Scott Carmichael is a fabulous yet humble talent, consistently crafting compelling songs in the folk rock genre, songs that shine with a searching, honest heart. His lyrics are natural, direct, poetic and perfectly shaped for singing. His tracks display a great deal of workmanship, layered vocals, expertly played acoustic guitar and fretless bass, and confident, balanced arrangements. Superlative songs.
Although most of his songs involve a Christian theme, most of them transcend “religious” labels, mainly because he avoids preaching. Instead, he taps into more universal themes of self-doubt and desire, striving and care. He doesn’t sing in order to tell us what the answers are, but to explain his own ongoing journey. His songs are, ultimately, meaningful. His faith spills out as if overflowing; it never confines or judges…
How does faith impact and sustain your music?
“I like the question… it made me think.
“I’m a musician before I’m a Christian – not in priority, but in the time line. When I read about Jesus, I’m impressed with how transparent He was in His interaction with everyone he met. He’s so focused on the person across from Him, that He doesn’t seem to bring an agenda. His mission was nearly impossible, yet he sheds this as he encounters people. I want to be a different man than I naturally am, and music is a place where I can try to live that out. I draw ideas from the things that I meditate on, and obviously my faith informs my world view. I know I’ve mentioned before that I have little use for religion, it falls so short of what God intended. I’m glad you used the word faith, that’s key for me. One thing that irks me about Christian music (not all) is the lack of artistry. If music appeals to the senses, then it must be sensual, therefore we must relegate this to utility status. The ‘Church’ uses music as a utility, therefore we only get half the picture. I don’t have to tell anyone at Macjams that music is so much more than that. It’s a lost language to me…”
What are some other early influences?
“I’ve been a songwriter for a long time now. I write and produce music in my studio. I was on the road for a decade some years ago, but I found that I could enjoy music again if I kept it personal. I was a drummer very early on, and when I got in to early teen years I heard Yes, and everything changed for me. I was mesmerized by Steve Howe, and had to learn to play guitar. By the time I was in college, I could play most of his material and that was good schooling. Then I began to make the instrument my own. I also play piano and bass. As for the piano, it just seems that I could always play. My mother had a piano, and there was always music in the house. It all just made sense, unlike most of the rest of creation, it seemed like music was my natural habitat. I would get chills (goose bumps) from music as a very young child, and I was hooked. It has been a wondrous journey so far…”
Did you finding Macjams change anything for you?
“MacJams got me writing again, and there are songs that I certainly wouldn’t have right now if MJ didn’t jump-start my process. Listening critically and objectively is so important for those of us who can’t lean on a producer. Most of us produce ourselves… that’s a tall order… we write it, play it, perform it, mix it… How do you keep objective focus? My pre-MJ mixes don’t compare with my post-MJ mixes. This has been the best school: learning to listen, and directing my material toward a specific audience.”
You were very active at first. I remember your first post (Find Him) and how it blew me away. I think I was your first MJ fan. What was your first impression of MJ?
“I became addicted very quickly to a couple of things – like access to people all over the world who shared my love of this craft. But MJ also revealed a character flaw: the need to be admired. There isn’t very much of my life that is about me. I’m getting pulled several directions constantly. I would never have guessed how my music would stack up alongside of the mountains of work out there. I would guess that I’m average. I got such high praise right from the start, that it shook me a bit. It certainly raised my confidence level. But I soon found a need for this affirmation. I don’t trust this inclination, and it has caused me to be more careful and introspective. Now I need for my wife and friends to call me an idiot more frequently. It helps.”
You’ve pulled back from your former level of MJ involvement. Why?
“The tyranny of the urgent. In years past I’ve run several crews out of my warehouse. I’m not an A type personality, but I run my own business. I subcontract for outdoor advertisers. My clients sell ad space, and we execute. I never intended to become big. I just wanted to control my own time. If I want to see my son’s soccer game on tuesday, I go. In recent years, I was on my way to retiring, (in my head). My crews were dwindling, as the industry climate trended toward in-house work. I didn’t fight it. I had less stress, and more time for my studio. Now in the last year, it seems the trend has reversed, and clients are returning, about the same time that my oldest son is entering college. A wake up call. I know retirement is not going to happen quite yet, and I’m shorthanded at work as the load increases, so I’m recently just too tired for studio or commenting, even answering comments. I start to feel like a poor MJ citizen, and that gains momentum. If I’m not participating, then I can’t expect people to listen. I hope it’s just a season. But I feel old and tired…”
What do you hope to do with your music in the future?
