I’ve been wanting for a while to write about Feathers, a band my daughter plays in (held back only by her distaste for my doing so), but today’s New York Times article about the new folk scene, which leads off with Feathers, is just too good an opportunity to pass up.
What I’ve found most fascinating about Feathers is how the band’s approach to music echoes the ad-hockery of the mashup scene. Watching them develop a song is a lot like watching new services emerge on the internet. A band member brings in an idea, and the others work it, each of the eight members adding a little bit here, a little bit there, until a completed song emerges. The violin here. The plinking of the harp there, in counterpoint to the vocals. Even though there is a first mover for the song (five of the band members are songwriters), each one is a collective work, and it shows in the performances. It’s also been amazing to me to watch how fearless they are in trying out new instruments, just having fun, exploring what’s possible as they make music together.
As one amazon reviewer wrote in comments about Feathers’ first album: “This music makes me feel like making something myself. I put it on while I’m painting. Or I put it on to make myself FEEL like painting. I think it’s the openness of the songs and the collaborative music-making approach of the band itself that comes through the music and enters the brain.”
I think the best music-making has always had elements of collaborative surprise. One of the many memorable stories told in Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, describes the origin of the organ track in “Like a Rolling Stone.” Guitarist Al Kooper really wanted to sit in on the song, but wasn’t part of it. When the producer who had denied him permission went out of the room, he rushed in to take up a seat at the only available instrument, the organ, and began improvising along with the other musicians. The producer came back, said “You don’t play the organ!” Dylan said, “I don’t care. Turn up the organ!” And musical history was made, as that powerful organ track, added in a moment of passionate invention by someone who didn’t normally play the organ, was added to the song.
What a wonderful metaphor for innovation! It’s been a privilege to sit in on Feathers’ rehearsals and see the same values that we’ve celebrated in the “hacker” community at work in a completely different arena. (I’m not myself a musician. This is probably not news to those of you who are.)