I've been haunted the last few years by a line in The National's song, "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" where lead singer Matt Berninger half-growls/-whimpers, "The floors are falling out from everybody I know..."
It's seemed that way at times, frankly - so much so that when my own floor was falling out from under me, I couldn't contain myself any longer and I broke down in songs/lamentations aimed at trying to sort out what I was going through and what I saw others going through on (seemingly, at times) all sides around me. The couples that you imagined were rooted in bedrock 'suddenly' divorce, the cancer diagnoses of dear friends some days seem to roll in like fish counts in AK each summer, ailing and aging parents and siblings, and then our children, too, all haunting us with the truth of our own swiftly accelerating speed through life. And then, too, what happened to so and so? Where is that friend that meant the world to me and my journey my junior year of college? He/She's not even on Facebook? What's happened? How'd I get here? Where is everybody? Where's my tribe?
I don't mean to sound morose. Am I alone here? I don't think so. I'm 42, and when I do go out with friends in my "demographic" - at this "stage of life" - we frequently talk about dad or mom's cancer, the (marriage) counseling session, the court date, a favorite teacher's passing, our kids' wounds - the scraped knee to the broken heart.
I'm trying to tell you the condition under which a heart - mine, maybe yours - becomes primed, rests wide open, yawning a space that only art can reach or attempt to fill. It's days like these - in the midst of heart-pounding bewilderment and a gnawing sense of life's hastening and perhaps-unsustainable pace - that I recently collided with and encountered my "long-ago" friend Amy Meissner's return to her first love, the visual arts, specifically in textiles. (I've hyperlinked her name, above, in the hopes you will steer yourself towards her work, pronto.) Is she winning awards for her recent work? Yes. Do I love that her work's being recognized and wildly, warmly received right now? I sure do. But if it weren't receiving the accolades, the grant money, and the museum showings, and I stumbled on it as I first did - through the curious, algorithmic miracle of social media - would I still find myself quietly awed and amazed by what she's doing right now? Yes, yes, and yes.
Amy's not such a "long ago" or distant friend, really. We both live nearby, in Anchorage, Alaska. However, as with so many good friends appearing throughout critical junctures of my life, until very recently, it'd been a little time since we'd last been in contact. Let's blame the constant striving to do right by our children and families, while then also, somehow doing right by ourselves in the process of our arts pursuits. There are only so many hours in the day.
A little over a decade ago - well before my recent return to music, and hers to textiles - we were passionately driven to try our hands at the writing craft and found ourselves in an MFA program, both studying Creative Nonfiction and mixing and mingling with the same crowd of friends outside of the classroom. I knew she had an arts background - she was illustrating children's books when we met, and I probably oozed or wore music on my sleeve even then - but not until recently did I realize the full breadth of her tremendous skills and talent.
It's been incredible to witness - seemingly, for me, out of nowhere - this (renewed or reimagined) creativity emerge from someone you once thought you knew, or did once know in one way. The surprise of learning the passions and skills and imaginations that reside inside a single person (- and to know the person! bonus! -) and to see what they can birth to life through their craft also proves one more reason I - as a fellow aspiring, working artist - feel inspired to pursue what I do. It's encouraging to know people engaged in a creative pursuit, plain and simple. It informs and nourishes your own search and attempts to clarify your own artistic vision, and ultimately you want to give and share in the process in the way your fellow artists do so generously with you.
Speaking of which. A couple weeks ago, Amy was invited to participate in a "Blog Hop" - something I admit I've never heard of until recently. She was passed four questions about the creative process, and she was to answer these in light of her own process, and then pass the questions onto a couple of her fellow artists. You can read her Blog Hop post and see selections of her work here.
Amy then invited me to this Blog Hop thingamajigger, and I readily accepted. I teach Creative Writing each fall at the University of Alaska, and this fall I am also preparing for the release of my second album, titled, Hope, Alaska. The creative process, and the role it serves in my life - and the life of my students and fellow music listeners and supporters - has seemed to be a running, ongoing discussion in my day-to-day these last couple months.
Sleep deprivation has been a running order in my weeks' menus, too. And caffeine. A lot of - too much - caffeine. My music career, as it stands, is a mostly one-man operation. And right now is "critical mass" and "hit the ground running" time. For another week or two.
