Thursday, July 3, 2008

What Doesn't Kill Me, Right?

Interstate traffic isn’t too bad at 10am. As much as I’d rather not use four and a half hours out of what is supposed to be the nicest day of the year-so-far driving, I set the cruise control and settle into the music playing from my iPod. The only songs I’m able to access are the ones on a playlist I created of mostly folk and country-western influence. Some months ago, my iPod got smashed and now the screen doesn’t work. It still plays music, but I must navigate blindly, from memory. Rather than spin the click wheel, which is now much more like roulette, I just press the center button a few times and begin a playlist of Bright Eyes, Tarkio, Wilco, and the most cowboy sounds Beck has ever made.

By the time I reach Redmond, it’s nearly 11am, and I’m right in time to meet the father of a friend of mine. We had decided to do some recording today of songs that I had written for my band. With an upcoming show in September, I thought it would be timely to get some more feedback on our material and maybe get some demos out of the deal.

“I keep the shades drawn,” Darrell says, ushering me inside his house, “to try to keep the house cool. It’s supposed to be really hot today.”

“That’ll be great,” I say. “It’s still nice and cool in here.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way.” He smiles. “Let’s go upstairs and hear some of your tunes.”

At the top of the staircase, there’s a study that has been outfitted with some modest sound equipment (modest compared to, say, Chris Walla) and foam insulation on the walls. In front of the bookshelf, there’s a digital piano, and next to that is his desk with his computer and speakers. I take my seat at the piano, and after some adjustments I begin playing. Even though I’ve played this song a hundred times, I’m shaky and mar the music. I feel my heart pounding in my chest. My voice trembles in my throat, and I just want it to be done. I want to try again. I know I can play this. I’m pretty sure I can sing this. It’s just this new space, this new audience that’s throwing me off.

I play it again and my fingers find their way more comfortably, but my voice just doesn’t sound right. I’ve never claimed to have great pipes, but I thought I could at least nail a melody.

“Okay,” Darrell says once I finish another time through. “What’s this song called?”

“Where We Begin and End,” I say.

“And what’s it about?”

I pause to think.

“I think it’s about life,” he offers. “It’s not pretty and it’s not easy, but it’s real and that’s beautiful.”

I nod. “Yeah, it’s about relationships between people. About how we’re all broken and will hurt each other sooner or later, but to find solace in the times that we’re good to each other and support one another.”

“Okay.” Darrell looks at me. “Now, I’m not sure if how you’re singing it is really communicating the heart of this song.” I cock my head, and he explains, “You’re really trying to belt this thing out, but it just seems like you’re throwing the words at the music. I’m having a hard time figuring out where the melody is going. Can you sing the first line?”

I begin, and he stops me. “Okay,” he says. “Now can you play that on the piano?”

I try once and then twice and then get the first few notes. I repeat them until I can find the next few.

“See, I don’t think you really know what the melody to this song is. You haven’t really found the heart of the song.”

I’ve taken my fair share of creative writing workshops, so I’m not new to criticism. These are places where people bring pieces they’ve written—poetry, fiction, memoir—and receive feedback from their peers. Over time I have developed something of an ability to disconnect myself from the things I write enough to gauge them critically and receive questions and suggestions for change. But sitting here with Darrell in his office-cum-studio, I have lost all sense of objectivity. I wrote this song in the privacy of a practice room in Western’s Performing Arts Center and fairly recently grown brave enough to relinquish its intimacy to the friends I am in a band with. And now a man I met not a month ago is telling me I don’t know my song. That I had not yet discovered its heart. I’m not mad, just a hard blow to my ego.

Picture me as two people now. I am Dave the author, and I am Dave the songwriter. I am only now realizing there is a distinction between these two. When Darrell says, “You haven’t really found the heart of this song,” the songwriter is crushed and offended. Something is twisting icy fingers around my stomach, and I know my bile ducts are going crazy.

The author must be downstairs in the living room. I imagine him eavesdropping as he reads the newspaper. “You’re fine,” he says as he turns the page. “The song is great. These are just some helpful suggestions so you don’t make a fool of yourself in front of all your friends in two months. You know, so they take you seriously.” And I keep my head enough to listen.

“What I want you to do,” Darrell says, “the best advice I can give you right now is to draw out the melody of each of your songs. Write it down. Play it over and over. Because right now you’re just throwing the words at the music and that’s not going to connect with an audience. Don’t try to belt it out. Think vulnerability. Think unadorned. Do you like Wilco?”

“Yeah,” I nod. I’m trying not to appear put-off, but I’m not sure I’m good at hiding it.

“You know how he just has really simple vocals, nothing special. You can tell he’s more of a songwriter than a singer, but if you listen, he’s always on pitch. I know you can do that. When you started picking out the melody, you were starting to get the melody better. You just need to get control of your instrument.” He holds his throat. “I don’t think you have that yet. You need to be able to hear it in your head and know what it feels like in your throat. Here, close your eyes.” Darrell plays a simple set of four chords then strikes a single note. “What’s that note?”

I consider the question and keep my eyes shut tight. I listen as it continues to resonate in my ear. This is my greatest ignorance: I’ve played music all my life, but have never learned any theory. Everything is experimental, and there is no method. Names like “cadence” and “diatonic” mean little to me. I regard a metronome as a form of abuse. And I have never quite understood how to identify a note. “E?” I say with muddled confidence.

“C,” Darrell replies.

