Facing the Sphinx: a journey through the maze of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy

Auster

“There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” – Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

It’s plausible that the universe is a riddle that human reason won’t ever be able to completely decipher. Our curiosity and awe in witnessing the hugeness of this “monster of force”, to use Nietzsche’s expression, leads us to formulate questions and to be confronted enigmas that our intelectual powers may be unable to answer. Forever young, the Cosmos Sphinx keeps on throwing mysteries on our awestruck laps, and we toil to uncover solutions or answers, while we’re devoured by the hungry mouth of Time! As Baudelaire wrote in an awesome poem, “The Enemy”:

“Oh misery!—Time devours our lives,
And the enemy black, which consumeth our hearts
On the blood of our bodies, increases and thrives!”

BAUDELAIRE. Les Fleurs Du Mal.

One of these days, wandering through the bookstores of Toronto, I was astonished at the quantity of shelves dedicated to Mystery books and Detective Novels – these genres seems to be editorial booms, many of them surely making into the best-sellers charts. Since I haven’t read much of the new stuff that’s been pouring out, I’ll abstain from judging its quality, and just point out that it got me thinking: what’s the secret of this strong seduction of Mystery? Why do people get so hooked up in crime-solving narratives and tales of suposedly supernatural phenomena? Why did celebrity-writers such as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie sold millions of copies of the written adventures of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Monsieur Hercule Poirot? Maybe we simply enjoy the amusement of following an investigation, the guessing-game we engaje in as we follow the detective’s path, the thrill of trying to discover whodunit… Besides being great pass-time, these books are for our brains a kind of rewarding cruise: we think about the case in the safety of our killer-proof residences and knowing that’s some attribution of guilty awaits at the narrative’s end.

Maybe the satisfaction is usually great when we arrive at the end of a well-crafted mystery book because some clear answers are brought to us: the identity of the murderer is revealed, the inner motives that explain his behaviour are explained, and Mr. Holmes or Poirot get acclaimed by most readers for their witty brains, smart deductions, wise decisions, proper inferences… We clap our hands and cheer at how smart they are. We celebrate human intelligence’s capacity for solving even the most bloody riddles and for sheding rational light into even the most erratical and irrational behaviour. Most best-selling detective-novels I’ve read never end up with the detective getting stuck, incapable of finding the killer, quitting the case – and maybe that’s because what the reader hungers for, in general, are answers and solutions, and not the anguish of unsolved riddles.

Some of Paul Auster’s characters know a lot about unsolved riddles. They seem to bepaul auster devoured by their un-answered questions. In Ghosts, the second part of The New York Trilogy, Auster creates a character, Gold, that is obsessed by a murder that happened 25 years before, in Philadelphia: the death of a child, whose killer was never discovered (which means: a crime umpunished). Gold is a police coroner that can’t stop thinking about the case, even when’s retired from his public service: as an old man, Gold invests all his time and money to the effort of solving the riddle of the murder, even tough the corpse is already rotten and the skeleton of the victim has been buried for decades. “Gold refuses to accept a world in which the murderer of a child can go unpunished, even if the murderer himself is now dead, and he is willing to sacrifice his own life and happiness to right the wrong.” (p. 140) The mystery lives on, and almost surely Gold dies with his effort to decipher the riddle unrewarded.

That’s one of the traits that make Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy such an original and amazing work-of-art: the author is not interested in handing us all the answers, but rather aims at enhancing our sense of mystery. The detectives, in Auster’s Trilogy, are never role-models or heroes, but people on the verge of insanity. Auster also expands the concept of “detective”: he strains the similarities, for example, between a biographer (someone researching about the life of someone he’s writing about) and a private detective. A biographer of Tchaikovsky, for example, looks a lot like a detective hunting for leads, checking out conspiracy theories, listening to different hypotheses, when they face the tricky riddle posed by the mysterious death of the Russian composer.

Both biographer and detective need, as a part of their job, to understand the Other, to comprehend the life of another person as it’s experienced from the inside. The biographer in The Locked Room has done much more than merely writing about Fanshawne from outside his life, with an outsider point-of-view: he’s a childhood friend of Fanshawne, and after his desapearance from the human-world, he takes Fanshawe place: marries his wife, publishes his books, becomes father to his child. Fanshawe, the great writer, exchanges places with the man who’s to become his biographer. But that’s not enough: there’s still a huge abyss between them. The project of writing a biography on Fanshawe seems like a leaky boat that slowly sinks because of Fanshawe’s mystery remains undeciphered.

