Monday, November 7, 2011

Fighting Over Feelings

My kindergartener came home from school the other day and said, "Daddy, I think I'm stupid." I quickly reacted to this absurdity by launching headlong into a counterattack of mythic proportions. "Stupid?! Are you kidding? You are the smartest, most amazing child in the world! Here, let me give you a few examples of your brilliance…"

Confident in my ability to craft a compelling argument, I was sure my little dumpling would soon see the error in her logic. I also knew that she would then experience a gigantic boost in self-esteem once she saw the light.

But instead of being swayed by the brilliance of my reasoning she simply redoubled her efforts to convince me otherwise. We were soon in a tug-o-war over her limited intelligence, and I wasn't going to win. I could feel the rope slipping.

Then I got smart, and set down the rope. I stopped trying to talk her out of her feelings. I took a breath, felt the sadness that comes with feeling stupid, and I joined her. "Oh honey, that's hard," I began. "What's going on that you're feeling that way?" And she told me. It was a cute story and I had to bite my lip to keep from smiling. I took another breath and stayed with her.

I left space. I let her feel sad. I felt sad with her. Soon something both ordinary and magical happened. As kids do with such ease and grace, she moved through the feelings, and was quickly on to something else.

Funny how I was still feeling sad long after she had moved on. Thankfully, there was plenty of time later for me to tell her what a genius I thought she was.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Committing To The Line

By my best estimates I have put thousands of hours into learning how to play the guitar. But when it comes to the crafting of lyrics, I have traditionally flown by the seat of my proverbial pants.

Then I met my record producer/therapist, Jamie Mefford. Through his approach to making records, he has taught me the art of listening to the song, of leaving space, and of diving into each and every word on the page.

I have since discovered a new method to the songwriting madness. When I devote time to the discovery process, I set up my home studio, slip on the headphones, grab my guitar, hit "record," and start playing. As I play through a particular song I try to free up my heart-mind to sing whatever words seek to come through. As I listen to the song and breathe into her, I aim to temporarily quiet my judgmental mind that wants to critique each aspect of the lyrical output.

This creative approach has unleashed something in me, and I am writing on a more prolific level than ever before. The other night, while working on a song about San Francisco, I wrote (sang) more 40 verses. I then listened back to the recording, and transcribed every word. Picking out my favorite lines, words, and concepts, I wove them into the finished product.

As a result, I have two new songs that are close to done. Really close, as in one line away. But that line…it's not there yet. I have written a number of options for this particular lyric, and even thought I had it. But each time I sing the line, I'm not totally buying it. I'm having trouble committing to it and believing in it. As I learn to listen to my visceral reaction to singing, I can tell when my body contracts, and I'll know that if I perform the song with the line I have now, I will regret it. I will sing that line but blur the words, mildly embarrassed by them because I know they could be better.

It set me to wondering, where else do I do this? Where else in my life am I not buying my own lines? Are there places where I feel incongruent with what I am saying and doing, but I disregard my own visceral integrity?

I now know the embodied sense of purpose that grows from singing/living the lines I believe in and I aim to embrace this in all aspects of my life. I am a musician. And also a psychotherapist. In that order.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Space In The Song

In the process of recording my new album (which is about 80% done), my producer Jamie Mefford has brought several things to my attention. One of them is my tendency - developed through years of playing and performing as a solo singer/songwriter - to take up lots of space with my guitar playing. My style has evolved into an often busy network of Dave Matthews / Neil Young-style hammer-ons and pull-offs that sound fancy. I like playing that way and it has now become a comfortable groove.

As a solo artist this style is strategically understandable. But as I play more and more with the new trio, and record this new album, I have become acutely aware of the need to leave space for others. This of course brings up interesting things to ponder for me as I examine anew my personality outside of music. How much space am I leaving for others? As a therapist, husband, father, friend, and son I am certain I could leave more.

Musically, I am remembering that when space is left in the song, the listener can enter into the conversation. As a listener myself, I find that my mind/heart/soul fills the void - I hear overtones, echoes, other instruments and voices in the space - and I can take a breath. Denver Children's Hospital Music Therapist Tony Edelblute has writing succinctly about the topics of musical space and silence.

I contrast this with the music of bluegrass jam band Trampled By Turtles for example, whom I saw at Telluride this year. Their gig seems to be this: play as frenetically as possible for as long as possible and let the people dance. And no doubt they have devoted followers. But I'm not one of them. Listening to their music, I literally had to fight to breathe. There was no space. So like Elvis, I quickly left the building.

