“Get the Music Right” - A Reflection on the Art of Songwriting
During my second semester at Yale, I took a musical theater composition class with some of the most talented writers and musicians I’ve ever met. To be completely honest, I felt way out of my league. I was one of two freshman, and most everyone else was a junior or senior who had written (or was writing) a full musical. I had always dreamed of writing a show of my own, and I almost started one at the end of my first year. But the feedback I often received in the composition class was that my songs fit more clearly into a pop idiom than a musical theater one. In fact, I recorded and released three of the songs I workshopped in that class on my third album, self described as “piano pop/rock.” So, I came away from the class with the conviction that musical theater writing was simply not for me.
After the end of my freshman year, I barely wrote more than a song or two for months, partly because I was working on recording the album, partly because I didn’t really know who I was as a songwriter anymore. I had stories and experiences and ideas that I struggled to fit into three minutes, and I always felt guilty when my phone’s timer app clocked in at 4:00 or 5:00 after playing through a song draft. It seemed as though my songs were without a home - too harmonically rich to be pop yet lacking the full narrative complexity of musical theater. I’ve always prided myself on occupying that niche, but at the same time it’s incredibly difficult to carve out that space when, as Spotify curators have often told me, “the track is great” but it “doesn’t fit into my playlist’s genre.”
Having had these experiences, I was unsurprised that much of the feedback I received in my junior year popular songwriting class was that there seemed to be characters and an overarching plot behind many of my songs. At the beginning of the semester I was, I have to say, a little reluctant to take those notes. For a long time I had shied away from musical theater in light of my freshman year composition class, and was set on sticking to pop writing. But, as this concept of musical theater writing came up time after time this semester, I started to wonder whether I was trying to suppress a defining characteristic of my writing style that I should really be leaning into. It was only recently when I started to envision how many of my recent songs could be woven into a cohesive storyline that extends beyond a series of vignettes. Now, I’m contemplating tackling that big, scary dream: writing a musical.
As I enter the tail-end of my college career, I’m feeling the pressure to formulate some sort of grand What Happens After I Graduate Plan. I’ve contemplated law school, medical school, graduate programs for audio engineering or music business, and everything in between. But something always brings me back to my piano, to songwriting. There have been moments when I honestly felt so close to walking away from it and trying to find something more “stable,” but at the end of the day, that’s not really who I am.
Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my biggest musical inspirations, Ben Folds, at a book signing/meet-and-greet he hosted before putting on a tremendous show at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. I asked him a question about how he balances his creative process with self-marketing and the business related aspects of his career. To paraphrase, he said: “Get the music right, and the rest will fall in line.” I think that simple yet profound message has reverberated through the Zoom rooms I’ve inhabited for much of this past year. I have to say, I’ve often felt frustrated that I haven’t gotten the music “right” after recording and releasing three albums, but now, I simply see every song as a lesson to be applied to the next. In fact, I hope I will never have written my greatest song so that I will always be headed for something bigger, better, and more profound. Whether it’s pop, rock, musical theater, or something in between, I’m excited to see where my craft takes me in the years to come.
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