Here’s a lament I’ve heard from friends for as long as I’ve been a musician. “There isn’t anything that I could say that hasn’t been said a thousand times, and said better by Paul McCartney (Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, <insert idol’s name here>).” I’ve felt this way myself, and there isn’t a week that goes by that I haven’t thought it, when sitting down to write. You sit there and you jot down an idea, and then you think of the song that’s kind of like that, only Stevie Wonder wrote it, and so it sounds like angels set it to music, and you fold your arms and decide to go do laundry instead, because at least no one is going to compare your laundry to Stevie Wonder’s. He’s got someone to do his laundry otherwise his tennis whites would all be pink. (Yes, that’s a super-obscure 80’s SNL reference. Deal with it).
I’m going to ask you to step away from the Tide, and here’s why. Stevie Wonder’s music is everything that I wish my writing could be, and as a songwriter, he’ll always be a hero. But he’s writing about the same things that songwriters have written about since time began. Love, Pain, Joy, Oppression. That’s pretty much it. And when you think about it that way, it’s not quite so daunting. Sure, Prince will always be able to play every instrument better than you can, but you can probably sing better than Bob Dylan, right? I mean, it wouldn’t take much. Larry King could probably sing better than Dylan nowadays. My point is that you are somewhere on the continuum. Dylan put down words on paper, and to many those words are as cherished as “Overjoyed” is to me. But to someone else, Dylan is ‘meh’. One man’s Steinbeck is another man’s Danielle Steele.
If You Don’t Say It Now, You’re Going To Lose It.
Last week I was sitting by the lake watching the water, and I had an idea for a melody. I didn’t have any paper on me and my phone was dead, so I couldn’t record it. I sang it all the way back to the office, and when I walked in the building, I heard George Benson’s Gimme The Night on the lobby speakers. Bam. My song was gone, and George was in my head looking at me saying, “What? There’s music in the air and lots of lovin’ everywhere, fool. What you gonna do about it? You’re gonna Gimme The Night, that’s what.” And how do you argue with George when he’s all ”badabadabadaba?” As I rode up the elevator, I thought, “Whatever. That song wasn’t so great anyway.” And maybe it wasn’t. But it was saying something that I wanted to say, and for that reason I wish I had been able to write it down. Tomorrow, I might be able to use a piece of it somewhere else. A snippet might make it into an improvisation if I’m able to sit with the theme for a while and get it into my brain. A lyric might be banal here, but useful somewhere else.
So write it down. Record it. If you have a thought that in this moment sounds cool, then save it in some form. If you open the file later and say, “nope. That’s crap,” then at least you are able to make that distinction later, because you have it at your disposal to dispose of. But get it out there into the world. Get it out of your brain.
Because it’s useful to someone somewhere.
Freddie Mercury once said, “I think Queen songs are pure escapism, like going to see a good film – after that, they can go away and say ‘that was great,’ and go back to their problems. I don’t want to change the world with our music. There are no hidden messages in our songs, except for some of Brian’s.” And on its face it’s true. The intention may only have been to write entertaining songs, but I can tell you that there were moments in my life when The Show Must Go On, became my theme song, and allowed me to move through life and get on with what needed to happen. And it’s not just a huge world renowned band like Queen either. There are CDs from local artists that wove themselves into the soundtrack of my life as well.
I have t-shirts that were small-run designs made by an artist that I dig, and they are consistently the shirts that get a comment, so those designs have brought people into my life if only for a moment, who wouldn’t have been there if not for the wonderful art made by someone who at some point probably said, “I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said before.”
You Are a Cliche’, With a Twist
When you were a teen, your angst was probably a source of amusement for people around you in their twenties. And when you were in your twenties, your optimism and idealism were just as amusing for the thirtysomethings you came into contact with. But your words, and the way you interact with your world is yours alone. You may say things that sound trite, and you may say things that to someone else are demonstrably false, but if you say nothing, then you don’t get to have that conversation. You will never get to connect with an audience for good or bad. You fear the bad, and hope for the good, but I’m telling you that they’re both wonderful.
I wrote a song when I was first living on my own and going through a romantic dry spell. The title was, Dump Your Boyfriend (and Move In With Me). I listened to a recording of this song a while ago and thought, “Meh. It’s really silly, and I hate the chord progression.” But back when this song was in my band’s set, I also remember a fifty-year-old man coming up to me after a concert, and he was beaming. “That song is so fun, Sean. It perfectly describes how I remember feeling when I was your age. There are women I wish I could have sung that song to. Some messages are timeless.” Now, do I think he was right? Personally, if I were ever to perform that song again, I’d change a lot. But for him, in that moment, he wouldn’t change a thing. It touched him, and he went home with a twinkle in his eye and probably gave his wife a pinch on the bottom too.
Another song of mine was not so well received by another audience member. We were singing a song that had a lot of improvisation in it, and while most of the audience seemed entertained, I had a conversation after the show with a young woman who said that it needed, “less scatting.” She went on to say that the song was good, but we’d done too much improvisation and it felt like we didn’t care about the audience anymore. I thanked her for her input, and at our next rehearsal we talked about it as a band. Ultimately we decided that the song was fine the way it was. Maybe it just wasn’t her thing. We were a jazz oriented band, so it’s not like improvisation was ever going away. But having the conversation made us more aware of including the audience in our vibe, and having the conversation made us stronger performers.
I Second That Emotion
My wish for you (and for myself) is that you push through the second guessing. There’s something to be said for writing mediocre songs, and painting second-rate still-lifes. Because as you’re writing them, you’re also defining for yourself what is better, and what you hope to be tomorrow. My old man died a few years ago, but about a month or two before he passed he said something to me that stuck. “I’m not worried about you. Because you aren’t like me in one way that matters. You’re not overly scared of trying things. You decided it would be fun to write a comic, and you did it. Your first ones are really rough. The art isn’t great, and the jokes aren’t always hitting, but you kept going, and there are some recently that made me laugh out loud. It’s the same with your music. When you were younger, you’d bring home tapes of stuff that you were doing, and I’d just sit there and smile, and hope you decided to chuck it and go back to school for biology like you wanted to when you were ten.”
I didn’t know this. I thought he always dug my music. I knew he’d worried about me going to a music conservatory, but I didn’t know he didn’t like my stuff. He went on…
“It wasn’t until your Undergrad recital that I understood. You weren’t afraid to screw up. You got up on stage and you threw down everything you had. It didn’t matter if the notes were 100% perfect. What mattered was you left nothing backstage. You threw it all into the crowd and made sure they knew your heart was out there for everybody to see. I’m not afraid for you, because I know that you are able to screw up and learn from it. It’s something that I have never been able to do artistically. In my job, I was great at it, but when I sit down to write, or draw, I just hear this voice saying, ‘no one cares, and you have nothing anyone wants to hear.’ You don’t seem to have that.”
I wish it were true. I wish I didn’t have that voice. But I think anybody who puts themselves out there has at least a little of that voice. It’s just that we learn to channel it. I’m finding that voice is loudest when I’m songwriting. I can draw comics all day and not care much if anybody digs them. But songwriting is tough. I hope some day soon I can prove the old man right. For now, I’m just going to go sit down and write, inner-critic be damned. You should too.