On a recent visit, my talented friend and music colleague Shauna Guidici urged me to create a video for my song, “Walk A Mile.” I recently bought a Flip HD recorder and so I went out and about shooting B-roll. Then I gathered stills from the web and put it all together in iMovie.
It’s one of my favorite songs. The acoustic guitar is tuned to CADGBE and a capo is set at the 5th fret excluding the low string (C). That string acts as a drone for the tonic. It’s a mystery how this came to me. I was inspired by a little tune I heard in a TV commercial and wanted to recreate it. The only way I could come close was to capo in this fashion.
My third revelation was this: I don’t have to wait for inspiration, genius or even luck to strike me with a song. Like other songwriters I will occasionally (rarely) write a song so swiftly that it passes through me like magic. That’s a wonderful gift, and many say that this is the definition of inspiration. But I learned that a well of inspiration is within me all the time. When I’m gardening, walking the dog, watching TV, driving, or reaching for the popcorn.
First there is the writing, dipping into the well of images and feelings, and then there is the editing, when the honesty of internal critic comes to my aid. In either phase, but especially in the editing, I sometimes have to work past the frustration, just keep writing, and other times I have to walk away and allow the well to refill. I just have to be awake and listening. I have to work at the discipline of “refining my skills to support my instincts,” something Rosanne said, quoting her friend Linda Ronstadt. It’s an incentive to keep working, keep writing.
I learned that persistence pays off. This is hard work and it’s sometimes necessary to leave a trail of bread crumbs on the way in. I will probably have to sacrifice parts of my ego that I’d just as soon keep, like my pride. But it’s worth it!
Here are some of Rosanne’s closing remarks to the group. I’ll try to remember them while I’m gardening, walking the dog, or reaching for the popcorn. And writing songs, of course.
“There’s nothing more sacred to me than songs and songwriters. To cultivate [this] kind of listening helps me to listen to my own life. To listen to the small moments that might otherwise just go right by me. But if I’m listening I’m going to get it, I’m going to get to bring something back to my life. Part of it is about not being alone, connecting with other writers. [Writing is] such a lonely experience sometimes, isolating at the very least and lonely at its worst.”
“Your responsibility is to tell the truth. Not the facts, necessarily. It could be the facts, but it’s basically the truth. That means being a truthful person. You can’t tell the truth in your work if you don’t tell the truth in your life. So I encourage you to be scrupulous in your truth ethic, with yourself — scrupulous. Even when no one’s looking — especially when no one’s looking. Just for yourself. I encourage you to wake up more every day, even if it hurts. But keep waking up, even if your heart breaks a little more every step of the way. Keep waking up. Bring it into poetry for the rest of us because our hearts are breaking a little every step along the way, too, and we need the poetry, desperately. We need the songs.”
Rosanne had said this more than once and it really struck me because of a problem with the song I’d chosen to play for the group. I had rewritten How Long ‘Til It’s Over so many times that it had little to do with its original subject: my frustration and sadness over a friend’s mental illness. I wanted to know if it was wrong to abandon the original subject and the feeling tone that inspired it. I suspected the song was now dishonest whereas in its original state it was just too painful. I also wondered if there was too little “furniture” in it, as Rosanne put it, things like the empty coffee cup, the flowers that were stepped on as he walked out the door, the scratch of her wool sweater. On the other hand I knew the song had potential with its memorable hook and singable chorus.
When my turn came my heart raced, my voice fled and I was unable to tear my eyes away from the fingerboard of my guitar!
No one questioned the song’s subject or meaning, but Rosanne pointed out a soft rhyme and a phrase in the first verse that tended toward cliché. She suggested deleting the bridge altogether, not because it was bad but because it was unnecessary. The practical function of a bridge is to build tension in the song so that the chorus following it provides an emotional payoff. Rosanne suggested that when the first verse reprised at the end, I cut it in half and go directly to the final chorus. It would have the same function as a bridge (or a pre-chorus) plus I could save some better lines from the unnecessary bridge and use them to replace the weaker lines in the first verse.
Violà, problems solved. I explained how I had rewritten it many times and asked if it was wrong to abandon the original feeling tone and subject. No, said Rosanne, think of this song as a gift from your friend. Violà, no guilt.
