In my last blog I discussed coming to have a different relationship with songs, as well as having questioned the wisdom of opening up about that process and where it has led me. I talked about how my experiences of the past three years now seem to be culminating in a return of sorts, a change in perspective regarding many things, including my approach to this blog. In the end, I remembered all the stories I'd read from others on similar paths and the difference their honesty made in my own journey. And so, I continue ...
About three years ago I began to notice and pay attention to the more subtle aspects of my existence, things that had up till then eluded the lens of my observation. These are things I've hinted at from time to time in my blogs, as if the thread of these writings would soon veer into interesting -- if perhaps questionable -- personal territory. I didn’t know exactly what this would look like, but it would surely involve forsaking my usual stomping ground (blogs dealing with the intellectual/philosophical) in favor of sharing more and detailing some of the strange and surprising roads that have opened to me since I more fully immersed myself into the pursuit of music. I've found myself torn on this point, often quoting the lyrics of David Ramirez’ song Ball and Chain to myself, “... hold on to some of your stories, save just a few from the soundwaves.”
In previous blogs I’ve touched on the topic of fractals and self-similarity, or the idea that the more we’re able to observe our universe, the more we recognize set patterns of self-resembling organization at every level. Through this construction, the universe seems to unfold in a grand, yet paradoxical design, ceaselessly falling into chaos while simultaneously feeding upon that chaos in the development of progressively higher levels of organization. If there is a fundamental shortcoming in the western mindset -- and a possible source of modern depression and despair -- it may well be our failure to recognize and resonate with this pattern, and to find purpose in its unfolding. Instead we consider it our job to defeat the pattern, to overcome the natural order, and to ultimately put an end to death. Yet, would not an end to death also mean an end to the evolution of humanity? So, while I love the idea of living longer, less painful lives, I fear our obsession with overcoming death betrays a deep dis-ease within us, and serves as an indication that we are out of step with the natural order of the universe, one in which our planet appears to be but a single cell.
It seems we’re passing through an interesting time in America, a time in which one need only turn on the news to witness countrymen at each other’s throats, streets flooded with protesters, and anxieties running high. It’s quite a scene to behold, and certainly beyond anything I’ve witnessed in my life up to this point. Given how strange things are starting to look here in the United States, I can only imagine how they must appear to our fellow citizens of the world who find themselves on the outside gazing in. It’s true, Americans are something of a wacky bunch, and admittedly we’ve been making some colorful political decisions of late, many of which have resulted in worry, fear, and downright panic for people both in and out of the country.
The genetically modified organism debate has been raging in our society for a while now, and it's a complex issue, one that I’ve been struggling to make sense of for years--not actively or anything, but I read, I pay attention, and I feel concern like many other people do. Despite all assurances to the contrary there’s just something about GMOs that nags at me, and I’m far from the only one. Science seems to regard the persistence of resistance to GMOs as being rooted in a lack of education, but I don’t believe it’s that simple. I think a lot of us get it, we’re clear enough on what science is saying regarding the safety of GM crops as it pertains to direct consumption ... even so, there’s just something about GMOs.
When last I left you, I was discussing intuition and my ongoing experiment in living by non-interference, a radically altered life approach in which solid plans and strategies are set aside and events are allowed to arrive without judgement, like waves crashing on a shoreline. This has been easier said than done at times, but for the most part, I’ve held firmly to the mantra, “just keep saying yes.”
So I recently turned 45, and if asked what the 45-year-old me has that the 44-year-old version was missing, I would honestly say that in the last year, I have learned to follow -- to give myself over to the possibility that I’ve been living my life exactly backwards, that reason and rigorous planning may not be the best guide when it comes to finding peace and happiness, and certainly not when it comes to making records.
Throughout the summer I’ve been working on the process of converting an album’s worth of hard-earned new songs into an actual completed record. This is my second opportunity to pass through the somewhat rarefied experience of recording a album; there’s much more I’m learning this time around, more I'm discovering about the process and more about myself. Of course it is a shared experience, one in which a collection of deeply personal words and melodies meets the ears of artists and engineers, players and a producer, each with his or her own impressions and observations, each with his or her own ideas and gifts to contribute. It’s my impression that even under the best of circumstances this is a delicate and at times painful dance.
In our society, we tend to emphasize fundamental truths, beliefs, and answers, but recently, I heard someone suggest that there are no fundamental answers, only fundamental questions. I’d never considered this viewpoint before, and it got me thinking, wondering if I’ve been looking at it all backwards?
Art is a fundamental part of our world, and its existence contributes to the quality of our everyday experience. It’s found in the music we listen to, the shows we watch, the ways we move (well, sometimes), and perhaps even our state of mind, assuming it’s a good day. At the same time, we are surrounded by non-art: music without soul, products built in accordance with the doctrine of planned obsolescence, and aisles lined with processed food, all made without love and packaged into colorful, chemically stained boxes. So what leads us to call some things "art" while others things we do not?
Recently I wrote about my songwriting process and how, as I've grown and developed, it has taken a cyclical form. The cycle of my creative process oscillates between living fully and writing deeply, seeding and harvesting. This pattern of cycles should be familiar, because everything in our reality unfolds in this way. Beneath the love, the pain, the sun, the dark, the Earth and the sky, there likely exists only shimming vibrations.
