Same Chorus, New Verse

Today’s post comes from Alexandra Barone of From Farm to Turntable, and is part of a special day of shenanigans from other Pittsburgh Bloggers. You can see my post over on Red Pen Mama, where I explore the idea of ‘creation’ and how the doing of the thing IS the thing.. more eloquently quoted by Amy Poehler.  I hope you enjoy this blog swap!

When I first began to think of what importance songwriting held in my life, I immediately thought of the only song I ever wrote. One night, I sat down with my best friend who is a brilliant musician today, and we began to sing. She had never written a song before, either. It was our first time, and we were determined.

Our muse was my cat, Lambchop. In our song, he played the oh-so-noble Peanut Toes, the Great Canadian. He’s not Canadian to my knowledge, but that’s the beauty of song-writing. It’s a place to make up stories, to breathe new life into ordinary people, places, things or cats. In a few hours, we had something we were sort of proud of, even if we couldn’t stop laughing at the total absurdity of what we were saying. I mean, we worked pretty hard on this song. We had it all: a whistling breakdown, harmonies, and a spoken word verse. Peanut Toes was one hell of a guy. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

lambchop-and-guitars

Hey Mr. Peanut Toes, shimmy up the totem pole

Shimmy, shimmy, shimmy, shimmy into the unknown

Where do you go, Mr. Peanut Toes?

Where do you go? I go to Mexico…

The true standout line?

Karate chop my ass all the way to Guantanamo

I never wrote a song again. I don’t necessarily consider it one of my primary talents, but who knows? It could be hiding out deep within.

When I was a kid, my dad would play me the song ‘Return to Pooh Corner’ by Kenny Loggins. I learned every Beatles song without knowing it was ever a Beatles song. Until I started to hear those familiar tunes elsewhere, I was under the impression that my dad may as well have written every song in the world. It was even a little disappointing when I unearthed this harsh truth.

While we stuck to kid-friendly acoustics during the day, every night, I’d fall asleep to the not-so-faint sound of a rock band rehearsing diligently in my garage. As soon as you thought it was over, the music would start up again. This would go on until the day I packed up my childhood bedroom and flew the nest just a couple of years ago. In the end, the ruckus became the bane of my  existence.

As much as I grew to prefer a good night’s rest to electric guitars blaring past midnight, I slowly but surely began to understand what songwriting meant to my father. His desk is surrounded by sticky notes, half of which are miscellaneous phone numbers because he never figured out how to use a cell phone properly. The other half are lines that would eventually end up in those songs he wrote when he sat down on the couch every night with one of his fifteen or so guitars.

guitars

When I moved out, he turned my old bedroom into a studio. It was his safe haven, his solace. He recorded an album last year, and I’ve never seen someone take so much pride in anything. Every time he saw me, the first words out of his mouth were regarding the progress he was making. It was like watching a little kid talk as his eyes would light up. The excitement was only stifled by my own lack of enthusiasm.

Without going into much detail, my father and I had a strained relationship. I can’t say that I showed my own pride in his work at the time, but I hope he knows that I am (almost) as proud as he is of the hours he put in. He spilled his heart on that record, and the man I thought so un-brave was suddenly a hero again.

The thing about just listening to music is that we don’t know the people behind those words. When I listened to my dad’s music, I knew all too well what he was talking about. It was initially quite alarming to me because I realized how foreign he had become to me. His vulnerability made him feel less estranged. In his lyrics, he became human again.

Shortly after Christmas last year, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what the next few weeks would bring on, but he deteriorated rapidly. When I went over to visit my family, the house was no longer filled with music. My dad didn’t have anything to say about the songs he was writing. He could hardly speak at all.

I felt afraid to say much of anything to him for some reason. I just hoped that he knew how I felt, that all was forgiven, that I only had room in my heart for love. I kept having this lingering thought that I couldn’t shake, though: I had never sang a song with my dad. Sure, maybe we casually sat down when I was a kid. The angsty teenage version of me was far too cool to hang out with my parents though. And after that, forget it.

Now, I wish I had simply asked.

Every time I stepped through the front door, I was hopeful that I’d discover him with his guitar in his lap. The sacred legal pads scribbled with lyrics on the coffee table were slowly replaced with prescriptions and hospice paperwork. The tenderness in my father’s dying voice were much like his voice was to me on paper; raw, afraid, and overwhelmingly human. This was his song now.