But let’s rewind and go back to the beggining: The Trilogy begins invoking the image of the Tower of Babel. Soon, while we trip through New York in the wings of Auster’s prose, we’ll find out that The City That Never Sleeps is considered by the character Peter Stillmann as a “New Babel”. I couldn’t stop my mind from evoking Pieter Bruegel’s painting while I read through Auster’s pages about The Tower Of Babel: a huge construction, inspired by mankind’s megalomania, which never quite works out. Its intended aim – to reach God in the skies, to climb up and break right into Heaven… – is a complete failure. The ideal end and the factual reality tragically split: this attempt to reach celestial harmony ends up revealing only our earthly confusion and miscompreension. When building Babels, mankind seems to discover the frustating truth that up there, no matter how high we rise, we find only indifferent clouds. And nothing to redeem us from our clashing differences. We discover that we speak different languages, and create all sorts of ways to try to make sense out of life, and yet the unsolved riddles of the cosmos remain legion.

* * * * *

In City of Glass, we get acquainted with Quinn after he has lost his wife and child. He’s lonesome, isolated, still struggling with mourning, when the Stillman Case begins. Quinn is a writer of detective novels, who hides behind the name of Willliam Wilson, and has published lots of books filled the adventures of a Sherlock-like character, Max Work. When City of Glass begins, in a sort of kafkian mood, Quinn is about to embark in a real journey as a detective, after years writing his novels mainly resorting to the aid of his imagination.

This won’t be no smooth sailing for Quinn: the case will slowly crush him. Auster seems to be drawing the line between the reality of detective work – sometimes tedious, unrewarding, or even maddening – and the fantasy displayed in mystery novels – which, in general, features glamorous detectives that always end up out-smarting the criminals, solving the puzzle and saving the day. Auster’s Quinn is a dark figure, mournful and confused, and his involvement with the Stillmans is bound to further his hitchkockian descent into a state of vertigo.

City of Glass deals with the consequences of extreme social isolation. The old Peter Stillman, a sort of mad-theologist, seems to have freaked-out after the death of his wife: he locks his 2-year-old son, Peter Jr., from any contact with the world, for nine years, providing him with no education at all. This is how Virginia Stillman describes the whys and hows of Peter Stillman’s relations with his son:

“He began to believe in some of the far-fetched religious ideas he had written about. It made him crazy, absolutely insane. There’s no other way to describe it. He locked Peter in a room in the apartment, covered up the windows, and kept him there for nine years. (…) An entire childhood spent in darkness, isolated from the world, with no human contact except an occasional beating. I live with the results of that experiment, and I can tell you the damage was monstruous.” (p. 27)

kaspar hauser

Auster inserts some digressions into his novel about some episodes in history when similar cases ocurred, referring, for example, to Kaspar Hauser (there’s a great Werner Herzog’s film about it!). In City of Glass, the father – Peter Stillman – who isolates his child from the world, keeps him jailed like a beast in a cage for almost a decade, goes to jail for it. In the present tense of the novel’s beggining, Peter Stillman is about to be let loose again. No one nows how sane (or how insane) he is, nor what might be his intentions toward his traumatized son. Quinn gets messed up with this case merely by chance: a telephone call, due to Mr. Paul Austen, mistankingly had rang in Quinn’s apartment, which had decided to play detective for real (if only as a source of inspiration for his next mystery book, yet to be written).

The problem is: Quinn never embarks on this case with an interest merely professional. He has a wound that hasn’t stopped bleeding yet: the death of his wife and child. To protect the victim of Peter Stilman’s lunacy is for him a matter of intense emotional value. Maybe he’s seduced by the promise of some heroism, some real danger, after years filing commercial literature with imagined dangers and make-believe turmoils. There’s no thrill like living on the edge. Even the fear that Peter Stillman might still harbour in his chest a potential psycopath, maybe a dangerous one, kind of excites Quinn to keep on going, to keep diving deeper in the case. The enigma of the Other becomes an obsession that he can’t shake off. The riddle of that incomprehensible Other – Peter Stilmann – keeps demanding clearance. Peter Stillman functions like some hypnotic Sphynx that keps Quinn in a trance-like state: we’ll sleepwalk through New York’ Babel until he ends up as street-bum. He has been maddened by sorrow. He lost his mind in the maze. He didn’t solve the mystery of existence: he has had his brains fried by it.

