Now From The Beginning - How Songwriting Led Me Down A Strange Road

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.”

(Thanks to my friend, photographer  Robert Sherrow  for this amazing photo)

(Thanks to my friend, photographer Robert Sherrow for this amazing photo)

I’ve come to feel something like the boy who cried wolf in this regard, as if having made promises and then failing to deliver on them. But there never seemed a good place to begin sharing about a journey containing aspects which don't readily lend themselves to explanation, at least insofar as my rational mind has borne witness to them. Yet, with the release of my latest record, Tennessee Night, I've found the time to shut things down and look at the last few years more honestly. This time has led me to once again cry, “wolf!”

I recently returned from a two week “walkabout” (well … driveabout) through the American southwest, one which afforded me some much needed perspective on the last three years of my life, something long overdue and, yet, somehow right on time. Throughout the trip I experienced many things, many of which I believe I needed to move through for my own betterment. I was consistently amazed at how circumstances seemed to organize themselves, as I'd made no travel plans, I'd simply gotten into my vehicle and headed west. In truth, I’d felt myself pulled to the southwest for quite some time, but I was far too busy to follow that feeling until just recently. In the end, there was a journey laid out for me, one I couldn't have planned better had I tried.

Upon returning home from my trip it seemed fairly obvious to me that it was time for these blogs to touch more on the personal; to offer up more of the things I've simply assumed others would find ridiculous or unrelatable, perhaps both. My “wise mind” suggested to me that this kind of sharing may be simpler than I've been making it out to be, “write about your trip,” my better nature offered to me in suggestion … but somehow it never seems that simple in practice. Still, I believe I'm ready to do that now, although there’s a bit of background to traverse before arriving at the details of my recent journey.

(note: this may be an understatement)

In many ways, my last blog was the antithesis of a more personal approach to writing and, while such intellectual exercises have helped me find perspective and purpose in the world, they are far removed from the trappings of the lives we lead each and every day. As such, I’ve often found myself questioning the utility of such efforts, although they’ve been quite useful to me personally. Perhaps my last blog was a final rebellion against pursuing a more personal approach to writing? No matter...

...I do believe it's time to go, to take up with the more subtle realities of my journey and trust that those things will be found helpful (or at least acceptable) to those who read them. But where to start with such an endeavor? I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning: songs. While songs are no strange topic within this blog, they truly do represent the modality through which my life began to shift. Hence, songs are where my story must begin. 

If you want to start learning to write songs you have to start thinking like a song. You’re trying to break into the ritual of music. It’s kind of like Houdini in reverse, you’re not trying to escape, you’re trying to be let in.
— Tom Waits

Songs have come to change the course of my life, yet in many ways I've found my approach to songwriting anathema within the larger culture of music. I've long since made my peace with such personal confusions, yet, I did struggle with them, and they therefore afford mention. In truth, such experiences may have worked to stay my hand regarding this blog, leading me to believe it's better to simply present people with the results of my efforts as opposed to conducting tours of the sausage factory.

It may seem to some that my songs are anything but overly personal, as I tend to write in images and metaphor, avoiding specific details, places and events. But in my own experience the songs I write are wholly intimate, I simply don't find specific details of my life to be helpful tools in the art of personal expression. True, I could write all about my world, choosing to include actual street names and cities, etc., but in the end the listener would only be left with facts about a life far removed from their own. No, my goal has always been to share a feeling with those gracious enough to invest a little of their time listening to my songs. Hence, my songwriting prioritizes feelings over facts. It's the feelings behind the songs that are factual in each and every case.

When I first began sharing my music publicly I had reason to wonder about this approach to writing, as from time to time I'd find myself in a group of songwriters who would listen to one of my unfinished songs and, for instance, critique a certain word saying, “that's a very common rhyme you’ve used there, you should use ***** instead.” I can remember the first time I was met with such an observation and how perplexed I felt. Although the well-intentioned individual was technically right, I found their point tangential to my goal in writing the song in the first place. I wasn't after uncommon rhymes, I was after words that fit the feeling I wanted to share; words that allowed me to convey a particular emotion vocally. In my experience, the word that feels right isn’t always the most uncommon one, it simply depends on the song or phrase and, more importantly, on the sponsoring feeling the writer is seeking to share.

