The musician who invited me over for tea and singing

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April 16, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Bill Snyder
Bill Snyder

Punk rocker, professor and pro hanger-outer Tim Eriksen returns to the Cedar Cultural Centre

Try to get a handle on Tim Eriksen's career. Come on, I dare you.

He cut his teeth in the early '80s hardcore punk scene, studied South Indian classical music, and has fronted the near-famous acoustic folk/electric rock (depending on the weather) band Cordelia's Dad for more than a decade. He's an avid promoter of "social singing," a practice that gathers a few people, or a few hundred people, to sing together without an audience. He's done musicological research in Bosnia, and plays Bosnian music with his wife, musicologist Minja Lausevic, in the band Zabe i Babe.

And, just for good measure, he's a former visiting professor of music at Dartmouth College and currently co-teaches two music classes with Lausevic at the University of Minnesota.

So what does this all boil down to?

"I think it's an international conspiracy of hanging out," he says with a laugh over the phone line from Britain. "This is how I want to spend my life, singing and hanging out. ... Just being with people, and doing things that seem worthwhile, like singing and having cake and coffee."

The Ballad

With last year's release of his self-titled solo debut, Eriksen proved himself one of the finest living singers of traditional American ballads.

He recorded the album in roughly two hours. He sang all the tracks and accompanied himself on guitar, violin and fiddle -- all without overdubs.

When he played the Cedar Cultural Centre last September, the setup was about the same. It's a simple way of playing simple music, but artists face few challenges as tricky as simplicity.

Traditional ballads tend toward a few basic themes -- often, dark variations on love, violence and death. They can seem sparse in detail, but when performed well, that lack of specifics makes them all the more universal.

"There is something about the lyrics and the narrative style that's just wonderful and very economical, and the tunes are wonderful," he says. "But you can also sing them in a way that's just unpleasant and uninteresting, much more easily than you can sing them in a way that is interesting. So, I don't feel much of a resonance with those songs unless it's sung in a way I believe."

There's a ballad in Eriksen's repertoire, "Brown Girl," about a murder that is anything but graphic in this post-Hollywood era. Still, there's something so believable in Eriksen's performance that I'm yet to hear it without the queasy feeling that it's my gut into which the murderer's knife is stuck.

The Cedar

Eriksen's last Cedar performance took place on Sept. 14, 2001. The audience seemed to share the nervous, uncertain, shaken feeling that our world had been irrevocably changed in some way that nobody really understood. I think many came wondering exactly why they were even going out to hear music, only to later discover that they had really come to be with other people.

In my memory, that night seemed less like a performance and more like people finding each other. The old songs seemed all the more basic on that night, and somehow seemed to connect us to something older than the temporal mess we were floundering in that week. If the songs were dark, there seemed to be something comforting in that as well.

"There's a line in that song, 'Hope,' on my record -- 'Darkness shows us worlds of light we never see by day' -- which I really love," Eriksen says. "I think it's another thing I find in common with a lot of music that resonates with me. Not that it's necessarily dark, but even in the darkness, in the feeling of despair or the awfulness of events, there's a vitality."

Following the Cedar performance, Eriksen did something I've never seen an artist do before -- invite the entire audience to his home for cake and coffee. Apparently this isn't unusual for him.

I told him that I'd never seen that done before.

"Well, I guess I kind of wonder why," he responds, "because you kind of think, 'here are these people who actually came to see me do something.' That's so nice, and I don't have much time to spend with people, and here these people are giving their time to spend with me. Not like I should [extend the invitation]; I just feel like I want to."

About 15 people took him up on the offer, most of them personal friends or students of his wife. I believe my friend John and I were the only ones who hadn't previously met Eriksen. Lausevic had baked a couple of cakes, and tea and coffee were poured, and we "hung out."

After about an hour, we all made our way to the basement, and "Sacred Harp" hymnals were handed out. This was social singing, so no one wanted to hear that "I don't sing." And if anyone noticed me struggling along, losing my place, or missing a harmony, they didn't care enough to mention it. And I felt comfortable enough to forget that I wasn't a musician.

When the evening came to a close, John and I no longer felt like strangers in the group, and somehow, there seemed to be just a bit more peace in the midst of the week's chaos.

Coda

International calls can be a bit tricky. Before we wrapped up our phone interview, Eriksen's calling card ran out, and I didn't have his number in England. It took another week before we could connect again.

I'd spent that week trying to figure out how I could possibly tie all his musical work together into one article, and it all came down to the social aspect of it -- the international conspiracy of hanging out.

"It doesn't sound like you're off to create an artistic opus as much as a dialogue," I said to him when we eventually reconnected.

"That's a great way of saying it. I think what I'm involved in is much more of a dialogue than a career," he laughs. "Love over money and hanging out over prestige."

I ask him if music even exists for him outside of a social context, and he takes a long, thoughtful pause before answering.

"I definitely believe in music for music's sake, but then I think about what music is and it inherently involves people."