A person I know named Sam posted on facebook yesterday saying he was selling a student-quality acoustic guitar for $120. I'd been thinking recently it would be nice to get a basic guitar for a couple of reasons.
Until now I've just had my Guitar Works dreadnought, a gift from my parents on my sixteenth birthday. It's not fancy, but it's my baby and it's the only guitar I've ever played for any real length of time. However, I'd been thinking lately that it was time to either upgrade to a professional quality guitar (which would be a big investment), or to get a basic guitar to take some of the weight off my baby.
I teach voice lessons and I've always let my students play my guitar in their lessons if they needed one, but lately I've been feeling more protective over my instrument. I've wanted a guitar I would feel okay about letting my students use, even if they were rockers who liked to bang hard on the strings, or beginners just learning their way around how to hold a stringed instruments.
I've also wanted a "beater" guitar for other reasons: I haven't taken my guitar when I go camping or on other trips because I've worried about it getting dirty or spending too much time in a hot or cold car. And my good guitar has some cracks I've been meaning to get fixed for a long time, but I'm always reluctant to let it go because I haven't had a backup to play while it's in the shop, which can take a week or more. So this seemed like a great opportunity to get a decent guitar that could take some light abuse, and to put some cash in my friend's pocket for his move.
I headed over to my Sam's house and there was the guitar, an Epiphone PR 200. I sat down in the living room to play it and sitting on the couch was Essy Redbird. Essy is a great singer and songwriter I got to know a little bit when she lived in the Bay Area, and I'd played a show once with her duo The Goat and the Feather. Essy does a lot of improvisational music and has an incredible stage presence.
As I sat there playing away to get a sense of the guitar, we chatted about her life in LA and how she's trying to figure out how to make the connections to license some of her music for TV shows and make enough money to record a professional quality album. I played the chord progression for a new song of mine called "Strong and Tender" and Essy started making up melodies over the chords in her beautiful, husky voice. It was fascinating and fun to hear what another musician came up with over my song's guitar part, and that sealed the deal for me -- if this guitar sounded good enough to inspire Essy to sing, it was good enough for me!
We got to talking about the importance of having a beater guitar, one you don't have to be too careful with. That's when Essy told me the story:
Essy was once on a bike tour down the coast, taking a 3/4 sized Taylor guitar along for the ride. Suddenly as she came around a curve the guitar went flying off her bike and into the ocean! She said she was very sad to see it go, but ever since then she's imagined it floating all the way to Japan, where a young boy might pick up some guitar-shaped driftwood and be inspired to become a sculptor as a result. Sam and I agreed that that sounded like a great idea for a song, but Essy said she doesn't write story songs like that; her writing is more emotional and abstract. I said maybe I'd write it, since my style is often very narrative. I was half joking, but I filed away the image of the floating guitar and the sculptor boy.
As I left the house with my new Epiphone, I thought it would be nice to see what songs this new guitar had in it. Even though I haven't played a lot of guitars, I do feel that every instruments has its own songs, if you're willing to discover them. I write very differently when I'm at the piano than when I'm at the guitar, and maybe the same would be true for this new instrument.
So I drove out about a half mile to Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, which juts right out into the bay near the marina. As I pulled up around 5:45 the sun had recently gone down, and the fog was starting to roll in. My car thermometer said 54, and though I'd originally hoped to take the guitar out to a bench and mess around, it was clear that it was too wet and dark outside for that to be a good idea. So I stashed the guitar, pulled on my puffy coat and strolled off on a path along the water.
The fog was really remarkable, going from a translucent mist to a much thicker cloud as I walked farther away from the lights of the parking lot and the marina. I passed some people on the path, but eventually I got to where I could hear only the water and the wind. The fog was dense around me now and I could only make out the hills and trees of the park as dark shapes. I tried taking pictures of the lights of the Bay Bridge in their halos of fog but it as too dark for my phone camera to catch much at all. I knew San Francisco and Marin County were across the water, but my view stopped out about fifty feet into the water. I kept walking for a ways, singing to myself until I came up on a big blue metal sculpture.
