Music has always been a constant in the life of Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel. With his rich passions for music and the anthropology of religion, Schubel has recently found a way to incorporate both through solo shows in Mount Vernon for both Kenyon students and community members.
Schubel’s musical influences are diverse, ranging from David Bowie and Todd Rundgren to John Martin, as well as contemporary indie singer-songwriters such as Stephanie Cutter and Lucy Dacus. Schubel attempts to present a mix of classic, contemporary and original music in his performances, avoiding what he describes as the “cliché” of just playing ’70s covers. “What I try to avoid doing is the nostalgia show. When I do perform other people’s stuff, I change it a lot,” he said. For example, Schubel’s cover of “Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel introduces elements of jazz to what is traditionally a simple, acoustic track.
Many of Schubel’s original songs are rooted in themes that come from Sufi poetry, drawing from his experience researching and writing as a scholar. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes personal experience and union with the divine. “Some of them are things that I started writing three years ago. But I’ve changed them, and now that I’ve finally finished them, I think they’re more mature,” he said.
One of Schubel’s greatest inspirations in the realm of acoustic guitar is English singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, who was a convert to Islam. Schubel explained, “When you listen to his songs, there’s a kind of undercurrent of Sufi mysticism that is not immediately apparent on the surface. If you didn’t know who he was or the kind of things he was referencing, you wouldn’t catch themes like, for example, the way Sufi poetry uses romantic love as a metaphor for the experience of ultimate reality.”
In his young adulthood, Schubel took a break from his undergraduate education at Oklahoma State University for a number of years and moved to California, where he professionally played a variety of instruments in an effort to secure a record contract. “I played in a number of bands and made demo tapes, but ultimately things didn’t pan out and I ended up going back to school,” he said. In graduate school at the University of Virginia, Schubel more heavily immersed himself in the world of academia, where he specialized in Islam and South Asian religions. While in school, he continued to play music — performing solo gigs and venturing into political music, specifically for leftist causes, he said. As he went on to earn a doctorate in religious studies, conduct fieldwork and publish literature, Schubel still found himself deeply invested in performance and narrative, especially through the lens of his study of Islam.
When Schubel arrived at Kenyon in 1988, he continued to perform, but not as regularly as he would have liked, playing on and off in a blues band. In the last two or three years, Schubel has also been playing acoustic solo gigs. He chronicled the impact of the pandemic on his music career: “When COVID happened, I couldn’t reasonably see myself playing in bars and going to rehearsals in tight rooms while also coming up to Kenyon to teach,” he said. “That’s really how this sort of phase of my musical life got going. I threw away my fingerpick and started writing new songs and building a solo show.”
As Schubel reflected upon his journey into and out of professional music, he acknowledged the importance of embracing change. “I was doing this really seriously for four or five years when I suddenly realized that I wasn’t going to become a big rock star. But in the end, I’m really glad I didn’t,” he said. Schubel claims that he never would have met the most important people in his life if he had stuck with music as his career choice. “I’m always telling students that you get your life lined out, and you’re really convinced that [you] have to get this thing, this internship, this job. And then the reality is, the fact that you don’t get what you want leads you down other paths that are really much more interesting,” he said.
Ultimately, Schubel expressed appreciation for his dual experiences as a musical performer and college professor: “In the end, I get to get the best of both worlds. I’m still writing songs and performing for people, but I’m also teaching, which is incredibly rewarding, and I’m getting out ideas to the world in an interesting way.”