One of my favorite Mormon albums of the past few decades from a little-known LDS musician who lived in New York City for a while, Charlotte Smurthwaite. Her mid-90s album, “Lift me,” featured LDS hymns sung in jazz arrangements and her treatments of “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “If You Could Hie to Kolob” are fantastic and are still played regularly in our family. Since then, it seems like new arrangements of LDS hymns in different styles have become an important part of current Mormon music. I hear the Sabre Rattlers’ version of “Come, Come Ye Saints” introducing each Mormon Stories podcast. I believe I’ve even seen such versions on the latest music CDs even from Deseret Book.
I’ve been very pleased to see the rise of such music. And I hope to hear more. As I understand it, when similar versions of hymns first started appearing many Mormons objected, saying that such versions were sacrilegious. Fortunately, I think most of those objections have dissipated, or at least I’m tone deaf to them. But in thinking about these songs, a couple of questions occur to me. First, I wonder why so little of this kind of experimentation has appeared in Mormon literature. And second, I wonder what other kinds of experimentation are possible that we have simply not yet heard or read.
I am the lucky mother of a tween. She’s nine years old and, while we share a great number of similarities (like hair color), she is different than me in many ways. Example: For Career Day on Friday she’s dressing up like a pop star/fashion model. When I was in 4th grade the only pop star I could name was Debbie Gibson; I was too busy listening to my dad’s LPs of Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound of Music and, oh yes, Saturday’s Warrior. Thanks to iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and the ubiquitous iPod/mp3 gadgets every kid but mine seems to have my daughter has heard more pop music than I have and, well, there’s been some friction.
Now I like pop music as much as the next mom, but I just have a visceral reaction when I hear my nine-year-old belting out Katy Perry or LMFAO or Niki Minaj. I finally had to draw the line at Pitbull. I’ve been doing my research and trying to find “cool” music that will placate her need for auto-tuned lyrics and techno-dance beats without introducing concepts that simply aren’t appropriate for a little girl–because, despite her protestations, she still is one.
Enter The Piano Guys. Seriously, these dudes have saved us many a music battle. Even my 5 year old and 2 year old request Pepponi on a regular basis. I listen to their stuff for fun, inspiration, and to plow through writer’s block. (I’m actually kind of a super fan; I commented on their Facebook page and they replied and I totally called all my friends and told them. . .)
Of course, my daughter really wants something she can sing along to. Enter artists like Tyler Ward and Megan Nicole. I don’t want to start any Mormon rumors so I’ll just say this: while the Piano Guys sell through Deseret Book, I have no idea if Tyler Ward and Megan Nicole are Mormon–except that they have that Mormon look and change cuss words and questionable lyrics in all their covers to more saccharine/appropriate options. For example, in Megan Nicole’s version of “The Lazy Song” by Bruno Mars instead of waking up, doing some P90X and having some “really great sex”, Megan Nicole does P90X and then has some really great CHEX. Cheesy and silly? Yes. But now my daughter can listen to a song and enjoy it and sing it and she and I don’t end up having long and somewhat tricky conversations.
It recently occurred to me, though, that this is like the musical version of Clean Flicks. Now, if you weren’t living in Utah in the late 1990s and early 2000s you probably have no idea who this company is. The short version is this: they took movies that most Mormons wanted to watch but wouldn’t because of “questionable” content and edited them to fit a “family friendly” standard. This is the company that made it so Neo in The Matrix said things like, “Oh crud” and “Jeepers Creepers.” They were pretty big business for a few years–until they got shut down by a lawsuit filed by the Director’s Guild who claimed they were violating copyright laws. From what I recall of the court case, directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese felt that the CleanFlicks folks were unlawfully trampling and changing their artistic property. They made their movies with “questionable” content because they felt it needed to be there and it was a slap in the face to their artistic integrity to have someone come along and “clean” it up.
So now I’m wondering if these artists like Tyler Ward and Megan Nicole are treading on the same ground. Obviously music copyright works differently and these covers are legal, but what about the aesthetics? Does editing the music so that it is appropriate for my nine year old kill someone’s artistic vision?
For me it’s a moot point. While I don’t mind China Ann McClain, (I love China’s version of Dynamite.) Zendaya, One Direction, and Taylor Swift anything that saves my ears from another Justin Beiber song or a Bella Thorne auto-tune-fest is a gift to me. And, really, the less Katy Perry in my life the better!
What do you think? Do cover songs like this trample the artistic integrity of the original? And, really, is this just a Mormon thing to rewrite pop culture to fit our aesthetics?
And in case you needed it, here’s a favorite of mine from the Piano Guys. Let your inner tween out and bop along!
So this is not some snazzy, official list with criteria, rubrics, or voting committees. This is just my personal, gut-feeling-favorite Mormon Arts contributions that I have experienced this year. This also doesn’t mean that it was even published or produced in 2012… these are works/artists that I have personally encountered this year (or so). So keep that in mind as I submit “Mahonri Stewart’s Personal Mormon Arts Favorites of 2012!” (Which may or may not become an annual tradition, depending on how lazy I am next year).
So, beyond what I’ve seen my Zion Theatre Company produce this year, I haven’t had a chance to see much Mormon Drama in 2012 since I live in Arizona (kind of pathetic since I’m supposed to be the Mormon Drama expert around here). I can’t visit Utah on a whim to see the rare Mormon themed play that comes around (or, this year, New York with #MormonInChief!), but what I have done this year is read a bunch of older Mormon plays to finish my editing forSaints on Stage. Since one of those plays was produced again this year, I am choosing Melissa Leilani Larson’s Martyrs’ Crossing, which has been getting great reviews at the Echo Theatre in Provo. I saw BYU’s production of the show years ago and read it again this year, and it’s as beautiful and vibrant as I remember it. Melissa is one of Mormonism’s best playwrights and, although I would call Little Happy Secrets her best work so far, Martyrs’ Crossing is a personal favorite, much due to Mel’s beautiful writing and to my love for Jean d’Arc… who I may tackle a play about some day as well, although it would be pretty different than Mel’s take. Mel keeps beating me to the punch on stories that I love, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and her upcoming adaptation of my all time favorite novel, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Despite that personal frustration, I can’t but help look at these works and say, “Well, at least Mel wrote it, because it’s beautiful.”
FAVORITE MORMON PLAYWRIGHT: MATTHEW GREENE
Although I haven’t seen or read it, just the fact that Matthew Greene was able to get a Mormon themed play up in major a New York fringe festival is nothing to sniff at. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews for #MormonInChief, but I admire Matthew (who was in BYU’s WDA Workshop with me several years ago) for really jumping into the New York theater scene and progressing the cause of Mormon Drama. He’s also got an upcoming play coming soon to Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City called Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Matthew is getting some real traction in his career as a dramatic writer and I believe it’s well deserved. more →
Every bit as good as their previous album, Away continues their combination of darkness and folk. Think of them as an upbeat Whiskeytown, an apocalyptic Mumford & Sons, a Mormon Johnny and June, an Austin Decemberists, a joke-free Ryan Shupe—or, better yet, just get to know them and think of them as themselves.
We’ve been working on this interview since early September, so some of the phrasing is a bit dated, but I highly encourage you to dig in all the same. To get you started, here’s the new video for their song “Oak Tree” (all about the end of the world, natch):
Theric: Your new album, Away, comes out September 21st. I’ve been listening for about a month now to the early copy you sent me, and I’m very fond of it. I want to start by asking, though, how were your goals for Away different from your goals for your first album?
Nord: Our overarching goal has been the same, namely to make a great album. Some variables changed with this one because we’re in a new environment with new band members, different studio, and we spent more time refining the songs before the recording process. “Away” keeps the direction and attitude of our debut album while hopefully improving on the song quality and performance.
Eliza: I feel ‘Away’ tells more of a collective story – rather than the first album which is more of a collection of songs. As with the first record Nord writes the songs he sings & I write the songs I sing – but with this album we seemed to be in sync with each other more in our storytelling perhaps because most of these songs were written in Austin just after relocating here.
