On many days when acclaimed singer/keyboardist Seth Glier is on tour, he and guitarist Ryan Hommel will go to a veterans hospital, childrens hospital, or some other facility to play for the patients.
"Mostly we'll go for an hour or an hour and a half and basically walk from room to room, pushing a keyboard on a stretcher," says the Massachusetts-based musician. "And Ryan has an acoustic guitar, and we walk from room to room, sometimes playing our songs, sometimes it's cover songs.
"But basically I feel really fortunate to be able to do music and make a living out of it somehow, and this is the least I can do, to use that gift and try to shed some light in places that really don't have any music and really need it."
But Glier gets more than just a warm feeling from playing at these facilities. He has learned how to play to an audience of one — something Glier finds much harder than playing songs to a large concert crowd. "I've learned a lot about myself from those hospital things," he says. "I don't have an issue getting in front of a thousand people and singing, but one person scares the shit out of me."
Glier has also learned to be less possessive about his songs' meanings. As an example, he cites the song "I Don't Need You," which he wrote about an ex-girlfriend.
"We went to an HIV clinic, I was playing in a room, and I saw this guy's left arm. I knew why he was there, and realized in the middle of the song that this song wasn't about a relationship with a woman for him," recalls Glier. "It was the same words, but the experience that he had was different from my experience.
"That's the beauty in music and in communication is that no matter how you slice it, it's its own living and breathing thing. It's going to grow and change and ebb and flow as you grow and change too."
There's always been a strong emphasis on lyrics in Glier's work. His current album, The Next Right Thing, strings together lines that are both poetically and personally resonant, as in the song "Walk Katie Home": "I may be over my head, I may be out of my mind / There may be skin I can shed, there may be something divine / 'Cause the wind is singing out to the fog, and the rain is sounding like applause / Urging me to drive through the day, just to walk Katie home."
Glier's fourth album is musically compelling as well. Although often labeled as a folk artist, he reaches beyond that on The Next Right Thing, pushing his vocal range into a falsetto reminiscent of Jeff Buckley. The title song's stomping beat and a cappella vocal evoke gospel-blues, "Down With This Ship" strikes a soul-pop balance akin to Marc Cohn's, and "Beauty in the Breakdown" is a lush, orchestrated pop track.
"Musically I'm not a folk artist. It's pop music," he says. "But pop music can be lyrically challenging and questioning. It can sort of augment the human condition, in the same way that folk music does.
"So I don't know, I'm a pop storyteller, if that makes any sense."