06 Aug Themes: Older Than My Age

are we living in the future / are we never in the now 
when we’re speeding like a bullet and we’re never slowing down 

we’re the fathers of invention / give it legs and make it stand 
busy making our tomorrow / gonna hold it in our hands 

can’t stop thinking that something’s gotta change 
can’t help feeling so much older than my age 

all our heads are in the clouds now / and our feet are floating too 
but we feel the weight of life and death in everything we ever do 

can’t stop thinking that something’s gotta change 
can’t help feeling so much older than my age 

I’m 29 years old, only a handful of months away from 30, and my situation is what you’d expect of the average nearly-30 year old in this country: in the early years of career, marriage, mortgage – figuring out how to be an adult and still feeling like a kid. When you are a kid, the gap between you and a grownup is this enormous, mysterious thing; adults know everything, take care of everything, do everything. Becoming one feels un-mysterious in that sense, but you find plenty of new mystery in its place.

In the mix of all the transition are contradictory feelings of “I’ve got this, I’m ready, get me to the top of my game” and “what the hell am I doing here? I can’t do anything, I’m going back to bed.” Our passions and hopes propel us forward, and our insecurities and inexperience tug on the leash. Young adulthood (and, I suspect, the rest of life) is a combination of earnestness, arrogance, foolhardiness, innovation, fear, sacrifice, disappointment, elation, love, achievement, and failure.

It’s the first time most of us begin to face our mortality with any honesty. Our parents are looking older, and our grandparents are gone or are nearing the end of their lives. We’re having children and seeing just how fast things change. We’re still told that we’re young, that our entire lives are ahead of us, but there’s more behind us than there’s ever been, and that makes us feel older than we are. Or at least it makes me feel that way.

All of these things have been churning in my mind for the last few years, and are the lens for Older Than My Age – and for the rest of the Can’t Live Forever project.

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10 Jul Revelatory Songwriting

When it comes to song lyrics, I’m increasingly appreciative of writing that helps reveal meaning to the listener rather than veiling it. My favorite songwriters have a way of using language to make their points clearer where others might use it either as a requisite afterthought or, more purposefully, for the way it sounds or feels. The latter is not always ineffectual, by any means – Andrew Bird and Justin Vernon come to mind as writers who marry music and lyric to great rhythmic, emotional, and experimental ends, if not literal ones. But when Jason Isbell sings about a dying woman “cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore” (Elephant), I not only see her in the sad, nostalgic light he casts, I feel the impermanence of things. This is revelatory songwriting.

I remember a line from Ian McEwan’s Atonement that prompted the realization for me. He describes the protagonist family’s estate, an “open parkland, which today had a dry and savage look, roasting like a savanna, where … the long grass was already stalked by the leonine yellow of high summer.” For a fiction author like McEwan, it’s of obvious importance that the reader imagines settings and characters as much like he intends as possible, and it’s his responsibility to take her there. A late summer heat, hyperbolically African; the grass starting to turn the same color as a lion, the color creeping up on it as toward some prey; “stalked” suggesting both animal and floral connotations. McEwan’s lawn could have simply been “yellowing in the late summer heat,” but his elegant one-two punch delivers the image far more powerfully.

I think more songwriters could benefit from this kind of approach. It’s to their advantage that the medium combines the inherently emotional aspect of music with language, and the more effectively the two are matched, the greater the impact. This is an obvious observation, but the “how” of lyrical/melodic complement remains a persistent vexation for songwriters. It can be an easy-out to rely on the music alone to communicate for you, but how much more meaningful will it be when the right attention is given to language? Poets/lyricists have much to learn from novelists in this regard.

This is why I love lines like Isbell’s and McEwan’s – they communicate clearly, understandably, directly. They make potent use of simile. Show me ‘A’ by itself, and I’ll see it from my perspective. Show me ‘A’ in light of ‘B’, and you can deepen or transform my perspective on it, introduce a new perspective entirely. It’s fascinating psychology that the comparison between even dissimilar subjects can clarify our understanding. I want to dig deeper into this in my own songwriting, striving more and more to show the listener something new.

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Free Music

22 Jun Why I’m Giving Away Free Music This Year

Several months back, I attended an event for entrepreneurs at Atlanta Tech Village, where my wife works. A presenter encouraged attendees to ask themselves the following question – “how do people want to buy what I’m selling?” It’s stuck with me ever since, and came up frequently in the idea process that ultimately led to Can’t Live Forever, the free music project I launched this month.

As an independent songwriter, the answer to the question “how do people want to buy what I’m selling?” seems simple: they don’t. They want it for free. This is overwhelmingly clear in the popularity of free music streaming services like SoundCloudSpotifyBandcampRdio, and even YouTube, to name a few. Not to mention basic consumer nature – would you prefer to pay for music, or listen for free? Easy.