Theric: This leads to a few questions I was intending to ask, so let me just combine them and get them all out now—they’re all related anyway. more →
As Mormons, we are cautioned regularly and frequently to take care in what we see, listen to and read—and, apparently, in what we sing. Today we usually see this as a prohibition against displays or descriptions of immorality. We are to avoid that which is sexually suggestive, violent, contains profanity, etc. And these suggestions have led to many controversies among Mormon artists — controversies that are, I think, largely still unresolved in the minds of many Mormons.
But what about materials we don’t believe in? What if a book or a film or a play or a song teach a principle that is against our doctrine. Should we still read it? or see it? or sing it?
You may know Jake Workman as one-half of the Utah-based acoustic, quirky, funny, lovely harmonies and catchy melodies band The Sweater Friends. That group is, alas, no more, but Jake has a new project out that combines his music writing with prose writing. It’s called The Guest and the Ghost and is available at Jake’s bandcamp site (the album is available elsewhere, but if you want the accompanying ebook get it from him there).
How did The Guest and the Ghost come about? How did Henry Pickett Pratt begin to haunt your artistic mind? And related to that: why tell the story in both music/lyric and prose?
The idea started with the fourth song on the album called “Pickett.” I had several guitar parts and melodies that fit well together. I thought it would be cool to write a story with the parts and have different melodies be different voices and people. I was still playing a lot with Allyson and The Sweater Friends and it fit our capabilities nicely.
The main character in the story, Henry, came from my love of Southern Utah. At the time I had become really interested in Butch Cassidy. There are a lot of myths and rumors about his life. I had family on my Mom’s side who lived in the town Cassidy was born in and it got me thinking of a distant relative maybe passing him on the street or catching him cut through their pasture. Henry came out of this interest. As I thought more and more about Henry and decided to write other songs based on him or his point of view, the imagery I was creating did not lend itself completely to lyrics. I wanted to go deeper. Luckily I had a really creative bandmate in Allyson who supported me in this idea of telling a more holistic rendition of Henry with both song and written word. more →
I’ve long wished that opera spoke to me on more than a purely appreciative, intellectual level. I wish I could say, like Glen Nelson, that
for me opera is serious business. I have always responded to it viscerally.
Of course, he has an advantage, having grown up with opera, whereas I have to learn opera. And the best way would be to attend operas. Which I can do locally, but holy smokes opera is expensive. If opera dies, this will be the reason: that the uninitiated have to spend soooo much money to become initiated. So I suppose the nouveu riche looking for cultural acceptance will join the club, but the poor will stick to novels and Saturday-morning cartoons. more →
Mormon youth do a lot of neat things. From Eagle Scout and Personal Progress projects to maintaining Church standards, being young and Mormon is a unique experience and, like so many Mormon stories, is best explained by the youth themselves. Two teens, musically precocious sisters Sierra and Jenessa Mylroie, are a couple more of those amazing Mormon Youth working to tell their stories through song. Their accomplishment? A cd, Of Precious Value, of entirely new music inspired by the Young Women Values.
The tracks sport a pop/folk sound with the occasional rock tune. Light and airy, this is music (written by the girls and their father, Matt Mylroie) that desires to uplift and inspire. The vocals by both girls are a nice blend of the standard EFY/Felicia Sorenson sound with a little Regina Spektor thrown in. And, while occasionally tinny, there is just enough earnestness to keep the overall sound pleasing.
Take for example the song, “Fly Soar Believe”. Based on a poem written by Jenessa, this 50s retro-pop song is an anthem for the uniqueness of Mormon teenagers. “I’m a little quirky and I like it that way/ I march to my own beat every day,” the song starts out. Then the chorus rings out, “Fly, soar, believe. /Be everything that I want to be. /Live, laugh, love. /My life CAN be what I dream of.” There’s hope and a sort of altruism that seems to only belong to teens with strong faith in those lyrics.
While aimed at teens, I think where this album can be most successful is with the Mormon tween market–where there is a real dearth of products. Too old for “Popcorn Popping” and Scripture Scouts but too young for Jenny Jordan Frogley and John Bytheway, LDS kids ages 9-12 might really respond to the pop strains on Of Precious Value. There is so much heart in this music, even parents might enjoy it too!