So, under other circumstances, would I prove such a blabbermouth - answer these questions like I'm a barreling runaway train? Maybe. Not sure. Talking and "nerding out" about the creative process is a long held passion of mine. I loved creative writing workshops for the time we gathered and discussed material - each other's, and that of authors more widely known, loved, published than us. And I loved the craft side - hearing about what distinctly drew each of us to pursue this mysterious writing thing, how we struggled with it, reveled in it, wished it would go away, wanted it to conjure miracles of the first order. Now, I'm having another go at this "Music Thing," and Amy, her textiles. But a creative process is a process, and what follows in my response to these questions is a ramble exploring elements of my process. (And if I've written entirely too much and you can't commit to the length, please just scroll to the bottom to see who I've pitched the Blog Hop at next. Hint, cousin Dot & friend Brian. )
What am I working on?
In the strictest sense of the definition, the last few months have felt more like work than any other part of the Hope, Alaska production process. While my albums feature a full band and a lot of talent, all the musicians contributing to my records play in other well-established, full-time acts and aren’t part of a larger “JJB” team. So, I operate entirely as a solo artist, and have to work as my own manager, booking agent, etc.
Since mid-August, I’ve been fairly consumed with the behind the scenes, busy work that proves easy to overlook when you’re enjoying a great concert performance, or listening to a favorite record: Finalizing proofs for album artwork, sending the masters off to be replicated, booking album release shows, staging photo shoots, hiring a backing band, juggling schedules for rehearsals, ordering posters, postcards, t-shirts, stickers et al. Somewhere in all that, a friend and I also produced a short video and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign. I hope I don’t sound like I’m complaining. I love this album in so many ways, and wouldn’t lean so heavily into this piece of the post-production process if I didn’t feel like the work warranted it.
The songwriting process and the laboratory of a recording studio are part of the work, too, but they never feel that way to me. In recent weeks, for instance, I’ve started work on three new songs, and these absolutely thrill me right now. Watching a song unfold can feel a little like watching baby birds or chicks hatch from their eggs – there’s a lot of suspense and wide-eyed wonder accompanying the unfolding process – and at least two of those songs feel that way right now. In that way, the writing and recording stage of the work feels a lot more like play, and also a little like the thrilling early stages of a new relationship.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
That’s a tough call. Music, especially in my preferred genres – Americana, pop, rock, and folk – seems one ongoing “tip of the hat” or tribute to everything that’s influenced or impacted your songwriting efforts. When people hear my music for the first time, for instance, it’s not uncommon for them to liken it or compare my sound to someone better known or more established in the field. And that’s fine. I appreciate those points of reference.
I guess my MFA and my work as a professor in Creative Writing serve to distinguish my songs from many songwriters. For starters, many of my songs have grown out of or been influenced by works of literature I’m reading. Then, too, a number of fellow musicians and mentors in Alaska, and in Philadelphia – where I grew up – have noted that they appreciate my attention to lyrics, and I’ve no doubt that’s due to my lifelong love affair with literature and poetry. In fact, while recording my last two albums up here in AK, some of the guys began jokingly referring to me as “the professor” and humorously referencing my love of poetry. I fall on poetry religiously when I’m watching a song come to life. The imagery, the way language serves a deeper function than mere telling…I could run through each of the songs on Hope, Alaska and tell you what I was reading when I wrote that song, and what informed the way I went at one or another tune.
Related to this, I also hear a lot of albums and songs where I wish I could assist songwriters at the lyric end of their projects. Rather than be a solo artist front man, I'd much rather serve as a collaborator with a strong, gutsy female vocalist, for example, or some mind blowing guitar or piano player. I think the perfect job would be working as a Bernie Taupin to someone’s Elton John.
Why do I do what I do?
(I love this question…Consider yourself warned. And please forgive my lengthy response...)
Well, first off, I’ve tried not doing this work. I've tried to not write songs, have ignored or shrugged off my creative impulses (for a variety of reasons) and have failed miserably at suppressing or restraining myself in what otherwise feels like a natural, joy-strewn, lifelong impulse to engage with the creative process.
