Things Take on a Life of Their Own (Corrected Newsletter)
Tina Turner, Compact Discs, and Flow as Guide
Have you ever made a plan for a project? Have you ever noticed that things rarely ever go as planned? It's interesting how things tend to take on a life of their own once set in motion.
I started this newsletter thinking I would spend more time writing about songwriting's literary and philosophical aspects. As it turns out, I've mostly been cataloging the deaths of 20th-century music icons in 2023.
Remembering Tina Turner
This week we lost a big one. Tina Turner's passing will mark the end of an era. Tina was known for her grit and magnetic personality. While she wasn't strictly a songwriter, she brought songs to life in a way few vocalists manage.
Tina's is a story of seizing the moment and persevering when the chips are down. From forcing her way into an impromptu audition for Ike Turner to bouncing back from obscurity and becoming an international superstar, she showed people that nothing is impossible. She was an inspiration to people from all walks of life.
Tina was a survivor and provided a master class in taking life by the reigns to artists everywhere.
Covers as Music Education.
Recently, my friend Lloyd Daylight asked me to cover a song of his called Compact Disc. We spent some time working on his second album several years ago. He's planning another project which I won't spill the beans on, but it involves this cover.
I haven't been the musician that learns tons of covers. When I first learned guitar, I would learn enough of a song to understand how it worked, and then I'd try to write my own. In retrospect, there were better methods of learning the craft of songwriting than this. I would have been much better served by learning and performing more covers.
The good thing about learning and covering a song is that you are practicing many different skills with immediate payoff. By the end of the experience, you now have something that can be performed. It's a practical foundation that allows one to start a band and get feedback.
My stubborn nature notwithstanding, I've come around to covering songs. When Lloyd asked me to cover this song, I was excited to see how I could take the elements of his songwriting that I love and use them as a springboard for my own experimentation.
Lloyd has a playful way of writing phrases that can be repeated throughout a song without becoming stale. The lyrics of Compact Disc are full of unexpected plays on language through similar sounding words and phrases (e.g., combat this sung against compact disc).
My songs have classically been verbose tracts exploring dense philosophical concepts. Lloyd's songwriting is more visual. I'm excited to interpret a song that leaves more space for lyrics to create an image in the listener's mind.
As I make more progress on the cover, I'll say more. But for now, I'll recommend this to anyone considering a cover. If you're unsure how to take a song and make it your own, remember that as long as you have the key, there's no reason to feel like it must be a complete replica. Try to look for the essence and work from there.
In this song, I've expanded the ostinato functioning as the harmonic structure for the verses. The figure is a series of diatonic thirds played on a keyboard. By blocking out the chords that were being implied, I was able to reharmonize the song with chord extensions and build a new chord progression that stays in key and still supports the original vocal melody.
You'll be able to hear all of this at some point, but not yet. (Sorry!)
All this to say, cover songs and make them your own.
My friend Paul recently introduced me to his friend, Eric, who made a five-inch vinyl pressing of a song we recorded in 2017. The song is called Repeating Pattern and it was written in an afternoon and got some traction on local radio for a while.
It was that same year that I hit a roadblock with music. It wasn't a creative roadblock because I found songwriting easier than ever. Since 2017, I've gained more technical fluency and feel comfortable composing music.
The roadblock concerned my motivations. My life changed drastically in 2017 following the death of my father. It caused me to question my relationship with music.
I began to grow skeptical of my own motivations for making music. If anything, I wanted to turn off the desire to play music.
Since 2017 I've been struggling to figure out precisely what role music should play in my life. I worried that music was just something I did for validation. Or, at the very least, that I couldn't be sure when I was making music for the right reasons (never mind the question as to what constitutes "the right reasons")
Why am I saying all of this?
On Wednesday night, Eric gave me a copy of this bespoke record. I realized that this song I made almost six years ago had enough impact for someone to take their time and craft a physical artifact.
I expressed how much it meant to me that, totally unprompted, he decided to make something to give this song a physical form in the world. I also shared with him some of my uncertainty about music since that song was written.
After hearing a little bit about my story, he asked me a question:
"Do you ever experience flow when you're playing music?"
"Yes. Most of the time." I answered.
He went on to point out that it's typically his experience that flow and validation seeking don't go hand in hand. That is to say, the achievement of flow should be a good indicator that I'm not creating for validation.
What he said made sense. I had never even considered how flow was guiding me toward meaning.
Sometimes we can get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves and overlook the facts of a situation. I don't know what this means for the future of my music, but it's started to make me consider new approaches to music.
It's made me realize that flow can be my guide.
And for what it's worth, flow can be your guide too.
Because if you're finding flow, that's a good indicator that your work is intrinsically meaningful.