Behind the Mic
By Jen Levins
Photo by Mike Dillon
Distractions are everywhere. Relationships are impossible. Some relationships are distractions. These are the only things I am sure of right now.
Way back in September, I decided that I wanted to take some time off from performing. I had been hitting at least one open night a week for a year. There were a few weeks when I played out five nights in a row. I played on sidewalks to no one. I played to packed rooms of belligerent teenagers. I played without monitor mixes. I played for sleeping old men. I played for money. I played for food. I played until it was my distraction from songwriting and I was starting to crack.
I knew I needed time off because I hit a creative wall. There were two approaches to choose from: keep picking away expecting not to move for a while, or change direction entirely. After mulling it over, I realized that I had already hit a major goal. When I started to do this, I figured that it would take me about a year to get my chops back and remember how music works. Mission accomplished. It was time to regroup.
I thought it would be a good idea to perform less in an effort to focus on songwriting. Plus, I would have more time to practice and finish all of those household chores I've been letting slide. My garden is only half of a jungle now. Yes, I was able to weed exactly one half of the garden. I've also written exactly one song. I haven't gotten much else done.
It turns out that performing was keeping me disciplined. I had a routine. I had to practice to be in performance shape. As I was spending so much time with my guitar, I would naturally start writing new songs. I was thinking the whole time, "If only I had more time to finish some of these songs", but at least I was getting something done.
What have I really been doing lately? I've been sucked into TV shows after work, going to the bar, hanging out with friends in hot tubs after the bar, and making some attempt at this dating nonsense. Sometimes I just end up watching music videos on the internet. I tell myself it's for inspiration or education or something. But it is really all a distraction.
I usually write songs in brief bouts of manic inspiration that last between 20 minutes to an hour. It takes longer for the song to iron itself out, but its form is pretty solid in that time. The unfinished song sitting on my keyboard started a year ago. It began with two lines that I knew were a chorus. I sung them around the house for a while. It took about nine months to get the rest of the words. This one's been taking so long that I've decided that I can't work on anything else until it is done.
Why is this taking so long? This song is about unrequited love, but not just loving someone and getting nothing back. It's about that moment of realizing that the other person doesn't feel the same way. It's about acknowledging that the whole ordeal has been a terrible idea and it was never going to work. It's about being the girl who never gets the guy. Frankly, I'm having a hard time dealing with all of that.
Being a musician can make relationships difficult. My propensity to fall for other musicians is emotionally catastrophic at best. Being single grants me a lot of freedom. I can stay out as late as I need, as often as I want. At some point, I will be on the road. I won't be able to take anyone with me nor would I want to. Generally, I spend more time with my guitar than I do with loved ones anyway. There really isn't much space in my life for another person.
This song is digging deep into issues I can't deal with. Every time I sit down to finish, I end up mad and ready to throw everything out the window. It really isn't the music that is the problem. I know exactly how it sounds. The problem is that I have to spend a significant amount of time dwelling with parts of myself that I don't like, parts that I wish would go away. It is possible that I am making this harder than necessary, but I don't see how I could move an audience without going to that place.
Sometimes a lack of activity is just a gestational period. I think I've just been procrastinating. What I need is discipline. There is nothing wrong with relaxing or blowing off steam, but at some point it's just an excuse.