Guest Blog: Paul Weinfeld On Songwriting And Meditation

tam lin

In 2005, New York singer-songwriter Paul Weinfield formed Tam Lin, whose name comes from a Scottish ballad about a man taken in by the Queen of the Fairies.  The name reflects Weinfield’s interests in magic and mythology, which together with his Leonard Cohen-esque flair for confessional songwriting form the heart of his unique folk-rock storytelling style, which No Depression Magazine described as “unafraid to push musical boundaries.”  Tam Lin has released five full-length albums to date:  Begin Again (2009), In the Twilight (2008), Floating World (2006), Garden in Flames (2011) and Medicine for a Ghost (2013).

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The world doesn’t need more songs, that’s for sure.  I think it was Bob Dylan who said that the only valid reason to write a song is to be able to hear something that doesn’t yet exist.  As a songwriter, I know all too well how easy it is to write a song that merely works.  You put one chord next to another, one rhyme next to another, you follow your old patterns, and pretty soon things start connecting.  And that right there is the problem: you’re left with a pile of connections and no truth.  The song you dreamed of hearing, that really honest thing you wanted to say, never gets expressed.  Our culture prizes the ability to make connections, of course, but in songwriting, the real trick is to be the spider that doesn’t get caught in its own web.

I want to say it like this: the sense of discovery we’re looking to achieve when we write or play music has nothing to do with a new “sound” or a new piece of technology.  It’s a deeper newness that comes from being able to disrupt our old thought-patterns.  What makes this newness so hard to achieve, of course, is that we identify so much with our old thought-patterns.  We think we are them.  I remember once writing a song whose chorus went: “The only heart you’re breaking is ever your own.”  Now, at the time, I thought that was a pretty cool line.  It took me a while to realize that I didn’t believe it at all.  The words were rhythmic enough and sounded sort of “deep,” but they were just a tangle of notions I’d heard before and a desire to appear a certain way before the world.  Above all, they weren’t the song in my head.  And if experience has taught me anything, it’s that if I try to perform a song like that, it’s going to come out lifeless and hollow.  So I had to throw it away.

It was meditation, actually, not musical training, that taught me the importance of being able to hear the musical ideas in my head instead of merely thinking about them.  In the kind of meditation I practice, there’s a saying that the mind is like a committee: it’s has all these different voices in it, and many of the loudest ones are the least authentic.  They belong to our parents or teachers or critics or fans, but not to us, even though they exist inside of us.  These loud voices want us to connect the art we’re making to their concerns.  They want us to write for their benefit, not ours.  So beyond melody, chords, and lyrics, songwriting is also the art of learning to quiet your mind to hear the inner whisper of what you really want to say.  And the more you hear that whisper on a daily basis, the more you will hear it on stage, too, no matter how loud the drums are or the crowd is.

The world doesn’t need more songs.  But it does need people willing to train their minds to receive the difficult and unique thing in them that wants to be born.  In the end, I think, that’s all songwriting is: being a perfect receiver of what’s speaking through you.  I know people who say songwriting is dead, or that some sort of “golden age” has passed, but that’s just talk by those who’ve forgotten how to listen.  For at the moment when a musician actually hears the song he’s been waiting for, nothing in the world could be more alive.