Before the main event on Saturday evening, Chris Thile spent an hour with a smaller audience answering questions on the artistic process and the state of music in the modern day. Thile is a virtuoso mandolinist, singer, and songwriter, best known as a co-founder of Grammy award-winning Nickel Creek. A leading figure in modern bluegrass, Thile fit the image of the artist. He was dressed in worn jeans and a blue striped oxford, three buttons undone. His receding brown hair was tousled, and he spoke with a certain thoughtfulness, pausing to consider before answering questions.
He began by playing a cut from “Daughter of Eve.” Originally a nine-minute song, the sample was both funky and bluesy, shifting between highly technical plucking and impassioned strumming as the song progressed. After the initial riff, Thile began to sing “The Cherubim will name me / The most beautiful daughter of eve / But they will more kiss my cheek / Before Eden is open again.” The song is both simple and complex, hymn in form but poem in function. It asks us to consider the beauty we see around us, to question it. While the mandolin often produces a folksy tune, Thile somehow sounded modern, new and exciting.
As the song faded, Thile paused, then began to speak.
“What I want to talk about,” he said, “is the importance of constructing the lightning rod instead of waiting for lightning to strike. There’s a famous Faulkner quote that goes like this: ‘I can only write when I am inspired. Thankfully, I am inspired every day at 9 a.m.’” It’s not about waiting for artistic revelation; the revelation is found through long hours of hard work. He described the process of writing as “hammering indiscriminately away at a block of marble… until some shape emerges.”
Hearing Thile describe his rigorous and thoroughly artistic writing method was refreshing compared to a music industry that sometimes seems to have lost the art of songwriting. Thile defined the “genre of pop” solely as music written with the purpose of entertaining the masses. This purpose is what often dissuades artists from experimenting. Cultural and financial pressure often forces them to continue to work within the boundaries instead of taking risks.
In an age of limitless music streaming, Thile believes that there is a “potential loss of whatever the musical equivalent of dialect is and the beauty of an accent.” As an example, Thile covered the beginning of the fifth song on Nirvana’s second studio release “Nevermind,” “Lithium.” Played on the mandolin, the chords sounded sharp, short, and a bit folksy. Thile would say that was his dialect or his accent. He layers into the established song his own nuances, as the best covers do, and in doing so, he was able to both honor the song while making it his own.
Thile ended his discussion with three music suggestions. The first is a called “My Bubba,” a duet of two women, one Swedish and the other Icelandic. Their intimate harmonies blend beautifully over soft acoustic guitar. The second is the latest Tame Impala record, “Currents,” a mix of synthetic and pysch pop that is new and riveting. Finally, Thile suggests we all give Carolina Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning a cappella project “Partita for 8 Voices” a listen.
“New is easy, and good is easy, and new and good is really hard,” Thile said as he tuned his mandolin.
A lot of music ends up sounding either too repetitive or too “out there.” The intersection of new and good is where the best music comes from. There, one can find the artists who take risks and experiment. Sometimes they are successful and break into the mainstream, but still often they are not, only there for those willing to search hard for the remarkable.