By Joe Goodkin
Forging a career in music is tough business.
A short list of the jobs I do for my band, Paper Arrows (http://www.paperarrows.com), includes: manager, booker, accountant, web designer, secretary, shipping, distribution, licensing, legal, publicity/press, radio, and janitor (okay, I made that last one up).
Add to those responsibilities: teaching 25 private guitar lessons a week, working a part-time day job at a law firm, and all the daily tasks associated with, you know, living life… and things get kind of hectic.
So I’m faced with what is a common question for aspiring musicians: when and how can I find the time and energy to be creative?
I should back up here…
I love writing songs.
I also love performing. But writing is paramount to me… sitting in a quiet room with a guitar, finding a chord progression or musical idea and then marrying words to this idea… getting frustrated, starting over, struggling, changing and revising until the idea is something completely different from what it was when I started but still somehow right… expression, emotion, sweat, blood… turning the journey into the destination… being the first person to hear my new song and getting chills because I know it says exactly what it needs to say, says something directly from my heart.
I could go on and on.
I guess I just did.
As such, I’ve become kind of obsessed with creative processes. Mine and those of others. Songwriters, authors, painters, actors, directors… anybody who creates. I love reading about how artists of all sorts work, comparing their methods to mine, mining their insight for things I can use… fascinating and inspiring stuff.
Over time and through a lot of hard work, I’ve come to fancy myself the type of artist who is always creating something… I wrote and recorded two full-length albums and an EP in two and a half years… wrote 25 songs for the most recent of these projects, Things We Would Rather Lose (listen at http://www.quellrecords.com).
So… this past spring, as we put out Things We Would Rather Lose, I was kind of shocked to find that as I looked back through my writing book, I had written no complete songs in the previous 9 months.
There were lyrical ideas but all were largely unfinished. There was music, but all of it raw, lazy and/or underdeveloped.
What I noticed most as I paged back through 9 months of lyric fragments was that I wasn’t writing consistently. There would be a day of working on one verse and then… nothing for three weeks. Then another stab at another idea. Then nothing for another two weeks.
Why? How had I gone from being so prolific to having almost nothing to show for 9 months?
Part of it was about material, subject matter and my emotional state. My wildly productive two and a half years coincided with going through a separation and divorce. Writing was therapy, writing was survival… my life was giving me things to write about, things I needed to express, on a daily if not hourly basis. I barely had to work to find inspiration and motivation.
Part of it was that the day-to-day conditions of my life had radically changed… I went from living alone on the second floor of my two flat (well, with my trusty Border Collie mix Hendrix) to living with my girlfriend in a condo. I was also addressing a lifelong battle with insomnia, which, for all it was crippling and destructive, did provide me with a lot of time to write… a lot of my most productive writing was done at night when I couldn’t sleep.
I hadn’t taken the time to figure out how to write about and in my new life.
Something had to change.
So, I decided to try something different: I would set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. and get up and write. Every week day. Regardless of when I went to bed the night before or whether I thought I had something to write.
On days I had to go downtown to my day job, this would mean about an hour of writing time, followed by a 30 minute train ride on which I could continue writing lyrics.
On days I had to teach in the afternoon, I could write all morning if I wanted to.
But at the very least, I would set the coffee maker to brew at 5:15, get up, sit in a quiet room with my guitar, a cup of coffee and my writing book, and just play and write… watch the sun rise… see if there were any ideas in my hands and brain.
It seems antithetical to the romantic notion of the inspired artist to try to create regardless of whether you feel motivated to do so…
But as a I fought through a ridiculously difficult first week of the 5:30 a.m. alarm, something happened:
I started and finished a song called “In the Morning” (natch). Which was one more song than I had finished in the previous 9 months. I wasn’t sure if it was any good, but at least I had written a song and I could feel something loosen up and engage, like stretching a muscle.
And 14 more (and counting) songs have followed since.
What I’ve found is that many days I was certain I had a song to write, I didn’t get anything usable… maybe a line here, or a truncated musical idea there… but often a lot of scribbling and crossing out and starting over.
But some days I started with zero idea or motivation… well, sometimes just the act of trying to write would dislodge something in my heart or head, something unexpected… and even though I grumbled when the alarm went off, by the time I was on the train headed downtown, I was feverishly trying to finish a chorus lyric that hadn’t even been a notion when I awoke.
In the dark.
To the smell of brewing coffee.
At 5:30 a.m.