If I Had It All To Do Again


I was 12 when I wrote my first song, and songwriting has been a big part of my life ever since then. It helped me to cope with a lot of life’s events, and gave me a way to express my desires, my opinions, and my sense of humour in some cases. As it turns out, many songwriters start writing at about that time in their lives, and for the same reason. The angst-filled adolescent and teenage years are truly a creative (or destructive, in some cases) hotbed for all kinds of things.

I’ve written dozens and dozens of articles on all aspects of songwriting since I first put up a website in 1995. I’ve met a lot of other songwriters over the years because of that website, and participated in other online sites, some of which are still very active. They include the Muses Muse, a huge songwriting community created by a fellow Canadian Jodi Krangle, and SongU, a kind of songwriting university designed by Danny Arena and his wife Sara Light from Nashville, both of who are very involved in teaching and who have also written songs for a Broadway musical. It was really exciting to watch when they were nominated for a Tony!

I’ve performed hundreds of times for the smallest of events to big ones, for all kinds of people. My smallest audience was an audience of one :-). It was at a coffee shop in Burnaby a few years back in the middle of winter. The evening started out as a poetry reading, and I was supposed to be the second act. Well, once the poetry reading was over, the audience all left too! All except for one. She sat on a couch and patiently listened through a whole set of my songs. We laughed in between at this odd, private concert she was getting. Outside it was dark and raining pretty hard…no wonder there were no stragglers off the street, it was a terrible night!

It would be hard to say what my largest audience was…but I’ve performed for audiences at festivals where there were literally hundreds and probably thousands of people within earshot.

There was a time when I didn’t even perform my own material, I basically just played cover songs at bars in order to make some money. I’d slip the odd original song in, but I had little confidence in my own songs then. I didn’t like that kind of performing much…driving alone up to Duncan, about an hour’s drive from my home, over a pretty tricky part of the highway called the Malahat, playing three hours, and then driving back again after midnight, was not my idea of a good time. I just about gave up performing for good after that!

In the early 90’s I discovered recording and that was the beginning of a whole new aspect of music for me. I began by recording my own songs, of course, but I also got to record others, and had an opportunity to record some music for a television series called “Home Check with Shell Busey”. When I listen now to those first recording attempts, I cringe :-). I didn’t take any training, all of my learning came hands on. And I made a lot of mistakes! Eventually, I got better…the highlight came when I was asked to write the theme music along with many other music beds for CHEK News here in Victoria.

Another aspect of music that blossomed for me was teaching guitar. I made a proposal to a local community organization to teach adults guitar in an eight week program and I did that for a couple of years beginning in 1989. Then I was approached by a woman, Becky Bernson, who was also a guitar teacher, to become a part of an organization called the Whistling Gypsy. It was meant to be a kind of teaching umbrella, but part of the mandate was to put on folk music concerts featuring better known artists and groups travelling through our area. Becky and I would each teach guitar classes and private students out of our homes, and she gathered up other teachers in voice, bass, mandolin, and banjo among others.

At its peak, the Whistling Gypsy did very well, but it was a non-profit organization and it was hard to keep enough volunteers involved to manage the events and keep it going. Still as the Whistling Gypsy came to an end, I continued teaching. These days I average anywhere from 30 to 50 students, some private, some in classes, and teaching continues to be one of my main functions. I can’t tell you how much fun it is for me to watch someone learn to play their first chord on a guitar :-). I do have times when I get a little burned out, but find me a class of adults who have never been near a guitar before and I’m happy as a pig in mud! When I get them playing their first song, the smiles on their faces are priceless.

My Dad didn’t know what to think when I talked about playing guitar and performing when I was a kid. He didn’t see that as anything more than a hobby. And it took many years for me to find the confidence to pursue the many avenues of music that I did. But if I had it all to do again, I wouldn’t change any of it. The song in the video above, however, tells a different story.

There is a poem out there called When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple, by Jenny Joseph. If you’ve never come across it, you might find it a treat to read. What it meant to me when I first read it, was the idea of believing that old age would bring with it a kind of liberation from having to do what we have to do now. At the end of the poem, the writer considers that perhaps she should start doing those crazy things in the present so that people won’t get too shocked when she begins to wear purple in her old age.

The underlying message I think is the idea that we really want to live our lives fully and completely NOW. When I was writing this song, I was imaging getting to the end of one’s life and having regrets. I sure hope I don’t. Quick! Get me the purple clothes and the red hat!

IJ

Inhale, Exhale

News Bulletin:  I have been working on a song.  You might think “big deal, you write songs”, but this is the first time in a long time that I have really focused on my own songwriting.  I found a little piece of a guitar progression that I had recorded maybe a year or two ago on my handy dandy mp3 recorder, and it struck me as interesting so I decided to go further with it.  That sounds easy enough, but it hasn’t been.

I realize that I am very distracted by many things during the day whether it’s reading emails, checking on stocks, prepping for my students, teaching, making calls;  and the list goes on.  The majority of my songwriting “life”, I didn’t have the same distractions.  I used to just sit in my bedroom on my bed and write.  So I decided that in order to really give it the attention it needs, I was going to turn everything off for an hour a day including the tv, phones, computers, etc. and just sit with my guitar in front of a piece of paper.  I’ve done this a few times now and have had mediocre results.

