Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Painting With Words

I have come to realize lately that in the 29 years I have been playing instruments and 18 years that I have been writing lyrics, I have worked far harder on the former than the latter.

Creating lyrics is a tricky process for me, and the public expression of them is far more intimidating than playing an instrumental piece. There is obviously something quite vulnerable (and therefore valuable) in using one's voice as an instrument, but going one large step further and using it as a vehicle for the disseminations of particular ideas, thoughts and feelings can be the penultimate challenge…for me.

What I realized recently is that I have spent many hours learning how to play the guitar. This includes learning cover songs, rehearsing scales, nailing chord changes and building up the callouses on my fingers. In other words, I have meticulously studied the craft of playing the guitar.

Yet when I examined my process around writing lyrics, I found that I had grown content with whatever first made it onto the page, believing that in order to land on the paper, these words first passed through enough of an internal filter to render them worthy. Granted, I may tweak or re-write certain sections until they were "good enough." Then, if I still liked the song I would begin performing it live, and over time decide whether or not it would stick in my live repertoire. Not much more would happen from that point on, and the song would go into the ever-expanding catalog of possible songs to play or record.

In short, I've never worked very hard on my songwriting, at least as far as the lyrical content is concerned. But this summer I had an epiphany. I was, for the first time, being recognized as an award-winning songwriter and finalist in a few big songwriting contests. But I didn't win. And when it came down to it I didn't make the top 5. So it led to me question, what is it exactly (other than the tastes and sensibilities of the judges) that is separating me from the winners?

Thankfully, I wisely chose a great producer (Jamie Mefford) for the album I am currently working on, and he was able to offer some possible ideas.

One idea, he taught me, is that when one picks up a piece of paper with poetry (or song lyrics) on it, one should be able to shake the paper and have literal things fall off of it. Nouns, like bottle caps, scrap books, dusty work boots, and the like. These things give the listener something to hold, while also helping them to conjure their own emotional connection to the thing, the image, the song.

There are a million ways to say "I'm sad" without spoon feeding it to someone, a tendency which has become so commonplace in popular country music. The other extreme of course is that a song can be so lyrically nebulous that it gives the listener nothing to grab onto. The balance is magical, and we already know this. Think of your favorite songs and ask yourself which lyrical lines stick with you, and why? Often times (though certainly not always) there are things in the line to which we have our own emotional connection. We all tend to have some emotional reaction to the thought of a high school yearbook, for example. And it will mean as many different things as there are people having reactions.

Long story short: I am learning how to work on my writing. It is a process that at once is exciting, painful, frustrating, and sublime. All I ask is that it continue.

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