I have been learning how to write songs from stories for the past several years. Sometimes, I share my own stories, but most often I work with another person as a kind of musical guide. They share a story, and I ask them questions to try to learn more about where the emotion is coming from their words.
Tell me more about this or that, I will ask as they share a story that has meaning for them.
When songwriting becomes especially tricky for me is when I am trying to be both storyteller and songwriting guide. I typically ask a person to speak their story, and I type their words verbatim as they recount an experience. When I am sharing my own story, I feel kind of weird speaking so I often type. I find that experiences come out differently when I type, as if there is an imaginary filter that changes the way I am writing as my fingers type as opposed to the way I would share a story through spoken words. Speaking is somehow more raw and offers an aspect of an experience in a way that feels less filtered and real in a different way that typing.
I have been spending the week at the Prescott College Kino Bay Research Center, and there is much fodder for songwriting already from my brief time in this beautiful and tragic place. I have witnessed incredibly beauty in the landscape and the wildlife that surrounds me. Yet, where I feel the most emotion is in response to the suffering I have witnessed, hovels and shacks alongside mansions. Trashed ecosystems. Wandering packs of malnourished dogs. It is a lot for my sensitive heart to take in all together.
So, I started writing a story about it. But I could not see where the song was meant to go. I shared my story beginnings with my music partner, Malcolm.
Here is the original story:
I came to Kino Bay this week. I had a lot on my mind. the kind of little things that don’t really matter when you think about the big picture. I came here for a vacation and to go looking for birds. I wasn’t thinking about the kind of suffering I would see. Beauty beside tragedy. I didn’t realize there would be so many Americans here. Rich people and bit houses and cars. There was so much trash everywhere, and I tried to pick it up. But I would put a bunch of trash into a bag, and there was still so much more. I tried to think about it like the trash I picked up might make a difference for the bird or animal that would not be hurt by it if it ate it. When we were looking at birds at an estuary, a group of dogs came by. They were so skinny. I wanted to be able to help them all. We drove by a dog lying in the road. I couldn’t tell if it was alive. The skin on its legs was red and raw. I looked back as we passed it and thought I saw its eyes looking back at me. Beauty and tragedy. I walked down to the beach one morning because I heard all of these birds calling out. I sat on a rock and watched as a huge group of birds moved all the way from one side of the beach to the other. They must have been eating fish. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen.
Here is Malcolm’s response:
mke…Hi from afar…. If I were the composing guide in this STS
session, I would ask the participant to talk more. Doesn’t feel that
it’s all come out yet. If we stop her here, the song risks being a
victim song, where life is suffering is there’s little we can do. Too
much trash, we can never make a difference. What’s the point of
living, and in that case what’s the point in singing.
However, maybe if the participant talks more we can have more material
and a theme may emerge. Maybe it will be her resolve not to give up
even in a world of despair. Maybe she searches for beauty despite the
tragedy. Not enough source text to tell what kind of theme there
That 3rd verse section, the story about the dog with the raw legs,
that has some power and promise. Don’t know exactly what yet —
maybe it’s the communication between the participant and the sufferer.
Maybe the dog changes her, awakes a love or compassion or resolve or
something. If the participant talks more there may be more examples
of communication between sufferer and witness.
Hope this makes some sense…. I realize that the storyteller and
documentary songwriter are identical twins almost, so it can be tricky
to switch from the person in the story to the person transforming the
story into a song. Not sure I could do it myself!
love and melody and chords,
Here is my continuation of the story, following Malcolm’s sage songwriting advice:
I have been worrying about the dog we saw lying the road ever since we left it lying there. I wonder if it lay there on purpose hoping someone would see it and rescue it. It was not like me to leave it there. When I was growing up, I took in every orphan animal in need of a home. looking back, I can’t believe my parents let me adopt them all. we had rabbits, lizards, fish. There is something that happens in me when I see an animal that needs my help. especially the ones that are broken. one time, I found a pigeon with a broken wing and adopted it. I just can’t leave them. But I left this dog, and I wish I hadn’t. Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about him. Every time i closed my eyes, I saw his eyes looking into mine. Like he was pleading with me. help me. and I didn’t help him. I could have but I didn’t.
how could i leave him lying there
i close my eyes and i can see him stare
at me help me he says
but i drove away
i wish that i had stayed
I already feel better about the song. It seems to convey more of the sadness I feel being in this place that has so much pain and not being able to fix it. I am sure the song will continue to reveal itself, and I am thankful to have help drawing it out.