… Elton John said that. Or, more likely, Bernie Taupin did.
But I digress.
A good friend of mine was browsing my online profile t’other day
and dropped me a Facebook comment:
I like “You Say”, but Vince, why all of the darkness in your songs? Your life is extremely full, awesome and positive. MOST of your songs are dark. “You Say” has more of an upbeat melody, which I like, even though the words are still a little bit dark. Is it that sadness, in general, writes better music? Just wondering what drives your music.
It’s such a great question, and not the first time I’ve been asked – by others and, more importantly, by myself.
I’ve been writing songs for upwards of 30 years now and, while my capabilities have improved, my muse has proven pretty consistent. I didn’t always know how to say/sing what I wanted to, and when I listen back to earlier songs, they feel clumsy, indistinct, unrealized. But the core of them is true to what I wanted to share.
All of which is a way to say that I don’t know that I so much choose to write songs as much as these songs move through me and out into the world. Any musician, actually let’s expand that to artist, who has travelled into and through their muse, has given themselves up to it, will know what I mean here – the muse works through us.
As BB King said about Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Stevie doesn’t play the blues, the blues plays through Stevie.”
So, what do I know of my muse?
First of all, it reflects – I spend most of my time watching the world, watching people, sensing patterns within the chaos, gradually piecing together my ‘grand theory of everything’. It’s lonely over here – a thread about connection and belonging shows up all over the place in my songs.
All of that stuff, drops down into my subconscious which just chews over and over. Eventually something burps up to my front brain – I can usually sense it brewing; in dreams or idle moments. Sometimes it’ll be a song fragment, or a story idea, or a blog piece, or whatever form it takes.
Having done this for my whole life, I’ve got pretty good at letting my subconscious be, and trust it’ll tell me when it’s ready. I’ve also learned to give it a kick every now and then – my poetry prompts at Facebook, using Plinky, forcing myself to write on a given subject, all ways of keeping the wiring alive.
To Dianne’s question, though, why does my music tend toward the dark?
Well, firstly, I’ve come to believe that certain chords and progressions resonate with me – when I’ve spent time thinking on it, or discussing it, I wonder about physical resonance, the length of vocal chords, resonant cavities in the head
[you know, the ones that fill up with snot when you have a cold]
and know that certain tones just work for me – A minor, for example, shows up all over the place in my songs. Some of that, though, is the form-factor of the six-string guitar in standard tuning. A minor is part of a walking set of chords, C, F, Em, G, Dm that just work for most songs.
So, physically, I ‘get’ minor chords and they’re natural for me to play on the guitar. That leans my music towards the dark.
But it doesn’t cover lyrical content, does it?
Dianne is right, my life is full, awesome and positive – and has been for as long as I can remember – I am truly, truly lucky in life and love. But my muse knows that, even then, I experience doubt, sadness, and fear. And that dreadful loneliness. We all do. It is the human condition – all those survival instincts and neurons don’t disappear just because life is good. We’re wired to respond to threat.
We’re also painfully aware of our own mortality.
“Even if time is just a flicker of light, and we all have to die alone” (The Finn Brothers, “Won’t Give In”)
And I think, when it comes to my muse, that’s what shows up. Most of my art has a yearning for life – it’s touched by wonder of what is, and the crushing sadness that one day it won’t be there any more. Each moment looking in my kids eyes, knowing that moment can’t be lived again. There is so much life to be lived and so little life in which to live it. And, though I never want to lose a single moment, that next moment looks oh so enthralling.
So, Dianne, that’s the core of my muse, the yearning and melancholy of my own mortality. But I’ll throw the question back, maybe I’m lucky in this life because my muse let’s me discharge the things that could sabotage me? If I play out my neuroses, anxieties and stress in my songs and stories, aren’t I removing them from the enormous hopper that is my subconscious? If I connect with anyone who listens or reads, aren’t I looking that loneliness in the face.
But there’s more. When I say my muse reflects, I also mean that it means something to my audience. To take a personal experience, emotion, sensation and turn it to universal meaning is the ultimate artistic act. Think of U2, who took a personal reaction to intra-band tensions during the Achtung Baby sessions and turned it to the truly universal anthem, “One”.
For this reason, I don’t often describe what’s going on in songs, or more specifically the writing of them
[except For Granted, which is dedicated to Jo Short, a dear friend who we lost to cancer]
I’m always trying to expand my muse to encompass and engage others’ experience. I don’t always get it right, but when I do I know, because people tell me.
And so, we come to the final part of this extended answer. Why do I write these songs, with their melancholic dark edge?
Simply because, no matter how the surface may seem, how much people exist in their story, everybody experiences some of what I’ve been describing and if I can offer even a moment of understanding, solace, reflection, or sympathy – to let people know they’re not alone with it – I will. That’s my muse, that’s why I sing, that’s what I offer to the world.
There, D, now you see why I couldn’t fit it in a Facebook comment!
And, as ever, thanks for being here, you have my love.