"No Dollars in Duende": On Making Uncompromising, Spirited Music

Melissa Ann Sweat
Photo: George Duchannes (courtesy of Melissa Ann Sweat)

On the elusive yet clearly existential sadness that adds layers and textures to music.

I’m just beginning to explore this concept of duende both in art and mythology, but I feel throughout my being that this essence/ spirit/ possession has been with me all the while in the making of my art and music. I realize, now, that it's also embodied by so many of my favorite musicians.

From the start of my music project, Lady Lazarus, I had trouble with what to call the kind of music I was making. Minimalist? Dream pop? Alternative folk? At one point a real jerk of a guy called it, “unhinged”. Ha, sure, I’ll take that one on the chin. “Spirited” was the word that came to me that really seemed to fit. You kind of know what duende means without having to put your finger on it, because you can’t. Duende -- the spirited -- is the ineffable, the intangible. The mystery behind the thing.

Duende or tener duende ("having duende") loosely means having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity… It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to art. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. -- Wikipedia

Or, as Nick Cave described in a 1999 lecture in Vienna:

“All that has dark sound has duende, that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain. In contemporary rock music, the area in which I operate, music seems less inclined to have its soul, restless and quivering… Excitement, often; anger, sometimes: but true sadness, rarely, Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it. It haunts Polly Harvey. My friends the Dirty Three have it by the bucket load. The band Spiritualized are excited by it. Tindersticks desperately want it, but all in all it would appear that duende is too fragile to survive the brutality of technology and the ever increasing acceleration of the music industry. Perhaps there is just no money in sadness, no dollars in duende. Sadness or duende needs space to breathe. Melancholy hates haste and floats in silence. It must be handled with care.” -- Wikipedia

I love dearly almost all of the artists Cave listed, and I must have felt their common linkage somehow through duende without even knowing it -- that behind them all along this mysterious quality is the reason I love them most. They “get” and express and embody this mystery in their art. Duende is a kind of current, a spirit channel that you tap into. It’s not something you can intend to generate, but more of something you feel compelled to create.

I’m realizing now how much duende plays a role both my art and my life. I named my first full-length album, Mantic, meaning having powers of divination, a connection with the beyond, because that’s exactly how the act of making music felt to me. Even with its apparent sweetness, there’s always been a dark side to my music (that I’ve had throughout my life, as well). This is the poet’s duality: seeing the world for what it is, both dark and light and everything in between.

My second album, All My Love I Half Light, has even more shadows than the first: it's murkier, earthier, and deals with the shedding of past loves and the forging of my individuated self -- and yet a through line exists of that sense of the beyond. Miracles, my latest, is likely my most “light-filled” album yet -- inspired by newfound love and dazzled with life’s possibilities for resurrection and new chances after dark times. Still, there’s a sense of existential sadness that remains, even in this more uplifting record.

Recently, I met a fellow musician here in Austin who’s had a good deal of success. We went out one night and got to chatting about our experiences in music. I shared with him that, yes, at one point I truly wanted to make music my full-time pursuit, and to do that, I needed to make money at it (the dream for any artist). While good-intentioned people have prodded to make decisions and music that are more “commercial”, I’ve realized that all I’m truly capable of doing is to keep following this spirit I’ve been following (or that’s been haunting me) since I started making music. This duende

To invoke it here some with a bit of the dark and macabre, I can’t help but feel that on my death bed looking back -- if I continue the way I have as an artist -- I’ll be able to truly say, then, that I’ve made the songs I’ve come here to make. Nothing more, nothing less.

Perhaps there are “no dollars in duende” as Cave says. Of course, in the end, we all know that doesn’t matter.

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