Finding Life in Creativity

finding life in creativity

Creativity 101

I wrote my first song after leaving home. creativity

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.

Secondary Education

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.

creativityWell, 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.   

Creativity 201

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.  

Scheduled Creativity

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   

creativity
A Handbook and A Workbook

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
Hallelujah
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?

Change–Going The Distance

I don’t like change very much. I cried every time I tried to finish the song,“The Distance.” It’s a song about my son growing up and out of the house. It took me 5 years, really, to put the final lines together and then let it go, move on. Planted on my padded piano bench, my hands gently pressing into the chords, I would sing the first few words in the verse:

The sun sets as we drive the Trace

I’ll never forget this side of your face

It’s not the same as it was, so much has changed since I met you.

My heart would immediately connect with the image in my head: my young teenage son and me driving together on the Natchez Trace, a winding, scenic roadway close to our home. Although it stretches from Nashville, Tennessee to Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a short section that connects a friend’s house to ours.

the Natchez Trace bridge in Nashville Tennessee

Way back then, Julian and I were crossing the lovely Natchez Trace Bridge which spans a yawning valley. The sky was sunset orange. In the glow to my right, I saw that my son was a young man in transformation. Soon, he would be in the driver’s seat and I would be the passenger. Not long after that, he wouldn’t need me at his side at all. The road before us began to stretch out in ways that my heart didn’t want to face.

Julian had already changed so much in the fourteen years I’d known him. But I knew there was more change to come. For that reason, whenever I sat at my piano determined to finish the song, the words got stuck in my throat.

Transatlanticism

In the awkward silences of Julian’s early teenage years, music was our connection. What kept us talking was our love of the melody and lyrics. A great song can really go the distance, keep its impact despite the flow of time all around it.

In the car, we’d sing along with our favorite songs, working out the harmonies and talking about the lyrics. One particular song by the group, Death Cab For Cutie, was a puzzle to both of us. What did “Transatlanticism” mean? What deeper message was hidden in the song’s images?

Part of its attractiveness was its mystery, the blank spaces left for us to fill. Somehow, it was a bridge in the growing gap between mother and son. It helped me to forge ahead with finishing, “The Distance.”

Change:young Julian DenteWe can’t always connect what’s between us now

And these silent stretches are longer somehow

We turn the music way up loud

And wonder what the song’s about

And the music spans the distance

It’s our transatlanticism

Love and Letting Go

As my son became a man, I finally finished and recorded my song about change and going the distance. Julian writes and records his own music now. He drives his own roads and goes places far from where we first traveled together. His songs keep me and the whole family talking. We all love the chord changes he chooses and sometimes we embarrass him with our enthusiasm.

Thankfully, I can say that I’m glad he has grown up and gone on without me. It’s good when sons—and songs—grow up and move on. He certainly comes back to visit and keeps me up to date on his latest favorite songs. The music he’s making is all his own yet has hints of his beginnings, links that connect him to home.

change: going the distance

Yeah, we always go together now

But I know what I know, soon I’ll slow you down

The time will come when I can’t keep up

And you’ll go on without me

Whether in small increments or large sweeps, change is a guarantee. How I traverse it is key.

Julian has a lovely wife and a son of his own now. I am learning to live with the distance that makes for a great relationship; mothers and sons are complicated! I am still listening closely to every lyric he writes and wondering what the song’s about. But I don’t have to figure it all out anymore or even assign meaning to every little bump in the road.

Trying to enjoy this ride we call life, I can see the mystery as attractive rather than scary. Find the beauty, deal with the impermanence, and go the distance with change. I’ll finish one song so I can move on to write the next one, connecting the changes in a chain of love and letting go.

Now we’re staring at that last bridge

And it feels like the Atlantic

Let the music span the distance

Read more about this and other songs in my book, Lifelines and the article, “Animal House!”

Listen to “The Distance” song and 9 others in A Little Light Left.

Thanks for listening and for going the distance with me.

Full lyric for “The Distance”

change: going the distance

The Art of Compromise or The Compromise of Art

art of compromise

Gravity and Relativity

Out of the Grey lite. That’s what my husband Scott and I call Gravity, our fourth record. Actually, a fan came up to our CD table after a concert one night in 1995 and bestowed that description.

“I love all of your albums up to this point but this new one is more like Out of the Grey lite.”

Yikes! He was right.

Before recording Gravity, we’d written our ten songs and were ready to head into the studio. Monday morning, 10 AM downbeat. However, the Thursday before our scheduled session, the record label decided we didn’t have enough ‘radio-friendly’ songs.

What?

Scott and I dug in our heels for a short minute then went with the pressure to play the game. Over that weekend, we scrambled to write a few new songs with more pop appeal. Our producer, Charlie Peacock, helped us win approval by co-writing the songs, “When Love Comes to Life” and “Hope In Sight.”

Half of the songs and a lot of the production came out lacking what we thought of as Out of the Grey artistry. We did get some radio play, though.

At the end of the day, did we practice the art of compromise or did we compromise our art?