In the last week or so I’ve had a great deal of trouble sleeping, so one night after an hour of lying there, my mind darting through a whole alphabet of ideas and events, worries and frustrations, I decided to focus on the lyrics of that song.  And I realized that lying in the quiet and dark at 2am is a very good time to focus on lyrics;  there is nothing to distract you and your mind can find all kinds of interesting words and phrases and ideas.  So I finally got up and wrote a few of them down.  I had to fumble in my purse in the dark to find my hookbook and a pen and then I ran to the bathroom where there’s a night light and I could see what I was writing.  I bought the hookbook years ago, but it has mostly been used for writing down to do lists, phone numbers and other eroneous bits of information.  This is the first time I used it for its original purpose.

When I crawled back into bed, happy with myself for coming up with some ideas, I started to think about how songwriting has always been so important to me, not just because I enjoyed the process, but because it started out as a way for me to express and resolve or even just emote the events of my life.  This is how it begins for many songwriters out there, often in their teens like I was, trying to make sense of everything.  Over the years the songs were like little storyboards of my daily struggles and triumphs.  Once I started thinking about myself as a potential commercial songwriter and artist, however, that changed a little.  I began to have to think about my songs in terms of how others might perceive them and whether or not they had a universal meaning or message, rather than just self-centred meanderings.  Some of the songs I wrote succeeded, I think, but eventually the idea of being a performing songwriter lost its sheen and in the last few years as I’ve mentioned, all of it has come to a standstill.

When I lay there the other night after having triumphantly found some lyrics and a new “storyboard” to follow, it hit me that I have very much missed that feeling and that I want to go back to the way it was.  Of course, so many things have happened since then and I know it won’t be the same.  But I think I have to return to my old “bedroom writing” so that I can express what I want without worry about what anyone else will think.  So chances are that whatever songs I come up with in future may never drift outside my bedroom door.  And that’s okay.

For me, songwriting has always been as natural as breathing.  I need to, as I did when I was 12, inhale life and then exhale my expression of it.

[Update:  For any of you who are interested:  I have now started a video series on my Songwriting Blog documenting the progress of the new song I’m writing.]

Shades of Grey

IJ in Maui on the lanai with a beer…

Winter on the wetcoast can be a grey and dreary affair, but for me this last month has been anything but dreary.  At the end of January I spent a marvelous 9 days in Maui with my husband, and only last weekend I was back at the spa with my fabulous friends on our annual getaway.  What a spoiled brat I am!

To top the whole month off, I have finally managed to finish recording my last CD…one that has taken me over 10 years to complete.  I’ve been pondering the question of why it has taken me so long;  the last CD I released was in 2000, and I actually released two of them very close together.   “Catnip” and “undressed” came when I was at the top of my game, having a very prolific period of writing, recording and performing.  But at this point, I haven’t written a song for several years, I have stopped performing completely, and finishing this latest project has been such a long and arduous process.  What gives?

My only conclusion is that I was hijacked by personal events and menopause.  When I first got married and started having children the same thing happened.  Life got in the way of that self-centredness that is needed to write and/or record.  You can’t be so terribly self-involved when you’re raising kids.  But as they got a little older I was able to, for little bits of time, run upstairs and finish my first recording, Foolishly Fantasizing.  And in my 40’s I was a lot freer to do those kinds of things, so writing and recording and performing became more of a focus.  But menopause brought that all to an abrupt halt.

Okay, I guess it wasn’t really abrupt; it probably snuck up on me gradually and then became very apparent in my late 40’s and into my 50’s.  The inability to concentrate, the moodiness (which, you would think, would somehow drive some kind of creativity, but it didn’t), the depressing physical symptoms, all came together in the form of a ‘writus interruptous’ and my usual creative flow was gone.  And other personal challenges with my family didn’t help either.

So it was with great shock that I sat down two weeks ago and realized that I had actually finished the recording of “Shades of Grey”.  And yesterday I came very close to finishing the mastering stage.  For those of you who don’t know anything about recording, the mastering process in recording is like the final polish on a sculpture or the framing of a painting;  it essentially balances and equalizes all of the recorded songs so that they work together as a collection on a CD.

Now I’m very aware that in the 10 years since my last release, the music world has changed considerably.  It isn’t as much about collections of songs in a CD these days;  now it’s about “singles” the way it was back in the 50’s and 60’s.  You can simply put one song at a time out there in the universe and possibly see some sales from it on its own, but for me this is a collection of songs that all belong together.  The subjects of the songs range from longing and lust and letting go, to recognizing the reality of relationships, to getting older.  I’ve always been attracted to writing about what I consider the “grey areas” of life, so the CD title is a play on the word grey which is also the colour of a few strands of my hair these days!

And in a way, there is something very final and finished about it.  I said to my husband a year ago that I just wanted to get it done.  And if I never write again, at least I will feel that I’ve finished something rather than just letting it all just hang there.  So I am finally reaching that point.  Once the CD is done and the cover, which is being designed by myself and my daughter, is finished, I’ll announce it here.  You’ll be able to sample bits of it and I’ll likely do another blog entry just about the songs themselves.  So stay tuned.

Now that I think of it, maybe the events of the last last few years will give me a new crop of songs!  You just never know…

IJ