Friday, September 4, 2009

Step 1: I admit I have a problem

Hello. My name is Paul, and I'm a songwriter. Let me tell you how I came to be here.

As a youngster in the 1970s, I fell under the influence of a powerful addictive drug. On the street, we called it black vinyl, "33 1/3," or simply records. These mind-altering spinning disks came from enchanted faraway places: from New York, from California — and most of the best ones, it seemed, came from England.

So profoundly moved was I by these experiences that I spent all of my money feeding my habit, and then I spent a lifetime chasing that elusive dragon.

For some reason — who can fathom the irrational decisions of a teenager? — I wasn't satisfied consuming the fruits of the tree. I wanted to find the source, the very wellspring of creative magic. It was a quixotic ambition, and I was an unlikely quester, not a rock star by any standards, not even much of a musician.

Perhaps the most charitable way of looking at my obsession is that I felt a need to return the favor — or at least pay it forward — of the artists whose music had inspired me so deeply. I wanted to create music that was in some way a worthy response to their efforts.

Now, 30 years later, I feel as though maybe I'm almost there. That feeling is probably just more of the irrational optimism that keeps me going. But I take heart in the scientific studies that show that irrationally optimistic people are happier and accomplish more in their lives than other people who have more balanced and realistic expectations.

Along the course of my quest, I have learned way too much about songwriting. Way more than anyone needs to know. And, though it may just be to fend off the feeling that all that effort of mine was wasted, I am determined to spill everything I know about songwriting, to the best of my ability, so that anyone who ends up on a similar quest in the future might have an easier path.

Unfortunately, my hardest-won lesson is that songwriting isn't enough. A song isn't beautiful by itself; it needs to be packaged with good singing, precise musicianship, skilled production, and a passionate performance. For the past decade, my focus has been on developing those skills. If it takes two hours to write a song and twenty hours to record it, I can't afford to spend much of my creative life on songwriting.

My most recent publicly available songs are the pair of songs that my Christmas band Bah & the Humbugs released last December, "Santa Hat" (my lyrics, with music by Vance Lehmkuhl) and "Mincemeat." You can hear them both at Bah & the Humbugs' website.

On Fridays, I write about my own songwriting efforts and personal opinions. Will I ever catch up with that dragon? Follow the drama right here!

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