Interview: Tom Marshall

The next Artist Interview Project installment features songwriter and lyricist Tom MarshallThe first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview transcript.

Check out Tom Marshall’s podcast, Under The ScalesYou can also follow him on Twitter (@TomMarshall111).

Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.

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Image via Under The Scale’s Facebook page

During my time as a student in the Philosophy School of Phish course, I had the incredible honor of interviewing longtime Phish songwriter and lyricist Tom Marshall. More recently, he has become the creator and producer of the Under The Scales podcast. Marshall is not only an incredibly talented lyricist, but also a full-time father, husband, and employee (on top of his work writing music, that is). In addition to being a creative powerhouse behind some of Phish’s greatest songs—including “Chalk Dust Torture,” “Down with Disease,” “Light,” and many more— he remains close friends with guitarist Trey Anastasio. Due to the significance of his contributions to Phish’s repertoire, many consider him to be a fifth member of the band.

Marshall’s lyrics embody beauty in the full range of its forms, incorporating playful word selection, existential meaning, and poetic alliteration. In my process of learning about Marshall’s work and thinking through his responses to my questions, I was struck by the range of emotions his lyrics can provoke in an audience. Some of these emotions may be intended, some may not be. Yet, the purpose of art, according to philosopher Leo Tolstoy, is to elicit these kinds of strong emotional responses, regardless of their content. In his essay, “What is Art?,” Tolstoy writes:

The feelings with which the artist infects others may be most various — very strong or very weak, very important or very insignificant, very bad or very good: feelings of love for oneʹs own country, self‐devotion and submission to fate or to God expressed in a drama, raptures of lovers described in a novel, feelings of voluptuousness expressed in a picture, courage expressed in a triumphal march, merriment evoked by a dance, humor evoked by a funny story, the feeling of quietness transmitted by an evening landscape or by a lullaby, or the feeling of admiration evoked by a beautiful arabesque — it is all art.

Marshall recognizes the significance of emotional responses to music. When I asked him if there is an emotional response he wishes listeners take away from certain songs, he replied, “Music is clearly tied to the memory part of our minds, and anytime a song sparks a memory…well, then you feel something.” Through Phish’s live performances, phans can experience a wide range of emotions, from cathartic tears to overwhelming joy; it is evident that, through his song and lyric writing, Marshall has made an important contribution to what Tolstoy calls the “transmission” of emotion to the audience (perhaps the “feeling [they] forgot?”). Yet, like Tolstoy, Marshall notes that his goal is not to transmit a particular emotion. He describes his lyrics as intentionally “vague,” explaining, “I don’t write with the intent to elicit a particular reaction…just A reaction is sufficient!”

Experiencing powerful emotions through music, according to philosopher Kathleen Marie Higgins, makes life worth living. In her essay, “Music or the Mistaken Life,” she states:

Music has profoundly personal meanings as well. It permeates our bodies to such an extent that it motivates behaviors that we feel are voluntary expressions of our inner states. It is meaningful to each of us who hears it.

To me, Higgins’ statement describes everything I feel about the band. Prior to taking this course, I did not have any experience with Phish, besides recognizing the name and knowing they recently played a show in Bend, Oregon. As I learned more about Phish through this course, and about Marshall’s art work in preparation for this assignment, I gained a great appreciation for their projects. I listened to the band’s albums, watched numerous concerts on YouTube, and participated in live webcasts. With each listen, I was able to close my eyes and picture myself there, feeling the music pulsing through me. It created the same sense of meaning that Higgins discusses. With each performance, and each repetition of the lyrics, each song took on its own unique meaning. I understand why “phans” live to see the band live!

Marshall doesn’t only connect to audiences through music; he also produces a podcast about Phish, titled Under the Scales. Through the podcast, he has added a new dimension of connection within the Phish community; listeners get an “inside” perspective on the band and its history. Phans are able to collaborate with Marshall through this medium, as he interviews interesting contributors to the Phish community and even solicits questions on Twitter. The sense of community trickles down from person to person, with each episode and share on social media. Under The Scales takes the Phish community beyond what philosopher John Drabinski calls the “occasional community,” to a collaborative, integrated one.

Through our interview, I gained a new understanding of podcasting as an art form. Marshall at least partially agrees. When I asked him if podcasting is an art, he responded:

I guess it’s a form of art — I research the interview subject, I converse with the person, I record it meticulously, I then carefully edit and craft it myself — I add music and commentary.

As someone who began with little experience with Phish, listening to Under the Scales gave me some amusement from the very first podcast (“The Songwriting Weekend” episode is hilarious!), while also providing me with a sense of the band’s community. For me, this creates the idea that all art is beautiful. This concept was one that I hadn’t quite embraced until this class. Different forms of art—even podcasts!– all have their own forms of beauty.

As an aspiring songwriter myself, I very much appreciated the glimpse I got into Marshall’s creative process through our interview. While philosophers Leo Tolstoy and Immanuel Kant focus on evaluating art from the perspective of its audience, Marshall discussed what makes a song “good” from a songwriter’s perspective. When I asked him about his goals when writing a song, he said:

My first goal isn’t beauty or harmony or anything that makes a song ‘good’ — my very first goal is to get some thought that’s in my head down on paper (or actually, on the computer) in some moderately pleasant-to-read way.  Once I have that, if I like it and it’s ‘good,’ then I’ll massage it a bit until I consider it ‘done.’

His response discusses three different “births” for a song, which recognizes that the criteria for evaluating a song evolve over the course of its development.

