Songwriting Tips From Mary Gauthier : Explore Others to Find Yourself
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: Let’s talk about the early stages of you’re doing your imitations, you’re writing in other styles, you’re trying on these different things, and you’re really trying to hone in on what it is or zero in on what it is, what do you suggest as sort of a beginning exercise to start that process of how to write music through those phases of growth?
Mary: Well I think that the way that it’s done is to understand, first of all, that it’s a process. That I don’t think anybody picks up an instrument and starts writing music from their own unique voice right away. That there is a process involved in it. And that everyone has to go through that to get to it. And it’s almost a process of elimination. You write a lot of songs that you’re trying to aim for things that really are not your voice. You’re aiming to sound like the best imitation of Steve Earle or you’re trying to sound clever or you’re trying to look smart or you use language that’s not something that you would use in conversation trying to sound poetic. And you have to go through all this posturing to get there so I think the very first thing you have to know is as a writer just getting started is that there’s a process involved. That you don’t just come out hitting home runs. I think that understanding that there’s a process is a big important realization. So you just write all songs to the best of your ability and eventually if you keep at it and you keep eliminating the false and trying to get to the truth, you will stumble on your own voice. And when you do, you will feel it and know it.
Viv: So in the process, it sounds like it’s a peeling of the onion in a way. You just keep taking it down and taking it down. So why is it important that we actually find our true voice?
Mary: I think that’s what builds a career. And that’s what fans are a result of. We’re fans of people who write from their own voice. We would know a Leonard Cohen song in about two lines, four lines. A Neil Young song. A Joni Mitchell song. A Jackson Browne song. On and on. These people have their own unique voice and I think that’s what we’re drawn to as fans is the writer’s voice. There’s something that I think each of us as writers is supposed to say in a way that is supposed to be said that only we can say it and so I think it’s getting to the work that you’re supposed to be doing in this world. And once you get to that place where you’re able to articulate the things that you’re supposed to be articulating through your art, then people are drawn to it because that’s your work and they need to hear it. It’s an attraction thing. It’s a lock in the key thing. It’s a magical thing. It’s using your creativity to further the work of the creator.
Mary: You find your voice in your life’s work and you move humanity forward a notch. It’s a paradox that you find your voice and suddenly you’re being used as a useful part of co-creating the world. But that’s how it works. You have to get to you to be useful. And then the real clincher is that it’s not about you. You have to find your voice in your most unique part of you only to find out that, now that you have it, it’s not about that. It’s not about you. You use that in service to the song, not in service to the self.
Viv: Can we talk about that a little more, just to clarify? So you’re doing this whole process of finding out who you are just to get the focus off yourself?
Mary: I think so. It’s a paradox. Of course, in the arts, there’s nothing but paradoxes. You find your own way of expressing things. Your own sound. The chord changes that ring true to your heart. The words that resonate through your mouth into those melodies that come off of those chord changes that feel so right to you. And you do this work because people need it. If you’re like me, you write to save your life but in the process you’re helping a few other people save theirs too and I don’t really understand how that works, I just know that it does work and I know that it’s true.
Viv: Sometimes that feels like a tall order like, are people really going to want to hear about it. For me, I think, I remember in a workshop with you talking about the bunker of material that I had inside that I was just having the worst time getting out because I couldn’t see it. For one thing, I felt incredibly vulnerable, and it was scaring the crap out of me, being that vulnerable, and also I wasn’t entirely clear that anyone else in the world was going to need to hear my story in that way. What do you do about those two, I would call them, blocks? The fact that first it’s so, sometimes, quite daunting, to approach, that’s scary, and second, in that, ‘well how do I know whether or not somebody’s really going to get something out of this?”
Mary: Well you don’t know until they get something out of it. But once you write lyrics from your own unique voice and you manage to come up with a song that is exactly the way it’s supposed to be coming from you, through you, and you play it and it hits a person in a powerful way that those kinds of songs do and they come up and they tell you what you did for them with that song, then you know. And then you get it. Why you make yourself vulnerable. You make yourself vulnerable not because you enjoy being humiliated but because there’s a service in it that is bigger than what you can ever comprehend on your own. You go out and play these songs and people are moved and touched and it helps them in their lives. How do you know that’s going to happen? Well you don’t know that’s going to happen until it happens but it’s a leap of faith, this whole job. If you want to be an artist, that’s a leap of faith. You want to have a career in the arts, then you have to jump off a lot of diving boards at midnight with no lights on and hope there’s water in the pool. And that’s part of the gig is you’re taking that plunge and you don’t know, you might hit cement. There is no knowing in the arts. You just live by faith and eventually you get used to it and it becomes a way of life. It becomes what you do. It becomes who you are.
Viv: And you become eventually ok with that essential, someone referred to it as groundlessness?
Mary: Yeah, you don’t even think about it as groundlessness, you think about it as your life. This is how it is. And, really, especially given what’s just happened in our economy, we all live in this state. People who think they have secure jobs at Lehman Brothers, well what are they doing today? There’s no security. It’s an illusion. And so the artist is closer to this because living life as an artist is particularly insecure. But, on the other hand, it’s reality. And it’s an embracing of reality. I think that those of us who are continually able to write from our voice, or from that place, that magical place, seem to be fairly well taken care of and able to continue doing it.
Viv: So when you’re writing from your voice, and is that something, like once you did it, did you never look back? Or is a constant?
Mary: No, every time I’m trying to write I’m trying to find it. It’s not a destination, it’s a process. Even when you’ve found it you can loose it. And you have to find it again. And I have to find it again every time I write. And it’s quite uncomfortable when you’re denied access and you know you’re writing stuff that’s not at your highest level or from your gut. But you have to write through it to get to it I guess. Every time I write, I mean I’m in the middle of a song right now that’s broken in the middle and I’m trying to find it and it’s a unbelievable amount of work. Hours and hours and hours and hours. But if I can get a line out of all that, I’ve done a day’s work. I don’t see it as a waste, I don’t think that there’s a endgame in terms of numbers, I think I just want to get this song right and so I hope and pray and am willing to sit here and do the work so I’m looking for it.