Throughout the course of this residency, I’ve been asked some great questions that I’ve tried to answer to the best of my ability, off the cuff…but you know how it is, you go home and think of all the things you should have said.
Now that I’ve put more thought into some of these questions, I want to expand on my responses.
Question 1: What would you say is the overall theme of your album? Is there one particular topic you can pin down?
The first time I was asked this question, I hadn’t written quite enough songs to know for sure what the theme was going to be. Now that I’ve written eleven songs, a definite overall theme has come to light. First, I realized that almost all of my eleven songs are written from a soldier or officer’s perspective. I didn’t intend to write nearly all of the songs from a man’s perspective, especially as a woman, but the soldier’s perspective was the one I was most drawn to for this project. Even though it’s impossible to grasp the true scope of the horror of battle, if you’ve never been a soldier, I identified with soldiers more than with other people I’ve read about. I could probably make a list of reasons why that is so, ranging from “I’d rather wear pants than a hoop skirt” to “I’d maybe risk getting shot at over giving birth to and raising ten children.”
I think the biggest reason that I’ve zeroed in on the soldiers’ perspective is the sheer fact that a month is not long enough to absorb all of the information, stories, and resources that are available here in Gettysburg. I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge about the battle and its aftermath. In reality, I would do about anything for an opportunity to do a second residency here eventually and focus on the stories of the women in town, and on the field hospitals, how the battle affected children, the aftermath of the battle in town, and the dedication of the cemetery. There are many, many more songs to be written about this place.
That being said, my overall theme is probably “The Battle of Gettysburg From a Soldier’s Perspective,” but sub-themes are 1) leaving home 2) brotherhood and friendship 3) lost glory days and loss in general 4) homesickness 5) futility and frustration 6) camp life 7) hope in the face of desolation.
This has been a heavy project with heavy themes, and almost all of my songs are sad. (Fine with me, sad and angst ridden songs are my wheelhouse) I have spiraled down into a pit a few times during the course of this residency. There was one evening where George and I both depressed ourselves to the point that we had to go see a Disney movie to reset.
Question 2: How do you think songwriting is different than other forms of writing or forms of art?
Songwriting differs from other forms of art because songs are usually accessible and digestible to everyone. There are styles of painting and sculpture, particulary in modern art, where I know the artist is making a point about something, but I have no idea what that something is unless there is a plaque nearby to tell me. There are some forms of poetry that I feel that way about too. This is not to say those forms of art aren’t good, it’s saying I don’t always understand them. There is value in leaving art open to the interpretation of the viewer, but I always feel frustrated when I can’t tell what an art piece is about because I want to understand things.
That being said, one doesn’t typically need a lot of background information to understand a song or to relate to it, even if you don’t enjoy it. However, to take that a step further, most of my songs do actually have a lot of background information and references to mythology or literature. “Getting” my references might allow a person to appreciate my lyrics more, but missing my references, or not realizing that I’m even making references, doesn’t take away from understanding and enjoying my lyrics. (I hope, at least)
Also, I think that songwriting can be one of the most intimate forms of art. If a songwriter is writing from their heart, and not just trying to write a catchy hit from a formula, the listener can tell that the artist is baring their soul and the artist is allowing the listener to witness that.
Accessability is one of the greatest differences between the product of songwriting and the product of other art forms. Songwriting differs from other art forms because the product of songwriting isn’t holed up in a museum behind velvet ropes, it’s out in the world or cyberspace, probably no more expensive than $1.29 on iTunes. Anyone can access songs, from anywhere in the world for that matter.
Question 3: Do you have a particular method or approach to songwriting?
The way I’ve looked at songwriting for this project is that I want to tell stories for people who are no longer able to speak for themselves. I want to capture an experience or emotion with words and a melody and basically facilitate a relationship between the people who listen to the songs and the people the songs are about.
Songwriting, and probably all art, is an attempt to illustrate human experiences. There are some human experiences that are universal and do not change over time. Even if you can’t imagine what it would have been like to experience the sound of 150 cannons firing, it is easy to relate to love, loss, hope and homesickness. Songs can bridge the gap of centuries between people. Today, we still sing songs and hymns that were written before the Civil War and were sung by soldiers. When we sing a mournful song, we experience that feeling, and that feeling is the same now as it was for people 153 years ago.
I don’t have a very sophisticated method for writing songs. Most of the time I feel more like a conduit than someone who can just sit down and write a song. When I do write a song, it tends to come all at once and just pour out. I get most of my song ideas when I’m driving. Thanks to the iphone voice memo, I no longer steer with my knees and write lyrics on napkins, which was how I used to do it. Sorry. Now, when I get an idea, I sing it into my phone so that I can write it down later. I will say that I occasionally write down a line and it doesn’t immediately turn into a song. It may marinate for months until it finds a home in a song somewhere. I’ll also occasionally write part of a song that I end up cannibalizing because a line will fit better somewhere else.
One thing that has helped me to cultivate my songwriting skills is that I’m an avid reader. Songwriting is capturing experiences, and I haven’t experienced war or the level of fear that soldiers in battle must have experienced, but reading has given me a window into the lives of soldiers and allowed me to experience things indirectly. Some of the songs I’ve written have come from reading a line that a soldier wrote in a letter. Some of the songs have been inspired by the literature I read to prepare for this residency. This project has been more about translating the experiences of other people than trying to express my own experiences.