11 days left in 2017, 11 tracks on my 2017 CD, "A Message in the Mess." Follow this free, song-a-day mini-podcast countdown. CD available on itunes, spotify and this site.
Sometimes you just have to get something out, even though you don’t want to do it, even though you’ll feel better afterward. Writing autobiographical songs that tap into fresh pain is a lot like throwing up. And if you make a living from your songs, it’s a lot like hanging your vomit in a gallery and hoping the critics appreciate the color composition of the carrots and corn.
A fan once told me that sad songs appeal to everyone because, though there are happy people, even the happiest person among us has been sad. And for some, it feels like sadness is all we know. That weepy playlist is actually a soundtrack to our necessary mourning periods and an answer to our pain-drenched need: Tell me I am not alone. As listeners, they are our first map out of despair. As writers, they are a way to acknowledge and distribute the pain onto a community of shoulders, who ease the burden and witness our trauma. Until, one day, it’s just a song.
It finally came up and out because of a toothbrush. It took months for me to unceremoniously dump his in the trash. Then, still months later, I walked into my bathroom to find a guest’s toothbrush sitting on the sink. I completely broke down. Such a simple symbol of company and intimacy. It had been so long, and I was so lonely.
**I wanted somebody’s toothbrush**
My friend was singing in the shower, and his voice was the first in the apartment that had not been my own in longer than I could remember. I actually wrote a verse to that effect, as well, but it wasn’t as unique or as powerful as a toothbrush. It hit the cutting room floor of the studio a year later. Because that’s the other thing break-up songs do: That visceral gut reaction can be honed, edited, processed once it’s out of you and onto paper, at a more objective distance. I handwrite all my lyrics, and when I finally think they’re done-ish, I type them and treat them from there on out as an editor. In journalism they taught us: it’s easier to kill your babies when they are not staring back at you with your own hand. This is when it begins to become “the song” and not “the pain.”
Once the flood gate had opened, the pragmatic journalist in me started with the facts. With direct quotes. He was a stunning writer, and I borrowed from him regularly for a decade. I wanted a first line to be as visceral and plain as my numbness, so I just threw it up: My shallow desire to be loved while I was still pretty. His impossible promise to love me while I went gray. My ring he secretly traced, keeping the drawn circle in his wallet. It was February when he left.
**verse 1 into chorus**
He left me in complete emotional dark, with a feeling I could not put into words … until I put exactly THAT feeling into words. Simple. Universal: What do I do now? I Don’t know what I want. I let that confession hang in air of the song a long time to try to make the listener feel my fear, my emptiness, my stalling out, my broken compass. Don’t we always want … something? It’s kind of terrifying. I recorded take after take, trying to capture a vulnerability I don’t always get out of my famously big voice. I prevented the mixing engineer from pitch correcting two blue notes. Nope. I want everything layed out here bare.
Of course your heartbreak playlist works its way into your heartbreak song. What was my playlist? A LOT of Anthony da Costa. I nodded to that using suspended, unresolved chords that referenced his work. And the Leslie on the electric guitar? Straight-up reminded me of Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love.” I wanted this thing to sound like the last dance at the prom. The end of the movie soundtrack. This was our finale.
And whether I could believe it or not at the time, I wrote myself a way out of what I felt. What did I want? Someone to love me like they couldn’t help it.
**but I wanted, involuntary**
The song ends on borrowed line from the Evesdropping Notebook I mentioned in a previous podcast. Our artist friend, Amy Law, actually said it about her cat, falling off a table.
Can I hate a man who’s misuse of me gave me no less than a dozen objectively good songs? When we were together, he once expressed disappointment that I hadn’t written my best break-up songs for HIM. Huh. Well … I spent almost a year throwing up our definitive breakup song, and I swore it would be the last I ever wrote for him. And really, it’s mostly about myself. Honestly, pieces of him find their way into a lot of what I write. But once you can stop judging an experience or a person as bad … it’s all just good material.