At the sculpture I went inside and stood on a rock where I've often seen kids playing. Water from the sculpture dripped down into my eye from where I touched the cold metal, and I started getting a bit nervous. The longer I stayed out, the darker it got, and with all the fog even shining a light wouldn't help me see very far. I hadn't seen people in a while, and though it was only just after six, I figured it was best to get back toward my car.
As I walked back along the path, I sang to myself to keep myself from getting too scared. I do this often, a habit I likely picked up from my mom, who often whistles softly between her teeth when she's nervous or distracted. The song that came to me was about spirits and saints, and how they are real whether you believe in them or not. It's not something I would say I consciously believe, but in that moment, surrounded by wisps of cloud and the wind off the water, it certainly felt possible that I was being watched or supported by spirits, ancestors, ghosts of some sort. It was both a comfort and a concern.
I got back to the car in a few minutes, checked to see that the guitar as still happily nestled on the passenger seat floor, and drove home. I knew I had a song to write.
Then I got down to working on the song. Often the chords, lyrics and melody of my songs come all together as I'm sitting in my room with my guitar, but in this case I'd already come up with some words and melodic ideas before I brought the instrument into the mix. So I started to figure out what key I had been singing in -- D Major, apparently, which was convenient because it's a nice key to play in on guitar, and the Epiphone seemed to like it.
I sketched out some verses, starting with one about spirits and unsure of whether it would connect to Essy's story of the lost guitar and the boy sculptor. As I added more verses, the story did start to come through, but the initial chorus didn't fit the main story's theme. It was about angels thinking it's a good bet that we will live our lives without regret, if you would like to know! There were some nice rhymes, but it didn't really make sense without other supporting information.
Thankfully, I'd already written a sort of a "C section" that I'd imagined might be the bridge, but I tried refashioning it as a chorus, moved the first verse about spirits to the end and suddenly the narrative worked! Hooray! I texted with my mom a bit more, then spent some time tweaking the language so it was more coherent and easy to sing. Once I had a sense of how I wanted it all to hang together, I copied everything I liked over to a new page in my notebook. That way I had a clean second draft without all the arrows and crossing-out I'd done on the first one.
I don't know whether I'll think this song is worth sharing with others when I come back to it later. When I finish a draft of a song, I play through it several times and then I like to sleep on it. Sometimes the next day I think it's great, and sometimes I think it's crap. But what's important to me isn't that the song be "good" right from the beginning. It's important that I give it space to breathe and see what it will become. The question of whether I think a song is strong and resonant enough to share with others comes after I live with it, play it, tweak it, see what it grows up to be.
I've learned that it's normal for me to think a song is crap when I come back to it for the first time. I think it's because I remember how good I felt when I finished the first draft (always such a good feeling! I wrote a new song!) and then I compare that feeling to the song I have in front of me when I'm no longer fresh in the moment of creation, and it's never as good as I feel it should be. The trick for me is to continue to give it a chance. I keep coming back to it in my practice sessions. If after several weeks or months I've enjoyed playing it and I still feel connected to the emotions and the story and the melody of the song, I'll polish it and play it for someone close to me to see what they think. I take their feedback and tweak it more, often memorizing it in the process.
It's generally a good sign when I hear the song in my head when I'm not even thinking about it. Some songs survive my editing process all the way to get a debut on stage only for me to decide they aren't ones I want to keep in my repertoire. Some songs I end up playing all the time and plan to record. There have been a few times when I've almost forgotten about a song but one of my early listeners has reminded me about it and I come back to it and decide to put it into a live set. Sometimes I get all the way to polishing a song and decide that it's not one I want to share with others. Very occasionally I get a song all in one sitting and I know it's a good one right from the start. That happened a few months ago with my new song "All That Ends" (which I used to call "The Death Song," but a smart audience member in Seattle suggested this much more poetic title, pulled from the song's lyrics).
Above all, I try to remind myself to trust the process, and remember that even if a song doesn't turn out that great, I am keeping my creativity muscle exercised. I have to write the bad and the mediocre and the corny and the boring songs to get to the good ones. And I also have to put my own self-doubt in check when it comes up and remember that sometimes a song I fear is corny or boring is actually one that other people turn out to like a lot.
I don't know what the fate of the song I started tonight will be, or even what I will call it. But if you hear me singing a song about a guitar lost at sea, you'll have an idea of where it started out.