The world of music appreciation is full of misappropriated quotes and 20th-hand stories about the greats and their paths to success, and since I’m much more motivated to write than investigate at this very moment, so I’ll leave it to better humans than me to accurately attribute the following anecdote:
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band started off playing sets of covers, secretly working on their own material in rehearsals without performing them for an audience. When they thought a song was ready, they would unceremoniously sneak it into their set of covers. If the audience stayed engaged and enthralled, the song could stay in the set. If they lost the crowd, the song got sent back to the drawing board.
I think that’s a test that most songwriters want so badly to pass. They want to hear their songs next to those of the titans and feel the same shapes and qualities at work and know that they are the real deal. I know I do.
If I don’t work on music everyday, then it’s very easy for me to not work on music at all, and that is something akin to a small death for me. But I’m also not the type of writer who keeps regular working hours, seated at a desk with my guitar in hand or my fingers on a piano’s keys. While I have regularly and earnestly wished to be the kind of songwriter who can create on command, 15 + years of experience has shown me that that is a method that rarely works for me. In my life, a song begins while I absentmindedly fart around on an instrument and, if the forces that govern this world allow, a few vital lines of verse fall from my mouth like hale from the sky.
But how does a moment-dependent songwriter make themselves work everyday if by nature they can not work every day, particularly in light of the fact that virtually all writers and resources for writers consistently extol not only the virtue but in fact the necessity of writing every day? In her WTF interview, Fiona Apple readily admits that she only writes when she really wants to, and instead spends the rest of her time just living her life. That’s all nice and fine (and in fact encouraging) for an established songwriter like Apple, but what about us Hopefuls and Might-Be’s?
The times when I have been able to work on music consistently and over a long period of time, that daily work has manifested itself in rehearsal, research, and critical analysis.
Anyone who has been paying attention to my social media presence for the past week or so already knows that I’ve been obsessing over The Candy Butchers’ “What To Do With Michael”. I mean this song has really got a hold on me. Over breakfast this morning I played that song over and over in my head and I came to the conclusion that I would never write a song like that. Not a song with those kinds of changes, that kind of propulsive beat, and that kind of relatively cheese-free execution of concept. What a seriously discouraging thing to tell yourself! The narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves really matter, so needless to say I started off a little discouraged today.
But I set to work regardless, and today, because I didn’t feel particularly inspired, that work involved a lot of music industry research and an activity that I don’t participate in often enough; learning someone else’s song. The obvious choice was “What To Do With Michael”, and what I learned was so remarkably affirming that I had to write about it.
There are two main chord progressions to “What To Do With Michael”: Am-Am/G-D-F-G-C and Dm-C-E. The D in the first progression lends itself to a D/F# voicing, completely the descending line of A-G-F# and providing a nice bit of chromatic color. When I sussed out the harmonic movement at work in this song I almost couldn’t believe it, because despite how perfect and unattainable the song had seemed to me just this morning, it was also almost identical to a song I wrote in July of 2013. Original titled, “Not Surprised” and later shoehorned into the title “It’s Hard” so as to fit into a mini-concept record I’ve been working on, the song in question has a few more chord progressions at the heart of it than “Michael” (because most of the time I just can’t stop myself), but it essentially boils down to something like: C-E-Am-D/F#-F-C. Later the F-G-C figure pops up too. (NOTE: If “It’s Hard” weren’t being currently in mix/master mode, I’d provide it hear for your
judgement appreciation.) Obviously there are a million other factors that determine whether a song is just good or truly great beside similar harmonic movements and residing in the same key, but just hours before I assumed that I’d never write anything that would touch “Michael”, when in fact it turned out that I’d done just that more than a year ago.
The object is inherently incapable of assessing itself, so recognizing your work as the valid thing that it is beyond the initial rush that accompanies its creation is one of the most difficult things a creative can do. But it also takes a tremendous amount of courage and confidence (which are actions, i.e. things that require real-world work) to wake up every morning and invest your sweat and blood into a speculative enterprise like a career in music.
That said, maybe we could all make it a little easier on ourselves if we work a bit harder to see our own accomplishments for the precious and moving things that they are.