Similarly, it can be quite infurianting to reach the last words of The Locked Room and discover that Auster did not provide us satisfactory answers to many of the questions it inevitably raises about his characters. It seems to me that’s a remarkable trait of the whole New York Trilogy. In City of Glass, Quinn dives into his investigation of Peter Stillman just to discover himself sinking into confusion: by the end of the novel, he’s crazier than ever, more isolated than at the start of this journey, less a detective than a tramp bound to end up in some loonies ward.

In Ghosts, the detective never quite gets into the skin of the mysterious writer he’s been hired to keep an eye on: Auster’s Dark Sherlock can spy Mr. Brown with his binoculars, but doesn’t see much besides a man reading Thoreau’s Walden and writing hundreds of pages in his notebook. He has no key to really enter the life experience of the other. The secret of the Other’s heart is a place hardly acessible to someone watching from far away: it demands that intimacy and long-term relationship that no detective, and nearly none biographer, is able to experience with the person he’s supposed to decipher.

The detectives, in Auster’s New York Trilogy, seem to get stuck with the mystery they’re supposed to solve: they frequently get lost in the maze of alterity. They lose certainties about their own identities while obsessing about the task of understanding the other. And then they tend to get crushed by the weight of an unsolved riddle. Auster doesn’t give the reader the satisfaction of clear and un-ambiguous answers: he rather bids us farewell while leaving with us a whole bunch of questions. It’s as if he sees his task as a writer to be the spreading of mystery consciousness, rather than providing us with the humbug comforts of believing we have all the answers.

At the end of The Locked Room, the last third of the trilogy, the reader feels that Fanshawne isn’t someone he can claim to know: he keeps on been a mysterious figure, an enigma in flesh-and-blood, like a sphinx who hasn’t found its Oedipus yet. This seems to be the fate of many of Auster’s characters tumbling through New York’s Babel in this amazingly powerful work-of-art: they seek answers and they drown trying.

In the end, it seems as if the Sphinx has devoured them.

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The Greatest Canadian Albums Ever… [Part 01]

THE BAND - "Music From  The Big Pink"

THE BAND – “Music From The Big Pink” (1968) LISTEN or DOWNLOAD (AMG REVIEW)

* * * * *

NEIL YOUNG - "Harvest" (1972)

NEIL YOUNG – “Harvest” (1972) LISTEN or DOWNLOAD

* * * * *

JONI MITCHELL - "Blue" (1971)

JONI MITCHELL – “Blue” (1971) LISTEN or DOWNLOAD

* * * * *

LEONARD COHEN - "Songs" (1968)

LEONARD COHEN – “Songs” (1968) LISTEN or DOWNLOAD

* * * * *

ARCADE FIRE - "Funeral" (2004)

ARCADE FIRE – “Funeral” (2004) – LISTEN or DOWNLOAD

* * * * *

GUESS WHO - "American Woman" (1970)

GUESS WHO – “American Woman” (1970) LISTEN or DOWNLOAD

 TO BE CONTINUED.

Trip on:

“The U.S. vs John Lennon”, article about the astonishing documentary…

OneSheet (Page 1)
JOHN LENNON AS PUBLIC ENEMY

How the Beatle became a menace to the U.S. Establishment
as revealed by Leaf’s and Scheinfield’s pulsating documentary

After the Beatles broke-up, John Lennon certainly wasn’t willing to simply let things be. Even tough he remained faithful to the pacifist creed once stated in “Revolution” (“If you talk about destruction / don’t you know that you can count me out?”), he was ready to enlist as a warrior in the growing armies of hippies and beatniks protesting against the genocidal war in Vietnam. Adding his voice to this choir of discontent, John Lennon was bound to clash with the American authorities.

