A few years ago I got a part in a new translation of an old play. A young Canadian director had collaborated with the granddaughter of Bertolt Brecht and re-translated the tragic German play, Woyzeck. In casting, the director saw that I was a jazz singer and assumed that I could write music.
“Hey, I was thinking we could have some original music in the show. You write, don’t you?”
My brain gaffawed, “Write?! HAHAHAHAhaaaHAhahaha! No. I have never written a song in my LIFE!”
But my mouth said, “Yes. Yes I do. I would like to write some original music. Because. That. Is what I do.”
Thank goodness for my blabbery mouth that makes its own decisions. Because that’s how I got into songwriting.
So, for Woyzeck, a fun but not particularly lucrative production, I wrote such timeless, heart-warming classics as “Never Trust a Sausage,” “What Makes a Man a Mensch” and “Stay Yet” – a song that I ultimately recorded in New York just a few years later.
That crazy but important experience then led to the writing of another song. One that even my jazz-schooled colleagues admitted they enjoyed playing on and were genuinely impressed I’d written.
While high on my own surprise that I could actually write and as an underslept new mother of my first son, I ran into a favourite colleague at a local jam. A guitar player, Nathan Hiltz. We’d performed together a number of times at this point and were gabbing over a pint and shouting at each other over the din of the club.
“Hey, do you write?” he asked, not knowing of my newfound GENIUS!
“Yup. Yes I do.” I replied, over-tooting my inexperienced horn.
“We should get together and write something,” he suggested earnestly.
“Yeah, that’d be great,” I said, in that way that we actors sometimes do, with over-friendliness and white-toothed keenness, knowing full well we have no intention of making it happen. It goes along beautifully with the let’s-have-coffees and the I’ll-introduce-you-to-my-agents or the we’ll-do-that-play-reads; a sweetly frosted bid of anxious suggestion rather than an actual promise or proposal.
And guess what the rotten so-and-so did, he kept his word! I received a text, not two days later.
“When R U free? I’m open Friday morning.”
OH MY GOD. WHAT?! What do I even do? I can’t write music with an actual jazz musician…who’s gone to school and stuff!
“Yes,” I replied, “Friday will get heat.”
“GREAT. It will be great.”
So, that’s how it started. Friday at 10:30am, Nate showed up. I put my then four-month-old son in the Jolly Jumper, poured some hot coffee and Nate played me some ideas he’d worked out on his scratched up acoustic.
When a musician of Nate’s skill sits down and plays “some ideas of something” he has “worked out,” you thank for freekin lucky stars it’s you who gets to paint the lyrical picture. I thought at first, maybe he’d asked the wrong person. He seemed to have an endless wealth of ideas. And all of them astoundingly beautiful. I had no experience or idea of how or where to start as a lyricist. I listened. I nodded my head. I slurped my coffee. The baby kept time, repelling off the kitchen floor…boing, boing, boing…I was trying to mask the cold sweat on my palms.
After Nate left, I sat down and write, listening to the melodies we’d recorded on our phones. I tried and tried but everything I wrote was just awful, clichéd and, often, had been written before.
“You… you are the…you arrrre my…you are my sunsh-…” aw, crap.
“Put your haaaaannnnd… put your hand in the…hand of the mannn…” COME ON!
“I just calllllled…” nope.
I put it to bed. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for songwriting. Perhaps it was best left to the people I whose songwriting I so admired – Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Neil Young…my own grandfather, a reluctant but skilled lyricist in his own right. Before he became the well-known Canadian columnist and broadcasting personality that many remember, he himself had laboured away as a singer and songwriter for a number of years.
The next day, I set out, walking briskly with the wee man in the stroller. I put in my ear phones and listened to all the melodies Nate had gifted me so confidently. I walked. Soon my baby was sleeping and with the hypnotic rhythm of my own feet stepping and my body moving forward, the energy of the city full of ideas zooming past me, it all starting flooding my brain. Images, words, poems, rhymes.
Over the next four years, Nate and I wrote songs about love and loss and home and spring and death and a skunk. And we continue to write, though now Nate is a new dad and my own kids continue to grow, so, needless to say, writing time is precious and fleeting between tiny bum-wiping and juice-pouring and bedtime-storying. But I still find my best ideas while walking.
"In A World Without Him" - Hiltz/Ross-Barris - featuring moi, Nahtan Hiltz (G) and Gord Mowat (B)