Essentialism in Music

I’m an essentialist. I have always been but didn’t learn that word until last year and it was liberating to know that my philosophy was as odd as some of my friends seem to treat it. Basically it’s a mindset of taking ideas apart and finding what’s truly essential, what’s at the core. In an everyday life example let’s take anger. A friend says something that unintentionally hurts my feelings. Rather than react angry I’ll take a quantum and ask myself why I’m mad. Is was they said inaccurate and if so why does that make me mad, or do I think it’s accurate and then I have to ask myself why am I upset about hearing the truth? Pulling the threads apart until I get down to very simple, very clear ideas of the Whys of anything I do. Even when having fun with friends most people would say there’s nothing to analyze or breakdown and that fun is the goal and it’s something you can’t plan or do more efficiently but I find myself always thinking about it. Why do I like this person, in what environment do we have the most fun, what were the relative low-points of the encounter and how can we avoid them next time?

This level of introspection is how I learned that songwriting is my life’s work, forsaking all others. And it helps during the process of writing to ask does the song need these lyrics? If no, write new lyrics that it does need. I figure out what the essence of the is then figure out how to convey that to an audience. That means sometimes a song about being confused is going have confusing lyrics or a song about being conflicted can have conflicting lyrics, and sometimes a straightforward narrative is best. What matters is there isn’t anything there that doesn’t need to be there. It’s why I change lyrics and titles so frequently even towards the end of the writing process. And the same goes for the music under the lyrics, some songs are a minute some songs are six, whatever it needs, no more no less.

It gets a bit rough to reconcile when you step up a level though. Why write songs at all? To entertain? People have literally billions of entertainment options it’s not essential they have one more. I asked myself why do I listen to music and the answer is A) To contextualize emotions B) To be inspired creatively. Music has the power to give hope to the hopeless and the world does need that. Art isn’t just about decorating our lives of eating enough calories to have offspring, it soothes the existential fear inherent in that life.

My first goal when I thought deeply about Why Music? was to inspire someone they way I had been inspired. My way of giving back to the artists that made me realize I’m an artist is to give that realization to others, for me to fly the flag of their artistic ideals with such reverence that before I die someone will want to take that up that flag themselves. And so far I’ve had 3 people call me an inspiration, 3 people who I respect as musicians and have drawn inspiration from, but the moment I’m really living for is when someone says to me “Your the reason I started writing songs.” Even more amazing would be something like your music is what made me decide to be a film-maker but you know what I mean. I want to give someone that moment when they go from being a fan of art to being an artist. For me the single biggest moment was when I listened to the album War Of Women by Joe Firstman. I owned a guitar and was trying to write songs but nothing felt right, I was just trying to imitate. Listening to that album is when I saw the matrix of how and why to write songs, about what it means to express myself, and how I can be inspired by Nine Inch Nails while sounding like Bob Dylan.

So that’s me being a musician for musicians but later I found the part A of providing emotional context for other people, non-artists need music too and they can’t make it themselves so our part in the social contract is to provide that. I got to this realization because of people’s very strong attachment to songs like Pride Of My Hometown and That Day In September 1974 (which I and everyone else just call Day In September, I titled it the other way so no one would assume it’s about 9/11 when they first saw the title) non-musicians, non-artists loved those songs as much as my songwriting comrades because it gives them a place to put strong emotions. Not everyone can do what we do and turn our overwhelming feelings into art, freezing them in time to give us controlled access to them. But everyone needs that so they put it in our songs with us. Over the course of a career an artist will drop a lot of songs but there will always be songs that never get dropped. Now when the audience garbs onto to a song that the artist really doesn’t you see difficult artist syndrome rear it’s ugly head (Cohen’s hallelujah, or Cobain and Teen Spirit, or Billy Corgan and everything) but I’m focusing on things like Springsteen and Born To Run. That song is 40 years old and Bruce can still go out there and play it like he’s 23 again. And I think it’s because it’s no longer his song, it’s our song. And I think that because that’s how I feel about Pride Of My Hometown, it’s not my song that I sing to entertain people, it’s our song (Rafi, Fitzy, Jim, Mark, everybody’s) that we sing to solidify the feeling that our potential is not limited by where we came from, it’s enhanced by it.


Singer/songwriter, jerk.

Posted in Songwriting, Uncategorized

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