The songwriter is packing up my things. “This is why I got out of piano lessons the last time, you know that,” he says. “I don’t get theory. It’s not for me. We’ll probably have to cancel the show in September. Or get a real singer for our band.” He shakes his head. “Man, I wish the guys had told me not to sing. This has just been a waste of everybody’s time.”

“Quit being so dramatic,” the author calls from the kitchen where he’s making a sandwich. “Darrell’s helping out a lot right now. This is just a wake up call that there’s more to songwriting than music and pretty words. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

We set note identification aside to record the song. “Just remember: vulnerable, unadorned,” Darrell says.

This time, instead of power, I almost whisper. Each time I miss a note, Darrell stops and we go back.

“What note do you start on here?” he asks.

“A,” I reply with hollow confidence. I find the melody on the piano and we continue.

By 2:30 we have a nice piano and vocals sketch of a single song, and Darrell says he’ll do some more work on it and email it to me. Meanwhile, my work is just beginning. I know that when I get back to Bellingham I need to write melodies for about eight songs. The author and songwriter pile into my car and we take the interstate north.

“Let’s not do anymore music today, okay?” the songwriter says.

“Tomorrow, then.” The author smiles. “You’ve only got two months, remember?”


When I wake up the next day, I don’t feel much better. “Sometimes I hate being a creative person,” I told my roommate Jake the night before. We were walking back from a music show at a local beer garden. “It means putting yourself out there for people to critique, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier. It’s not fun to hear that you’re not good at something.”

Jake and I ride our bikes to the farmer’s market. The weather has finally turned warm this late in June. After we lock our bikes, we run into some friends inside the market. My mind wanders from the previous day’s events and disappointments, though some of me is still tender to the touch.

As we wander through the booths we run into another friend, Seth. We spend some time comparing weeks and reveling in the glory of summertime. Then Seth asks, “Dave, are you around next weekend?”

“Yeah,” I reply. “What’s up?”

“Do you want to play music with me for church on Sunday?”

My chest feels like I started swinging my heart and lungs around in circles by any vein or artery I can get a handle on. I’m not ready to quit music entirely. Not yet, anyway. I remember when the guitarist in my band set aside his instrument indefinitely. “It just doesn’t make me happy anymore,” he told me. This was before we had officially formed the band and he was back in full force a few months later, but I still appreciated the enormity of the situation. I don’t think I’m there and I hope to never reach that point, but Seth’s offer is like a cannon fired over the surface of a lake, raising any and all drowned and disfigured bodies.

I smile and nod anyway. “Sure.” Maybe I’m better at faking composure than I give myself credit for.

“Alright,” he says. “We’ll talk more this week. You guys enjoy the farmer’s market, and I’ll see you around.”


Sitting on the roof a few hours later, I try to read a bit, but I can’t focus. Here, alone, I finally resign to relive the previous day in all its bitterness.

“It’s like I’m trying to write in a language I can’t speak,” the songwriter says. He’s dangling his legs over the edge of the roof, looking completely dejected. “Everything I want the song to communicate, everything I feel in the music that I write I can’t seem to say because it comes out all muddled. But it’s not even like I don’t know the language, it’s like I’m blindly navigating a language that I’m physically unable to produce correct sounds for. You know, like clicks and whistles.”

“The only way to get better is to practice,” the author says, taking a seat just below the window.

“I’d really rather not go back to that right now,” the songwriter replies. “And I’d rather not think about next Sunday either, if you don’t mind.”

But instead, music is the only thing I can manage to think about. Prior to this I might have considered the idea of being drawn to the piano as being romantic. I’ve probably talked about being impassioned to play before. I didn’t know what I was talking about. Now, sitting in a chair on my roof I can think of nothing else but music, and, to my misfortune, I want nothing to do with the matter. Because I know, at least for now, I cannot sit at a piano and not think about how I can make my throat match the pitches for a melody.

“Can’t you just be the productive one?” the songwriter asks the author. “Why do we both have to create things?” Then he turns on me. “You’d do anything in hopes of fame and recognition, huh.”

“Hey.” The author looks at me too and holds his hands up in innocence. “If you’re expecting me to get you anywhere, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“I can’t believe either of you.” I finally speak for myself. “I’m not trying to use either one of you to ‘get me anywhere.’ I just like working with the both of you, but if you’d rather bail because you don’t think you’re good enough, nobody’s stopping you.”

We sit in silence. Every time I close my eyes, I see the digital piano we keep in the corner of our dining room, and I can feel everything behind my ribs aching with raw tension. If this is what Ben Folds and Jeff Tweedy feel toward their craft, I might want to opt out now, before this goes any farther.

“I guess I could give this another try,” the songwriter says. “I mean, I already know what I want the songs to sound like. It’s really just figuring out the melody and how to sing it.” My stomach flips when he says that. “We can do that, right?”

“You’ve got to stop being self-conscious about singing in front of the roommates, too,” the author says. “I think that’s the first step.”

“Well,” the songwriter says. “What doesn't kill me, right?”

“Then let’s go, right now.” I’m sure the author meant this as nothing other than a good, old-fashioned dare. We all look from eye to eye and decide unanimously: the work is cut out for us, let’s get to it.

I climb back through the window and pick up the sheets of music I printed for my band-mates. The only thing left to figure out is the melody. Maybe it’s more than I can handle. Maybe this is all a pipe-dream. But I only know what I’m compelled by, and for reasons known only to a higher power, I am compelled by both words and music.

1 comment:

Katie O. said...

I love this piece! The way you separate the author and the songwriter is so great.