The Beatles – Rubber Soul The first great musical influence on my life was my dad. We lived a rural hippie lifestyle without TV or many ‘modern’ conveniences. My dad gardened, kept bees, and chopped wood, but his main passion was music. We listened to records all the time: Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, the Stones and Janis Joplin, but above all, the Beatles. He must have seen his interest in music take hold in me because my pre-kindergarten years were like a long course in the Beatles, and Rubber Soul was our family favorite. When my parents divorced and things became pretty dark and shitty for all of us, Rubber Soul was an album that always brought a sweet, calm vibe to us. For me now, it still does. Norwegian Wood, Girl and In My Life are still pretty much my favorite Beatles songs (thought I have a lot more favorites than that). So, even though my later interests and influences run quite a bit darker, my musical history is very much rooted in those perfect pop gems from that era of the Beatles.
Sinead O’Conner – The Lion and The Cobra The blessing of Sinead O’Conner’s big hit with the Prince-penned song Nothing Compares 2 U was that it brought her first album The Lion and The Cobra to America. I was just learning to play guitar and starting to write songs and the songs off of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got were simpler, with just a few chords like C, A minor and G, so I learned them first. But The Lion and The Cobra, was more dangerous, more subversive, angrier, more exciting. Being able to play Just Like U Said It Would B all the way through felt like a major achievement, though I was much too much of a self-conscious teenager hiding behind my hair to sing it full out with all the rageful intensity that she could.
PJ Harvey – Rid Of Me The year that PJ Harvey’s first album Dry came out, I was 15 and visiting family in London, where it was the hit of the summer. She became my favorite artist immediately, and when Rid Of Me came out the next year, I was floored. The raw power of the songwriting and her intensity as a singer, together with Steve Albini’s gritty production style made it a perfect album in my mind. The weird thing was, PJ Harvey wasn’t happy with it. She felt Albini had let her down and she very publicly denounced the album, saying it wasn’t how she wanted it to sound at all. But when her next album To Bring You My Love came out, with it’s glam look and lush production, I didn’t like it as much, it didn’t move and excite me like Rid Of Me had. Dry and Rid Of Me both musically relied on snaky guitar lines and screechy dissonance with clever, syncopated, driving drum parts, and that was a big part of what I loved about those records. I think they both probably influenced me so intrinsically that it’s hard for me to even hear or piece out examples of the influence…
Jeff Buckley – Live At Sin-é When I first met Jeff, he was on tour supporting the Live at Sin-é EP – Grace hadn’t come out yet. I was stunned by the groundbreaking (to me) thing that he was doing: playing solo but NOT folky. He played electric guitar and sang in that tortured way he did, like Nina Simone and Robert Plant rolled into one. He played lead guitar all by himself, taking solos, doing variations, taking a simple song like The Way Young Lovers Do by Van Morrison and riffing on it for nearly ten minutes, transforming it into a nail-biting emotional action-adventure ride. I listened to that short album over and over and it never ceased to have a deep impact on me – just that one voice and one guitar. Later, when Grace came out, I liked it, but I also felt that it wasn’t nearly as moving. There was so much production, so many layers of voices and instruments, I felt the impact was diluted… Years later, after Jeff had tragically died and I was in my mid-twenties, I was touring and releasing albums in Europe. I wasn’t successful enough to take a band with me, so I played solo, on a black telecaster like he had, and even though I would have preferred to have a bigger sound onstage, I felt some comfort in the idea that I was in a tiny way carrying on his legacy.
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs I discovered Rain Dogs in high school, even though it came out when I was still in elementary school. I loved the drunken pirate vibe, and the classic story-telling songwriting with his sexy, menacing vocals. At that age, I didn’t understand what was happening sonically – I couldn’t pick out what instruments were making the strange sounds I was hearing, and it sounded other-worldly and magical to me. Even though now my ear can discern the arrangements and the production tricks, it is still a magical album that I listen to regularly and reference in the studio occasionally to describe the sounds I want on certain songs (like Out Of The Sky, Into The Sea).