As I continue to write, record, and perform, my goal is to listen as much as I play - if not more. I enjoy the richness of sitting back and breathing into the song as the song breathes into me. Imagine if our world leaders left more space in their songs. How much space to you leave?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I attended the Telluride Bluegrass Festival this past weekend for the first time, and I will be disappointed if I ever miss it again. It was, quite simply, that good.

The music itself was so indescribably amazing that I will save my thoughts on the performances for a later diatribe. Add to that the scenic wonders that brought people to Telluride in the first place (ok, it was the pursuit of silver, but they stayed for the scenery), and we're only half way to explaining the magnitude of this blissful experience. The other half was comprised mostly of the people - happy, smiling, beautiful, diverse, interesting and (for the most part) conscientious people.

I have been to a number of music festivals in my life, and realized this time around that Planet Bluegrass knows how to throw a spectacular (and eco-friendly, carbon-neutral) festival, and this is the place where our inner children come out and play in full force. Adults and kids alike were hula hooping, playing bean-bag toss games, walking around on stilts, dressing up in costumes, dancing, smiling, skipping, laughing, and playing on a gigantic 4 foot tall Connect Four board. I'm surprised we didn't finger paint and play freeze tag.

Some disbelievers respond with ignorance and think this ecstatically happy adult/inner child experience was purely the result of everyone being drunk and high. Those more seasoned festevarians realize that while there were some among us who ingested their fair share of dopamine-enhancing substances, the overall vibe of happiness, joy, creativity and love was more than enough to produce the desired result.

During this amazing weekend my heart was opened repeatedly, I was moved to tears by the music more times than I could count, and I danced with a joyful abandon I had not known since childhood. All of this happened in the midst of ten thousand others who appeared to be having similar experiences.

I returned home exhausted and exhilarated, grateful to be alive, and thankful to Planet Bluegrass for making it happen.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Flow

Many of us have experienced "writer's block," and any bookstore is replete with writings on the topic, which of course is ironic in and of itself.

As a guitar player, piano player, singer and songwriter, the music itself often comes easily. Whether I like what comes through is a separate topic, but the general flow of the music tends to remain steady. Historically, all this changes when I pick up a pen.

I used to believe that the great songwriting masters - from Mozart to Dylan, Simon to Newman - could write an epic tale while simultaneously making a sandwich because they had something I so clearly did not. Yet as I have lately begun doing my homework to learn more about them and their respective songwriting processes I have become aware of how damn hard they all work at the craft. This information brings me great joy, and has helped me learn something important about myself: Not only do I need to work at this writing endeavor, but I need to learn how I work best.

As I mentioned before, nothing quite stops the creative juices from flowing as sitting with a pen in hand, staring at a blank piece of paper. I'm not sure what it is about this arrangement, but I feel intimidated by the space on the page, I try to hard to write something brilliant instead of just writing, and I end up writing very little or nothing at all.

Recently, I've discovered a new way of getting into the flow - the creative energy that seems to be in the surrounding all the time, waiting for me to tap into it. Since I know the music tends to come more naturally, I have started using what works. It might be sort of a DUH! moment, but I find that when I turn on my recording platform (Garage Band on my mac), and just start playing, the words start fumbling out of me if I can stay out of the way (read: keep my mind quiet). I was working with this format the other night and now I have literally hours of tape to roll back through, transcribing the lyrics and separating the usable phrases from the gibberish.

Some may accuse me of outright blasphemy, but as I learn to work hard at my writing, I see less and less separation between myself and Paul Simon, Michael Hedges, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan. And that makes me happy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Head and the Heart

There's a band called The Head and The Heart and they're currently on tour with Iron & Wine. I haven't listened to them much, but I like what I hear. And what's more, I like their name and it has set me to thinking.

I've had a pocketful of intensity in my life lately, and as a strategy for navigating through it, I have been playing a lot of guitar. New songs, old songs, spontaneous songs, it doesn't matter. I have become increasingly aware of how much energy moves through my being when I play the guitar, and it feels good. After one particularly visceral guitar session recently, I had to stop, put the guitar down, and move about the room while my body shook out the residual energy. Almost like Peter Levine talks about regarding our body's inherent healing mechanism that kicks in as a response to trauma.

The head and the heart. We are told they are connected, yet the times I actually feel this truth are far too seldom. But lately, I have become aware of something. As I'm playing guitar, my head swims with various thoughts. Some of the thoughts are about the music itself: the chord changes, the strumming, the picking, the tempo, and more chord changes. Sometimes I am able to simply observe this, and other times I judge what's happening. "That wasn't a clean chord," or "There's nothing original here," or "So and so is better." I have noticed something interesting with this judgmental part of my head jumps into the music - I start to miss. I miss chords, I miss the tempo, I make mistakes.

