Serving the Song

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Not that I’m keeping count, but I believe I’m nearing 1,000 interviews total in my writing career thus far. It’s an interesting affair – to say the least – speaking to so many musicians, filmmakers, authors and the like, digging for the stories inside their stories. Most of the time, I thoroughly enjoy my job. Then again, when your assignment is the 18-year-old emo kid who just released his first CD, lines like “Uh… I don’t know man, I just play music” fail to contribute to any job satisfaction.

But an interesting thread has woven itself throughout most of my interviews with thoughtful musicians over the years – the idea of “serving the song.” I’ve heard that particular phrase several times, although it comes in many flavors and descriptors. But the primary idea is this: many artists believe the key to creating meaningful art is to serve the song and not the other way around.

Serving the song has no formula. There’s no Serving The Song For Dummies handbook available, nor are there QVC Esteban guitar-like DVDs you can watch to learn. But there is an art to it. Usually it involves some idea of stillness or Sabbath – the creation of space to simply listen and be still enough to allow the art to come or develop. There’s a lack of distractions in this process, a turning off of the cell phones, laptops and Twitter long enough to truly hear what’s out there.

The belief that accompanies this, of course, is that great art is “out there” somewhere, waiting to be grabbed. And only those who are clued in to truly seeking after it can find it. After all, every single writer starts with the exact same blank page and each stands equally able to construct the next great work of art in that moment. Of course, it’s what you do after that which separates the meaningful from the shallow or meaningless.

Editing is another topic that comes up quite often in these conversations. And usually the words “I don’t” or “I can’t” are also involved. Serving the song involves trusting that first instinct, writing down any and all inclinations from the outset and worrying about whittling down the raw materials later. It’s the willingness to follow the random bird that beckons you toward the window and then asks you to fly alongside it to some unknown destination without worry of packing the right items for the journey. Many, many artists detail truly surprising moments in the open space they create – unable to imagine themselves actually constructing the songs/books/art that they end up with.

What makes this even more compelling of an idea is the cross-section of artists that talk this way. Solo artists like singer/songwriter Josh Radin or Sunny Day Real Estate’s Jeremy Enigk both have mentioned this very thing. So have eclectic indie rock artists like Broken Social Scene, Akron/Family and Heartless Bastards. All of those might be foreign names to many, but they’re all buzz bands to some degree in varied “scenes” and they all care deeply about the art they create – even if the audience is much different than an Andrew Peterson crowd.

Of course, Over the Rhine mentions this almost every time I speak with either one of them. But who’d have thought that The Verve, Counting Crows, The Cure, The Hold Steady, Old ’97s and Kings of Leon would also say these same ideas?

I wish more artists would tap into this idea and give the songs room to truly grow. I wish more artists would trust their initial instincts and leave any notions of agenda at the door. Above all, I wish Christians who were engaged in the arts would stop trying to force certain ideals, morals, constructs or moods from the outset and allow the truly meaningful art to emerge unexpectedly in ways that only the Spirit can illuminate.

Matt Conner is the teaching pastor at Trinity Church in the heart of Indianapolis and the founder of Analogue Media.


6 Comments

  1. Rael

    I’m guessing this philosophy can be applied to all forms of art. I participate in a writing challenge called NaNoWriMo, in which crazy people write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. While time is limited and the focus is not on quality, inevitably some very interesting and creatively wild things start to happen when you’r rushing headlong into a tale with your characters. There’s no time to stop for sermons – the story is the thing!

    Hmm. Sometimes it may be hard to serve the song (or story, or poem, or painting) because we start off with a picture in our head which teaches us something, but in trying to convey the picture to the audience (in whatever media), we forget the picture and only remember the lesson…

    That idea of stillness or Sabbath is interesting. For me (and perhaps many people today), real stillness itself is a very difficult discipline to learn.

    Interesting post!

  2. Micah

    Classical composer Brahms would spend his summers in the mountians of Switzerland or Austria, most often alone, so he could compose. There was one special spot on Lake Worth in southern Austria where he claimed, “melodies are so abundant one must be careful not to step on them.”
    As if the melodies existed in the mountians, and he was just there to find them.

  3. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    I was just telling someone this morning about Madeline L’Engle’s ideas about this very subject. I’m in the thick of writing for a new album, and I’m experiencing the frustration (and occasional thrill) of this right now. Thanks for your thoughts, Matt.

  4. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Matt, I loved this post. This has been our philosophy in Alison K and US from the beginning. I’ve often had bluegrassers say, “I wish you would play more banjo in the band” and the answer is always that the songs often demand a specific kind of treatment that would not work with a banjo. A song is not there as a showcase for a musician; the musician is there to be a transparent showcase the song – and that includes the singer. There are some singers out there so concerned with vocal pyrotechnics that they get the listener focused primarily on “Wow, what an amazing singer!” Merle Haggard is an amazing singer but he always completely sells the song. You believe he has lived every word.

    I have a friend named Jens Kruger, a great banjo player and composer who writes very classical-sounding melodies and arranges them for banjo-guitar-bass. He said last weekend that music is composed on a canvas of silence. It reminded me of a painter staring at a blank canvas with limitless potential, and it also reminded me of AP’s “Let There Be Light.”

    I’m not a prolific writer, but the best songs I’ve written just sort of happen. I don’t mean that there isn’t any tweaking or crafting going on, but that most of the pieces of the song just come out. I’ll be sitting there humming and chording and then something strikes me and it’s like following a vein of gold (or at least copper) until it runs out. Hopefully there is enough there for a whole song.

    I had a dream awhile back of a big ship, like a cruise ship. I was up top with my family, and then went down to the depths of the ship. Deep inside the ship was a gigantic, Carlsbad Cavern-like ocean. I was in a little motorboat with the top enclosed in a bubble of glass. I was taking photos of the light down there, but kept being annoyed that the photos were blurry because I couldn’t focus the camera properly.

    That’s songwriting in a nutshell. We plumb the depths. Sometimes our songwriting technique is lacking, or our lens is dirty, and that’s frustrating. But now and again something really good and life changing comes out of it. Much of Joni Mitchell’s work falls in this category for me – deeply moving and full of insight.

  5. David

    Well said Matt.

    I find trying to balance the art of lyric, melody and chord structure like walking a tightrope – you only have so many measures to communicate a thought or idea, or paint a landscape of a situation so that it resonates in myself or in a listener…..

    I had the house to myself today and enjoyed having the time and space to let a song breathe.

  6. John Dymer

    Oh man! I know what you are talking about Matt but I have never been able to put it down as well as you have here. Songs do simply come. I find some chords, start singing and the song begins to appear (Thank you God). At the start quality isn’t the issue, what matters is capturing that glimpse of beauty and putting it down so that it can be re-lived and shared with others. My favorite way to write a song is to use a giant white board. I can write, erase, and cross out like some sort of crazy professor and when I am finished I can neatly transfer it to my notebook.

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