Every once in a while, I get the opportunity to chat with the movers and shakers of each faith. This month I ran into Arthur Hatton, the creator of Linescratchers, the largest music blog and nexus for LDS musicians in the world.
Andrew: What was the inspiration behind Linescratchers? And what is a Linescratcher anyway?
Hatton: The short answer is that Linescratchers is a promotional blog and support network for Mormon musicians. Over the past couple of decades, “LDS music” has basically been synonymous with a small group of musicians roughly analogous to contemporary Christian music, and they worked and wrote music in and around Utah. Unfortunately, it was never very good, but they really cornered the market. Yet there are plenty of LDS musicians out there like Brandon Flowers, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low, Cove Reber, Donny Osmond, and Young Sim who are really great musicians in their own ways, and also very spiritual at times. They just weren’t considered a part of “LDS music” because, as I said before, this genre was controlled by a small group of musicians and producers in Utah. I created Linescratchers to recognize all the other LDS musicians who write music, sometimes very spiritual music, who you’ll never find in official LDS bookstores like Deseret Book.
The name of the website is taken from a Low song called “When I Go Deaf,” and I believe is also reminiscent of the process by which inspired lines were engraved on plates in our story of the creation of the Book of Mormon, which you’re probably familiar with now. When inspiration strikes a songwriter, they’ll scratch out their words on anything handy – papers, post it notes, brown paper bags, whatever.
Andrew: If The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members consider themselves Christians, why is there a need to separate themselves from such a market? After all, one does not hear of Contemporary Pentecostal, Baptist, or Evangelical music. What makes a “Linescratcher” different from the rest of the Christian music community?
Hatton:Well, Linescratchers don’t necessarily write spiritual or religious music. They can, but not all of them do. For instance, Ian Fowles plays with the Aquabats, Scot Alexander played with Dishwalla, Cove Reber sang for Saosin, Gregg Hale played with Spiritualized. None of those bands are particularly religious. Though I, personally, think all music is spiritual, so perhaps it’s a mistake to say some Linescratchers don’t write religious music. In any case, the only thing that binds all Linescratchers together is their religious affiliation. You can find singer/songwriters, rockers, metalheads, neo-classical, and new age musicians among our ranks, and many more.
However, while we believe that we are Christians, Mormons are still a very unique community, and some would even say ethnic group, and there are a lot of peculiar beliefs and attitudes among us that add a very special flavor to the music we produce. These special flavors shine through in our music – sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes you have to search for it.
Andrew: Music outside the hymnal tradition is rare inside the Latter-day Saints church setting. Is there a lot of push-back from musical traditionalist and religious conservatives within the faith regarding the music styles Linescratchers represents?
Hmm, you’re right, our church services are quite traditional. We don’t have praise bands or dancing at church, and I know there are plenty of people – including Gladys Knight
– who think we should enliven our services to include more energetic worship. However, the Linescratchers I know don’t expect the church services to change, only a greater acceptance of musical styles and genres, and artistic expression, outside of church. That means exploring the light side as well as the darkness and challenges that come with faith. I thought there would be conservative Mormons out there who look down on Linescratchers, or who are suspicious of our motives. But I honestly haven’t heard from any of them. Probably they don’t even know – or care – that we exist.
I think that our church has entered a new era, and the new “I’m A Mormon” campaign might be evidence of this, that the church leadership might be pushing the church to be more inclusive and inviting of diversity and differences within our congregations. If so, I absolutely support and applaud such a move. I think our organization can therefore play a crucial role in exposing Mormons to more kinds of artistic expression than ever before.
Andrew: You mentioned earlier that you believe all music is spiritual. How so, and specifically, within the LDS context?
Hatton: I explained this more in detail here, but I believe that music is the apparatus whereby we can receive revelations from God, similar to the seer stones and other objects Joseph Smith would use for revelation. It’s a physical, tangible, audible thing that nonetheless orients us towards heavenly and spiritual truths. To me, that is Joseph’s number one lasting legacy: that the spiritual realm isn’t forever out of our reach, but it is within us and around us all the time. Music is one method to access this realm, but there are others, like scripture, art, prayer, ritual, etc.
