Nostalgia, Creation, etc
Creation is wispy. If you pull too hard, it disappears into the thin air it came from.
A decade in to songwriting and making music, I’m finally at peace with this fact. But as I write my album and teach for the first time, it still bothers me sometimes.
I try to explain it to the students in my conservatory seminar.
A bunch of bobis if ever there was a bobi bunch. I like them so much y’all, and a couple of classes in, they’re finally starting to trust me.
That’s a lot of responsibility. How do I help them best? Is it worth trying to explain that best case scenario, they’ll put in a decade? Find great joy and also repeatedly break their heart? See some of their friends lose their minds, see some of their friends exit music and/or life, see some of their friends realize their wildest dreams?
Who knows. Things are so different now. As someone less than a decade out of jazz school myself though, I can tell you: These kids are on a different tip than 2010s jazz school songwriters were. They are very far from this little bobi in a tiny New School practice room in the West Village.
They’re not writing about love or breakups or cityscapes. They’re going deep. A topic that comes up often, instead, is nostalgia.
I am not currently elderly, despite the persistent 84 year old spirit I’ll spend my life catching up to (see: Yiddish lessons, childhood friendship with Jules, etc). I am, in fact, 32 years old. 33 in a few weeks. So you might lovingly chuckle with me over my handling of this word alongside my students. That would be a fair response.
Either way, it has been rewarding and fascinating to tease it out with them. To do this, I employ one of my favorite tricks I use from writing rooms to conservatory halls, which is to simply ask, “What are you trying to say?”
That trick isn’t mine, by the way. It’s my dad’s, a man whose coolness and brilliance I’ll likely spend the rest of my life chasing and failing to match.
He used to use that sentence with me when I was writing English papers. 9.9 times out of 10, the words that tumble out naturally are better than the flowery sentence we thought was so great.
Creation is tenuous like that.
It requires and demands vulnerability at all times.
It challenges your idea of time and space.
And that’s where we meet, the students and I. I know something about nostalgia, myself. I know, or I think I know, its purpose at this point, which is to trap us in euphoric recall. To ground us in a moment and feeling that doesn’t exist now, and may never have existed. It is delicious and tantalizing and perilous. And in the tougher moments of this pandemic it is difficult for me not to dive head first into its waters.
I’ve been looking back, myself, on the energy that spurred me to make my first album in 2012. To, when that album wasn’t what I’d hoped, temporarily give up and then call some friends and start a session out of my Chinatown apartment.
The Orchard Sessions, filmed by Beto Vargas and later Sachi Maclachlan, existed before the “share” button existed on social media. We had one nice camera and a shitty Zoom recorder. I insisted we not include mics in any shot so you’d be in the living room with us, too. We did our best. For the first session, I wrote the song that day and Eric forgot his brushes so he played a bowl of rice and a typewriter instead.
We ended up doing 18 sessions, with the remaining 17 including my friends as guests. I stopped doing them when I ran out of money. Each one saved my soul in the most perilous year of my life before or since. And now I’m here. Talk about nostalgia.
Creation is thorny.
It gnaws at your head and claws at your heart. Ignore it and it will eat you alive. Pay attention and it will give you the most beautiful thing you’ve ever witnessed. Either one will be extraordinarily painful.
(Have fun, kids!)
Creation needs you to get out of the way and simultaneously stay completely present.
You write down words and notes as quickly as you can, hoping to honor them as they morph from your head to your hand, from your vision to what you want to present.
I have the album down to 17 songs now, from the 100 I had a few weeks ago. They live in a whopper of a Google sheet. Most of my notes read like the one below.
I’m doing my best to keep up with the creation.
Which warps your idea of the human body.
And broadens your idea of the human body.
And requires everything and nothing from you.
The students aren’t wrong. Nostalgia is ageless. It can exist for José’s daughter / my 7 year old step-daughter, if she wants it. She can remember, with wistful sepia tones, how great 6 was. The trick, always, is to stay grounded in the moment now and see how special it is.
It really is special. And I love you. Check out how much more downstairs neighbor’s pink tree has flowered.
As the buds indicate, another week has passed, so we’re here together. The more I write this album, the more I’m thinking it will have to be self titled. Though I have written a lot up until now, nothing has ever felt so authentically my own.
Nostalgia has its purpose, and it also has nothing on this moment. Even in the midst of a pandemic. Even in all this chaos. I’m so grateful for the space you’ve given me to parse through it. We’re filming Silver Bullet (Song for Sima) this Wednesday, so you’ll finally get to see a little bit of somewhat finished work. I can’t wait.
Till then, sending you my love.
ps: Yiddish is going very well, still, and whatever perfect comedian programmed in the translatable sentences, I want to meet them. Speaking it into the universe.
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