Music, On a Communal Level: An Interview with Bahhaj Taherzadeh (We/Or/Me)
by James David Patrick
We/Or/Me is Bahhaj Taherzadeh, a Chicago-based singer-songwriter that deserves your attention, but he’s pretty okay if he doesn’t get it. Of course, like any artist he wants to find a following that appreciates the work he’s doing, but there’s a grounded realism about his approach to writing and recording music – he understands that he’s one of many talented voices all vying for your fractured attention.
I first corresponded with Bahhaj after posting a small write-up for his first full-length LP Sleeping City on my own music-related blog in 2011. He contacted me via Twitter and thanked me directly for the support. I appreciated the note. After all, I’d been a fan since the first few notes of his debut, the Ghostwriter EP. I just wanted more people to hear this music.
I read through his bio. An Irish-born Iranian. A husband. A father of two twin girls with a modest apartment a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Employee by day, musician by the wee hours of the night. I felt a kind of kinship. This was a regular guy producing extraordinary music, being compared to legends like Leonard Cohen and Scottish folker Bert Jansch. Bahhaj became an inspiration. He was a family man that endeavored to conquer the work/family/creative balance with which many artists struggle, myself included.
But it wasn’t just the endeavor that impressed me; it was also the music. There’s a common thread among critics to describe We/Or/Me’s sound as the music of life’s quiet moments. The songs are reflective and meaningful without forcing the listener to wallow in tales of soul-crushing burden and despair. It’s in his guitar. It’s in his voice. He’s soft-sung and soulful. So when I received notice of his Kickstarter campaign in my email box, I contributed immediately. He followed up with another message of thanks. I suggested an interview based on his experience with Kickstarter, once the whole process had come to completion – the money collected, the record released, praise received. I’ve always been curious how the artist perceives the process of collecting buy-ins from fans and how it changes the creative process. Thankfully, he was enthusiastic about the idea. I began scribbling notes and questions. The first question on my mind was pretty broad. I asked Bahhaj what had attracted him to Kickstarter to help fund his latest LP, and how the experience had benefited him as an independent artist.
“I think art is at its best when it cultivates some sense of community and forges meaningful relationships between people. Some record labels have been able to cultivate that in the past, and some still do, but the vast majority of us independent musicians are just out there doing our own thing so it’s important to find ways to reach out to the people that care about what you’re doing. The crowd-funding thing creates a very direct and personal relationship with the listener because they are committing to your record before hearing it, and that implies a certain level of trust and it elevates the relationship between the artist and the audience. At its most basic, Kickstarter is about money. I need X amount to achieve my goals, please help–but I found that was not really the aspect of it that excited me. The exciting thing was the sense of community that I got from the experience. I have lived in three different countries and I know people all over the world, and thanks to the Internet my music has traveled to a lot of places I’ve never been. When we launched the Kickstarter, and I saw my inbox fill up with all these names from all over the world – some I know, and many who I’ve never met but who have continually supported my music – it was a very moving experience and it was very empowering. So, for me, Kickstarter became a tool in the community-building process, and that was the most significant aspect for me.”
In the business world, being beholden to a couple of investors can often become problematic. I couldn’t help but wonder if being beholden to multiple hundreds of investors had changed Bahhaj’s perspective on writing and recording music. Had the business interfered with the art? Or had he still been able to write and record as if these hundreds of people weren’t hanging on every note recorded, no longer as fans but as investors?
“The writing and recording was basically done before I launched the Kickstarter campaign. The reason I initially decided to do it was that an opportunity came up to work with Brian Deck on the mixing of the record. Brian is an incredible producer. He has produced most of the Iron & Wine records and he produced The Moon and Antarctica by Modest Mouse (among many other things), and working with him was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so Kickstarter seemed the best option to cover the costs for mixing/mastering and manufacturing. So, the writing/recording wasn’t effected by the Kickstarter thing and I don’t think the writing ever would be, no matter at what point in the process I might do another campaign in the future. I think if anything was significantly altered by the process, it was my perception of what a record can be – that it can be more than just making something and selling it to people, that the process of making it can be very meaningful and can involve participation from a lot of people. I know I keep coming back to this idea of community-building, but I think it is increasingly important in this digital age where we’ve become quite disconnected from one another. I don’t mean to imply for a minute that I think my music is important and worth building a community around, but more that art in general can be a very effective tool for bringing people together and it can lead to meaningful conversations and meaningful relationships, and when there is a community involved, the process can be as important as the product.”
The nature of the Kickstarter process seems to have shifted the traditional order of the album-creation process. With crowdfunding, the burgeoning community built around the music, as Bahhaj suggests, becomes loyal congress before the actual release, whereas traditionally, one must first release a record in order to receive praise or criticism. And in my mind that might lead to unrealistic expectations for a record’s success. As a writer myself, the question of success in relation to expectation and perception weighs on my mind and I wondered if usurping the natural order had changed how Bahhaj considered success and failure.
