As part of our ongoing series where we talk to writers and musicians about the music and literature that informs their creativity, we welcome Jesse Tyre of LA-based alt-country outfit The Grand Southern. The band recently released a new EP titled “Traded Heaven,” which takes it’s cues from the great alt-country acts of the past (Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Son Volt) while wholeheartedly channeling a Southern California lyrical and musical sensibility that is both fresh and reinvigorating. Below are six books that have informed lead vocalist Jesse Tyre’s creativity throughout the years.
John Prine Beyond Words
This book is truly a gift. Lyrics and chords written out with pictures and stories. His handwritten lyrics on coffee stained paper with a phone number scrawled on the side of the notepad. It feels like you are getting a sneak peak through his personal scrapbook. His songs are mostly just stories from his own life, and he’s got the pictures to prove it. Often when I am short on inspiration, and my eyes dart between the unfamiliar and the external, I end up where I started – short on inspiration. We don’t have to look too far to find a story to tell or a song to sing. I will never have his voice, his character, but I can hone in on the best version of my own voice – the most genuine. There’s humor and heartbreak in the most mundane experiences, and what is glorious to some, may be simple and boring to others. Sometimes amplifying the trivial and muting the exaggerated makes the ride a lot smoother. When you find something to get behind, say it again. In fact, say it three times and add a bridge and a catchy melody.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
I read the British “Adrian Mole” series when I was a kid, as well as Catcher in the Rye in my early teenage years. The brilliance of these books is that they appeal to a universal commonality in the experiences of these young men, and the readers fascination with the mysteries of the teenage mind. I was convinced that I was Adrian Mole and later Holden Caulfield. How these characters spoke to me in such a profound way could only be characterized as the stars lining up just right, so the pages came before my eyes at the exact time my stupid adolescent thinking aligned perfectly with how these characters saw the world. I read David Eggers’ book in my early 20’s, and although a bit more mature and slightly more grounded in a reality, I felt a similar kinship to the character. I was also living in San Francisco at the time, yet his story had occurred a generation before me, so there was some implied expertise and wisdom of how to navigate through this period in my life. Our shared experience ends with these fairly superficial notions of age and geography. His story is interesting, but not riveting. His struggles are sad, but not devastating. How he shares his story, a perfect mix of humor, vulnerability, eloquence, and self-deprecation blew me away. It’s not enough to have a story and a rhyme scheme, its not enough to have something important or relatable to say. You have to be smart. You have to be captivating. You have to be fearless in peeling back layers and showing the underlying feeling, even if it makes you or your audience uncomfortable. This book is a perfect model of how a song should be written. It was the same sense of wonder I felt after hearing John Prine, Carol King, Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson… so that’s how you tell a story.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
To oversimplify the book’s implication, we all start from an equal place of potential, and our success, sustainability, and even survival are generally decided by availability, opportunity, access, and necessity. Consciously or not, these basic themes have a profound on my relationship with music. Just as complex grains, animals suited for domestication etc, were available to Eurasian civilizations, music and fellow musicians are bountiful to anyone with a wifi connection living in Los Angeles in 2017. So plentiful in fact, that it is difficult to not be desensitized by the abundance of content and players. Often the most difficult task is to filter out everything and everyone that I don’t connect with. I am constantly learning from others. From the days of the first Napster downloads, I could see what other music people who listened to my band were also “stealing.” This insight was impossible to obtain (at least on this scale) with this ease previously. The constant opportunity to be inspired by sounds at a local bar or the Hollywood Bowl gave us the kind of direct access I always dreamed of as a kid growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Lastly, the parallels between necessity and innovation are striking. I often reflect and wrestle with what many musicians refer to as their “need” to play and have an outlet, and our desire or “want” to be heard. Now that we are past the point of just trying to survive, is the motivation to make the best music we can still burning? The necessity exists if we want to be heard, but it must start internally as well. There is a need to constantly push for excellence, but also a great longevity in being resourceful and sparing. If you can record a great song with a guitar or piano, why build 100 tracks around it? As soon as we take it on the road, it may be difficult to reproduce in any recognizable and meaningful way. We have an abundance of resources in one place, but leave the comfort of our geography and the equation starts again from zero.
