Saturday, November 15, 2014

#songaday 15

Went to see The New Pornographers last night at the Riviera here in Chicago. So much singing. So much melody. Emma and I were discussing our recent theory about how the best songwriters stand for something, or have values reflected in their work, and we were wondering what TNP stand for. We both agreed it was nothing more than a commitment to excellence, to trying to perfect a sound with many parts working together. Teamwork. All that. I would encourage people to think about what their favorite artists stand for. Everyone stands for something. U2 stands for a corporatist music industry. Countless artists stand for elevating the stories and voices of those who go unheard. Others stand for kind of just not giving a fuck.

In other news, I wrote two (!) songs today, which is the first time in my life I've ever done that. It's not something that is necessarily a good thing. But I'm trying to catch up to this song-a-day thing, and I've got a few more missed days to make up for. One thing I do like about this process is that it takes a lot of the pressure off of the quality of each song I wrote. Rather than thinking to myself that this next one has to be a good one, I can scroll back through my lyrics and be relieved to know that some days I write good ones and some days I write trash. I just hope by December I've got a decent amount of material that I'm proud of.

Monday, November 10, 2014

#songaday 10

Just looking at some photos from my friends' wedding and remembering how much I enjoyed DJing their party. As I write these songs each day, something feels rather flat. I'm wondering if it's the lack of interaction with other people. The excitement I get when I'm DJing a set of music comes from wondering how people will respond, and how I can be of use to everyone's experience. And it also comes from the knowledge that I can share some of my favorite songs with people for at least some small amount of time.

I guess I'm starting to think that I should book some gigs or seek out some open-mics to get some of these songs out into the open. To see what people think of them, but also to just know that, while they are works in progress, they are also songs that I can share with people, just the way I can share music when I DJ. I'm purposefully not recording them as I write them, because I don't want to have any false premises that they are finished in some way, and I tend to get lazy once I have a song committed to a file on my computer. But, at the same time, I'd like to know that these songs have some effect on a listener, and I'd like to know what the effect is.

Tonight's song was a rather long, one-chord riff about going to a party in college and how I felt while I was there. I didn't have a good time. But there's no specific reason why. Just like there wasn't at the time. The song ends up being an expression of what it felt like to be in my own head that night. And it's just a little bit angry, too. I like one-chord songs, as long as the words make up something you can hang your hat on. Mine aren't quite there yet. But that's what revising is for.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

#songaday 8

I was moved this morning reading the tail-end of James McBride's The Good Lord Bird. The narrator, a black boy and freed slave who has gone through the entire book passing as a girl, has an epiphany as he is on a wagon leaving Harpers Ferry the day before John Brown's assault. McBride writes:

"You can play one part in your life, but you can't be that thing. You just playing it. You're not real. I was a Negro above all else, and Negroes plays their part, too: Hiding. Smiling. Pretending bondage is okay till they're free, and then what? Free to do what? To be like the white man? Is he so right? Not according to the Old Man. It occurred to me then that you is everything you are in this life at every moment."

This is the moment when the narrator realizes the intersection between his racial and gender identities. As a child in Brown's army, he has avoided living the past few years of his life in bondage. By passing as a girl, he has not been held responsible for many of the duties a young man would be expected of while part of a roving militia, let alone storming a military barracks. In the next scene, he chooses to be honest with his own identity, thereby actively putting himself in danger for the first time in the novel. He takes off his dress, hops off the wagon straight into Virginia slave territory, and begins to find his way back to Harpers Ferry in time to save John Brown's doomed efforts.

" is everything you are in this life at every moment." It's a line meant to pack a punch, I suppose. It's relevant to the book's political and social setting as well as adaptable to any life in any context. As I started writing today, this line crept back into my thoughts, and I thought about the different ways we see ourselves depending on our ever-changing thoughts, actions, and principles. I decided to write a repeating line ("You are who you are at this moment") and interchange it with descriptions of all sorts of good, bad, and neutral things I've done, most of them pretty mundane. The song is in second person, even though I was thinking about myself while writing it. I guess the point is that, even though we like to tell ourselves we are a certain way, and that certain things we do or say or more or less revealing of who we really are, we are always everything we are. At every moment.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

#songaday 5

In today's song, I experimented with a verse/chorus structure with no repeating sections. Meaning, to my mind, I hear the first section of the song as the verse and the second section as the chorus, and then the song ends. In the past when I've tried this structure, I've considered the real possibility that I was just being too lazy to write additional words and music. This is maybe the first time when I've stopped writing and felt like the song actually had all it needed.