After the Fab Four had disbanded, George Harrisson sought his peace of mind and spiritual serenity in Hare Krishna and Eastern religion, while McCartney went on a solo-career that would consolidate his stardom. But Lennon had other plans in mind than singing mantras or writing silly love songs. The “rebel Beatle” was about to throw himself head-on in the social and political struggles of his times and would soon become one of the most outspoken cultural icons campaigning for love, peace, freedom – in synthesis, for the “brotherhood of man” utopia “Imagine” told us about.

Details of this exciting and turbulent saga can be found in The U.S. Against John Lennon, a documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfield which chronicles how Lennon and Yoko got so deeply involved in the most urgent political turmoils at the dawn of the 70s. Some of the songs composed during that period were hymns for the pacifist movement, such as “Give Peace a Chance”, while protest-songs like “Power to the People” reached wide-spread acceptance amongst the American citizens who were flooding the streets for mass demonstrations that helped re-shape the Cold-War era.

Lennon, in the Sixties, was no stranger to rebellion and had been seduced more than once by the counter-cultural magnet, speaking up against the stablishment. He had, for example, embarked on LSD trips, becoming one of the enthusiasts of Albert Hoffman’s potion, siding with other gurus such as Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. Much of the historical importance of the band lays in their amazing capacity to innovate and evolve: they went from being a naive yeah-yeah-yeah pop-band and transformed into an astonishing psychedelic cosmic trip, kick-started with albums like Revolver and Sgt. Peppers. The world knew well from those days the capacity that Lennon and his peers had of being pioneers.

In 1968, in the White Album era, the Beatles had already deviated a lot from the mainstream currents of pop music and were now experimenting with extravagant instruments and journeying in India in order to gather wisdom first-hand from the Maharishi. Some years before, Lennon had raised a lot of controversy when he stated that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. This statement was far from a sociological lie, given the dimensions of mass hysteria raised by the Beatlemania. But Lennon’s phrase wasn’t swallowed smoothly by some Christians who, offended by this claim, went on to burn the records and posters of the herectical Liverpool quartet. In the mid sixties, Lennon was already some sort of a troublemaker, with a tongue behaving like a viper. However, nothing prepared the world for what he would stand-up for in the 70s.

In his solo-career, Lennon showed no signs of slowing down on his path to religious and political criticism, as we can hear in songs such as “God”, “Working Class Hero”, “Gimme Some Truth” or the era-defining “Imagine”, arguably one of the most unforgetable pieces 20th century popular music. Politically, he became more and more out-spoken against the ills he perceived in the world, and perhaps considered himself as someone who could inspire the masses muh in the way leaders such as Gandhi or Che Guevara did.

When he chose to live in America, Lennon was due to become, in the eyes of authorities, a dangerous rebel to be closely watched and whose wings should be quickly clipped. His involvement with people who were deemed by the FBI and the CIA as “radicals” – such as John Sinclair or Black Panthers activists – ended up turning Lennon into some kind of public menace to the mainstream political establishment. Soon the U.S. would be anxiously spying on Lennon and just looking for an excuse to kick him out of the country. A couple of joints found in his possession would be enough. His powerful voice of dissent had become a great nuisance for the warmongers who whished he kept his mouth shut about foreign policy matters. But Lennon wasn’t willing to shut up. He stood up in the face of danger, thus inspiring a whole generation to shake-off its letargy and “take the power back”, as decades later the hard-rockers Rage Against the Machine would enshrine in an earth-shaking protest song.

The documentary The U.S. Against John Lennon is truly an impressive dive into this historical context of the early 70s, a film bursting with great images from the archives and scenes from a country in turmoil. Inspired both by Gandhi’s pacifism and by the Hippie-era Flower Power ideas, Lennon provided fuel to the fire of love and peace. History would never forget the mottos: “make love, not war!” and “war is over (if you want it”). For these and many other reasons, The U.S. Against John Lennon is a deeply inspiring film, a testament to the courage and far-sighted-vision of one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century. When the film ends, we can’t avoid the feelings of gratitude and admiration towards this artist and warrior who enlightned us so much in our path to empowerment.

John e Yoko

Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes
Toronto, Ontario
416 271 2852
educmoraes@hotmail.com

Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” [excerpts]

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ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE
 – AN INQUIRY INTO VALUES

By Robert M. Pirsig (1974)

(Ed. Harper Torch Philosophy,
New York, 1999, 540 pgs.)

