I wrote my first song after leaving home.
At eighteen, I’d moved out of my house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and landed at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh as a college freshman. It was my first time living away from home.
Feeling the loneliness of being a 5-hour drive from all that was familiar, I wrote a song for my boyfriend called, “Baby, I’m Missing You.” That’s all I remember of my first song but I’m certain it was not very good.
However, this creativity had awakened something new in me. I sensed songwriting was a door to discovering more of myself, healing deep hurts, and dealing with some confusing emotions. Maybe the creative life was for me!
Little did I know how far I would have to go to become a true artist.
We have to start somewhere. Singing was my beginning. First in elementary schooI then all the way through high school, I sang other people’s songs. I still remember my first solo in a choral Christmas concert. I got to step out and sing a short verse of Wintertime Aglow. The local TV station aired it which thrilled my mom. That performance had a huge impact on my 15-year-old self. What else would I be brave enough to try?
I sang my heart out in every high school talent show that came my way after that. Linda Ronstadt and Pat Benatar inspired me to belt out many a rock ballad for my peers. I was always mimicking the singer’s inflections, matching the song’s sentiment without really comprehending its message. In one show I sang “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” by Linda Ronstadt. The chorus went like this:
Someone to lay down beside me
Even though it’s not real
Just someone to lay down beside me
You’re the story of my life
Thankfully, it was not the story of my life. The message went over my head but tapped into my heart’s desire. I wanted to sing out my sadness with passion.
The Singer and the Songwriter
That first semester in college, with all its disruptive changes and challenges, I decided to give my feelings a voice. With a borrowed a guitar, I plunked out the 3 chords I knew. I created a melody and lyrics to match my loneliness. And to fit my writing style.
Well, my emerging style.
Just as my vocal style wanted to amalgamate all of the singers from the ’70’s and ’80’s whom I wished I could be, my writing style wanted to combine Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, and Janis Ian to create the perfect blend.
In the end, though, I had to be me. My songwriting morphed into a vehicle for my limited vocal power and the message and emotions I had to communicate.
At Berklee College of Music I began writing in earnest. I had transferred to this college in Boston because I wanted to move beyond the classical voice training from my first college. Now I could work on becoming a singer-songwriter. Berklee was perfect because it was all about the pop and jazz!
My songwriting and theory teachers taught me so much. I studied jazz harmony, ear training, voice, and performance. Also, I got involved in ensembles, gained recording studio experience, and performed in some shows on Berklee’s big stage.
My singing and songwriting improved as did my performance chops. Probably, I wouldn’t want to record any of those early songs I wrote. But they are still a part of my bigger story.
Scott Dente and I had met at Berklee during my second semester. We became an item soon after and have collaborated on music ever since. After graduation and marriage, we loaded up the truck and headed to Tennessee. Nashville, that is.
As Out of the Grey, we got to make 7 studio records. After that, he and I worked on my solo projects and several outside collaborations. Throughout the decades of our musical marriage, we always had to make the time to write. We called it scheduled creativity.
In fact, we’re doing it that way still. He works on new music constantly with his production company called Global Genius. He has a lot on his plate and maps the days for creative space.
Creativity has never been easy for me. I can’t just drop everything when a bright idea strikes. Mostly, I like to schedule my creativity and hope for inspiration to show up. She usually does. If not, I come back again and again until I get my writing up to snuff.
Tools For Creativity
Recently, I put together a few songwriting tools for my songwriting students. The Singer and the Songwriter is a handbook and workbook for singer-songwriters. It’s based on my training and experience.
I put in some teaching elements as well as exercises, prompts, and reminders to help writers to get creative.
- I mapped out 10 steps to keep your flow of creativity going so you can start–and finish–your song.
- I created a section for developing your lyrics by using figurative language.
- I included a section on basic music theory and harmony so you know what chord patterns work well and how to write a good melody.
- My vocal technique section teaches you how to gain strength and range while releasing vocal tension.
The other tool is my Creativity Journal which has lots of space for getting creative with emotions, images, and lyrics. Using samples of some of my lyrics, this journal inspires writers of all kinds to create a flow of imagination and artistry. (If you want to get creative using an autographed Songwriter Handbook, you can find it here and I’ll also write you a nice note!)
Also, I created my 10 Tips for Better Songwriting on this site.
The Bigger Story
Looking back, I see how far along the road I had to go to hone my artistic expression.
At the end of the day, the joy, the sorrow, and the chaos of life drive us to draw some creative conclusions about what’s going on.
When I sing,”Walk By Faith,” it’s because I can’t see straight in the broad daylight. I’m looking for a way to live in the big picture without having all of the answers.
When my son sings, “Hallelujah,” I lift my hands and agree that I don’t know why I’m alive. Sometimes I don’t have to wonder why.
“Oh hallelujah, I am alive
Yeah and I don’t know why, why
No I don’t know
I don’t have to wonder”
When You Create….
We all get creative in some way. Trying to put our lives into perspective, we write, draw, paint, or play.
- Who did you sing along with as a teenager?
- What artists have impacted your story?
- When did you create your first song, story, poem, or painting?
- Have you tried getting creative lately?