What Songs Are Meant To Do

You may not know it, but you’ve probably already heard a Chris Trapper song. Though the Boston-based songwriter hasn’t become a nationwide household name, the sophisticated simplicity of his tunes has earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of best songwriters currently working in the craft. And that reputation has brought with it one opportunity after another for his music to be featured in films and television.

Trapper’s music has been a backdrop for daytime dramas, teen dramedies and even a reality dating show. His songs have also been featured on the soundtracks for feature films “There’s Something About Mary,” (“Everything Shines”) “August Rush” (“This Time”) and more.

And, while his songs are wonderful complements to big screen stories, the most striking thing about Trapper’s music is the completeness of each song in its own right. Every song tells a story, and the narrative landscape of each song is replete with richly drawn characters who come alive as the song’s story unfolds.

I was introduced to Trapper’s music by friends when I was living in Rochester, N.Y. I met his music in the context of his former group, The Push Stars. I actually saw The Push Stars once, in Buffalo, during what I believe was their final tour together. I was drawn to the songs I heard that night both for the power of the performance and the emotional intensity of the words and melodies; the music that seemed to paint a world for the characters and stories to inhabit.

I was hooked on Trapper’s songwriting.

The songs I heard when I first dropped one of Trapper’s discs into my player weren’t just tightly crafted pop nuggets (though Trapper’s mastery of his craft approaches perfection); nor were they heady folk songs with something big and bold to say (though almost every tune leaves me reeling). It was the storytelling that wrapped me; that pulled me close and made me want to cry.

Trapper doesn’t take on the moniker of storyteller, though. “I don’t really see myself as anything but a songwriter, in the purest and most versatile form,” he says. “I can write uncomfortably personal songs, and songs for a bubbly WB television comedy, and feel equally rewarded when or if they take hold. I’d like to think what I write may have the power to transport at least a little bit, either through story, melody, or ideally, both.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about Trapper’s songs, both on the solo records and the songs he wrote for The Push Stars, is the characters. Even when a song is first person, there’s an engaging cast of characters that inhabit the world of the tune. Whether it’s the blue collar stoicism of the father in “House Next To The Drive-In,” (“Songs From The Drive-In,” 2002) the former lover in “Outside Of A Dream” (“Paint The Town,” 2006) or the “friends who were buried alive” in “Cadillac,” (“After The Party,” 1999) there is always subtle detail that makes the world, the characters come alive.

Trapper credits his eye for character to his childhood as a member of a large family, and also to a well-honed ability to observe and report – a key skill for an artist in any discipline.

“I suppose some of the cross characterization comes from just listening to people,” says Trapper. “I am the youngest of six siblings, so it was virtually impossible for me to get out of the twelfth grade without already knowing some pretty intense stories. But like many songwriters, i’d say the power is in observation, and the ability to connect the pen to the paper when the time is right, so to speak.”

And that laser-perfect observation has to turn inward from time to time as well. Trapper: “The other important thing I think is just making a commitment to reveal yourself, and in an honest way. If it’s anything less, it’s a waste of time for all involved.”

As I write this, I’m listening to “Paint The Town.” I’m five songs in, and I’ve already been on an emotional journey through the disquieting reality of balancing relationships with life on the road (“Claire”); the longing and suspense of wondering what happened to a former life, a former lover and the friends we once knew (“Outside Of A Dream”); a hymn to life, and the wonder of love, the universe and everything (“Galaxy”); and an almost defiant statement of survival in a world full of chaos (“Lucky Sevens”).

“Freedom,” “Paint The Town” and “Keg On My Coffin” are coming up before long, and I know I’ll be transported to a world of blue collar simplicity and the sheer joy of family and friends.

As I listen I can’t help but consider the Chris Trapper catalog and think of the way his songs are explorations of a vast emotional landscape. They encompass so much of everyday life, and tend to track somewhere between pathos and joy, sometimes hovering near the edge of each; one thing I never hear in a Chris Trapper tune is cynicism. Reading between the lines on some tunes, I get the sense he could take a cynical point of view as he comments and reflects on the life around him.

Trapper agrees. And he sees music as a shield against the cynicism that waits just below the surface of our life, waiting to take an mile for every inch it gains.

“Music has always been an escape from cynicism for me,” he reflects. “I can definitely lean that direction in my daily life, but it is very difficult for me to strum a guitar and feel hopeless.

“It just doesn’t add up that way to me. There’s too much mystery and magic in it. To fill a room that was quiet with strumming from your fingers, and the shapes they make seems like the opposite of cynicism,” he continues.

“Also, the fact that I’ve been very lucky to have a career totally self-steered yet successful enough to make a living for 12 years now is unbelievable to me. In fact, it blows my mind. And I never forget that music was my initial escape from a lot of pain and sadness, so I never take it for granted.”

I find Trapper’s melodies, instrumentation and arrangements complement the “story-line” of each of his songs; sometimes it even seems like the music is a “character” in the narrative arc the song takes. Melodically, his tunes havea a very defined pop sensibility. Yet, especially in the solo albums, I hear a lot of jazz, Texas swing and traditional folk melodic turns.

It’s no accident that so many influences co-exist in the Chris Trapper musical universe. He listens broadly and lets his obsessions guide him when choosing what goes into heavy rotation.

“I listen to my obsessions mostly. For a few years, it was Cuban music. I have no idea why, but I heard a song I liked in the movie “Before Night Falls” and I went out and bought every Cuban record I could find, from thrift stores, to Amoeba Music store on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, all I cared about was Cuban music. And there is always a pretty wide variety going on beneath that, and I love a lot of styles.”

Ironically, Trapper isn’t a huge fan of his own space in the musical spectrum. “Probably the style I like the least is the one I do,” he says, “because it seems over-saturated to me. My newest obsession has been a songwriter from San Diego named Gregory Page, because he fearlessly will jump styles within his records. From 1930s style French romantic music, to classic rock.”

Because Trapper’s tunes feel so complete, I wondered about his process. The perfect pairing of lyric, melody and accompaniment piqued my interest. What was the process like? How did these songs come into being?

“I’ve been writing songs now for many years, and the process, as I allow it, must be natural,” Trapper says. “If I were to analyze everything I wrote, I’d probably throw it all away in it’s imperfection. In other words, I suppose I want a certain simple magic in the process, and if that doesn’t happen, I’d probably try another craft.

“I usually save the lyrics as the last piece of the puzzle, because they are the substance of the song. It requires successfully bonding the words to the emotion in the music, provided there is some.”

He goes on: “When I was first learning songwriting, I would take poems that my friend had written, and try to provide a compatible chord and melody structure to give birth from lyric to song. Now I’ll play some chords, or have a melody saved on some 1980’s micro-cassette player, and I’ll try and turn that into a song. But it was helpful to learn backwards, because you see how the music and lyric are intertwined.”

One of Trapper’s recent efforts, “Songs From The Middle Of The World” (2008), is a collection of (mostly) solo acoustic songs. It almost feels like a journal or sketch book, not in the sense that it feels unfinished, but it in the sense that it’s a very intimate collection of songs that seem personal and reflective. Musically, it’s a very cohesive album, stripped and simple.

“Songs from the middle of the World was kind of an accident,” Trapper says. “I was getting uncomfortable cause I hadn’t released any new music, and when you’re in the music business awhile, you fear, sometimes irrationally, that your audience is going to just disappear, or move on to Michael Bolton or something.

“I had all these demos that I was trying to decide if I should record in a produced fashion or not,” he continues, “and I started feeling like they made sense as a collection as they were. One of my favorite records is called “North Marine Drive” by Ben Watt (half of Everything But the Girl) and I love it because you can’t tell where or when the songs were recorded, or what they were meant to be in the grand scheme of things, but you feel that every breath in the vocal is sincere, and the music’s simplicity transports you. I wanted to replicate that.”

There’s no doubt that Trapper loves his craft. He jokes about why he got into songwriting: “Songwriting enabled me to meet cool people, see cool places, and talk to cute girls.”

But then he reflects on the real joy of making songs: “I’ve been able to communicate what’s in my soul to people all over the country, and now, in certain circumstances, the world. This, for me, is a huge privilege, and I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world.”

Trapper’s songwriting is compelling for many reasons. Technically, his songs are nearly perfect; they’re complete and sophisticated, but, at the same time, simple and engaging. Lyrically, they’re like novellas set to a tune; they draw a world, peopled with fascinating characters and filled with a sense of adventure. But none of that explains why I connect so deeply with Trapper’s tunes.

Trapper’s songs do what songs are meant to do. In the intimacy, the soul-sharing moment of a song’s final, lingering breath, a listener can find solace and feel the peace of having said what needed to be said. A great song and a great songwriter speaks for the listener, not just to him.

This item originally appeared in the The Daily Times.

By Timothy Hankins

A theologian, pastor, and writer who seeks to teach and live the fullness of the ancient Christian faith. Anglican in a Wesleyan way (read: Methodist).