I imagine nearly every artist over the millennia has endured the age-old question of how you’re going to support yourself while engaging with this or another craft. I think very little has changed in the universal (or Western?) attitude towards an artist pursuing one’s vocation with any degree of conviction or intention. Your family, neighbors, community, and complete, utter strangers will let you know how impractical and fool-headed you’re being. By going at this otherwise undeniable natural impulse to create, you’ve inevitably consigned yourself to a life of poverty and sickness, a la John Keats or Rilke, or one of emotional and psychological turmoil, as per Van Gogh or Nietzche.
And yet, as any working or aspiring artist knows, regardless of how many people try to convince you that you’ve embarked on a fool’s errand, or have purchased a one-way pass to the poorhouse, their anxious, neurotic assessment of your future is nothing – absolutely nothing – compared to the hell you’ll live in if you spend your life possessed by the need to create and don't afford yourself time in your day or week to honor it on some level. I imagine I’d have saved a heap of cash in therapeutic counseling costs if I’d had enough courage to put the kibosh on all the voices and individuals who ever met my love for the songwriting craft, for example, with their rampant and bewildering anxieties, red flags, or sarcasm.
At 42, however, Life has in the last few years staged a stunning series of “Big Life” events and impasses revealing to me that if any one thing ever proved a secure, reliable, nurturing and loving source or Center in my life, it was this impulse to “make things,” to try and lean in and make a go at song(s) and prose writing. Meanwhile, the careers, the relationships, the lifestyles, and all the institutions I was instructed to pursue or work in the service of have proven the most structurally unsound fortresses – unreliable and irreparably flawed in a few cases. To even have to pretend to engage with any illusion of security in, for example, an employment situation, now strikes me as absolutely mad.
Finally, I think I do what I do in music because music seems the most primitive, natural, and “wild” creative art form accessible to our species. My work as a writer, for example, required an education.
And while you are or can be taught, and should school yourself in music, too, I think music…Well, let me end this ramble with a story:
I was battling a terrible bronchial infection for a couple weeks this past summer and my illness overlapped with a bug my six-year-old contracted during that time. So, I was home from work with him for a number of days as we both battled illnesses. During one of those weeks, I realized, though not for the first time, that my youngest is singing constantly. I forget this, because it all becomes like white noise after a while, but he’s always got a song going – whether humming, rambling words, mumbling, or some combination of all of it. Sometimes I’ll ask him, “Matt, what are you singing?” And he’ll answer, “Oh. I don’t know…” And I’ll walk out of the room, or give him his distance, and in no time, without thought, he’ll just start up all over again.
I also follow along close behind Matt when he’s in his songs because it constantly brings me back to my natural impulse with songwriting. His effortless, unthinking song reminds me to simply let music and song flow, to honor it – wherever it springs from, however it comes, whenever it comes. And to welcome the shape it takes. That’s where the real work begins, and – I hope I’ve accurately revealed this – it’s a work that strikes me as one of the deepest, oldest forms of play than most anything I can imagine…
How does my process work?
Messily. A buckshot spray of words and indiscernible vocalizings towards my bedroom window or wall as I strum my guitar. Sometimes the strumming reveals a melody, other times the strumming is an exercise in seeking - trying to clarify a melody I stumbled upon while engaged in a "Winnie-the-Pooh-" or Matt-like lollygag around town, a trail, or the nearby creek.
A more accurate way to describe the songwriting process might be to flip the question over: The process works me. It chooses or finds me where I am and won't leave me alone until I give it attention. Which can be bothersome, terribly inconvenient on any given day, but I'm not complaining. I do love being caught up (or down) "in it." I find the level of focus I can achieve over one "simple" song refreshing and nourishing well beyond any physical longing or craving.
There’s a great old Bruce Springsteen line in his song, “Spare Parts” where he shouts, “She cried till she prayed.” I think in the earliest stages of songwriting, I’m vocalizing until the words start to come. The chords and melody help cultivate the ground from which the song will grow lyrics and unearth a unified theme. Domestic duties are incredible resources, tools for helping me find my way to a lyric that will compliment the melody and/or chords. I'm not someone who can sit down and strum my guitar and sing a few lines and say, "Oh, this'll work here, and this will be the second verse," and sing some more, write down lyrics, and come up with a song that way. I have and I envy friends who sit down with a pad and pen and get to it. With a melody or a chord structure looping around my in my head as I go about my day, my body prefers to lean into some rote or mundane task, some physical work, while my mind and barely-discernible mumblings/murmurings and hums begin beseeching, reaching towards, groping recklessly for lyrics. The dishes, folding laundry, running the vacuum, or ironing a shirt for work are perfect for pitching words and lines at the void, for finding what lines will welcome the melody consuming my attention. It's the complete opposite of Zen practice - of, say, cleaning the toilet or dishes to simply/only clean the toilet or dishes. I'm a domestic-duty opportunist. After the task serves its function and I have a lead on the song, the dishes will again go unwashed for a few days, the stove will look like my kids are being raised by gorillas, and the laundry will go unwashed or unfolded until I'm haunted or pursued by a new melody.
