Day 19: Why Write Songs in the Age of Free Downloads?

My house is full of writers. I am sitting in Couchland North; two others are in Couchland South. Writers are at my dining room table, in my music parlor and in the front room where we gather to read (or sing) at 4pm. There’s a songwriter in my attic studio, and a songwriter in my office. My designated songwriting spot for the weekend is my own bedroom, which works very well for me; I’ve written some of my favorite songs on that bed. Last night’s goal was to find the song muscles, and while I didn’t write something I love or necessarily want to keep working on, I did feel the process start to work me. Results Girl went to bed in despair, but today, with the sun shining in my face and Hudson asleep next to my leg, I have new hope.

Writers’ feet + dog

One of the stumbling blocks is this: always before, when I’ve been in this drought, we’ve had a new album to create. As I’ve said before, we’ve seen our work, historically, as akin for that of an organic farmer. There are seasons to our work: the writing of the songs; then the recording of the songs; then the marketing, placing, ordering, shaping–what is this record about? Then the touring. A short dormant season, and then back to writing the next record. We have made 18 records. 19 if you count our greatest hits collection, which I don’t.

But in the age of Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and the like; more to the point, in the age of singles, of playlists rather than albums, of no-CD players-in-new-cars, why go through the mishigas of making a 12-song album? DJs play singles. Do newspapers review singles, or only albums? Would more people play our music if we had a new album? Would we get more bookings? I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I don’t know if anyone does. We have three new songs that feel of a piece so far, in terms of theme: “Tyrants Always Fall,” “Gonna Build a Boat” and our version of “America the Beautiful.” The ideas I have for new songs fit into the theme well enough. Do I really want to write 9 more songs, though? Aren’t there enough songs out there in the world? I think I’ve written at least 180 songs that have been published in some form or another. Isn’t that enough?

But this morning, I had a new thought, which emanated from last night’s experience trying to write a song. If I were writing a play/musical, or a soundtrack to a movie, I would not have any issue with songwriting. I just wrote a song I love for my dad’s 75th birthday. I do have the muscles. If I were writing songs for the characters in my novel The Big Idea, I would not have a problem. I am not saying the songs would come easily as if I were taking dictation from God, but I would have a focus, and I would write, and eventually the song would be good. That’s my experience, and I have no reason to doubt it.

So what if, instead of thinking, “I need to write another Nields album,” I thought,

“I am going to write a song to sing at West Cummington Church.”

“I am going to write a song for The Big Idea, because one day it will be a movie, or a Broadway musical, and it’s always great to have extra songs in the hopper for directors to chose from.”

“I am going to write a song for the chorus I want to start.”

“I am going to write a song for a YA novel I haven’t yet written.”

“I am going to write a song for the Nields. Maybe it will be a single. Maybe we will record an album.”

As I approach February Album Writing Month, I am going to think differently. I am going to dedicate that time every day for songwriting, but I am not going to rush to finish anything. I don’t think that’s the recipe for the best songs. I’ll let some ideas marinate, as Sarah McLaughlin says.

And now, I am going to try to write Katryna’s bicycle song.


Update on J: He is still coughing to the point of vomiting up the food he eats. He is fine, no fever, for long stretches of time within each day, and he appears perfectly healthy. Then at some point, usually 45 minutes after a meal, he coughs and coughs and coughs till he pukes. This can’t be normal. He has asthma, which we have been treating, of course, and he has had this reaction before, but never this long-lasting.

Also, point of order. Can people weigh in on whether or not small boys with asthma should be allowed to go outside on days when it’s flash-freezing wearing shorts and sneakers? I need allies, here, people. I know there is a school of thought that says being cold doesn’t cause colds and viruses, but what about common sense??????

Update on Little Blue: It’s beautiful, and I wish it were finished and that we were back there now. The guys couldn’t work on Friday because of the deluge, but I think they will be back to framing next week!

Little Blue’s western side. Framing the bedroom and bathroom!


FAWM Halfway Check In

It’s more than halfway through February, and I have seven songs written. I need to do something today or risk being mad at myself. We’re in the Adirondacks for the long weekend, and it’s cold, thick with snow and gorgeous here. Our Jetta couldn’t make it up the steep driveway, so it’s parked on the dirt road we live off of. We hiked everything in: food, luggage, violins, guitar, computer. Left the cross country skis in the car.

My first day on vacation is always a waste of sorts. A clearing out. I am useless, cranky, exhausted, depressed and non-functioning. This makes everyone in my family mad at me, which only exacerbates the problem, but today everyone, including me, is much better. We all had to readjust expectations and accept that we are not fully evolved beings quite yet. Things that helped: crying, telling the truth, making dinner together, listening to the 70s mix I made, and playing Attaturk. Jay can now read and write! This is quite an advantage in life, as is being able to play Attaturk.

