I'm sitting here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, getting ready to go check out the studio where we will be recording the winning song from the songwriting contest, on a beautiful spring day. (although my day started with me saying to my 2-year-old, "Cream cheese is NOT PAINT.")
Actually that's the perfect segue to the unconventional challenge! Because she clearly saw the situation differently. In her mind, cream cheese should absolutely be considered as paint.
This challenge asks you to think outside your comfort zone while writing a song. To see, or rather, write, things differently.
In my mind, basically this means using any songwriting elements that are not something you hear a thousand times a day on the radio. But on a more personal note, it can mean utilizing any tool that is not normally in your wheelhouse. A lot of you have done this to beautiful effect already in this activity. Kudos!
If you normally write in major, try minor. Like writing in 4? Try 3! Add an extra bar in a phrase, or take one away. Write in a modulation, or strip the song down to a whisper. Write about a subject that is unfamiliar. This is your chance to, well, take a chance!
In thinking about my own song catalog today, I thought of a record I made called Simple Stories. It was my second jazz record for the Sunnyside label.
Upon first listen, the songs on the album might not sound that unconventional. But here's the backstory. Get ready, it's kind of long.
I used to sing and write all the time in my youth (see my "Modern Mona Lisa" entry in the visual inspiration challenge, from a rock band I sang lead in during high school). I started writing songs at age 7 and never looked back.
After high school, it was off to college to study classical piano. It was there that I discovered jazz, and also continued playing/singing in rock bands.
In 1994 I attended grad school to get a Masters Degree in Jazz Studies. Here is where the story gets interesting.
Now, this story is not written to take issue with any particular university or music school. I had many great experiences in both college and grad school.
However, at the time, at my particular school, students were defined by labels. They either inhabited the classical OR the jazz side of the music school, not both. Or they were jazz players, but then definitely not singers. And girls, if they were singers, were often not taken seriously as instrumentalists. And to add to all of this, there was a numbered system. If you weren't number one--well, it was like wanting to be the most popular kid in school. Everyone wanted to be number one.
You get the picture. Thus, when I arrived, I felt like I had to choose, in order to fit in. I chose to just play jazz piano.
So I hid. I hid my singer/songwriter self behind the piano. I hid my face behind glasses. I hid my femininity behind boyish clothes. I thought if I wanted to be taken seriously as a jazz pianist, I had to "prove" myself by not singing, and by being "one of the guys".
It worked, in its way. Because we all have different sides of ourselves, and can choose to take out those sides whenever we wish.
The only problem was, I LOVED to sing. I LOVED pop songs. I LOVED being girly sometimes. I didn't even know how much I missed these things because I'd pushed them away so far.
I'm thinking most people can relate to getting stuck behind a "label" at least once in their lives.
Luckily a few happy accidents led me back to my full self.
First, I ended up with the BEST possible classical piano teacher at my school, Dr. H (because even if jazzers were identified as jazzers, they had to take classical as a side requirement). Dr. H was open to ALL styles of music. He could sightread orchestral scores, but also played stride piano. Everyone pretty much idolized him, and was also a little intimidated by him.
He didn't think I was a weirdo for liking more than one style of music. And he was living proof that a person could cross bridges and still be inspiring and cool.
Once, when I came in depressed because of a boyfriend situation, he had me ditch the lesson entirely and we went for ice cream. He reassured me I'd be okay (while reminding me to practice my scales for next week). He was both a teacher and a mentor, and he believed that I should become whatever kind of artist I wanted to be.
If you already have one of these teachers or mentors in your life, you know it. And you are LUCKY. Embrace what they have to tell you. Pass it on.
Okay, you've hung in there this long. This story is leading somewhere. Promise!
Second happy accident (although I actually happen to believe that everything happens for a reason): I moved to NYC in 1997 to join the Big Apple Circus band as a keyboardist. My first day here, I was so scared. Would I be good enough? What label would I have to wear this time?
I needn't have worried; my fellow bandmates were welcoming, funny, and talented as hell. They didn't know about my past--in NYC I could be whoever I wanted to be. I could start fresh. I went out every night after work and saw whatever music I could--the symphony, a musical, free jazz. It dawned on me more and more that music had a much broader definition than I had been letting myself believe.
Soon after, I joined an all-girl band called The Lascivious Biddies, a band I'm happy to say is still together today. They became my best friends and encouraged me to start singing again. I did, at first shyly in the background. They kept prodding me. Soon, I sang a bit louder. And a bit louder. I started having fun with my stage style. Having fun writing and experimenting. Rediscovering myself.
If you already have such accepting peers, bandmates, or friends in your life, you know it. And you are LUCKY. Embrace what they have to teach you. Pass it on.
Around the time I joined The Biddies, another happy occasion: I was signed to Sunnyside Records and put out my first album, Sun is Us, an all-instrumental progressive jazz album which I am very proud of. Luckily for me, Sunnyside's executive producer Francois Zalacain is not only a master of his craft and very loyal (and took a risk on me because he simply believed in me), but was also open to me including vocals on my second album, Simple Stories, which came out in 2003.
By now, I was ready to try on an unconventional hat. For me, that meant including a variety of different sounds and styles on the record, which was pretty unusual at the time for a jazz record. I had my friend, Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza, sing on two songs, but I also gave myself permission to sing on one track, Pure One.
It had taken a long time for me to overcome those voices inside myself. The ones that say, "What will people think if I don't do this song/record the way everyone else does? Will they laugh at me? Will my community ostracize me for not sticking to a particular genre/set of standards? Am I a poser? Who do I think I am, trying to sing? I should leave that to the professionals! No one will take me seriously!" etc etc etc.
Sound familiar? Anyone else have a version of these internal demons? These inner critics?
I would guess we all do. It is HARD to let them go. To take a risk, stand out, be noticed, be who you are even if people think you are a goth but you secretly adore Florida Georgia Line. Or if you have a tough facade but write sappy love songs in your room late at night.
THIS IS YOUR CHALLENGE, PEOPLE. Let yourself BE!
I have found that those who have been most successful in this world (Steve Jobs, Oprah, Norah Jones..) have achieved their success by not only taking risks, but by being true to themselves.
I let myself do both on Simple Stories, and to this day it is my favorite album I have ever put out, or been on. The album starts with CHILDREN'S CHOIR, for heaven's sake! (I was teaching 3-6 grade music at the time). There are freely improvised pieces alongside the vocal tunes. And I SANG. For all the world to hear.
I've been singing ever since. Recently I went back to my hometown and reunited with that first rock band, where it all began. (That recording of "Modern Mona Lisa"? Written in the 80s, re-recorded just a few months ago!) I stepped out, and back, into my rock star skin. And you know what? It feels GOOD.
I actually didn't set out to write about this today. I had something else in mind. But I guess I needed to say it, because this is what came out. Thanks for reading.
Now it's your turn. Can't wait to hear what you come up with.