It's tentatively called "Fighting Season," a term I heard on the news today. I believe it was used in the context of Afghanistan, and referred to the period of time in the year when weather permits fighting to actually take place. So that's interesting. My song is more about how Election Day felt as it was coming to a close yesterday. But kind of like a dream of Election Day. Not the real thing. If only.

The pulleys and levers have been broken down
Some have won and some have lost
Ghosts in suits played Pied Piper flutes
Then went to their hotels at the end of the day

Some raised the flag, some popped champagne
Some cried on stage, some cried alone in the rain
Children awoke as the mics fed back
No moon and no stars when the sky became black

Fighting season came and went, just like it did before
I only saw half the show
You only saw half the show
Tonight the press corps wolves are out running the streets, 
But fighting season is over
Fighting season is over

Sunday, November 2, 2014

#songaday 2

I just wrote a quiet song. Sometimes I don't know whether I want my songs to be loud or quiet or in the middle. I think I'm a pretty quiet person, but I don't see why that should translate necessarily into the types of songs I try writing. Today it just fit. I was sick most of the weekend and spent a lot of time sleeping or just lying around the apartment. I'm remembering a few years ago, when I had strep throat and a fever of 104, I wrote a song called "New Year's Day" and it had some words about someone's throat being on fire. That track ended up being the song that I wrote that I've performed most, since I played and sung it regularly when I was gigging with the awesome Sarah Holtschlag. Now that I think of it, that was a pretty quiet song, but when we played it with a full band, I liked how loud it felt. Something to think about: how the instrumentation and implementation of the song interacts with the original quality of the song when I wrote it. Does a song even have an inherent quality?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

#songaday 1

After reflecting on "Send Me A Sign" I decided to try to write something a lot more specific. I focused on an experience that is both mundane and ubiquitous: waking up and going to work. I tried to describe particular moments from this daily exercise (mostly drawn from my own experience, but not entirely) in a way that established a broader mood. I think I was somewhat successful at honing in on what writing teachers call those small moments.

He parks his car in a silent lot
Dogs bark as the wind picks up
He smells the factories
And he smells the lake

As I wrote the song, I realized I wanted it to end with the character's arrival. There's some ambiguity about where exactly he's going, and it's not clear that he's necessarily going to a job. The song ends with his entrance into some unknown building. 

Upon writing that verse, I remembered that a lot of Springsteen's "Factory" focuses on the comings and goings of a laborer ("Man takes his lunch / walks out in the morning light"). Now I'm also remembering that "Factory" actually has very few words. Not so with the song I just wrote. That's something I'm going to think about tomorrow, and something I've never really considered: How many words does a song call for? How much does it need? 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

National Song Writing Month: DAY 0

Starting tomorrow, I will attempt to write one song each day for the month of November. This is inspired by National Novel Writing Month. Except instead of writing a 150-page shitty novel, I will be writing 30 shitty songs. I expect to: a) write 1 song each day, b) compile the lyrics and music in an ongoing file, along with notes and reflections about the song and the writing process, and c) gain some insight into songs, songwriting, and myself.

I started today, on October 30, just to give it a trial run. After all, it's been at least a year since I wrote something that didn't disappear from memory when the clock struck midnight. I came home from work and put some pencil to paper for about 20 minutes. I came out with a song that is more personal than most songs I've written in the past. It's title, for today, is "Send Me a Sign." I realized while I was writing it that a lot of the lyric is in the form of questions. I've been listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams lately. I believe "Are You Alright?" seeped into my brain this morning while I was prepping my classroom, and might explain the question/statement patterning in the verses I wrote.

My old friend and comedian CJ Hunt writes that every character and every sketch should reveal a universal truth. I would like to think of my songs like that. But that takes a lot of foresight. I found I started writing this song today and then, when I got to the chorus, it started to occur to me what the song was about. Not surprisingly, looking back at the song, it's not clear exactly what is supposed to be revealed. It's like I am covering up a lack of attention to detail with vague, meandering imagery. This song means something, because... it could mean ANYTHING! Something to fix up if I ever return to this one.

Well, how bout you just listen to this Lucinda track and feel all nice inside.