I was really struggling to come up with an idea for what to write about this week. By no means is this blog supposed to be a "how-to" for musicians, nor is it supposed to alienate and bore normal consumers of music with singer/songwriter problems. I guess what I want is not too different from what I want out of my music: to entertain and make listeners think about something new.
My so-called "New Year's Resolution" for music is to work on my storytelling at my shows. The narrative piece behind a song allows for more connections to be made. It allows the listener to take-away deeper and more memorable meanings. And I suck at it.But as Jake the Dog says:
For this week's post, I thought I'd share a story of my first experience traveling abroad to live and teach in China.
In September of 2017, I decided to pack-up my things, sell my car, and move to Wuhan, China to teach English. With my guitar on my back and a small carry-on, I made my way through Denver's international airport. As I prepared my mind for a 24 hour journey, I eventually came to my gate. My heart immediately sank.
The first leg of my journey was to Vancouver in Canada. It was the shortest flight on my trip. A quick 2 hours from Denver. What I didn't know was that this wasn't a high-profile international flight. What I expected was a giant Boeing plane with two levels and 100's of seats.
The plane sitting on the tarmac at my gate looked like a model plane when juxtaposed to the giant international planes surrounding it. It had 21 windows and a narrow body. It was too small to have a walkway, instead opting for a ladder going up to the entrance door from the ground.
On a normal flight, this wouldn't be a big deal. But since I had my guitar with me, I knew there would be trouble. To check a fragile instrument like a guitar, you need to buy a large, expensive, bulky travel case. Most of the time, you can carry on a guitar in a small gig-bag if there is room in the overhead compartments (This was made into law after a man's guitar was smashed to bits after he was forced to check it). With the tin-cup I was about to board, I knew there was no way.
They made me gate check my guitar after an awkward attempt at trying to fit my instrument in the overhead space. It must have been comical to the other passengers viewing my futile attempt. It was like trying to fit a baseball bat in a Ziplock bag.
They told me that I could pick it up with the strollers and wheelchairs after I exited the plane in Vancouver. However, when I deplaned, the guitar wasn't there. They had automatically sent it to be put on my next flight.
Irate, I tried to get them to find it before it was put on the plane. However, they couldn't locate my guitar. For 2 hours, I waited as they tried to figure out where it went. Eventually I had to board my plane to Beijing. The airline representative told me to email the airline and talk to the airline reps in Wuhan, my final destination.
When I got into Wuhan, it was almost one in the morning. All the airline customer service workers had gone home. My irritated 4'10 contact from the school, a woman named Candy, dismissed my concerns for my guitar and began arguing for the next hour and a half with the young Chinese guy driving the school van.
The next day, I tried to contact the airline. Of course, the people were all Chinese and couldn't speak English. It was the weekend and I wouldn't be able to get help from my work colleagues for two days.
When it came time to work, I was kept too busy for several days to make any attempt to solve the problem. We were located on the outskirts of the city. It took an hour by train to get to the airport. School hours went until 5:30 for foreign teachers and the airport lost and found office closed at six.
Finally, I was able to get my Chinese colleague, Fred, to contact the airline for me. He spoke limited English, but was able to get the gist of what I was trying to get from the airline. He told me after his phone conversation that I would have to go and talk to the people at the airport. There was still no guarantee that my guitar would be in the unclaimed baggage office!
I took the long trip to the airport. With no way of knowing where to even start, I wandered around for almost an hour trying to find this office where my guitar may or may not be. In desperation, I finally called the airline office. The person began asking me questions in Chinese.
Hurriedly, I found an employee for one of the airlines.
"Can you speak to him?" I asked.
The man said something which was most likely along the lines of "I'm sorry, I don't speak English" or "Please get away from me". Without giving him a choice, I handed him my phone and pantomimed what I wanted him to do.
With confusion, he began talking to the person on the other end. He started to laugh, I'm sure at my expense, and motioned for me to follow him. He took me through the heavy crowds of the airport to the arrivals waiting area. The man put up a finger to motion for me to wait.
He disappeared for several minutes. A new man came out carrying my guitar. He leaned the guitar against the wall and then vanished behind the wall separating the baggage claim from the main terminal.
I approached my guitar, almost not believing that it was real. The strap had been almost ripped clean from the case. A sticker from the airline had been placed inside the rip for a reason I still don't know to this day. The case was coated with dirt, grime, and some sort of oily substance and smelled awful.
