On September 11, 2001, I awoke early on my sister’s sofa, in Boston. I had just arrived the night before on a flight from Stockholm, my new home city. Not sure why I turned on the TV, but I did, just in time to watch a jet crashing into the second tower of the World Trade Center.
Over the next decade, I watched the aftermath of 9/11 — the US “War on Terror” — with increasing worry and two sets of eyes, American and Swedish. But “American Troubadour” is not a song of protest. It is a love song, for the country where I was born, for all its ideals, as seen from this other country that I also call home.
Picture a petrol station, in the middle of Africa, on a lonely road. I’m sitting there, with a guitar, waiting for my driver to fix his broken down car. It’s night: a single light bulb hangs on the side of the little shack where the owner sits, waiting for customers. He’s got one pump, and a limited supply. People cruise up. Most buy just one liter of gasoline. Why? Because if they fill the whole tank, it puts them at risk for getting car-jacked ... or even killed.
What’s wrong with this picture?
In the early 2000’s, before hurricane Katrina came, some business and civic leaders in New Orleans were searching for a new vision. They hired me to help. One of the region’s top business leaders took me to lunch (which included three martinis) and asked me to write them a theme song. He even promised to get Aaron Neville to sing it. Alas, that never happened. But I did write the song ... sitting by the Sydney Opera House. Aaron, you are still welcome to sing “Going to the Top”!
“Set the World Right Again” started its life in Budapest. It went through three different versions, with lyrics on three totally different topics. I played with it, off and on, for over ten years. I am not exactly sure when it began settling into its present form, but I link that moment to Japan, and a visit to Osaka. There, I was asked to play the guitar for a choir, while they sang one of my older songs, which they had translated into Japanese. The purity of their voices, singing my own words in a language I don’t understand, touches me still.
Summers in Florida, where I grew up, we spent much of our time on the coast, on a sailboat that my father built. Manatees also spend their summers in those waters, and one of them became a regular visitor to our boat. “Maxie” loved getting her belly scratched, just like a dog. I will never forget the feeling of manatee skin under my fingernails. This song is a true story, seen through the eyes of childhood memory.
I have a picture of my grandfather, who had the unusual name Orliff, sitting in the cabin of my father’s sailboat during the one time he visited from Aurora, Missouri. Orliff’s eyes sparkle. He has an old man’s happy grin. He was thin as a bird, but still strong. I also remember my father’s obvious need for his father’s approval. I didn’t understand: Orliff was the only thing I ever saw that made my Dad nervous. Years later, I was unexpectedly required to listen to my grandfather’s confession. Sitting with him, in the shade outside his house, I understood.
Some songs reveal secrets but never quite reveal the whole truth. I prefer to keep most of the truth behind this song -- which plays out in the Yorkshire Dales, the north of England -- to myself. I do this partly to protect the innocent almost-victims (of which I was one) ... but also to protect the guilty.
This is Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic Sea, a place we visit every summer. But this song was composed on the Swedish island of Utö, within earshot of my wife and children and relatives, while the moon pulled up over a cloudless midsummer horizon, and the sun seemed reluctant ever to leave us. There is no “Google Streetview” there. No street, either. Ah, but there is so much life, so much beauty ...
Once, for a year and a half, I lived in a house in Berkeley, California, that had once been a Zen monastery. The Zen master had long since given up on Americans and returned home to Korea. His monastery had become a kind of boarding house for quasi-Buddhists.
This song has very little to do with that house. But this is where I was living when the experiences that inspired this song -- the people, the liaisons that I knew about, many of them ethically questionable -- played out. I do not count myself among the innocent.
Sometimes a song and the experience that the song is about are the same. Why was I “shuffling around in Istanbul,” all the while humming to myself and composing this song? Because I was supposed to be in Aleppo, Syria, working with the countries that share the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. Our workshop had been moved to Istanbul. War was about to break out in Syria, though we did not know this yet. You could feel the weight of it, though, coming. This song is about keeping going, no matter what happens. About betting it all ... on life.
Welcome to my new album, American Troubadour. Here you can listen to the album and explore some of the places and stories that inspired me. It's a big world, and I've been fortunate to see a lot of it. Music is one way of sharing my experience with you. When you find your favorite song, please share it with your friends.
“American Troubadour” is the remarkable new album by the American-Swedish singer-songwriter Alan AtKisson. Recorded in Stockholm, and featuring some of the city's top musical talent, it is his sixth recording for Rain City Records. The title song is a powerful statement of Alan’s hopes for the red-white-and-blue country of his birth. But Alan is also deeply at home in blue-and-gold Sweden (“Midsummer Island”), as well as being a global citizen who has travelled the world to promote a sustainable way of life. These songs are the harvest of a decade of traveling and encountering the world through two sets of eyes, two nations, two cultures.
A special thanks to: Andreas Bauman, Tobias Fall, Mats Nilsson, Micke Ajax, Mats Ronander, Hasse Ohlsson, Lars Tallert, Tarja Häggmark, Eva Svedberg Engström, Camilla Skantze and Johan Rydh
© 2014 Rain City Records, all songs © Alan AtKisson
Read more about Alan’s music alanatkisson.com/music