Some people live beyond their means. I write beyond my means. What I’m saying is that I write songs that are sometimes too complicated for me to easily perform.
I recently went into the studio with a really accomplished pianist, Marilyn Lerner. She was my first ever piano player, just a kid fresh out of music school, but who’d been taking piano lessons since she was teeny. She went on to get into jazz and improvisational and new music and all sorts of far-out stuff.
But me, well, I’m not a schooled musician. Had three years of violin as a kid, but my parents were both tone deaf so my musical education soon fell by the wayside. Then I learned guitar from chord books and ended up in a folky band, but eventually took a summer course at the Royal Conservatory for grade 1 & 2 theory – I figured it would improve my songwriting.
But in the band we mostly did stuff by ear, and all that theory just went out the window. So a few years later I took piano lessons. I wrote some pretty cool songs on the piano, but I couldn’t play the thing worth a damn because I’m about as coordinated as a jellyfish.
Now for me it’s all about the lyrics, and I often write complex songs with irregular structures and throw in extra bars and chords and whatever the words and story dictate. But then when it comes time to perform the suckers, well, I can’t count beats worth a damn, especially while I’m singing.
So recording with someone like Marilyn who can sight read and who’s got a chart (written out by my producer, because if I can’t read music, I sure as heck can’t write it either), while I have only a lyric sheet with little chicken tracks in pen on it, the tracks representing the number of beats between lines or places where the words are actually a pickup, or need to be stressed – well, it can get embarrassing when I screw up. Which I did fairly often the other night, in part because the song is also very new, so it’s not burned into my brain yet.
So that’s what I mean by writing beyond my means. The only thing that saves me is that Marilyn and other fabulous schooled musicians I’ve worked with really like those complicated, quirky songs of mine, and seem to find the patience to deal with my musical ignorance. And for that, like others who live beyond their means, I owe them a huge debt.