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.
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?
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.
As I’ve been turning towards music more in the last couple of years I’ve been experiencing increased success with songwriting (“Increased success” can best be understood as writing better songs with less effort.) I’d been writing songs for many years, but I finally began to consider making an album when the songs I was writing felt “right.” What does that mean exactly?