Songwriting

The Castle of Discovery

As a five year old, I went to the San Jose Zoo, where there was a Castle. It was roped off but I wandered inside anyway, (only to be dragged out against my will moments later by a cousin).  

Is there anything more fun than discovery and exploration? (Even if it’s clearly off limits, clearly verboten). 

To help keep things fresh, to keep us on the path of discovery here are three questions that might guide us:  What’s new? What’s deeper? What’s next? 

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I was listening to this Studio Time Podcast’s of Charles Wilson, (a touring musician with Justin Timberlake & Rhianna), talked about what discovery meant for him.  You can hear what he said here.

Songwriting

Generous and Generative

Here’s a bit of possibly erroneous etymology: 

Generative speaks to creation to make more of something. What if being generous comes from the same root? What if generosity speaks to the creation of sustenance and opportunity. 

Being generous would be generative. 
Being generative would be generous.  

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Songwriting

Just Start

Years ago, I took my first songwriting class at Cambridge Center for Adult Education. On the last night of the final session I spoke with another student. “I’m going to start a songwriting group,” I said; “we should exchange emails if you’re interested in joining.” That was in May. 

In November I got an email from him. “I’ve been thinking about your songwriting group,” He said.  “How’s it been going?” It wasn’t going. There was no group yet. I took his email as a signal to “just start.” We “just started” the group together, in the living room of my walk up apartment. It’s how I started doing the work of songwriting and bringing communities together which I continue doing to this day, some five to six hundred songs later.

I still try to go it alone. Something in my temperament likes to believe I can do it all by myself. It rarely works. But finding just one other committed person almost always works.

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Songwriting

Breaking a Sweat

The air conditioner is in. Three of them in fact. One for each room of our rooms, excepting the bathroom. To me this speaks of something to do with comfort and discomfort. What am I willing to withstand?  

As a kid, we never had air conditioners. I remember having a conversation with an older friend on a hot day about the heat of summers past. Of hotter days he remembered from before I was around.  An earnest version of “in my day we walked to school uphill both ways;” from a nine year old to five year old.  

You’ve gathered that I’m now caught in the currents of a judgment that will arrive at something close to toughen up, you don’t need all this stuff. It’s an easy judgment to pass on myself. There’s a voice in my head both willing to do the judging and another that is will to shoulder the judgment. That’s an odd dynamic isn’t it?  

But voice two isn’t really as subservient as I’d like to imagine either. He’s typing away with the feigned equanimity of a self-help influencer and hoping to balance things out so it’s fine to use the AC, or at least see what happens if the air conditioner is used.  (It’s not going to be turned off).     

What makes this hard to bear is this is all sort of a metaphor. A man, George Floyd, died in Minneapolis yesterday after being arrested by a group of policemen. In video one officer knelt on George’s neck. George protested he couldn’t breathe. The officer remained unmoved for five minutes.  George fell unconscious and died.      

On the one hand, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the comfort wrought by the air conditioning, my skin color. On the other, something is deeply wrong. I am sitting here in the comfort of my apartment not breaking a sweat. And still, my self-judgment does nothing for me or for anyone else except perhaps to announce “I’m aware!”

A friend I admire was out in the streets of Minneapolis last night. An action. She mentioned the writing of Resmaa Menakem in a post today, another action. Another person mentioned he’s offering a free course right now. Anyone could take his course, or read a book of his and that would be an action. 

Another thing a person can always do is ask; “What can I do?”  “How can I help?” These are questions that signal the willingness to take action. Before long who knows, a person might find themselves out in the real world, no air conditioning to be found, doing work; breaking a sweat.

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Songwriting

The Roux of Songwriting

I spent last night on the couch absorbed in news, but did pause for an hour or so to put together a lovely lemon butter parmesan sauce for the gnocchi about to expire in the fridge. I was thinking to make a something like a beurre blanc for the gnocchi—the beurre blanc recipe I found called for two sticks of butter which is a lot, even for me. I improvised instead. Starting a little roux with some butter and cornstarch in a pan.

Up until about a year ago, I’d never made a roux. Just a bit of butter and starch blended together at medium heat. Mix it until it’s a lively, golden play dough bubbling away at the bottom of your pan, then add liquid until it’s a thick happy sauce. Every time I’m scared I’ll mess it up somehow. I’m not sure it’s messable. If it starts browning and overcooking you can just call it a “chocolate roux” and move on with life.

While the roux was still primordial ooze in the pan I added finely diiced onion and later a bit of garlic to it. No white wine in the house, but plenty of dry vermouth. I added that as a liquid, stirred, (there was near constant stirring), and watched it become a nice thick gravy in the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile, I’d chopped some broccoli and tossed it in a dry pan at med-hi heat (midway between the 7 and 8 on the dial of my electric coil stove) letting it char ever so gently. That came off and went in a bowl on the side, broccoli tends to get mushy unless it’s added last to a sauce. I hate mushy broccoli.

Mushy-rooms on the other hand are delicious. We had a few Creminis in the the fridge. I chopped them. Butter goes in the pan, mushrooms go in the pan, five or so minutes later, nice sautéed mushrooms. 

I was tending to the sauce in pan one, stirring away and adding a bit of water here and there so it wouldn’t get to dry. I’d started dusting it with parmesan at some point, (and stirring), the same way I’d make a Alfredo sauce, but added more water so the whole thing was a little looser, closer to the consistency of the buerre blanc I was thinking of. A little salt for seasoning. A little lemon juice for acid and brightness.

At this point I’d combined the broccoli with the mushy-rooms and tossed the gnocchi in with them. That was a mistake. It was another path to mushy broccoli. I quickly found some tongs and separated the gnocchi from the vegetables. Then carried on following the gnocchi directions.

Next veggies went into the lemony, parmesan-y primordial ooze, (more stirring). The gnocchi got divided between two plates. The lemon-parmesan sauce with mushyrooms and yummy broccoli when over the gnocchi. Dinner was served. There was one last “Fin du Monde,” (a Belgian style tripel) hiding in the back of the fridge which complimented the sauce just so.

There’s a corollary here to songwriting, (other crafts as well), that goes something like this. A few years ago, I made a roux for the first time. Another two years or so ago I’d made alfredo (the real way, which means no cream) for the first time. I knew corn starch or flour is often used to thicken a sauce. The principles behind all three is basically the same, combining fat, starch and liquid. I had just enough knowledge of all three things to know that what I envisioned “should” work, but had never executed the trick. This is inspiration. This is flow.

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