“Nothing has changed in that regard. I don’t have time to pursue music as a career, or the inclination. I was on the road all through the 80’s, and I got that out of my system. This is a hobby/passion, and I do it because I’m compelled, mostly. My first weeks and months at MJ were like magic for me. Because all of sudden, there was an audience and feedback, and affirmation…”
How old were you when you started playing music?
“I was 6 years old, when I started playing the field drum in a bagpipe band. I did it for years. I almost sent in a picture to the forum post ‘show us your kilt’. Having a rhythmic foundation has been a huge skeletal support to all of my ensuing music. I soon started playing a kit, and by jr. high I was the drummer on tap in my area. I always played piano (there was one in the house) and soon I was learning guitar. I pretty much landed there. Most of my writing emerges from my time with my acoustic.”
Do you recall the first time music gave you “goosebumps”?
“I remember watching cartoons as a very young child and being distracted by the music. I was intrigued by this connection with music and pleasure that seemed to come from another world. When I was about 9 the bagpipe band I was playing in made a trek to Kansas city, and we marched in a parade of kilty bands. A mile long procession marched through the canyons of stone and steel in that city, all playing the same song. I had never had a thrill of that magnitude, this huge sound echoed from every direction. It was an other worldly experience, and it made a huge impression on that youngster who later became me.
“In my teen years, as I said before, the prog rock group Yes did the same thing for me. It just drew me in.”
You said you were on the road in the 80s. What sorts of bands did you play in?
“Too many to count. I was an original member of Bash n the Code – toured and recorded through the 80’s. They were a Christian new wave/punk/pop band. Big fish, small pond. But getting to play to crowds of 30,000 & 40,000 was a rush. And listening to the folks sing along and know the material was more than surprising.”
You mean the band that grew out of Found Free?
“When I first joined the band from Philly it was called Found Free, a progressive R & B pop band. We morphed into a pseudo-punk/new wave band and the record company insisted on a name change, thus “Bash N the Code.” I started out playing guitar, writing and singing. Soon I was playing keyboards with a guitar strapped around my neck, jumping back and forth. My last year with the band, I just replaced a keyboard player who left, and the new guitar player ‘Mark Townsend’ handled all the guitar duties.”
Where you involved with any of the 4 record albums Bash n the Code released?
“I was involved with 2 recordings in Found Free, and the first with Bash. I left after the 1st Album was released. It was starting to feel like Halloween…
“None of the other bands I’ve played with toured or had recording contracts. I avoided the whole thing on purpose. I decided I would only do what I love. I had to be passionate about what was happening or I was out of there.
“I’m still very close with Greg and Rebecca (original Bash N the Code members) and have appeared on a few of their albums since. They vacation at my home every year, because Greg and his kids love to water-ski.”
Any surviving tracks from the era?
You haven’t mention your church music. You direct the choir, right? Do you perform your original music there?
“I have since found that I’m much more fulfilled leading the worship team in my church. I lead from the acoustic guitar. We have a great rhythm section, bass & drums, keyboards & electric guitar sometimes. But I really emphasize vocal arrangements. I find a full vocal sound will prompt the congregation to sing. It’s not a paid position. It’s a chance to give back, and I would not take money. Again, this is the most fulfilling and significant thing I’ve ever done with music. I almost never perform any of my original stuff there. Nothing about church can be about me. I just wouldn’t be comfortable turning that time into a format about me.”
Directing a church choir can be very time-consuming? Choosing music, finding people, preparing new songs each week and for special holidays, sometimes funerals…
“It can be very time consuming. There are periods when we coast. When new members join the team, then I have to take time teaching, and more time rehearsing.”
Any formal musical education?
“No schooling or study… except sitting with a Yes record and repeatedly moving the needle back as I learned ‘Mood for a Day’ and the ‘Clap’ and all that sort of thing. After leaving the road, I didn’t want to work with people for quite awhile. I became very proficient at arranging with midi files & sequencing. The down side is that it sterilizes your music; the up side is that, playing with a machine really fine tunes your sense of tempo.”
Why did you not want to work with people for a while?
“I just didn’t want to fight or interact anymore. I wanted total say over my whole process. I didn’t want to convince anyone of anything.”
Any samples of your early 90s recordings, when you started working with MIDI, etc.?