My mother called me one day and I knew I had to go. This time, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving. My dad’s chair was now a hospital bed. When I went over that day, I would never hear him speak again. We were surrounded by people who loved him, who wanted to be there for us and for him. His former band mates, tough and mighty, sat by his side unashamedly sobbing. Men I’d known since childhood who stood on stage with him for the past thirty years came one by one to grieve the loss of his voice.

His friend and fellow songwriter Max spent those days by my family’s side, helping us to both laugh and cry. As defeat slowly filled the room over the course of three long days, Max played guitar by his side.

Even if my dad couldn’t hear us, we heard Max. He offered my family the only comfort we could find. The music reverberating through my childhood home was the only light that could pierce the total darkness that had taken over. The music made those moments just a little bit longer and a little bit brighter.

The night before, Max did ask my dad to sing with him. Max did what I couldn’t do. He hadn’t sung since he had been diagnosed. It was the last time he would be able to speak, and he did it in song. Somehow, these moments that we never want to let go of are always perfectly captured.

There wasn’t a day I saw my dad and he didn’t encourage me to go write a song. I would defiantly explain to him, “But I can’t write songs!” He never accepted that as a valid response. My dad is no longer with me, and I will never get my chance to sing with him. I’ll never be able to take back what I said, and more importantly, say what I didn’t say. But his album – his pride and joy – lives on. One day, I’ll write that song.

Authenticity

The feeling of moving back home was exciting, freeing, and terrifying. We both rationally understood it would be a struggle to start from scratch, but at least we would be cradled by our wonderful and loving support system while we got on our feet. We also struggled with the idea of what people may think about us moving home. I would allow damaging, untrue thoughts to run between my ears in a constant loop. I imagined people thinking we ‘failed’ as musicians and are living too unconventionally for our age. I foresaw having awkward conversations with friends about what we are doing now that we are home and what our plans are for the future. I could hear everyone, even strangers, thinking disapproving thoughts about our lifestyle choices. Although I was persuasively calm and confident on the outside, I kept a tightly sealed soundproof door behind my eyes to keep the violently loud voices isolated to merely thrash about brain. I got sick and began cultivating a subtle, consistent headache in the back of my neck. I was worried about everything and driving myself into a slight fit of insanity. My mind was working overtime to rationalize and suppress extreme feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. Even the things that bring me the greatest joy were hard to stomach due to these nagging voices that kept whispering “You should be doing.. x, y, z”, “You should be better than this”, or “You’re wasting your time.”

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Lindsay Katt

This incredibly inspiring interview with Lindsay Katt became a conversation not only about fashion and music, but about women in the industry, how important it is to spread the truth about attaining pure freedom as an artist, and the need to become the change for future generations.  She opened my eyes to the deeper issues that were hiding behind the more trivial questions I was prepared to ask.

Lindsay is a warm, grounded, humble, and absolutely lovely person who is a light in the overwhelming darkness that can cloud our vision as artists.  It was such a joy to talk with her!

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Black Heart White

Continuing to fight against a fixed, resolute force in your life will only cause that force to root itself deeper in the ground.  Constant attempts to reconfigure and realign that force around a different perspective will only drain your sense of self worth and purpose.  When you come into contact with this kind of negative force, do not let it surround you and take hold.  Break yourself away before the thought of changing it consumes you.

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Fall to Pieces

The other night I was so lucky to be invited to a one night only event with Sara Bareilles singing the songs from her new musical, The Waitress.  It was a life changing event and intensely struck a chord deep in the roots of my musical soul.  I remembered how much I absolutely love and cherish musical theater.  I was raised in the world of musical theater, basking in the thrill of the lights, the costumes, the set, the rise of the curtain..  But the aspect I loved the most about the theater was the ability to transform into another person; become a character that was completely different from me and enter a vibrant new world on the stage.  The characters I was fortunate enough to play in high school were strong, brave, complex, and had clear goals, stopping at nothing to achieve them.  I poured my heart into these roles because I found my voice through them.  My confidence as a performer lifted me up so high.. I knew the world of the stage absolutely needed to stay a constant in my life as I grew older.  That’s all I wanted to do.

