Ryan Adams: Let Your Ego Come Out to Play

I love this video of Ryan Adams revealing his daily songwriting method, that he calls ‘Stacks’. It basically involves taking one reference book (like the Roget’s International Thesaurus) on one side, and another random book—a novel perhaps—on the other side. Open each to a random page. Scan the page of the novel until a line or image catches your attention, then use it to create a version of that image. Go to your second book. Scan the page until you find a word or image that pops out at you…keep going, and fill in the blanks.

Adams says:

“Inside of me is some piece of information that is relevant. It’s relevant because I’m alive and because there’s electricity in my brain and I’ve seen things all day. But maybe they have’t become this beacon for me yet of something ideal. But if I scan information I’ll find what that is…like Madlibs, the ego will always come out to play if you can get the Id to tell it to…I just created this thing for myself based on this information that I chose that’s already relevant to me because instantly it reminds of someone…; and it will force me to fill in the blanks.”

It’s a beautiful approach that trusts in your own experience to join the dots.

Writing Tips from George Orwell

One of the most incisive essays I have ever read on the art of writing is the short and stunning piece, ‘Politics and the English Language‘, written by George Orwell in 1947. Here, Orwell described a cliche as a ‘dying metaphor’. Orwell follows up with a succinct list of guides to follow:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

If it hasn’t crossed your desk yet, I highly recommend it. You can access it here.

The Secret Life of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen.

The song ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen is now thought of as a glittering jewel of genius. But the story of its rise to recognition reveals that it was the thinnest thread of circumstance that brought the song to the attention of the public imagination at all.

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the song in his wonderful new(ish) podcast Revisionist History. You can listen to the episode here:

Gladwell traces the history of the song (starting around halfway through the episode). Hallelujah was first released by Cohen in 1984. Cohen performed the song, but would constantly alter verses, sing verses that didn’t get recorded, eliminate biblical references (then bring them back), and generally move the pieces around like an Escher jigsaw. Very few people beyond fans paid attention to the song.

However, a singer-songwriter, John Cale, heard Cohen perform a version at a club in New York, and recorded his own version, taking Cohen’s sombre, dramatic, gospelised version and turning into a melodious piano-vocal that extracted the emotional core of the song and put it into a stark, haunting light. It was released on a small French label. Still, very few people paid any attention.

One of the few people who happened to have the record was a woman who was friends with a young man, a young and little-known singer-songwriter, by the name of Jeff Buckley. While house-sitting, he happened to put the record on. He happened to like the song, and happened to perform his own cover of John Cale’s cover in a tiny club in the East Village.

This happened to be heard by an executive at Columbia Records, and the version was released on Buckley’s debut album Grace. Grace also missed its target and fell disappointingly short of the public’s attention—until Buckley disappeared into the Mississippi River in 1997, and the rest in history.

What is astounding about this chain of events is how fragile and circumstantial the links of the chain really are. This was the farthest from an inevitable outcome. The song could very easily have remained in obscurity, a gem buried in the sand.

The journey of genius is complex; creativity is an impossible web of personality, circumstance and damn hard work (it’s well known that Cohen wrote between 50-70 verses in the process of crafting Hallelujah); and the recognition of genius is never guaranteed.

We just got lucky this time.

 

I Have a Confession to Make

I have a public confession to make. I have a serious problem—a profound weakness, and it only gets worse with age.

I am completely, totally, helplessly in love with reading. But not just one book. I find myself embroiled, entangled, enmeshed, ensnared, and ensnarled in reading sometimes more than 10 books at a time. It’s not healthy. If I read one at a time, I could probably read more in a year. But I can’t. It doesn’t work like that.

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I now play mental tricks with myself to justify the habit, creating different ‘categories’ of books. It started out simple: Fiction and Non-Fiction. And then I started reading books about writing. Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Writing. And then I picked up a few on interesting psychology research: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Writing, and Psychology (sub-category, Non-Fiction). Next came books not just on writing, but on specific grammar and style. Fiction, Non-Fiction (sub-category: Psychology, and also Science snuck in there somehow), Writing (sub-category, grammar and style). And then Poetry. And then Short Stories. And, um, Krista Tippett (maybe, Books by Podcasters?).

I feel good now, though. I feel lighter that I’ve let you know about my problem. Maybe I can add a few more books now that I’ve shed the weight of this secret…

In the spirit of National Book Week, I am going to post the 5th sentence on page 56 of each of the books I’m currently reading:

If you ask someone to recall a seemingly random assortment of words verbatim, starting with the first word— “was smelled front that his the peanuts he good hunger eating barely woman of so in could that him contain”—the average person will remember only the first six of those words. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

“When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.” On Writing, Stephen King.

I have never felt so terrible. Tenth of December, George Saunders.

“I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.”” Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett.

I could settle on nothing. House of Light, Mary Oliver.

That man was Tycho Brahe. Cosmos, Carl Sagan.

From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage. The Elements of Style, Stunk and White.

Better yet, the genetic sequences could be recorded by feeding samples into machines, taking the DNA strands apart one base pair at a time, and preserving them as strings of data that could easily be archived and replicated. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson.

 

Driving Around the Road Cones: Two Easy Strategies for Moving Beyond the First Verse

Almost all songwriters I know experience a type of road block in the process of writing songs. Paradoxically, this block seems to happen when you have a really good idea that you are particularly excited about. Put your hand up if you’ve ever written a verse and a chorus…and can’t seem to write a second verse! (Okay – hands down.) You labor for the next hour, week, month, but everything that comes out feels like you are simply dressing up the same idea in different clothes. Or worse – you are taking off the ball gown and putting on the jeans.

Thanks to ASCAP for once again publishing this article I wrote on two easy strategies for moving beyond the first verse. You can read the article in its entirety at the ASCAP We Create Music Blog.

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Student Profile – Sister Ursuline

SISTER URSULINE is Emma Champion, a Sydney-based cello-wielding songwriter with a soft spot for pigeons, bloomers, and hidden historical stories of woe-begone women and confounding men. The first song Emma brought to me became the name-sake of her alter Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 9.54.15 pmego, Sister Ursuline. Sister Ursuline was a real person—a well-meaning former nun who somehow mistakenly ended up interned in a mental institution.

Emma’s fascination with little-known historical characters turned into a full-blown obsession, and sparked a series of cello-webbed songs exploring their narratives and sometimes strange motivations.

I love that Emma is unafraid to write from the perspective of people on the edge—on the edge of proper society, and sometimes dangling off the edge of their own minds.

You can hear Emma’s song, In The East River, below. In The East River plunges a wet hand into the world of a woman who served a double crime: spreading contagion, made worse by the condition of being a woman and a servant. History knows her as Typhoid Mary.

You can find out more about Sister Ursuline’s music at her Facebook page.