This has been the best winter since I moved to Pennsylvania 20 years ago. There was no need to put the bicycle away. I hardly wore my winter coat, didn’t get to or care about the ski slopes. Yet spring is officially still over a week away. We could still get hit with a massive Noreaster or ice storm, and I might be kicking myself this time next week for speaking too soon. Even if snow happens, I cannot complain. February is typically the month when my mood takes a nosedive, when I feel as though I am trapped in cold darkness, surrounded by others who feel the same. I am not sure how much the weather contributed to my mood this year, however the expected February nadir did not happen.
When I go into what I call “The February Downer”, I typically write a lot of poems and songs. Sometimes, bursts of creativity emerge at the beginning of March when, like a bear coming out of hibernation, I start to awaken and become energetic. Since I didn’t have a February Downer this year, I don’t have fodder for new songs.
When I think about it, I haven’t written a song since August. The current musical dry spell is ongoing, without even a day when I sit down and try to force a new song into being. It might be because I’ve become more interested in writing memoirs and stories lately. Or it could be that I gave birth to my ultimate song last spring. By “ultimate”, I don’t mean a top 40 smash that will one day be a classic. At least not on a worldwide level. Every songwriter dreams of writing a song that will lead to fame and fortune, and I am no different. But I’ve learned to redefine songwriting success on my own terms.
My ultimate song came into existence rather suddenly, taking me by surprise. I did not have to grasp to find lyrics and did not have to figure out the best way to put it together. “Stay (An Anthem)” was borne of a delayed burst of creativity following last year’s February Downer. It was one of the many miraculous things that happened to me in 2011. Late last summer, I compiled some of the strongest songs I’ve written over the past fifteen years and recorded a low-budget CD. “Stay”, of course, was to be the shining light, the pick of the litter, the supersong. Full of confidence, I uploaded the CD to several music websites and started performing “Stay” at all my shows. Although the songs are not winning contests or attracting listeners (meaning no sales), people feel my energy when I perform them live. “Stay” usually starts a positive feedback loop that enhances my confidence and energy on the stage.
I decided to surprise my friends with little gift bags and copies of the CD when we got together for dinner in early October. Hoping to amaze my girls with how much I’ve grown as a songwriter over the years, I waited enthusuastically for feedback. “Stay” is written in such a way that people can feel inspired without knowing the story behind the song. If some people knew what it is really about, they might consider it hokey or even foolish. But I want them to feel the sense of hope I had when I wrote it. It is intended to be uplifting, mysterious, and ethereal. I wanted my friends to sense these things.
Much to my horror, “Stay (An Anthem)” had an unanticipated effect on those who are closest to me. A few days after I distributed the CD a best friend called me, scared. She knew I normally had a pessimistic nature and bouts of depression in the past and was especially concerned about the song’s reference to angels. Her voice shaking, she said “you say you spent all night praying and an angel came and told you to ‘stay’. Were you thinking of going somewhere? Do angels talk to you?” Uh oh, I thought. How do I get out of this? In her mind, I wrote it out of desperation. Suddenly I saw an unintended interpretation of the song. She thought I was suicidal. Worse, she thought I might be hearing voices. How could this happen? Did I really conceal my muses that well, but without conveying the intended positive message? My friend got so hung up on the “angel conversation” in the chorus that she totally missed the lines about knowing hope exists, my faith being “anchored in solid ground”, and the valuable life lessons I learned from the experiences that inspired the song.
