Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Songwriting Journal - History

I grew up writing songs. Secretly. In my head, in the bath, singing myself to sleep. Quietly, so no one would hear, make snarky comments, tell me I was doing it wrong, or what I should be doing instead. The first fully formed song I recall creating was when I was 11, and had a crush on my best friend’s big brother. It’s a blues song, although I have no idea where or when I may have heard the blues as a child. The only music I remember growing up with, other than Top 40 radio, is soundtracks from Disney movies. I played and played Mary Poppins and Cinderella, until I wore the grooves off the old LP. Even today, I can sing most of Mary Poppins from memory, and know for sure that a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, and shaking hands with a chimney sweep will bring you good luck.

Anyway, back to the blues, and still not sure how I knew anything of blues music. But, the song is still there, in the memory banks, waiting to be brought into the light and made relevant. It’s a pretty decent song actually, complete with the deep moan of the unrequited, and heartfelt declarations of love for a man who, at the time, must have been nothing more than an awkward pimple-faced teen. One day soon, I’ll pull that song out of my pocket, roll it around some, give it some polish, and a chance to breathe the air in the here and now.

The next phase of songwriting was in my late teens and early twenties. College life gave me the chance to meet new people, and gain some exposure to music other than what came out of the car radio. A friend came along who helped me buy my first guitar (still the one I practice and write with today), and the songs started rolling out. I recall writing songs in a variety of dorms and common rooms, pages and pages of songs exploring love of many kinds, searching, heartbreak, yearning, you name it. Most of these songs have been lost along the years - not a great loss, really. A few of the musical progressions live on; one of those has actually made it into a professionally recorded product. Perhaps more will do the same.

In 1982 I started working in theatre, found the collaborative meld of many different art forms to be endlessly fascinating, and followed that path for many years. One thing about theatre - it is all-consuming, there is little room for anything else between the hours of creation and preparation, rehearsal, performance. Things slowed down a bit when my children came along, and more still in January of 1999, when for a reason I had yet to know, I just didn’t want to do theatre any more. I still wanted to communicate with an audience, but in a different way. What I wanted to do was go back to music. So, I started working in that direction, took a guitar class, started playing with melodies and words, found a partner to work with.

I was preparing, or the universe was preparing me, but for something vastly different than what I anticipated. On a Saturday morning in August of 1999, I played my first show as a singer-songwriter. On the following Monday, I found out my daughter had a brain tumor. (Let me just cut to the chase here and say that she is doing well. Its complicated and still challenging, but no complaints here.) Through the subsequent years of challenge and reward, music kept me going. Playing music and writing songs was flexible enough to maintain in between trips to the hospital, and the level of energy needed to guide a family through this sort of thing. On a more personal level, writing songs gave me the emotional and creative release necessary to keep an even keel when things got really tough.

It has taken me 10 years to go from that first show as a singer-songwriter, to where I am now, with my first album of original songs making its way into the world. My progress has been slow, but steady nonetheless. I have learned to keep paper and pencil on hand at all times, on the bed stand, in the car, a stack of index cards tucked into my pocket to catch strings of words as they capture my attention. I have discovered the thrill of taking small moments, spinning them out this way and that to study the strong parts and weak, and pulling them in again into a song. The music composition piece is a bit harder for me, since I really need quiet time for this to happen, and quiet time is hard to come by. Nevertheless, I keep plugging along. Songwriting is a piece of what I do, along with other writing, continued work in the theatre, and most importantly, keeping things going as a wife and mom. From time to time I’ll take a minute to write about the evolution of a particular piece I have written. Perhaps from time to time you will return to read.

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