“That’s when I first arranged ‘Emmanuel‘, although I’ve since updated it as my software evolved. I might be able to dig up some old recordings. Until recently, I’ve usually left whatever I’ve done behind, as I move forward. I don’t have one recording anywhere from my 80’s days. I find it a bit embarrassing.”
Do you remember your first song, or at least how old you were when you wrote it?
“I’m not sure if I remember my 1st song. I battled addiction in my youth, so there is a certain amount of loss that comes with that territory… memory… what were we talking about?”
What addiction did you battle? Does it still haunt you in any way?
“Although I took all sorts of things in those days, the thing that snared me was amphetamines and cocaine. It screwed me up good. At that time everything in my life was unraveling. I soon despaired past any hope of recovery. I planned my suicide as a result. I actually planned the day – visits to favorite places, a few goodbyes, last meal, etc. I even laughed about leaving the dishes in the sink. I ended up becoming a Christian before the night was over.
“Almost 30 years later it seems to have taken. I’m no longer haunted, I can hardly remember that guy. But I will say 30 years later I still get an urge out of nowhere to smoke a cigarette or a joint. I guess that monkey roosts pretty deep, it only lasts a moment, then I move on.”
Any other obstacles you’ve overcome in your musical endeavors?
“I’ve never trusted my voice. I have to work very hard to arrive at a track that I think may be presentable. In live situations, I’ve almost always been the background vox – and that’s what I prefer. I have usually been responsible for the frosting/color as a guitar player, so that enabled me to focus on my 1st responsibility. As I’ve produced more and more of my own material, my lack of confidence in my voice taught me to hide my vocal inside vocal arrangements, so in time I really learned to hear things from a background vox perspective. And I’ve learned that the human voice is one of the most effective ways to color a song, and lead the listener emotionally.”
Like Yes. And choral church music.
Guitar is your main instrument…
“Yes, followed closely by bass. I just love bass guitar. It’s so hard to lead a band from the 6 string, but put a bass in your hands, and all the sudden you can control how everything feels and leave strong markers for everyone involved to follow – Feel, tempo, changes, it’s all much easier from the bass guitar. Most of my writing originates at the acoustic guitar. If I have a lyric and idea/melody, I’ll take it there first. Sometimes I just sit and play stream of consciousness-like… no words just melodies… and later try to interpret what the song is communicating. Other times I’ll have a real thought that I’m trying to work out and communicate, and song craft is just the vehicle.”
How do you come up with a song?
“I wish I knew where this stuff came from. I sweat over a lyric. I shy away from clichés and try not to be ruled be the rhyme. I’ll throw it away if it’s not leading the listener toward the main thought or thrust of a song. I’ve learned over the years to keep the thing right before me, because it is so easy to derail and meander when writing. I’m always skeptical when someone tells me the song came to them in minutes. It always lowers my expectation because I spend more time on the lyric than any other aspect of a song. It’s like real work! I also try to stay open to the ‘moment’ when I’m recording. Often the spontaneous is the thing that I find most gratifying when a recording is finished. I love it when I’m pleasantly surprised by an impulse that I yielded to in the process.”
Over a year ago we began writing a song together and decided to start with the lyrics. I wrote the original non-metered text, kind of a story narrative, but you set melodies down and began constructing the music before the drafted lyrics were completed. Are melody and text linked for you?
“In that particular case, as I was rewriting the lyric, the rest (Melody/Form) was kind of coming at the same time and the whole composition came, only because I couldn’t put it down. The sections kept coming. It doesn’t always happen that way.”
That song would hopefully be the first of many Mueller/Carmichael tracks destined to go into AUDIOCRACY II, a CD I am hoping to develop with you (and others) late next year. Are you still game? It could reconnect you to your Yes roots…
“I still revisit our song, ‘Chimneys’, mostly because it’s one of the more progressive things I’ve been able to do, and I really liked the lyric… It accomplished what I want a lyric to do…
“I never feel quite up to the task… but I will certainly give it a whirl!”
Is there something else the MJ community might not know about you?
“I was an art major in college, I’m a fairly accomplished painter and draftsman. I work well in photo realism. I soon learned that I wasn’t interested in art academia, and I left school. Over the years I learned that I can express myself better in music. I also started painting billboards for a living, and it was like asking a mailman to walk on his day off. I rarely work in the visual arts anymore.”
My older brother is a mailman (and a rocker from way back)… So I know what you mean.