It’s a strange job
Q- Do you feel you’re a tougher critic of your music than your fans are?
A- Oh yes, by miles. My fans tend to be smart people. Because of the nature of how I write and how my show plays out I seem to attract a smart bunch. My songs are personal and they address and investigate the complexities of real life. They’re not pop songs. They’re not disposable [not intentionally anyway]. I love pop songs when I want to hear them [usually in a rented car on the west coast-coincidentally and strangely also the best place to hear Steely Dan songs] but I don’t have any interest in writing them. I’m interested in writing songs that are a sincere exploration of what it is to walk through this world. So, because of that I tend to attract people who are curious and interested in songwriting and the craft as well. I’ve had some wonderful, in depth and thoughtful conversations about the writing process at shows.
It’s a strange job. Think about it.
How many people have a job where anyone at all can tell you how they feel about your work? In fact, they pay for the privilege of doing just that when they buy a ticket to the show. It’s a strange job.
One interesting thing I’ve noticed over the years of making music is that while there isn’t much argument about the best songs in the catalog, there is a huge range of opinion of the rest of the songs. I had a guy tell me once that a song was “beneath me”. I found this odd because it either means the rest of my songs are pretty stunning or he doesn’t understand how bad the songs I throw away are. Either way, I understood his point and yet for awhile this was the most requested song I had. It’s a strange job.
People are drawn in certain ways. I’m drawn to be critical. It’s my nature. I’m tortured over songs sometimes. It took me 2 years to write “Circus Girl”. I had the first 4 lines for months. I wrote endless verses for the song but those first 4 lines were better then everything I came up with to follow them. So I waited. I kept my antennae raised for two years waiting and searching for those other 8 lines. I thought about them so much that when I finally saw them on paper I recognized then instantly. No doubt about it, those are the words I’ve been searching for.
I’m not saying this to expose how hard I work. Frankly, I would be happy to tell you I just whipped that piece up on my coffee break. I’m saying this to explain that the process of writing is sometimes so arduous that by nature of the process itself I’m a tougher critic than my fans. How invested would you feel in 12 lines of verse if it took you 2 years to write? How disappointed would you be if after 2 years you still had it wrong?
So, the highs are higher and the lows are lower in my own critiques, I suppose. I think this must be true of any good writer or anyone who honestly pushes themselves in pursuit of their craft. When you are a fan of someone’s work you see the body of work in a larger sense I think, and less specifically each individual piece.
I’m currently reading Jim The Boy by Tony Earley. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. I’m taking in the story and the wonderful sense of language and I’m knocked out by sentences here and there and the book in general but I don’t have the map in my head of all the possible ways Tony Early could get from point A to point B in telling his story. I only have the map that Mr Early gave me to follow. He has his own map that contains all the possible routes this story might have taken to play out so he has a different relationship to the piece than I do. I’m mesmerized by the simplicity and elegance of his writing but he probably sees every detour he had to make in order to get around every fallen tree that was in his way to telling this story. I’m quite sure Tony Earley must be pleased with this book and yet I’m just as sure he has sentences he would change. After saying all this I believe that in this life and in your work you can’t believe your failures or your triumphs. They’re both lies in a way. It’s the entire story, the entire song and the entire catalog that tells you who you are as a writer, not just 12 lines. Like I said, it’s a strange job…
Yes, I’m a tougher critic than my fans and that’s how it should be. That’s part of the deal. I torture myself over these little pieces of work and then I get the glorious gift of getting to play them for people who fall in love with the good ones. The songs that aren’t good are just helping lead the way to the ones that are…