On songwriting: “Resolute, always a little sad”

So it’s Sunday morning. I’m walking around the kitchen / dining area in a Bruce Springsteen concert t-shirt, nursing my coffee while I listen to some of my own songs, trying to decide which are individually ready and collectively right to include in an EP.

And at close to exactly the same time, I happen to think “resolute, and always a little sad” and also catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

All at once, I’m wondering whether I’m thinking about the specific song playing, my songwriting in general, the emotional cadence some of the Boss’s best work–or some combination of all three.

The previous night a friend asked me if I could offer any insight on how to write songs.

And it seemed like a perfect moment to capture and then unpack.

How do I know when a song is done? A phenomenological answer is “I pace around listening until the answer is ‘obviously yes,’ ‘obviously no’–or ‘something in between.'”

And then I wonder what isn’t quite right. Sometimes that takes a single day. Sometimes it takes 10 years (no joke).

Where do songs even come from? For this project I can sometimes point to a photograph without which I am sure a particular song would never have come about. But the larger point is about some sort of underlying tension.

Woody Guthrie said “a folk song is what’s wrong, and what to do about it.” You don’t need redemption if you ain’t done bad (The River). You don’t need resolve if you aren’t fighting something hard (like the Great Depression, the 2008 recession, or the current crisis). But the struggle could be with homesickness (Sloop John B) or heartbreak (Blue Moon)–or Jolene.

But where to even start? Part of the beauty of folk and rock is that it’s OK to find a straightforward place to stand.

Just sit in the skin and time you’re in yourself–or imagine being someone else, some other time–and let some combination of chords, words, and melody find a way to be together.

For me, it’s usually words that want a melody. But sometimes chords want words. “Wanna use ‘some Neil-Young-y chords'” is how this song started. It is in “C-F-G” –or “I-IV-V” form.

This all may not be super helpful yet to someone wanting to get into flow writing songs. But I would love to pay forward the gift of enjoying creating songs. My songwriting instructor at something like $75 a class for small group, community college-sponsored adult ed program change my life permanently, for the better.

So this post kicks off a series about songwriting based on some that I think she’d be especially proud of. I’ll be posting an EP this week for which the title track is I Ain’t Got Money, but I Got Wise. Each song has lines that give me joy when I reflect on “how they came to be.”

I hope describing that process will help others find a path to a similar spot.