You Are What You Eat: Three Artists that Changed My Life


“You are what you eat”. This is so very true. What you put in determines what you become. There’s probably a great sermon segue in here somewhere but I’m going take it a different direction for a bit. I want to pay homage to 3 artists from my past whose music was seismic in changing the course of the art I was to create. It’s been said none of us creates ex-nihilo” (out of nothing) and in every way that is true of me. I am so much a product of some very key people and moments that destroyed and then rebuilt what I thought creative expression could be, and be for. Gustav Holst: More Than Words I played tuba in junior high band (pray for me). One day our conductor had us listen to a record by English composer Gustav Holtz (1874-1934). That record was The Planets, an orchestral work that attempted to capture the character each planet is said to represent. For instance, Mars is known as the “war planet”, Mercury is “the winged messenger”, etc. Even Pluto got some musical love from Holst. Perhaps I was too young to have encountered something like this before, or, more likely, I had never been forced to thoughtfully consider a piece of music, but whatever the case I was floored. To think: wordless art telling stories, describing abstract ideas like old age or magic! It opened me up to a new vocabulary, one that didn’t require adjectives or pronouns, just notes. It was my first step to my own musical expression, which wouldn’t yet come for a few more years.

Phil Ochs: More Than Entertainment In high school I took a humanities course that proved invaluable to me. Any course that wasn’t algebra proved invaluable to me but this one more so. It was the first class that wet my appetite for philosophy that I would later study in college. One part of our curriculum included the study of civil disobedience. We looked at MLK and Ghandi. One day in class Mr. C.K. pressed play on a Phil Ochs CD. FYI: A CD is a little round piece of plastic that at one time people used to buy to support artists they liked…but I’m not bitter. : ) Anyway, the song I heard was “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, a political commentary on the apathy of American culture toward injustices. Phil sang of real world cases like the New York murder of one Kitty Genovese.

Oh, look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed/ They dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed/ Maybe we should call the cops and try to sop the pain/ But Monopoly is so much fun I’d hate to blow the game/ And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends/

All I had known my whole life was old soul music and George Strait tunes: Pleasant, fun songs that were at best anecdotal, sometimes thoughtful but very seldom intending to say something. It was another level of complexity added to what I thought music could be. It was this that lit under me a fire to “preach” as it were, in my songs. You may have noticed by now that I am no Chris Tomlin. My music is not often corporate sing-alongs (which the Church needs to be sure). Most of what I do is either introspection or teaching. The latter I attribute to my first inspiration, Mr. Ochs.

Lauryn Hill: More than Polished Lauryn Hill doesn’t know this, but she taught me that I can be me. Just me without any pomp or façade. One day I hope to tell her that, but until then, here’s hoping she reads unpopular blog posts by under-the-radar Christian singer/songwriters. For Christmas one year my college roommate bought me Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged album. The year before he bought my Finding Nemo which either reveals the complexity of my palette or the bizarre-ness of my friend. For years afterward I listened to that CD almost exclusively, besides an occasional interjection of Shane & Shane or Nichole Nordeman. Man O Man! Hill’s record was so good. Why? Because it was utterly naked. Her, a guitar and one other instrumentalist singing these run-on songs that felt more like rhyming college lectures on the Old Testament or personal journal entries than songs, and what’s more, her voice was totally hoarse! Now, this might sound like the makings of a terrible performance but on the contrary, these elements only added to the charm of it all. She was completely herself, she said what she wanted to say with little regard for the fact that MTV might not be down with the gospel, and she sang her songs with a wonderful rasp that only enforced the sincerity of her lyric. She literally starts sobbing at the end of the record as she sings about the “conquering Lion” breaking every chain. Man O man. I think I need to wrap this blog up so I can go listen to the CD again. This record empowered me to be me on stage and off, not what someone wants me to be. It’s true, I might be further along in my career if I’d just adjust what I do here and there, but I love how well I sleep at night knowing what I am striving to make is art that sounds and feels like me. I have much gratitude for Lauryn Hill who gave me the confidence to do what I do, how I do it.

How about you? What artists have inspired and shaped who you are? You can comment on my site under this blog or post on my Facebook page www.facebook.com/jimmyneedham