I’m writing this afternoon in a blind stumble. I’m combing through
scraps in folders labeled “recycle bin” and “workdesk,” wondering why I
thought I could come up with songs for a living. I’m no good at this.
The disconnect between the thing that wants to
elusive might-as-well-call-it-a-soul wandering around looking for a
body to live in, and my ability to take a lump of clay and give it arms
and legs and set its chest rising and falling, blood circulating, so
that the spirit might decide to take up residence there, flutter its
eyes open, have a look around, and take off ambling over the hill—I’m
staring at that gaping divide, clueless about how to proceed. I don’t
know how this is done.
That’s half true. I’ve managed to do it before, which is knowledge
of a sort. The steps in the process, the mechanical aspects, are
straightforward enough. You have the twelve semitones of the Western
music scale. You have certain instruments—things you hit, things you
strum, things you bow and blow into, noises you generate with software.
You have the form dictated by the average listener’s attention span:
three to five minutes, repeated sections, various permutations of intro
verse pre-chorus chorus bridge. With this toolkit you can assemble,
model-airplane style, a perfectly serviceable song without too much
thought or trouble. And like a model airplane it will sit there,
This tends to be when the clamor bursts in the door, conveniently.
You need to write a hit song, every part catchy, infectious. You should
be edgier. Cooler. More wry and ironic. You should be more direct, more
sincere, cut it with the flowery metaphors. You should be more clever,
more poetic. You should stop trying so damn hard. You should try
harder. You should be living sleeping breathing music every single
moment of the day or you shouldn’t call yourself a musician. You should
know about all the music that’s popular right now. You’re hopelessly
stuck in an earlier time. You should never think about what’s popular
or current when you write, you’re going for timelessness. You should
write what you feel and be unashamed of it. You should write what
people want to hear or else keep it to yourself. Self-expression is for
hobbyists. Self-expression is the only kind of art there is. You don’t
make art. Who do you think you are?
Fortunately there’s knowledge of another sort: that this always
happens. Also: staying busy works. So I just make things. One-minute
fragments of music. Verses to be discarded later except for one line
that I like. Long rambling paragraphs in ink pen in a spiral-bound
notebook. Descriptions of what an idea sounds like in my head, some of
them contradictory. I don’t know how this is done and I never have.
Once I get over the anxiety of not knowing, it starts to get exciting.
Of course it’s a mystery. Of course you can’t tell if what you’re doing
is any good. That’s why I got into this kind of work—because it demands
everything of you, every time, and it always takes you somewhere you
haven’t yet thought to go.
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