I remember hearing Laura Nyro for the first time on Kraft Music Hall. I was 16 years old at the time. Sitting there at the piano, her long hair framing her face, she sang from the black and white screen of the little TV in the living room. The song was “He’s a Runner”. It was like being hit with a sledgehammer. The living room went away, and my family, chattering in the background, disappeared. I got a fierce headache and had to go to my room and lie down. What was this intoxication I felt that was even more intense than the ecstasy “West Side Story” and the Beatles had provoked a few years earlier? This solitary, strangely exotic woman singing at the piano, a song she had composed herself about something that had clearly really happened, so urgent and intense, so irresistible – why did it feel as much like pain as it felt like joy? Perhaps this was the birth of my lifelong search for expression through writing songs and singing them.
The 60s and 70s were insanely rich with influences, LP recordings that we played until the vinyl was just worn out. My goodness, what riches. The Beatles, Dylan, Joni, Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Donovan, James Taylor. There was very little music school represented here, and yet these gifted, intuitive musicians were creating music that contained little worlds, movies, of depth and dimension. And the craftsmanship was often exquisite, the arrangements, the attention to detail, and the VOICES. They played their instruments, wrote the songs, did the arranging, and sang like heaven.
These were my first teachers, and I sat up in my room alone playing the guitar, or playing the piano downstairs, oblivious to my family and all the chaos of home (and they seemed not to notice me either). I learned the songs and sang them over and over, fascinated by the imaginative lyrics, the cool chord progressions. I read through the Laura Nyro songbook at the piano and marveled at the trippy little figures she would play, chantlike, over and over in a song, as her shrill voice summoned ethereal passion. I learned about transposing from playing Dylan songs on the guitar: If he sang to a C-F-G progression, it was better for my voice if I played it G-C-D. The chords were simple, but gave me the framework for singing his bold and arresting lyrics “…come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand…”. Joni Mitchell was probably every girl singer songwriter’s goddess. But of course. What fantastically evocative, deep, sensual, cryptic, humorous, romantic imagery she used to describe her inner life and her escapades. And what was that mesmerizing sound of open tuned guitar chords, modulating in the middle of a phrase, the winding melodies? These artists were utterly fearless in revealing themselves through their songs. And even without the benefit of long years of institutional music study, these songwriters were crafting tunes that still hold up all these years later. The music tormented me, and I wanted to find this experience in myself, to write songs that dove beneath the surface, and flew up through the trees to that rapturous place that all artists are looking for. And after all these years, I’m still chasing that song, that perfectly balanced, acutely true piece of music, with its subtext of tears, that might one day flow from my pen, from my voice and my fingers and grab the ears of some receptive listener and cause that wonderful ache inside the ribcage.
My first original songs were folky things with simple chords, romantic lyrics, as imitative as I could be of my heroes. I played them at high school assemblies, and then in the folk clubs around Seattle. Moving to San Francisco, I was drawn into the jazz scene and began to study music a little more seriously. I learned theory, developed a jazz repertoire, and studied improvisation. I performed for several years as a working class musician in hotels and bars, weddings, corporate functions, always doing material I thought the audiences wanted to hear – familiar hits, standards, etc. While I have little formal education in music, I worked with musicians who were far more advanced in their skills and knowledge than I was, and they generously answered my questions. The few teachers I studied with taught me skills, harmony, technique, conventional stylistic details. I was happy to have a career as a working musician, augmented by teaching singing. But my songwriting slipped into the background. What I did gain in these years was a much broader musical vocabulary.
Eventually I found musical allies who were willing to play my original songs with me. Thus began the series of recordings and concerts of primarily original music that became the centerpiece of my musical life and has continued all these years. Finding instrumentalists who liked the songs and brought their own skills to the table was the true liberation of my music. Always a marginal instrumentalist myself, I wrote at the piano, but was happy to hand that job over to the real cats who could provide accompaniment that was expansive and empathic to the songs. Any songwriter knows that hearing your songs played beautifully by highly skilled musicians is one of those experiences that make life worth living. I have been blessed to find my music buddies to whom I am so grateful for their contribution to my work.
I have not written hundreds of songs, but I’ve written a lot of them. Each song I write is another new adventure. They are inspired by the real people, relationships, experiences, and philosophical points of view that I think about, and care about. Whether it’s a lyrical fragment, or a moody chordal figure, some scrap of inspiration breaks through and appears on my piano. These gifts from the muse are really like portals into another world. I walk through the gate into a playground that is strewn with notes, rests, repeat signs, chords, words, clef signs and codas. Hidden amongst the toys are little glowing orbs. These jewels contain the chi, the prana, the life force of inspiration. All of these ingredients, all of these tools, are here for me to use in my search for what it is I’m writing about. What idea is wanting to be born, to be actualized in a song? This is play. Whether or not a song does come forth, or if it is only an eight bar fragment that has leapt out of the ether for an afternoon and then evaporated, this process of searching, finding, refining, and finally allowing the voice of the song to be heard, is play.
I’ve never tried to write a hit song. I’ve dabbled with things that were stylized and reflective of my fascination with various genre. But the most important thing I’ve learned in my experience of this process, is that if I think it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. If I think it sucks, it sucks. It’s my song and I get to decide. I know how to listen for the next note, the next word. If I write something that I don’t think is beautiful, or true, I need to keep writing and revising, or I need to scrap it and start over. I know the clichés and am vigilant about not giving in to them when I paint myself into a corner. Sometimes it takes an hour to write a song, and sometimes it takes years. I am intentional about every note, every word, every chord, the structure, and the arrangement, and don’t mind working on a song for a very long time until I get it right. I trust my own ears in knowing what is right – for me. I know when I have actualized my inspiration. And I know the moment when the song takes on a life of its own and leads me to its completion. If it takes me in a different direction from where I thought I was starting, well, I’m along for the ride. Sometimes I love them and no one else does. Sometimes other people get them too.
There are many artists who have written songs that I would die to have written. There are songwriters I revere and consider masters of the art. My own body of work is modest and obscure, but I can say that I have spent a lifetime working and playing at it. I think most artists can relate to the notion that the process is IT, the doing of it, the creating of a piece of music, or any other piece of art, is about the doing of it. It’s a way to frame your life and know yourself, and it’s a way to partake of the deeply satisfying act of pulling something out of your imagination, using all your toys and tools, and bringing it into the world, participating as a creator in the trajectory of life moving forward. And sometimes it’s just a way to keep yourself company, have something fun to do on an otherwise vacant afternoon. At its best, it is a way to connect the inner world with the outer world, hopefully touching someone else along the way.