a little older, I'm beginning to see, as Frost did, that "as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same." That's not a depressing thought for me, but a liberating one.
Tollbooth: “Dark and Deep”?
Lamotte: That one was inspired partly by a book by John Kabat-Zinn called Wherever You Go, There You Are. Horrible title, great book. It's a collection of essays on mindfulness, meditation and being present to the moment; sort of Zen for Dummies. He suggests in one essay that if we were to die, all the things that we spend so much time worrying about would resolve themselves one way or another, and life and time would go on without us, closing around like a stream around a rock. That's comforting to me in a strange way. He goes on to suggest that we practice pretending we are gone, and let go of all that worry, because it WILL all resolve itself.
I also did have a friend in Florida when I was little, the mother of a friend of mine, actually, who loved to take us off and get lost in the country. I always loved that, and still do. I wrote the song at a time when I was feeling pretty weary and wasted, and I was trying to remind myself of these things. That's what so many of my songs are, efforts to make ME hear things that I know are true, but forget so easily.
Lamotte: I wrote that one after the Russian submarine Kursk went down. That was a horrible tragedy, of course, but I was amazed and somewhat encouraged to see the public reaction in the U.S. I grew up in the cold war, when people in the states actually believed that Soviets were fundamentally evil. All countries demonize their enemies, of course, that's nothing new. It was incredible, though, when the Kursk went down, to see the reactions of people all the way from the right to the left. Everyone in the States, without an exception that I was aware of, was deeply concerned for these sailors and their families. If that had happened when I was a kid a large percentage of American society would have said, "Point for us. That's a few less of them in the world." That's almost unbelievable now, but undeniably true. Of course, now we have new groups of people to hate, but I stopped believing in the ideas of “us” and “them” a long time ago. It's just one big ”us” as far as I'm concerned, and we need to reframe our paradigms to realize that everything we do to anyone we do to ourselves.
Tollbooth: You seem to have interests in more than gigging, extra curricular activities, like peace issues. Using your art takes up a lot of your time. Where has that come from?
Lamotte: I want to be a human being before I'm a songwriter. There are many things that I've cared about for a long time that I continue to care about, and if I caught myself compromising my beliefs for my career it would be time to quit. Peacemaking isn't a very popular topic in the U.S. these days, but I'm talking about it at virtually every show. That's probably not good for my career, but that's not the most important thing. I try to be pretty intentional in general, taking a good look at what's most important to me. My faith is more important than my nationality, for instance. The fact that Jesus was consistent in leaving no room at all for violence leaves me really clear that I can't support our current war, even if some here see that as unpatriotic.
Tollbooth: And your recent residency with high risk teens?
Lamotte: That's been a good thing for me. I've had an ongoing relationship for the last seven years with a particular school system in Gillette, Wyoming, and for the last six I've been working at their “alternative school” with troubled high school kids. Lots of them have addiction problems, many have kids of their own, police records, etc. Some are just artists, and weren't really making it in the rigid structure of the mainstream educational system. We've done classes in photography, writing, video, etc., but my main point is always trying to get them to see that they are capable of creating good art, which they are. I ask a great deal of them, and for the most part they really come through. I'm always telling them that we're not created as “artists” or “non-artists,” that whether or not you are an artist is simply your choice. I've grown a lot and learned a lot from creating and leading those workshops, though it takes a lot out of me. My respect for teachers has grown exponentially since I started that work.
Tollbooth: You grew up in a Presbyterian manse. Any clues to someone trying to bring kids up in that environment?
Lamotte: In a lot of ways it was a great thing for me. I think growing up in an environment that's swimming in theological discussion and social justice concerns gets one thinking about those sorts of things a lot younger than people usually do. Whether one chooses the path of one's parents, rejects it or finds some variation on the theme, it's good to be considering those bigger questions. More than that, though, the environment of the church I grew up in was simply a loving place to be. I had a very big family. My Dad was pretty careful to respect our privacy, such that we had, by asking us before ever mentioning us in a sermon, for instance. But my folks demonstrated their faith to us more than they talked about it. It seems like there was always an extra person or two at the dinner table. And not just my siblings' friends; often somebody who stopped by the church and needed a hand.
As for advice, though, I don't know what to say other than to make sure your kids understand that your commitments to other people don't supercede your commitments to them. And that's not something you can explain with anything other than your time, of course. Good luck! :)
Tollbooth: You are a Quaker nowadays. Why did you get drawn to that?
Lamotte: One of my mother's best friends from when I was in high school is a Quaker woman who suffers from a crippling form of arthritis. Her spine is fused and immobile, she's in constant pain and her physical movement is severely restricted, but she's a joyful person and a formidable activist, with most of her energy in that area pointed toward peacemaking and social justice concerns. She's such a remarkable person that I was intrigued and wanted to know more about the kind of faith that went into making her who she is. Around the same time I was reading Mitchener's Chesapeake, in which some of the more prominent characters are Quakers. Occasionally I find that a theme emerges in my life, and something I've never paid much attention to starts showing up everywhere I look. That was true with the Friends (the official name for Quakers is the Society of Friends). And the more I learned about it, the more I felt like I had found my tribe. I kept thinking "This is what I've always believed, I just didn't know there were others who shared that belief!" Growing up in the shadow of the cold war, I was involved in peacemaking issues from my early teens on, and of course their commitment to pacifism is the one thing most people know about Quakers. Historically, Quakers have been very active with social concerns, having been integrally involved with the Underground Railroad that smuggled slaves to the North in the antebellum U.S., for instance. But that activism is clearly and profoundly rooted in a deep spirituality. I love the attention to silence, the idea that if we are to spend so much time talking about God and some time talking to God, it probably makes some sense to make space and time to actually listen for God's leading. If we truly buy into the idea of a living, present, involved God, then I think that is an appropriate emphasis. Anyway, I could go on about that stuff for a long time. I definitely do not think that Quakerism is for everyone, but I do feel like I've found a home, and I'm grateful for that.