The unique opportunity to interview a well-known, talented, and established songwriter was very valuable to me as a songwriter and student. Thank you to Tom Marshall for sharing his thoughts and time with me!

Interview Transcript

What do you believe makes a song beautiful? Do you strive for beauty in your writing or do you have a different goal in mind?

My first goal isn’t beauty or harmony or anything that makes a song “good” — my very first goal is to get some thought that’s in my head down on paper (or actually, on the computer) in some moderately pleasant-to-read way.  Once I have that, if I like it and it’s “good”, then I’ll massage it a bit until I consider it “done”.

I always say that a song — for me anyway — has three “births”, the one I just told you about — when a poem is created is birth #1.

Birth #2 is if that poem makes the leap into a song — either by myself or a collaborator.  I mainly collaborate, but occasionally create an entire song alone.

The third “birth” so to speak is if the song makes (a bigger) leap and becomes a “Phish song”

Somewhere between birth #1 and #3 is when the “beauty” occurs, or is at least strived for; when we’re figuring out cool harmonies or instrumentation, or changing the message or the mood of the song.  The beauty is how a song makes you feel — it can be a simple word or melody or musical phrase…or the complex combination of all of those.  It can’t be defined really, but we all know it when we hear it.

A central theme in our class has been the relationship between music and emotions. Do you think music has given you a greater chance to express emotions or a state of mind that you might not be able to otherwise? How has that impacted your music writing career? Has it impacted other areas of your life?

I wouldn’t know how to answer this if it weren’t for the fact that I found myself saying something about my writing on my podcast (Under the Scales) that I didn’t really think about until then.  The Phish album “Rift” is a concept album for which I wrote the majority of the songs.  It’s a tale of a troubled individual with dark thoughts about his life and his relationship.  Looking back, Trey [Anastasio, Phish guitarist] said to me years later: “You wrote all that darkness to get it out of your system…so that it wouldn’t come true.”

He might be right.  I wrote it in a time of uncertainty in my life.  I definitely expressed things that I had an avatar of myself say, rather than having to say them myself.  Even though that’s an indirect means of saying it…it had the desired effect.  I didn’t want to bury those thoughts.  They were spoken after all.

Regarding that idea, think back to an experience of music that made you feel something. What (and where) was the music? Why was it significant? What did you feel? 

Hmm…this question pre-supposes that I don’t ALWAYS “feel something” when I hear music.  I do!  Music is clearly tied to the memory part of our minds, and anytime a song sparks a memory…well, then you feel something.  As far as significant emotional reactions go…almost every time I see a Phish show, I am brought back to the experiences Trey and I shared in the writing of that song.  The song “Joy” for example is about the death of his sister…and often makes me and others quite emotional…a combination of sorrow, hope, happiness and reminiscence.

Do you believe your lyrics portray emotions that an audience can experience and interpret? Is there a particular emotion or experience that you hope Phish fans take away from your artwork?

The above answer could be substituted into this answer perhaps…but you’re asking if it’s my INTENT that they take away these feelings.  I like to be somewhat vague in my lyric-writing…well, not in an annoying way hopefully, but I like to leave songs open for other interpretations than just mine.  I’ve been successful in this based upon what I hear Phish fans tell me…they say that they love the song “Sparkle” because it’s “so happy” — yet I was feeling awful when I wrote it.  So no, I don’t write with the intent to elicit a particular reaction…just A reaction is sufficient!

Another theme we have discussed in class is the concept of community. In one of our discussions, a classmate pointed out artistic expression can be intensified through a sense of community. A musician, for example, can transmit emotions to the audience. How do you feel this relates to you and the band Phish, given your close friendship with Trey? Has your writing evolved with the friendship you share?

Yes, very much.  We wrote the song Shade which has the line “I only like the shade when you’re blocking the light” — implying that “you” must be nearby so something otherwise undesirable is made wonderful…we very much were writing this thinking not only about the subjects of the song, but also about the listeners…especially in a live setting where lights are a big factor…and also of course, shadow (shade).  We felt the audience together would grasp this better than an individual.

Is making a podcast a form of art for you? How has creating “Under the Scales” changed your relationship to the Phish community?

I guess it’s a form of art — I research the interview subject, I converse with the person, I record it meticulously, I then carefully edit and craft it myself — I add music and commentary.  I’m proud of each episode.  People now tell me “hey Tom — love the podcast!” where before they might have said something about a song or a lyric.  So now to the public I’m the podcaster, not really the songwriter as much…which is an interesting new dynamic.

I imagine that song writing involves hours of planning and revising, which– at least initially– seems to contrast with the spontaneous nature of a jam. Does Phish’s improvisational style influence the lyrics you write for the band? Or does song writing require a different kind of artist talent and method?

In most cases, the jam arises spontaneously out of a show for reasons unknown and can’t be planned into the song.  So an easy answer is no — their “jamminess” doesn’t influence the songwriting.  But of course it does, we often will say “big jam here” or “the song will end with a jam” or “we need a way OUT of the jam now”, etc.  So Phish’s nature is built-into our songwriting.  It’s natural for us to consider all aspects of the band most likely to perform the song.

In your artistic process, which comes first for you, the lyrics or the music? In a previous interview I read, I saw you often sit and start with a line you’ve had in your head for some time. That being said, do you present the band with the lyrics first and they compose the rest around the lyrics?

You read correctly.  I come up with the words, and then give it to Trey (not to the band).  Then Trey and I will often craft the song around those words.  It’s a chicken/egg situation though because Trey’s musical ideas may have technically been formed BEFORE the words are formed…but you asked me, so “lyrics first” is my answer.

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