David Nichtern is where the secular and the sacred meet. With a degree from Columbia and training at Berklee College of Music, he took various musical odd jobs around New York City before joining Maria Muldaur's band as guitarist and musical director. He wrote her biggest hit, "Midnight at the Oasis," a sensual tune that went to #6 in the US in 1974 and made #13 UK for the Brand New Heavies 20 years later.
Along the way, David studied Shambhala Buddhism and has since become a renowned instructor in meditation. This confluence of Buddhist training and musical proficiency makes him uniquely qualified to explain how popular music works on a spiritual level, and how a certain Taylor Swift song could bring us closer to enlightenment. We spoke with him while he was touring with Krishna Das, the leading chant artist in the Western world.
David Nichtern: Great question. A lot of music is inherently spiritual, from my point of view, because it's about communication. It's about expressing authentic human emotions. It's about trying to understand the individual's relationship to the world that we live in. And sometimes it touches on the sacred, because it brings people very close in contact with their heart, with their own center, with their own authentic being. So, the songs that have been commercial hits but are also really good songs have both qualities. Wouldn't you say?
Songfacts: Yeah. Definitely.
Nichtern: They touch a nerve in everybody, and they are beautifully articulated, and they sort of capture a moment that everybody can identify with and relate to. That's the grand slam home run: if you can write something that has broad appeal, but is also really authentic. And that's pretty rare.
What KD [Krishna Das] does, for example, is explicitly sacred music. In other words, the way you'll hear him express it is, the music is second to the recitation of the mantras that are embedded in the music. The music is like the syrup and the mantras are the medicine.
Songfacts: It does make sense.
Songfacts: Well, here's what I'm thinking: I've been to a kirtan, and I've been to a Bruce Springsteen concert. And in many ways it's a similar sensation. What's going on there?
Nichtern: Well, what are some of the sensations you've experienced at both?
Songfacts: A sense of unity with your fellow concertgoers, or kirtan-goers.
Nichtern: Right. Unity, joy, uplifted, moved, inspired. So you get this sense of pure essence of all of those kinds of feelings that make us transcend merely the mundane or ordinary everyday kind of schlepping vibe, into a feeling of what we call in Buddhism, sacred world: you're living in a kind of special, magical place. Some people would use the word divine. Other people would use the word sacred.
So, it's putting you back in touch with that part. Now, music and dance, they used to just be only about that. And if you look at the roots of them, in culture, that's what it's about: to bring people together. It's to help celebrate different things. It's to help uplift the individual. It's to help bond groups of people together. So, all of that is a very pure intention.
Pop music will sometimes go all the way to the other side of the equation, which is the materialistic outlook: it's just about acquiring stuff, getting ahead of the next person, looking out for number one, having all the latest stuff, being constantly entertained so you never have to pay attention to your actual state of mind. You see what I'm saying?
Nichtern: So now, in that regard, some pop music really wouldn't qualify as sacred music. It's really corrupt in a certain way. It's playing on people's lower instincts, and it's not even that sincere - people are just cranking this stuff out.
The question that I thought you were really asking is: Is it possible to bring those two streams together with an uplifted feeling. Interestingly enough, guess what KD does at soundchecks? Guess whose songs he sings?
Songfacts: I'm going to say somebody like James Taylor – some popular artist.
Nichtern: Bruce Springsteen.
Nichtern: Absolutely. And other artists like that. It's funny, some of my friends from the pop music world have come to the kirtan and said, "Wow! He could have been one of those guys. He's got the voice for it. He's got the presence for it." We started working together about 10 years ago, and it was just a natural coming together, enjoying each other's company and working together. And I started to see it. I'm a producer, so I always look at the artist. My job is to bring out the artists as they are. I'm not trying to superimpose something onto them, but more bring them out and provide the context in which they can really do what they feel great about doing. So, that's sort of old school in a way.
But, he had two aspects to what he did as far as I could tell. One was the spiritual practice of just reciting his mantras over and over again, so that you tune your mind into this frequency, and you concentrate and focus the mind in this particular way. It was set into music, but it was like a spiritual practice, and I think that's how he sees what he does: He's doing his own spiritual practice. He's doing it with people, and it's not really a concert. People don't applaud at the end. It's sort of meditative, in a way.
Songfacts: Well, that whole ability to work a crowd and create that environment seems like a very ineffable quality. Is that something you could learn at Berklee?
Nichtern: No. And I've often thought about going back there and teaching a class called something like, "Here's how it really happens in the real world."
I'm pretty sure they have that now, because Berklee is cranking out high-level people [here's one] and some very interesting stuff. It's become a real major educational institution.
