There is a thing which I call the “heart of the song”. I have been meaning to tell you about it for a while now, and most people who have worked with me musically will know that it is my greatest motivator. In fact, I would say that if I have any talent at all, it is in finding the heart of the song. When I am collaborating with someone else, there is sometimes a period of one or both of us being awkward and uncomfortable until such a time as we stumble upon it, when suddenly the fog clears and everything makes perfect sense. Funnily enough, when you find what it is that I am talking about, you discover that you are not actually doing anything except transcribing the amazing and bewildering inspiration pouring in forever through this other place, so to say I am good at finding it is merely like saying that I have found a door to a really really nice place. Would you like to take a look inside?
The heart of the song is my term for the essence of creation, or perhaps the fulfilment of limitless unborn potential. It is similar to what is known in spirituality as the way, the Tao, or intuitive guidance, but it is different to those terms with regard to expressing a musical idea. Sometimes it is obvious, and other times it requires intense, yet sensitive excavation, like an archeological dig uncovering an ancient and precious jungle temple. When it comes to finding the heart of the song in collaboration with another human being, it can be an incredibly vulnerable and difficult experience, because to find it you have to be one hundred percent humble, or you get nothing but discomfort, and as we all know it is rather difficult to surrender control completely.
When I find myself in a position to be able express it, everyone within proximity understands perfectly what it is I am communicating, though it will have a different personal meaning from each perspective. Time ceases to have any stable reality, and the boundaries between myself and the world perceived beyond my skin disappear. Many people have touched this experience in lots of different ways for a long time, as I am sure have you, but today I would like to talk about the heart of the song as it relates to composing and capturing a piece of music.
Music is an ephemeral, spiritual substance. Like smoke, it slinks through your fingers as you try to catch it, and though it is always shifting, it does have a form. Still, even if you listen to the same piece of music on the same sound system you will never hear the same thing twice because the air will vibrate differently depending on the temperature, altitude and humidity, and of course the person and ears that hear it are variables too. Even in that most controlled listening environment, our relationship to it is still fickle. Now imagine yourself writing a piece of music. Perhaps it starts with a chord progression. You like the way the first chord seems like solid ground, then your music moves onward in a natural evolution to the next chord. That particular movement feels cool, like a camera panning left and providing a new perspective on your original idea, and the way you emphasise certain notes within those chords seems to make an emotional difference. Then between the second and the third chords there is a sudden sense of suspension and mystery, of unresolved business that reminds you of a weird feeling you had during an unresolved conversation that occurred ten years ago.
Now you see what I am getting at. That is the heart of the song speaking. It is a pre-verbal, experiential world that is felt before concepts arise in the mind. It occurs to the whole mind-body-heart system, to our entire being, and is akin to the “aha!” feeling you get, a lightning bolt of ignition that comes with deep insight. For me it also occurs frequently in empathetic response to others. The heart of the song is the subtle essence of the meaning expressed that is felt by the listeners.
This is my guiding light, the thing that anchors me to everything I do creatively. I know when I am on track when I am frequently feeling aligned with these insights and open, flowing emotions. In fact, I am feeling it right now as I am writing these words, so I know I am onto something. There is an increased electrical charge in my system, a loss of inhibitions, and that charge subsides a little when I take breaks to pause. When I just let the flow occur, it continues. I know when I am off course when I feel tired, uninspired, sad, grumpy, or fall into negative thought loops that are not true or helpful. Thoughts like, “Argh! Nothing is happening! I usually do so much better than this…” and “I have been working on this all day and have nothing to show for it” are pretty normal. One big belief I used to live inside of was that I was lazy, started music too late, and had fallen many years behind my peers. Later I would find out that one simply has to make contact with that place inside and immediately all time and effort on the physical plane is transcended, and pure creativity flows unending. That was quite a relief to discover.
Intangible as it is, this river of dreams, flow of life, and heart of the song does have qualities, but they are not in a form you can easily point to. They are qualities like goodness, truthfulness, lovingness, power, beauty, wonderment, magic, wisdom, curiosity, depth, colour, texture, symmetry, mystery, and so on. These are the ones that I admire the most, but there are many more words you could use to describe it. It arises in the natural world in treasures like the harmonic series, the golden ratio, or the beauty of a fern, a flower or an iris. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about it is that it lies within unlimited means, and could be anything. That creates the surprise of life.
