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What They Say About Their Songs

September 15, 2002|Robert Hilburn


The first time most pop fans heard of Arie was when the 26-year-old Atlanta resident picked up seven Grammy nominations in January, pitting her against the more widely known Alicia Keys in six categories, including best album and best new artist.

Arie (her real name is India Arie Simpson) was shut out in the balloting, but the nominations reflected the music industry's respect for her debut album, "Acoustic Soul," and she felt pressure to live up to all that.

"I went to Jamaica after the Grammys to get away from all the pressures of the business," Arie says. "I had gotten caught up in the glamour of pop music and the competition of it. The stress was so bad that my stomach was burning and I realized I didn't need any more of that."

She channeled those thoughts into "Little Things," the opening song on "Voyage to India," a stylish album that moves well beyond the promise of "Acoustic Soul." Due Sept. 24 from Motown, the collection has a strong spiritual edge.

"I believe in the power of words, especially when they are set to music," says Arie, who works with a team of songwriters but does most of the lyrics herself. "The message I'm trying to get across is a belief in humanitarian love and acceptance of all people. It's the message of so many writers--Steve Wonder, Donny Hathaway, James Taylor, Bill Withers. They inspired me and I'm trying to pass it on."

Ron Sexsmith

If endorsements carried much weight in pop, Sexsmith would have been a star years ago. The 38-year-old Canadian's self-titled 1995 debut album caught the ear of critics and respected singer-songwriters, including Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney.

But sales didn't kick in on that album or his three subsequent ones, including last year's "Blue Boy," which was co-produced by Earle.

Through it all, his richly melodic, folk-edged songs continued to reflect a sweet, underdog sensibility that made the hopeful themes all the more heart-tugging. "Cobblestone Runway," due Oct. 8 from Nettwerk America, is another winning mix.

In the album, Sexsmith again looks at love from both sides now (the wariness of "These Days," the optimism of "Up the Road"), and you feel both the anxieties and the joys of each experience.

"I do write a lot about reassuring myself that everything is going to be all right," Sexsmith says. "I come from a kind of repressed background. I think it was easier to be a more complete person in music than in real life because I could say things I felt more easily in the songs."

Asked about songwriting influences, he says, "I loved John Lennon and Bob Dylan, but I could never imagine being that cool. So Ray Davies was special to me. He seemed to be a little clumsy and messed up somehow. It was easy to relate to that."

Steve Earle

"John Walker's Blues" is the song that will get the most attention when Earle's raw, compelling "Jerusalem" album arrives Sept. 24. In the song, Earle tries to present a human side of John Walker Lindh, the 21-year-old Californian who pleaded guilty to supplying services to the Taliban.

Earle says he has problems with anyone taking up arms, but he also wanted to remind the country about the importance of civil liberties and fair hearings.

It's a powerful recording, but several other tunes reflect even better the Nashville writer's ability to explore public and private issues. The most striking is "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," a look at faded '60s ideals:

I remember when we was both out on the boulevard

Talking revolution and singin' the blues

Nowadays letters to the editor and cheatin' on taxes

Is the best that we can do.

On "Jerusalem," eased by E-Squared/Aretmis Records, Earle, 47, also writes about people cut off from their dreams (the unemployed man in "What's a Simple Man to Do?"; the guy in "I Remember You" who is haunted by an old relationship).

Earle cites the late Townes Van Zandt as his greatest songwriting influence. "I was impressed by how literate Townes was," he says. "Townes used to say his biggest influences were Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Frost, and you could see both of those influences in his work."

Rhett Miller

Miller's Old 97's have been lumped into the No Depression movement blending country and rock, using blueprints handed down from Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams to Gram Parsons.

So it's surprising when Miller, 32, nominates English rock star David Bowie as the singer-songwriter he most admires. "I'm not sure how much I succeed in following through on this goal myself, but I've always appreciated it when artists didn't make everything too obvious in their work," says the Texas native. "For me, Bowie always did a great job of conjuring up these provocative images, but not making them so straightforward that it felt like you didn't have to work at understanding what was going on."

In his first solo album, "The Instigator," due Sept. 24 from Elektra, he deals with relationships from unexpected angles, combining a strong literary touch with an infectious new-wave energy. Whether he's worrying about the future of a relationship ("Come Around") or reminiscing about a slightly preposterous one ("Four-Eyed Girl"), he's an original, affecting pop-rock presence.

"I really love the awkward moments between people," he says. "I'll often go through stories from all different angles in my head and then end up back at that moment when the guy is looking into the girl's eyes and trying to decide whether to say, 'I love you' or just give up on the whole thing--that moment when you connect or you don't."

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