“As an artist, you are always confronted with your failures. They are always staring you in the face, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like that Samuel Beckett quote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It sounds very fatalistic and defeatist but you start out with grand visions in your head, and what you end up with will always fall short of those visions. There will always be compromises and limitations along the way and nothing will ever feel perfect, but this is what keeps you moving on to the next thing. And other people don’t know about the visions in your head so they don’t perceive your work in the same way, and when they respond to it and make a meaningful connection with it, that is a success. This record has been very well received so far, and I’ve heard from a lot of people who have connected with it in a very personal way and that is the most meaningful kind of success for me. Of course, these words “success” and “failure” are relative and can mean many different things.
“I think, on some level, because of the Kickstarter campaign, the record was a success for me personally before it even came out. Financially, we broke even on the costs of making it, which on a practical level was a huge success. And, because it was quite a complex record to make – it involved collaborators in a number of different countries, a bunch of different studios and recording locations were used, and there are quite a lot of layers in there – just to emerge with a record that felt like a coherent, cohesive document of all the work that had been done felt like an achievement in itself. I’m part of a generation of independent artists who have never been, and never will be, part of the “Music Industry” where success is measured in huge numbers and everyone’s interests are commercial. I feel I have been growing as a songwriter and my audience has been growing with each record, but there is certainly room for a lot more growth. It is challenging because I don’t have any kind of promotional machinery behind me. All of this independence does come at a cost because I’m stuck with my own limitations. And when it comes to self-promotion my limitations are very real. I don’t have much skill or interest in that department and I have come to the conclusion that I probably need some kind of managerial/promotional element within my community if I want to take it to another level.”
We postponed the rest of the conversation for another day. I kept coming back to the idea of music fostering a community. The notion seems so antiquated, dating back to the days when album releases could be considered events and music labels created their own brand of worship. The days of pop superstars are long gone. There will never be another Michael Jackson or Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash. Not that someone couldn’t rival their talent as entertainers, but because our attention has become so diluted. Internet and digital media have conducted a ceaseless cacophony of words and music that drains and demands attention with never-ending waves of content. Consider the wide variety of ways in which we consume music: streaming, digital downloads, YouTube, physical media, Internet radio, satellite radio. In a way the music industry has become a Socialized institution. Labels still throw their weight behind big stars, but these new avenues are leveling the playing field. The little guy has greater avenues through which to share his music. But the understanding of how to foster a community in this brave new world still eluded me.
After a week or two chewing on these thoughts and another week where I was unable to type due to an unfortunate incident with my finger and a hungry hungry hedge trimmer, I finally got back to Bahhaj with another round of questions on the notion of “community.” I’ve lamented how the culture of modern music has compartmentalized itself within hundreds of specific micro-genres and labels. I considered the label-inspired communities built around the Stax and Motown labels and how nearly 40 years after their heydays, fans still speak of Stax artists as if they were all part of a collective. I know that when I’m browsing shelves of vinyl, the Stax label automatically lends a shred of credibility to an artist about which I otherwise know nothing. I don’t want to compare this, necessarily, to Oprah’s book club, but in modern terms, I can’t come up with a better parallel. So… what is it that the music industry has lost as major labels have become more transparent business enterprises and less architects of style and taste?
“I think a record label at its best would not just promote and sell records for their artists but provide real support on a number of levels. I like the idea of a collective, and I think a lot of good indie labels probably started that way. And as the music industry collapses I think that the idea of artist collectives – groups of artists supporting each other, pooling resources, collaborating – will be the best way forward for many people. The more grassroots and locally based, the better. I’ve been thinking along these lines for some time, and my experience with Kickstarter only served to strengthen this feeling. A few of us here started a collective recently called Alaska Tapes. It hasn’t turned into much yet and we’re still trying to figure out what it ought to be, but we’ve put on a couple of shows and helped each other out with a few things here and there. I see a lot of potential with this approach. I also started a regular artist gathering where various artists come together and share their work with each other and talk about the creative process. We just eat together and hang out and that has been interesting because it can be hard to find the motivation and the will to do this stuff without some kind of network of support, and the more it’s based on the idea of community rather than the idea of promotion and commercial interests, the more meaningful it is for everyone involved.”
As he talked about “collectives” I was reminded of smaller contemporary labels that seem to be building relationships with a small number of artists and appealing directly to a certain kind of audiophile by focusing on vinyl to market their relatively unknown artists. I’ve discovered labels like Italians Do It Better and White Iris specifically because they’re devoted to releasing records on the resurgent vinyl format. I’ve gravitated back to buying and collecting vinyl because there’s an inherently social/communal component of the hobby that’s disappeared as the industry has trended toward digital distribution. Owning vinyl (to a lesser extent CDs) meant you owned something concrete and tangible, liner notes and artwork. These mediums took up space on a shelf. The deluge of music available through digital distribution I imagined could be both a blessing and a curse with regards to connecting to a specific audience.
