If only there were a science to songwriting, I’d master all the equations, become a songwriting machine and write great songs day and night…
I studied science in college (chemistry to be exact) what seems like a lifetime ago. I remember taking comfort in thinking there was an answer to be had for every question. And yet in the end, and still to this day, I am most drawn to the edge of what we know: the realm of modern/quantum physics where mystery still reigns.
I think that’s what keeps me coming back to songwriting despite the inconsistent, sometimes joyous and sometimes torturous process: after writing hundreds of songs, it’s still a mystery to me. I don’t know where ideas come from, especially the good ones. The only thing I know is that if I keep writing and keep soul searching, the next song will show up. Eventually. And I’ll be ready for it.
Each song shows up and unravels in a different and unpredictable way. One thing that’s consistent is that the music always comes and the lyrics take their sweet time. But every song has to have a compelling reason for being…a seed that the song grows out of. It can be a lyric, a melody or a story that I want to tell.
Sometimes the title is the first thing to come, often when I’m far away from my instruments and writing room, as was the case with “We Rise Like Smoke” (which appears on my latest record Electric Hum as well as in stripped down form with piano and strings on my newest The Spare Key Sessions EP). The title popped into my head winter of 2011 when I was out on a walk. It was a chilly day for Los Angeles and the neighborhood smelled of wood fires. I remember watching the smoke from a chimney rising and reuniting with the sky and the metaphor of it hit me. The struggle in life and love is the same…we seek elevation, a higher purpose, a taller vantage point to get perspective…all in the hopes of being united with something bigger and more meaningful than ourselves. I tried to paint those ideas in an impressionistic kind of way in “We Rise Like Smoke.”
Other songs start when I sit down at an instrument thinking “I’m going to write a song today.” On the day I wrote “When The World Stops Spinning” I sat down at my piano with a completely blank page, which can be terrifying. Some days I’ll find any excuse, like laundry or scooping the litter box, to avoid the blank page monster. But that day it hit me pretty quickly that I wanted to write a dark and epic love song. My mom died of cancer when she was 47, my parents didn’t get to grow old together. I realized recently that my greatest wish in life is to get to grow old with my love. So the line “I will let you go when the world stops spinning” came first and the song unraveled around it.
Some songs take ages to be finished. I wrote “I Need You Now” a couple years ago, but I was never totally happy with it. I knew there was something worth fighting for so last spring I revisited it. I scrapped all the verses and started from scratch on them. Now it’s an amalgam of a few different relationships in my life and more fully captures what it means to me to need someone.
I feel like the more songs I write, the closer I get to myself and to the greater truths. Songwriting keeps drawing me back to the edge of what I know, as if to the edge of the universe, to peak over and try to see what’s out there.
Listen to ‘Take These Things To Heart”: