Give the song legs, and let it walk away from you.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a “navel-gazer.”  The term – which, in my own words, refers to self-indulgent introspection so extreme it borders on complete self-absorption – was one I first heard from my dad, who always spoke about it like it was a bad thing: a practice that leads to egotistical self-importance at best, and self-pitying depression at worst.  Wikipedia tells me that the technical term for navel-gazing is omphaloskepsis: “the contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation” (see also: egotism).  I have found myself in an almost continual state of omphaloskepsis of late, which should come as no surprise, given my current set of circumstances: I am living alone for the first time in my life and simultaneously passing through the shortest, coldest days of winter – which, among other things (such as indicating a moderate case of S.A.D.), means that beyond going to work I have no desire to leave the house, and have recently gotten into the habit of drinking copious amounts of red wine while reading depressing novels (see also: Prozac Nation, Patti Smith’s Just Kids), writing self-indulgent blog posts, burning too much Sandalwood incense… and waiting for the spring.  I also just officially completed my first calendar year as a college graduate (which has been characterized by an almost continuous series of identity crises) and am, as you all know, a songwriter: another identity in itself, and one I cling to for dear life, and a career which has me constantly attempting to ratchet up the deepest, darkest depths of my soul (and then having existential crises and anxiety attacks when I actually do – I mean, what’s the point of the WORLD, you guys?!?!).  I have become the definition of the navel-gazer and probably ought to be referenced in the Wikipedia article (see also: Anna Rose Beck).

In light of these circumstances, I obviously found myself mired in self-absorbed reflection when I attended Tift Merritt’s songwriting workshop tonight, which was held in the very building on Duke’s East campus where, just less than two years ago and down the hall from where we sat, I first played guitar and sang in front of an audience for the first time ever.  My debut was part of “All of the Above,” an annual conglomeration of monologues written by Duke women and performed by other Duke women.  (The ladies running the operation were slightly annoyed when all I wanted to do was dress up like Bob Dylan and sing When the Ship Comes In… but at the time I hadn’t yet written my first song, so they humored me).  Tonight when I visited the ladies’ room in said East campus building I unfortunately was forced to recall a more desperate time in my personal history which found me chugging cheap white wine from the bottle… in the stall (see also: alcohol abuse) in an attempt to quell my SERIOUSLY terrible stage fright.

But to get back on topic, tonight happens to also be the eve of yet another visit to the recording studio in Asheville where I’ll be finalizing the mixing details of my first studio album (squeal!!!)  I can’t help but marvel at the mischievous and often beautiful outcomes of coincidence which bring us full circle and cause us to reflect on the paths we’ve chosen to take in life.  How appropriate that I was here to listen to another, more seasoned songwriter, talk about her own personal reflections, artistic processes and journey as a musician.

Ever since I started writing songs, I have been intensely interested in other artists’ songwriting processes.  There is so much variation, even within an individual, with regards to songwriting: for example (and to my readers who are songwriters, these will be obvious questions, so bear with me):  Which comes first – the music or the language?  Where does inspiration come from?  Does one write in first-person, in second-person, in present or past or even future tense?  Are the songs narratives, or random collections of observations about our personal philosophies, or advice to others?  Are they written for ourselves, or for people we know, or for society in general?  How strictly does one stick to “traditional” rules about song structure (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse…)?  Does one collaboratively write songs with others?  How ‘personal’ and ‘sacred’, and even important to one’s emotional well-being, is the songwriting process?  And so on and so forth…

I hadn’t planned to, but found myself pulling out my MacBook and frantically typing everything profound and/or interesting that came out of Tift Merritt’s mouth (which was quite a lot, actually).  So without further adieu, a few of my favorite reflections of Tift Merritt’s, with my randomly interjected, biased commentary:

On Bob Dylan:

“When I was listening to my Dylan records, or Van Morrison records, or Joni Mitchell records, there’s this kind of flippancy… an air of cool… like ‘I’m not even going to lift my finger to explain to you how I feel.’  And maybe all those songs really did just roll off Bob Dylan’s tongue… but as much as you might enjoy and strive for this casual feel, there is this very formal structure that can be used to build a song…  Dylan is forcing the lyrics into the music, and letting some of the music go.  When you listen to a Dylan song you don’t expect the melody to be as catchy as ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’….  There are lyrics and there’s a message, and that’s what’s important.”