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Marriage of Music and Style

When I first began performing in grade school my mother always stressed how important it was to look my absolute best when I was on stage. Whether I was singing for a choir concert in the middle of our local mall or in front of the Pittsburgh Symphony at Heinz Hall, my hair, make up, and outfit were carefully curated and gussied up to the nines. I’m not sure if it was for me, so I could stand out from the crowd, or more for her so as to avoid the embarrassment of my.. unique fashion choices (I passionately advocated for the bubble shirt which, I’m afraid, never made the cut). I learned that no matter the setting or kind of performance, you always put your best self forward to show respect. Now, it’s important to note that at this point in my life I had been idolizing the stars of Broadway and everything in their world was glamorous. They lit up the stage with their flashy costumes and animated characters, creating a fantasy world I so desperately wanted to be a part of.  Even for performances on TV and talk shows they always perfectly dressed the part, so it made sense that if I wanted to reach that status one day I had better start suiting up!

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Waiting for Lightening to Strike!

Now let’s say you’ve taken the time to think about what your personal ‘ideal writing environment’ looks like.  And you’re there.  Sitting at your favorite back table in that tiny diner on the corner, pen in hand, ready to let a creativity bomb explode all over your notebook.  You sit for a few moments staring at the blank page anticipating the sensory rush you will feel as the floodgates of your imagination unleash the cornucopia of ideas you have locked in your head.  You are excited, filled with inspiration.  Not only have you determined the place and time where you feel most comfortable writing, but you have a goal and know exactly what you want to accomplish during this session.  You may have just woke up, clocked out of work, it may be your day off or you found a way to squeeze in an hour or two of precious time to dedicate to your writing.  You have taken all the steps necessary in order to set yourself up for success.

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One Foot Underwater…

Our moving plans were finalized once I mailed our Brooklyn landlord a check in order to secure our room for July.  Handing that tightly sealed envelope to the US Postal worker was, for me, the most gut churning part of our decision up until that point.  All the hours of talking, discussion, and preparation were now solidified in this one envelope.  My heart was racing as I stumbled out of the post office.  Is this really happening??  I was feeling so nervous, scared, a bit guilty..  I sat on the curb staring at the ground waiting for Scott to come get me.  A red car pulled up in front of me which I ignored, as I was crouched too low to the ground to see the driver.  I didn’t recognize the car until Scott called out to me.  Frightened, I jumped up remembering Scott sold his beautiful, black Elantra stick shift for this automatic so that I could drive to my new job in Brooklyn.  Feeling more guilt stricken, I slowly peeled myself off the ground, opened the car door, and slinked in the passenger’s side.  For the first time since we made this decision, we both gave each other the same look at the same time.  A look of calm, but genuine look of uncertainty.

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What is Your Ideal Writing Environment?

What is your ideal writing environment?  Which room in your house do you find most inspiring?  Do you have a particular desk or table you enjoy sitting at?  Even a certain chair?  Or would you rather sit at a coffee shop.  Do you even like to sit at all?  Can you think more creatively on the go?  Maybe while taking a morning jog or evening stroll around the neighborhood?  Speaking of, do you feel the creative juices flowing more strongly in the morning or evening when you write with that special black ballpoint pen?  Or is it blue?  Or do you feel a greater sensation when you type??  If you do actually write do you only write in a notebook exclusively for songwriting that you carry with you?  Or are you okay with scribbling on a napkin or back of a receipt?  How do you feel about listening to music while you write?  Or do you like silence?  And what about your phone that keeps buzzing…?

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The Decision

The decision was made.. then unmade..then made again.  We spent most of the last few months staggering between feeling so certain and so doubtful.  Should this be an emotional choice or a logical choice?  Or a responsible choice?  As Scott and I sluggishly contorted ourselves to fit on a packed subway car, at the peak of our mental exhaustion, I secretly took out my pen and pad to make a pros and cons list to ease my throbbing brain.  So many cons teamed up against one lonely pro, but that pro is what was making the decision so hard… Scott watched me stuff them back in my purse and would not have thought anything of it until he saw the big, bold title that read Moving Home at the top of the pad.  Dammit!!  I didn’t want to get into it now… Every few days we seemed to replay the same frustrating conversation that just went in circles until one of us held up our little white flags.  I shyly handed over the pad and after a second of frantically scanning the scribbles he said, ‘You can only think of that one pro??’

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