“The feeling tone releases the material.”
In one of several copies of articles Rosanne handed out to us, author V.S. Naipaul is quoted: “There was a moment, almost an hour in which I began to be a writer. Somehow I found the right tone, and the tone released the material, and it all came together, and I could see my way clear.” Finding the right feeling tone might be a way to end a dry period or to dislodge a block, and a way to do that is to mine dreams for material.
When we finished going through each person’s songs we began a free association writing exercise to do just that. Rosanne’s letter had also asked us to jot down a few dreams. The exercise wasn’t going to focus on events or feelings but on a significant object that appeared in the dream: a building, a piece of clothing, an animal, etc. We wrote our objects down on blank paper and quickly wrote words and phrases without stopping, referring to the object whenever we got stuck. “Just write!” Rosanne said, “Keep writing until you reach a point where you feel ‘Ah-ha!’ Don’t think. Just write.”
Each person described their dream image and their “Ah-ha” moment. Mine was a wedding veil that seemed to be turned inside out, and my “Ah-ha” was in realizing that the veil was not inside out, it was falling away from me. I began to cry as I described it, great wracking, heaving, snorting, noisy sobs — quite embarrasing. I hated doing this but Rosanne said, “It makes us love you more.” Violà, no armor.
I wasn’t the only songwriter to discover emotionally charged territory during this exercise. Before we ended for the day, Rosanne made certain that no one left the room overly distraught. “It’s no wonder this business has it’s share of drug addicts and alcoholics, artists who lose themselves and can’t come back,” she said. “Pat Pattison, poetry and lyric writing teacher at Berklee College of Music, has said that our job as writers is to go where the images are, get one, and show it to our listeners.” Rosanne continued, “But we need to be able to come back safely from frightening or sad territory because, as the Buddhists say, our hearts break a little more with each step along the path.”
Our homework that night was to write at least two verses and a chorus from our dream exercise. I was eager to discover my song. While I was walking back to my room a rhythmic and melodic phrase came to me, giving me something to work from. I used that and several phrases from the free association, completing my dream song, Here Comes the Bride, in about four hours. More than half of that time was spent doggedly searching for it both lyrically and musically, finding the right tone and staying with it. When I played it for the group the following day some people were moved to tears. Rosanne said, “you’ve been given a kind of miracle.” That’s how I felt, too.
The songs that we wrote from our dreams were amazing! Stunning, scary, funny, stark and tender, some staying close to the free association images, others veering off in new directions.
“There is nothing more sacred to me than songs and songwriters.” After two and a half days of immersion in writing and listening to songs I felt proud to hear Rosanne Cash say this to our intimate group of songwriters. But I also felt a responsibility to be worthy of it and the example set by Rosanne — hit songwriter and daughter of Johnny Cash, Grammy winner, multi-gold recording artist and author whose career took a brave turn with the release of Interiors and The Wheel in the early 1990s.
In 2001 I was among sixteen songwriters selected from over 200 applicants to attend another of Rosanne’s “Essence of Songwriting” workshops at Omega Institute in upstate New York. Many of us had participated in the workshop before and were good friends by now. It was my second time, and to borrow singer-songwriter Caroline Aiken‘s words to an audience at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference, I felt like I had truly “found my tribe.”
It was a diverse group. Only a few of the nine women and seven men were professional musicians or songwriters; some were new to writing while others had been at it for decades. Some, like me, were just emerging as soloists while others wrote for bands; some had been having trouble writing, not writing much or not at all, and others wanted to simply be where writing and listening was the priority. Rock, pop, folk, country and more were represented.
We began by sitting in a circle of chairs in a comfortable room with an electric piano, many guitar cases, bright windows and lots of pillows. By the end of the weekend all of us would be sitting on the floor, lying on the pillows, sometimes in tears and often convulsed with laughter. I would have three revelations, would hear many intense, funny, and powerful songs, and I would write a song that would teach me a lot about myself as a person and as a songwriter.
