This post serves as the intro to a series I’m doing about influences.

What are your influences?

This question gets asked of musicians almost more than any other. Music is a communal art, creating a two-way street between creator and listener. Artists are always trying to carve out their own niche, but can’t do so without acknowledging that they are part of a much bigger picture. As fans, when we discover something new that we like, we want to place it in the context of a broader musical heritage. We see the fruit and we like it, and we want more of it. In a never-ending quest to find the roots, we wind up exploring the whole tree.

People get passionate when they talk about their favorite music. And it’s no wonder. It’s essentially a spiritual conversation. Music can not be experienced outside the bounds of time, but somehow it always reminds us of our eternal nature. Maybe that’s why the influences question always seems to strike a nerve.

As a musician myself, I struggle with this question a great deal. On one hand, I can take offense. Can you not listen to the music and figure out where it’s come from? Obviously I haven’t been listening to a whole lot of Sting and Strauss. But then on the other hand, if I really answer that question from the heart, and start talking about which Georgia Satellites song I listened to the most, or whether I liked the “drivin'” side or the “cryin'” side of Drivin n Cryin better, people’s eyes start to gloss over. So I usually end up taking a middle road, finding common ground between my obscure musical tastes and the expectations of the other person.

Music is emotional, and expresses things that are hard to put into words. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Influences are an easy way to have a conversation about music. We talk about music in the form of influences because it’s so hard to nail down exactly why we like something. It’s hard to pinpoint the characteristics of some songs that make them better than others. Influences give us a way to talk about the intangible.

In music, there is a perfect chord out there somewhere, and we won’t be happy until we find it. Beyond music, we are looking for a place where we belong. We are looking for home. Just like we won’t ever find the perfect chord, we won’t ever find our true home this side of heaven. We talk in terms of our earthly home as analog for our eternal home.

Being a child of the ’70’s who grew up in the ’80’s, I have been profoundly influenced by the idea of the mix tape. I used to spend hours in my bedroom listening to music and crafting a recording of the best songs to reflect a mood. My first stuttering attempts at expressing feelings towards a person of the opposing gender often were done through a carefully curated mix tape. As a teenager, my enjoyment of driving was enhanced by these mix tapes, to the point that I was often annoyed when my passengers stopped paying attention to the songs. I would shoosh them even if they were just trying to talk about the song that was playing. It was an obsession for sure.

I suppose iTunes playlists are a bit similar to mix tapes, but mix tapes involved so much work and attention to detail. No dragging and dropping. It took an investment of time. And now we’re back to that eternity thing again. Mix tapes are an art form to the point of a spiritual expression.

Influences are a quest for our roots. Talking about home tends to point in the direction of our eternal home. Mix tapes are a spiritual expression. To give you an idea of where I come from, I’m going to do a series of posts. Think of it as the mix tape of my life. These songs aren’t my favorite songs, but rather the songs that for whatever reason stopped me in my tracks and helped define who I am today.