My Manifesto

by Owlsley Burroughs

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Owlsley's massive 24 minute magnum opus, originally written in 2007.

Many thanks to Karen Haranis with her wonderful 20-piece choir and Glenn Oakes for his expertise in capturing them on tape.

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Here is an essay Owlsley wrote called 'I Am, I Said: Identity and the Language We Use.'

Who am I? Who are you? Who is anybody, really? What is it that makes us us?

I’m not talking here about the biological stuff, DNA, parentage and the like. That goes without saying. I’m referring to the processes that go on inside your head, how you relate to the world and how you believe it relates to you.

We each guard our personal identity very closely. It is one of the few things over which we feel we have absolute control. For proof, simply check your Facebook profile. No doubt you have curated your social media persona to the nth degree, and will persist in continually finessing, adding, subtracting, perfecting.

We tell people only what we want them to know about ourselves. We exaggerate certain facts in order to appear wiser, funnier, smarter, better. We suppress other details to gain sympathy or to boost status. Our identity, the set of stories we tell about ourselves and to ourselves, is our currency, our constant, our key to others and their key to ourselves. It is our personalised mythology.

All stories are made up of words, so, in essence, we are the words we use. Such language we have either originated ourselves, or have taken on from other sources. There can be a danger in this.

When I was a teenager, my dad told me I couldn’t sing. Just like that. I don’t recall the precise context, or whether it was meant as a joke or not. I suspect it was his version of tough love; of saving me from certain disappointment in later life. He is not an inherently hurtful man. In fact he is a good and caring man. But as a nascent musician – I was already writing songs by then – this action had a profound and lasting effect. Victor Klamperer, in his book Lingua Tertii Impereii, describes my situation perfectly: ‘Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time a toxic reaction sets in.’

I continued to write songs, but for many years hid behind a variety of singers who could give voice to my creations. I would contribute the odd shaky backing vocal, but that was about all. I was not a singer, after all. My confidence was at rock bottom. I knew in my heart I was a decent songwriter, but it sometimes felt like I was giving away my children to somebody who could do a better job of rearing them.

Much time passed until I found myself without a band or access to a singer, yet still with a cathartic need to make new music. I had a rudimentary recording set up and really wanted to whip these songs into shape. But how? Enter the wonderful Zerafina Zara, the Melbourne singing teacher who helped change the particular mythology I told (about) myself. Zerafina was the first and only person in over twenty years who actually told me that I could sing, and not only that, sing well. I undertook a full course of lessons with her, blossoming as a singer a little more every week. She let me sing my own songs in the way I had always heard them inside my head. My prodigal songs had finally come home. Her belief in me had given me permission to believe in myself. Self-confidence is a form of magic, I am quite sure of this.

A great burst of recording activity followed. I listen back to these early efforts now and slightly cringe, seeing them for what they are – a tentative stretching of my wings, with the occasional glory flight. Gradually, after getting used to my own voice and the increasingly cool things it could do, I began making forays into open mic nights. Sometimes I would go to three in a week, all over Melbourne. These naturally led to gigs as a solo artist. Eventually I played on stages in London and New York. I’d come a long way, baby.

Almost without realising, it came to pass that I was now, indeed, a singer. After all, I was regularly experiencing all the things a real singer enjoys, the tiny victories that come with dogged persistence: a little extra applause here, a song played on radio there, a kind word from a stranger after my set. What’s more, I liked it up there on stage. It became my place, my moment. I felt comfortable and in control. Confident. I had effectively erased my past by embracing a new belief and using the language to define myself accordingly. Stephen Fry, in his foreword to J.P. Davidson’s Planet Word writes that ‘True identity … resides in one cultural marker above all: language.’ I would extend this idea to include the personal. I am proof of it. My ‘true identity’ had taken on the bona fide attribute of singer because I had begun to tell myself with certainty that I was one. And it was reflected back at me from all angles, everyday, in everything I did and by everyone with whom I spoke.

If we are the words we use, we must be careful about the language we choose to represent ourselves. Zerafina often told us, “If you stand on stage and repeatedly apologise or belittle yourself, your audience will ultimately, albeit unwillingly, be beaten down into agreeing with your perception that you are indeed an inept loser.” People naturally want to think the best of you and resent being forced to feel the opposite. And their negative reaction will only serve to compound your own negative self-image. The poison will spread further and wider.

Again Victor Klemperer beautifully summarises the incredible power of words, used for better or worse: ‘Language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.’

Recently, I had an old friend over. We spent the evening laughing and listening to some of my new songs, of which I was quite proud. As the evening wore on, alcohol was consumed. Toward the end of the night my friend became angry about an unrelated matter, and lashed out in a way designed to hurt me. Knowing my history, he said, “So, since I’m drunk, your dad was right. You’ve made good songs … but you need a singer.” Ouch!

Yes, it rattled me, but more due to what this could mean for our friendship than anything else. I am a singer now. I have been a singer for ten years. I will always be a singer. I am not the best singer in the world or even close, but good enough to satisfy myself and a few fans. This fact, set in concrete inside my head, has not been chipped away, nor ever will be, by loose words again.

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released January 1, 1902

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Owlsley Burroughs Melbourne, Australia

Owlsley Burroughs resides in the mysterious hills of Melbourne, Australia. His closest friends are the finches who flit gaily outside his window.

He is indifferent to performing and releases music whenever he pleases.

When not making music, Owlsley is listening to The Smiths, Bob Dylan, Bill Callahan and Kiss, or walking in the forest.

He loves cufflinks, coffee, cigars and eau de cologne.
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