7 am: Song 1 "Tell My Wife" It's always thrilling and daunting and weird to actually get started at the beginning of the day. Especially when it's seven in the morning. It's just like, "Okay. Here we go." And then you don't stop for twelve hours. My goal for this set of songs was to stick to a general mood and feel, to create something that would sound like a consistent album. Because I was so close to the ocean, that mood came out as languid, albeit somewhat haunting. I was having technical problems right away. The first three things I tried didn't work, and there was a bit of panic that I had to quell. It would be a long day, and there was plenty of time to catch up. The best thing to do when being overwhelmed by negative emotions is to at least be honest about those emotions. I wrote this song in that state of quelled panic, picturing a man with a family who gets lost wandering around trying to find the ocean, remembering that love is the only thing that can really save him.
10:29 am: Song 3 "You Are Not Furniture" Yikes. We were really behind schedule at this point. I had talked with Esmé a couple weeks before about the pain of her divorce last year. She said that in her marriage she felt like her husband treated her "like furniture." I just wanted to write a simple love song that would convey that she is anything but furniture. We had hung out in Seattle last fall and tried to go on the ferris wheel at the waterfront. We found out that it cost something like $15.95 per person, just to ride on the ferris wheel for fifteen minutes, so we decided not to do it. But we've been looking for an affordable ferris wheel ever since.
11:23 am: Song 4 "I Have That Same Tattoo" I think in past 20 Song Games I tried to make things extreme, to jump from one instrument to the next and try to make each song very different. That led to some interesting results, but I was determined this time to make songs that were prettier and more listenable. This song is an example of having a guitar part and then just searching around for a lyrical idea. When I talked to David later on about this day, he said that his process started with writing out the lyrics first, and then trying to make music that would fit them stylistically and rhythmically. He said he thought that was the "proper" way to do it. I told him that I have never once written the lyrics before the music. He was stunned. He thought for sure that's how I did it. I told him that the lyrics were always dead last, and a mighty struggle pretty much every time. For this song I just mumbled into a microphone for a while over the guitar part and eventually the words, "I have that same tattoo," came out. At first I thought that was an interesting sentiment, but would be better left as subtext. Then I thought it would actually be a touching refrain. I didn't know exactly what tattoo it was referring to. I only have one tattoo, just the word "Eureka" in small letters on my left wrist. I'd be pretty surprised to meet someone with that same tattoo.
12:07 pm: Song 5 "Killing Nazis Is A Good Thing To Have On Your Resume" When I talked to Nathan later on, he told me how frustrating it was to just have a violin as his main instrument. Certainly it is easy to pick up a guitar and start strumming and have a song, but of course like anything easy that can become a trap. It's important to tie your hands behind your back sometimes and see what things you can do with your feet. I pulled out a chunk of an accordion's innards I had borrowed from a friend and tried getting some sounds out of it. There was a record player in the trailer with a Phillip Glass record that I tried sampling. I remember reading an obituary of someone recently and at one point it said that this man spent a good number of years fighting Nazis, and I thought how that's a pretty cool thing to have on your resume. I don't imagine I'll ever have something like that on my resume.
12:36 pm: Song 6 "The Dinner Party" I went back to guitar, and even though it had only been forty minutes, it was a tearful reunion. "I missed you." "I missed you too." I pictured that moment of arriving at a dinner party with someone that you love, and knowing that there is a scene of friendship and warmth going on inside, but wanting to linger alone with this one person outside for just another moment, delaying one sort of pleasure for another, more intimate one. Kathleen Duffy, proprietor of the Sou'Wester, posted a handmade notebook paper sign on my trailer window while I was in the middle of writing song number seven. It said, "Need Anything?" The sign curled and melted in the steady rain. When she walked past again a few minutes later I shouted at her, "Snacks!! Snacks??" She nodded and came back fifteen minutes later with a lovingly crafted plate of avocado on toast, sardines in a can, apple wedges and chocolate. That bright ray of sunshine helped me write a positive song about reclaiming possession of my own heart.