Right away Rosanne said, “I cannot teach you how to write songs, I can only be with you as you try to discover your own voices.” She urged us to approach this experience with a beginner’s mind. “I have a lot of opinions about songwriting. A lot,” she said, explaining that her teachers — writers like Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Townes Van Zandt — held songwriting as the highest form of honesty, honor and self-respect. She questioned the notion that songwriting is a craft, the word craft suggesting the songwriter is not as serious as the poet or the novelist. She asked us to listen as closely to each other’s songs as we would want them to listen to ours.
After making the wry disclaimer “I’m not much for new-agey stuff,” Rosanne led us in a guided meditation intended to remove the internal negative critic. The negative critic is that inner voice which scolds this isn’t any good, you can’t finish that, this line sucks, you’re hopeless, etc. The useful part of the negative critic, said Rosanne, the part that is honest and faithful in editing songs, would remain behind.
I had my first revelation at this point. I recognized the negative critic: fear, self-conscious and familiar.
A letter from Rosanne sent to us a week or so before the workshop asked us to bring a song for feedback and copies of the lyrics for the group. It said, “Please do not pick a song you feel really good about, as tempting as it may be to show your best stuff. Rather, bring a song that you feel has a lot of potential.”
While we listened to the songs each songwriter had brought, we made notes on our copies of the lyrics, discussed specific points after each performance, and returned the lyrics with our comments back to the songwriter. Many of the issues raised were familiar, such as avoiding the use of words that evoked grand themes: love with a capital “L,” Life, Pain, even My Heart, because they have become meaningless clichés with overuse.
We heard three songs that night. The topic of the first song was a grown son’s lingering grief for his mother. Rosanne liked this unusual subject but urged the writer to cut unnecessary adjectives and syllables. The second song had lots of minor chords in both the verse and chorus. Rosanne told us that in old-school country music the writer’s rule was to save your minor chord for the chorus. For this song she suggested doing the opposite. Either way, the tension built in the verses should be released in the chorus. We returned to this structural principle often.
I loved this song’s opening line (“this is the last drink where I swallow my pride”) and I hadn’t found anything to criticize until Rosanne made her suggestions. My second revelation: I could insist that a song rise to it’s highest obligation without sacrificing my joy in it.
The third song described a sexual assault. Rosanne commented on how difficult it is to write about “issue” topics without sounding self-righteous. The story was harrowing but the song offered redemption in the chorus, “a baby changes everything.”
There were thirteen more songs to hear the next day plus a writing exercise. But before that there was the traditional late night song circle. It was good to be back in the tribe!
My college friend Eric Amrine introduced me to singer-songwriterJohn Martyn in 1976, when we were just 20 years old. We were both guitarists and drawn to mind-altering experiences. Martyn’s Scots-folk-soul was instantly addictive: full of yearning, hypnotoc, melancholy, angry-yet-sweet.
Just the other day my doctor, who is British and the same age as Eric and me, mentioned Martyn and Nick Drake to me in the same sentence. We were standing in the barn as the horses came in for the night, and our breath fell from our mouths like clouds. In winter, when the air is so cold that we are reminded of the thin line between liquid and solid, this is the music we listen to: John Martyn, Nick Drake. Solid Air is the record I still own. Martyn dedicated the title track of his best-known album to the brilliant and insomniac Drake, who died of an overdose at age 24.
Eric and I went to college a mere 200 miles from Woodstock, NY, where Martyn and other lights of the music world also lived in the late 1960s. Martyn once said, “Jimi Hendrix owned a house literally over the road. He used to fly up every Thursday in a purple helicopter. He was very quiet and used to tell me how much he loved the animals.” I was surprised to learn John Martyn was only 60.
My capacity for denial is selective and applies to the passage of time. Eric is forever 20, for instance, and Martyn’s music is frozen with our youthful faces in that time. Yet death looms. It always has and always will, of course, but as my own age trespasses on the territory of the daily obituary, death is so close you can touch it. Every morning of this cold spell I worry about the deer and the feral cat that I have seen once, whose tracks I see in stringing through the snow. How do they survive? How do the birds keep warm in their tiny of feather coats? How do they hold on in the wind?
I don’t know. I hear Martyn singing, I don’t want to know about evil. I only want to know about love.