Songwriting can be a lonely art form. There is only one accredited college program for songwriters. That is at the Berklee College of Music in Boston MA. I had thought about going at one point. But the moment passed. I’m not sure if academia would encourage or eradicate my creative tendencies. And tuition is too hefty a litmus test.
There are some pretty engaging songwriter groups and forums. Some, like the West Coast Songwriter’s Association are really large and require some sort of payment or other form of dues. They are also, seemingly, pretty exclusive and…..critical? Some people like that and even thrive on it. Some people need the exclusivity to be challenged and fed. I don’t particularly need that. I’m fairly hard on myself as it is. But I do need guidance.
There are other groups that are a bit more my-pace. There are two of note that I’m going to thank right now. I found them both rather serendipitously. The first one, in Manhattan. The second one, in California. I would find out later that the two were almost one in the same.
When I wrote my first song I didn’t consider myself a songwriter. When I started writing songs regularly I didn’t consider myself a songwriter. I assumed this was pretty normal after speaking with other songwriters about songwriting. But I didn’t find these elusive “other songwriters” until I started performing regularly. I noticed pretty quickly that people I met who write songs were desperately looking for other people who write songs. Sure there were some of the “I can write songs all by my lonesome. I don’t need anyone’s opinion. Lalalalalalaalaaa…” But those folks tended to fade from the scene.
It was the people who were interested in their impact, the ones that needed to find others from whom they could seek guidance who stuck around and did the writing. I noticed their songs becoming more familiar. Their songs became something I could relate to and I started to wake up with them in the morning. The songs, not the songwriters.
I lived in Manhattan from 1999 to 2005. In that time, I graduated college, held down three jobs and began performing my fledgling songs at open-mic nights and cabaret performances around town. I met a few folks and traded writing tips and methods with them. But Manhattan is a transient town and doors rotate quickly there.
I came to join my first songwriter’s forum through one of my poetry writing classes at the New School University. I had taken poetry writing as a “back-door” approach to songwriting after becoming increasingly frustrated that a songwriting community hadn’t yet found me. I made an error when I assumed that songwriting and poetry were interchangeable. I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. In fact, without music, I had a hard time writing anything worth the ink. It wasn’t until the last class, when we were asked to perform our favorite piece that I was finally told by my professor “What the hell are you doing writing poetry? You should be writing songs!”
Thankfully there was another songwriter in that class. Jeremiah Birnbaum of The Ramblers leaned over to me and said “There’s a songwriter’s group that gets together every Monday night to share songs. Here’s the address and the phone number of the guy who run’s it, Jack Hardy. You should check it out. Bring 5 dollars or a bottle of wine. “
Coming from a home headed by a super-proper, English raised Czech mother, I was NOT going to just show up unannounced. I called Jack Hardy three times, leaving lengthy messages each time before he returned my calls (my neuroses seeping through the telephone wires); “You’re more than welcome to come over, Emily.” The only words he returned. But they were all I needed.
My first evening with the songwriters group was stunning. I had lived in Manhattan for 3 and a half years at that point. As I summited the stair, turned the corner down the narrow hallway and stepped into Jack’s tiny, one bedroom studio, I was back in Berkeley, California. It was a veritable Bohemian feast for the senses. Wine and cheese on the table with a ginormous pot of pasta simmering on the stove. Jack, sweating over a frying pan full of hot peppers repeating “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” And songwriters. Everywhere. Squeezed onto the two loveseats, huddled on piano benches or squatting on the floor, plucking guitar strings or poring over notes and lyrics. Some nights, it was so crowded that there were people spilling out of the door and into the tiny hallway. One night, during the rainy season, there were only four of us. Me, Jack, Leslie Mendelson and Suzanne Vega (I didn’t realize it was Suzanne Vega until after I left the East Houston St. Apartment that evening and boarded the Staten Island Ferry). We all listened to each other’s songs and gave each other some ideas to play with. Then we walked home in the rain. I went to every songwriter’s meeting until I left New York at the end of 2005.
When I returned to California I was back at square one. What entrepreneurial new career can I now build from my fabulous Bachelor of Fine Arts/Liberal Arts Degree?! Northern California is liberal and free! Surely I’ll find a nice group of underrated, genius scenesters looking to build a theater program out of a back room studio somewhere in the Mission. We’ll read Kafka and D.H Lawrence and turn Bogosian’s Suburbia into the next big Musical hit! I’ll tackle the entire score and bring Jason Robert Brown AND Stephen Sondheim to tears. I’ll meet and marry Dave Eggers and he’ll build me a Pulitzer Prize out of paper mache and he’ll present it to me in Fairyland on one of those tiny bumper boats.
Or…….I’ll work at Guitar Center and sell guitars. Again.
This kills my songwriting libido dead in the face. I stop feeding it. I neglect it. It packs an oversized carpet bag and leaves me for Tom Waits.
After about three months of this nonsense, I start working at a company that I will stay at until this very day. Still there.
In between there and here, I meet a man who invites me to join his band as a back-up singer. This man and his band become my University of Musical Camaraderie and Collaboration. I learn and practice the art of dynamics and balance, building an on-stage relationship and sensitivity. I am also still there.
One day, in walks a violin player/songwriter named Cara Wick. We get to talking about songwriting and I mention how much I miss my songwriting group in New York. “We should start one here!” I mention hopefully. “I actually already am a part of one, you should come!” She says encouragingly. So I do.
It turns out that the organizer of this forum, Wendy Beckerman, used to be a part of Jack’s group a few years before I got there. In fact, she’s a featured artist on the Smithsonian Fast Folk collection that I have in my music library. There’s a picture of her in it and everything. I don’t think there was is a word for the emotion I felt upon finding this out. I think Wendy may have understood a bit by the way she looked at me when the story was shared. Especially the part about my hometown of Hercules being two freeway exits away. However I don’t remember anything concrete being mentioned. I was no longer the songwriting orphan that I was when I left New York. My community was there, right in my own backyard.
So, there she be. The story of how I re-loctaed my entire songwriting community and how it, in-turn, re-kindled my relationship with my songwriting. It’s still a lonely practice from time to time. But at least I know other lonely painters with which I can paint.
I believe all passionate people need other passionate people with which to commiserate. People in similar mind-sets know when to give criticism and understand that the process also needs space. That each person’s practice deserves it’s own respect and due diligence. As long as you “keep writing” as Jack would say.
I guess, by way of me telling my story, I can illustrate this point: If you really love something and you really need something, if you make yourself open and follow-through, it will find you. IT will find YOU.