However, when I zipped open the case, my guitar lay unharmed. It was a moment of great emotional relief for me. Like a lost pet finding its way back home. My most important possession had been lost and had traveled across the entire world to a foreign country. It had been battered and thrown around, but somehow managed to remain unharmed. And I had found it.
To me, it became a symbol of my time in China. A symbol of strength and resilience. It made me realize early on that I didn't have much control of anything anymore, but I had to trust that things would be OK if I just kept going and didn't lose hope.
And now, even a half-year after returning home, I still feel an immense feeling of gratitude every time I see my guitar. Each note, each vibration of the string, each new song I've written since, I no longer take for granted. As Joni Mitchell once said "You don't know what you've got 'till it's gone". Things are temporary. And that's OK. It just makes every moment that more special.
Ripped paper and scribbled notes... this is sometimes what the writing process looks like for me.
One of my worst fears as a singer/songwriter is someone asking me for tips on songwriting. Weird, right? You'd think I could easily give a few pointers given that I've made a lot of original material over the last few years.
However, I simply don't have a straightforward strategy I use to make songs. I recently read a book that talked a lot about the writing process and they gave several exercises to help craft lyrics. Things like journaling on a topic or object. Or maybe starting with a universal concept like "family" and building it from the base up. But when it's all said and done, songs that I try to force out tend to suck. I can sit down and go "I really want to write an upbeat song today about crashing Limos and not caring", but what I usually get is a headache and a desire to clean my house, go for a walk, or pay my taxes. The guitar is left in the corner sulking and the notepad remains white.
I get the need to practice your craft (and I feel guilty that I don't write more for the sake of exercising my brain). Cranking some songs out can shake off the cobwebs and help prime you for more solid songwriting. But when it's all said and done, an annoying fact remains: inspiration doesn't come when called. I can go months at a time without a real inkling of a song. Sometimes an idea will be floating around unfinished, but it is waiting for something to spark it fully to life. It's like a quantum particle. It's in a state of existing and not existing, waiting to be defined by some sort of observation. Geeky similes aside, I don't understand how these things decide to be. But they always do...eventually.
A few years ago, I met legendary guitarist Regi Wooten in Nashville through a mutual musician friend (Her name's Nalani and she's an amazing bassist!). He said something that really stuck with me. He said "The song already exists. It's just waiting for the right person to unlock it." When those songs sit on my mind's back burner, I see them as patiently waiting for the right catalyst to set them off (the weather, an interesting object, a cool phrase, a strange encounter with someone...who knows!?). It's just a matter of time before they burst out, happy to be released from the ether.
It's the most frustrating part of being a creative maker of anything. It happens to me every year when school starts up again. The job starts to consume every ounce of energy that I have. By the time I get home, I'm couched. My guitar sits in the corner sulking and a wave of guilt washes over me. Writer's block has come once again.
I'm still trying to figure out a solution for this. I've tried reading random articles, taking a walk, stream-of-consciousness writing, and now...blogging! But it's like I can't refill the energy that is expended on my day job. Song ideas and riffs float around in my head, beating against the corners of my mind like dazed flies on a window pane.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting John Craigie at a workshop for musicians in Fort Collins. John Craigie is a folk singer/songwriter from Oregon. I recently got into his music last summer after I heard "I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man". His style and humor instantly hooked me.
At the workshop, John talked about making covers your own and using covers as a way to get you out of your funk. He said something along the lines of "It's our responsibility to not produce a direct copy of someone's work, but instead do it in the way that makes you you."
I really appreciated this philosophy. I don't often learn covers because I usually find them boring at live shows. Even if they are done well, it doesn't add anything to the show or the song. It always feels like a cheap grab for the audience's attention. However, when you hear that cover that really is stripped down to emphasize the feeling and lyrics of the song, those make me get shivers.
Songs like Ben Howard's cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark".
It's a beautiful song that really captures the forlorn feeling of the lyrics...better than the rock anthem that Springsteen did for the original tune.
Since then, I have been trying to learn more songs from other artists and strip them down to their bare essence. One of my favorite covers I've arranged and made my own is a mash-up between The Beatles' "Oh Darling" and a hidden-gem from John Mayer called "I'm Going to Find Another You". I'll put the link here for you to take a listen.
Hopefully by playing with these covers and making them my own, something will spark and I will be able to start writing new content again!