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  • What I Learned At Songwriting Camp: Craft, Then (Maybe) Art

    So. I went to songwriting camp last week (thanks again to the good folks at BC Musician Magazine, who chose me as a runner-up in that songwriting contest a few months back). It was in Wells, BC, in the week leading up to the famous ArtsWells festival, which I’ve been hearing about ever since I moved out west. Rumour had it that it was the little gem of the BC folkfest scene, so I’d been meaning to get there for ages. This year it happened and I’m sure glad it did. (I’m going to talk here more about the camp—there are enough people out there who can tell you how great the festival was, and is every year.)

    The camp was led by Dave Bidini and the members of the Bidiniband: Doug Friesen, Don Kerr and Paul Linklater. Each of them would take a portion of the day and lead a tutorial on some aspect of songwriting—lyrics, melody, chord structure, or overall practice and approach. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’ve never taken any training in songwriting—you always wonder a little, can this really be taught? But the guys did a fantastic job, balancing practical advice with an allowance for personal style and the possibility of rule-bending. All four of them have an incredible depth of musical knowledge, yet without any of the arrogance that might accompany that. Funny and humble and enthusiastic, they shared some of what they knew in a most engaging way. I personally ended up wishing I had more time to hang out with them, talk, and learn. (I plan to talk to them about filling out a groupie application.)

    They also made us work, though not so much that it felt excessive or unmanageable. I wrote two songs, neither of which is perfect, of course, but hey, at least I WROTE them. After a stretch of about nine or ten months without any finished work, it felt good just to get something down. My roommate (the lovely Sarah Elizabeth, who has an ear for a pop hook, that’s for damn sure) and I would go back to our motel room and get down to our homework each afternoon. Sarah took the bathroom as her office; I worked in the main part of the room, sitting on my bed. It’s not easy work, exactly—you do sweat and curse a little—but I realized, as I was doing it, that the thing about work you love is that, even when it’s hard, it’s good. Just doing it feels like a good, right thing, no matter how easy or hard it is at a given moment. In fact, you even kind of like the sweating and cursing, because hell, at least it means you’re engaged in the task.

    I should also add that it was a really good group of students. There were no discernible bad seeds, nobody with a rotten attitude or an axe to grind. Everyone offered something that at some point made me think, hey that’s good! All the stories, all the lives behind these songs…it’s a pretty vulnerable thing, getting together and presenting music that you’ve written. Even when it’s not about you, it’s SO about you. All your sensibilities and experiences, all your life’s fumbling search for understanding: it’s all there. As Don put it, your suffering makes you who you are. And in a mysterious alchemy, your particular suffering, when made into art, turns into something can help lighten the suffering of others. That’s what I felt, anyway, as I bore witness to these people and their expressions. It was a privilege, and a source of insight for me.

    So what did I take away from this (other than the fact that I want to be in a rock ‘n roll band and learn to wail on my electric guitar like Paul Linklater)? I think the most important thing is this: the best way to approach what I do is that it is a craft. A craft is something you do, something you engage in actively on a regular basis. The word we usually use is “work”—we have to work on it, work away, keep working. But I find that “work” is not the best term, since it implies something you’d rather not be doing. Craft-work is different. It’s okay that there’s a lot to do, because it’s enjoyable to tackle it, to engage in it, and there’s no real end point. You wouldn’t want an end point! It’s the working-on that is fun. End products are nice, but really they’re just pit stops along the way, something to aim for temporarily and orient yourself with, but not the objective of the whole task.

    So I’m making a pledge to give some things to my craft. Nothing loftier than that. Just like a plant needs soil, water, and sun, what my craft needs is:

    • Time. Even ten minutes playing my guitar is better than nothing. It’s ten more minutes of experience, ten more minutes of energy donated to my cause. If it can stretch to fifteen minutes (which it probably will), so much the better. Every second counts and my craft will appreciate it.
    • Attention. Having open eyes, open ears, open heart. Listening, noticing, studying, reading, perceiving—and taking notes. This is where I will find things to say.
    • Tools. My instruments, a pen and paper, a means of recording. They’re simple tools but I have to make sure they’re available for me, in plain sight, whenever possible. And make sure they’re good tools, well taken care of. A chef doesn’t use a dull knife. A painter cleans her brushes.
    • Connection. I need contact with people who do this craft and those who appreciate it. Listen to them, play for them, talk with them. Try to find people who spur me on, rather than discouraging me. And whenever possible, connect face to face, not just on a screen.

    If I can find the will and the means to give my craft these things, that’s the majority of my job. Nobody sets out with “Make Great Art” on their to-do list, and then checks it off at the end of the day. Instead, they go about their craft. We say the phrase “arts and crafts” but really it should be in the reverse order: craft, then art. I can attend to the craft part, and try to do it as well as I can. Only after that, if I’m lucky, it will turn out to be art and it will have an impact on someone. But that’s pretty much out of my hands. All I can control is: time, attention, tools, and connection. That’s enough to keep me busy, and come to think of it, it’s enough to keep me happy, too.