In the meantime, I keep notebooks lying around - in my backpack, my glove compartment, my back pocket, my work desk, on the kitchen table and/or living room coffee table, and I scribble ideas into them as they come. Most lines are unusable.
In recent years, the process has elected to work me while I'm running (exercising) or hiking around in or outside of Anchorage. I keep trying to remember to take a pen and scrap of paper along with me in my pocket, but oftentimes forget. For one reason or another, pen&paper or none, I find myself getting a few miles out on the coastal trail here, for example, and am hit with a line that seems will work great in the song I left at home a half hour ago. Sometimes the line becomes my mantra while I race home. Sometimes the line changes a little or a lot on the run or walk home. Sometimes I forget it and am singing a pale or limp version of the thing I was singing three miles earlier, which proves frustrating.
In any case, I forget when I started doing this, but in the last year or two I started hanging large white pieces of drafting or presentation paper on my bedroom and living room walls. I must have read about somebody who does or recommends this? I can't recall how I stumbled into this practice. But it's changed everything for me.
I keep Sharpies around the apartment on bookcases and other surfaces and in drawers. Some days, I blow in from a run, or after sitting in rush hour traffic while a line marinated in my head - or also while in the midst of doing dishes or laundry - and I race to the wall, grab the Sharpie and scribble the line or a few words on one of the sheets. I don't know why exactly, but this has become my favorite part of the songwriting process. Perhaps it's because my notebooks, and my phone, and my computer screen are pretty small, and always involve sitting still and (squinting &) honing or zeroing in on something. But this process is so freeing. I can't describe the joy that comes with scribbling big, widely and madly and with no thought of penmanship - it's like brush strokes with a painting. That's what it's most like: Painting. (I entered college as an Art major, but switched to Creative Writing.) I've warned some friends before they come over or when they arrive to consider themselves warned, that it looks like a crazy man is having a mental breakdown on the living room/bedroom walls. One friend took a look and agreed. Another friend saw it and expressed a lot of joy about the whole mess.
My songs "Olena," "Joan Didion," and "Book of Consolation" - all on my new album - were written this way. Big, sloppy, loopy lines or words scattered, buckshot spray against blank white. When a few lines began to form or resemble verses on those two songs, I hung a new sheet up and scribbled those lines out all loopy and sloppy as verses. Eventually, as the song come together, there might be two or three big papers hung on the wall. At some point - usually 3 verses, a chorus and a bridge in - I'll type them into an MSWord doc and print that and when it plays through in a way I can live with - even if it still needs a little tweaking - then I'll tear the papers down off the wall so I can make room for a new song when it comes.
The past summer, I also started combing through my notebooks and ripping out the pages featuring stronger lines than others, and then taping or pinning those little snatches or snapshots of songs to the large white papers, too, and hanging a blank sheet alongside those and then beginning the verse/chorus for a couple new songs that way. Starting a song - something that will eventually prove very structured and detail oriented - all big and sloppy like that - really opened a window for me in my recent re-immersion in the songwriting process, and I'm not sure why exactly. And aside from describing the way it happens or works, I really have no interest in the "why" it works this way. It does for now, and it's a helluva lot of fun and so I'm rolling along with this means of getting where I need to go. Out of nowhere, there proved something wildly and undeniably satisfying about engaging the process this way, and it made the path by which the songs and I pursue each other so much more exciting and full of life.
And now...Boy, did I write a lot! It's been a busy few weeks here at my end as I prepare album release shows and details, and while on any given day I feel like I'm running on fumes, it's done nothing to restrain my capacity for rambling non-stop about music, the creative process, and my goals as a working songwriter. But let's turn our attention elsewhere now, shall we?
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