“Clichés and stereotypes such as ‘beatnik’ or ‘hippie’ have been invented for the antitechnologists, the antisystem people, and will continue to be. But one does not convert individuals into mass people with the simple coining of a mass term. John and Sylvia are not mass people and neither are most of the others going their way. It is against being a mass person that they seem to be revolting.” (pg. 21)

* * * * *

“…to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic tought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the suceeding government…” (pg. 122)

* * * * *

“It’s sometimes argued that there’s no real progress; that a civilization that kills multitudes in mass warfare, that pollutes the land and oceans with ever larger quantities of debris, that destroys the dignity of individuals by subjecting them to a forced mechanized existence can hardly be called an advance over the simpler hunting and gathering and agricultural existence of prehistoric times. But this argument, though romantically appealing, doesn’t hold up. The primitive tribes permiteed far less individual freedom than does modern society. Ancient wars were committed with far less moral justification than modern ones. A technology that produces debris can find, and is finding, ways of disposing of it without ecological upset. And the schoolbook pictures of primitive man sometimes omit some of the detractions of his primitive life – the pain, the disease, famine, the hard labor needed just to stay alive. From that agony of bare existence to modern life can be soberly described only as upward progress, and the sole agent for this progress is quite clearly reason itself.” (pg. 157)

* * * * *

“No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt. The militancy of the Jesuits he somewhat resembled is a case in point. Historically their zeal stems not from the strenght of the Catholic Church but from its weakness in the face of the Reformation. It was Phaedrus lack of faith in reason that made him such a fanatic teacher. (…) He was telling them you have to have faith in reason because there isn’t anything eles. But it was a faith he didn’t have himself.” (pg. 190)

* * * * *

“What was behind this smug presumption that what pleased you was bad, or at least unimportant in comparison to other things? It seemed the quintessence of the squareness he was fighting. Little children were trained not to do ‘just what they liked’ but… but what?… Of course! What others liked. And which others? Parents, teachers, supervisors, policemen, judges, officials, kings, dictators. All authorities. When you are trained to despise ‘just what you like’ then, of course, you become a much more obedient servant of others – a good slave. When you learn not to do ‘just what you like’ then the System loves you. But suppose you do just what you like? Does that mean you’re going to go out and shoot heroin, rob banks and rape old ladies? (…) Soon he saw there was much more to this than he had been aware of. When people said, ‘Don’t do just what you like’, they didn’t just mean, ‘Obey authority’. They also meant something else. This ‘something eles’ opened up into a huge area of classic scientific belief which stated that ‘what you like’ is unimportant because it’s all composed of irrational emotions within yourself.” (pg. 297)

* * * * *

“…at the cutting edge of time, before an object could be distinguished, there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness, which he called awareness of Quality. You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag. We sometimes think of that time lag as unimportant. But there’s no justification for thinking that the time lag is unimportant – none whatsoever. The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time laf, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. The preintellectual reality is what Phaedrus felt he had properly identified as Quality. (…) He showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational. I think it’s the overwhelming presence of these irrational elements crying for assimilation that creates the present bad quality, the chaotic, disconnect spirit of the 20th century.” (pg. 315 – 327)

* * * * *

“One thing about pioneers that you don’t hear mentioned is that they are invariably, by their nature, mess-makers. They go forging ahead, seeing only their noble, distant goal, and never notice any of the crud and debris they leave behind them. Someone else gets to clean that up and it’s not a very glamorous or interesting job.” (pg. 326)

* * * * *

“Reality is, in its essential nature, not static but dynamic. And when you really understand dynamic reality you never get stuck. It has forms but the forms are capable of change.” (pg. 364)

Casey Dienel: an exclusive interview!

Casey2

THE CANARY SPEAKS
AN INTERVIEW WITH CASEY DIENEL

“Music, the greatest good that mortals know,
And all of heaven we have below.”
JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)

There are several impressive and astonishing traits on Casey Dienel’s debut album, Wind-Up Canary (2006): the outpouring poetry that fills her witty lyrics, the often surreal imagery of her story-telling, the vivacity and humour of her piano playing, the sweetness of her bird-like singing, and most of all the fact that she recorded this audacious set of songs when she was barely 20 years old. Such an outburst of talent from a youngster may remind us of Fiona Apple, who gave birth to Tidal when stills in her teens, gaining widespread mainstream attention for the “Criminal” video and skyrocketed throught the charts to end up selling millions of copies of her debut. In Dienel’s case, her entrance into the music world was much more discreet and low-key, with no sign of explosive pop stardom or mass-media spotlights. Which does not mean that her album doesn’t deserve attention and acclaim as a lasting work of art.