On an artistic level, this really doesn’t bother me that much. It’s my belief that art gives opportunity (and reason) for pause, for consideration of an aspect of the world; it challenges our conceptions of beauty, of pain, of social constructs, and so on (and on, and on). This kind of experience, these distinct moments of consciousness, should not be a restricted privilege. What’s important to me as an artist is that people listen to and hopefully enjoy my music, and if they feel so inclined, to support it in the ways they deem best.

On an entrepreneurial level, it’s a more vexing question. I want to make a living doing what I’m best at, and the collapse of more “traditional” music industry revenue models can feel discouraging. But asking questions like this one are crucial problem-solving exercises for anyone in business for themselves. What is my product? Is it viable? Is there a customer base? Where record sales may have been lucrative before, they are not what they used to be, and the trend continues downward.

Finding viable financial solutions requires artist-entrepreneurs to innovate and leverage current trends. As for many artists, this is difficult for me because I am more interested in poetry and beauty and sound than I am in customer discovery, marketing strategy, and business models. The latter comprise an entirely new way of thinking, and I struggle with the fact that it sometimes distracts from creation. But for those who want to survive, innovate we must.

And so my aim with Can’t Live Forever is twofold, and consistent with both the artistic and (increasingly) entrepreneurial sides of my work: give free music to listeners and aggressively pursue licensing opportunities, while building a platform to showcase a diverse songwriting catalogue.

Releasing one track every month offers the kind of small bites that satisfy listeners’ increasingly short attention spans in the digital age, but with enough frequency to build traction over time. That my first song release – An Awful Thing to Waste – received more first-week buzz than each of my last two albums did in their first week suggests this is a good model. Genre diversity in future releases will hopefully reach an equally diverse audience, yielding similar “listen,” “like,” and “share” results.

The licensing aspect is a more behind-the-scenes pursuit, with the exception of my presence on the royalty-free music site Audio Jungle, which is a distinctly separate venture from Can’t Live Forever. I’m still learning the ins and outs of it all, but licensing music to companies for marketing purposes can be a far more lucrative opportunity for independent artists & songwriters than selling to consumers. The two are intertwined though, at a very basic level – your song’s marketability is what will appeal to a marketer, which requires you to do the work of building a solid following. Being the soundtrack to a commercial exposes your music to a whole new audience, which furthers your reach. It has to be a win-win all around.

I’ll continue to post on the progress of Can’t Live Forever and look forward to sharing more thoughts on the relationship between art and enterprise. It’s a strange new world for me, but one that I’m excited to explore & discuss. What are your thoughts?

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03 Jun Announcing ‘Can’t Live Forever’

Back at the beginning of 2013, I had a number of realizations about my habits as a songwriter. The big issues that became clear were a dependence on inspiration, that I was reaching the limits (and growing tired) of my “wheelhouse,” and I was only writing with and for myself. Last year was an exercise directly against those habits as I sought to be more disciplined, explore other genres, and co-write with other songwriters. I wrote close to 75 songs and pieces of music, and by the time 2014 showed up I was ready to do something with them.

Initially the plan was to release a three song EP every quarter, and at the end of the year collect them into a full-length album. But as I started recording the three songs that I felt were most ready, I started to wrestle with whether or not they belonged, stylistically, on the same release. Cue artistic angst. My wife has all the good ideas, and she solved my issues with a simple suggestion: “Why don’t you just release one song per month? It’ll take the pressure off and you’ll have an even more frequent output.” Cue huge sigh of relief.

So without further ado, this is what Can’t Live Forever is all about:

– Free music. The first Tuesday of every month, I’ll release a new song. They will be free to stream and/or download through outlets like SpotifySoundCloud, and Bandcamp (where you have a ‘pay what you want’ option), and available for purchase through iTunesAmazon, and Google Play. More on “why free?” here.

– Creative transparency. There are many blogs on creativity and productivity out there, but very few that I’ve come across dealing specifically with songwriting. My goal is to start with a minimum of 4 blogs per month exploring various aspects of songwriting, including the general creative process, commentary on specific songs (both my releases and songs that are important to me), and independent record making. I hope to be as transparent as possible, offering you a window into my experience as a songwriter.

– Collaboration. Expect more co-written songs in the coming months, contributions from multiple collaborators on every release, and featured artwork on releases by various photographers & designers. Community is essential to making a project like this successful, and I’m immensely grateful to everyone involved and want them to benefit from this. Hopefully you’ll find another new favorite artist through it!

