Influence and Inspiration

Was asked last night who my influences are, which isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this. I imagine it’s a common question for anyone who creates and releases art/work into the world. I always say, “Bob Dylan is the reason I bought a guitar,” but beyond that, I never know how to answer. I understand the appeal. I enjoy learning about lineage, following those trails back, seeing where they veer off course. But “influence” to me is more active, more aspirational: who does one actively try to steal from/draw from/sound like? Where does one’s sound come from? Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie. He tried, for a time, to emulate him.

Who do I try to emulate? No one, not really. Perhaps lyrically (I’ve quoted or paraphrased H.D., William S. Burroughs, Sappho, Sir Philip Sidney, Anne Carson (and probably more I’m forgetting) in songs), but not musically, which is partially for a lack of skill. I write the songs I write because they are the only songs I CAN write. Songwriting for me is luck and a lot of frustration. I aim for: Done. (Preferably done and done well, but these days I’ve been missing that mark.) If I could write better songs, I would! I try! But even with my trying, I never aim to write a Dylan song. Maybe one day I’ll be good enough (on guitar, with melodies, vocally) to try to sound like someone else, but I’m not really sure I would if I could. Two Dylans would make each one less special.

I listen to, and adore, a fair amount of music. Undoubtedly, some of that seeps into the subconscious somewhere. Some music may even inspire me to pick up the guitar (after picking up the pen), but again, not to emulate someone else’s sound, but to join in the process of creating. Who are my inspirations? That is perhaps the better question. Were someone to ask me that, I’d say, “Well, have you got all night?” And that list would include things like the rain, or a field, or a number of roads, or Tonya Harding, or loneliness, or that time a crow landed on the roof of my car and wouldn’t fly away when I climbed out and I swear we held eye-contact for a good minute before it sauntered–yes, literally sauntered–off.

Perhaps this is just a semantic argument, and influence and inspiration are too intrinsically bound to parse them as I’m attempting here. (That being said, do you differentiate between influence and inspiration? How? In what ways?) Maybe I should stop overthinking such things and just dutifully give a short list of names (Dylan, Jason Molina, Veda Hille, sometimes PJ Harvey) and be done with it.

(See also: Why it is so hard to have a conversation with anyone, since I am internally asking throughout, “Okay, what do these words actually mean, what do they mean to me, which meaning should I be responding to?” and inevitably, I end up on the wrong page.)

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