But yeah, you can't learn that stuff. And in fact, I notice a lot of Berklee musicians are extremely well trained and really good players, but whether they have that extra thing is completely not dependent on whether they went to Berklee or not. It's separate.
Songfacts: What would you teach in your class that you propose?
Nichtern: I would say you need, in addition to your musical chops, to have some kind of relationship to your personal life, to your spiritual life, to your relationships, where you are not just imitating, but you are finding your own core and bringing that out in your music. That's very rare, and those are the people who are the greats, as far as I'm concerned.
When you're pulling out something completely unique to yourself and that's just a real strong expression of who you are and what your experience is, and you're not just imitating somebody else, that's when you get the greats like a John Coltrane or a Bruce Springsteen. They're so much themselves.
Songfacts: But on some level, it can be very egotistic, because if somebody starts singing about their child or something, why should we care?
Nichtern: Well, except other people have children. Interestingly enough - and this is my experience – when you go into your personal experience in an authentic way, you do connect with everybody else because our experiences are very similar. Have you ever been in love? Have you ever had your heart broken?
If you write about your experience of that, you're going to tap into it in an authentic way, as opposed to writing some theoretical thing about what you think other people are thinking. A good artist should never chase the audience, they shouldn't do market research. They should just do what they do, and find their audience.
KD has that kind of spiritual music, but he's also a great storyteller. He would be like the tribal narrator - he tells stories repeatedly. He's a very colorful storyteller.
So recording songs, what I thought with him was, Let's do the storytelling in the verse of a song, and then let's use the mantra as the hook. Because mantras are the ultimate hook: something that's catchy and repeatable. So we made "For Your Love," which is a take on a Yardbirds song. The verses are like the story, but then in the choruses we did the chanting.
We played that track when he got nominated for a Grammy. That's the song they wanted, because that was the closest to a pop song. They thought people could relate to that because it had a groove. I went for it full force on that production: Let's go after this.
We had a tremendous groove, huge choir, licks, and we did a version of that one that was like four-minutes long that was the closest to something that would mimic the form of a single. So that way there's the narrative, his natural storyline is in there, and the chanting is in there as the sort of the hook or the chorus.
Nichtern: Well it's hard to say. I remember the first time we ever played that, which was up at the Omega Festival. You could feel the electricity in the room, because we went into a much stronger, funky kind of groove instead of that little tabla-y stuff. We had drums, we had a groove, and it was a song that those people knew from their background as opposed to just as an Indian thing.
The problem is that the kirtan is meant to be chanting and response. The whole point is for people to answer back. It's the original Ray Charles thing: "Hey..." Back and forth between the leader and the audience. It's very similar to gospel music. So the problem is, people in this culture don't know these chants. So, you have to get a group of people who have adopted these particular chants. They didn't grow up singing it. But it's funny because now KD's playing in India and you can almost imagine if these were things that these kids grew up with, it's a whole other game.
Songfacts: You mentioned how mantras are the ultimate hook. And I'm sure one of the things they teach you at Berklee is the concept of repetition, and how that's what gets a song into your head. What is the secret to doing that in a popular song?
Nichtern: Oh boy! If I told you that, I'd have to kill you. That's the Holy Grail of pop songwriters. Those guys in Nashville, all day long they're trying to get one of those. And I have to say, the more modern music is so dance-oriented that the groove has, in some cases, almost become the hook at times. If you look, there isn't a great hook, and there's not even really a song there. There's just a kind of groove with sonic "ear candy" they call it.
So, that is where you catch something that just has a zing and a ring to it, and when it lands, it opens a firecracker. It pops. There are so many different versions of it. If you pick out some of the songs that you've loved, there are a lot of variations on how you get that. But when you hear it, you know. It sort of proclaims itself.
Songfacts: Is there a poplar song that really grabs you? Something that sounds like it could be a mantra or uses those techniques?
Nichtern: Well there are a lot of "oohs" and "ahs." Sometimes the hook is in an "ooh-ey" "ah-ey" kind of thing. But here's the thing: you see the mantra words, some of them have meaning, and some of them don't have a conceptual meaning at all. They are pure sound, pure sonics. So there'd be very few pop songs that would have that kind of pure sound. But the way the words roll off a Taylor Swift song or a Katy Perry song sometimes... what was Taylor Swift's last big hit?
Songfacts: "Shake it Off" is maybe the one you're thinking of.
Nichtern: There you go. "Shake it off, shake it off, shake it off," that has a certain energy to it. Whoever wrote that was very tuned in to how to make something snap like that, and crack.