An unique blend of lyricism and melancholia emanates from her music, which may be compared with the work of other gifted singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Ani DiFranco, Regina Spektor, Nellie McKay or Tori Amos. After her first-born baby, baptized with a birdie’s name, she has released two full-albums with her new project, White Hinterland: Phylactery Factory (2008) and Kairos (2010). Hinterland’s music is far more experimental in comparison with the piano-driven ballads of her early years. Background electronic beats set the mood for White Hinterland’s strange and impressionistic landscapes, thay may well remind one of Björk, Radiohead in the post-Kid A era, or even some trip-hop artists such as Portishead or Goldfrapp. In the following interview from the Wind-Up Canary era, Casey Dienel reveals a lot about her life’s path, her influences (including in movies and literature), her composition process, among other themes. Let’s trip through the open windows of her chest and peep inside the mind of an intriguing and mesmerizing artist.

* * * * *

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Q: It’s easy to notice, when listening to your lyrics, you frequently use lots of fictitious characters, in a way that reminds me a little bit of the songwriting method of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, differences put aside… Frankie and Anette, Doctor Monroe, Baby James: where do all your characters come from? Are they pure products of your imagination or are they constructed with parts of the people you know (maybe some of them are actual people?). What are they: alter-egos, imaginary friends, perhaps phantoms…? Talk a little bit about this “children” of yours!

CASEY: I think characters stem from a database of daily personal observations—things I notice in people I love or people I don’t know. They also tend to derive themselves from events or places, I think a lot of times when I’m writing about one person I’m actually writing about many people at once. But I’m not very sure of where they come from—sometimes certain characters are immediately visualized, others need time to percolate and materialize out of the fog of my memory. I try not to overanalyze it, for fear that one day those visions could just disappear. I don’t know if you’re referring to them as children because I have in the past—but it would be an apt comparion. I get attached to them in such a fashion that it’s hard for me to pick them apart myself. I just try to raise them so they stand upright on their own, and give them as much as I can before they’re released out amongst the world.

Q: I’ve read somewhere your “confession” that you grew with your “nose buried in the books” – i guess that’s where you got your great talent with words! I guess one the greatest qualities in your music is that it has a “literary flavour”, i can regard it almost as declamation of poetry… Would you say literature is even more dear to you than music? And which of the greatest lyricists would you say you admire the most? Do you read a lot of poetry and has some favorite poets you could describe as inspirations?

CASEY: These are some extensive questions! I think literature is the highest form of the fine arts, and in my opinion, the most challenging to harness. I have long held a deep admiration for the way words are strung together. In writing, you have no senses to create images or characters or stories—you have only your wits to evoke emotions and visuals. It’s like alchemy, the true meaning of “making something out of nothing.” I wouldn’t say my songs were particularly ‘literary,’ but I do spend a good portion of my time on lyrics, trying to create images that are immediately visual to the listener, even if it’s something or someone they aren’t familiar with. Other lyricists that can transport me to another time and place are probably Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, but also I think, in more simple terms, the Beatles. Cohen and Dylan use details without being arbitrary, to further paint the picture—all the while making incredible melodies and song structures. Lennon & McCartney could take simple language and revive them with a whole new sense of meaning…I think Beatles songs are so classic because the lyrics are so honest, and allow the melodies to carry the songs. Sometimes songs just need to be songs—and it pays to be cautious of what the song is saying to you, instead of trying to jam it full with exotic words or phrases.

As for poets, I have a bit of an addiction when it comes to poetry chapbooks… gosh, I think my favorite is Frank O’Hara, although I’ve been going through a big thing with Gertrude Stein, and a friend of mine just gave me some James Tate to leaf through. I think what interests me right now is the syntactical rhythms created by placing certain vowels/consants/syllables side by side.

