Advice to Songwriters
I post this at my friend Tracy Spring's request--it was originally a handout at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, directed toward my songwriting classes, but it might be useful for general audiences as well:
The power of a good song, a song that is true to itself and to the experience of its listeners(and its listeners include the songwriter in the act of creation) can be astonishing to the point of fear. One good thing about the tin-pan-alley or Nashville systems, the pre-singer-songwriter systems, is that they relieve the songwriter of the burden of being identified as the instigator of the wondrous thing that happens. This is the burden of being asked to participate in what seems internally to be a monstrous lie. Songwriters at their best receive their songs, and work on them much as Michelangelo worked on sculpture, declaring that the form and figure were already there in the stone, and the artist's job was merely to free it. Good songs, great songs, are already present in the human spirit. It is the songwriter's job to recognize them and free them.
As hard a time as I give the evangelical songwriters of the"Contemporary Christian Music" marketplace (and most do deserve the hard time I give them) their "cheerleading for Jesus" approach does identify the source of creativity as being outside the ego of the songwriter and the singer, and rejects this culture's insidiously destructive insistence on identifying the source with the ego. As insipid as most of these songs might be, the joy their perpetrators feel in singing them may indeed be genuine. The truth they express--that the source of creativity is outside of the ego--is one that the music industry and the culture at large spends an awful lot of energy denying, for if I don't own my creativity, how do I dare try to make money from it? "Intellectual property" is a convenient fiction that psychologically enables the buying and selling what artists experience as a free gift, but the artist that mistakes this convenient fiction for the truth begins to look for the source of creativity in what is, after all, a flawed, easily distracted, easily frightened human vessel. At that point the artist takes on too much responsibility, or at any rate, a mistaken responsibility. Do you want to write songs? All right, then. Your job is not to create out of nothing, but rather to listen.
Listen first to other artists, and especially to other artists of the word and of music (although a half an hour with Martha Graham might be worth 20 years of Neil Diamond). Listen to Dickens delight in the possibilities of language in telling a story. Listento Glenn Gould playing Bach, and discovering joy in the beauty of intellect. Listen to any blues singer to discover what the human voice can say within the discipline of a five-note scale. Listen not to the marketplace, but to the human beings who make it up. Listen to them as if the marketplace itself was closed down for the Sabbath--it will reopen again soon enough. Listen with your audience to the same Source they listen for, and recognize when it speaks out of the silence.
That silence can be cold and terrifying, as terrifying as death. But it is ultimately benign: it is the source of the rests that make the notes intelligible. It enables the one Voice to make itself known. Once you hear that Voice, report what it says as accurately as you can, using all the skill at your disposal, and any tool that comes to hand. It is both an inner and an outer Voice, and thus requires that you listen accordingly in both directions.
If you are making your living at this, forgive yourself. Realize that your livelihood comes not from selling a product that you make (even if your wages are counted by the sales of the mere packaging that the industry sells as "product"), but from your willingness to fill a role, for doing the job of listening in a culture in which such activity is terribly difficult, and in fact its discipline is denied altogether. Don't mistake yourself for the role, either. You are allowed to have more than one talent, and in fact as many talents as you can discover in yourself. Try to remain an amateur in the root sense of that word--one who does the activity for love.
If you are not making a living at it, forgive yourself that, too. The day jobs of professional musicians (that is, telephone sales, time management, business activities, long-distance driving) are not that different from yours. There is nothing inherently positive about financial anxiety. I have known some professional songwriters whose visions have been crippled by that anxiety, and who lose hope that any audience might be capable of responding to a whole vision. I have known some professional musicians who view their jobs much in the way I used to feel about my factory job, and who, between being on call all the time and spending all their lives recording commercial jingles, lose their sense of wonder in music. Any active amateur is far more fortunate than such a professional.
(c) 1994 Robert J. Franke