As a songwriter, I live for the golden moments when it’s just me, a guitar or piano, and the magic starts to happen. Words and melodies, barely audible, trickling in from a place inside that has no road in or out. Weightless; no thoughts, no intentions, no motive.
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It rarely lasts. Doubt enters my mind, and the spell is broken. Voices in my head
Recently, I was floating on a cloud, looking down on that special place when the voice started whispering, “What are you doing… stop wasting time!” I tried to shut it out, but it was too late. I put down my guitar and mapped out my hit.
Three weeks later, I emerged from the studio.
As I sat at the console and blasted my magnum opus, I felt an increasing sense of dread. For two minutes and fifty eight seconds, it was like watching a collision.
I’d written a really bad song.
The melody and lyrics were catchy, the arrangement lean, but it was lifeless. A song without a soul. I immediately started to spiral; questioning my ability as a songwriter. I felt shame when I looked at my guitar, as though writing the song had somehow exposed me as a fraud. Listening to music only served as a reminder of someone I used to be. I had lost my mojo.
I needed advice from someone I could trust, so I called my friend Jesse Malin. Jesse’s last album – the 2019 Lucinda Williams produced Sunset Kids – was a staggering achievement in songwriting. He surpassed himself again with last year’s Amer’ika, a beautifully poignant protest song that landed in the middle of the pandemic and a nation fractured by racial tension and political unease.
Jesse was one of the first friends I made when I arrived in New York City. He gave me my first residency at his bar Niagara on Avenue A after being introduced by my band mate and best friend, ex Manhattan based Thin Lizard Dawn’s legendary Mikki James. A brilliant bass player and criminally underrated songwriter, Mikki’s tragic death in March of this year left a gaping hole in the hearts of so many people whose lives he had touched with his beautiful spirit and impossible charm.
Jesse and I hadn’t talked in a while and the sound of his voice brought instant relief. I asked him; Why do we write? He responded without hesitation;
“It’s who we are. It’s in our blood. We eat, we sleep, we breathe, we write.”
As the conversation progressed, Jesse reminded me of a mantra he lives by: no input – no output. How we perceive the world around us manifests itself in how and what we write. The snapshots we take. The people we talk to and the stories they tell give life to our songs.
Jesse cautioned me not to look in the rear view mirror. “Don’t stop, and don’t look back. If you fall down, pick yourself up, and tell yourself you’re good enough. But you have to believe it.”
I asked him, How do you believe it?
Jesse laughed, “By doing it! Get the blood flowing. Don’t look for inspiration. It will come. Take off your boots, put down your hat and watch the movie of your life.”
It struck me that we are always working on our craft, long before we pick up that piece of wood to carve. My book of lyrics isn’t the canvas; life is. The conversations. The observations. The seemingly insignificant signs we are shown on the walk of life.
The problem with my song was obvious; I’d let my creative well run dry. An empty vessel searching for the door to that secret place, forgetting that it opens only when the head and the heart are aligned. I was in need of creative oxygen, so I took a little time away from writing; to be back in the real world was stimulating and fresh. I felt connected again. I heard sounds that had been lost in the deafening silence of ambition.
I’ll take Jesse’s counsel and keep watching the movie of my life, blissfully unaware of its running time or how it ends. Characters will come and go; all part of life’s rich tapestry. Until the final credits roll, the best thing I can do is sit back and enjoy the show. It’s the journey and not the destination after all.
Jesse Malin’s new album Sad and Beautiful World is out on September 24th
Dedicated to the life and music of Mikki James (1971 – 2021)