4:56 pm: Song 11 "Everyone Has A North Star" I flipped the Phillip Glass record over, looking for a piece that I could sing on top of. His minimalist repetitive structures could make a good bed for something, certainly. The record player in the trailer was old and played everything slower and therefore lower-pitched than it should have been. Some of the records were also warped and would skip. But how would you know if a Phillip Glass record was skipping? Indeed, in this case it probably wouldn't matter. I found the song "L'etoile Polaire (The North Star)" and sampled it. I tried writing a lyric about finding your own North Star. It took me a long time to find a melody and sing it in pitch. Maybe because I'm used to tuning my voice to the timbre of guitar, or maybe because the music was playing in between standard pitches, or maybe because I'm not a great singer.
5:16 pm: Song 12 "Nine Quarters" I flipped through some of the other records and found Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy." I've always loved the intro to the song "No Quarter." I decided since the record player was running slow anyway I would switch it to 16 RPM and just see what happened. Bonham's drum fills felt almost like randomly-firing aneurysms at that speed, but it was really intriguing. It's kind of fun to sample something like Led Zeppelin that no lawyer would ever let you sample in any other context. Because of the title of the song, I tried to think of a situation involving quarters, and remembered a time in 2004 when I had just split up with my wife and was housesitting at my friend's apartment. My friends managed the whole apartment building and so they had the keys to everything, including the laundry room. I was more broke than I'd ever been, without a dollar to my name, so on more than one occasion I opened up the quarter receptacle of the washing machine and took nine quarters so I could go to the nearby bar and buy a Miller High Life and watch the Boston Red Sox win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. I would milk that one bottle of beer for hours. I have never wanted a beer to taste so good, and no beer ever has.
Tell Me Different
This song is awesome. It unfolds so languidly and yet maintains its intensity. It feels like classic Leonard Cohen. It feels like it has an unusual structure to it, but then when listening again it kind of makes more sense. I like how you're singing at the absolute bottom of your vocal range. It makes things seem less desperate. The sound really opens up about 1:24. Again, I thought I knew what the chorus was gonna be, and then oh! here's the actual chorus! I think. It really sounds like David has a woman singing harmony vocals on the choruses. I can't believe that's actually David. And then at 2:30 bass comes in and gives a new purpose to the song. And then back to that new chorus at 2:45, which seems to keep expanding the sonic palette each second. Really beautiful chord progression throughout. I like this low-voiced David. It feels very timeless. This guy could still be singing these songs when he's 78. Like Leonard Cohen.
My Heart Was Like A Bell
Nathan with synths! I love the harmony vocals on the word "singing." This song reminds me of a happier Arthur Russell. I'd love to hear more music like this from Nathan. It's such a weird collection of positive poetry and synths and violin. I don't know if I've heard a song like this before, which is pretty cool, considering how many songs there are in the history of the world.
Tear it Apart
This is really intriguing. I'd like to hear more of this kind of music from Gill. It's really unusual and yet seems totally natural. I like the lyrics too. "I wish you died when you were young," is kind of a brutal thing to say.
This has a very beautiful melody and mood to it. I like these lines: "Your mother she is strong and brave, she named you the West wind." "What did you see when you looked the first time?"
What makes writing a song or a story or an essay so difficult? It's not necessarily actually getting words or ideas or music out that's so hard, it's knowing whether or not what you're producing is any good. And how do you know what's good? Beginning songwriters don't torture themselves worrying about the quality of what they're making; they're just happy to be able to create something. But most veteran songwriters I know have progressed along the same path in their career: As they get better at their trade, their joy in what they create declines. And often this leads to them creating less.
All writers hear a voice in their head any time they try to write something. It is often a negative and destructive voice, constantly asking questions that generally come down to, "What are you doing? This sucks. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" That voice is a big part of what makes writing difficult. Part of the difficulty is facing the empty page, knowing that you have only yourself to rely on. And relying on yourself is occasionally terrifying.