I spent the evening with a friend and fellow songwriter recently. We've been meeting to discuss his songs, aspects of his performance, and how his sound might translate to a full album. The last time we met he told me that he felt he needed to get “out of his little box,” referring to the collection of chords and techniques he keeps within his musical repertoire. This was an interesting comment to me, especially since we’ve been looking at Ryan Adams’ guitar playing and how he's managed to a lot with a little, guitar-wise, throughout his career.
When it comes to songwriting there’s no set formula for success. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, sexes and ages, and they each have a unique approach to courting the muse, which for some may even be denial of the muse altogether and the adoption of more formulaic approaches to creativity. I’ve often wondered why some people seem to pour out songs as fast as their free-time will allow, while others only manage write a new song every year or two? Perhaps the reason is that some people are simply more gifted than others, more blessed. On the other hand, might it possible that more prolific writers have improved the quality of their relationship to the muse--and thereby the quality of their songs--by better aligning themselves with their own essential nature?
Songwriting, like all art forms, is a never ending dance in which each of us works to continuously perfect our steps. As I write new songs, my process is to make recordings of them and place those recordings in a folder on my computer. Once I've done this I walk away from them and wait to see how they feel to me with the passage of time. Invariably, there are those that stand out, begging to see the real world, and those that are destined to live out their lives in that folder, never to be played again or heard by another human being. I wonder about that folder and I wonder about those songs, the ones that don’t seem to pass the test of time. What is it that distinguishes one from the other?
Pseudoscience is a term we hear again and again, and it's on my mind a lot as I tend to be overly analytical while remaining fairly open-minded about the nature of truth and possibility. It’s always seemed unwise to me to rely on a single method of inquiry, such as empirical observation, when considering purpose and direction, especially since such a large percentage of the universe is empirically unobservable. Given this fact it feels indulgent to hold what humanity “knows” too tightly, as history teaches us harsh lessons about this modality. This more "open" approach inevitably leads me to an interesting mix of authors, podcasters, theories and thoughts. Predictably, some of the works are extolled by science while others bear the dreaded moniker of “pseudoscience.”
I’m not sure if the stuff I’ve been “publishing” to this blog is getting seen, and I truly have little preference in the matter (in a good way). While a large readership is not something I’m after, I do care strongly about elegance, consistency, and the balance of form and function into a marriage that proceeds in an efficient manner. It’s these facts that have prompted me to write this half confessional, half apologetic post. Just like I prefer my understandings and beliefs to have reason and flow, so to should songs, records, and even blogs. And right now, this blog feels all over the map to me.
A revolutionary, albeit controversial, scientific theory named Integrated Information Theory (IIT) has been growing in popularity lately. This theory is unique in that it integrates consciousness as a fundamental mechanism of evolution and cosmology. This fact alone seems revolutionary, at least to an outsider such as myself; from out here it seems as if science has been dead set on proving consciousness to be an epiphenomenon of the human machine, holding fast to the materialist and reductionist viewpoint. Maybe that's why I'm pulling for this theory...I mean...is anyone else getting tired of being told they aren’t a free thinking, conscious entity?
When I wrote the song A Good American Life everything happened pretty fast. I’d stopped at Whole Foods on the way to the office and had a friendly exchange with the woman at the register. She’d mentioned how the previous evening she’d come home, made herself dinner, and settled in to spend the evening binge watching one show or another on TV. I quipped “sounds like a good American life to me,” causing us both to laugh as I headed off to continue my day. But as I walked to my car the words struck me as interesting, and a song began to form. By the time I arrived at work 15 minutes later the song was basically done and it received little treatment thereafter, other than some structural editing. Since that day I’ve had time to consider those lyrics--words that came through me more than from me--to ruminate on how writing that song directly about myself would have meant so much less in the end.
Last week I mentioned that with this post I’d begin talking more directly about the basic elements of songwriting and depart from the esoteric discussions of inspiration, imagination, and all that “unteachable” stuff. Then again, isn’t the whole idea of songwriting unteachable by nature? You can be taught chords and clefs, technique and perhaps even touch, but who can teach you to be you? A song that is authentically yours--one that you’ve poured your heart into--is like a fingerprint. By definition that song is something only you could create, and no one can teach you that. That is a journey every writer makes alone. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rewarding when a writer starts to hit their stride?
So maybe this week’s post is a little esoteric…it’s all about perspective.
I know it’s different for everyone, but for me all songs start with a feeling: I feel songs, I don’t hear them. It took a long time to become aware of this fact, that realization only took place in the last year. In other words, I was involved in the process quite successfully before I began to understand how the process actually worked. In conducting a thought experiment around this process, I’ll state that when I feel a song I “become” it in some sense, and once I’ve become the song I know how to write it, or at least write enough of it that I can use existing songwriting structures and modalities to animate the truth of the song. If that’s done with honesty and if the feeling of the song is kept central (this is where the writer puts their ego aside) a song that’s authentic is created.