Frontier Psychiatrist

Back To The Start – A Songwriter’s Revolutions

Posted on: January 13, 2011

Alex Nackman

After seven years of touring, writing, and recording, I reluctantly put my creative endeavors on hold to find a more reliable occupation. My transition from the life of a touring singer-songwriter to working for a major music talent agency–a company at the beck and call of touring musicians–was a painful role reversal.

Before making this move, I had been on the road relentlessly in the U.S. and UK, released five records, opened for a handful of mainstream  acts  (such as The Roots, Norah Jones, and Tim Reynolds), only to have my bank account drained while financing my band and promoting myself as an indie artist. By the end of 2008, I was broke, frustrated, and exhausted from wearing the hats of artist, manager, booking agent, and publicist.

Music had been a part of me from the time I was forced to take violin lessons at age five to opening for The Roots in 2005 in Lancaster, PA—a spot that I garnered through pure persistence. Making the transition from master to slave in the workplace was difficult, but seemed inevitable: a practical career move that would help sustain my life.

Becoming a music talent agent in New York seemed plausible since I had booked nearly 700 shows worldwide for myself at some of the industry’s best known clubs. With a new job where someone else paid the bills, what could be better: consistent paychecks, a stable office environment, free coffee, water cooler talk, and health insurance.

After four rounds of interviews and a job offer from the agency, I was sent down to the mail room, wearing my suit, and loading a creaky cart with a bum wheel. The squeak of that wheel was the loudest sound on the entire hall outside the agents’ offices, as if the axel were connected to a Marshall Stack. Also, a small note from human resources: the health insurance wouldn’t kick in for four months. Head down, cart forward.

Despite a modest promotion to the music department from the mailroom at six months and some new friendships at the agency, my creativity continued to nudge at me. After a nine-hour workday, I’d burn oil at home until 3AM most weeknights trying to scavenge around my head for new melodies. I’d re-watch old films and listen to musical scores from composers like Michael Nyman and Jon Brion for inspiration, jotting down snippets that might contain a gram of musical ambrosia. But as soon as I finally began to write chord progressions that might stick for real, the next workday would edge closer, and I’d have to put my musical juice on hold. I felt like a moon-shiner trying to squeeze out as much white lightning as possible before daylight.

I can never calculate whether I’ll be able to write a song if I sit down with my guitar or sit at the piano. I could be full of ideas and empty on motivation. I could be full on motivation while my guitar feels as foreign to me as a set of bagpipes. I once wrote a song inspired by a train horn I heard while watching a Yankees game at my parents’ house. The tone of the horn was literally a perfect C major seventh chord. The Doppler effect enhanced the quality of the chord and the sound bended in just the right pitch as the train rushed past the house. Within the snap of a finger, that train’s blast forced me to run to my piano. Such moments of serendipitous spontaneity make being a songwriter rewarding and also worrisome in that what I love to do is often out of my control.

After nearly two years in an office building by day and in my home studio at night, I desperately wanted to write music full-time again. However, I knew that my approach had to change. Before I worked at the agency, I had focused on writing music so that the industry might see me as a viable new artist. This time, I focused on writing music I loved rather than convincing others to fall in love with me. When I left the agency and became my own pseudo-boss again, I had a renewed excitement about an album with new music, new ideas, and a different outlook; my own tiny and personal renaissance.

Three years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Herbert Kretzmer, the lyricist of the musical Les Misérables in London and a family friend of my then-girlfriend’s parents. Herbert and I discussed songwriting for an hour or so and he began by asking me whether I write the melody or the words first. I gave my well-rehearsed response:  melody for me begins as a skeleton and evolves into the muscle structure of a song. It sets the tone and mood. The lyrics are the organs that give the song its meaning and breath of life. Thus simply, the melody has to come first. Upon hearing my anatomical analogy, Mr. Kretzmer scoffed and chuckled; his upper-class British accent snapping at me like a Venus flytrap. He retorted by asking me how it could be possible to fit lyrics to a pre-written melody when I don’t know what the song is about. I should have expected this query from a lyricist who didn’t write the melodies to Les Misérables and thus only had to worry about 50% of the songwriting job. I asked him in return how he could write lyrics before he knew how a song will sound?

Regardless of songwriting techniques, the process is always subjective. For me, I hear a melody or a chord, like the train that passed by my parents’ house, and suddenly other chords begin to follow in my head. I grab my guitar or appropriate instrument and begin to suss out the chords and melodies. When the process feels right, I get an odd tingling sensation on the back of my neck. In contrast, when the chords don’t come easily to me, my mouth gets dry and I need to put the guitar down and walk away.

Recognizing these physical and visceral signs has become my litmus test in the songwriting process. I log and catalogue every musical snippet I write for future reference. Many ideas in my library I never listen to again; others turn into actual songs. The lyrics come after I have the melody locked and have worked out a rough vocal melody (with no words yet). At that moment, I have established the mood and tempo, which allows me to sit down and think about what the song will actually mean, lyrically.

Lyrics are never a breeze. I want to be clever, but not cute. I want to be smart, but not arrogant. I want to be obscure, but not obtuse. Topically, I tend to examine how people strive to be linked, to be loved, and to be successful. I often do not write just of my own growth because I’ve always written in blueprints, where the songs are personal to me, but accessible enough to fit the lives of others. Suffice it to say, the specific characters in the songs are lineaments or silhouettes of the masses. I discuss what I think I know from my own life, but leave the listener an opening for his or her own avatar.

After five months and many long nights of writing and recording by myself at my Brooklyn apartment, I had put together a basket of roughly 30 new songs—some stronger than others, but enough to have choices. I had played every instrument and sung every vocal. The moods varied, the styles felt right, and the focus was on memorable (but not hook-infested) melodies with lyrics that tell a story about life-cycles, reflection, and growth.

The record that was born is called This Revolution. In many ways, the title is both a revolution as in the cyclical nature of our lives and a revolution as in our desire to rise up against our own limitations—focusing on what actually makes a person happy and following roads of risk to achieve that happiness whether that be in love, family, or one’s work. For myself, the driving force was the cycle of walking the wrong roads as an artist in the music industry, taking on a servile day-job, and then returning to songwriting with wider eyes.

I can’t say for certain whether I’ll be back sending my résumé out again to new office employers, but for now, I have returned to where I started seven years ago with a new approach, some new light, and a new record that feels molded from my strengths and flaws. It is, in essence, music propelled by a desire to drive my world forward, and not just keep it afloat.

Alex Nackman is a Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter, producer, and composer. His sixth album, This Revolution, comes out on January 25 (Click for a free exclusive download).  He has written music for projects on MTV, The CW, and HBO, and other networks. He plays The Mercury Lounge on February 2.

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1 Response to "Back To The Start – A Songwriter’s Revolutions"

What a great essay! I wish I had words to do my appreciation for the expression of an artist’s struggle justice, but I don’t. So…simply: Thank you.

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