So, if it occurs naturally, and is born of infinite potential, then the question arises: “what causes it not to occur?” The answer is quite simple. Self-consciousness. When we try to control what happens. When we hold back our fullest, boldest expression. When we do not feel worthy, and when we feel shame or guilt. When we act out of fear – of being judged, of failing, of dying impoverished and hungry and alone. All of these distortions arise in us and interrupt the flow of pure creation which, according to most spiritual traditions, is our natural state. When we carry forward the unresolved negative feedback of the past in the form of generational trauma, childhood abuse, or our more mature sufferings, self-consciousness arises and represses the spark of life. An amazing realisation to have is that all of that trauma is itself an innocent and perfectly natural part of our evolution, and there is fundamentally nothing wrong. We are, however, responsible for what happens next, and have the power to untangle ourselves and live freely from that place.
As you may know, I have been working on the body of work I am now calling Dreamfolk for over ten years. In that time I have written a lot of songs. There are about 17 at the moment, and more keep coming. I am always writing something, little ephemeral lights floating about my head. When I have those initial ignitions and often again later when I go over the same ideas, these feelings, this connection to the heart of the song is present. Generally speaking, unless I am feeling deeply self-conscious, in performance I am usually able to produce a good likeness of the heart of it, and sometimes I am even surprised by how much I love the sounds coming out of my instruments. It feels easier to let go in performance because mistakes happen within time, and can thus be forgotten, especially with an ADD brain such as mine. You also have the pressure of everyone watching you on a stage, so it truly is sink or swim, and if you can completely get out of the way, you take full flight. But when it comes to singing into a condenser microphone and recording those same songs into digitised sound waves that will remain the same and potentially be shared many times across the world, the bottom falls out completely.
When it comes to recording, so much unresolved psychological material comes to the surface that it makes finding the heart of the song draining and, at times, a rather ugly affair. Self-consciousness of all forms is the ultimate block to creative expression, and so long as it is there, a direct connection cannot be made. I am actually still continually surprised that I have persevered to end up where I am, such has been the depth of my experience of confusion, shame, despair, anger and inadequacy. I guess the power of the pleasure and heart of music has always been enough to keep me moving forward. When you imagine musicians in a recording studio, you might not picture them with their heads in the hands, suffering from profound mental anguish, but that is exactly what I have looked like for a lot of my time making music. When I am flowing I am chain lightning, a rush of beautiful ideas soaring through technicolour dreamscapes. When I am stuck I am a polluted swamp where sick birds come to die. I know that sounds rough, but that is how I feel in those moments.
When making a record there are so many details to fuss over, and in searching for a greater degree of clarity, accuracy and perfection, we can easily lose sight of the thing we truly seek. I do believe that professional excellence is something that can actually be striven for in the service of the heart of the song, however that is a subtle edge that must be watched carefully, for it is easy to become too controlling and choke the flow of pure emotional response. Over the last couple days, my first return to writing music after 2 months off saw me spend a day subtly held by an unconscious belief of how a particular set of music should unfold, a rigid and stubborn idea of a structure that bound the inspiration so tightly that it could not breathe. As soon as I got within sight of the heart of the song however, these illusions fell away and I found myself seeing through the trance I had been bound in. I found it very amusing at the time, and these days I do not fall off the wagon quite so easily. It is important to remember that these small ideas are much like little children. They are very fragile in their early days, and their innocence needs to be defended until they grow in their strength and can stand up on their own. At that point (as when I saw the heart of this music), their truths will be self-evident, and they will unfold in spite of us.
Telling the truth
A phrase that goes with the heart of the song is “telling the truth”. This is what I call sincerity or authenticity in musical performance. If the heart of the song is the essence, then telling the truth is its expression. There are many musicians who have honed their craft to an impressive technical prowess, but I have never been particularly interested in that. Even as a teenage metalhead, melodic and powerful sounding guitar solos far surpassed blistering speed, pinch harmonics and all that tapping stuff, cool was it is in principle. No, what I really want to hear is someone singing their heart out, regardless of their pitch accuracy, or ability to juggle polyrhythms and complex harmony. If I hear someone really telling the truth, telling me who they are, I should understand who they are. In fact, it should tell me who I am, and who we all are. The thing about the truth is it is true on all levels of reality. The truth is the true no matter where you are standing. Maybe that is where its power comes from.
I aspire to tell the truth in this way. I see no better use for a human life. I want to write and record and play music that is always true, that changes lives. It might mean that to find the heart of the song I will have to let go all that obscures my vision of the truth, and that might be indescribably difficult to accomplish. But honestly, what else would you rather have than a true understanding of reality as it is? To know the true nature of yourself and the world. To know and be in direct communication the divine essence beyond form that is pure imagination and potential, the spark of life itself.
This is why it takes me so long to finish my records. I am trying to find and tell the truth.
Sorry for the wait. It will be worth it in the end.
I will leave you with Alan Watts’ timeless advice on writing. You may replace the word “writing” with whatever makes you happy:
Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone.