Last Tuesday (15 February), we had the pleasure of hosting a part concert/part discussion with singer-songwriter, Miriam Jones. The evening was structured in such a way where there were extended times between songs where Miriam invited the listener into her artistic practice by sharing the stories and thoughts that inspired the songs she wrote. The evening was a risk — we had never hosted anything like this before nor had Miriam ever done anything like this before, despite being on a regular gig circuit. In my opinion (and judging from the comments after the event), the risk was a success on many levels and something that raised several interesting issues. I want to explore a few here.
The evening was advertised as the opportunity to engage with Miriam as an artist. At the beginning of the evening, the audience was encouraged to listen carefully to what Miriam sang and said and formulate questions to be asked at the end. Miriam’s music lends itself to this format because the words are poetic, with many of her songs telling stories. Setting up the relationship between artist and audience in a way that asked for interaction between the two created an environment of vulnerability that I did not expect.
Rather than just being consumed as entertainment, Miriam was asked and had the opportunity to talk about her motivations, her artistic practice, her faith – questions that laid her bare and invited challenge and criticism to both her being and her art. Her vulnerability gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions that considered artistry much more widely and demanded engagement at a much deeper level than just ‘I like it.’ It moved the audience to a place of ‘I understand it’ because they started to understand Miriam as an artist. For example, as she shared how the loss of a loved one inspired a song, others in the audience wept with their own tears of grief as they remembered their own sorrow. As Miriam sang, eyes were closed more than they were open and applause between songs seemed almost inappropriate as it broke the almost-meditative state of engagement required. Opening up the channels between artist and audience broke down the wall between the two and somehow allowed all of us to enter in to the creativity on display.
According to Miriam, engagement with the other is bigger than a one-off event like Tuesday’s Forum – the other both inspires and defines her music. During the event, she explained how as she has matured as a person and in her Christian faith, the orientation of her music has also changed. Rather than using her ‘teenage angst’ as the inspiration for her songwriting, the other is now the significant source of inspiration for her music. The other includes other people’s experiences that she enters into and writes from their perspective or a reflection on what she sees someone else experiencing (such as ‘Bones‘ and ‘Helicopter‘). Alternatively, the Divine Other – the trinitarian Christian God – also inspires her writing, either as personal devotion or helping the wider Church (and the local church of which she’s a part) to worship and connect with who He is (such as ‘I Am One‘ and ‘Chase Me‘).
Miriam’s intentionality to move beyond herself and engage with the other opened the door for our engagement, not as consumers but as interpreters, critics, and listeners. Because her music was written not just for herself, it helped us to find our place in the words as we were listening, gifting us with insight and reflection. One can’t help but think of the loving God who became Other in order that we might become truly human.