Voice as Soul: an artist’s work

by Jackson T. Wilshire

As a playwright and theatre artist, I think about Voice. A lot. The voices in my head, the voices echoing around me in the store, the voices inside the pages of my plays, the lost voices inside myself, the voices that seem silent now that were so recently, urgently loud.

What does it mean to speak one’s mind in an artistic medium? To be a painter, a composer, a lyricist, an actor, a novelist, a playwright, a director, a potter, a designer of light–and to speak one’s mind through the paint or the page or the light? Is that being didactic? Sentimental? Insipid? Solipsistic? Is that making the event or even the World about you? Do you speak your life through your art? Is that different than your mind?

Of course, like the seasons and the cycles in the land, there are trends in creative endeavors and training and thinking. There are scientific, observable, repeatable approaches to creative training. Then there are organic, non-linear ways. There’s a focus on form, on function, on classicism, on sensory work, on externalism, on internalism, on expression, on journeys, on presence, on finding one’s voice, on losing it, on hating critics, on loving them, on craft, on subconscious, on plague-giving, on technology, on agrarianism, on hope, on hate, on love. The movement between key ideas flows forward, backward, around, each arc a denial of mere repetition, a flight to something more alive.

And, of course, there’s much to say about these trends, though I won’t say much here; I’ve heard too much diatribe, too much “proof;” I’ve spoken too much reason for or against a trend, and even now too many voices in my own head bandy these juxtapositions about. Perhaps these trends exist because they all, in some way, are true. That doesn’t signal the absence of objective meaning or transcendent truth somewhere in this existence; maybe it signals the infinite variety of our creation. Take God: if God is infinite and caused all things (wouldn’t he have to be to have done so?), wouldn’t the creation contain an infinite creative spark–not as God or a replacement for God but as a reflection of the infinite Creator? (For the non or anti-religious who might come across this, bear with me; after all, there had to be some kind of cause at some point, right? And it had to be Big.). If God is everywhere and knows everything, then wouldn’t he see all the sides at once, all the variety? Wouldn’t God see how objective, sensory naturalism and subconscious, slant-wise impulse stem from the same creative source and how each may be comfortably used in opposition or collaboration? Assuming God is everywhere, wouldn’t he be the only one to actually see true unity? Its absence in our eyes might not mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps we are not big enough.

I hope I’ve kept my word to not say “much” about these things; what floats before my mind is the idea (trend, if you like) of “Voice and the Artist.” Of finding your Voice. As an artist. What is that? What does it mean? Is it important? How important? Is your “Voice” your brain? Your subconscious? Your emotions? Your Point of View? Your engagement with politics/religion/the transcendent/the present? Is your Voice you–your unique personality and set of experiences? Is it writing what you know? Or what you can only imagine? Or what is literal? Writing that terrifies you? All of the above? What does that have to do with mixing colors or spinning clay or imagining action on an empty stage?

In college I would write papers in the Art Department’s Mac Computer lab. This was a sacrifice at the time because I had just bought a fairly recent (used) PC and so possessed the mysterious arrogance that Microsoft parlayed at the time. I especially disregarded this Mac Computer and its Finder. How quaint, how droll. Look, you have to empty the trash; don’t they know we recycle now? Idiots. And too, I had to leave my dorm room, books in tow, to travel to this lab to write papers on a foreign computer under fluorescent lighting. However, two things made these “sacrifices” an eternal joy: a girl and Bebo Norman.

The girl was present, not beside me but across the room, working on graphic design projects (thus the Mac Lab), and Bebo was on CD, playing on my Mac. Eternal Joys, you say? (Bebo Norman? asks a well-known music critic–who happens to be wrong about Jars of Clays’ debut album. Yes, I respond, just wait[1]).

The Mac Lab was empty at night, and it became a haven for two things: faux dating and Rock Music. Well, Folk-Rock. (Faux dating, because the girl kept me at just-friends-length, a voice in my head I kept ignoring; Rock Music because the music contained drums hit with drumsticks and syncopated rhythms. And vocal sliding. Almost forgot the vocal sliding). The college I attended was and is quite storied in its legalism or religious, institutional strictness. Some assume it was Conservative in the political sense, and it mostly was, but the term Legalism means it outlawed many things for at times pseudo and at times genuine religious reasons, creating confusing and angst amongst the earnest. For example, Rock and Roll was banned as a tool of the devil, as a deviant form of art, as a function of one’s lower, material self. It was bad and what made us bad in the college’s mind, and, thus, banned.

The college was more delightful at times than some may allow, and it was definitely worse than most, even its worst detractors, can imagine. When I was there, I had been experiencing the unsettlement of college, a normal experience; but this unsettlement was exacerbated by a heavy, religiosity, like an old-time apple press, squeezing me of vitality and life. I was lost and mostly finding a way out, yet always getting lost again. But the Mac Lab was a small country, an inland sea of guitar, coffee, and friendship. I could listen to Bebo there. I could pretend to be dating there. I began to love the Finder and AppleWorks there.

