I see myself as a teller of stories. The notes I sing, the words I write, these are mediums through which narratives breathe into life, a platform to examine the personal and archetypal journeys we all make. Words are not inert for me, but rather have an immense power to create meaningful connections to the world around us. As such, I do not believe that words can be held to rigid confines of strict meaning but instead are flexible frameworks for the evolution of thought and emotion. In a sense words themselves are co-creators, because although they have defined meaning, this meaning is constantly morphing, or adapting if you would, to the needs of the speaker. To the needs of the story being told at that moment. And we are all telling stories, every day to the people we meet, to the people we know and most importantly, to ourselves. We each have our own stories that serve to coalesce our experiences into a meaningful whole, to plug us into a collective understanding and, I believe, to create new worlds, new mythos. I think, at times, our search for absolute truths diminishes the importance of personal perception, of claiming our stories, accepting that we cannot ever possibly see the beginnings and endings of every thread that has woven itself in, yet still knowing that this is what is beautiful about our stories; myriads of alternate understanding.
As a songwriter, I love knowing that, in some ways, the words I have chosen will spiral out from me creating slightly different meanings, different sensory associations, and different filters of memory in every single person that hears them, and through these differences the audience itself evolves the meaning of each song. In such ways the songs are given a unique and infinite life trajectory beyond the narrow confines of my experience and definitely beyond my ability to control.
I get asked all the time where my inspiration comes from, which has always seemed an odd question because the answer has to be “life”. I draw marrow from everything I see, everything I read, everything I hear, everything I touch and feel, from every experience that I am fortunate enough to be immersed in and from these I carry tiny echoed souvenirs, which become the skeletal foundations of songs. Fundamentally I see everything around me as the guardian of a unique story. Nothing is finite or static. Every intersection with a person, with an object, with anything within our personal landscapes has been forged by the narrative that led to that moment, and within any interaction, we are creating infinite living worldlines. There are story lines everywhere around us and it is the lineage of all these stories that gives meaning to our experiences and allow us to connect into a paradigm of collective understanding.
I believe that one of my roles as a music creator is to hear the stories that hover all around and give them a voice, which in turn, I hope, helps people to synchronize their own stories as well as to expand perspective. Many of my songs are seeded from myths, fables, fairy tales and archetypes, but such inspiration is only valuable to me in terms of how applicable it is to the hardship and achievements we, as people, face now. I believe that the stories I draw from persist because they allow us to see our own journeys as an arch within them. Because they offer us meaning in our personal struggles, solidarity in our triumphs and give us insight about what it means to be human. Beyond, I believe that the narratives we create to give meaning to our own experiences are what allow us to live beyond the decay of a singular moment and take our place amidst the stars.
Living and Dying Through the Act of Creation
Creation is an act of continual death and rebirth. Songwriters are quick to talk about the spark, that effervescent moment of inspiration but I think we are sometimes negligent in our recognition of the importance of dissolution and decay within the processes of art. The idea, that’s the easy part, and though ideas often feel as though they alight upon us unexpectedly and precocial, the truth is, ideas are a proverbial phoenix rising from the burnt out ashes of all our little deaths.
Energy always has to come from somewhere; it transforms from one medium into another, an infinite spiral unfurling. Words and notes are energy, so every time a new lilt of phrase, a fresh melody opens wet wings, it came from the pyre of all the words, all the echoing notes played before. Your words, my words, your notes, my notes, thousands of years of gestating substance, all waiting to be sifted through and germinated anew.
Sounds grand doesn’t it? On a personal level, this plays out every day in every conscious act of creation. I have thought about this a lot over the last four months as I recorded and released my fourth CD, Scorpion Moon. At every stage of this journey, I have had to let things go in order to clear a pathway for the possibility of growth. Something as simple as finalizing an arrangement is a type of death; the tying of ideas into static form, corralling them, severing all the branching edges to create something concrete to share with the world. There are many little deaths and I think it’s important to acknowledge that within the tremendous gain that comes from manifesting a project into reality that inherent within that process is also loss; more eminently this loss is as important to our development as artists as the gain. I know I discard as much as I keep, perhaps more, while I condense thought and meaning into a singular form that gathers momentum beyond the edges of my influence. And far from seeing these exiled notes and words as orphans, lost to the world, I see them as the bones forming beneath the surface of every song to come.
