The loneliness of the long-distance songwriter
Right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with no end in sight, Alan Murphy imagines the plight of songwriters as a familiar philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
“I imagine, especially now, everybody wonders, ‘What am I doing?’” Murphy says. “Not, ‘What’s the value of it?’”
The falling tree, and the songwriters, are making vibrations in the air. It’s your ear that converts those vibrations into sound. And if there’s no one on the receiving end, did the sound even exist…?
“I know it feels good to write a song,” Murphy says. “I know it feels good to sing and play. I know it feels good to perform, and I love to record. Getting music out, getting recordings out to people, is interesting as an independent artist. It’s interesting.”
Murphy’s band is The Mighty High and Dry. He plays keyboards, and teaches music to area kids. And as a songwriter, he’s pushing himself in all sorts of directions. He’s trying to be more critical of what he writes; being more surgical, as he calls it, in word choices. Striving for concrete imagery, “a caterpillar and butterfly thing,” he says, putting imagery to use in at least this interview. Leaving himself voice memos. Murphy has a subscription to “American Songwriter” magazine. Meditating. He’s reading about Zen, and various spiritual practices. Reading poetry and literature and books about songwriting. Like “How to Write One Song,” by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, a band not too unlike The Mighty High and Dry. Tweedy says it doesn’t matter if you write a few songs a week, and some of them just don’t go anywhere. What counts is that you’re participating in the process.
It’s all about prompts. Starting places for jogging the brain. And now, Murphy is adding another piece to the process. Nashville Songwriters Association International. He’s created a Rochester chapter.
The NSAI folks used to meet in person, where its members would play a recording of a new song. Or they’d pull the guitar out of the case and play it right there. Except, you know… COVID-19. “But now the Zoom thing is where life is,” Murphy says.
So all of the NSAI chapters around the country -- around the world, even -- are meeting virtually. The first meeting of the Rochester chapter is 7 p.m. Wednesday. You’ll find the link at nashvillesongwriters.com. Eventually, they’ll hit you up for some cash. But as a songwriter seedling, you can visit for free for a while.
The NSAI site is brimming with promise, without making any promises. Mentoring sessions with songwriters who have breathed the very same air as Garth Brooks. Opportunities to pitch your songs to industry professionals. Contests, workshops.
Murphy has already done some of the heavy lifting. He’s scouted out NSAI chapters in Malibu, mid-Michigan and Toronto. Through NSAI, he’s had an industry rep take a look at his music. “The rep didn’t take my song,” Murphy says “but he offered some really good feedback that I’m in the process of following up on.” Murphy’s done mentoring sessions as well, where a hopeful can find encouragement in comments such as, “I’m friends with Warren Haynes, I can hear him singing that song of yours…”
Murphy’s not fooling himself. Songwriting is not an easy gig. Nashville, or any of the songwriter cabals, will only with reluctance share the secret handshake. And that’s probably not the point of NSAI. “They’re not here to hook you up, necessarily,” Murphy says. “But they’re there to help you get the gears going and to help you refine your craft.”
To “educate how Nashville does it.”
And a particular mission of the Rochester chapter, Murphy says, will be to set up collaborations.
Solitude. Murphy says he likes it, as a songwriter he can create in that space. But he finds bouncing ideas off of someone else works as well. He does it with his bandmates in The Mighty High and Dry. And he’s done it as well with about eight songwriters outside of the band.
Gathering Rochester songwriters in the same Zoom room creates a chemistry where “combinations of people could really make some cool tunes in our city,” Murphy says. “And also, since this organization sort of taps us into the larger network, and people are on line so much now, people get involved with this thing. You can co-write with people from anywhere, as long as they’re down to work with you.”
“I like all means of the process. I like taking the ball and running with somebody else’s idea. I also like just handing the ball to somebody and seeing them fly, you know. I’ve seen it happen both ways.”
“There’s a different energy when you’re going into a room with someone and creating.”
There’s also a little extra push as well. The Mighty High and Dry is about halfway into a new studio album, and a live album of songs it has never released. Murphy is also about half a dozen songs into a solo album as well. All of these loose ends, looking for resolution.
“I don’t know what makes a song done,” Murphy admits.
The process becomes something like peeling an onion. “You don’t know what layer of the onion you’re in until you start digging around.”
And then you cry. Songwriters must always confront frustration, particularly in these pandemic times: “How to release it in a creative way,” he says, “that it doesn’t just turn into vapor as soon as you send it out the door.”
Perhaps that tree falling in the forest is heard by only the lumberjack. If so, Murphy admits, he must “modify my expectations. If there’s a handful of people that dig the music, that’s a start.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.