David Essig: Into The Lowering Sky

by Jan Vanderhorst

September 1999



"Do extraordinary things with ordinary words"" - Franz Kafka

With the release of "Into the Lowering Sky", singer-songwriter David Essig explores faith and whether one can achieve a sense of faith at the end of the 20th Century.

"I looked at the (previous) albums 'State Of Origin', 'Tremble And Weep' and the new one 'Into the Lowering Sky'", he says, "as sort of fitting together as a trilogy, a large work in three parts. The language on the album is very simple, but we tried to reach some larger issues in life."

The cornerstone of the new recording is the song "Sheep May Safely Graze".

"On my island where I live, (there are) two friends of mine who were adolescents during the Second World War. What happened to them during the war scarred them for their whole life. And you wonder, is not one of the tragedies of war, not only the deaths that happened, but this permanent loss of faith that happens to people who have suffered greatly."

He should walk through these hills
like a new-born lamb
In fields where sheep may safely graze
Instead he's a torn and bitter man
who curses the hours of the days

"It's a song I don't generally perform, because it's more than most audiences can take, and it's hard for me to sing it. As a poet I was very pleased with the way it came out, because the images are non-stop. But as a performer I realized that, in a way, there was a flaw (in the song), because it was so intense I couldn't play it. I thought it violates one of the tenets of a good performance, in that you give the audience breathing space to think around the edges of the images and messages. You have to give them a chance to hear it, because they'll only hear it once. That song goes by so quickly, if you were just listening to it as background, you might not even get it."

The struggle between the poet and the performer within David has been a difficult one.

"I try to bridge the gap", he says, "one of the ways I do it is by being real obvious about it. (At one of my concerts) I'll just read a poem, so (the audience) will know there's more to (me) than hot guitar licks. It's quite an intentional attempt to shift the sense of language."

To further that end, David is working towards releasing a book containing song lyrics, poems and short stories.

"(I'm) trying to move to the literary side and see if there's an audience for the language as well as the guitar playing. Guitar playing's always been the easy part and that's the thing that seems to catch (audiences). What I love is those kids who come up (to me) and say 'You're like my dad and we love the way you play guitar'. I say 'that's great, but listen to the words'. Because the way I write is so simple...they get it. And that's good poetry! You look at Leonard Cohen or Canadian poets like Earle Birney or Al Purdy. They don't write about airy-fairy bullshit, they write about what it's like to have a flat tire on the prairies, or your wife leaving you. So what I try to do is bring that tangibility to the writing. I'm hoping if I did something in a more literary vein, I might reach an audience a bit further and give me a nice sense of completeness about my career."

Although David is striving to extend the boundaries of his prose, he remains a firm believer in the literary challenge a song presents.

"Songwriting is one of the most challenging forms of literature", he says, "because you have to do it in time to the music, you have to do it with the music and you have to deal with the fact that, much like radio, it only goes by once. That's the great advantage of a chorus, (people) hear it three or four times. But in a complicated song, you have to deal with the fact they're only going to hear it once. (So) every word has to be trenchant, it has to grab them right from the beginning."

Stretching boundaries and stepping off the path isn't something new for David Essig. In he 70's he was one of the pioneers of the independent recording movement. His Woodshed Records label was a haven for singer-songwriters not wanted by, or not interested in major record labels. By releasing through independent distributors, he was able to side-step the big record companies and get the music to the people who were looking for it. Unfortunately like many pioneers, he was a little too far ahead of his time. A downturn in both economics and folk music spelled the end of Woodshed after a few years. But David was not deterred. He continued to perform throughout North America and Europe. For the last number of years his albums have been released on the Appaloosa Records label in Italy where he has a large following.

While David is always writing in one form or another, he plans to wait awhile before recording something new.

"When you do something as intense as 'Into The Lowering Sky', you don't want to turn around and do it again. I'm thinking of doing a trio album with a couple of other guys who play slide and write. There's something about the way you write songs when you play slide guitar, because it's a very vocal instrument. I average about an album every 18 months, so something's coming"

For more information on David Essig, visit his website at: island.net/~essig

Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at jan@hyperpeople.com