My friend Wesley sent me a text a few weeks ago from a mall near my house. It included the words suburban and consumer and nightmare. There are a pair of upscale malls close by, and I have a complicated relationship with both of them. They’re seductive and depressing. They’re comforting and soul-sucking. Malls are not what they seem to be; they’re not placid retail oases. They contain something weirder.
I wrote a song about it, which I’ve been calling Mall Song, and the name has stuck as things will do when you don’t change them. I recorded it on the Danelectro with GarageBand’s Dreamy Shimmer effect. A friend asked me if I use the effect to mask my lack of expertise, and I told him that I use it because I like how it sounds, but I wonder. You can’t have a good guitar player but here, have Dreamy Shimmer!
The structure is odd: four verses, a drone-y chorus, and an entirely new section at the end. It drags. I’m figuring out how to sing. Let’s call it work in progress.
Mall 11 by Jason Brockert
To recap: a drum machine, a keyboard, and a wannabe songwriter walk into a bar.
“What’ll it be?”
“The usual. Confusion. Frustration. Elation. Disappointment. Fear.”
“How about a shot of selfishness? While you’re at it.”
“Good call. Line ‘em up.”
“My Cake” is about selfishness. It’s made of a bunch of tracks I recorded using instruments I don’t play. I arranged the beats, keyboards, and vocals in layers and then wrote a couple of quasi-verses and a bridge that currently functions as a coda because this whole thing has been done in the most ad hoc possible fashion and the end was the only place to put it. The bridge/coda sounds completely different from everything else because I recorded it quickly and mindlessly the other day just so I could remember how it went.
Three songs make their presence felt here in ways large and small: A Real Hero from the Drive soundtrack, Actor Out Of Work by St. Vincent, and Pictures of Me by Elliott Smith.
Gary Smith helped me make a beginning, patched in the bridge/coda, and made the whole mess more listenable. Think of it as a scratch pad, or an underdeveloped snapshot, or six parts in search of a song.
Satchel is gone. Specifically, he’s left for three months in Nepal. Less specifically, he’s left forever, in the way that 18-year-olds will do.
I dropped him off and drove home. I’m not much of a crier, but I cried and cried and the song basically came out between sobs. It sounds cheesy but this one is from the heart. I recorded it last night, late, sorta drunk.
You might think that someone like me — a journalist who interviews artists about their craft, a sensible human who groks the inspiration-to-perspiration ratio, a career voyeur who has toured the sausage factory — would be immune to the myths of the creative process.
You would be wrong. It’s funny how you can know something and not know it. Eight months into this thing I can’t quite shake the notion that songs travel from soul to GarageBand on a cloud of fairy dust. It’s worse than irrational. It’s inconvenient. It means that I when I get stuck I have no tools for becoming unstuck. It’s the reason I haven’t said yes to a class or a collaboration. It explains why I’ve only written five songs. There are other explanations, like laziness and perfectionism and marketing, both the promotional and the grocery variety. The list goes on. I won’t, except to float a rhetorical question in feeble defense of my asinine attitude toward songwriting tools: If you knock on heaven’s door and no one answers, do you bash it in with a hammer or wait politely on the stoop?
My creative process involves waiting on the stoop, holding a guitar and staring into space. Sometimes I drink wine. Occasionally the door opens a crack but instead of shoving my foot in and marching through, I savor my glimpse and milk the thrill until it’s a worn nub of satisfaction. The nub looks a lot like one verse. This can go on for days and weeks. Meanwhile, a Google search for “creativity tips” yeilds 21,800,000 results. My friend Adam is encouraging me to take a songwriting workshop at Club Passim. My friend Aaron is encouraging me to work with him. Incredibly talented people have told me to my face that they struggle to start or finish or middle and oh by the way here’s how I deal. I’ve yet to try any of it, preferring, apparently, to nurse my delusions and agonize.
Something’s got to give. Maybe you, dear reader, have an idea. Scroll down. See the comment box. Lay it on me.
If I were a better, braver, smarter, swifter person, I would participate in February Album Writing Month. The challenge? Write 14 1/2 songs in 29 days (it’s leap year so there’s an extra day to write an extra half-song). The problem? I’ve been working on “My Cake” for a month-and-a-half. Case closed. I do plan to lurk, loiter, and glean. What I know so far is that as of late morning Feb. 2, 6737 Fawmers had generated 734 songs. Among them is “The Name is Martha Jones,” a tune that falls (according to liner notes) under the loose umbrella of Time Lord Rock, a genre specific to the fandom of Dr. Who, and “All the Way to Six,” which plumbs the philosophical quandary of toaster settings. I am honestly so inspired by the pageant of humanity.