Nothing I said calmed my friend down so, against my better judgement, I had to tell her “Stay” is about the incredible experience I had at the U2 concert in Denver last May. I had the rare and unexpected honor of meeting Bono and Edge. I had to tell her it was about listening to U2 perform their “Stay” (Faraway, So Close), the song that consistently brought me to tears throughout the 360 Tour (the word “stay” is the hook of my own song, and I could not think of another appropriate title). I had to tell her they also performed “Please” that night, that Bono is the “angel”, that I envision Ann Wilson’s performance of “Love, Reign O’er Me” as I sing, and that I also wanted to honor Leonard Cohen. In short, it was written in honor of the groups/artists who have been most influential for me. My friends tend to look down on me for being a fan of U2 and Heart, openly stating their opinion that I should be spending my money on more sensible things, not concert tickets, band memorabilia, or things like the “I Came So Far for Beauty” DVD. They don’t get that U2’s and Heart’s music offers me solace at times when I am down and excitement when I am happy. They don’t get the impact meeting Bono and Edge had: things that good…that incredible…don’t happen to people like me. The incident forced a paradigm shift on me, making me see there may still be good things in my future. Although I still have some pessimistic tendencies, that experience made me see possibilities. It was more than “just meeting famous people”. So much for the image of a person who’s had a major breakthrough. So much for “wait, people, and your prayers will be answered”. And who, my friends wondered, is Leonard Cohen?
I was both embarrassed and frustrated to have to reveal this information. My friend was quick to point out that the second song on the CD is called “When the Angels Come”. That song, though ultimately positive, is reflective of times when I was either angry or down. It was inspired by a song by Blink 182 and, later, Green Day’s “American Idiot” album (it took over 10 years to complete). Despite the obvious mood, the song is very cathartic and has always helped me feel better. Again, the reference to angels sent up red flags. Our phone call went on for over an hour before I convinced my friend I was not planning to jump of the Harvey Taylor Bridge or the roof of the parking garage. It ended with her feeling cautiously reassured (and certainly not “inspired and hopeful”).
Perhaps that’s the difference between people who have a writer’s brain (or artistic tendency) and people who do not. My friends take things literally. Sometimes, when a song comes on the radio, my friends wonder aloud what a certain line means. They look at artists like David Bowie or Peter Gabriel and don’t fully appreciate the depth of their songs. When I describe Stevie Nicks as a workhorse and fantastic songwriter, they make reference to her flowing clothes or past drug use. I don’t say these things because believe my way of thinking is better. My friends are certainly more adept at running households, keeping things neat, managing finances, building relationships, and sharing job-related skills with others (I am the only one out of our group who is not regarded as a mentor for new nurses, a manager, or a “good resource person”).
Perhaps I should have kept “Stay (An Anthem)” and my other five powersongs private. Maybe they were meant to be “journal songs”. Maybe the public feels the same way about them as my friends did, and that’s why they aren’t selling or winning prizes. In the time following the disastrous phone call, I’ve questioned the role of my pride and I have learned to keep my mouth shut about how great I think these songs are. I thought I was presenting them humbly and sincerely. Maybe I should not share such things. I believe in God, and perhaps that phone call was His way of stopping me in my tracks, keeping future arrogance in check. Maybe I shouldn’t have shared such personal things hoping to feel I’ve done good for the world in the process.
Then again, I bare my soul in my songs, and that’s what is at the heart of writing.
As I said before, 2011 was a miraculous year for me. I am satisfied in a lot of areas of my life, at least for now. The year is a tough act to follow, full pleasant surprises and dreams that came true. I can’t foresee writing another song like “Stay (An Anthem)”, for it feels like the capstone of my songwriting years, and I am happy with it no matter who misunderstands its meaning. This songwriting dry spell can therefore go on indefinitely and I don’t think I’ll ever get upset about it. Besides, I’m exploring other creative writing avenues. It’s almost like a new beginning. Who needs winter doldrums for inspiration? I’ll give up a few “good tunes” if it means staying clear of the February Downer and the selfishness that goes along with it. And if I’m to write good memoirs and non-fiction, the February Downer will not serve me well. People don’t want to consistently hear about misery. While in Denver, on “Stay Day”, it occurred to me that there might be lots of “small” miracles around me every day. I have to actively look for these miracles.
Should I call my friend and tell her this is yet another “message” I got from the angels? Just kidding.
Oh, and if you are now curious about “Stay (An Anthem)” and the other “powersongs”, have a go at it (if the link works!): http://www.ourstage.com/profile/mariesmith/songs