On Songwriting and Performance

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Hey all! I’ve been really busy with my new job at Moscow High School. I’m enjoying the work quite a bit. This semester I’ve been working with one student on a project concerning songwriting. It began with the study of Disney songs and kind of turned into a project about the craft of songwriting and the performance of a song. For part of this project, my student decided to interview peer musicians and songwriters as well as myself. I really liked her questions, so I’ve decided to shard the interview. Enjoy!

Do you prefer to work alone or collaborate? Why?
It depends what I’m working on. I tend to work alone, but I prefer to collaborate. The problem I often find with collaboration is that it’s really hard to find artists and projects that I connect with. I am currently soundtracking a play for a friend, and I really like doing that because I feel that the project is well aligned with my aesthetic. The content and message of the play are really great.

What does aesthetic mean?
Aesthetic to me means the image and the message that I want to send to the rest of the world through my music.

I know what you mean, but at the same time, I’m like, okay, that explanation is a little over my head.
It’s like this: everyone has an image of how he or she would like to present herself to the world. Aesthetic is the crystallization of that idea within the artist, and I often judge whether or not I have accomplished the communication of that idea based on the audience’s response.

When/if you collaborate, how do you do it without completely taking over?
I think they best ways to avoid competition are to have clearly defined tasks and to be open to changing your ideas if someone else comes up with something better.

When/if you work alone, how does one person handle all the responsibility?
I think that your fellow student had it right when he talked about patience. It takes a lot of patience to work alone because the process takes SOOO much longer. It also takes love. I made my last album out of love of what I was doing and the belief that it was valuable. That love and belief gave me the patience to push through to the end. It was really hard sometimes because my producer was working on a lot of other projects with people who were better known than me. We’d have to reschedule sessions all the time, and sometimes it felt like he was doing me a favor because we were friends rather than prioritizing me as an artist. I don’t know if that’s true for him, but that’s how I felt. On top of that, I was going to college and working, and my producer was touring with other bands while either doing sound or playing music, and he was recording all these other bands. As a result, I learned to use lists and to do some basic music notation. I would obsessively listen to all of the latest versions of my recordings and come up with each instrumental part piece-by-piece. I needed some way to track all of the ideas I had in my mind, and that’s when I started making lists and doing some notation. I also spent a lot of time listening to albums that I liked and figuring out what kind of studio effects they used. If I heard something I wanted to use for a particular song, I would scribble a note in a journal or on a scrap of paper and then transfer it to my list for the next session. Sometimes it was really hard because I could hear something in my head, but I wouldn’t know how to write it. So, I guess the short answer is love, obsession, persistence, and lots and lots of scratch paper. I probably killed an entire rainforest.

How do you begin to write a song? What is your inspiration for your music?
I think I work in a kind of collage form. I usually either learn something new in music or have kind of a lyrical epiphany. If it’s lyrical I’ll scribble down the basic idea in a journal or something and then let it sit for a bit. Eventually, I’ll have a few lines of lyrics that kind of go together. From that point, I’ll try to find the basic idea of what I’m saying and use that to fill out the rest of a section. Usually, this section becomes the chorus. Once I have a basic theme in the chorus I can form a story for the verses. As I’m doing this, I’m usually going back to my guitar and playing little riffs and chord progressions that I’ve come up with and trying to sing the lyrics over top. If the lyrics feel too awkward, I ditch the musical idea and try using something else. Sometimes I’ll come back to a thing that feels awkward and try it again, and every once in a while it ends up falling into place. Eventually I have a song. I’ve been kind of trying to refine this process, but I think that the key to inspiration is learning new things and interacting with that new knowledge.

If you write music with lyrics, do you begin with the music or the lyrics?
Well, I think I’ve answered that already, but the short version of my answer would be that it all happens at the same time. I let the mood of each one influence the other with the intention of creating a cohesive feel. I want the music and the lyrics to communicate the same thing.