The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me It was hard to choose between Disintegration and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, because they were both so influential and important to me, and I still love and listen to them to this day. But what I really love about Kiss Me…, and how it influenced my music, was the huge range of styles of songs on the album. Whenever I think its too weird to put a bunch of really different kinds of songs on one album (like I worried about a little on Family Ghost), I think about Kiss Me… and how much I love that album… Catch and Just like Heaven are perfectly sweet and melodic and poppy, while Hot Hot Hot and Why Can\’t I Be You are almost too poppy, like maybe they are secretly, aggressively, ironically pop? But the meat of the album are beautifully dark emotional sexy gothy songs like The Kiss, which is such a badass ballsy opener: it starts with an intro so long you start to think its an instrumental, but then Robert Smith comes in sounding angry sad hurt and aggressive at the same time. Its kind of hard to listen to because it’s so intense and personal and emotional, but when you give yourself over to it, it’s cathartic. I still aspire to be able to be that intensely raw and emotional in my music.
Elliott Smith – Either/Or At first, I was jealous of Elliott Smith. When I went out to LA to mix my first album (Megiddo), everyone was obsessed with him, and my personality is to be knee-jerk opposed to whatever ‘everyone’ is into. Only Roman Candle and Elliott Smith had come out by that point, but Either/Or came out the same year as Megiddo and as I slowly softened and listened, I got hooked. The songwriting style was in the legacy of the Beatles: poppy chord changes with clever melodic lines, a lot of major chords with 7ths, and pretty backing vocals, with Elliott’s soft quiet voice tucked into the lo-fi mix – this was not like the intense dark music I was mostly drawn to. But the lyrics were gritty and dark and aggressive, and the subject matter mostly drugs and drinking and heartbreak and failure. The newness of that juxtaposition was what got me, and influenced me to make my second record From the Blue House in a tiny analog studio on a shitty thrift-store acoustic guitar.
Bella Morte – Where Shadows Lie Just when I was in a really quiet, acoustic, no-make up mode, I ran into some friends in my hometown who had formed a goth band and were hosting a weekly goth night in our local indie music club, Tokyo Rose, which was in the basement of a sushi restaurant. The fist time I walked in there, I felt kind of scandalized by all the corsets and heavy make-up and loud electronic music, but I was also excited by it. I loved that they were doing something totally on their own terms, not waiting for ‘the industry’ to tap them and make things happen for them. And the music was great, too. Where Shadows Lie was mostly synth-based, with electronic drums, distorted electric guitar, and Andy’s dramatic operatic voice, with some songs that were more death rock/punk. But when you strip off the production style, the songs would hold up if played on an acoustic guitar, and that is something that has always been important to me: is it still a good song if you strip it down to chords, melody, and lyrics? When I went on tour in Europe for my second album, the acoustic and personal From the Blue House, I listened to Where Shadows Lie obsessively on my headphones, and that shepherded me into my next phase: I dyed my hair black and dreaded it, I got several piercings and got back into bands I’d loved in high school like Nine Inch Nails, Bauhaus, and Sisters of Mercy.
Bjork – Homogenic I was a casual listener of Bjork in the late nineties, but when I got into this record I got into it HARD. It was maybe 2003 and I had been away from making music for awhile, studying modern dance and choreography at VCU. But dance training opened up a new way of experiencing music, less intellectually and more physically. Homogenic somehow bypasses my mind and goes straight into my body and from there to my emotions. I think this record influenced Choreography (my 2006 album) a lot, but it’s hard to pinpoint the direct correlation because it’s not anything sonic, it’s something more in the spirit.
David Bowie – Blackstar All my life, David Bowie had been there, like trees, like air, and I took him for granted. When I was a kid, Let’s Dance was a huge record and I watched his videos on MTV alongside Cyndi Lauper, Prince, and Madonna. Songs like Changes and Space Oddity were already classics and written into the fabric of history. In high school I discovered The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and suddenly realized that David Bowie was cool as hell. When I signed with Virgin records, he was on the same label and released Earthling the same year my first album came out. That wasn’t my favorite record of his but I loved it that he was working with Trent Reznor and still experimenting and staying relevant at that stage of his career. When he died last year, three days after releasing Blackstar, I was shocked and realized I had somehow thought he would live forever. Diving into Blackstar brought forth my deepest respect for Bowie yet. Over his career he had postured and tried on characters, he had disappeared into uncommercial experimental music, he had written huge pop hits, and released weird records that only the hardest-core fans would appreciate. On Blackstar he brought the best of all those parts of himself into harmony – it is clever and has pop hooks, it is weird and experimental, it is honest and emotional, it is a little hard to listen to, and it is a world unto itself when you give yourself over to it. He died a true artist and my number one hero for it.
Lauren Hoffman & The Secret Storm’s new album, Family Ghost, is out now.