Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep. (John Lennon)
For most of my life, I thought that original music was an imaginary concept, something that couldn’t possibly exist and that the people around me were making up. Since I was a teenager, and possibly before, my adoration for soundscapes has, metaphorically speaking, taken me around the world many times over. There isn’t a single region of the world whose music has not captivated my imagination and stolen my heart in some way. And by some miracle, each of the songs that I’ve fallen in love with– and often taught myself how to sing– were distinct from each other. Of course, most of them fell into one or more of the broad currents that have shaped the world’s music. And they also often touched upon similar themes, ones that we all recognize and need to make sense of every day. But by and large, they formed a tapestry of emotion and ideas that made original music utterly unnecessary to me.
Why do we even want to be original, I would ask myself, when every opportunity to empathize with others already exists? For years, I did not even begin to try to write my own music, because I firmly believed that all had already been said. I also believed that if you are blessed with an instrument, or even an open and compassionate ear, you can partake in that vast world of music as deeply as you would ever want to. I didn’t even harmonize to the music I listened to– I felt its original state was too precious for me to corrupt with even that.
Recently, though, these thoughts have been replaced in my head by little “snapshots” of music that often do not add up to complete songs, but are also intriguing enough that I want to see where they might lead. But the idea of doing this, of considering the possibility of being a songwriter, terrifies me so much that… well, I really have no clue why I am blogging about it right now, sharing these feelings with strangers and (maybe) friends. (I really don’t.) It’s a fear that I’ve kept private for longer than I realize. What will happen, I now ask myself, if I see myself as a writer of music? The thought is still blasphemous to me. But also…
What if the songs that I come up with in no way match up to the reason I love music in the first place: the beauty of it, the depth of it, the complexity and the simplicity and the way that it all hits you, with an elegance that displaces even the most persistent thoughts? And also… I revere music, possibly more than anything else in the world… so irreverence, my usual means of finding peace with challenges, is rendered hopelessly inadequate. How can you laugh, even at yourself, in the face of something you utterly adore?
“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me.” John, what a good thing of you to say. As I embark on this journey of writing original songs– and perhaps equally daunting, of sharing them as if this is something that is totally natural to me– I remind myself of this quote. Perhaps songwriting does not have to begin with the sort of reverence that paralyzes you completely. Perhaps it does not need to start with the feeling that music is everything, that is expresses everything and explains everything, and is therefore so sublime that it needs nothing from you…
… Perhaps it makes sense to think of songwriting in the opposite way: not of trying to commune with heavens, but of working out the ways that the world gets under your skin. Perhaps the best way to think of it is not in terms of what it will add to that incredible repertoire that already exists, but rather in terms of communing with the “devil,” as it were, within you… the part of you that cannot stay silent– not because it is shimmeringly original, or because it contains the key to our emancipation, but because it is making it hard for you to fall asleep.
That’s a perspective I understand very well. Maybe you do, too.