Another Song-A-Day challenge comes to a close, and again, it was a rewarding experience. I managed to post all 28 tracks, including two that were done on the road. The last few days were even more of a challenge as the effects of not getting enough sleep and walking dogs in Wisconsin-winter temperatures ganged up to give me a fantastic head and chest cold.
A fairly typical pattern for Song-A-Day participants is that they hit week one with both guns blazing. After the initial flurry and release of pent-up ideas, week two is a little more difficult, but inertia carries some of the load as the routine of daily writing kicks in.
Then comes week three; week three is when things get weird. Ideas are exhausted. You’re exhausted. Week three is when you start writing songs about your junk drawer or wishing you had a popsicle. Here are a few of my week three titles from the last four years:
- Music Assembly Kit
- I Tried to Feed Her Kale
- Trapped in the Ice
- Ode to the Car Alarm Outside My Window
It doesn’t mean that these are bad songs – that last one is a favorite of mine for a variety of reasons – just that inspiration becomes less spontaneous and requires that some work be done to create it. But that’s the point of the whole exercise. As John Cleese has said, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
The problem is that I was already in week three on day one. I entered February in a relatively low place. Not depressed, but not happy either. Contemplative, melancholy, wrestling with a paler shade of grief, still coming to grips with my self-inflicted December data loss, and without a single idea for a song.
Frankly, I just wasn’t in the mood, and I had nothing to say. Or so I thought.
The first few tracks didn’t do anything to lift my spirits. Run Run Run was too blunt and my vocals sucked, There’s No Time to Rest was too much of a downer, and the next few just felt flat to me. But after four years of this, I should know that it is highly likely that I will either love or hate whatever it is I just did, and that with time my opinions will change.
Run, Run, Run isn’t that bad, and even the vocals don’t sound quite as bad to me as they did that first week. Most of the others became much stronger to me with a little bit of time and distance. It was also extremely helpful to get feedback not only from Song-A-Day participants, but from friends who were listening. My favorite comment was about Look Away from the Water, and it helped me hear the song in an entirely new way:
Look Away from the Water to me sounds kinda like if Duran Duran and Pink Floyd had a baby.
Pam also heard Billy Joel and “creepy yoga” in other tracks. All of this is incredibly helpful and gratifying. It’s enough to know that people are listening, but the feedback makes a huge difference. And it’s even ok when people don’t like something. One of the things that allowed me to start posting any of this stuff in the first place was recognizing that I was writing for me. If other people like it, fantastic. If they don’t, that’s ok.
Week one pinnacled with The Music I Want You to Hear, one of my favorite tracks of the month, and one of the most difficult things I’ve ever tried to record. I couldn’t sing it without breaking down. To draw a silly metaphor, this song was like trying to take a reheated plate out of the microwave when you don’t realize how hot it is. You’re halfway to the counter when the pain starts, but you have to just make it through. From a craft standpoint, I’m very happy with how well the lyrics came together, as well as the emotional complexity and juxtaposition of the music against the subject.
The catharsis that song provided was similar to the moment the clouds suddenly let the sun through on an overcast day. The sky is still generally grey, but there’s a new, localized brightness that shines through in the first tracks of week two. Piece by Piece was just fun to do and an unintentional follow up to last year’s I’ve Got a Tub in the Basement. Stretching myself a bit, Butter and Blackberry Jam was notable for being the first time I’ve ever attempted 5/4 time, and was my most played track for the month according to my web site. The shift to streaming has been making songs shorter, so I also wonder if the relatively short length of the track is helpful for replay.
Secretly, I suspect that the vast majority of those plays came from my friend Ross, who is the lead developer of the upcoming indie videogame Bomb Sworders. Since he’s already embedded the song in the game, I suspect an expanded version will have to be written by the time we release later this year. At least I’ll now be able to blame losing to Ross every match on the soundtrack being in 5/4 and throwing my rhythm off.
The rest of week two and even into week three just trundled along. I still didn’t have any advance idea of what I’d do on any particular day, but something always showed up. As I mentioned in another post, it felt the way marathoners describe the middle part of the run: there’s effort, but it’s not really work. Not yet.
My first moment of, “I have nothing” came on the 18th with A Sad Jingle. This is one of the weakest tracks of the month to me. It’s a narrow, contextual joke, and kind of obvious or trite. But again, the point is to write every day, and they’re not all going to be winners. Happily, that was a momentary thing, because the next day brought I Am Not Here, which is another of my personal favorites for the month.
A personal trip to Texas for my nephew’s wedding marked the beginning of week four, the final push. I was late doing my cover song of Troll, but generally pleased with the results. I think Jonathan liked it as well, which is always the most nerve-wracking part of cover day. The second to last day was one of the most difficult, and I came very close to not doing that one. Not only was I dry creatively, I’d had a migraine for two days. I managed to power through it, though, and was rewarded for that effort the next day.
As I’ve listened back over the entire month, I now suspect that Not a Minute to Spare (February 24) was more important than its otherwise throwaway status would indicate. It wasn’t much more than a practice exercise in writing quickly (I gave myself a 30 minute time limit from start to finish), but the bass line must have started some machinery up back in the depths of my brain, because by the 28th, I had a full-blown case of The Funk.
I’m Back (And I’m Backin’ It Up!) is currently my favorite thing from the entire month, and one of my all-time favorite songs I’ve written. It was a blast to do, largely came out the way I intended, and was well-received. It also let me yell at myself about the hard drive in a fun way.
There’s one part of my experience this month that I didn’t share with anyone until we had our post-challenge virtual meetup this past weekend. One of the most important things about Song-A-Day is that it is absolutely not a competition. There are full-time pros in the group, there are people like me who are trying to get there, and there are folks for whom this is their primary musical outlet. We all learn from each other, and it’s an incredibly supportive community.
I know that logically, but knowing it didn’t stop me from being jealous and internally throwing up my hands, saying “what’s the point?” In addition to the usual suspects whose work I’m always floored by, we had several new, and amazingly talented people join this year. Every day, I’d hear songs that sounded like they’d been recorded off the radio, not like they’d been done in a bedroom a few hours ago. It took some internal reflection to work through the emotional side of things. Musician, compose thyself.
As it turns out, it was all incredibly liberating. I spent a lot of time in the first three years trying to make a produced track. I didn’t hit that mark every day, but since I wasn’t writing as many songs as instrumentals, the production was a bigger part of the equation. I had already told myself that I was going to try and write more songs this year and when I heard the quality coming out of the entire group, I was finally able to let go of whatever piece of me was still trying to compete with other people. Instead, I started focusing on songwriting craft, on my lyrics, on shaking up my normal approach and trying new things.
Looking back over the last four weeks, am both pleased and somewhat surprised at what I ended up with. There are a few things to polished, a few things to learn from so I don’t do them again, and a few that I’ll forget about, but that will make me smile when they come up in random shuffle. But it was a positive year, and I think I did some good work. Most importantly, I got a little further out of my lower state of mind and stoked the boiler in the studio. I’m not avoiding going in there anymore.
I also crossed the 100 song mark this year. I was feeling good about that until the wrap-up party when I was told, “Eh, 100’s nothing. The real work starts when you get to 200.”