“It was like somebody realized you could take the surface of a song, paint a door on it, open it and walk through.”
Mary Gaitskill, Veronica
I’m going to start with a secret: I haven’t written a single good song since last August. It was the night after the sudden death of one of my favourite songwriters in the world, and I had spent the whole day writing an obituary. The summer had passed me by in a long, slow unshakeable depression, I was reeling from one too many painful happenings, and my desire to stare at the ceiling alone and cry and do nothing had far-overpowered any constructive desire to write.
Then, one hot night in August I was dog-sitting alone in an echoey, affluent house in Rathmines. The lights kept flickering off and the dogs kept barking at vague invisible things and I was on edge and jittery. To distract myself, I sat down at a plastic toy-keyboard in the kitchen and my first song in months fell fully-formed out of my hands. I played it over and over again and made a rough recording on my phone. The next day I walked around in the sun listening to the song over and over to remind myself that there is something in me, despite everything, that comes out when I least expect it, and gives me a song.
Ever since my album came out last November, I’ve been asked to talk about songs almost constantly – how I write them, why I write them, songs that I like, songs that have been important to me – and the more I have found myself trying to talk about songs, the more I become convinced that to talk too much about songs, to unpick them too delicately, is to do them a great disservice. The whole point of making a song is to evoke the strangeness that occurs when the right words are put to the right chords and something that cannot be addressed in everyday speech is expressed. I’m talking about good songs, there are plenty of dreadful songs out there that evoke nothing but the need to immediately switch it off.
I’m suspicious about people who talk about songwriting like it’s a day job, like it’s a tap that can be turned on at will and new words and melodies will flow out in abundance. I secretly think the people who work in this way rarely produce anything good. Maybe I’m jealous; if I sit down with the intention to write a new song, it won’t work, whatever I write will feel forced and boring and I’ll begin to convince myself I’ve lost the ability to do it. The truth I have had to accept is that if I knew how to write songs, if I knew how a song worked, I’d do it far more often. That said, there are some things that I do know.
Firstly, I know that it is very important to not let your ‘self’ get in the way of the work. In my experience, a good song can only be written after you’ve successfully gotten yourself out of the way. You have to try and accept that you are a conduit for the work and that the work is not you, it just travels through you. This is infuriating because we live in a world that measures our human worth against our capacity to produce. I think in order to write well you have to discard any sense of your art being a reflection of you – that way you can forgive yourself for the bad work, and also not let the good work go to your head too much.
A good song will be unshadowed by your intention or personality and will just be a mystery that reveals bit by bit itself over time, until months later will you realise – oh yes, that’s what that was about. I think I succeed to do this every ten songs or so, but it’s also important to write nine bad songs in order to really recognise a good one when it arrives.
Secondly, I know that in order to write good songs you have to truly love songs. This is obvious, but I think I started writing songs because as long as I can remember I have loved songs more than anything.
I recently read Mary Gaitskill’s strange and excellent novel Veronica, near the start, the pretty – dislikeable – protagonist Alison describes the want to live inside of music. To live her life as though inside of a song. She doesn’t explain quite what she means by this, but reading it, I thought, oh yes, I know. I think I’ve spent my whole life looking for ways to live inside of songs, I have an obsessive streak, an inability to ever do things gently, and when I find a new song I love I want to be folded up and made small enough to be held inside it.
I think this kind of obsession is a bad and nauseating trait to possess in most aspects of life, but very necessary for the writing of songs. I know the difference between a good song and bad one because when I write a bad one it feels flat and rolled out and beige, but when I write a good one it feels like a full and elaborate structure, colourful and strong enough to hold me inside for days while I work the words out.
Thirdly, when I am really stuck and feeling dreadful, I think going for a long walk, doing some physical work in the garden or having a blisteringly hot shower sometimes helps.
Finally, I have two things I remind myself of when I’m in long phases like this one in which I haven’t written a good song in several months and it’s started to wear down my confidence in my ability. They are, firstly – that thinking your work uniquely terrible is its own form of narcissism and a self-indulgence best to be avoided, and secondly, that you always think you’ll never write again, but you always, eventually, inevitably do write again.
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