By Christopher J. Kelter
Can you remember the days of your youth when the magic of music caught your ear for the first time? Do you recall the moment when you began to realize that songs could personify your emotions? Do fragile flashes of memories triggered by songs still haunt you? Do songs prompt reflection when you least expect it? Do you recall the feeling that songs were avenues for emotional exploration? When music could make real theconfusing feelings you had but couldn't quite figure out?
The music of Writ On Water has that effect on me. By taking me back to the formative days of my own discovery of music, Writ On Water has evoked a sense of history, through songs, of the embryonic days of discovering who I was and who I might become. Writ On Water's music takes me somewhere where my mind's fancy plays tricks with memories, rolls in the proverbial grass, and reveals my longings and hopes to unforgiving elements.
Writ On Water got started in early 1991 with the core of Jeff Mackey and Dan Johnson working with two other musicians that saw the debut "Sylph" released on Blonde Vinyl Records. A series of other musicians came in and out of the fold; however, each line-up never managed to stay together very long. Live gigs were far and few between. Adding to the band's battle with adversity was the demise of Blonde Vinyl Records. Once the core of Jeff and Dan was established as the on-going concern of Writ On Water there was a conscious decision to focus on composing and recording. Jeff and Dan forged ahead with sessions for the sophomore effort to be called "The Greyest Day". By 1994, after the demos failed to generate any label interest, Writ On Water was placed on indefinite hold.
Fast forward to 1999 when a constant stream of questions and pressure from fans about Writ On Water's status coupled with the explosion of the Internet and mp3 technology led to the release of sessions that were to be "The Greyest Day". Officially released as "The Greyest Day Sessions 1992-1994" the demos were resurrected to appease current fans and gauge possible future interest in Writ On Water.
The positive response to "The Greyest Days Sessions 1992-1994" breathed new life into Writ On Water. Jeff and Dan decided to resume writing and composing working with material originally crafted in 1994. "Pelleas" was the result of that labor and was released in Summer 2000. "Pelleas" features six tracks that have been given a healthy revamping with today's technology not to mention the additional benefit of time. "Pelleas" also benefits from the duo maturing as artists. As Jeff states, "The key difference with "Pelleas" is the time that passed between the writing and recording of the songs, which I think is significant in our maturity as musicians and arrangers on a performance level more so than in terms of songwriting."
Jeff, who counts the Police guitarist Andy Summers and the Church guitarist Peter Koppes as his major influences, hasn't had much formal musical training. Dan, with some training on the piano and flute, grew up listening to classical music and counted Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov as his favorite composers. These influences have a direct influence on Writ On Water's style. Writ On Water's music has a remarkable European sensibility where the texture of the music is just as important as the song itself. "The majority of what we listen to is British or otherwise European. The American scene has generally emphasized melody and song structure over sonic texture", Dan clarifies. "Nobody is going to mistake us for Springsteen - that's certain," Jeff states as a matter of fact. It is these influences that helps the band avoid traditional structures and forms and, in the end, creates a fresh approach.
Although my interpretations of Writ On Water's work may not coincide with what Writ On Water had intended there's no doubting the emotional power the songs can carry for those willing to lose themselves in the ambiguousness of the words. I proposed the idea that the songs were about people on the brink of something very important in their lives with choices everywhere they turned and how the human condition affects those choices. Dan volunteers, "There's a certain reflection of true 'brinksmanship' in everyone's lives. Great literature is full of it. If you read Dostoyevsky and you can't find an element of yourself in some of the characters in crisis, you're a pretty cold person. Normal, dull people don't tend to be the subject of provocative art for the simple reason that they don't reflect the crisis aspect of the human condition." Jeff counters, "When I think about my lyrics, I often have more of a feeling of a speaker who has lost something and reflects on what has been lost and how it has been lost - that's where the recurring themes of yearning and disappointment that I mentioned come into play. On the other hand, I suppose there is a sense in which that constitutes being on a brink of something...a discovery. I believe that most important discoveries are internal." Jeff continues, "the key is whether or not someone acts upon these feelings, and that's usually left to the listener's imagination. The moments that have the true importance and impact may be private discoveries that nobody else is ever aware of--instants when he actually has some indescribable inkling about who he is or what this whole existence is all about."
It's all too common these days to hear music with outright aggression, aimless screaming, or complaints personified in atonal screeches. Writ On Water's vocals are unrestrained, yet infused with quiet passion of the weight of everyday trials and tribulations. It's not too hard to find lyrical gems that will seem quite personal to your own life's experiences - perhaps not entirely universal, but real nonetheless.
Writ On Water has the musical reach of The Church, the absorption of U2's mid-80s "European" experiments, and the breadth of avant-garde compositional history. Writ On Water make real their brave execution of what they hear in their heads by utilizing a variety of instruments; It is this type of variation and exploration that has a direct influence on the compositions. "I'm excited about the possibility of expanding the range of instruments and sounds in our future projects," Jeff says, "and whether or not that generally leads to purer or more heavily affected instrumentation depends solely on the directions of our future composition." Dan adds, "I'm certainly not the most technically proficient musician in the world, but give me a little time and some inspiration and I can build up a pretty nice atmosphere."
Writ On Water has experienced a bit of a rebirth with the advent of mp3 technology. As Jeff states, "Honestly, I doubt that Writ on Water would be doing anything right now had it not been for the Internet and mp3s. Our music is never likely to have a wide market, and that probably makes us a long shot to appeal to most labels. With mp3s, we've been able to record and make our music available worldwide for anyone interested." And Dan chimes in on the convenience of the technology, "The ease of mp3 and the relatively low expense, ease of setting up a digital studio has allowed us to make music on our own schedule, release it on our own schedule, without the pressure of a record company."
Dan continues, "The only pressure we have to release by a certain date is whatever pressure we have put on ourselves by telling our fans when to expect something new. Mp3 has also meant that we can expand our fan base since downloading the songs is perfectly free."
With "Pelleas" finally available for purchase, I was curious to know if Writ On Water would continue. Luckily for all of us, Writ On Water are venturing forth with new material. "The new material we're working on right now", Dan says, "is very exciting for us because we are working with entirely new compositions, and experimenting with new methods of songwriting. A few of the musical motifs have been around for a few years, but the structure and development are brand new."
The convergence of many things has led Writ On Water to this time late in the year 2000 with new found life. The desire to continue will likely bode well for the Jeff and Dan as they continue their musical journey.