Then I remember to breathe, and breathe, and feel. And the music flows through again, typically with ease, simplicity, beauty, and without the heady mistakes listed before. I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, "American Beauty."

"It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain. And I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

The head and the heart. The breath and the judgment. I judge and I am ejected from the flow of universal energy. I breathe, relax, and I'm back in.

My ONE SONG this week is "Rambling Man" by Laura Marling. Listen and you'll thank yourself.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One Song

To blog or not to blog - a common conundrum for me. There are times I enjoy writing, and other times I write because I feel like I owe it to…to…

Well, I'm not sure. Many days I think I am the only one reading this thing anyway. And while I envision throngs of fans clamoring for my next blog as they glimpse whatever insight they can into the man behind the songs….well, for now it is simply not the case.

At any rate, I am writing again, and aim to someday make good on my personal commitment to blog every other week. Regardless of who does or does not read it, may there be purpose and meaning in the process.

I rediscovered something last night as my 5 year old daughter and I were having a dance party in the house: My love of the Grateful Dead. It's not that I had actually forgotten about them and their music. But listening last night (Franklin's Tower, live) sharing that music with my daughter, and attempting to explain to her (or rather, help her feel it directly) what I love so much about the music was a powerful experience. And it dawned on me: My goodness, she is already 5 years old and I've never really shared this with her. Not just the music, she's probably heard it. But I hadn't shared the ME-ness of it - why that music is so vital to my very being.

Caveat: Deadheads - you already know what I'm talking about, and I need to say nothing more. Non-believers - I'll never convince you no matter how much I type. Let's just leave it at that.

Music is my favorite thing and making it is a large part of my purpose on this planet. The reason I make it is that I love it - with every ounce of me I love it. I love to dance, to play guitar, to sing, to play percussion, to listen, to perform, to write and record - I love it. And not sharing deep aspects of this love with my already 5 year old? What else of myself have I not been sharing? And why?

I think I have a guess about the why. We were riding in the car the other day when she introduced me to her pet invisible dinosaur named "Busy." That was a clue. A sad cold slap of reality about how my daughter sees me. Busy. Hmmm…

So I come back to the music. I am thinking about writing a blog series about ONE SONG, and I will pick the song that is doing it for me the most lately. The "IT" varies of course, but you all know what I mean.

Tonight's song is Roll Away the Stone by Mumford and Sons. Listen to it if you can, many times. Especially the tail end of the song, when it changes tempo to 6/8 (or 3/4, I never really know the difference). And even more specifically when the lead singer goes for it. If you listen closely you'll know what I mean. Turn it up, listen again, and feel what happens in your body and your soul when you hear this. Then do it again and be glad you are alive.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Finding A Voice

I went and saw one of my favorite artists and Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips last night. The show at Denver's Soiled Dove Underground was sold out, for what I think are three reasons. First, it's Glen and he has a lot of fans. Second, he was playing a solo acoustic show, which brings out the formidable Colorado singer-songwriter crowd. Third, the opening act was Vienna Teng.

Prior to last night, I thought that was a band, not a person. I was wrong. Turns out she is a classically trained pianist with a decent voice, charming personality, and knack for writing captivating songs.

Vienna was great, and played a nice long hour plus set. Glen was wonderful, and easily won over the crowd despite dropping no fewer than five F-Bombs. Capping the evening with Paul Simon's "American Tune" was a surprising and spectacular choice. Yet without a doubt, the evening belonged to a performer I have yet to mention: percussionist Alex Wong.

He plays with Vienna, and labeling him a percussionist is like calling DaVinci a painter. In the course of one song, Alex would commonly play the cajon with his hands and his feet, while expertly playing a metallophone (left handed) and managing both snare and cymbal with his right. He didn't miss a beat or a note, his sensitivity to sonic dynamics was other-worldly, and I couldn't stop watching him. He also played the piano and guitar, various other percussion instruments, and sang original songs.

It is nights like these when I find myself equally energized to work on my own music, and shut it down because, well, I'm no Alex Wong.

This is a common experience for me after seeing my idols. I know from experience that eventually inspiration trumps the desire to shut-down, but I am keenly aware of both energies and their various narratives.

Try as I might, I will never groove like Alex Wong, write like Paul Simon, or play like Stevie Ray Vaughn. And the more I try to be like them, the more I lose who I am.

Finding a voice as a songwriter (and as a human being, I suppose), is an endless process. Allowing myself to be inspired by another, and integrating that inspiration into my own being is a gift. Yet at times I lose myself and try to write songs like so-and-so, instead of coming back home, going within, and seeing what emerges. I try to remember that I have a service to provide that is of value to some. Many, I'm hoping. And that as I continue to tap into my own authentic voice, the path will be revealed and the money will follow.