Q: We’ve read you began playing the piano at 4 and you were already writing songs and lyrics around the age of 10 – and that’s quite impressive that you’ve released an album like “Wind-UpCanary” in your early 20s! Were you considered a “special child” that developed incredible talents in an very early age? Did your parents played a great role in directing you towards music classes and stuff or was it your own early love for music that led you to begin playing so young?

CASEY: If I was a “special child” I never knew it. I do think I was probably a touch of a “know-it-all,” but my parents raised my sister and I to be very self-deprecating and humble about things like art—and I was definetely not a prodigy, and worse, I’ve always been pretty shy. So I wouldn’t talk about my interests much—I think songwriting is like any kind of craft that one cultivates in privacy. I’ve always been kind of secretive. I went in to lessons of my own volition when I was 4 — I was really attracted to the piano and the guitar, but the guitar was too big for a 4-year-old! And since then I guess I’ve always been pretty self-motivated about music, in part because I am doing it for myself, and not so much for an audience. The audience part is one of the last things I think about when it comes to making music.

Q: As for plans for the future, is music a long-term project for you? Do you intend to record dozens of albums and have a decades-long carrer?

CASEY: Yikes! So many big questions. Music I think is something so intrinsic to how I go about my life day to day, that as of this moment I see no reason why I won’t be making songs well into old age. But time sometimes has other plans in mind, and I don’t have any aspirations to pick a bone with time. My hope is that I’m able to keep doing this, and keep asking myself the tough & scary questions. I don’t really have any concrete expectations—landmarks of success, and such. I just make sure to ask myself as I go along “are you happy?” If I end up an old lady working in a library in Maine with a small vegetable garden, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Q: Now a more philosophical question, maybe kind of tough to answer: in some of your lyrics I can sense some kind of “anguish”, maybe, about the passage of time, perhaps the fact that joy seems to be always ephemeral. Like when you sing “as soon as we’re used to one season it moves / and that’s all we can count on”. Or in the great verse from “Better in Manhattan” that goes: “Paradise is a place you visit and not a place to live”. Or even in the sad little ending of “Fat Old Man”: “nothing changes when you’re gone, it keeps moving on…”. Do you really perceive the world as an “ocean of impermanence”, so to speak?

CASEY: Hmm. Well, I wouldn’t say I feel any sense of “anguish” about mortality. Mortality is our truth as humans, and I think that truth liberates us from being just ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ We’re complex machines, and often feel both of these emotions all at once, sometimes one more than the other, but I find it nearly impossible to truly separate them. I don’t like to dissect song meanings for listeners—in part because I’m truly curious to see how others interpret them! I put them out there in hopes that they become more than just songs of mine. But I think that even though time reminds us more often than not who is in charge, there’s a good reason why we mark it with birthdays and holidays and festivals and seasons, etc. The transformation of the world is beautiful, even if it isn’t permanent.

Q: I’ve read somewhere one critic (at Pitchfork) calling your lyrics “clever nonsense” – if i remember well, you were also compared to Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. Does that bother you? Are all your lyrics and verses “filled with meaning”, even tough some of them may be clear only to you, or do you believe there’s a lot of word-play in them and that you use words like “toys”? Is there really some clever nonsense here and there, now and then?

CASEY: I wonder sometimes if it is the writer’s responsibility to make everything clear to the reader—or if a bit of nebulous matter is healthy, and reminds us to think for ourselves. Generally speaking, I fall into the latter category. I don’t mind being disoriented if it makes me question things—and I think as a culture, we ought to be a lot more suspicious of the things people do or say. I don’t know if that sounds cynical—but I think it’s healthy to question something before you digest it and file it away into your mental encyclopedia. We owe it to our psyche! I would suggest everyone to question anything I say, even what I’m writing write now. What do I know?

So is it “clever nonsense?” In the past, I think there was much more arbitrary language—things coming together just because I enjoyed how they sound or felt in my mouth. Now I try to reconcile that pleasure with something more cohesive. In my experience, a song can be about many many different things at once. I write topically, but also kind of kaleidoscopically. So I always know what the song is about, and that’s all that matters to me, even if it’s about three disparate events, people, or places that if listed on a page, in my my mind connect to form a fuller picture. It would be far too much of a waste of time, energy, and peace of mind to get bent out of shape of people’s interpretation of my songs—I’ve learned not to take it too personally. As long I know my intentions, I feel fine.

