Saturday, January 12, 2013

Songwriting: American Roads

Lost Roads (detail), 2011 ongoing

In the past few weeks I've written three new songs, each in a completely different style. Two of them are fully notated for voice and piano, the third is a folk/country song, a kind of shuffle, called "American Roads." I wrote the basic idea for the lyrics a year ago, and set it aside for awhile.

I have three or four additional lyrics in my notebook that are finished and ready to be set to music; plus many more still being worked on. I decided to keep a lyric-writing notebook a year or so ago, after completing Heartlands and continuing to write new songs. With "American Roads," I now have five or six new songs completed and ready to record. That's starting to feel like an album, or at least an EP. I gather them together as they gradually finish themselves, and perhaps will eventually publish a songbook and an album.

Of the three recent songs, one gave me a very difficult time. It took a great deal of work to hammer it into shape, and I felt despair at the writing more than once. In a bit of unintended irony, when it was finished, I gave it the name "Endless." I started out with an idea, and went with it, got a ways into it, then felt stuck. Then there was a breakthrough, a eureka! moment when I figured out what was needed to finish the song. I then had to go back and rewrite the beginning, and still the ending took a long time to get just right. I can look back on it now, and say, this song is actually pretty good. Perhaps only I will ever see the seams where I made changes and fixes.

Meanwhile, in the middle of that difficult process, I suddenly broke away for an afternoon and a completely different song emerged, in a completely different style. "Still/Here" took less than two hours to write down, start to finish, the words and the music emerging at the same time. I only had to change one or two details, in the end, to finish it up and get it done. The results are good, and I've already heard several people say they like this song a lot. It will get performed soon, one way or another. I look forward to that.

During the process of writing these songs, looking at my own creative process, I noted that this writing took so much effort that I was on;y able to sit down and write every other day. One day on, one day of rest, one day on, one day of rest, and so forth. I don't know if that pattern will continue, whether or not it's part of the new normal.

Then I sat down to write "American Roads." As I said, I completely rewrote the lyrics, then sketched out the basic chord changes, melodies, and harmonic ideas. That was all I could get done in one day. I've written this piece as a lead sheet, just melody, chords, and words. The typical song lead sheet, what you find in The Real Book or on a chart for a studio recording session. It's all you get for a lot of folk music, after all, and this song is definitely within my folksong writing zone. With a nod to light country shuffle in it as well.

Here are the first verse and refrain. (Actually, the song structure is two verses and a refrain every time. Technically speaking, then, that's one verse repeated since the pattern is the same.)

Put the kettle on the Coleman
and fire up the truck
load up the blankets and the tent
and turn the radio on

I got this urge for going
right off the deep blue end
a corner of a long sky road
going round a bend

American Roads
winding through the heart
some place I’ve never been
American Roads
open wide for me
and take me home again

When I was rewriting the lyrics, I noticed that my original idea had two kinds of lyrical elements: first, specific moments, with specific references to places and activities I've experienced on various roadtrips; and second, a more familiar trope found in many folk, bluegrass and country songs, all derived from old-timey roots-music threads, which were thoughts about home and rootlessness, roaming and yearning for home. So when I was rewriting, for each set of two verses before the refrain, the first verse is specific, the second verse more philosophic and universal.

There's also a twist at the end, with a repeated refrain with new words that take the song off in another direction. Common practice in folk covers.

So, there you have. Three new songs in a couple of weeks. Very satisfying.

I have a lot of other tasks to deal with for the next few weeks, and I wrote these to meet an audition and performance deadline. I always write well on deadline. Having a fixed target often gets my creative juices flowing. But at the moment I'm in the mood to keep going, keep writing, see what happens. Perhaps I'll work some more on more songs this coming week, in between other creative projects and Things To Do that I must get done.

Oh, by the way, I do take requests.

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Friday, January 04, 2013

Brief Notes about Making Art, and a Digression

In the form of visual memes. Then a digression.

Catharsis in the arts is underrated. Why do people play the blues, or punk rock, or industrial rock? Because it's cathartic. I've played in bands in all those genres, and more, and rehearsals and gigs were almost always cathartic. I was reminded about catharsis a few days ago, when a lot of bottled up emotion around the Christmas holiday season suddenly came spilling out, triggered by a moment of aesthetic beauty. I remembered that I hadn't been making art for the past few days, and had been tied up in knots with the stresses of the winter holiday season. And then I remembered about catharsis, and was forcefully reminded about how making art keeps me grounded, centered, focused, and literally alive. Catharsis is more than just a pressure-release valve, it's a change of being, even if only for a moment. Art gives catharsis to the audience as well as the artist. The aesthetic moment that triggered all this was a sequence in a favorite movie that always, always gets to me on a very deep level, triggers an emotional response, and leaves washed clean afterwards, the way a good weep does.

Too many new age and neo-pagan artists are so focused on the light, on growth and healing and reminders to "keep it positive," that they forget that Shiva is both Creator and Destroyer. Parvati must be given her due, but so must Kali.

Sometimes you just have to get the darkness out of you by putting it into your art. The Wrathful Deities must have their due.

Art needs to be discursive, digressive, and distracted. All the best art takes you away somewhere, creates a new reality for you to wade around in, be immersed in. Art is nonlinear and even irrational. And that is its strength, and as it should be. Because that is what imagination is. Imagination is anarchic, not rational. Making art must be a journey for the artist as well as the audience, a free exploration of undiscovered and unfamiliar trails.

Life is messy, so is art.

Making art requires improvisation and intuition and inspiration, and not being in control, and not knowing what you're doing, or where you're being led.

Life is an improvisation, a guessing game at times. So is making art. Fingerpainting as well as technical pens. Disorder and chaos as another condition of orderliness. Dionysus and Apollo both.

And a digression:

Why do I share some of my art online? I think of it as advertising. Marketing for my arts business, as well as for fun. And I usually share only bits and pieces, and not the actual piece at full size. For that, or a print, people need to visit my online store.

Why don't we respect our artists? Because we have been convinced that art is a hobby, or that we don't need it to survive. Wrong on both counts, of course, but what do you expect from a culture that avoids self-reflection as much as possible, in favor of the loud and brassy self-display of narcissism and mannerism and self-absorption? When was the last time you shared something on your Facebook wall that was for the sake of others, and not basically a form of self-advertising? If you can honestly say, yesterday, then gods bless you.

So why do artists self-advertise online? Finding their audience. Your niche audience can be anywhere in the world, now, and at last you can connect with them. Calling that narcissism seems like a category error, though, because it's about the art, not about you. Note the subtle difference.

Every week I get requests from strangers to use my art for their website for free. These days I mostly say No. Folks, I am trying to make a living from my art.

Can I stop someone from stealing and using an image of mine online? No, but I can remind them that I probably worked as hard to make that piece of art they just "borrowed" as they did to earn their weekly paycheck. Maybe harder, because there's no downtime in art-making, and you never take a vacation. So I can't stop the thieves, but I also won't let them make me paranoid, and I'll continue to share some of my art, to find my audience, to make connections, and to let people know the art is there. Our culture pays lawyers hundreds of dollars an hour, and artists nothing, that's where our priorities really lie, and actions always speak louder than words.

But you can only buy my art from me.

If you like what any given artist creates, support them by buying their art, rather than stealing it or "borrowing" it. I got one of those freebie requests in my email today. I'm thinking about how to respond. I'm thinking out loud.

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