…okay, so we don’t agree on Dylan.  I think some of his melodies are more gorgeous than a LOT of other songs I’ve heard.  And that, combined with his poetry and his content, makes him incredible in my mind.  But I guess we each have our musical tastes and are entitled to our own opinions.  At least she’s really sat down and listened and thought about it.

On music as language, and using musical structures to build a song:

“A good song can be a total of three sentences.  I think about music as a language.  I think about chord structures like the way you would put a subject and a predicate together.  And when I write a song… I have everything I have when I write a short story… setting, character, timeline… and whether they make it into those three sentences or not, you make sure that people feel those things.  When I was a kid my dad sat me down and told me you can play any song with a 1-4-5 chord progression.  And obviously there’s more to it than that.  But that’s what I mean about how music is a language.  You can agree on a set of rules and as long as you agree you can use it to communicate.  On the other hand there’s my friend Simone Dinnerstein who can speak the language with such subtlety and nuance that my jaw drops and I can’t keep up with her.  You know that the 1 can go to the 4… and the 4 can go to the 5… and it’s like putting a sentence together.  I think if you can think about songwriting in terms of having the strength of all of these choices at hand… to somehow think about the structures that you have and make choices with purpose and with knowledge, I think you are actually giving yourself more opportunity for freedom rather than less opportunity for freedom.  If I think about music as a set of deliberate choices and a structure I can function within… I can sit down at my desk and know that whatever huge scary choices are going to come at me, I know I’m equipped.”

Okay, so, for me, a three-sentence song (her example was ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’) is boring like vanilla ice cream (which is sometimes the perfect thing for how you’re feeling, but other times you just want something more…)  That’s why I love Dylan.  I want to hear new ideas and new truths and new mental images and new scenarios and new philosophies, throughout the whole song.  That is what I strive for in my songwriting, too.  I do love her metaphor comparing chord structures and sentence structures, and thinking about pre-existing chord structures as tools rather than as something you get trapped into.  That’s liberating.

On bridges:

“The bridge is really the ‘main course’ of the song.  It’s where I have to stop and ask myself, ‘what am I really trying to say?’  The bridge has to be a really well-constructed sentence.  You spend the whole song ‘working up the gumption’ to say what you want to say, and then you say it in the bridge.”

I buy it.  I don’t use bridges always but I dig them and use them when they come to me.  I haven’t thought about bridges as being the MAIN message of the song.  I always thought that was the job of the chorus.  But I buy what she’s saying.

On collaboration in writing:

“To me the most personal thing I do is when I go off alone and write music.  I generally don’t write with other people.  To me, it feels like going on a very uncomfortable date.  I don’t even write with my band…. There’s a sense of urgency when you write a song, and if you tell it to someone before you write it, you get rid of that sense of urgency.. so I’m very protective of what I have to say.”


On what defines a “good” song:

“At the end of the day a really good song is one that I can play all by myself and it will carry the same feeling and weight as it would if I had the full band with the strings and the horns and everything else.  A good song can hold its own.”

Yes.  Love it.  Lapping it up.

On criticism:

“In the music industry you receive a LOT of bad, unsolicited advice.  Especially about songwriting.  So, I’ve really learned to be my own best editor… The flip side of that, is there is a  moment to BE that best editor, and that is NOT when you are creating.  The angst that we all have when we’re sitting down to make something (‘is this any good?  is this idea so stupid?’)…  Not one ounce of those feelings do ANYTHING to make anything.  So there is no reason to edit yourself when you’re making something… when you’re in the process of trying to make it… let it be born… there’s no reason to edit… then you put it on its own and it’ll either stand there and speak or it will fall down, and you make that call later.  Those are two very different moments that often get tied together but shouldn’t be.”

On talking about the “meaning” of your songs:

“Sometimes I think it’s bad to talk about where songs come from because I like to think that songs are bigger than where they come from and to explain them really demeans them.”

Yes.  Yes.  I HATE when people ask me what a song is “about.”  I say, I can’t put what it’s “about” into one, coherent sentence – that’s WHY I had to write a song.  Otherwise I would’ve just written a sentence to say what I needed to say.

On letting content drive structure:

“When a story comes to you, you know which structure to use…. you use a folk structure for long, lyrically driven story, and you use a soul structure for something with feeling and more simple words.  You give the song legs and let it walk away from you.

Amen, sistah.  Later you guys.  I’ve gotta go listen to some Tift Merritt.

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