The beautiful craft of songwriting is in a golden age.
It’s 3 a.m. I wake with a song in my head.
Not a wisp, not an idea, an entire song. The melody, the lyric, and a voice saying to me, ‘Perform the song exactly the way you’re hearing it.’
Half asleep, I stumbled out of bed.
We’re in the middle of Manhattan. The last several months are lockdowns, empty avenues, a fear of touch, breath, crowds, neighbors.
The lights of Broadway theaters are off. The opera is dark. There’s no work. Manhattan without work is a city without purpose.
But there are gifts given by the pandemic. One is time. Another is silence. And in the silence you can better hear the whispers of angels.
The song in my head is demanding. I’m used to midnight ideas. I keep a pen and paper close when I sleep. The middle of the night ideas are fresh. The landscape of dreams births truth. But this inspiration is different. It’s more insistent. More demanding.
If I was to say anything about the music, I hear today I’d say it’s conformed. It’s kept in a box. So much of it sounds the same. Expression is compressed.
There're technical reasons. Laptop beats from the same samples. Synth patches used again and again. Headphone mixes that don’t love air the same way speaker mixes do. No solos.
In the past the ask was for unique reverbs, unusual tunings, wider vocal dynamics, trademarked sound. Music was less a transaction and more unaware of itself.
In the music industry, 2017 is 2018 is 2019. The image in the mirror carefully coifed, ripped, painted, static. The pose-perfect video. Branded.
Then pandemic. 2020 becomes an opportunity for songwriters.
Taylor Swift wanders fields safe from the noise. Her music becomes less performative, more contemplative. ‘She had a wild time ruining everything.’
Fiona Apple gathers friends into her living room in Venice Beach. ‘And you maim when you’re on offense, but you kill when you’re on defense.’
Songs drop like leaves, cover the ground, prepare the earth for winter. A pandemic silver lining in a growing storm.
When my song arrives, I don’t have paper, so I take my iPhone into the bathroom. There’s another reason for this. I’m being told I have to use a particular voice to sing the song. I have to capture the voice, so I remember.
I sing. It’s weird. I’ve written nothing like this song. I’ve never sung like this either. Yet here I am. 4 a.m. Sitting on my toilet singing.
Every song has three elements: Rhythm. Melody. Lyric. The balance between the three creates your song. How you strike that balance is art. Rhythm gets people to listen. Melody makes them remember. Lyric makes your song immortal.
Songs linger. They capture three-minute truths. They trace the cultural shifts. It’s odd that music videos define so much of the music industry because the last thing a song needs is a picture.
A song paints its own picture in your mind. It associates with memory. A girlfriend. A moment in time. One measure of a song brings you emotionally back to days far behind.
A song grows. Reveals itself in different ways becomes an old friend. Steady. Reliable.
Rhythm, the pulse of your days, the beats, fast, slow, twists and turns. Melody, the earworms in your brain, the emotions, the language of feelings, the way pain burns, or love elates. Lyric, the words chiseled in the stone, perspective, humility, lessons, revelation, anger, acceptance, surrender. The big words.
My life in song is defined over decades. The songs are milestones showing me the way back into memory.
Strange Fruit. Black bodies hanging from a sycamore tree.
Masters of War. I just want you to know I can see through your mask.
They go on, a compass, a sense of the life growing around me, seeds into dreams, into blessings, if you believe such things. Water. Taking it into my head. Living by the right lines. Reading what the very man said.
The song that came to me in the night? Calling Mary.
I take a day to get into the studio to record and that entire time I’m carrying the song in my head, letting it sing in the background as I run errands, visit a doctor, have lunch with a friend. When I finally get into the studio, I record it without thinking. I just want to capture it the way it channels into my brain. I don’t want to question, or analyze, even writing about here feels wrong.
Rhythm, beat, scales, chords, harmony, melody, timbre, dynamics, style, all aspects of music and song, but where does music come from? All the books, theories, classes, lectures, all the albums, symphonies, sonatas and we don’t have a clue.
I think somewhere way back somebody watched somebody else move and duplicated the movement with a stick on a rock. It sort of took off from there.
I have many friends that write songs. They send then to me and I listen, a window into their soul, the lives they live. Songlines traced across the years. There's no greater gift.
I think there’s magic in the music, but I don’t really know about it. I can imagine some things. I can feel some things. But all I know is that sometimes the song comes and I write it down. Generations of writers do the same. The songs point us in a direction, shine some light on things, and are one of our most pure expressions of something never expressed in any other way. And that’s enough to know.