Katryna helped a lot with FAWM. She said, “Don’t think you’re supposed to come up with 14 finished songs. Just get 14 song starts. We’ll refine later.” So that being said, I think many of these are very close:

1. Dave Hayes The Weather Guy
2. Everybody Needs a Witness
3. Turn It Around Again
4. Welcome Song
5. 12 Rocking Princesses
6. Snowblower
7. Skunk

I should also say, not that it has anything to do with anything, that all this not-being-able-to-get-up-the-driveway has us in New Car Lust mode. Suddenly, we need a car with AWD, even though in the almost 8 years since we’ve owned our Jetta, we’ve only regretted the front wheel drive twice. That Jetta gets 41 miles to the gallon. Plus it’s paid for.

We also have two, count them two, silver trucks with 4WD, but neither one is appropriate for long family trips. And we are trying to sell one of them.

And finally, in the list of things that have nothing to do with FAWM, Elle wants a dog more than she wants anything in life. That child is determined (see: violin and cleverly tricking me into being YESM=Yelling Evil Suzuki Mom), and I think a dog might be in our future. Next car will depend on size of said beast.

FAWM Day One-Excuses, Excuses

It’s February 1st, the beginning of February Album Writing Month, and I feel doomed because I have lost my journal. I am in the middle of my writing retreat, a Deep Retreat in which we spend all day Saturday (all day!) writing, with breaks for lunch, dinner, and of course singing tonight. It’s 9:55am and I have already wasted 25 minutes of my writing time searching for this journal, making my cup of tea, reheating my cup of tea, gathering two different guitars, (one in standard, one in E tuning), finding my songwriting journal (different and NOT a replacement for my actual journal in which I have collected all my brilliant thoughts and ideas for writing this month). I also gathered three fat files from my filing cabinet full of crappy song starts from the 90s, plus some guitar lesson ideas and random sheet music. I made my bed. I made a new category of “Reminders” for my iphone, whose screen got wrecked this morning when, in the middle of my run, I answered a text from my sister and the thing flew out of my hands and shattered on the pavement. Naturally, I am thinking that I’ll have to make a trip to the Apple store in Holyoke to get it replaced. This weekend. (Maybe I should go now.) I need to send out my newsletter to remind folks about the next retreat. And really, as I am sitting here not writing songs, I am contemplating the notion that I am more of a teacher than a writer now, anyway, and so maybe I should spend my time coming up with articles and blog posts instead of new songs. My Pete Seeger piece was published in today’s Gazette. Maybe I should call the Gazette and see if I could be a writer for them! That would get me out of this songwriting gig.

I have written a lot of songs in my life. I have not counted them but figuring that I’ve averaged about 12 songs a year since I was 18––I am now 46––that’s well over 300 songs. That seems about right.

Does the world really need any more songs by Nerissa Nields? Haven’t I written enough? Can’t I just keep singing my old songs?

To my right are two full bins of clean laundry waiting to be sorted. Maybe I should sort them. Maybe that would be a good thing for my right brain as I compose.

And what should I compose? I have a lot of ideas, and the ideas have no central axis. I have ideas for typical Nields teen age girl songs. I have ideas for spirituals and protest songs, and silly kids songs. We need to make a new CD this summer. I have to have the songs by then. This thought makes me want to pant like a nervous dog. I have an essay I want to finish. I am dying to get back to my novel The Big Idea, but I pledged to my novel group that I would not touch it until after February. I need to write songs. Where is my journal???

Ira Glass said this great thing about writing that I am just going to post right here:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass

OK. A lot of work. The laundry will remain unfolded. I am hereby checking in to write a song. It might not be a song that ever sees the light of day, but right now, I will write a song. I’ll let you know how it turns out tomorrow.

Back at the Fruit Tree

Phillip Price of the Winterpills (and formally of the Maggies) once said to me that every time he got an idea for a song he wrote five different versions of it. That blew me away. I am way more parsimonious than he, or maybe just lazy. I try to cram every single idea I am having at the present moment into one song, “I Am the Walrus”-style. John Lennon famously wrote his songs as one would make a patchwork quilt: scraps of ideas and riffs and even takes in totally different keys (see “Strawberry Fields Forever). That was good enough for me. Although if I think I didn’t nail the idea, then I might try try again. For example, in 1995 I fell in love with the Steely Dan song “Hey Nineteen” (which had been on the charts the week Lennon was killed, but I hated SD at the time and only resented them taking airplay away from John and the Beatles at the time). Later, in my mid twenties, I listened to that song, drinking red wine and letting both swirl around in my mouth. (Even now as I write this I am swooning: “The Cuervo Gold/The fine Columbian/Make tonight a wonderful thing.” Though without the influence of the red wine, a bit…ick.) And I thought, “I’d like to write this song from the point of view of the 19 year old.”

So I wrote “Fountain of Youth.” It was OK, but it didn’t grab me in the backs of the knees the way “Hey Nienteen” did. And so one sunny March morning, I sat down on the rug in the living room with a huge cup of coffee, several notebooks and my guitar. I scribbled furiously until I’d written down every single Idea I had about the song I wanted to write. And then I played a riff I’d made up during soundcheck at the gig the weekend before, and out came “Best Black Dress.”

