Tag Archives: Creativity

Listening Lab: Joni Mitchell

I’m trying something new: starting a song with words. So far I’ve got a concept and one sheet in a yellow pad covered with images and rhymes and anecdotes and vignettes. It’s pretty damn interesting thinking exclusively about lyrics, and what’s possible, and what’s important, which I suppose, whether it ends up being a rock song or a synth tune or a waltz, is truth and beauty. Which brings us to the master, Joni Mitchell. The title track on her 1972 album For the Roses is about show business and fame, broadly, and more specifically her former lover, James Taylor. The way it works as intimate missive and complicated confessional and harsh commentary all at once never fails to astonish me. Sorry about the crappy sound but this is the best I could find. Here’s to words and music. Here’s to truth and beauty.

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Did you get a round resounding for you
Way up here
It seems like many dim years ago
Since I heard that face to face
Or seen you face to face
Though tonight I can feel you here
I get these notes
On butterflies and lilac sprays
From girls who just have to tell me
They saw you somewhere

In some office sits a poet
And he trembles as he sings
And he asks some guy
To circulate his soul around
On your mark red ribbon runner
The caressing rev of motors
Finely tuned like fancy women
In thirties evening gowns
Up the charts
Off to the airport-
Your name’s in the news
Everything’s first class-
The lights go down-
And it’s just you up there
Getting them to feel like that

Remember the days when you used to sit
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you’re seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
They toss around your latest golden egg
Speculation-well, who’s to know
If the next one in the nest
Will glitter for them so

I guess I seem ungrateful
With my teeth sunk in the hand
That brings me things
I really can’t give up just yet
Now I sit up here
The critic!
And they introduce some band
But they seem so much confetti
Looking at them on my TV set
Oh the power and the glory
Just when you’re getting a taste for worship
They start bringing out the hammers
And the boards
And the nails

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Chilly now
End of summer
No more shiny hot nights
It was just the arbutus rustling
And the bumping of the logs
And the moon swept down black water
Like an empty spotlight

Filed under: Word/Play Tags: , , ,

My Cake Is Something. Not A Song. But Something.

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.

Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tags: , , , ,

Mike Doughty Is Looking Back and Moving On. Neat Trick.

And the award for Rock Musician Least Likely to Become a Nostalgia Act goes to…Mike Doughty. The former Soul Coughing frontman doesn’t play Soul Coughing songs. Ever. His new memoir, “The Book of Drugs,” is a literary middle finger to the artist’s salad days. It puts the mental in unsentimental. It screams goodbye to all that — the band, the junk, the tunes, the willful inscrutability. To that last point, Doughty spent 2009 answering audience members’ off-the-wall questions between songs, and has just released a double-live album of recordings from the tour called “The Question Jar Show.” Doughty, 41, answered yet more questions via email.

Q: What’s the relationship between drugs and art as it has played out in your life?

A: I bought the spiel about the romantic connection between drugs and art, for sure. In practice, though, I used drugs to shut down self-loathing, so I could finish songs.

Q: What happened to your songwriting when you got clean?

A: I’m better than I was. The songs have more depth, there’s more of my heart truly in them. I’m able to access a darker part of myself — ironically. I’m working for the music, not trying to justify an inflated, grandiose sense of self — which was fundamentally just trying to feel OK about my existence.

Q: You’ve said that when you were unable to write songs you wrote prayers. Are you a man of faith or were you desperate?

A: People roll their eyes at the spiritual-not-religious spiel, but it’s very true. I was indeed desperate. But I did have a real fire to connect with something larger and deeper, to get out of my self-centeredness. The tragedy of Narcissus wasn’t that he was so into his own looks — it was that he was unable to stop looking at his reflection, and missed out on everything in the universe. I heard a cardinal say, “To have faith is to have crises of faith.” Which is incredible to hear from a guy whose entire life has been about his faith.


Filed under: Interviews Tags: , , , , , ,
knocking on heaven's door

Knocking On Heaven’s Door.

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.


Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tags: ,

I’m Not One Of Those Fast Girls.

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.


Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tags: , ,