Fairly articulate mammal

Monday, March 5, 2018

My Path in Songwriting, Part One

Author's note: This is long, because (a) I'm old and (b) songwriting has been part of my life since I was 19. Some of the timing is fudged, because real life doesn't unfold in all that neat of a sequence. This is offered in the spirit of one writer's experience, and especially with a feeling of gratitude toward people I've worked with and generosity toward younger writers who might not ever make much or any money from doing this, but could still find it a rewarding part of life. If that's you, I hope you'll take this as encouragement.

I started writing song lyrics as a college student in Chapel Hill. I was in my late teens, imitating — pretty badly — the songwriters I admired for their artful and memorable turns of phrase. I was probably more interested in trying to write a cool line than I was in anything else. The main thing, looking back at it, is that I started. I actually wrote some things, and then was brave enough to show some people what I’d written. That's a hard thing to do, the first hundred or so times. Greg Lee, a musician friend I’d grown up with, set some of these lyrics to music. To hear something I’d written being played and performed as a finished song was a powerful and formative experience. He'd say the same, I'm pretty sure, about having original lyrics to shape into a song.

In my early twenties, I started learning to play guitar and trying to sing. This was slow going, really bad, I’m sure very tough on anybody I could get to listen. It did get a little better, and by my mid-twenties, having moved to L.A. to go to graduate school, I would sometimes get together with a professor and friend of mine, a really accomplished songwriter named Peter Marston. We’d play and sing for fun, and would talk a lot about songs and about writing. He was deeply generous in this, and I remain humbled by the way he encouraged me and helped me believe I could improve my weaknesses and build my strengths, that I could get good at this. By direct help and by his example, he fostered my improvement as a writer, player, and singer, and — just as important — he helped me develop as a thinker-about-writing, bringing to articulated awareness some things I’d previously only sort-of intuited. He and I wrote a few songs together, at least one of which I still think is pretty good (it's called "Barn Burning," based on the William Faulkner short story, and is on my list to eventually record). The song was included as part of a story-adaptation theater production I directed at California State University, Northridge.  [Peter, by the way, remains active as a musician and has a catchy and beautiful 2015 album you could download or listen to through several platforms. It's titled The Invisible Girl, and it's on CD Baby here, and also on Spotify].

By my late twenties, I’d come to Austin for (yet more) grad school, and I played and sang and wrote with several different people I met here. A couple of them had professional ambitions, which kind of wowed me. I don't know if the collaborations led to more than a decent song or two, and in any case these folks moved on to do their own thing and those collaborations wound down. Still, they were people to play with, they were mostly encouraging, and I was putting in my time working at my craft. I got braver. I played some open mics. And, a big deal to me at that time, I went to regular guitar hangouts that a couple of my professors would host.

One of my fellow grad students, a guy named Dan Modaff, was (and is) really good as a player and singer. He was the immediate star at those get-togethers. Also, a good thing for my purposes, I thought his style would suit my material. [Dan, by the way, continues to make music, and here he is, still doing his thing.]

By this time, my wife and I had a baby on the way, and I was inspired to write a bunch of kid-friendly songs. I recruited Dan to learn and perform these songs, because I still wasn’t good enough (or brave enough) to do my own material outside of an open mic or social setting. We booked a studio, recorded the songs, and self-released a cassette tape, Fun Just Like Today. We had a release party at a cool old-Austin bookstore called Toad Hall, got a little press attention, got favorably reviewed here and there, sold a surprising number of tapes, and were even played on KGSR’s “Daily Demo” feature once.

You can listen to one of the songs from that project in this video, which Dan released as part of a 2009 fundraising effort that helped his son Caden acquire a service dog. And, just by the way, that's the late great Austin multi-instrumental legend Champ Hood on mandolin. Ultimately, though, we didn’t have budget enough, or industry knowledge enough, or connections enough, to keep the project going.

And so I moved back into a development and improvement phase. Couldn't get a project going. I’d occasionally write or co-write a song, and I was slowly improving as a player and singer. I read songwriter interviews all the time. I still love hearing masters of the craft as they talk about their life and work. I got some paid writing work for the Austin Chronicle, reviewing concerts and records. I played at open mics sometimes. Songwriting was just a thing I did, part of my sense of self, a way to build creativity muscles, and a way I processed my life. But I wasn’t promoting my songs, wasn't putting them out there in any even slightly professional way. It's particularly hard to get your songs out in the world if you're not an excellent singer and player, and I was neither. And I was having an up-and-down time of it on several fronts, with big life changes (kids arriving, career struggles, the painful end of a marriage, and a sometimes-draining caregiving role due to illness in my family).  And then I found poetry.

I’d never written poetry in a sustained way until I was thirty, but over several years, I got into it, got good at it, got published here and there. I started doing spoken word with music, collaborating with other musicians and even performing a few gigs, first as the Jeff Knight Trio, then under the name Blue Haiku. I graduated from being a newbie at the open mics to being one of the good poets in town, a sometimes-winner in a strong local poetry slam scene. I met some of my closest friends while I was in that world (particularly my friends Hilary and Ernie), who could not have been more perfect amigos through a hard rebuilding phase of my life. Given the fuel of this fantastically competitive and supportive scene, and given the encouragement I was getting, my creative energy started burning hotter and brighter. I started writing fiction, and did a staged reading of one of my stories. I wrote poems all the time. I kept writing songs. Somewhere near the end of this chapter, I fell in love with a recently-single girl I’d known way back in grad school (yes, I am referring here to my wife Tonie). As new romance sometimes does, this revved the creative engines even more (hers too, but that’s another story).

And then came Ignitelearning, and an honest-to-Jah professional gig where I was making real money as a writer and songwriter, so ... stay tuned for part two. 


  1. Very nice, now I'm anxiously awaiting part 2. Thanks for Sharing

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