I am no musician. My five-year, pre-teen effort to learn the piano was workmanlike and without inspiration. A middle-school foray into life as a trombonist left me feeling equally unsatisfied. In both cases, I understood what I was supposed to be doing, but the act of playing music never made my heart sing. If learning music was painting, I never stopped needing numbers.
Thus, any advice I give to musicians is done only as a consumer of their music. I couldn't tell Tom Morello how to play the guitar any more than I could tell a mechanic how to repair my car. I can only describe to each what I need as output.
All of that as qualifier for this, some advice for budding musicians:
Unless your last name is Dylan, Springsteen or Broadus, the lyrics in your songs should lean more to the indecipherable than to the crystal clear.
There should be mystery in your words, because most of your words probably won't be that poetic. Don't get me wrong, dear musician -- you can likely write more impactful lyrics than I. Nonetheless, you will drop in the occasional stinker. You'll go for rhyme over substance and put an "eye" with "sky." Or you'll fall in love and put a "dream" above a "moon beam." It would be better for both of us if you cover up those missteps with a fuzzy guitar part.
Or better yet, with an accent.
With "Kings and Queens," the British songwriter-rapper Jamie T has crafted one of the better albums of this year. One of the many reasons I like it so much: T's Brit accent keeps me from completely understanding what he's saying. Near the beginning of my favorite song from the album, the desperate yet triumphant "The Man's Machine," T might be saying, "Rat on the devil you know, confessor guesser was the lesser of the two evils." Or he might be talking about a gravel road and a lesser Hessian. It took me five tries just to come up with those interpretations.
I could go to Google, search "The Man's Machine + lyrics" to find out. But I won't, because it is my belief that I'm not always supposed to know what musicians are saying. Or that I'm supposed to figure it out slowly -- one of the reasons I continue to come back to the Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream" is that even now, almost two decades after its release, I still have no idea what the lyrics to "Hummer" are.
For me, that's OK. Actually, it's not just OK, it's ideal. I contend that good rock songs, like good paintings, are open to interpretation, and that they shouldn't be easily deciphered. (Most of the time. It didn't take me long to put together the not-so-highbrow poetry of Motley Crue's "She Goes Down," but that doesn't make that song any less fantastic.)
Of course, hiding the lyrics won't work forever. A balanced vinaigrette will only cover up brown Iceberg for so long. In the case of "Kings and Queens," plenty of fresh spinach and hearty romaine are under all that dressing. The average listener will be entertained well past the moment he figures out Jamie T's version of English.
And for this, I am glad. Inexplicably, I've always felt protective of Jamie T. I have no vested interest in his success, but I cheered him from the start. When I was first exposed to his unique musical stylings while watching a video for the song "Sheila" from his debut, "Panic Prevention," I was sure he'd be a one-hit wonder. (Assuming that "Sheila" was ever a hit, which, in the United States at least, is a dubious claim, to be sure.) It seemed impossible that anyone -- let alone a young, unknown British musician -- would be able to repeat the near-perfection that is "Sheila" with anything approaching its whimsical, yet emotionally tinged style.
(In case you haven't seen it -- a likely set of circumstances, considering it was most popular in Europe -- I highly recommend a look at the video.)
But T had surprises in store: The rest of "Panic Prevention" was thoroughly entertaining. I was bowled over by his ability to merge genres -- his sing-song rapping style playing effectively against the earnest singer-songwriter side of his personality. He managed to make the album a fun listen while delivering lyrics that, once deciphered, are the sort that we all wish we could write, but never will. For example, from the aforementioned "Sheila":
"Her lingo went from the cockney to the gringo any time she sing a song, the other girls sing along and tell all the fellas that that lady is single."
If it seems that I'm making too much out of nothing, try your hand at being a British singer-rapwriter and send me your best work. I have a hunch that it's harder to realistically encapsulate life as an English youth than either of us suspect.
When my enthusiasm for "Panic Prevention" had died down, I settled in for what I assumed would be the disappointing follow up. But again, my cringing, big brotherly instincts were misguided. "Kings and Queens" hit my laptop Sept. 22. I listened to it three times within 24 hours and finally understood that Jamie T will be fine without me worrying about him.
The record is nearly perfect. It's fun, highly listenable and, most of all, confident.
That confidence might be what most draws me to Jamie T's music. Saying that success in his chosen genre -- which is either melodic rapping or percussive singing -- is difficult is like saying that resolving the debate on health care has been tricky. True, but it hardly engages the storytelling chromosome.
But Jamie T doesn't seem to care that what he's trying is a nearly impossible task. Like a good comedic actor, he throws caution to the wind, and commits. That commitment comes across in his songs. If he were to hold back at all, his shtick wouldn't work. Thankfully, he doesn't hold back. He makes music like no one ever told him he should doubt what he's doing. Or, he makes music like someone told him he should doubt what he's doing … and then he went and did it anyway.
In our world of ever-morphing genres and influences, it is rare to find something new. As the globe that is music gets explored, discovering a new sound or a new approach feels like it must when a biologist stumbles across a new breed of spider in New Guinea.
As I've listened to "Kings and Queens," I've had several of those "Eureka!" moments. I think you might too.
For a sampling, check out "368" here.
If you're contemplating a trip into a studio, take a lesson from Jamie T. First, figure out a way to make your lyrics seem mysterious. One easy solution: Secure a time machine, go back to before you were born, and convince your parents to move to a foreign country so you can develop an accent. If you can't come up with a time machine, learn the guitar, but learn it fuzzy.
Second, don't be afraid to make music like you want to make it. Even if you hate Jamie T's sophomore effort, please, for the sake of the future of music, pay attention to his ability to throw caution to the wind. Because even listeners like me -- people who cannot transform a piano into a conduit for emotional depth -- can tell when a musician chooses to care about his music. With Jamie T, that caring is never far from the surface.
And that's why I want him to do well, why I feel like a big brother at a basketball game when I've heard of his releases. I want more artists (and more people) to, for lack of a better euphemism, go for it.
On "Kings and Queens," Jamie T did go for it. I applaud the effort, and can't wait for the next one.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.