A New Pair of Glasses by Chuck “C”
This book is a lesson in perspective. That perspective only comes from smashing the ego and being willing to be vulnerable and honest. Writing lyrics requires that kind of internal transparency. It is too easy to taint the process with our ideas of how others will perceive our music, thinking about what people want to hear – and the darkest cloud – what will sell. The truth is that themes of the human experience are universal, and if I can share a story or convey a feeling as I know it or as I felt it, people will probably identify. Some people at least. And if no one does, at least I can live with the work I did knowing it is a reflection of who I am and how I see the world. And then I write another one, and another. “I love you and what you think of me is none of my business” is a powerful statement from the author. Difficult to apply in my daily life, but when I am writing and really tuned in, that mindset brings great comfort. He also says, “Walking alone is not normal, is not natural.” To think we have all the answers, or that no one can contribute to our composition, to our craft, to the 2nd line in the 3rd verse, is foolish. Being open to collaboration and inspiration strengthens the vessel, and also informs us when we cant find our own voice.
Sex, Drugs, Ratt & Roll: My Life in Rock by Stephen Pearcy and Sam Benjamin
These figures were larger than life when I was a kid. Ratt had probably peaked before my time, but I had the VHS tapes with Milton Berle and Warren DeMartini crashing through the ceiling. The most fascinating piece of this story, beyond the hustle and sleaze that defined (and probably still lingers heavily over) the Sunset Strip, was that Stephen Pearcy was a fan of Rock n Roll. He sought out David Lee Roth before anyone knew about Van Halen. Finding him in the parking lot of a club, offering up a joint, and beginning a friendship that would last years. He was unapologetic about his range as a singer and what he had to do to get the band gigs. None of it mattered. His voice worked, it was perfect for that band and perfect for those songs. When you’re young anything is possible, and that great unknown can be all the inspiration you need. Another lesson in perspective as the band deteriorated, you certainly get the sense that you are only hearing one side of the story, and that’s ok. Everything is perspective, and what a better way to tell a story that with a pinch of resentment, guilt, hubris, etc. I often forget what it was like to be young and inspired, to learn someone else’s song just to emulate exactly what they are doing. Those things happen so much more subconsciously now and that’s probably a good thing, but to just be a fan and have a poster on your wall, that’s where everyone who plays music started. It’s a very pure place to be.
The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Change is unavoidable, yet inevitable. Change is generally easy with acceptance, however resistance to change and the reinvention required to adapt are difficult barriers. This fictional novel based in Echo Park is mostly the story of a working class community and the people who breath life and color into the neighborhoods. A few decades removed from the recent gentrification that has, once again, reshaped the community and its cast of characters. Loosely based on the author’s experience, it really is a shining example of making the ordinary engaging. I find when I am really tuned in, I write drawing on my own experience, and the experience of others I can identify with. I am, of course, the foremost expert on myself and my experience. The author weaves through the characters search for a destination beyond their destiny, for expectations and social class structure to be accepted and questioned simultaneously. These are universal themes, yet the story here is so unique to this geography and this community. Living in Los Angeles, we often have a culture overload. An abundance of performing arts, visual arts, museums, galleries, and fashion. The city is transient and evolving, not unique, not good or bad, just changing. However, the richness of generational community culture has become a thing of the past in many parts of the city. Maybe making room for a new set of characters to make new stories, or maybe creating a superficial existence where there is no time to create, because people need to spend their time paying rent and taking their dogs to yoga. There will always be a place for a scene, for a community, for traditions and culture to be shared and enrich, it just may not be here. Stories share those experiences, even after their gone, songs do too. Even if you know all the words and all the notes, a song can still be a blank space to insert your own faces, your own town, and your own experience.
The “Traded Heaven” EP is now available on iTunes.