Q: Which are the 5 records, 5 movies and 5 books you’d take to a desert island to spend the rest of your life with?

CASEY:

RECORDS:
1. Beatles—Revolver
2. Bob Dylan—Live at Albert Hall ’65
3. Joni Mitchell—Blue
4. Debussy String Quartet
5. Thelonious Monk- Monk’s Time

MOVIES:
1. Five Easy Pieces (I just saw it for the first time, and I don’t think I could ever tire of it! It seems simple at first, but it’s just filled with complexity at its core.)
2. Harold and Maude
3. any silent shorts of Buster Keaton (to be played with the Monk record in conjunction)
4. Annie Hall
5. My Fair Lady

BOOKS
1. Beneath the Wheel by Herman Hesse
2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
4. The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass
5. Chez Panisse Cooking by Alice Walters (I know it sounds crazy, but I love to read about food almost as much as I enjoy eating it! This cookbook is a classic.)

Q: Even tough it can’t be said you write “autobiografical songs” (in the way Fiona Apple does, for example), I really feel as if i could get to know you quite well after listening to the record several times. Do you think that’s an illusion or could this songs really be a kind of “gateway to your soul”, a little hole in the doorlock through which we can get a glimpse of who you really are?

CASEY: I tend to shy away from confessionalism—something about it doesn’t suit my personality well. I don’t feel like an open book, perhaps, and also I’m not terribly fascinating as a person. My day to day life is (not so) shockingly mundane. My songs are covertly autobiographical, if anything, but I would hesitate to say that there are any conclusions about me as a person to be drawn after listening to them. I suppose I’m not really the person to ask about this sort of thing, but I don’t know if it’s ever possible to truly KNOW an artist through their art.

Q: I was curious to know about the repercussion of your music outside the USA… in which countries would you say the public’s response was more intense and gratifying? And have you ever played live abroad?

CASEY: I’m pretty oblivious to all of the international response. I haven’t played abroad yet, except for Canada, although I look forward to doing that in the future. I haven’t really looked into how to go about all of that yet, but I think for the next record I’d like to begin going overseas. I get some very nice e-mails from Scandinavia, and of course, Brazil! It makes me wonder how people find out about all of these different artists! I feel like my record collection tapped out in 1979, and I never know who anyone new is, though I probably should. I don’t really even listen to CDs! Everything’s on vinyl for me. I live in the Middle Ages!

I have no idea how I feel about the future—just so long as things happen organically, I’m happy. I’m in no rush to get to “the next level” or whatever that is… I don’t even know what that is. I have never really felt too romanced by the music industry. I respect its necessity when it comes to making my art into a career—but beyond that I find it all to be a bit overrated, and that’s part of why I surround myself with people outside of it. Maybe I could afford to be more ambitious, but I think I’m a lot more concerned with the songs themselves and being a happy and balanced person. I’m not opposed to a wider audience or being able to support myself through music, as opposed to working the barista jobs, etc. I guess I try not to concentrate to much on that stuff—if it happens, it happens. I just don’t want to spend my 20s rushing around to the point that I can’t enjoy my friends, family, and day to day life. I see no point. Celebrity isn’t nearly as valuable to me as the three aforementioned items. It may sound corny, but it’s true!

Q: Sometimes i think you artists may get angry with interviewers who dosn’t ask what you wanted to answer. So i’ll propose a little foolish game: pose yourself a question and answer it!

CASEY:

Q: When do you feel most inspired and happy to be alive?
A: First thing in the morning at daybreak—the light makes me want to get up and sing. It’s unadulterated light–new and a bit unsure of itself, and casts itself on everything so it all looks like you’re seeing the world for the first time. It makes me fall in love all over again.

Wind-Up Canary (2006) [FULL ALBUM]

01) Doctor Monroe (4:34)
02) Everything (3:04)
03) Baby James (3:27)
04) Cabin Fever (5:23)
05) Frankie and Annette (3:13)
06) The Coffee Beanery (4:54)
07) Old Man (3:34)
08) Stationary (4:02)
09) Tundra (5:19)
10) All Or Nothing (3:58)
11) The La La Song (4:06)

Words of Wisdom #001

steinbeck

“When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.” – John Steinbeck (1902-1968)