What does environmental activism have to do with indie folk music? For Paul Doffing and his latest album, Songs from the (quaking) Heart, the two are inseparable. Songs from the (quaking) Heart chronicles Doffing’s experience bicycling 7,000 miles around the United States and performing shows at places like houses, libraries and farms. The album combines unadorned instrumentation with raw storytelling lyrics that make you forget all of life’s worries as you enter into a world of hope and simplicity.
Throughout the album, the instrumentation is plain and simple: acoustic guitar. Yet what Doffing does with the guitar is anything but simple. Acoustic guitar strumming (“Reason”) or intricate fingerpicking (“Sure Doesn’t Matter Any More”) beautifully begin each track off the album; Doffing’s voice typically follows after a few measures. A slight deviation, “New Day Dawning” begins first with birds chirping–fitting for the title and optimistic feel of the song–then the guitar enters and the voice enters.
The two instrumental tracks (“The Drifter,” “(No Path Up) Cold Mountain”) are even larger exceptions to that rule. In both songs, Doffing tells the story through the fingerpicking done on his guitar instead of with lyrics. The title “The Drifter” gives away a bit of the storyline, but it’s as if each pluck of the guitar tells us a different aspect about this “Drifter.” Specifically in the chorus, lower register notes seem to remind the listener that even though some parts of the Drifter’s life are good, there does remain a level of drudgery in the end. Some plucking is done in the lower register of the acoustic, while other plucks venture to higher notes, appearing slightly more hopeful. “(No Path Up) Cold Mountain” tells a very different, more pleasantly adventurous story with its guitar melodies and plucking rhythms. It’s really amazing how Doffing tells us stories through an instrument, no lyrics needed.
Two tracks off Songs from the (quaking) Heart tell stories with instruments; the rest do it with lyrics. Generally, Doffing’s voice is crisp and easily understood, making it easier for the listener to catch all of the lyrics and the stories they tell. For example, “The Legend of Mick Dodge” tells the titular story through Doffing’s reverent perspective. The exception is found in “Reason,” where Doffing’s voice is synthesized, so it’s more difficult to hear the lyrics.
“Sure Doesn’t Matter Anymore” stands out in the tone of the story that Doffing tells us. Although some details are left out, in this song I thought of the brilliant “based on a true story” book/movie Into The Wild. Picture those scenes where Chris McCandless begins to get lonely, and his latest kill starts to spoil with a meat-worm infestation. This is where Chris begins to truly learn that living off the land in Alaska is not what will fix all of life’s problems. “Sure Doesn’t Matter Anymore” speaks into that situation and solemnly explains that “Nothing that we cling to ever sets us free.” No offense, Eddie Vedder, but I think Songs from the (quaking) heart should have totally been the movie score for Into The Wild.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, “New Day Dawning” and “Slow I Go” tell much happier stories. “New Day Dawning” narrates those days where you wake up, “the sun is shining down on me” and you feel “so free.” Similarly, “Slow I Go” begins as a sort of self-pep talk, and, as the multiple voices enter in, the hope is extended to all. This then culminates in the outro repetition of the phrase, “We’ll change the world.” Listen to “Slow I Go” and hear the notes of hope for yourself.
Songs from the (quaking) heart makes me want to grab a journal and head to the woods to write poetry. Paul Doffing’s music is not only inspirational, but his life is too. You can even read his bicyling/music tour blog and learn the true stories behind Doffing’s contemplative songs. Paul Doffing and his Songs from the (quaking) heart is one of the few albums that truly provokes me to create art as a response to art. I encourage you to do the same. —Krisann Janowitz