In the end, I learned to avoid situations that offered group critique of the songs I was working on, I simply failed to see how someone outside of myself could help me translate into song what was, after all, an intensely personal feeling.

Perhaps these experiences helped drive me deeper inside myself in the last few years, perhaps not. It may be a short-sighted way of thinking on my part, but I have nonetheless kept myself a fair distance from those practicing “craft writing”, or the construction of songs by committee. I suppose I simply cannot relate to such an approach, so I've continued to follow the only way of writing I've ever known, an approach which favors a disconnection from thinking over a strategic songwriting methodology: songwriting as meditation, for lack of a better explanation.

I now believe it was this approach to writing that, over time, began to alter or “tune” my personal sensitivities, although I was completely unaware this process was taking place at the time (more on this down the road). Because I'd never been taught to play an instrument or write a song the correct way, I learned to do these things my way. It was only upon my emergence from the basement and entry into the open-mic scene that I began to wonder why my approach to things was so unrelatable to many of the writers I was meeting (although not all thankfully).

I now believe that it was my tendency to get quiet and feel where a song wanted to go that led me to a place where songs started showing up for me without much effort. Don't get me wrong, plenty of effort is required, but it's an effort aimed at serving and translating a feeling into song, not an effort aimed at getting inspiration to show up in the first place. Perhaps songs were finding me because I was willing to listen to what they wanted to say, rather than seeking to limit them to the specifics of my own story? In adapting a quote from Neale Donald Walsch, how can songs tell me their truth if I won't stop telling them mine?

My emergence from the basement was a strange state of affairs, as I found myself inundated with advice from songwriters and organizations, as well as music books and blogs. They would admonish me to write on a schedule and force myself to grapple with songs on a daily basis, whereas I simply believed that if a song wanted to be written, it would show up. In fact, I found the process of shaping myself to fit songs (as opposed to the other way around) so taxing at times, I would eventually come to prize periods of dormancy in writing.

This is, in fact, where I find myself presently. The process of writing the songs for my last record, Tennessee Night, was a costly enough venture for me personally that I've held myself back from writing since recording the album in July of 2016. True, I have written 3-4 songs since, but those are songs that just showed up and flowed out quite easily; nothing measuring the effort and immersion of my last record. In retrospect, I believe that to not step away from writing would have been an extremely unhealthy choice on my part.

I suppose if a single song asks a writer to reshape themselves to a small degree in order to represent it accurately, my past record asked me to reshape myself dramatically to represent it. Being quite new to artistic pursuits, I was mid-way through the process of writing the record before I realized the true weight of such an endeavor, and now, a year and a half after beginning that work, I've emerged a very different person.

It's just as well that I didn't know what I was signing up for with Tennessee Night, as I may have balked at a process that would come to change me so fundamentally. I have yet to fully realize the fruits of that effort and those changes, but I have rounded a corner here in 2017, one which I believe will lead to more peace moving forward (and of course more songs).

For now I'm looking forward to sharing and performing the songs that have found me in the last three years, and maybe even writing a few more. Also, I believe I'm ready to talk about the strangeness of the journey I've been on. I suppose I feel drawn to share more because of how heavily I've relied upon the stories of others who've passed through similar experiences, people who've openly offered themselves through books, blogs, and podcasts, etc. Such stories have acted as stars for me on some otherwise dark nights, helping to guide my steps and reminding me that mine is not a solitary journey, it's a shared one. 

It’s funny how a life at its best expands
Explodes, and it overspills
But we try to fit it all in a grid
And we say it’s the strength of our will
— Dar Williams

I'm far from considering another major project, but there's something out there on western skyline … I can't see it yet, but I can already feel its gentle whisper. With this in mind I will continue to avoid schedules and processess-those things which seek to lay art out on a grid. There’s resting to be done and shows to be played, surely as there will be writing to be done soon enough. When songs are ready to be written, I believe they’ll know how to find me. Until next time...

To watch a video discussing some of the topics in this blog, follow this link:

Thanks to  Robert Sherrow  and  Annie Capps  for this photo.

Thanks to Robert Sherrow and Annie Capps for this photo.

Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.

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