Andrew: Interesting. Music and art, of course, are composed of different genres and styles. If music is a pure spiritual expression, as in tuning into the divine, does this variety lend to the validity and truth of other spiritual traditions as well (specifically within music)?
Hatton: If I’m understanding the question correctly, you’re asking whether thevarieties of music that exist are some kind of spiritual analogy to thevarieties of religious experience (as William James would put it) in theworld? In that case, I would say, in general, yes. World religions areallwoven components of the broad fabric of human religious experience. LDSdoctrine teaches that great leaders of all world faiths, such as Muhammad,Confucius, and I would probably add Zoroaster and Baha’u’llah, were allpartakers of the light of God, with a positive message for their people. But I also think that trying to write a song that included components ofall genres everywhere would basically be a cacophonous disaster. So in myown life I appreciate ecumenism and I take a universalistic stance towardsother religions on a personal level, but syncretism, I think, tends towater down what is unique and precious about each faith, and takes away our
ability to overcome differences. Muhammad was instructed in the Qur’an:“Omankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made younationsand tribes that ye may know one another (not that ye may despise oneanother).” In other words, God gave us all – men and women, different tribes, different nations, and I would add different religions –
differencesfor a reason. Not that we can fight one another. Not even that we couldpretend we’re all exactly the same. But rather, because we learn and grow the most when we overcome differences and still manage to work together.
Andrew: Speaking of differences, you obviously want some aspect of your product or art to stand out from the pack. What sets a Linescratcher apart from musicians in other markets? Surely it goes beyond the LDS label…
Hatton: There are a lot of reasons to create art, but I think that deep down many of the motivations boil down to a single person who wishes to be understood. Many artists grew up feeling isolated because of the emotions they had, or the observations they make about life, and songwriting in particular is often the only way these artists feel they can express their innermost selves. Since Joseph Smith first got his revelations, Mormons have been persecuted, marginalized, and above all misunderstood, and so I think Latter-day Saint musicians carry with them the added weight of feeling like nobody understands them or ever could, especially considering that their faith means more to them than almost anything else in their lives. When you’re listening to a Linescratcher express himself or herself, you’re hearing a kind of strained tension. It’s a tiny window into an immense soul that just wants to communicate itself to you by any means possible – knowing that they will likely fail, but they have to try anyway.
Andrew: What advice do you have for young artist such as these trying to break into the market and express themselves in general?
Hatton: I get questions like this quite often. Unfortunately/fortunately, the music business is completely changing. Songs are being sold individually on iTunes, not in album format at mall record shops. People download music for free on file sharing sites. The “rock star” dream of getting signed to a major label and being the biggest band in the world is diminishing rapidly. If you want to write music, you can (and should) forget about trying to “break into the market” or be the next Beatles. Fame and fortune ruins lives anyway. You don’t have to quit school or give up a career to tour unless you feel incredibly called to do so. It’s a hard, and increasingly unnecessary, lifestyle. Instead, learn how to record at home or in local studios, put a little money into it, and share your art with the rest of the world via the Internet. Because few are being signed to major labels, and because the ability to make music at home is easier and cheaper than ever, if you accept that you’ll never play huge stadium shows or Madison Square Garden, you won’t ever have to be beholden to a corporate machine or the pop music factory. I am putting the finishing touches on my own album now, recorded primarily at home, and released digitally on Bandcamp.
Andrew: Thanks for chatting with me Arthur, you’re a good guy and have a great thing going here.
Arthur Hatton is a grad student doing research on the psychology of religion and founder of Linescratchers.com, the only website on the Internet that features and promotes Latter-day Saints in the world of music who don’t write LDS music. He grew up in Kentucky and enjoys songwriting, amateur philosophy, history, and being with his lovely wife Allison and son Gabriel.