It has that 'K' sound in it, and it's sort of thrown off in a casual way. If I heard that song once I'd say, without a doubt, it's a hit. There's no way that was not going to be a hit. And then you walk away and you're subliminally going, "Shake it off, shake it off," and then somebody says something you don't like, and in your mind, you go, "Shake it off, shake it off." That's pretty powerful - we would call it a samsaric mantra. Like, a mantra from the kind of confused world of passion, aggression, and ignorance. But it still has some zing to it.
Songfacts: Did you say a saric mantra?
Nichtern: Well, the word that I used is the samsara, which is sort of the confused world, the cyclic world. That's something you talk about in Buddhism. It's like going around and around, and around, and around, and around, and around in circles in a non-productive way. So, an example of that would be you get angry, and then you abuse somebody, and then it just keeps going around.
When you come from a place of aggression, or clinging, or any of these kinds of things, it tends to create a kind of ripple that reproduces itself. That's called samsara in Buddhism – the world of cyclic existence – going around and around. And then one version of enlightenment is you're trying to get off that wheel, trying to stop doing those habitual patterns that just keep getting you into the same place over and over again.
So that's why I'm calling it a samsaric mantra: it's still within that world, but it's very, very penetrating. That's one version of a hit. It's like you're stuck with your passion, you're stuck with your aggression, but you've found a little loop of it somewhere. Shake it off, shake it off. Sonically that has a kick to it that's very definable.
Then there are other ones that have a lot of meaning, like James Taylor, "I've Seen Fire and I've Seen Rain." Wow. You have? I feel like now that you mention it, I have too.
Songfacts: Have you heard "Uptown Funk?"
Nichtern: "Uptown Funk?" Is it a song?
Songfacts: Yeah. It was a number one hit by Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson.
Nichtern: I probably have heard it, but I can't bring it to mind at the moment.
Songfacts: The reason I'm thinking about it is because they have this background vocal that underlies it where it's just this doh-doh-doh that's pitch-shifted, so it's tweaked down a little bit. And I'm thinking that's very much like a mantra.
Nichtern: Yeah. The mantras are considered to be empowered in that where they take your mind and your heart is to a positive, sacred space, just by the nature of the sound.
And they could also represent a particular dimension of reality, which are sometimes called deities, like Narayana. Let me use the phrase "sacred embodiments." They're kind of descriptions of aspects of who we are that are very noble, very uplifted, very loving, very peaceful, or very complete in themselves. So they could bypass your whole conceptual mind, you see.
Songfacts: Is there any comparison to the stuff George Clinton and P-Funk did where they're doing these very repetitive chants: "We want the funk." "Tear the roof off the sucker." That kind of thing.
Nichtern: Well, that has the principle of hook and repetition, but it doesn't necessarily have the mantric implication, because where does that leave you? Where does that take you? According to KD and his guru, reciting the mantras that they do takes you closer to a more enlightened space. Whereas that one maybe just keeps you rotating your tires around in the realms of desire.
Songfacts: So "Turn this mother out," isn't going to get you anywhere eventually.
Nichtern: Well, it wouldn't get you to another recognition of your being that's free from aggression, free from clinging: a joyful, liberated, compassionate space. These mantras express your true nature – the nature that's underlying all that other stuff. So, they're powerful. They're kind of magical almost. They have a certain magical dimension to them.
Songfacts: Did The Beatles get close to that on "Hey Jude"?
Nichtern: Well, The Beatles were doing TM at one point with Maharishi. And I think of the people in The Beatles, the one who was closest to that was George Harrison, because he did that practice - he practiced reciting mantras. Harrison would've known what a Kirtan is, because he would've done it. And if you ever saw that film that Scorsese made about him – did you see that?
Songfacts: Yeah. Living in the Material World.
Nichtern: Awesome. Awesome film. There are parts of that where he's explaining about doing mantra and they call it "japa": recitation of the mantras. You repeat, you repeat, you repeat. But because of the quality of the sound and what it's connected to, it has a transformative effect, rather than just looping you through something that you're already familiar with. So, that's the theory of it. And then it keeps you moving along towards a more openhearted space. So, going ooga-booga-booga doesn't necessarily do that.
Songfacts: Considering your work with Walter Becker [they collaborated on the 2005 Krishna Das album All One], you might be the best person to ask to break down the song "Bodhisattva" and what's going on there. Can you talk about that?
Nichtern: Oh. You'd have to tell me the lyrics, because I couldn't just recite them off the top of my head.
Songfacts: It starts right off with "Bodhisattva would you take me by the hand." And then he repeats that a couple times. And then this might be Steely Dan getting just a little inscrutable:
The shine of your Japan
The sparkle of your China
Can you show me, Bodhisattva?
Nichtern: They must have gone to Japan and China, which is funny, because that's where I just came back from. I was just in Japan and Thailand. Bodhisattvas are a certain aspect of Buddhism, and they're a kind of compassionate beings. Their specialty is helping other beings. It'd be similar to the concept of a saint in Christian tradition. They really dedicate their lives towards the well being of others.
