It occurs to me that in all these years of writing my blog I’ve rarely written about songwriting, despite it being such an important part of my life. I started writing songs from the moment I first laid hands on a piano. It always felt instinctual for me to improvise, and to use musical instruments for discovery, giving voice to whatever melodies might be floating around at any given time. I say “floating around” as it’s hard to say where those melodies come from. I don’t walk around with them buzzing in my head, pressure building for them to be released as if they were some kind of flying insects, butterflies preferably. Nope. Instead it’s as if these melodies are fluttering in the air, up above and around my head, waiting to be caught and played. Tom Waits likens songwriting to fishing, and says that you have to be real quiet to catch the big ones. I’ve come to think that we’re talking about the same experience.
A song that I recently finished writing has prompted me to look at the songwriting process in a different way. Namely, the process in which you decide whether to keep or discard an idea. For one reason or another this particular song had ended up in my reject pile a couple of years ago, after I’d first started working on it. Since then it had existed in some sort of Inception-type limbo-world for discarded songs, until a week or so ago I finally reached back into the abyss and decided to salvage it. At the urging of my two trusty artist-friends, I might add. I did some CPR on the song by moving it from guitar to piano, and lo and behold, it came alive! I’ve since been told by one of those artist friends that this is the best song that I’ve ever written, and at the moment, I find myself agreeing. How close it came to never being heard by anyone at all!
What horrified me about the mindless way I’d discarded the song in the first place, was the fact that at the time I’d deemed it “too pretty.” As if that’s a bad thing. If one is attempting to create beauty in this world, can something really be too pretty? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that I no longer feel that it is. I hereby bestow upon the song “the license to be pretty.” And when my friend read this quote by Martha Graham at his concert this week, I felt a powerful feeling of validation:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
― Martha Graham
Yes, that’s right! That’s spot on, Martha Graham, thank you! It is not my business to determine how good this song is nor how valuable nor how it compares to other expressions. Fuck that. It is my business to keep the channel open, and to not stand in my own way. And it just so happens that by the finishing of this song, the songwriting phase for my next album will be complete. How’s that for getting out of my own way.