At the beginning of March I drove through Death Valley with my father. We had just passed the lowest point of the valley-which is also the lowest point in North America-when we had to slow down because we saw a man lying in the road up ahead. As we got closer, we saw that he was holding a camera. He was taking pictures of a coyote just off the road. We slowed to a stop, and I looked out the window. The coyote looked skinny and haggard but still very calm. He looked me deeply in the eyes. He was most likely searching for some food. All we had in the car were homemade brownies from my mom and some leftover lemon peel chicken from the Chinese restaurant the night before-nothing a coyote should be eating. That brief little connection at the bottom of the world felt like it lasted for years. It's like when you catch yourself in the mirror after a long time of not really looking at yourself and you see how tired you look. I saw the desperation in his eyes. I was desperate too, having spent most of my adult life looking to receive love from impossible situations. I was at the end of that particular piece of rope once again. I knew it would have to stop. I knew that I was at the bottom. Often you need an externalization of your emotional landscape to see what you've become.
Writers are always searching for scraps. No matter how much they have created in their life, there is always the next day and the possibility that they won't be able to create anything again. The next page is always blank. Writers can deal with that. The coyote has no choice. He has to find food every day or pretty soon he'll die. Writers can try to horde ideas, hold onto past scraps and keep recycling them. They can use their intellect to plan ahead. Or they can let go and stop being afraid of unleashing themselves, even if they are still just crawling around the desert floor. They can look for something new and relevant in every moment. If a writer is only a filter through which to view the world in an interesting way, there is possibility in every moment. Maybe that's a way to be more alive.
I was first asked to do the 20 Song Game five years ago. I got an email from my friend Gavin asking if I wanted to coordinate a day with him where we would each try to independently compose and record 20 new songs, not using any previous ideas and then come together at the end of the day and listen to what we created. I agreed to do it but thought it was ridiculous. Coming up with 20 songs in a day sounded impossible. But I prepared myself mentally and woke up on the scheduled day, ready to make music at 8 am and didn't stop making music until 8 pm, and by the end of it I had 20 songs. Some were raw, some were funny, some were heartbreaking, some were terrible, but each of them at least had some conceit to it, and even if it wasn't always well-executed, they all at least had something that made them songs. I ended up revisiting at least three of the songs for future projects.
The experience was exhilarating. I had never before done anything so intensely creative so early in the morning. Like most artists, I felt like I needed to wait for inspiration to hit me before I could come up with something. And that inspiration for me would generally come around midnight, an inconvenient time for someone who ever had a desire to fit into the normal working world. As long as I felt inspired I could create, but then if that feeling left me I would have to pause creation until I again felt similarly inspired. Playing the 20 Song Game tore up that conception of creativity for me. It was like discovering you could produce your own chlorophyll and not have to eat again-that you could simply lean into the sun whenever your energy was low. It was so empowering to realize that I could just decide to start creating and then do it. After all, what magical thing happens when I am inspired that allows me to make something, where I couldn't just do it otherwise? I am always an amalgamation of all my experiences, a summation of my learned skills. Why couldn't I just create whenever I needed to? Maybe what I was calling inspiration was just a brief moment when that negative voice in my head shut up.
Over the next few years I played the game a second and third and fourth time, with different groups of people. It's amazing how the rules of the game change your conception of what you think is possible in a day.
I found in further practice that I was able to take the exhilarating feeling from the 20 Song Game and bring it into my normal writing experience. If I needed to work up some sketches for a new dance piece, for example, and I knew I had a good chunk of time to work on it on a Friday afternoon, I was now more assured at putting myself in the mindset that I would create great music on Friday afternoon. Even if there was a moment of doubt thirty minutes into the creation of the piece, where everything seemed to not be working, I trusted that if I kept pushing I would find some thread that would tie it all together. It has become easier to ignore that constantly criticizing voice. I used to assume that even though that voice was negative, it was probably at least well-informed. I came to realize that that voice isn't even remotely reliable. It's this scared little boy who is jealous and untrusting, and I shouldn't be taking my advice from that voice.
I thought it would be interesting to do the 20 Song Game with friends from around the country. I asked my friend David Williams in Salt Lake City, Esme Patterson in Denver, Gill Landry in Nasvhille, and Nathan Langston in New York City to join me in the game.