So we were in the Mac Lab one night, and Bebo’s first album was playing, and I’m writing a paper, and his voice reaches out through the computer’s speakers and begins to spin the sadness and the oppression of that place into a shore, a shore to arrive upon, a shore from which to leave the unknown behind. His voice held his Soul, and through the words (despite the words at times) his Voice echoed not just in my ears or my mind but in my body and in my soul. Returning to where the water meets land, he changed the red sky to stars of light; he brought the wind, smelling of fresh pine and snow melt in the spring; he walked light down the mountain to that place, that robustly disabling college; with his Voice he called forth a boat and a wave to take us away.

I didn’t finish the paper.

So years pass, and Bebo puts out several records differing in tone and quality, and then he announces he’s retiring from Music. For good. That’s it. He’s done. Nothing’s wrong, it’s just time for him to move on, he says. After all, he majored in Biology in college.

But there’s one, final tour. I’d never seen him live. I didn’t know if his Voice, if the Soul I heard on his first record had been a product of my imagination; did his Voice really conjure a boat? Did it really lead us toward a sea of glass free from legalism? I knew I had to see him live, to find out if the artistry had been trendiness or my neediness or naïveté. What would happen live, inside a room where he and people met?

The drive to the Presbyterian church was short. The fast food meal was long. The wait in the cold passed relatively fast, and then we were inside and sitting in the third row. This was an In the Round Tour with Bebo and friends; Sara Groves and Andrew Peterson had joined Bebo for a mostly acoustic, intimate tour. We were waiting in low lighting; the tour musicians were on the stage, turning, checking, prepping; the pre-show music had given way to the Tour Sound, and you could tell these chords were lining up and would soon give way to the first group song. Behind me a pale man with black, curly hair wore a Whiteheart Powerhouse shirt, and I remembered seeing the bowling ball cover and listening for the first time to That Kind of Rock. The man in the t-shirt kept looking at the speakers, longingly in a way, reverently letting go of his arena rock past.

And then Sara appeared and Andrew plugged-in and Bebo just walked out, nothing in his hands, as if he owned nothing but jeans and a t-shirt. Sara began to play the piano, and Andrew added simple chords, and then some strumming. He and Sara harmonized. It was nice.[2] To this point in the music, I think, Bebo was softly singing, deep, way underneath, backing with the rumble of a distant river.

I thought back to that first night when I heard his voice. I remembered his soul laying down those planks of wood that would become a boat.

And then Bebo took the lead in the song. The melody was his now, with the others harmonizing and backing away. He sang.

There are moments in your life you return to, moments that make you turn and open a window and stare at the grass or the trees or the wall in front of you. The Voices in your head have stopped, and you’re suspended in this one moment, this surprising place of wonder. And you breathe. That night was such a moment.

But was it good? Proficient? Was it art?

bebo norman 2

It would be correct to say Bebo sang clearly. It would be correct to say his voice was rich, loud, free, resonant, easily filling the wooden room, out-marching Sara and Andrew (this is not to put them down–their voices come differently, and in their own way, powerfully). It would be correct to say Bebo’s voice is stunning and powerful and takes in the entire room with a powerful embrace. There are other correct modifiers: rising, spinning, organic, well-placed (horrible phrase), linear, crafted, and so on. One could also go all negative and critique various aspects of his singing: too grainy, too leathery, a bit tense, relying too much on single notes (his songs), too Southern. Yet, the only thing to really say is that Bebo is an artist, and when he speaks, when he sings, his soul is released and it fills the room with a tangible, visceral presence, a transcendent experience, a Voice. His Voice embraces and shatters a room of people with his Soul.

A few months back I clicked on the Bebo Norman bookmark on my Macbook, and up came a generic, Bluehost form blue hostoffering similar key word “links.” The Bebonorman.com I once knew no longer existed. I felt profound sadness. I wondered what it cost him to reach far, into the eternal part of him, and share his Voice with thousands over the course of a medium music career. Is that why he retired? He was only forty or so. Was his artistic journey complete?[3]

We may speak of craft or trends or forms; some of that is helpful, much of it is merely boring. One thing we cannot speak of enough–that true Artists create with the Soul. Whether they know it or not, their Souls fly to us in dark places, brining ships of rescue. It is costly. It is rare. We linger in its absence, the memories of its fire alive and well.

This is more than a trend or technique. It is the essence of art. One’s true voice, released in a room, embracing and shattering to the bloodstream and the bone. Bebo did that. He gave us that. He was and is a true and profound artist. And for that, to rescue a worn phrase, I am eternally grateful.


[1] Of course there’s an entire essay on truly creative, fresh music, and under that title the discussion of Bebo would be different; in many ways I’d love to say I can, right now, be as esoteric and unknown in my music preference as a beard-trimmer in Portland. I might be lying if I said that, but either way, that isn’t the point here. I do not mean this as an embarrassed qualifier, so back to Bebo.

[2] Here I’ll say I have several essays about Sara Groves voicing themselves in my head, waiting for their turn; but I’ll save those for another time and another trend.

[3] Read an interview with Bebo where he talks about his decision to leave music here: http://www.cbn.com/cbnmusic/interviews/bebo-norman-explains-retirement-goodwyn.aspx

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