I’m writing a moody rock song about the mall. It’s pretty dark and sort of pretty and there isn’t much of a rhyme scheme but I’m enjoying the literalness of it. I like a lyric that looks you in the eye. There’s something mesmerizingly literal about EMA’s “California.” It’s also mesmerizingly stream-of-consciousness. That’s a neat trick. I can’t look away. Here’s to pointing fingers and naming names and my home state.
I’ve been reading again. Tragically, I’d stopped for a while. Since striking out on my own it seems like there’s always something more important to do. Write a blog post. Work on a song. Prepare for an interview. Tweet. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Reading seemed like a luxury. But it’s not. Quite the opposite, as it turns out.
I’ve just finished “Poser,” by Claire Dederer. It’s a memoir about yoga and family life and expectations — the expectations we have of ourselves, the expectations we imagine everyone else has of us, and how we navigate the murky divide between the two. I chew on that one a lot. You might assume that a grown woman such as myself, a thinking person who has lived a little, maybe more than a little, would know the difference between what she wants and what she believes she should want. You would be wrong. Which is why when I arrived at this one line I stopped and closed the book and stared into space for a really long time like I’d been conked on the head with something heavy. Which I had.
What if the opposite of good wasn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?
I know I’ve been getting all philosophical but, goddamn, what a notion. It applies to everything. Songwriting. Relationships. Decisions. Housecleaning. It’s revolutionary. It’s liberating. It’s a tonic and a corrective and an angle of approach that throws judgement out the window. People ask me what my goals are. For a while I said I want to write some songs. Lately I’ve been saying I want to write some good songs. Now I’m thinking all I want to do is remember what I set out to be at the beginning of this project: sincere.
I just finished reading Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. The book is about a 40-something former rock ‘n roll wunderkind, Nik, a recluse who keeps making brilliant music, and his sister, Denise. It’s about true obsession and tenuous family bonds and time passing. It’s about how everyone and everything is shaped by the confounding feedback loops between memory and identity and art and life and authenticity and invention. The story takes place at the intersection of what might have been and what really is, a place you won’t be able to locate with GPS but where you will almost certainly find yourself on a dark night, at which time you may, like Denise, conclude that you have “in middle age become a person whose deepest emotional moments happened vicariously.”
I’ve never quite framed it in those terms, but I think the prospect of turning into that person is the reason I decided to stop writing about songs and start writing songs. I spent so many years on the outside looking in. Here’s how it’s been with me and music: like falling in love and following the guy around for a couple of decades and writing about him in your journal (or the newspaper) without ever introducing yourself, or going on a date, or kissing.
I grew weary of being an observer. I grew frightened of the creeping sense of detachment. I wanted to say less and do more. A lot of people think those deep emotional moments Spiotta writes about are the province of the young. We’re supposed to grow up and out of it. Adults are supposed to value familiarity over novelty, practicality over passion, stabililty over adventure. To which I say, bullshit.
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
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
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
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.
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.