an attempt to explain to you (and to myself) why I write songs

When you’re working towards a goal, it is hard not to run, run, run (as fast as you can) all while keeping your chin up and your eyes on the prize – even if you’re not exactly sure what that prize will look like once you’ve got your hands on it. In the midst of all the running and the panting and the exhaustion… it’s easy to ignore the most obvious question: Why am I doing this in the first place?

Sometimes an answer doesn’t come easily. But when it does, you’ve got to pay attention, and you’ve got to record it either in memory or in physical form, so that the next time you forget, you’ll have at least an answer that worked for you in the past. Recently the answer came to me in the form of two open mic performances.

Two weeks ago at a Monday night open mic in Durham, I got on stage confident that I’d be able to seamlessly perform three of the seven songs that are going to be on my new album – songs that I have played over and over again so many times that I don’t even have to think about them in order to get them right. My mind was free to roam and wander – so I was caught up in how I didn’t like the sound of my voice over the PA system, and how there were three people in the audience and how I felt so silly because I could’ve just sung for them sitting three feet away rather than on a stage into a mic. All I wanted was for the songs to be over and to get off the stage – so of course, I started screwing up, hitting notes off pitch… and questioning why I’m even a performer in the first place, and shouldn’t I be doing something else with my life? The tragic result that night was a performance that was lacking in any emotion other than anxiety.

The next week I was there again on the same stage, deciding what songs to play at the last moment. I had no desire to sing any of the familiar, “go-to” songs, so I chose a few from my past that I hadn’t played in months. This time, I actually had to think about the words I was singing. And because of that, I was totally focused on what the songs were about and conveying that emotion to the people listening. Rather than worrying about a slightly off-pitch utterance, I was more concerned with the overall tone of my voice and how I could use the guitar to get quieter or louder or speed up or slow down, all to control the feeling of the song. And you know what? That night I loved playing, and I think others loved listening.

In my opinion people don’t care so much – or maybe they don’t even notice – when music is slightly imperfect in pitch or when fingers slip up in their picking patterns. Maybe a performer screws up a couple of times, but people don’t remember that at the end of the night. What they do remember is what and how the music made them feel. My goal when I play is to make people feel. I want them to feel what I was feeling at the moment when I wrote the song – nostalgia, longing, despair, fear, uncertainty, rejection – whatever it was, and whether or not it can easily be put into words – they are going to feel it. So that is what I’m going to strive for in every performance from now on, no matter how seemingly insignificant it is.

Because I think that’s the point of songwriting. Songwriting lets us convey experiences, thoughts, and emotions with a power that words on a page, or even spoken words, do not. Because it has the power of music behind it, songwriting allows us to express things that are beyond the scope of human language. In that way, it allows people to connect – whether through the earbuds of an iPod or on the radio or at a live performance – with the writer of the song and with all the other people who have ever listened to that song. Each person’s unique life experiences cause them to take away something different, which of course is another beautiful eccentricity of songwriting – that it is often deliberately open-ended and therefore open to individual interpretation. When we hear lyrics, we are constantly trying to shape them so that they fit into the frameworks of our own lives and minds and maybe lead us to new revelations or introduce us to different perspectives. And when we can relate to the emotion or experience of a particular song, the knowledge that someone else has felt the same way or experienced a similar situation makes us feel less alone.

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