Of course, there are huge, beautiful statues, and there's a whole kind of glow around that activity. When you meet somebody like that, who has that kind of flavor, it's always very inspiring and moving. You must know some people who have some of that energy, and they're really very generous, very kind, and very compassionate to others. That essence is called a Bodhisattva. You take that on. And there's a Bodhisattva vow that you take to work for the benefit of others. So, I think they were just picking up on that. Have you ever been to Japan?
Nichtern: There's a lot of imprint of the Buddha in Japan, in terms of temples, shrines, and things like that. They have a kind of special feeling.
But you'd have to ask Walter or Donald direct if you really want to know what they were thinking about.
Songfacts: And even then, we still probably wouldn't know.
Nichtern: I'm going to ask Donald the next time I see him, because I wonder what he was clueing into there. What's the next verse?
Songfacts: It's very compact. It repeats, "I'm going to sell my house in town," a couple times and then it repeats that verse, "And I'll be there to shine in your Japan, to sparkle in your China." So, it's really the same elements presented over and over in different ways.
Nichtern: So for all we know, it could've been about a girl, right?
Songfacts: Yeah. You assign a lot of depth and meaning to that song, but when you actually look at the lyrics, you're going, "Oh my gosh! That's all it is?"
I've looked at Beatles songs that have meant a lot to me and sometimes when I see the printed lyrics, I'm surprised by how little there is. Like "Norwegian Wood" - it's just a few lines, like a little poem.
Nichtern: Well that's sort of a haiku principle. You call it finger painting. You don't spell it all out. A lot of good poetry is like that.
It's not all spelled out, you know. It's very artful sometimes rather than just overcooking the goose.
Nichtern: Well, let's see. I emerged into the music world in the late '60s and early '70s; mostly the early '70s was when I got into it. And at the same time, I had met a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher named Chogyam Trungpa who is very famous. He was one of the main people who got Buddhism going in the West – Tibetan Buddhism in particular.
So, I was going back and forth between playing with Maria Muldaur – I had a band for a while with David Grisman and Jerry Garcia called The Great American Music Band. I was going back and forth between that kind of world, and Buddhist retreats with my teacher.
You see, I was mixing those two realities throughout the '70s. But in 1978, my teacher asked me to go and be the director of a meditation center in Vermont. So, I left. For two years I was doing that mostly, although I did some music projects during that time.
For that period of time, I had to choose in terms of prioritizing that over chugging away in the music business. But I've always been going back and forth, and to this day, I spend half my time doing each. I teach Buddhism all the time, all over the place; and I play music all the time, all over the place.
The funny thing is with KD, there's at least a little bit of overlap, so it's sort of music and it's kind of spiritual teaching. But usually I'm going back and forth between those environments.
Songfacts: Did you have a choice when you went to Vermont?
Nichtern: Oh sure. You always have a choice.
Songfacts: I didn't know if it was an order or if it was a request.
Nichtern: It was a strongly intended request. I realized at the time that no one can tell you what to do, but my teacher in no uncertain terms wanted me to do that, and it would have meant changing my relationship to him to say no.
Songfacts: I see.
Nichtern: I can't tell you, because that's a parallel universe, what would've happened if I just said, "You know, I don't want to do that." But I was so inspired then. You have to understand that the Buddhist thing then was every bit as creative as the music scene was in its own way. He was unique and inspiring. And so, I just tried to weave a reality that included both things. That's what I'm still doing.
Songfacts: When you are doing a commercial work, like a soap opera theme [David has scored scenes on As the World Turns and One Life to Live] or something else on spec, how does that change your approach compared to when you're doing something like a solo album?
Nichtern: When I'm doing that kind of work I think of myself as a custom tailor: You want to make sure that suit looks good on the person that's going to wear it. It's not about whether the suit looks good on the rack or not. Does it look good on the person who's going to wear it? Is it right for the situation? Does it enhance the situation?
And that means you just kind of tune in to the movie, TV series or commercial. You tune in to what the quality of the video is: What am I looking at here? I'm looking at a scene with two people in the soaps. They usually talk about sexual tension. That has a certain feeling to it. The music then can't really resolve. You're provoked, but not that comfortable with it.
To me, music is the language of emotions. And so, if you're working for something specific, you've got to know what emotion is being portrayed there, and you also have to support it. It shouldn't stick out past the visual. It should tuck in under the visual and really enhance the story, the narrative, the emotion. If the music becomes too noticeable, you're not doing a good scoring job.
May 13, 2015. Get more at davidnichtern.com.
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