Nuance Makes The Master
How Andy Mowatt Makes Music
The last time Andy Mowatt wrote a song, it was one week prior to our meeting, in a guitar shop in New Orleans. That sentence is just random enough to make Andy seem quirky, but he’s strikingly down-to-Earth. While traveling with his brother to see his favorite band play in Miami, he came up with a hook he couldn’t get out of his head. That’s when he found a shop, picked up a guitar, and wrote it down.
The story is illustrative of Andy’s technique: nothing is right or wrong, and the only ideas that become songs are those that he’s compelled by first.
Lancaster natives are probably familiar with Andy from his band, “Andy Mowatt’s Steely Jam,” or his residence as a production musician at the American Music Theatre. He graduated from college with a B.A. in Music and Recording Technology, and if you live in the area, you may have seen him jumping in to play with a number of bands around town. This kind of fluidity is at the core of Andy’s approach: every track on his new CD is a live-take. “We all sit in a room and just write and play and record. And, of course, improv,” he explains.
“Some musicians write down and record everything, and I stopped doing that because if I can’t get it out of my head, it’s gonna be good – it’s worth keeping. I used to have pages of unedited junk, but now I pre-edit everything by filtering it. Otherwise, you’re trying to make a Frankenstein out of nothing.”
When he’s not performing, Andy teaches this to a masterclass to 13 different middle and high schools. He helps them practice “flow” by getting into small groups and simply playing, without structure or direction. His theory? That music is like language. “This is sound, and you’re having a conversation,” he explains. “The notes are your vocabulary and the phrases are your sentences. What is your story? What are you saying?”
He notes (pun intended) that a lot of what makes him the musician he is today is his willingness to break the rules. “We learn all of these things, these rules, but the only reason famous musicians are famous is because they broke them,” he recalls a college mentor telling him. “We only remember Mozart because he did something different. We remember Alan Watts because he explained something to us better than other people could. Nuance makes the master.”
His reference to Watts is an important one: Alan is known for being one of the first people to bring Eastern philosophy to the Western world. As such, he’s is often credited for re-packaging ancient teachings such as acceptance and detachment and letting things “be what they are.” This kind of existential wisdom inspires a lot of Andy’s work.
“The context is everything,” he says. “In music, the note that I play is just a note without a context. The chord, what the band is doing, that’s what makes it special. You can deconstruct this music and hopefully it’s cool in all its separate parts but it’s about the interplay between the rhythm, the lead player, the melodies the harmonies. Just let it be what it is, and build upon that.” He argues that a lot of younger musicians can get hung up on creating the “right” thing, and that belief only builds fear.
Andy’s new CD, “Rock.Hard.Funk,” exemplifies all of these ideals and then some. But it’s the live performances that you may want to hold out for: he says that any given performance will start with the original recorded tracks, and then let the songs go where they feel they should. (Not to mention you’ll never know who will be playing, he has a “revolving door” of band mates.) The rules were meant to be mindfully broken in Andy’s world, and that mindset, combined with his detached approach to writing only what moves him first, is undoubtedly what sets him apart.
“I’ve been writing this story in my head as we talk,” I say.
“See if you remember it in a couple of days.”