"The song itself is its introduction to itself." - Robyn Hitchcock
Songs have a few different lives. I like my songs to have at least three. If they’re good, they can have even more. But usually just two or three. Sometimes people want songs to resemble themselves. Both songwriters and song-audiences are guilty of this. “Hey, this live version doesn’t sound anything like the recorded version. That’s not good. I want the song to look like just like I remember it. In my bedroom it looked blue, but now it looks yellow.”
I suppose I can understand that sort of thinking from the standpoint of an audience member. It’s nice to go to a concert and have a song look and sound like what you’re used to. But there’s really no excuse for a songwriter thinking this way. You have to think about the song and how it wants to go and move and live. The creator of the song should want it to go and move and live different lives too. If the song lives the same life for too long, it can die. And no one wants that. Even good songs can die. There are different kinds of deaths a song can die. It can stagnate and start to smell and then nobody wants anything to do with it anymore. It turns into a sandwich you keep taking apart and remaking every day with the exact same ingredients. Eventually, the mayo you keep scraping off and putting back on turns green and it begs for death and you oblige. Even the best ham becomes garbage after a few days.
A song’s first life is when it’s born from your hands with your guitar or piano or whatever instrument. If it’s a good one, it’s pure and sort of solid and just delicious and happy. It can stand up and bark on it’s own and you’re so proud of it. You might even bring it out of the house and show it to your friends before it’s fully formed. What an exciting time for a song. The song loves this time and loves this life and you love it too. But it doesn’t want to stay that way forever. It’s mostly excited because it can see its own future.
The next life comes when the song gets recorded. This is my favorite life for a song because you can give it everything it needs. You can give it things it didn’t even know it wanted. You can repay the song for the wonderful gift it’s given you by existing. You can wrap it up in a beautiful red gown and do its makeup and sit it in an ornate chair. The best part about this life is it lasts forever! Don’t squander this opportunity. You can re-record songs. That’s OK too, but at some point, you should try to get it right. Do things to the song that can never be repeated. That’s what’s so beautiful about this permanent, recorded life. You can create a fantasy world for your song. If your song needs it, you can add an entire orchestra inside of it and on top of it. Now’s your chance. Add a flute or a bongo drum or a Peruvian throat singer. Why would you deny your song the chance to life that life? Because you can’t logistically or financially recreate it in front of a bunch of people? That’s crazy and abusive. You’re forgetting about art. Stop forgetting and get out of art’s way. If you tried to stop a painter from using a certain color, they would flick their brush and shoot paint right in your eye. If someone thinks they know better than you about what your song needs during this part of its life, flick something at them and then when your song is recorded exactly to your liking, climb up on top of a hill and scream about how glad you are to have done it your way.
The third life happens on the road. Or more accurately, in front of an audience. Maybe you play with other people in a band. That’s a great way to make this third life happen. If you play by yourself, it can be tempting to keep your song the way it sounded during its first or second life. Now is the time your song gets to have hobbies and interests of its own. You might find your song likes to be played louder or slower than you expected. Or that it likes to have someone else sing it. Or that it has a whole other new, great section that never even existed in its first or second life! Wow. Again, it might be tempting to try to recreate one of the song’s other lives because of someone’s expectations (yours or the audience’s or your parents’). Don’t do that! The song doesn’t even really belong to you anymore. You made your point during the song’s second (recorded) life. You’ve already climbed the hill and screamed. Now you have to let the song show you what it’s capable of. This life can and should last years and years. Probably even after you're dead. Amazing.
After those three lives, there’s really no limit. The song might be played by someone other than you (there’s another life). You might decide to re-record it and incorporate some of the elements you discovered during its third life. Maybe you want to go back to showing people what it sounded like during its first life (that counts as a whole new life). There are loads of ways a song can have a new life. Some we haven’t even thought of yet.
Songs are better than paintings and poems and sandwiches because songs *are* paintings poems and sandwiches. You can look at, read, destroy, eat, and carry a song. You can bring it around the world with you without anyone knowing you have it. You can land in Jerusalem and when you get off the plane, you can sit down on the tarmac and start singing a song. That’s a whole different life I just thought of.
A song would never ask you to stay the same forever, so don’t ask a song to resemble itself.
It’s only fair.
You can play your song at a fair too. That’s another life.