By Sebastian Mackay
Music seems to be black and white: Either you're a pop singer whose songs are written for you and lack all forms of honesty and vulnerability (or you may not be pop but still sound trashy - I'm looking down the barrel of my keyboard at you, Falling In Reverse. Which, y'know, is just standing, Radke. But I digress) or personal honesty and vulnerability are the be all end all of music.
But that's a stale, one dimensional, and completely untrue way of looking at it.
Fact in point: Eli Driftwood.
The Jimmie Driftwood inspired country singer-songwriter who self recorded and released the debut Lies Your Momma Told You out of a garage in Northland.
Elliot Brown, who goes under the nom de plume of Eli Driftwood as part of the Driftwood Project, is the grey in this black and white conspiracy of broke folk singers and rich pop stars.
"I try not to write anything that has any personal meaning at all," he says without the usual pussyfooting. "I make up stories from observation [and] I try to avoid working with emotions."
He writes for his own kind of radio, one that doesn't exist but plays out in his head: "...all [of] my songs have been written in the car. I ask myself what I would want to hear on the radio at that moment then I write a song in my head, so in essence I write songs for myself."
If Lies Your Momma Told You was a radio station then it'd be firmly planted in the strong backbone of our DIY industry which has lost out to what's perceived as our -god only knows why - gold age of the 70s and 80s.
(Brown's swipe at New Zealand music isn't to be missed it cuts like a lash and is particularly pointed: "I personally consider most mainstream New Zealand music, since time immemorial, to be embarrassing. Anything IRD plays when they put you on hold is awful. Just because something is dated doesn't give it value.")
To be clear: He's sure as hell not an average bro who espouses his views and then packs an almighty sad when people don't care. Brown's planted firmly in the position of artists should be ready to bleed in the streets and isn't one to be lured by opportunity if it smells like the defeat of doing it his own way.
"People should be grateful if anyone at all likes their work. This may be stating the obvious but I deeply disapprove of the constant seeking ofapproval that some artists indulge in...Some artists are outright wankers who clearly believe the public owes them praise or sympathy or money. Artists are supposed to be prepared to die in gutters and mingle with the poor like Vincent [Van Gogh] did."
Brown waxes poetical: "The bloody tears of the angels will not bring the second Deluge if one of your songs or paintings never gets appreciated."
There's more to art than sucking up to the machine of free exposure and people that are gunning to make you poor while you make you them thousands. Sure, it sounds cynical, but ultimately, as Brown says, there's no gas money in playing free shows and exposure is painfully unquantifiable.
"Playing every show that gets offered to you is a terrible mistake I used to make. People will try to make you feel grateful for the privilege of giving them a free show. You make the venue thousands of dollars in drink sales [and] you end up without enough gas money to get home..."
It's a poignant reminder of exactly the world that New Zealand's artists live in. A work for free get paid in gratitude system. What's refreshing about Brown is that he'll let you know it and he calls bull if he sees it coming from a mile off. He's found the almost evanescent 'more' that comes with art: doing it because you love it, not because it'll make you rich.
"I'll be damned," he says being, as defiant as ever, "if I sign to any label that's going to do for me nothing I can't do by myself. I don't need the help of a label or manager to stay poor, I'm doing pretty well being poor by own efforts."
You'd be wrong to be read him as a martyr or another of the disaffected, disillusioned woe is me musicians who are hoarding on the edges and slamming the industry. Brown's the kind of guy that's doing it because he loves it and, dare I say it, sees the woods through trees.
Lies Your Momma Told You is free ("notwithstanding it would be an exercise in futility for me to make the attempt to be commercially viable, I have always released my music for free dispersion...") but he does welcome donations in money, beer and cigarettes.
Ultimately though, if you can listen to his music in it's entirety while you're drunk, it's mission accomplished.
Eli Driftwood are playing June 27th at The Golden Dawn in Ponsonby.