I decided for this session of the 20 Song Game to drive to an RV park in Washington called the Sou'Wester, a beautifully restored 1890s lodge with an adjacent lot of vintage trailers. It's a pristine celebration of mid-century America, a time when the newly created highway system liberated everyone to explore the country at their own whim. The technology of the space age went into creating little tin cans that were supremely crafted to handle being dragged around the newly paved roads of this enormous country. I stayed in a 1955 Boles-Aero trailer with a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, a couch, and a record player.
I woke up the day of the game at 6 a.m. to a light rain falling on the aluminum roof of the trailer. Because of the time differences between all of us and my being on the West Coast, I had to start as early as possible. There is a comfort in knowing that other people are doing the same thing you are at the same time. I was ready to go at 7a.m., but I instantly started having technical problems and soon realized that the electricity in the trailer wasn't well-grounded, because every time I turned on my amp, the microphone input went crazy with squealing electronic sounds. I tried to calm my panicked brain and keep moving forward.
This process probably has more in common with the frenzy of a high-paced sporting event than with traditional writing. And therefore, writing about what the day was like feels a bit like those pointless interviews with athletes right after they do something physically notable, where the reporter asks them what was going through their minds when they scored the game-winning shot. And of course, ideally nothing is going through your mind at that moment. That's the point.
I got to fourteen songs by the end of the day. I tried to keep a consistent mood through all of them. I was limited to guitar and voice for the most part. Later in the day I put a Phillip Glass record on the record player and sang over that.
Normally most experiences with writing are not what you'd call "thrilling." The experience of writing is generally slow and painful and makes your brain ache. The 20 Song Game moves so fast that you're forced into the moment. And come to find the moment is pretty awesome. And then you finish and you look up and you have all these songs, and you can't even remember what the ones you wrote at the beginning of the day sound like, and you get to have the experience of listening and remembering them. And then you get to hear what approach your friends took.
It's comforting to find that there is ample food in every moment of your life. You have to trust that the last meal you had is not your last meal ever. As soon as you let yourself become consumed with fear, you will never get back to that place of trust again. The problem with humans is that we are animals who need physical things like food and water and sex, but we have these evolved brains that tell us we are Gods and we are above all of that. Those brains are powerful machines, but they are still just tools to help us. They can assimilate all the information coming toward us and tell a story, but it's still just a story. It's an interpretation of events; it's not the absolute truth. In most cases, the heavy processing the brain does is very useful. But now that we are so removed from actual survival experiences, our brain spins so many stories in the absence real threats that those thoughts can sometimes be crippling. That voice can start to tell you that you're worthless or that everything is crap or that the world isn't a good place. But really the brain is just an overactive machine that sometimes needs to be unplugged. The best way to unplug it is to be as completely in your moment as you can.
I went to Astoria the day after the game and had tea with my friend Pearl. She lent me a book called "The Animal Dialogues" by Craig Childs. I quickly turned to the section on the coyote. This paragraph stuck out for me:
"If anything, it is we who are innocent, and not the animals. Naïveté comes with believing that the world is built of words and numerals. Coyotes, which have no use for pronunciations of superiority, are intent on survival, reproduction, and life. There is no naïveté in knowing how to survive this well. Coyotes move within a landscape of attentiveness. I have seen their eyes in the creosote bushes and among mesquite trees. They have watched me. And all the times that I saw no eyes, that I kept walking and never knew, there were still coyotes. When I have seen them trot away, when I have stepped from the floorboard of my truck, leaned on the door, and watched them as they watched me over their shoulders, I have been aware for that moment of how much more there is. Of how I have seen only an instant of a broad and rich life."
As writers, we must always be moving forward. Maybe sometimes it doesn't make marketing sense-it's hard for an audience to keep up with so many changes. But I don't have any interest in finding a couple things that work and then slowly solidifying what I do into an act. I want to be always growing and changing and responding to my environment. Anything else to me is death. When I asked Esme what she liked most about the game, she said, "The really amazing part of the whole experience is that you find this well-spring in your heart and songs just start pouring out."