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.
Last spring when I holed up in Joshua Tree for a week to find out if I had a muse, I wrote part of a folk song called “Angelina.” I started it after seeing a young blonde woman careening down my dirt road in a hearse. I made up the beginning of a story about her and wrote a couple of verses, pumped to have begun something and to realize that I would be able to make something, however basic. Then I lost interest in the song. I still don’t understand how or why that happens. But I moved on.
Recently I’ve wanted to revisit “Angelina.” I think it was the Danelectro. The sound of that guitar fits the mood of the song. Working on the song again has been tough. I tried to write a chorus and ended up with a bridge. I labored for a long time over the words because I really want to love them. The song is simple and the lyrics matter a lot. So I’d sit there, in my garret, at the park, wherever, and try to figure her out. Sometimes I would sit there and be at a loss. It’s the emptiest feeling. Really awful. Other times I felt like an intruder in her life. Like, what right do I have to catch a glimpse of a person and invent a bunch of lies about her? I gave her a name, a dead husband, a fondness for the Eagles, bad judgement and a nasty prognosis. I never did write a chorus.
So here’s the situation. I’m using the bridge as the chorus. It’s kind of weird but I’m letting it be, for now. Initially I recorded the guitar and the vocal separately but I found that I felt better singing it while I was playing the guitar. That was a big surprise because I literally cannot play and sing “Middle-Aged Rock Band” at the same time. I am getting closer to being able to play and sing “You Make Me Sick,” which by the way may be retitled “All Gone” thanks to my smart friend Matthew Gilbert. Anyway, I recorded “Angelina” live, with no effects, late at night. I think you can hear the late-nightness. I make a bunch of mistakes. It’s pretty rough.
A while back I wrote about wanting to try to write a song starting with lyrics rather than music. I’d been thinking about the word lovesick and the idea of being ill or impaired or infected — nasty states, all — with a really good feeling. Poison seemed like the perfect metaphor, so I wrote some words about making a killer home brew, as it were. They’re pretty abstract but they tell a little story. I knew I wanted the music to be edgy but also inviting because that’s the strange duality of being sick with love. Here’s the riff I came up with for the verse.
“Wherever You Go, There You Are” is a lovely book about mindfulness and meditation and living in the present. I really like the title. It’s simple and provocative and says a lot in six words. But those words have another, darker, meaning. My problem is this: wherever I go, there I am. In other words, my issues follow me. One of them is trouble with changes. Not change. Changes. At the newspaper, once I’d written a story and the words were on the screen and I’d read them more times than I care to admit in the course of trying to get them right, it was like I’d been imprinted. I get stuck in first drafts, even when I know a piece could and should be stronger. It’s a forest-for-the-trees predicament. It’s why God invented editors.
Now I am a songwriter. Devoted readers (hi, Dad) will notice I’ve left out the usual qualifier — aspiring — because I’ve finished two songs and even if they’re garbage I’ve done the work. Yes, I’m going to post some music soon. And yes, changes are still kicking my ass. The pattern of dysfunction is reliable. It goes a little something like this.
1. Come up with chords, a melody, and lyrics.
2. Sing the song again and again and again.
3. Feel certain that a miracle has occurred.
4. Sing it some more.
The trouble starts when the euphoria fades and awareness dawns. I’m a music critic. I’ve got good ears. While the thrill of creating is powerful enough to mute objectivity, at least for a novice like me, it eventually dims to the point where I can tell something isn’t working. Maybe it’s something small. A clunky phrase. A hard-to-hit note. Maybe it’s something big. The song is boring. I can know this and yet for the life of me be unable to see my way to a new idea, a better choice, a neccessary change. I get stuck in the way things are. I get stuck as a writer of stories and songs, and in other ways, too. I suspect I’m not alone. I think as we get older we become entrenched in the comfort and safety of the familiar. At the same time we’ve lived long enough to know that complacency is a trap. Such a conundrum. I’ll defer to the experts.