FRIENDS. Continuing our Year of Collaboration, this post is guest written by my dear friend and truly incandescent songwriter The Carley Baer Music Page, carleybaer.com.
We did not know as we were writing this song how supremely lucky we were to be in each other's physical company, as we do now, in this unimaginable moment in our world's history.
You will find many common endeavors in her (beautiful) writing here: The joy of the first glimpse of an idea for a creative endeavor. The necessary use of will to stay focused against the siren call of other ideas, other people, other endeavors. The endeavor to be thoughtful of other collaborators' ability to contribute.
And perhaps most of all...the miracle of friendship, of trust, of surrender to the process, of two people's creative efforts yielding something far greater than the sum of their parts, and the marvel of how it goes out into the world differently from each contributor, connecting with listeners we know and may never know.
Go here https://steelbridgesongfest.org/track/1255852/the-monster; to listen to the original song, sung by Carley Baer and played by me (I forgot how you can hear Carley smiling as she sings, and that I played the xylophone with bows - !)
Go here: https://jennybienemann.com/music to listen to the version that appeared on my record, 'Every Soul Grows to the Light.'
Steve Hamilton recorded the track and had the brilliant idea to keep the song simple with just one singer. Special thanks to Pat MAcdonald, Melaniejane Jane and the Holiday MusicMotel for producing these songwriting events so beautifully for so long.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, Carley Baer...
"Once upon a time, Jenny Bienemann and I were hiding out in beautiful Door County, WI.
It was a verdant week in June, on the banks of the sparkling waters of Sturgeon Bay, and we were attending Steel Bridge Songfest, one of three annual songwriting festivals hosted by the Holiday Music Motel. The essence of these week-long writing frenzies is collaboration by way of a bottle spin; each night, everyone stands in a circle, three spins gives you your writing trio, and you have 24 hours to write a song in homage to the local metal structure from which this particular fest takes its name.
For three days, this is the drill-- spin, write, record, repeat-- and at the end of the week, all the brand-new baby songs are performed in a theatre for the town. The first two days of a festival are effervescent with potential energy. Everyone’s kicking ideas around. Licks become melodies, melodies become verses and choruses. You can hear them crystallizing through the walls.
By day three, the hallways of the motel are reverberating with dozens of emergent tunes. People are being recruited from outside their spin groups to add instrumentation or backup vocals. Groups are in and out of the on-site studios; the format of the end-of-week shows is starting to get nailed down. Folks start getting spread pretty thin, but even so, the siren song of more chances to collaborate is hard to resist.
It was the third night’s spin that put Jenny and I together. I’d known her for a few years at that point-- her husband Robin was one of my first and favorite co-writers when I started attending the festivals-- but this was our first chance to collaborate, and I was really excited to see how we would work together.
As is the nature of a festival midweek, however, the other person who rounded out our cosmic trio was forever getting called to do other things. We would make a plan to meet, and Jenny and I would find ourselves waiting indefinitely, and then get distracted or called away ourselves, and then we’d attempt to meet again a few hours later. After a few more of these fruitless cycles, something had to be done, but the etiquette in this situation was unclear: do we stay in a holding pattern, awaiting the presumed future availability of our co-conspirator? Or do we start writing at the risk of cementing an idea and excluding our partner in the creative process?
Eventually we decided that we could just write our own song, and when (or if) our third became available, we would start a fresh idea all together. But in the meantime, there was no sense in wasting our time waiting. Not with all the creative energy in the air.
Speaking of which, the next obstacle we faced was finding a quiet place to write. Every room in the motel had some tune fragment drifting out of it. There were writers in the lobby, writers in the diner, and melodies coming from every corner. As songs were getting dialed in, the air was electrified with excitement. The urge to hop on to any of these newly-forming gems, riding their momentum to the finish line instead of starting from scratch on our own, was hard to resist.
But we had a commitment to honor, to the bottle and to ourselves. We finally found a vestibule at the end of a hallway and sat down-- Jenny with her guitar, I with my notebook. I felt the prickle of apprehension that I always feel at the start of a new session. Co-writing can be a daunting endeavor. With nothing to build on, no way to know whether the initial offering is going to turn into something that’s any good, those first moments can make or break a session. But one of Jenny’s great gifts is her ability to put a soul at ease. Despite my indiscriminate misgivings, the positivity of her spirit assured me that the experience was going to be good, whatever the song ended up becoming.
She began finger-picking a gentle, rolling riff in drop-D tuning and I was drawn to it instantly. It sounded introspective, bemused. A quiet song of self-reflection. Down from the heavens, a melody dropped into my head. I offered it tentatively. “All my life I’ve been afraid of a monster…” She beamed. “YES.” From there, the rest came with ease, at least as far as I can recall. The premise we devised was fun to work with: at the beginning, the monster is something we fear, whispering from the shadows that the world is scary and people are cruel. Then one day the monster is right next to us, and rather than respond in fear, we invite him in for tea. That initial act of bravery reveals that it’s not really a monster at all. It’s our inner voice, trying to tell us how to see the world around us. At first all we hear is the fear and judgement, but when we summon the courage to take a closer look at the world and how we react to it, we realize that fear is just a story, incomplete-- people can indeed be cruel, but they’re far more often kind.
I was elated. For one thing, I was in the midst of a hardcore Joni Mitchell phase and something about the song (the alternate tuning? the inward focus?) felt very Joni-ish to me. But beyond that, I found that Jenny and I have a lot of common ground in the way we approach writing. My belief about co-writing is that the song itself is secondary; the primary goal is getting to understand your co-writer and seeing how big of an overlap there is in your Venn diagram of influences and approaches. Sometimes that can take a lot of work; sometimes the overlap is a sliver, or there’s none at all. In this case, however, it felt like we had an immediate understanding, that our Venn diagram was a single overlapping circle, and the song was largely finished in a matter of hours.
There was one final caveat. In the course of crafting the narrative arc of the tune, we forgot that the whole point of Steel Bridge Songfest is to write songs about the eponymous bridge, and as we were getting to the end, we realized that our creative director’s first and likely fatal critique would be that we had neglected to do so. Dang iiiiit. We pored over the lyrics, searching for any kind of bridge angle, anything at all that could make it relevant (and, if we’re being totally honest, merit inclusion on next year’s album of bridge-themed songs), but there was nothing we could do without ultimately moving the words away from the story we had created, and we loved the story too much to change it. So, in a last-ditch effort to circumvent the impending critique, we tucked the word “bridge” into the last line of the last verse, to describe the twilight between sleeping and wakefulness.
In the end, speaking for myself, the song could be an allegory for the very writing process that yielded it: my initial fear and anxiety, the bravery to confront and inspect those feelings, the peaceful confidence that followed once the fears were assuaged. It’s amazing what you can discover when you open yourself to the co-writing process. If you’ve never tried to collaborate, I cannot recommend it more highly. It changes you; you learn new skills, acquire new tools, forge new bonds. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to make yourself so vulnerable to others. Yes, people can be cruel. But you’ll find that they’re far more often kind."
On April 24, we will be doing a Haiku Milieu: Collaboration Concert. We had originally planned to have it at Outtaspace. Now, it is very likely that we will have it online. We would love to have you with us. Save the date, and stay tuned.
Photo credit: Jen Brilowski.