Fast forward fourteen years. I’d written “The Full Catastrophe” at Katryna’s request, and then had the summer to ignore it. It was October and we had a show coming up at the Iron Horse. I wanted to debut a new song, and it should probably have been The Full Cat, but something was bugging me about the song. It was too sincere and straightforward. It did not speak to the enormity of the existential pain I was feeling at the moment. The pain felt like this: I was overwhelmed. I just looked up where “overwhelm” comes from, specifically what “whelm” means: to cover. That’s exactly how I felt. Covered over. Parenthood is literally overwhelming. We cover over ourselves sometimes (many times) on purpose in order to get the job done. We cover over our basic needs (to sleep, eat in a calm manner, have sex with our partners) to attend to our little ones. And we cover over our more esoteric needs (to go for a bike ride in early spring; to write a song on the living room floor, to spend an afternoon wandering from coffeeshop to bookstore to our neighbor’s kitchen table) because there just isn’t that kind of time.

And we are overwhelmed–egos covered over, self-interest covered over, ambition covered over–with love for our darlings. That very first look into my babies’ faces did me in. I was willing to do anything, go to any lengths to provide and protect for those squirmy, red, pooping cutie pies.

But ‘overwhelmed’ does not mean ‘annihilated’. We’re still there, as is the carpet, under that cover of legos, bad kids’ books, contents of a drawer of clothes and stuffed animals. We’re still conscious and waiting, a part of us full of compassion for our spouse or partner who is equally overwhelmed while the other part is keeping meticulous track of exactly how unequal the duties are being handled, and exactly how many hours “off” s/he has had in the last 4 years.

For me, so much of my journey was in learning to metabolize my own disappointment in myself, in my shockingly low capacity for creative play with my kids, for my quick temper, for my pathetically small reserves of patience. I was so not the mother I’d hoped I’d be, and yet, when I killed that angel in the house, I was left with someone who was really not so bad. And most importantly, I was left with someone who even with a mouth full of the ashes of disappointment was willing to get up every day and meet her beloved(s) back at the fruit tree.

And so I wrote two more songs about the Full Catastrophe idea. One was More Than Enough. The other was this one:

Back at the Fruit Tree

Still the camera on the moment I met you
All the world inside a garden built for two
All the fruit you could eat in a day
All the news turned into boats
That float on down the river

Ah, ahhhh…..

But someone has to cut the brambles back
Someone has to stave the weeds’ attack
Someone has to bring the harvest in
Someone has to gather seeds to hold us through the winter….

I don’t need the good life
I just need life
The full catastrophe
If you’ll see me that way
With my feet covered in clay
I’ll meet you back at the fruit tree.

The mind beats like the tides in a lake that thinks it’s the sea
But only storms create conditions for epiphany
October gardens rusty, ragged, overgrown
The child won’t be consoled and you
Don’t want to be alone.
You find a seat at the edge of the bed
Put a hand on a hot and sticky head
You say, “So, tell me all about your day
No matter what it is, I’ll stay. I won’t go away.

I don’t need the good life
I just need life
The full catastrophe
If you’ll see me that way
With my feet covered in clay
I’ll meet you back at the fruit tree.

Nerissa Nields
Oct. 22, 2009

I Choose This Era

Here is me playing the acoustic part.

This song is actually the oldest song on the CD. I wrote it a couple of weeks before my daughter was born, and like “Don’t Wait Too Long” (which appears on our double CD Rock All Day/Rock All Night and which I wrote when I first found out I was pregnant) I still didn’t know the being I was writing to. It was also right before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out, and news about the various ways in which we were trashing the planet were being regularly broadcast. That evening on the news I’d heard (again, in a new way) the ways in which the rays of the sun are so much more dangerous now than they were fifty years ago. Who knows what we are going to witness in this lifetime? But do we have a choice?

I Choose This Era

We go round the sun
The Moon goes round the earth
When the day is done
Sometimes something hurts
There’s danger in the papers
Danger on the radio
But I’ll put my arms around you and I
Will not let you go.

There’s a place called Kansas
Dorothy called it home
To me it’s just a grassland
Where I’d be frightened to be left alone
I’d much prefer a city
Even if it’s Emerald green
Home is where ever I find you
But it’s also wherever I’ve been.

And it’s not the same sun my father knew
It can burn in ways that don’t heal
But I’d take these rays with this place and your face
If that is going to be the deal

I’ll take you to the ocean
To every edge that invites me close
And there I’ll make my vow to you
Before everything I love the most
There’s danger in the ocean
Danger from the sun above
But I’ll put my arms around you
And surround you with my love.
I’ll put my arms around you
And I will not let you go.

Nerissa Nields
April 20, 2006

We recorded the acoustic very early in the process–I think in December 2009. We didn’t put the final vocals on until December 2011, maybe even January 2012. I love the way the song came out. Katryna and I did some three-part harmony, and I am trying to get Abigail (our other sister) to learn it so she can jump up on stage with us and sing it sometime. A girl can dream.