So far the stages of recovery since the songwriting course have roughly been as follows:
Stage One: Complete and utter gobsmackery. The total influx of exceptionally useful information blew my mind and has me ready to reach Nirvana.
Stage Two: Woe. Complete inability to write a song or function.
Stage Three: Freedom. I read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and it reminded me to just chill or else become my own liability. At this stage songs started spurting from my orifices like a faulty water fountain spraying everywhere.
Stage Four: I found my third eye. I felt wise and capable. Every day was at my command and like Moses I was parting the waters and calmly making my way to the other side.
Stage Five: Turns out Moses could only do that nifty trick once…
Stage five hit me like a wall whose owner was insisting on it being a window and coincided with the absence of inspiring podcasts. I had just finished the last episode of my favourite one, Worklife with Adam Grant and found myself with no-where to go and just like on Captain Planet their powers combined and instead of granting me a super hero with healing powers and healthy results I found myself with that damned woodpecker hammering at my spine, heavy eyes without tape to hold them open and a disturbing lack of ability when it came to songwriting. I think normal folk call this “lethargy” or whatever.
My empty skull started driving the legs that moved my body, taking it from room to room like an animal at a Zoo. My mind was blank and uninspired except for the spikes of anxiety that would pulse occasionally filled with useless comments saying I had so much to do and no time to do it. I became unable to cope with the stress of an afternoon commitment which would begin with a morning of preparation, usually naps, house wandering and holding the fridge door open like it was trying to catch a fly.
I sank deeper, wallowing into a pool of muck that seeped into the seams of the couch with my beautiful dog taking advantage of the opportunity, granting cuddles at every stop. Every song I wrote was trash and the ideas came like crippled ants who forgot how to read the sunlight. Deeper still I dove, through the couch and onto the damp soil laying dank beneath the house. The whole of my body itched and twisted vainly attempting to feel comfortable but it’s impossible when there’s nothing to hold you together and give your body form again. I just wanted to get away, separate myself from this space and find something new. New is always inspiring but it is also always temporary.
Have you ever been on a weekend holiday merely an hour or so from your own home and felt the air. It feels different in your lungs, plays differently on your skin and through your hair. It even looks different, dancing around with new colours and shapes, inspiring your senses. Even more, it’s grounding. You can feel the earth and like a heavy wool cape the weight you were bearing drops to the floor but ever the loyal hound you’ll find it nipping at your heels with excitement when you make your journey home.
The escape is temporary and, while refreshing, doesn’t always get me through Stage Five because it is just that, an escape. The problems I am facing are ones I must push through and it’s not as easy as going on a Bear Hunt and finding solutions at every step. It’s more like answering the Joker’s riddles, always a step behind and always in danger.
Yesterday I was driving my car and a question popped into my head: What if the songs I’ve written recently are awful because I’ve loved all the ones I wrote before them? What if I just need to get through these terrible tunes and break through until I write something better? And, in the state of mind that is driving I popped a mild, close-mouthed smile and told myself, yeah, I’ve just got to push through the muck. The strength of that statement was as weak as the smile accompanying it. How do you force yourself to continue doing something that uses up so much energy with such poor results?
This morning a friend, Amy Viola, posted a video to Facebook and it could not have come at a better time. The video was called Economy in Songwriting and Playing Part 4 with John Mayer at a 2008 Berklee Clinic. In the video, John demonstrates the strength of the composition and understanding why you should experiment with what you’ve got. He uses Pearl Jam’s Better Man for his example. They could have played the chords straight and given us the same song but there would be no full bodied red wine seeping into your blood stream. Instead they gave us an iconic riff that lifts the vocal melody and gets your drunk on its flavour.
Musically, this lesson was invaluable. It’s an area I desperately need to improve on with piano and I’m working on it. Mentally, this lesson was the first hand that reached out and gave form to my own. It presented me with a new idea to chew on: What if this despair is less about not being able to write quality songs and more about having utilized all the knowledge I had. What if it’s just a matter of learning something new? This idea was shortly follow by a simple thought: I’m ready for the next round and at this point I was desperately wishing that Pat was returning for a follow up course to show me the way.
In my last blog, I wrote that I was a devotedly interested student. Under the command of the hand that constantly hits the snooze button I forgot what being a student meant and it’s easy to lose your way when surrounded by an endless horizon not knowing how to read the stars.
After a heavy week of mental despair, I was given my first star through Amy and in the form of John. It has given me the strength to put together this blog and to take a step back, revisiting old lessons and books to find something I haven’t learned yet. I’ve sparked a small flame and now I’ve just got to nurture it back to the blazing bonfire I had only a few weeks ago.
Blog Image courtesy of Luke Middlemiss Photography.