I was thinking as I took my usual hour to get to sleep last night, why am I a songwriter?
Isn’t it pretty self-absorbed to assume anything I have to say about the world around me is important enough to be set to a melody and then shown to others? Aren’t most of my songs about solving my own problems, anyway? How is this helpful to anyone besides me?
On occasion I have had friends approach me to say, “I loved your lyrics in this song because they described what I was going through and it helped me.” I have always held those occasions as very precious to me because they have been relatively rare. Does that mean that songwriting is inherently a selfish experience? And does that diminish its importance somehow?
About a year ago a music blog was recommended to me. Actually more of a blogging series by musician, Josh Ritter. It’s called Making a Life in Music, and it turned out to be instrumental in my continuing to write and record. The first installment was cheerfully entitled, We’re All Gonna Die. I knew I was onto a winner!
The entry talked about how as humans we are all headed inevitably to death and the best we can do is work out ways of accepting this as we live. He talked about how art (particularly music) can act like a machine to help us process this information, making a comparison with the Enigma machines used in World War II for the encryption and decryption of secret messages.
“To strain a metaphor to breaking, Death is the enigma and Art is the engine we build to decipher it. Each of us makes Art as a way to understand human problems (Love, War, God, Death, Sandwiches) of great complexity. While we go about our day-to-day lives we are constantly feeding information into the engines we create for ourselves, gaining insight and slowly solving the enigma. Art is one such engine.”
This comparison stuck with me. I am the sort of person that might be quiet in a group and listen to what everyone else says, making a note of their body language and mannerisms. I get a real kick out of learning about someone’s personality by just watching them. And then when I say, “I think you’re this sort of person,” and they’re like, “how did you know that?”, I tap my nose and give a frustratingly smug “a-ha!”
I love people-watching. Sitting, pretending to write, sipping tea when in fact I’m not writing, I’m absorbing and I just needed a behavioural disguise. Once I have become a heavy sponge full of ideas, I find a quiet place and begin singing out the feeling, wringing out the information into song form. Many of my songs start with a single line of dialogue, and instead of saying it I sing it in the rhythm one mine say it. You’ll find my first lines often sound quite conversational.
I’m not saying I carry some intolerable burden of human insight, but I do enjoy watching and writing about my observations. It doesn’t have to be some heavy question of destiny. After all, no one says to another, “You are a born accountant! This must be your life’s purpose. Think of all the ways you’re going to change the world with your talent!” Replace the word ‘accountant’ with ‘artist’ and it doesn’t seems as ridiculous all of a sudden.
This should be a worry. We tend to worship those that show creativity because there is this assumption that there are ‘creative people’ and ‘not creative people’. We are all creative, all creators. It’s part of what makes us human. I tire of people saying to me, “Oh, you’re arty, you can do this for me,” when it might actually be an opportunity for that person to access a part of themselves that is underdeveloped. Why would you throw away a chance like that?
But then if I say to myself, “Oh, you’re no philosopher, you shouldn’t attempt to write anything meaningful” then I am doing exactly that. I’m throwing away a chance to grow the parts of me that are stunted. Songwriting is therapy and it’s exercise. So what if it is of most benefit to the writers themselves? There are few truly selfless career paths. You have to feel personally inspired by what you do or you simply won’t do great work. You’ll just skim along and make do until you run out of time.
Since we are all headed for death we may as well pick the paths that do the most good and create the most joy. For me songwriting is by far the most joyful path. When I put my all into my music I feel as though I leave a trail of flowers and brightness as I go. Perhaps all this is mere whimsy and frivolity.
But where would humanity be without a little bit of silliness?