so I’ve been on a bit of a tear lately, where songwriting is concerned – for a multitude of reasons. there are projects just around the bend for which i’ll be expected to contribute material, but also – i’m finding that i’m attracted to the exercise for the first time in recent memory.
i’ve written a couple of things over the past few years, for sure, but it hasn’t been anything remotely consistent for a long, long time. I had a short fit of creativity rekindled by the re-emergence of an old flame for a month or so, and there’ve been a handful of songs that have essentially written themselves while I was in the room (“wrong side of history” most notably among them), but I’ve churned out roughly a dozen songs over the past two months and it’s been an education.
the most obvious lesson that i’ve learned from all this is that while age isn’t always a bedfellow of wisdom, it has brought a certain – boldness, perhaps?
i’m finding that i’m no longer weighing my words as carefully as I once did, i’m not as afraid of the consequences of my words, of what friends or loved ones might say or feel in reaction to what I write.
it’s not so much that I don’t care what they think, it’s that…well, i don’t care what they think.
(it sounds bad when I put it that way, doesn’t it?)
what i think i’m trying to say is that i’m not as frightened of the end result of speaking my truth at this point in my life, because i don’t feel as though it’s classified information anymore. i’m not carrying around any secret longings, not feeling trapped in my own skin (at least not to the same degree I once did), not plotting some daring escape from my day to day circumstances – a lot of the things i once used as fuel for songs no longer constitute the lion’s share of the weight i carry around on a daily basis.
i find myself a lot more contemplative, a lot more reflective, more willing to say some pretty uncomfortable things out loud – generally, a little more brutally honest than i might have been at other times in my life.
and let me tell you…”liberating” doesn’t even begin to get the point across.
so – because i’m going to need to play these songs for other people, i spent a couple of weeks recording demos recently, and i uploaded a sampling of them to a folder on a Google drive and sent an email to a handful of folks whose opinions I respect and asked for some honest feedback. “let me have it,” I said in the email with the link. “rip ’em to shreds and send me back into the shadows to contemplate whether i should’ve even thought about doing this again.”
well, i didn’t get any feedback of that particular flavor, but i did get a lot of honest thoughts about the direction i’d embraced from a lyrical standpoint, about song length (almost to a song, all of them are in the six minute range with one in particular clocking in at over nine minutes, but it’s long for a reason – there are thirteen verses, and there will be noisy guitar solos…it’s probably not a candidate for a record, but who knows?) – i was grateful for all of it, for sure, but there was one bit of feedback that i saw fit to chew on for a while.
i won’t single him out, but a longtime collaborator pointed out that some of the instrumental parts that i’d played had made stronger melodic statements than the melody of the lyrics themselves, and that after hearing the songs more often, he found himself humming the instrumental parts moreso than the lyric…and that gave me reason to examine my process, and i had a couple of epiphanies around that.
i’ve always imagined that folks who write music and lyrics simultaneously are probably best equipped to come up with memorable melodies, because they’re creating the melody and the lyric at the same time. i used to write that way all the time, but now i find that i’m either ambushed by a lyric (one of the new songs, “fade away”, was recited practically verbatim into my cellphone while driving to pennsylvania for a show back in june), or i’ll come up with a chord progression or guitar part that feels like a song and i’ll record it into my phone while i just “Mellencamp” along with it (grunt nonsensical noises that bear no resemblance to words along with the musical part as something of a placeholder for what i’d likely sing over the chord changes).
it’s not that i prefer this method to the notion of sitting down with the guitar AND the legal pad at the same time and completely focusing on the task at hand, it’s just the way things tend to get done nowadays. even so, i find that when writing lyrics, i’m almost always more focused on the pentameter of the words than the melody itself. I don’t have a specific reason for this that i can point to, but in considering it over the past couple of days it occurred to me that a lot of my favorite lyricists (Dylan, Jackson Browne, John Moreland, Dar Williams, etc.) seem to write as slaves of the narrative, and i find myself more attracted to that than to the notion of finding the right notes and making the words fit into that framework. of course, then there’s Richard Edwards and Shawn Colvin and Jimmie Spheeris and a dozen others whose melodies are so compelling that i almost don’t care what they’re saying…and Joni Mitchell, who defies any effort to lean her in either direction.
considering this analysis of my work from outside my own bubble, though, it’s been a bit of a revelation to look at my work alongside my influences and see whose fingerprints loom largest as rings inside the tree. no surprises, but good information nonetheless.
(this is not to say that if you listen to “Late For The Sky” over and over again that you’ll eventually write something that brilliant…if that were possible, i’d have done it by now. i’ve put the time in, for damn sure.)
the most gratifying thing i’ve taken away from this introspection into my own process, though, is that i didn’t walk away from it feeling as though my work was inferior as a result of examining it in this light, but rather that i’d learned something about my own process that i hadn’t really considered prior to now…and that it might be worth challenging myself to step outside my own routine and get uncomfortable and try some new things to see what other tools might fit into my toolchest.
the music i listen to in the car comes courtesy of a 32GB flash drive with several thousand MP3’s on it, and i discovered some time back that the best form of “shuffle” for this scenario is good old Alphabetical Order. that’s right – there’s nothing more jarring than letting everything play in order by song title where you go from “Superman” by REM into “Super Trouper” by ABBA…and that’s just one bizarre alphabetical seque. there’s hundreds more.
but this morning, as if to underscore this topic, i heard my favorite Bob Dylan song (“Sweetheart Like You”) followed by “Sylvia Hotel” by Cheryl Wheeler – and it underlined this entire thing with a bold black sharpie.
“Sweetheart” is more spoken than sung, really – and the lyrics are sprinkled with moments of genius, punctuated with the same closing line to every verse, and it’s brilliant. Musically, there’s an atmosphere that perfectly fits the lyric, and it forces me to grab the volume knob every time it comes on. But today, “Sylvia” came on right afterwards as if to underscore the notion that you can have a poignant, haunting, transformative lyric without sacrificing anything melodically or giving up options in your narrative.
life never stops teaching if you’re willing to remain open to learning new things.