What kinds of projects are you working on and what is your process?
Right now I’m working on a collaborative project with a playwright. For that, we just have long conversations about the style, feel, and setting of the play and try to figure out what it’s about, and then I go write. I’m also brainstorming for a cover album and trying to figure out what to do with the songs I’ve written since the release of my last album. Some of them are kind of funny and sarcastic while others are more serious. I’m trying to figure out if I want to release them both on one album or I want to release them on separate albums with different project (band) names. Right now I’m kind of at the beginning stage of my process. I’ve had some pretty radical shifts in my beliefs and worldviews in the last few years, so I’m doing some research and trying to figure out how to communicate my new aesthetic. This research right now involves reading and listening to lots and lots of books. In the last year I think it’s been over 50. I just need to fill up my mind with new ideas all over again so I have something interesting to pour out into my music.

How do you deal with performance anxiety?
That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t often get performance anxiety, so when I do have it, I’m pretty terrible at dealing with it. The best strategy I can come up with is to breathe, calm down, and take a few minutes to be alone. I like to find a quiet spot to center and focus. The bathroom works when nothing else is available. And then I have to remember to get over myself. Yes the performance is important, but no matter what happens, it’s a fleeting moment. Worst case scenario, nobody likes it, I get heckled, and I learn to change what I’m doing or to play to a different audience. Best case scenario, everyone loves it, and I feel amazing.

How do you get ready for a performance?
Practice. I mean it’s easy to get hung up on logistics such as advertising and making sure there’s a good turnout and figuring out whose PA system to use and how to get to the venue, but if you don’t feel comfortable with the material (and the equipment), the show is going to suck. This isn’t an absolute thing though. Sometimes I can get TOO familiar with the material. Sometimes if Imve played a song or a set a million times, it can start to feel dead. I need some newness and freshness. I need a little bit of thrill.

Do you ever feel like giving up?
I always never feel like giving up. And you can quote me on that. I constantly doubt myself and think that everything that I write is a big heaping pile of poop, but it’s that crazy obsession that keeps me going. It’s kind of an addiction. I want to give up sometimes, but I just can’t.

When I practice singing, I warm up first and then start working on my current repertoire. Are there any other practice strategies you would recommend?
I’ve read a lot of stuff about practice routines and taken courses from people who talk about discipline and setting practice times and stuff, but for me, it just starts feeling like a chore if I do it that way. I have to just practice when I feel like it, which is quite often, otherwise I stop liking it. And practice can be any number of things. Since I have basically two main instruments to practice, it’s really hard to give each one the appropriate amount of attention. And right now I’m working two jobs, so the only time I have is on the commute, so I’ll put on a CD with music and a melody that I really like in my range and sing along with that at different volumes. If it’s a singer that I like, I’ll try to figure out what that person is doing to get a certain sound. This doesn’t have to mean direct imitation. For instance, I really like Tom Waits, but I don’t have a gravelly voice, and I don’t really want to smoke a million packs of cigarettes to get the sound that he achieves, but he communicates a lot of emotion through the power muscles. (A lot of people mistake this for the diaphragm, but it’s actually your costal and intercostal muscles. These are, no joke, the same muscles that you use for pooping.) He also uses really loose and bluesy timing. When he repeats melodies, he will often change the phrasing slightly and unpredictably, but it always suits the moment. A few weeks ago, I chose a couple of his songs that had these qualities and just listened to them and sang along while driving. But I should also emphasize that this is just something I did without really thinking about what I was doing. Practice has just become a part of my life. I don’t have the time or the lifestyle to cram it all into a rigid schedule, so I’ve had to learn how to make it a force of habit. Any spare moment I have must be dedicated to making myself a better musician and artist.

What do you think about when you’re performing?
When I’m performing I just try to think about how much I love the music and how much I love what I’m doing. When I’m performing at the top of my game, I’m not even thinking about anything. I’m just letting the music flow out of me. I like it best when playing is feels like the unleashing of some repressed primal instinct. I like to almost lose my sense of consciousness and get lost in the thrill.

What gives you a sense of confidence when performing?
Just the thrill of being in front of people and feeling like they’re getting what I’m doing and what I’m saying. Just enjoying that brief moment when I get to completely expose myself to a crowd of people gives me a sense of confidence. I know that sounds weird, but once you’re comfortable with yourself as a person and you really like yourself, it’s almost more comfortable to be in front of a crowd without a mask.

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