Pop Culture

They write the songs

At 28 years of age, John Mayer is the reigning king of young American singer/songwriters. That is to say, lots of people know his name. Unlike other current artists in this rarified genre, the Connecticut-born guitarist who rose to fame in the Atlanta music scene is both a critical and commercial success. His first LP, “Room for Squares,” released in 2002, won him a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. In 2005, beating out Alicia Keys and Kanye West, he brought home the Song of the Year Grammy for the wise-beyond-his-years hit “Daughters.”  “Waiting On The World To Change,” the first single on Mayer’s upcoming LP “Continuum,” (Aware/Columbia) was the third most downloaded track on iTunes when it debuted over the summer.

Mayer performed Friday on NBC's "Today" show (MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft).

Mayer enjoys a ubiquitous presence in the music industry. He’s performed with Kanye West, as well as legends Eric Clapton, BB King, Buddy Guy, and jazz piano genius Herbie Hancock. Mayer is a music writer for “Esquire” magazine, appeared on “Chappelle’s Show” and has happily been the butt of a joke on “Family Guy.” With his success it seems like there’s plenty of room out there for singer-songwriters. But the truth is, not so much.

To be clear, the Justin Timerlakes and Ashlee Simpsons of the world sharing “songwriting” credits with a team of professional hit-makers and producers don’t count. Like the quintessential Bob Dylan, to qualify as a singer/songwriter, a musician must echo from the folk tradition. But rather than covering old school standards, he or she must craft original songs covering themes anchored in real life experiences. For all his success, you’d think Mayer was the only guy out there still doing it. But the congenial man would be the first to point out this isn’t true. There are plenty of young American troubadours on the scene. You just have to know where to look. Here’s where to start:

Left of center
Like Mayer, Chan Marshall (who also performs under the name Cat Power) spent some time in the Atlanta music scene before landing in New York City. Her 2006 release, “The Greatest,” (Matador) is somewhat of a departure for the pianist/guitarist. Marshall’s sparse, gut-wrenching songs and ethereal Southern-tinged vocals earned her a strong underground following in the mid-90s. And her live performances earned her a reputation. Given to on-stage meltdowns, it was not unusual for Marshall to change tunes mid-song, berate herself to the audience, or just leave the stage. Fans split 50/50 on her act, some loving it, others just not feeling it.

Whatever Marshall’s issues, they seemed real as she quit showbiz briefly to work as a babysitter and live on a farm. Her muse refused to be still however, and in 2003, Marshall was back on the scene with the critically acclaimed “You Are Free” (Matador). Her latest LP, “The Greatest” reveals Marshall’s growth. She still writes about heartache, but the once sparse production is now a hearty mix of Memphis soul, filled out by a full band featuring Al Green’s guitarist (and Memphis legend) Teenie Hodges. Marshall’s current tour reveals a changed performer as well. Her voice is still fragile and fidgety, but now her presence is strong and meltdown free.

The guiding force behind Bright Eyes, Nebraska-born Conor Oberst is known for his unsettling quivery voice and disjointed songs featuring dark, surreal lyrics. Oberst hit the music biz running when he was 14 in the seminal emo band Commander Venus. As guitarist and singer for Bright Eyes, Oberst seems to delight in experimentation. Bright Eyes released three disparate-yet-solid LPs in 2005 — a low-fi folk rock production, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” an electronica experimentation, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn,” and “Motional Sickness: Live Recordings” (all on Saddle Creek Records). His next release in 2007 is rumored to be of a country vein. Meanwhile, never one to sit still, Oberst also devotes time to his political punk band, Desaparecidos.

With the ambitious declaration of his 50 States project, Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens is looking forward to a long career. Staring with his third LP, the folk-inspired “Michigan” (Asthmatic Kitty) in 2003, Stevens said he would write and record an LP for every state in the union. Regardless of the veracity of that commitment, Stevens has the chops to back it up. He’s adept at guitar, banjo, drums and oboe, among other instruments, which he uses to fill out his deceptively complex song structures. Song themes are introspective, dealing with family, home, and spirituality. Stevens’ latest LP, “The Avalanche,” feature songs leftover from his 2005 release “Illinois,” his most widely acclaimed LP to date (and the one to get if you want to check him out).

Up-and-comers
The above-mentioned singer-songwriters have at least one foot firmly planted in the spotlight. Here are a few worth mentioning that have their foot in the door (and a profile on MySpace.com).

As the niece of folk legend Vic Chesnutt, Liz Durrett has the singer/songwriter thing in her bones. Her debut LP “Husk” (Warm Electronic) is a collection of songs recorded in the mid-90s when Durrett was still a teenager. It’s a hint of her first new LP, due out this fall, and mostly features her voice accompanied by a guitar and percussion. Her whispery voice paints delightfully eerie images that most adolescents are unable to verbalize. Now that Durrett’s in her 20s, it will be interesting to hear how she’s evolved.

Graham Travis wears his influences on his sleeve. The guitarist/pianist write songs that evoke the solid musical foundation of both the Beach Boys and the Byrds, but with a folk-rock sensibility that is modern and unique. His debut LP, “Why Don’t You Know Me Yet?” (Poptek Records) is a collection of masterfully crafted songs that are both catchy and poignant. Travis moves easily from piano-led ballads to percussive rock songs, pacing his lyrics and vocals in perfect rhythm to ensure his songs will stay embedded in your head. Give Travis a year or two, and Grammy will be calling his name.

Cross your fingers for Jenny Owen Youngs, the New York City-based singer songwriter who has a song on the season premier of HBO’s “Weeds.” As snarky as she is cute, this guitarist writes hilarious songs such as “You can’t handle my love,” as well as performing earnest covers of the Britney Spears tune “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” “Batten the Hatches,” her self-released debut LP, was released in 2005.

New York City-based writer Helen A.S. Popkin recently launched her own singer/songwriter career, and is currently performing live in her living room, kitchen, and occasionally a friend’s house.

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