I’ve been in love with music for as long as I’ve been alive…or so I’m told.
When I was a young buck, I used to sit right next to the television or my grandmother’s wireless radio whenever a song came on. It didn’t matter if I knew the song or even liked the song, I would study it carefully, commiting the music and lyrics and arrangements to memory so that I could unpack it all later when I was laying in bed while everyone else slept.
I once asked my brother how artists like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston sustained notes so effortlessly. He told me they didn’t–that directors would tape every couple of seconds and then string the notes together, which is why the frames shifted throughout the music videos. When I realised a few years later that he’d made that up, I resolved to teach myself everything I was curious about when it came to music. I realised nobody in my family cared as much about song structures and chord progressions as I did, so it was up to me to educate myself.
The first song I remember writing (although my mother insists there were plenty prior) was a simple three minute thing at the age of five or six. Simple, at least, in context of what well-written songs sound like. But in retrospect, the fact that I understood even then that there were stylistic and melodic distinctions between a verse and a chorus and a bridge, even if I didn’t know that that’s what they were called…that wasn’t mere coincidence.
I learned to read and write early because I was so obsessed with doing everything my older brother did. When he came home and bragged about spelling, I secretly absorbed everything he said. My mother had a rack of junior encyclopedias that I devoured when I thought nobody was watching. My love for writing evolved from this–not only did I want to put words to the melodies floating in my head, but I also just wanted to put words to the stories, thoughts and ideas.
When I was maybe ten years old, I started to realise that I would never have a healthy relationship with my father. We weren’t his preferred family, and he did very little to hide that fact. Unlike my siblings who held dearly onto hope that things would change, I dealt with my disappointment head on by writing a series of rather depressing father-daughter ballads. Instead of making me sadder, they made me feel invincible. I’d just discovered a secret power: the ability to frame my intangible reality into something a bit more concrete, to express that it hurt without hurting myself further. After writing those songs, I rid myself of the delusion that he would become a better father. At the age of ten, I freed myself from what could have been a lifetime of heartbreak.
It was after this discovery that I started to become intentional about the way music fit into my life. I taught myself to play the piano at thirteen, and although I was never great at it I was competent enough to sound out the arrangements in my head. I started hanging out with other songwriters and instrumentalists–many who were much older and more experienced than me. One of my best friends and I first bonded over an impromptu jam session one day in a chapel (yes, you read that right) and have been close ever since. I spent every free moment writing and listening to music. I would inhale liner notes and album sleeves. I revered Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, Prince…and later India.Arie, early Alicia Keys, Sarah Bareilles…not only because of their phenomenal voices anymore, but because almost every song on every album was written, produced and arranged by them. I wondered about the kind of focus that took, while simultaneously studying the great interpreters: Nina Simone, Whitney Houston, Cece Winans, Brandy Norwood…
When I was in University, I was in a pseudo-band with a few other musicians. I say pseudo because we got together almost every week for years to write and rehearse, but to this day have never actually performed anywhere. The music meant so much to me, but the comraderie meant so much more. I was in another group that sang a capella at church functions. We never wrote a thing, but the buse from arranging and performing with people who were passionate and talented and dedicated was enough to put me on a week-long high each time. I was in another on-again off-again jazz thing (it wasn’t really a band, just a revolving door of different musicians where the keyboardist/bassist, the saxophonist and vocalist (me) were the only sort-of constant) with musicians I really respected but who seemed to hage other priorities. I continued to write with my high school best friend, and we even recorded something for a project that was later aborted. None of these collaborations created anything concrete that I can show for, and yet I felt altered by each exchange of ideas. There’s something intimate about putting yourself out there artistically and hoping your gifts mesh with someone else’s gifts. It was a way to process things I may have left ignored, a way to grow, a constructive way to be critical of my own progress as a musician and a base camp for beautiful (but directed) human interaction.
I don’t have any of that now. I’m in a province that feels so far away from everything I’ve ever known, struggling to really connect with the people that I’ve crossed paths with, let alone build creative connections. Part of it is my fault for being too reserved–having lived with another musician for a few months at the start of the year, I’d suggested we get together and write from time to time but I hadn’t really sensed much enthusiasm coming from her side and had almost felt rebuffed on occasion, so I dropped it. A part of me was surprised; it had always been so easy and natural. A smaller part of me that had been noting this behaviour in the context of things she’d said wasn’t really surprised; some pexpletive genuinely aren’t comfortable sharing their light, I’d just always defaulted to not interacting with them, let alone living with them.
Being so disconnected from other artists has been hard for me. I find I’m not writing as freely and I’m less satisfied with what I do write. I also feel a little lonely; I have a couple of wonderful friends locally but they’re not interested in this very integral part of my life. It’s isolating to want to geek out about a run you heard on the radio and rearl use you have to pick up the phone to do it, and your call may not even be answered.
This is perhaps the hardest part of internship (socially) for me. As an introvert, I’m very capable of entertaining myself for months at a time and not feeling the least bit deprived of human interaction. In fact, working with people all day drains me so thoroughly that I need to be able to retreat and recharge. But I’ve always taken for granted how necessary and integral creative exchange was to my recharging. No small talk, no hype, no forced energy. Just wholesome, soulful sonic symbiosis.
And now I’m sad because the one thing I would have done in the past to sort through these feelings is the one thing that’s reinforcing what’s actually wrong. It’s causing a pang in my heart because it seems like I’ll be doing it all alone for the foreseeable future. And I don’t have a melody poignant enough to capture that.