Tollbooth: How has that faith influenced your writing?
Lamotte: Certainly all that we do is informed by our faith, and I'm no exception. I do believe that in making art of any kind (including the art of relating to people around us) we are invited to be co-creators with God. Creation is ongoing, and not something that happened a long time ago. Certainly you'll find allusions and references to my faith in my writing, but on the whole I prefer to be pretty subtle about it. I've found that writing in the language of the Christian in-crowd closes a lot of ears, because so many people have been so deeply wounded by various perversions of Christianity. And in the U.S., at any rate, Christianity is so strongly perceived to be aligned with right-wing politics that many good thinking people have walls that are too high to scale. So I prefer to try to consider the same ideas in my writing that Jesus was presenting in his teaching. When I write serious songs with theological overtones, though, I mostly write about things I'm struggling with. They're not intended to be instructive, but empathic. I'm a seeker by nature, and the easy questions aren't the ones that interest me. Of course, I also like to write about a million other things. It's disturbing to me to separate Christian music from "non-Christian" music, as it is disturbing to separate the person one is at church from the person one is on Tuesday morning at work or Friday night at the pub. If our faith is to be taken seriously by ourselves or anyone else, there has to be a certain integrity (in the sense of oneness) to our lives. So I want my music to be informed by my faith, as I want all that I do to be informed by it. People who can only talk about theology and nothing else become pretty tedious pretty quickly, as do people who can only talk about football and nothing else. I think songs, like conversations and faith, should be varied and relevant to our daily lives.
Tollbooth: There seems to be a songwriter community out there. Is it a little collective helping one another?
Lamotte: There's a pretty healthy songwriter community in the states, though it's unquestionably under the radar. There is very little radio presence and you rarely see us on TV, but there are clubs around the country offering this kind of music, and those of us who are traveling around playing at them get to know each other, and there is a great deal of support. I have songwriter friends all over the States, and when I'm heading for a new area I often ring up a friend to scoop them on the gigs in the area. This isn't a rock'n'roll mentality. Very few people are getting monetarily rich on acoustic music, so you have to value some other kinds of richness to be involved in it. It attracts a pretty great group of folks, in general.
Tollbooth: A live album? Why?
Lamotte: The main reason is that people were asking for one. I do a lot of storytelling on stage, and people often ask if any of the CDs include any of that. I also felt like it would provide a nice counterbalance to the last CD, Corners, some of which is quite heavily produced. I love good appropriate production (though I cringe at misguided attempts to rock-ify folk songs), and Corners is my favorite of the records I've done, but there's an intimacy to solo performance that has its own appeal, and people were asking for that. So far, the feedback has been great.
Tollbooth: Is it easier in that you don't have to worry about arrangements or more restrictive?
Lamotte: I would say it's simply a different art form. A studio album is easily likened to a painting, with infinite choices of colors and textures available to portray the essence of the song. A live recording is much more like a photograph. It's a different kind of art entirely, though some of the elements of composition are analogous. In some ways a live record is more challenging, because all you have to work with is what happened on stage on the nights you recorded. You can't 'fix' anything.
Tollbooth: Are you happy with it?
Lamotte: Very. I think it's a lot of fun, and has some sweet moments of connection that I'm happy to have a record of. It wasn't intended to be a double album when we set out, but as we poured over all the tapes (we recorded twelve shows with multi-track digital gear), there was more stuff that I felt really good about than would fit comfortably on a CD. As problems go, that was a good one to have.
Tollbooth: Did it make you look across your catalogue? What did you find in doing that about your life and songs?
Lamotte: It's not really intended to be a greatest hits record, or even a 'best of', so I didn't pore over all the records deciding which to put on there. Mostly I wanted to offer a good approximation of what my show is like these days. Again, it's like a photograph, and will be a record of what this time was like for me on stage. It won't grow older in a Dorian Gray sort of way, so I wanted it to be at least a solid representation of me on a good night in the summer of 2001. I thought about what songs I definitely wanted on there, and was intentional about playing those at shows we were recording. From there, though, we just listened to the tapes and tried to keep the good stuff.
I almost never have occasion
to listen to my old records. There's already a great danger of being totally
self-centered in this particular line of work, and I do enough navel gazing
as it is. I'd hate to fall in. It probably is time that I sat down and
listened through to all of them, though. I'm sure I would learn some things.
When I do hear the recordings, for whatever reason, I do hear growth over
the years, and I'm glad for that. But mostly I'm concerned with growing
from here. Music has been a beautiful context in which to stretch myself,
and I'm grateful for the struggle and joy and disappointment and grace
that have painted my life with such rich colors. Right now I'm just looking
forward to more new days.