Songwriting as Self-Discovery
Songwriting sometimes requires that we crack open those parts of ourselves that we’ve fortified over the years. When we chisel the first crack in that wall, we don’t know exactly what we’ll find. We often know what we feel – that gives rise to the start of a song: the instrument we choose, the chords we find, the beginnings of lyrics. But we don’t know what it will look like when it’s finished, and we certainly don’t know the impact it will have on us.
Some songs stay unfinished for months or years, perhaps because we don’t want the crack to get larger, perhaps because we need help to process what it reveals and to be able to put it into music. In some cases, we need a collaborator to help move us in the right direction, ask a few questions, help us craft that missing piece, or give us the confidence that others might want to hear its message too. Some songs remain private, others reveal a universal message that we can share with others.
With the help of Beth Kille and Jenna Joanis, I’m in the final stages of recording a new song called “Ties that Bind”. Though it was inspired, at the start, by a single incident, it has grown to mean so much more to me.
The song started as a mellow, piano-driven ballad in the summer of 2021, during a time when I was frustrated with myself for making a mistake that I had made too many times before. You can hear that in these lyrics: “Who will come rescue/from the edge of the cliff that I climb/over and over again/trying so hard to unwind/the ties that bind.” That was the first piece of the song I wrote, with a simple, repetitive piano accompaniment comprised of arpeggiated chords. At that time, I envisioned those lyrics as the introduction, after which a synthesized beat would kick in and the song would shift into spoken word or rap. I even experimented with finding those beats in my DAW (Logic Pro) and created a rough recording of what that might sound like. That still makes me chuckle; my singing voice doesn’t quite lend itself to rap:)
At that point, I was stuck. Because I’ve been writing music for many years now, those “stuck” moments don’t bother me as much anymore. I know that if a song is meant to be, it will come in its own time. The unfinished melodies and song fragments remain, and they worm their way into my subconscious. Often, when I least expect it, or when I’m working on something else, they reappear at just the right moment.
A few weeks later, I found myself struggling to figure out how to address a recurring challenge in my personal life. Because this particular challenge is not new, it has been even more difficult to untangle. I was sitting at the kitchen table writing in my journal, trying to find a path forward. “I lay my head on the kitchen table, trying to figure what went wrong,” I wrote. I realized it could be the first line of a verse, as it paints a picture for listeners; they could envision the narrator in this ordinary, but emotionally charged space. The rest of the verse and the prechorus emerged pretty quickly, but again I found myself stuck.
Fast forward to early November. I stepped into my first cowriting session with Beth Kille, amazing songwriter, talented musician and founder of the Madison area’s Girls Rock Camp and Ladies Rock Camp. I had never cowritten with Beth before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – each songwriter’s approach is a bit different. However, I did know that Beth is a passionate advocate for music in all its forms and that she would be a kind critic I brought my unfinished song, just in case, and Beth offered to help.
First, Beth encouraged me to write a new first verse, one that took a step back to help set the context for the story that followed. Together, we crafted the following: “I trace the stains on the kitchen table/let the same old tears flow through/you etched these deep, long lines/I’ve been trying to undo.” These lyrics speak truth to my experiences and, based on conversations I’ve had, I believe they speak truth to others’ experiences as well. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that so many of us face a few of the “same old” challenges over and over again, ones that we try so hard – and sometimes in vain – to solve. In a way I didn’t anticipate, writing this verse – together with Beth – helped me recognize how deeply ingrained some of these challenges are. By the end of our two-hour session together, we crafted a new verse and a powerful, high-energy bridge, and we made a few structural changes.
This song, “Ties that Bind”, is now quite different from the song I began crafting this past summer, but it’s so much better than what I could have accomplished on my own. Beth contributed lyrical, instrumental, and recording/mixing ideas; Jenna, music teacher extraordinaire and multi-instrumentalist, contributed keyboard ideas for me, as well as electric guitar, bass and drums for the recording. It’s no longer a sad, subdued ballad. Instead, it’s a powerful statement about what can happen when we reclaim our voices and use songs to help heal us.
Beth, Jenna and I after a recording session
Stay Tuned: Check back here in a few weeks, and I’ll add a link so that you can listen to the final version of “Ties that Bind”!