“Digital distribution has helped more than hurt me. I like physical records and liner notes and things that you can hold in your hands, but being able to put a song up online and share it with people all over the world instantly is an incredible thing, and it opens up a lot of opportunities for independent musicians that are releasing their own work. Of course, there is a downside because people take access to music for granted and a lot of people have fallen out of the habit of paying for music, but I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing for people like me because if someone does want to go the extra mile and support an artist, they might be more inclined to support a completely independent one that doesn’t have the backing of a label. I think the most important things that the good labels have provided have been curation for the audience and support for the artists, but there are other channels that can provide those things. Blogs and websites have kind of taken over the curator role in recent years and artists can, and do, find interesting ways to build communities around what they are doing.”
Although I found this philosophical meditation on the nature of the industry to be compelling, I wanted to return to something more local and concrete. How to be an artist and a living, breathing human being surviving in the regular world. There’s an old (lamentable) adage among writers that you have to choose between being a good husband/father and being a good writer. This assumes, of course, that real life and artistic creation are both all- or near-consuming occupations. With two young daughters, I’ve been struggling to sustain my own creative output as I strive to be a better parent. Bahhaj is married with twins and a full-time day job – and most people would call that an already full-plate – yet somehow he still manages to write and record music despite claiming that he’s not a natural musician. I asked him what his original impetus for becoming a recording artist had been. And also what sustains the creative output despite the time constrains of work and family life.
“There is an appeal in the immediacy of music if you want to express yourself creatively. Words always came pretty naturally to me and writing was always a comfortable form of expression but prose seems to require a level of discipline and a more cerebral approach, and the way that I have approached writing songs has provided me with a much more intuitive and emotional outlet. There isn’t a lot of thinking involved when I write songs. It’s a very primitive process and based on evoking a feeling or giving voice to a feeling more than articulating a thought or communicating some kind of story. I’ve always loved music, and I have had to work harder on it than some people because I wasn’t a natural musician and I don’t come from a musical family. It took me a long time to get to a point where I felt I could actually play music and call myself a musician. Discovering people like Will Oldham and Bill Callahan, for instance, was a huge source of inspiration and encouragement because their early output is so primitive and their music showed me that limitations could be embraced rather than struggled against.
“It’s a challenge to sustain a creative output because I have a job and a family, but in some ways getting a little older and having children and feeling the weight of responsibility has actually helped me with it because when all of my time was my own and my responsibilities were relatively few, I felt very little urgency when it came to creating stuff and making recordings. But when I suddenly found that my time wasn’t my own, I felt a much greater urgency with it and I became much more focused with the time I had. The challenge is to find ways to strike a balance and to live a meaningful and coherent life where all of the different parts add up to a cohesive whole. Going back to the idea of “success,” and how to define it, I think that might be the ultimate success to strive for–just to be able to sustain a creative output and integrate it into your life. Being an artist doesn’t have to be an extreme choice that comes at the expense of everything else, and it doesn’t have to be something that you try when you’re young and then give up for a stable career, it can be an ongoing aspect of your life if you can find the right balance. I think many people have the false notion that either it’s a career or it’s a hobby and there is no in-between, but the reality is that for a lot of pretty well established independent artists it never becomes their primary source of income and they have to juggle it with other things. So, that is the challenge, and it is an ongoing process that requires a lot of flexibility.
“I also enjoy playing live. I can be pretty picky about the venues I play and the shows I agree to because the atmosphere is really important when you’re playing quiet music. I don’t really think of it as a promotional tool, to be honest. It’s certainly a way to reach new people all the time, but the thing that excites me about it is the atmosphere in the room, in the moment. It can be great, and such a completely different thing to recording music. I like talking to an audience and kind of bringing them along for the ride as much as possible (as clichéd as that sounds). I think the less there is a separation between the audience and the performer, the better it is and the stronger the atmosphere, and the more the music can be enjoyed and experienced on a communal level.”
The notion of community returns once more and I decide that this sentiment bookends the conversation nicely. Art benefits from the nature of shared interest and ideas. Artistic creation, as Bahhaj has suggested, cannot come to fruition in a vacuum, nor can it be distributed in a vacuum. After all, to whom would it be distributed? But this is ultimately about more than just the artist’s struggle to create and succeed according to their expectations. This is about life and living the shared experience in the company of others. Art is a reflection of our world along the broadest spectrum, from the local artisan groups that Bahhaj has described to the global sharing of content across the digital highway. Community means many different things to many different people. But the goal is always the same: connection.