Getting to song

I struggle with writing music. The physical process of putting notes on paper. I’m slow, I erase a lot, and so I have a hard time getting everything in my head written down before it falls out of my brain or metamorphosizes into something far less brilliant than my original flash of genius.

As I tell my nephew Michael, there are two kinds of people in the world: pigeons and goldfish. Pigeons remember subway lines and shortcuts. Goldfish head to the airport without their suitcases and start their weeklong vacations in Montana with a trip to Walmart to buy clothes.

I am a goldfish.

I asked my friend, Eugene, who plays guitar in the band Vigilante Santos, how he writes music. “I record myself while I pick things out on the guitar,” he told me, “and then I use a composing program.”

This was simple, life-changing information. Record myself. So I downloaded the Nokia Voice Recorder Pro+ app, propped up my Windows Phone on my piano’s music stand and started recording my “sketches.” But here’s the weird thing. I don’t pick out my songs on the piano. I sing them. That’s how I figure things out, by voicing ideas as soon as they enter my head.

I’m not sure why this is. I’ve been playing the piano since I learned to read — the piano is my instrument. But singing is where my songwriting process begins. Even though I have no desire to be a singer. I don’t even like my own voice. In fact, if I could write songs for anyone, I’d write for Dame Shirley Bassey, who, as you’ll discover in the next paragraph, sounds nothing like me.

Last week I was thinking about Shirley Bassey and what kind of song I’d write for her, and I started hearing a chorus in my head: “He’s got a hole down in his soul, he’s got the devil in his heart.” Yes, of course, another sad song. A leaving song. A sad domestic abuse leaving song. And the words and the tune arrived in my head at the same time, meaning I had twice as many things to forget. So I grabbed my phone, tapped on my new app, and recorded some ideas for my leaving song.

A few comments about that recording. First, it’s not the finished song. Not yet. It’s a bunch of ideas — words and phrases — that form the foundation of a song that has many miles to go before I can pronounce it “done.” Second, I know: I do not have the voice of a blues singer. Which creates a bit of a challenge for me, that I write by singing ideas for songs that I want to sound nothing like the way I sing.

I played the recording in my music lesson on Saturday, and L said, “We need to get you voice lessons so we can make a CD of you singing your songs.” I told her that I didn’t want to sing on a CD or anywhere else, that in my fantasy, someone else sings my songs. Maybe I’m behind the singer, playing the piano, but there’s lots of piped in fog so no one can see me.

This kind of confused her. Because the thing that people who like to perform don’t understand about people who don’t like to perform is that, well, we don’t like to perform.

The song is called “Never gonna start to love.” I had written down my melody so that I could work on the song in my lesson with L, with whom I’ve come to like to collaborate. We have different tastes, but that creates an interesting tension. She suggests things I would never consider on my own. Plus, I learn from her, because she knows a lot more than four chords, and it’s amazing to watch and listen as she improvises on my melody. I tell her the sound I want, and she shows me how to create it. It’s the best way for me to learn.

Here’s where my song is now. A very rough draft. It’s only slightly different from the sketch, but it’s enough different that it sounds more like the blues. And it’s written down, so I don’t need to sing it anymore into my recorder app. But it’s definitely not finished. I need to rework the rhythm, because it’s a difficult song to sing, evidence that I’m not a singer. I’ve written a melody that doesn’t have any rests, and so you can hear in the voice recording that I struggle to get through the long phrases without asphyxiating. Making the song singable without losing the forward movement is my project for this week.

As I was leaving L’s house on Saturday, she told me again that I should make a CD of my songs. I told her again that this was never going to happen, that I wasn’t a blues singer and my songs are simple. She stopped me and asked, “Who do you know who can do this?”

I told her, “Eugene.”

She said, “Who else? Who else do you know who can write a song?”

I stared at her for a few seconds, thinking.

“No one else,” she told me. “No one else can do this. Learn to celebrate that.”

Listening to: Aretha. The Great Diva Classics.

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