As if to drive this point home, as I ushered into being this long awaited and immensely satisfying piece of art, many aspects of my personal life literally fell to pieces. Far from this being a creative impetuous, in fact it has often felt the opposite and I am struck by the notion of allowing the forest to burn to the ground before renewal can begin. Sometimes you just have to let things burn.
Through it all, I am reminded over and over that this is what growth feels like, the sudden shifting of an axis, the painful extension of self. My dad wrote me an email in the midst of the spiraling chaos of mixes, graphics and dissolving certitudes. His words, “The longer I live, the less I seem to know with certainty. An exception is this. I know that when life presents you with pain and difficulty, the universe is asking you to grow”. If I may extend this outwards, pain within the process of art is a harbinger for creative evolution only if we allow ourselves to truly experience the passage fully, every little birth, every little death. True art requires a commitment to destruction as much as to creation. We have to be willing to deconstruct ourselves and our art over and over for there to be the possibility of rebirth. Remember, on the other side of those smouldering ruins of beliefs – of perspectives – of spectacular failure is a glorious phoenix just waiting to be reborn.
When a Songwriter Loses Her Voice...
What would you do if you knew you were going to lose your voice forever? What song would you sing? Here’s a guest blog by S.A.C. Member Sora whose work with someone in this very predicament is both moving and inspiring. It is also a great reminder to those of us who still have our voices to keep on singing! (Lily C)
In Sora's Words...
Every musician knows there are difficulties to be had in any recording experience. Scheduling, financing, timing and technical issues are all fairly common. Yet, in the end, we overcome knowing that no matter how we come to the recording, the instrument is unfailing, that the ultimate joy is the moment when we move our songs through our fingers, through our voices, through our bodies from that ether realm of imagination into something tangible, something real. Imagine if you would then, that in addition to the regular obstacles that there was one with a far more personal and devastating impact: that your body had now become the greatest challenge of all.
I met Cindy O’Neil in 2007 at a SOCAN event. We hit it off instantly and within weeks we were co-writing a song together. It was my first co-writing experience and though I was nervous, unsure how to proceed, unsure as to how Cindy’s jazzy and my Celtic new age styles would mesh, Cindy’s positive, upbeat attitude had us laughing, chording and lifting our voices together in song. By the end of the night I had recorded on my mp3 player the basics of a duet, “Wings in Flight”.
We always wanted to record it, especially after performing it live and receiving amazing feedback. Everything seemed on track. The virtuosic violinist and composer, Donovan Seidle, who is an old friend of mine agreed to write a string arrangement and we had someone to produce it in a studio. Of course, the best laid plans often go awry and the recording dates fell apart. These things happen right? As an artist synergy in projects is important, it creates momentum, focuses and streamlines. Cindy and I thought that maybe it wasn’t quite the right time, that there would always be another recording date. A year passed and Cindy moved from Calgary to Ontario to be with her fiancé. Still, I thought perhaps on my next recording project I could fit Wings in Flight onto it. We thought that we had forever to record it.
Forever came sooner than we thought.
For you see, Cindy has been living for years with a life threatening disease, rheumatoid arthritis. And the medication that allows her do even the most basic of functions, that allows her to get dressed, brush her hair, this medication is stripping away her voice. Cindy phoned me and told me this earlier in the year and asked “can we record our song before I don’t have a voice left?”
We struggled to make a plan, with limited finances and cross country distance between us. I contacted a producer and recording engineer I know in Winnipeg and though this seemed an ideal solution, dates could not be pinned down. The song felt as though it might just slip away into oblivion. But a second phone call from Ontario changed all that. Cindy’s fiancé, Ken, was planning a surprise trip West for her and when he asked if they could see me, it was as if the Universe had opened up and given me a gift, the ability to put together the best surprise present I could think of: a recording.
Within weeks it was all set up. And this time, it all fell into place perfectly, the recording studio, the musicians, media. I went into the studio and recorded the bedtracks and scratch vocal and hoped beyond hope that as the temporary guardian of this song, that I would do it justice, that I could manifest our joint vision to her satisfaction as well as mine.
Cindy knew nothing, until we stepped inside the studio. The song was put on and Cindy‘s face said everything. She was overwhelmed, crying, laughing and above all else, she was singing. I can’t say it wasn’t a struggle, it was. Cindy lungs burned with each take, but to listen to her beautiful voice soaring above the lush strings wasn’t my gift to her. It was her gift to me. It’s not every day the Universe gives you the opportunity to give someone a legacy. And if a song, recorded as one’s voice fades -as the unfailing instrument cracks- isn’t a legacy, I don’t know what is.