This one is for Nikki, my oldest friend here on the Blog Block, dating back to middle school, late '80s in Ashland, OR (if you read prior post you might recall that Oregon was my mother's last ditch attempt to settle us down to a "normal" Americana lifestyle)... so, Nikki asked about the songwriting process...
It's a funny thing coming into this lime light so far into my life, in my ripe middle age, I feel like an amateur and an old hand (or hag) all at once. My journey through music has been a windy, bumpy, curvaceous and hazardous road. I spent much of my life choosing to bare right and skip along the alternate route, shying away from music to play in the theatre, training my voice for acting, tuning my body for stage movement. i did play classical flute all throughout my childhood (as Nikki recalls from our days in the middle school marching band where we concocted a fantastical horror script about a possessed flute that became a gruesome instrument of torture and death). The classical training was wonderful for learning how to read music, gaining a deep appreciation for classical composers which my father and I spent many a time discussing and comparing notes about. The flip side to studying music in that way for 13 years was that I became constricted and came to fear the music that exists between the lines, or off the page and unwritten. I lost any ability to improvise through music, in prisoned by technicality. I already suffered some massive hang ups around music given the perceived pressure of my genetic predisposition to live and breathe great music, so the technical training in classical playing became a kind of cage. I lost my sense of play. As a kid, my best friend Nabou and I would write pop songs with choreographed dance routines. I dreamed that when I was old enough (like 16), I would take my boom box out on the metros and sing for coins (yes, this was like a high reaching goal for me, I thought it would be the coolest thing ever)... but, by the time I reached my teens, I was petrified to express myself in that way. Instead, I embraced the comfort of diving into a character in a play where Ariel could completely disappear and become anyone else.
Fast forward, will get to the question at hand here, I promise... After a decade and then some of marriage, becoming "adult", home ownership, birthing the twins, running businesses, divorce, love and losses... in other words: LIFE... suddenly, SONGS began to emerge. It was a bit like there had been a slow burning pressure cooker running in the background for 30 something years of my life, and the little pressure valve that lets the steam out was finally whistling dixie. I kind of didn't chose it, it was just time for it to happen. And, I stopped fighting it or running away from it. Mind you, it was and still is a terrifying part of me to expose publicly. The writing comes easy, for the most part, but sharing it or playing the songs for other live human beings is daunting. Still.
So... songwriting. Since that was the question. How do I come up with songs... it depends, of course. I would say that most often it is a word or a phrase that flicks and sticks in my brain. That word or phrase emerges out of whatever is going on in my inner world, my heart, mind and soul wrestling to sort out whatever life has served up at that time. I know it when it happen, like a dart hitting the bull's eye. Zing! Then the mad dash to make sure to hold onto the word, or the phrase before it evaporates and I lose it (as Nikki mentioned in her comment, yes this happens, and it sucks!). It very frequently happens when I am driving, probably because that is when I am sitting still and my mind is free to ruminate. So then I scramble at the wheel to find a scrap of paper and jot it down somewhere. There are many little scraps of papers, receipts, napkins, whatever floating around like this and they don't always make it into the house where I then merge them into my various notebooks filled with chicken scratch lyrics and chord progressions. When I eventually find the time, and sometimes it's months from the initial lightning strike, if I have managed to save that scrappy seed of a song, I will sit down to write the rest. Sometimes I just write the lyrics out all at once, then pick up a guitar and see if I can get it to fit to some progression of chords. If guitar doesn't work, I take it to the piano and try that. I do not consider myself to be a musician, a guitarist or a pianist, still. I know music inherently, but my skill to play piano or guitar is akin to the basic knowledge that you must hit the nail on the head with the hammer. Rudimentary. But...it works!
Once in a while, the idea, or word, or phrase strikes me like a tidal wave and I cannot concentrate on anything else until I find the time to swim my way back to shore by writing it out as quickly as possible before it drowns me. Then it's a mad frenzy to make space and time for myself, because I cannot do this process when I am with other humans, especially my kids, so I can purge the damn thing from my guts and get it on paper. Like birthing an alien, that then is a cute gremlin that you want to love and care for... weird analogy, but that's just what came out right here and now and I am just going to let it be.
There are some times when I come up with a lick on the guitar or the piano that I like, and the words then follow suit. Sometimes. Less frequently. I imagine if I was more fluent in my ability to play the instruments that would happen more. Truth be told, I have no intention of ever becoming a great guitarist or pianist, I have accepted that will never be "my thing". I do not want to spend 10 hours a day practicing scales until I have the muscle memory to channel the gods through my playing. I absolutely love and admire those who have that ability and will seek them out to put the magic to my songs. Good to discover where our talents lay and accept where they do not, one of the sweet grains of wisdom that comes with getting older.
So.... that's about the gist of it? Interesting process to write out how you write... thanks for asking, Nikki :)
The Detangler was the first song that I wrote intentionally, like "ok, I am writing a song now, cuz this is something I do" kind of intention... here is the produced version from Pepperbox Studios, and I will also include my original home recorded experimental version below.