I’m out on Fire Island right now, getting a little R & R before our next round of shows and thinking about the fact that when I get home in a couple weeks, it’ll be time to start recording our new CD. The dates are already highlighted on our internal band calendar, lighting every August day up in red. “Recording!” each day screams, as though there’s an emergency. My inner state might echo this tone just a little.
There’s something about starting a new CD that always drives me ever so slightly into isolation and avoidance, like I might be able to hide from my future mistakes. The fact is, I really love every CD we’ve made. Each was a unique journey, and each sounds really different to my ears. They feel representative of their time, the songs pretty faithfully telling the stories of our lives at that particular juncture.
But somehow, starting any brand new artistic project is daunting, even if it’s equal parts thrilling. It’s the proverbial blank sheet of paper staring up at the archetypal writer from the uncaring typewriter. Strangely, this time in particular, I’ve found myself avoiding the task of choosing the songs I want to record, as well as the last minute editing that I’ll need to do before we start arranging. Strange only because this past year has been my most prolific ever, so I have quite a lot to choose from.
I wrote between 25 and 30 songs this past year, thanks largely to an online songwriting challenge that asks you to write a song a day for a week. (I realize that for some people, 30 songs in a year is not that much; for me it is.) The songwriting weeks run once a month, and I join whenever I’m at home and can get into my studio every day. This has been an interesting experience for me because I’m used to taking weeks or even months to finish songs. The idea of conceiving, realizing, recording, and uploading a new song in a single morning was completely new (and terrifying) to me. Plenty of the songs I wrote this past year I’ll never play again, but a number of them (including some we’ve played at shows already: “Michelangelo,” “Soul of You”) will probably be on the new album.
By forcing myself to write so much so quickly, I learned a ton about writing in general. As a lifelong compulsive editor, always chiseling my way slowly through a song, and then obsessively re-chiseling each contour, I’ve learned how to just play with the chaotic energy of that little unruly fire of an idea, right there in the moment. The result? I can now jot down lyrics that make me want to throw up, and leave them there. Yes, the image is inexact, the metaphor feels dead, the language annoys me, the chord progression should be banned! So what? As it turns out, there’s actually something beautiful about just getting down exactly what’s happening, whatever it is.
I’ve also learned that it’s possible to fully realize any idea, no matter how bizarre or trite I judge it to be, and no matter how badly I want to abandon it. I’ve been utterly stunned to go back and listen to new songs after a few hours and to actually, well, feel something. Which is the point, right? Yes, there have been cringers, songs that will accompany me to my grave. But interestingly, some that I’ve detested during the writing process I now really love, and vice versa. My takeaway is that it’s useless to judge a song while writing it. Because that’s just dragging your ego into a world it knows nothing about.
Because, you know, when I’m really in the flow of writing – when I’ve vanquished the gnomes of resistance for now and have dragged my sorry ass into my studio morning after morning, whether I want to or not, for some length of time – I feel like I do enter a realm that I don’t really understand. In some ways it feels dreamlike. I’ll emerge after a few hours with a song, go do something else for the day, listen to the song later – and it’ll feel new to me, like someone else wrote it. Oh, right – that’s because the little chattering brat in my head, the ruler of my day-to-day life, doesn’t actually have a say in the writing process at all – for those early morning hours it shuts up and lets another voice through. Without exception, it’s my better self. How amazing for those of us who have some drive to know the barely felt stirrings of our souls that some mystery steps in at these moments. It guides us, like a parent whose patience we’ve tried and finally exhausted, but who is still bemused by our quaint efforts to really know something. It pats us on the head and says, “There, there.” And then takes the wheel, once again.