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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, June 6

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Born and raised on the city's south side, Urban Djin has been a steadily working singer, songwriter, bandleader and performer in Chicago for many years. Urban has recorded two full length CDs, the second of which, Enabling Angel, came out last year. Calling himself a country and western singer, Urban likes to incorporate Latin and jazz elements into his music, "just like the classic Western Swing bands did." The Chicago Tribune commented that Urban's music "recalls the classic era of country and western music." He plays every Thursday night at The Smoke Daddy with a five or six piece band, Urban Hog Wrangler. Every Wednesday at lunchtime you can find Urban playing solo, strolling among the tables at Buddy Guy's Legends, Chicago's premier Blues club. And then there's Maxwell Street Market, where he has played on Sundays for over 20 years, weather permitting. New City has said of seeing Urban live, "Damn near ubiquitous... a must see act." To learn more about Urban, his performance schedule, and to check out and purchase Enabling Angel, visit his website at

Q: I believe that any writer worth his or her weight will at the end of the day admit to there being a constant futility in the attempt to make notes of words. For writers it's within this "constant futility" where sometimes a discernible music will come together. I'm wondering do you as a songwriter find words aspiring to music, or do you find music aspiring to words?

Urban Djin: Both! Rarely the words and music come as one seamless complete whole. My song "Killin' the Bottle" was waiting for me completely finished at home after seeing a drunk stumble into a snowdrift in an alley as I trudged home during a blizzard. But that's my only experience with that! I'm more of a music guy who likes to start with some melodic fragment or rhythmic idea and then struggles to find the words, but, truth be told, I often start with a line of words or even a rhyme. In that case I look at the words as a scaffold, in themselves not very interesting, but necessary to constructing the building. Often the whole scaffold needs to come down and entirely new words take their place. Let's call that the façade just to keep the simile going. Since I'm not a very methodical writer, every song has its own process. That's part of why I'm not very prolific. And part of why my songs are often so different from anything else I've written. Lately I've been collaborating on writing duets with my duet partner, Annalee Koehn. Those definitely start with the music and a line or two of words. I bring those to her and then she does all the heavy lifting!

Q: Would you view your songwriting as being a commentary on songwriting? I mean, to what degree do you find yourself commenting on songwriting — abstractly, directly, or however — within any given song?

Urban Djin: Oh, yes and no. From the point of view of the writer that is probably unavoidable, but also probably not discernable to the listener unless the writer self-consciously sets out to make it so, which I don't. But there's another side to the question. If a writer operates within functional tonality using the same twelve notes and the same flexible forms as millions and millions of earlier songs, it's impossible to write anything that doesn't bear some resemblance to lots of other songs. Most of the time this probably isn't conscious, so you'd have to buy into some collective creative consciousness to find a commentary in it. But you have to go for bizarre sonic effects and incoherent word patterns, à la dada poetry, to avoid it. I have caught myself unconsciously borrowing from other songs, in one case after it was recorded and released. Oooops! Now that's a commentary on the process of songwriting! It's also one of my weakest songs. In that sense everything I write is some kind of meta-tune. It just goes with the territory of working within a tradition. Do the songs comment on that tradition? Of course! Do they participate in the vestigial oral composition process? Of course. Do they comment on that process? Yes, but that's not why they're there.

The very idea that artists are supposed to do something wholly new is both very recent and very Western. One of JS Bach's harpsichord concerti took almost all of its melodic material from a Vivaldi violin concerto. Does that make old JS an uncreative hack? Please! The man was a musical volcano! We should all be so uncreative. Is that concerto a commentary on Vivaldi? Indeed it is. And in my view an improvement. Today he'd get sued!

Q: Showmanship and musicianship: how essential is the marriage of these two? Should they get a divorce?

Urban Djin: Divorce? I hope not. The relationship is definitely strained but I'd advocate some counseling. They need each other. Showmanship, let's call it performing skill, is the handmaiden of musicianship. It helps get the musical point across. I recall the early days of the vogue for "performance art" before most realized that there was an actual art (and craft) to performing. Old joke: "What's the difference between performance art and some self absorbed bore at a party? It costs $10 to be annoyed by performance art." Pop culture that takes itself seriously aesthetically is still chained to romantic notions of creativity that were stale by the mid-nineteenth century. I blame Bob Dylan, the Madonna of the '60s, for having so successfully sold everyone on all that "unwashed genius/poet from nowhere" crap. I'm personally sick and tired of singer/songwriter/bandleaders looking like they just rolled out of bed mumbling their songs as they look at the floor. If your "original" songs are so brilliant, why are you afraid to let anyone understand a word you "sing"? Face it guys, it's a shtick, and a really bad shtick at that.

Of course, I'm not advocating that every band should be a slick lounge act or a Menudo clone. Far from it. Successful performance takes a kaleidoscopic variety of forms. I'm talking about making effort to communicate with your audience. I'm talking about playing lots of gigs and learning from your failures. It's a lot like dating. You're not going to click every time. You want them to come see you again, right? Try giving them something back! Try seducing your audience and making love to them instead of jacking off in public. OK! OK! I'll get off my soapbox!

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to

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