– Time. Thematically, I’ve found myself thinking and writing a lot about time. Can’t Live Forever borrows its nom de projet from a song of the same title (coming very soon!), and most of the tracks on deck deal with the same questions and ideas. As short as life is, I don’t want to miss out on anything – or drag my feet on my desired future, especially regarding career.

So there you have it! Thank you for listening, for reading, for sharing with your friends, and for supporting my music in whatever way you may. I’m looking forward to the next 12 months!


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06 Nov Lonely Encounters

I just read this passage this morning, and I’m reeling from its implications. I feel like I’ll be sitting with it for a while, but wanted to share a few thoughts anyway:

“Does not all creativity ask for a certain encounter with our loneliness, and does not the fear of this encounter severely limit our possible self-expression?”
– Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

As I consider my life as a songwriter I realize immediately how I fear those lonely encounters with myself, how I want to manage my expression. Last time I wrote about a desire for impression over expression, and Nouwen uncovers a new facet of the struggle: if I’m afraid to delve into the lonely places, I’ll never tap into the potential for truly important expression that exists in them – especially if what I want most is to impress an audience.

A willingness to explore our loneliness, our human singularity, should be a vital part of creating. Nouwen writes earlier in the book that “few ‘happy endings’ make us happy, but often someone’s careful and honest articulation of the ambiguities, uncertainties, and painful conditions of life gives us new hope.” That’s so true! What could be more compelling to a listener than a song that articulates the ambiguities, uncertainties, and pains of life? Whether it sounds melancholy or happy, there’s something in that kind of expression that softens the ache, gives us hope.

A recent favorite song of mine is Elephant by Jason Isbell, from Southeastern. It’s an incredibly sad story about a woman dying of cancer, and a prime example (to me) of how “careful and honest articulation” can make all the difference. I leave the experience of that song feeling somewhat sad, but mostly feeling human – feeling like I’ve just heard a writer who knows how to encounter his loneliness and not shy away from the expressions it has to offer.

I’m really interested in what you think about this. Comments?

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22 Oct Identity and Responsibility

As if “who am I” wasn’t already a big enough question in general, we as artists and creatives must daily grapple with the question as it concerns our work. “Why am I an artist? If I get paid, is it art? What IS art? Does the world really need one more guy expressing himself?” and dozens of other questions that I won’t type for fear of disappearing into a theoretical black hole and not finishing this post. It’s little wonder many artists spend an entire lifetime exploring the subject.

To bring one aspect of this enormous question into focus, I’ll talk about a shift in my life as an artist that began this year. Previously I wrote about “doing the work” of strengthening my creative muscles, a newfound discipline that has largely freed me from inspiration-dependence. This coincided with a decision to pursue a songwriting career over one as a touring/recording artist (and trying to convince people that my tastes should be theirs). While I’m still figuring all that out, it’s come with a healthy redefinition of “what I do” vs. “what I can do” – i.e. artistic identity vs. the responsible use of my creativity.

For me, songwriting has long been about trying to prove myself, and the fatal flaw in that is a desire for impression over expression. Questions like “how do I say this best” became less about writing good lyrics and more about impressing people with depth, and I would start trying to conjure up “cooler” contexts for my writing than the world I actually inhabit. Letting our identity be subsumed into our art is dangerous, because when we inevitably fail to garner the praise we want or even to meet our own standards, we begin to question who we are rather than how we can do better next time.

Where understanding that I make art and not the other way around has fixed some artistic identity issues, realizing that my abilities are a gift I can use apart from that identity has helped me become more responsible with my career. What I do as an artist should be the free expression of who I am as a person, but what I can do as a creative is not confined to my tastes and preferences. Put plainly, there are songs I write because they’re what’s in me to write, and there are songs I write because I have the ability to write songs. The former is art in the traditional sense, and the latter is stewardship of a gift which, hopefully, puts food on the table.

The two are obviously not mutually exclusive, but for my songwriting it’s been an important distinction to make. Letting myself write songs that are decidedly not “who I am” helped me realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in the art, and I’ve since been able to hold even the most personal songs with a more open hand. How does this distinction play out in your work? What are your thoughts on identity vs. responsibility?

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16 Oct The Temptation of Adam

This is the first in what will be an ongoing feature on the blog, courtesy of an interesting new service called This Is My Jam. The point of the site is sort of a vignette, anti-playlist approach to sharing music, which I love. The Internet has given us a glut of content, and most of our swollen iTunes libraries and Spotify accounts have tracks in them that we rarely listen to, if we’ve ever even heard them. This Is My Jam focuses on a single song at a time, and I’ll be using it to highlight and discuss songs that have impacted me as a songwriter.

So let’s start off with a bang, with what is one of my favorite songs of all time: Josh Ritter’s The Temptation of Adam.

