Early in his musical life, Matt Bishop would play songs on his acoustic guitar for passers-by at his hometown farmers’ market. Recently freed of his “Christian rock phase,” the Snohomish teen broke into the secular music world with the only thing available to him: pop songs from the radio.
Love ballads were the easiest, most of them requiring only a rudimentary knowledge of the guitar. He played songs of adoration by U2, the Dave Matthews Band and Bob Dylan, and he played “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” the Proclaimers song that gained widespread popularity as the soundtrack to the improbable-love story, Benny and Joon.
“’500 Miles’ always made me a lot of money,” the Hey Marseilles frontman tells me over coffee at Porchlight Coffee. “People love singin’ on that.”
I'm sitting with Bishop because I'm curious what he has planned for his Valentine's night show at the Columbia City Theater, a revue called Love Songs that will also feature Kaylee Cole and Ivan & Alyosha’s Tim Wilson. Bishop tells me that he will dust off some of those old ballads. He will sing U2’s “All I Want is You,” INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” and, of course, the Proclaimers hit. He will also be performing some of the songs he has recorded with his orchestral pop band. Those original songs, Bishop admits, are a little different than the radio pop covers.
Bishop can write a lyric that will make a crowd swoon, as it did at the Neptune Theatre in November when the band previewed the material for its second album, due out later this year. But Bishop hasn’t yet learned the most difficult of pop tricks: how to write a love song—a true love song about being in love, rather than losing love or wanting the stuff—that doesn’t sound “cheesy.” He wants to, but, as a self-trained contrarian, he has trouble trading in his woe for whoa.
“I remember when I first started taking music classes, I started dating this girl, she was my first girlfriend,” Bishop recalls. “One of the teachers said, ‘Now you know why all of these musicians write about love.' Ever since then, I have wanted to avoid that, to not use the word 'love,' intonations of it. Actually, in the process of preparing for this show, I’ve realized that I don’t really have songs about love. They are all about the absence of it or the yearning for it, but never actually about the joy of it or the strengths of it, or the positive aspects of it.”
Bishop claims that he is ready to let love into his music.
"While wrapping up the record I have thought that maybe I should write a song that celebrates love," he says. "Just give in to the fact that writing about love is okay. I’m starting to worry less and less about cheese, cause its hard to avoid. And also there’s not a lot of other shit I want to write about."
Still, he has yet to commit. When I ask him for a model he might follow, he points to Nick Jaina. Jaina is an under-appreciated Portland troubadour who has earned high marks with Seattle songwriters of late. At the Valentine's show Kaylee Cole will be performing his song "I Know I'm Your Man." It is a quiet, divine meditation on being very much in love. "We always laugh, when no one else laughs. We walk down streets, that aren't on maps," Jaina sings on the song, which closes out his 2008 album A Narrow Way. "You are so divine, and I don't understand, but I know I'm your man."
"Nick Jaina is someone I really respect and appreciate as a songwriter and is very much about celebrating the effusive excitement that surrounds the first few months of being in love," Bishop says.
After coffee with Bishop I contact Jaina and ask him for the secret to writing an in-love song. I offer his answer to Bishop, a Valentine from critic to creator.
"I think of it like gospel music," Jaina tells me. "Songs of praise and devotion are always compelling. That could be a person or a deity. Writing about the qualities you love about someone, and how they make you love the world doesn't have to be cheesy. I think it gets bad if you're just saying how happy you are. That comes off as smug. People not in relationships get mad. But if you're praising someone, everyone can relate. And if you work in the reality of knowing how special it is to find that thing, and that you could easily lose it."
Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him about it. You can also follow him on Twitter.
Detail of photo by Hayley Young