Writing Beyond My Means

(Originally posted June 11, 2011 at Yorkscene.com)

Some people live beyond their means. I write beyond my means. What I’m saying is that I write songs that are sometimes too complicated for me to easily perform.

I recently went into the studio with a really accomplished pianist, Marilyn Lerner. She was my first-ever piano player, just a kid fresh out of music school, but who’d been taking piano lessons since she was tiny. She moved on into jazz and improvisational music and new music, but her playing is always full of heart and emotion. (Listen at http://www.marilynlerner.com)

But me, well, I’m not a schooled musician. I had three years of violin as a kid, which I begged for, because my parents were both tone deaf and music wasn’t a big deal in our home. And that was it for my formal musical education.

In my early 20s, having learned some chords on guitar, I ended up in a folky band called Stringband (http://is.gd/YKqX0M). A few years later I took a summer course at the Royal Conservatory for grades 1 & 2 theory – I figured it might improve my songwriting. But in the band we mostly worked things out by ear, and all that theory ended up out the window. So a few years later I took some piano lessons. I wrote some pretty cool songs on the piano, but I couldn’t really play the thing because I’m about as coordinated as a jellyfish.

Now for me, it’s all about the lyrics, and I often write complex songs with irregular structures and throw in extra bars and odd chords — whatever the words and story dictate. But then when it comes time to perform them, well, I can’t count beats worth a damn, especially while I’m singing.

So recording with someone like Marilyn who can sight read and who’s got a chart (written out by my producer, definitely not by this musical illiterate!), while I have only a lyric sheet with little chicken tracks in pen on it, the tracks representing the number of beats between lines or places where the words are actually a pickup, or need to be stressed – well, it can get embarrassing when I screw up. Which I did fairly often the night we recorded together, in part because the song is also very new, so it’s not burned into my brain yet.

So that’s what I mean by writing beyond my means. The only thing that saves me is that Marilyn and other schooled musicians I’ve worked with really like those complicated, quirky songs of mine, and seem to find the patience to deal with my musical ignorance.

And for that, like others who live beyond their means, I owe them a huge debt!


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