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Musings /// To the Songwriters (and on why I am not one)

On making music, writing songs and the one summer I tried (and failed) to do both.

I don’t know why I stopped writing songs.

I mean, I can guess. I know it wasn’t because I wasn’t very good at it – I wasn’t, but I’ve continued to do things I am terrible at, like driving, running, making cookies, speaking French after three or more drinks (or doing anything after three or more drinks, though, incidentally, my French actually improves with one or two) and keeping to deadlines, so I know I am not intimidated by my failure to excel in certain departments.

But I’m not entirely sure why I stopped writing songs, which I did for one summer, really – the three months between freshman and sophomore year of college, when I was living on 7th street between avenue B and C. It was the first time in many years that I didn’t really have much going on in those warmer months: no real job to speak of, no internship, just an easy literature class to satisfy a requirement and lots of free time in an empty apartment while my roommate was back home in Florida. There’s a strange thing that happens to you when you are truly alone for the first time in your life. I remember developing a steady routine of Lucky Charms, grapefruits, salt & vinegar chips, turkey on rye and the occasional mango from the deli downstairs as basic sustenance, and sometimes laying down on the floor of our living room at 3 am for no reason in particular, sometimes even sleeping there because I could (and because once or twice I let my ridiculously small bedroom overflow with the contents of my ridiculously small closet). I was bored of television and cancelled our cable for the summer – that was prime cash anyhow, and the thought of spending endless hours watching movies and sitcom reruns depressed me. I tried things – a party (luau themed), painting (a hobby I used to enjoy and still do, but found impossible at that time, the one-fourth-completed Italian streetscape sitting in my mother’s closet as evidence), or schoolwork (meh).

When I was fifteen I purchased an acoustic Ibanez guitar from Sam Ash in Times Square with saved-up money from birthdays and allowance, which I taught myself to play by using tablature printouts (this is why I never became very proficient at the instrument – there is only so far you can get this way, but I was able to play a few Bob Dylan songs and the intro to both “Paint It Black” and “Stairway To Heaven,” so I could keep myself occupied and satisfied enough).  It never really occurred to me to write any music of my own, despite the fact that I was always obsessed with lyrics and very much identified as a writer. It just seemed like something completely out of my realm. For other people. The talented ones.

With the trusty Ibanez.
With the trusty Ibanez.

One night my friends and I went to an after-hours bar in Chinatown where I ran into a brown-haired boy I went to high school with; he was a grade ahead of me and looked like a combination of Jake Gyllenhaal that guy who always wins the Emmy from the Big Bang Theory. He ended up hanging out at my apartment with my friend Tyler and I, because when you are 18 or 19 you can stay up until 7 am, no problem, and even go get breakfast after. We brought out copies of the old literary journal from our school, called Columbus, and read through the poems we’d both published in there, because when you are 18 or 19 and a little drunk this doesn’t seem nearly as pretentious or obnoxious as it actually was. The boy remarked that my poems sometimes read as though they could be songs. (For the record, this is barely accurate).

“You ever think about songwriting?” he asked, motioning to the Ibanez, rotting in the corner, frightfully out of tune, probably a string broken.

“Well, no,” I said. “Not at all.”

“Give it a try,” he ordered. “Maybe that will be your thing this summer.”

He was the kind of boy who said things like that, without any degree of self-awareness, and who lectured me for not having ever read The Old Man and the Sea, so our friendship/romance didn’t last long.

The next day – well, really the same day, just later, after an omelet at Odessa Café on Avenue A and a few hours of sleep – I picked up the guitar, a notepad and a chord book and set about writing songs. And this is what I did for the next two or three weeks straight, until I had four or five, then ten. I ate so many boxes of Lucky Charms, so many grapefruits, too many turkey sandwiches. My deli delivered. I barely left the house. It was sort of my Headley Grange, minus talent, minus Jimmy Page, plus cereal with marshmallows, minus showering, plus a horribly turned guitar.

The only person to date to hear these songs is Tyler, a friend from my teenage years who used to be my partner in crime for things like Eighties Night at Don Hills (RIP) and Ani DiFranco concerts. She is also the only person in the whole world who has heard my real singing voice, except for anyone unlucky enough to stand next to me during a round of “Happy Birthday” at a party, and even then I’m probably only mouthing the words. Tyler would come over and we would have work sessions for hours, singing together while I honed words and chords, tweaking the notes I kept in a black-papered notebook in silver gel pen (because you possibly can’t get any more girl than that). By the end of August, I had an album’s worth of music, my Blood On The Tracks to my ex-boyfriend (I say that to infer that it was a collection themed around the dissolution of a relationship. The similarities to Dylan ended there). I can still remember how they all go, and even every word to a few of them, some of which were slightly wince inducing (“you had a voice to make memory itself forget” was one of them., and another mentioned something about Poseidon. Oh, wretch.). Some of them were less terrible, but after that summer I never played those damn songs again. I packed up the notebook. The Ibanez went back to Stones covers.

I don’t know why I stopped writing songs, but I really starting thinking about the practice of it all when I moved to Nashville, where people do this every day: in special rooms, in rounds, in meetings arranged by publishing companies, at Barista Parlor (and clog up the internet while they do it, ahem). Of course I’ve dissected songs for a living in recent years, and even found a way to do so as far back as high school, when I wrote a paper on T.S. Eliot and somehow brought in Bob Dylan, based around the lyric “hollow man searching in a cotton field for dignity,” a reference to the Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.” I wanted to make a point about surrendering to your work and how a writer can never exist without being fully aware of the external world, the “timeless and temporal” as Eliot put it, and I couldn’t keep myself from cross pollinating from music to literature to poetry and back again. It was a pretty decent paper, and I think I got an A-.

I collect favorite lyrics like others collect jewelry. Since moving here, I’ve added much to my collection: from Andrew Combs, Caitlin Rose, Tristen, Rayland Baxter, Kim Logan, Tim Easton, Joshua Black Wilkins, Cory Branan and so many more. There isn’t a band or artist featured on this blog whose lyrics haven’t left an imprint on my brain. And no amount of Lucky Charms summers would have birthed a song like Andrew’s “Take It From Me” or “Too Stoned To Cry.” Maybe that’s why I stopped attempting to write myself – only so many marshmallows one girl can eat, only so many solo June, July and Augusts.

But moving past all the analysis, all the criticism, all the mental collecting, I think often about songwriting and songwriters. The career of it, the business of it, the process. About what makes a song. Because the act of doing so, of crafting the perfect few minutes of music-meets-lyrics; well, that’s up there with life’s true miracles, maybe second to giving life itself or the turn of the seasons. Maybe I’ll try again one day. But for now, cheers to all of you making the songs that I can worship, absorb, dissect. And cheers to that summer. At least it was good for some excellent turkey sandwiches.

(For the record, I did eventually read The Old Man and the Sea.

It was not my favorite.)

1 comment

  1. Riss, your writing is like music. You make this reader FEEL what you are/were going through just like the words of a song that moves/changes a person.

    Iris Retired and loving it!


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