Why I'm Writing a Song a Day in April (featuring Rachel Ries)

Note: This post is a sort of follow-up to my previous post, What Happens When You’re A Songwriter Who Can’t Write Songs.

A couple of days ago I came across a Facebook post by Rachel Ries, who makes music under the moniker Her Crooked Heart. I met Rachel a couple of years ago at the Miles of Music Camp, and we’ve crossed paths every so often since then. She’s a relentlessly creative person in multiple art forms – she writes songs, arranges, produces, plays a bunch of instruments, makes visual art and homemade jam, and directs a community choir called Kith & Kin, which I would join right now if I lived anywhere near Minneapolis. Her Facebook post said she’d received a message with the question "What to do when the heart of a songwriter is blocked...?" and she spent 5 minutes brainstorming a long list of answers.

This is a question that I ask myself quite often, and Rachel is someone I admire tremendously, so I was really glad to see this post and the list it contained. I’m just going to present the list here in its entirety, because I think it’s so good:

  1. read a book
  2. go for a walk
  3. have a conversation with someone super impressive who has nothing to do with music
  4. go for another walk
  5. draw a picture even if it sucks, even if you can only find a ballpoint pen from a bank
  6. find some people to do the Artist’s Way with and dig innnnnnn
  7. host a dinner party (or make someone else host)
  8. buy some flowers
  9. do a gentle drug (optional) and listen to a record all the way through
  10. take a day to drive somewhere random you've never been
  11. listen to one song you unequivocally love and write one stream of consciousness page describing what you love, why you love it, what it makes you think of, what it makes you feel, anything
  12. take yourself out on a date
  13. maybe go to a show? maybe not. that can either be great or utterly demoralizing so just be careful.
  14. watch a foreign film
  15. play around with an instrument you can't play
  16. spend 7 sleepy minutes every possible morning singing/playing something utterly new. let your mental editor sleep in. it's just You & Sound. just spew out something that didn't exist before. that's all you have to do. it'll probably suck. and that's ok. and it might not! feel free to record it. or feel free to forget it the moment the room goes quiet. either way you just reminded your entire being what it feels like to Listen & Create. remind it again tomorrow. and again tomorrow, and again.
  17. recognize that the heart of a songwriter is fed by LIVING

This post turned into one of the good Facebook threads, where a slew of people submitted their own ideas and discussed their creative struggles. In reply to a comment about writing a bad song on purpose, Rachel mentioned that she had committed to writing a song a day in April. “Bad songs, here I come!” When I saw that, I stared at the words on the screen for several moments. It was like that sentence flipped some kind of switch in me, and I suddenly experienced a very visceral knowledge that I, too, needed to commit to writing one song a day for the month of April.

Why, when I’m a chronic procrastinator and the songwriting process has historically made me feel absolutely miserable, would I attempt to do this? Well, I think it’s a challenge that’s just deranged enough to be perfect: Writing a song every day is in no way sustainable for me in the long-term, but I think it might be doable for just one month, and the daily deadlines will completely remove any expectation of quality. For the month of April, I don’t have to write perfect songs, or even good songs; I just have to write a song. Every day.

When I asked Rachel about this challenge, she put it this way: “It's gonna be wretched! But I'm a huge fan of doing what scares me. Doing things that bash me open and break the old me.” I think part of the reason I knew that I had to do this was because I knew it would be absolutely miserable, and it would force me to finally confront my worst instincts head on, and hopefully overcome them. I’ve been beating myself up long enough.

Logistically, the timing is great: I’ve got time for a new creative project in April, and I’ve got two solo gigs (a rare occurrence!) booked in the next couple of months. In fact, I booked them partially so that I’d have a deadline to prepare some new songs. I love deadlines. In college, I usually had to write a song every week, and the regular deadlines were good for me even though many of the songs never saw the light of day again. But a week is just enough time to bash your head against a wall trying to write a good song, especially when you know a bunch of other good songwriters are going to hear it. A day is not enough time to worry about whether the song is good. Writing a song every day, I think, could be a way to circumvent the self-critical brain gremlins who took over my life during my year of writer’s block. And anyway, I’m on a self-improvement kick right now. I joined a gym. I’m cooking a lot of kale. I’m feeling wild. Why the hell not?

To return to Rachel’s list, the last item (“the heart of a songwriter is fed by LIVING”) hit me particularly hard because it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately. It’s one of those revelations that can seem so obvious as soon as you say it out loud. After I returned from seven weeks of touring and traveling in Europe, I was bursting with new song ideas, and I had the following thought: “Well, of course I was so blocked this year; I spent most of my time puttering around my house, so obviously I didn’t have anything to write about!”

Many of the items on Rachel’s list, you may notice, have absolutely nothing to do with music. I thought about that, and I remembered that many of the best musicians I know are also voracious readers, art enthusiasts, writers, painters, bakers, film buffs. All creative work is linked. I, for instance, always feel a tidal wave of musical inspiration after going to an art museum. I asked Rachel about that, and she said that “in general, I don't feel like my music-making is improved by obsessing over my music-making. And I can say with absolute certainty that my songwriting isn't improved by my obsessing over my lack of songwriting.” That part hit a bit close to home, but I know she’s right. How I admire that Midwestern work ethic! She continued, “You have two reasonable options. 1) Buck up, shut up and DO it NOW and quit your worrying about But How But When But Why But is it good enough But is it right? Or 2) walk away and do something else with an open heart and mind and an active and engaged body. I'm a believer in the filling of the well. We've gotta have a life to draw upon. At the end of the day I don't want a thin and parched life with spindly-rooted songs.” This is another piece of advice that the rational part of one’s brain has no trouble understanding, but learning to actually follow it is the work of a lifetime.

To be transparent, I’m partly writing this post for accountability: If I tell the readers of a respected publication that I’m going to write a song every day in April, then I can’t bail. I’ve got anyone who reads this article holding me to it. (And if any songwriters out there want to join me in this endeavor, let me know in the comments!) For the next month, I’ll keep you all posted on how it’s been going, and maybe I’ll even share a few songs. I’m utterly terrified about this project, but as Rachel put it, “It's the kind of obnoxious undertaking that makes you shrug and say, ‘Well. If I don't do it, nothing is going to change. And if I do do it … [insert mischievous grin]’”

Artist Rachel Ries

I'm not sure how relevant this is to the songwriting process but Kurt Vonnegut once suggested writing a poem and, no matter how good or bad it was, without showing it to anyone, rip it into several pieces, discard it into several different trashcans and simply enjoy the act of creating art.

Co-writing is a good way of committing to productivity - and, at the same time, of getting outside of yourself and your own frame of reference.  Make 10 appointments, and you’re likely to wind up with 10 songs - not necessarily good ones, of course, but still...