A Play on a Play

art of compromiseHave you seen the film, Bullets Over Broadway?

You could call it a play on a play. The story examines artistic integrity and how far an artist will go to protect and defend it—or lose it. It poses a question about the sometimes-dirty word compromise, asking if it has its place or if it is always reprehensible.

At the beginning of this 1994 release, David, a young playwright, tries to gather funds and cast members to perform his beloved work of art. Time constraints, human foibles, and money woes assail his stance on artistic integrity. At first, David stands his ground, refusing to give up control over his writing and his role as director. Nevertheless, when an underworld thug with the funds for production materializes and seems a godsend, David compromises. The catch of the money deal is that the gangster’s talentless girlfriend must play a small part.

After David softens his stance regarding talent and economics, taking the production money plus the girl, his agent leads him into other small compromises. As the play unfolds and rehearsals progress, David’s artistic integrity slips so far that he rewrites dialog at the behest of the manipulative lead actress. However, the playwright’s climactic sin is letting the goon who babysits the talentless young actress make changes in lines, scenes, and the plot. David recognizes that this mobster hitman is more talented than he. In the end, David is not an artist who is willing to stand by his original work.

This play about a play never reveals what the playwright’s play was actually about. We get the gist, though, that more drama, sex scandals, and realism are what the people want. Are the characters speaking our language? Does the plot mirror our own struggles? Have we left off the lofty and abstract so that the crowd can get the message point blank? Bullets fly at movie’s end when the story descends into an action-filled thriller.

Popular Art

The population at large loves what it can enjoy and comprehend without extra effort. As a pop music snob, I pooh-pooh much of the stuff that seems all fluff. I prefer a more complicated theme than, say, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Having said that, I’m aware that other types of music-lovers wouldn’t call pop music ‘art’ at all.

To be sure, inside a fine art gallery, I might lift my eyebrows at the abstract and inaccessible. Impatient and ignorant, I don’t take the time to find the deeper meaning, moving further along the wall in search of served-up messages. When it comes to Art, I dig in my heels in relative places, drawing my own particular lines in the sand.

For example, I have written some artistically obscure songs like, “Becoming,” not caring whether anyone heard them or at least not worried that some might miss its message. However, I have certainly written songs with radio play in mind. Economic forces drove my compromise in the form of pressure from the record company and the mortgage company. One argument for concession goes something like this: if some of my art compromises its beauty for popularity sake, it will expose my more artistic pieces to a wider audience.

Mass Appeal

Many an Out of the Grey fan found us first on the radio. Before Gravity, our popularity had been growing. A lot of people told us they liked our fresh, left-of-center sound. Record sales were adding up and we wanted to capitalize on the momentum. It’s an old story.

art of compromise

The pressure to compromise can sideline even the best of intentions. When something good gets more popular, getting more becomes the modus operandi. For example, in the 1990s, Starbucks was just a cool cafe on the west coast. Scott and I had to mail-order their exotic blends and dark roasts. Nowadays, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, the McDonald’s of coffee some say. Compromising quality for quantity some complain.

However, mass-appeal has its appeal. It allows me to find a cheap knock-off of the expensive version of something or other I could otherwise not afford to purchase. As Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada about the origin of the color of her cheap cerulean blue sweater, so I should take a lesson and remember that design is a gift with a steep price.

Mob Mentality

I am an artistic snob when I care to be and part of the mob when I don’t. If I don’t sink my toes into certain artistic fields of expression, I am tempted to pass by quickly with a quick judgment. I may think you are crazy if you only buy a carefully curated olive oil while you may drop your jaw at me for spending so much time choosing between “a” or “the” in a song lyric. You may secretly judge my mall clothes as fashion mongrels while I am arguing internally that you can’t possibly enjoy the ‘music’ of Florida Georgia Line.

art of compromise

From Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling to Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, with so many in between, who decides what is good art or bad, high quality or low? Certainly, mass appeal isn’t a consistent measuring stick because watered-down art proliferates even as the cream rises to the top.

Relative Obscurity

Positively speaking, compromise is a humbled move toward peace. It need not always be an act of artistic cowardice.

What’s my point? Humility, I guess. If pride in my fine taste stiffens my stance in one corner of the rug, someone will surely pull it out from under my feet with revelations of what I am missing. More than likely, what appeals to you has merits I haven’t investigated. Maybe you love every song and sound on Gravity. I’m glad if you do!

In keeping my knees unlocked and soft, I can walk your way and experience the view from your side of the room. You can show me what I’ve missed in Picasso and I can point out the genius of Sting. We can meet at Starbucks, maybe stop to shop at the mall, and go from there.

Out of the Grey’s fan base fell off sharply after the release of Gravity. Our follow-up, See Inside, never found the listeners we thought it deserved. Scott and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d held our ground on how we wanted to shape our sound. The question will remain: does gravity suck or is it just a natural force that no artist can escape? The answer lies in the ears of the beholder. The rest is left to relative obscurity.

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