I credit Temptation with awakening my love for story songs. Before first listening to Ritter in 2007, my exposure to narrative songwriting had been limited to the “she stepped out of ‘er front door” sentimentality that populates country radio. But I was amazed by Ritter’s capacity with words – listening Temptation’s unlikely premise unfold in a remarkable display of pace, rhythm, emotion, and clever allusion. I had never heard a song that engaged my brain and emotions so fully at the same time.

With the pick-up line “if this was the Cold War, we could keep each other warm,” Ritter initiates a nameless protagonist’s pursuit of the beloved Marie, set in an underground missile facility while they wait for the nuclear apocalypse. I love the way he balances headier references (e.g. Kubrick, Curie, atomic half-life) with the simple details of a relationship – misjudged first impressions, starry-eyed infatuation, crossword puzzles. The melody is evocative and haunting in its gorgeous simplicity, and the dominant-7 three chord into the six gets me every time.

What continually impresses me about Temptation is that despite its outlandish aims, the song works from start to finish. It showed me how well-crafted imagery can be used as a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself. Countless artists have written a beautiful line and fetishized it, but when Ritter sings “my eyes get washed away in chain reactions” you almost lose it in the swelling strings. I deeply appreciate the way his lyricism serves the story, serves the song. I hope to accomplish the same in my writing, whatever themes I tackle.

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02 Oct Writing Assignments

When I was in college I took a poetry workshop course that, looking back, was probably the most helpful academic experience of my student life. I say that because it introduced an important practice into my creative work: assignments. Like I’ve said before, discipline used to be a dirty word when it came to creativity because Inspiration is the sacred light of Genius, and I was going to hold out for nothing less. I see now that the seeds of a healthier creative work ethic were sown in that course, even if it took me a long time to start cultivating them.

It’s a wonderfully baffling thing to me that there is such freedom within parameters. We tend to think of them as restrictive (and they can be), but they can also provide valuable structure to the boundless creative mind. In the workshop, for example, one of our tasks was to write a sestina – a fixed-verse poem format that requires the final word of each line in the first stanza to be reused in each of the five following stanzas. It was one of the more rewarding projects to finish because of how complicated it was, and it introduced me to a form I knew nothing about and stretched my creativity in directions I never would have gone on my own.

Some recent assignments I’ve given myself as a songwriter have been a little less strenuous than that, but just as fruitful. I’ve attempted new genres for the first time, written lyrics to instrumental music and then put them to original music later, and started with specific song archetypes (I had never really written a breakup song before this year, for example). Some other ideas I’d like to pursue include writing short stories and condensing them into songs, writing in unfamiliar keys and modes, and working backwards from broad themes (love, hope, etc.) to their microcosms (i.e. very narrowly defined metaphors, stories, etc.).

I’m finding that the more I embrace habits of discipline, I’m led to inspiration instead of waiting for it to come to me. What about you? Do you find that setting parameters around your work challenges or perhaps hinders your creativity?
//This post was reblogged at Creativity Everywhere in February 2014.

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25 Sep Do the Work

This is my first year pursuing music full time, and while I had vague notions of what that would be like – namely sitting in my studio (read: spare bedroom) sipping coffee and writing hits all day while the checks poured in – I was not prepared to confront the hard truth that creativity is a discipline, and I am undisciplined.

There seems to be much talk of late in the social-creative-hipster-intellectual-productivity-sphere (SCHIPS?) about the tension between inspiration and discipline, so I won’t try to write another exposé on the topic. That tension is obviously real, as everyone in history who has done creative work can attest; I just didn’t know how real it was until I tried to make my home in it.

As a songwriter I have long been a slave to inspiration, and if I went weeks or months without writing, I chalked it up to block. In reality I often just wasn’t trying very hard; if I sat for more than five minutes and brilliance didn’t come pouring out I would give up immediately. That defeatism was a reaction to lofty expectations, built from a couple false ideas: that inspiration is the most important thing, and that all of my work must stand in comparison to that of my idols – every time.

The Fickle Muse and The Dangers of Comparison are their own topics, but in this context I’ll simply recognize them as obstacles between me and discipline. It’s a huge relief to realize that while I can’t choose when to be inspired, I can choose to work hard on my songs and enjoy the satisfaction of that hard work, even if the result is less than brilliant. I can choose to acknowledge the difference between progress and product, and avoid the inappropriate comparison of the former with the latter.

All of that leaves me with the freedom to “do the work” without, hopefully, judging myself too harshly. I still find those obstacles popping up, but a new understanding of the role of discipline in creativity reassures me when I want to quit. And if the SCHIPS is right about all of this, my best work is still to come.

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