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How to Make a Record, Part 3: Following Clues

In part one, I talked about the outset of the journey. Part two was a look back at the lack of pattern over the years, which explains the appropriate lack of readiness, which, while uncomfortable, can be very good thing. In this post, thanks to your excellent feedback, I’m going to try and get more specific about the process and try to answer some of your questions.

Right off the bat, let me address this question a few of you asked: Which comes first, the lyrics or the music? This question has been asked of songwriters for as long as there has been songwriting, I imagine. The answer isn’t very satisfying, I’m afraid, which may be why it keeps coming up. The answer is “Yes.” Or, if you prefer, “D) All the above.” Sometimes the lyric comes first, sometimes the music comes first, and sometimes they come all at once, like the doorbell and the phone ringing at the same time. When someone claims to have discovered a foolproof method for creating art—other than a willingness to work very hard at it—I doubt either their honesty or their skill.

I’d dig into that more, but I want to get us back to the studio. Reading through your questions, I realized the best way to approach this may be to choose a song from the new record and give you a play-by-play of what we ended up doing.

On the Steven Curtis Chapman tour last fall, I was desperate to write songs. I knew we would be hitting the studio in a matter of weeks, and I didn’t have a single new song written. Being the opener on a tour is a great opportunity to write because of the abundance of free time. Not only that, it’s inspiring to be rubbing elbows with other songwriters and musicians. I remember hearing Billy Joel say once that when he faces writer’s block he puts on a tweed jacket, brings a notebook to a smoky bar in New York, sits in a corner and pretends like he’s a songwriter; sometimes it’s enough to convince himself. There’s something to be said for that, especially when you’re susceptible to certain voices in your head. It reminds me of George MacDonald’s admonition to know God by obeying him. If you want to know the mind of God, do what he says. Jesus, who knew the Father completely, also obeyed the Father completely. Similarly (though I know it’s a stretch), if you want to know what it’s like to be a songwriter, put on your tweed and write a song. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

Back to the tour. Every time I found a few hours of free time I ducked into a choir room or Sunday School classroom with my guitar and tried to find a song. By the middle of the tour I had written one and started about seven, but I was on the hunt for more. Then one day in soundcheck, one dropped out of the sky. Ben Shive started playing this really cool piano part, then Ken Lewis started drumming to it, and in moments everyone in the room stopped what they were doing. Everyone in the band hurried over to their instruments and without a word started playing along. Brent Milligan put on his bass. Josh Wilson and I started strumming. Harold Rubens at the soundboard stopped tweaking and started listening. Something cool was happening. If you’re a musician or a songwriter, chances are you know what I’m talking about. I’m not usually one for jamming, but sometimes someone discovers a chord progression or a melody or a rhythm that’s like a magic key. It opens an invisible door to a wide field of inspiration and beauty. It’s a rare occurrence, and I imagine it feels quite a bit like the Holy Spirit descending on the house, and we’re suddenly speaking the tongues of men and angels.

Lest you think I’m claiming that something I’ve written is that kind of inspired, let me make a disclaimer. First of all, who knows? God can do what he wants, with whomever he wants. But the song as it’s written is never as beautiful as it was in that fleeting, exhilarating moment of inspiration. The song’s potential is shimmering beyond the veil somewhere, while the song that you finally write is almost always haunted by a feeling of disappointment. When people talk about a book or a song being not so much finished as abandoned, that’s what they mean. They had a picture in their minds or a feeling in their heart that they’re trying to bring into space and time, and there’s just no way (yet) to deliver it in fulness. The song in reality is as different from what you imagined as a portrait is from the painter’s subject. At some point (usually thanks to the mercy of a deadline), you have to put down the brush and give thanks for the chance to have made an attempt. This has caused me some grief, and a lot of frustration. There are songs on my older albums (I won’t tell you which) that I had dreams about, but even as we recorded them I could feel the magic fading. It was like trying to shave as the battery in my Norelco died a slow death and left me half-whiskery. (I thought of that analogy because it happened to me about an hour ago.) The songwriting process for me is about trying to find the words and melodies that will get me as close as possible to the summit of the mountain I first glimpsed through the clouds. Most often, I’m nowhere close. I end up in the desert somewhere, turning the map this way and that. But sometimes I end up at least in the foothills, and I go to bed happy; I haven’t summited, but I can at least see the peak and imagine what it would be like to stand there.

Those are a few of the thoughts that went through my noggin as we vamped Ben’s chord progression. Over the mic I asked Harold at the soundboard to record what we were doing, and he gave me a thumbs up; he didn’t say a word because he didn’t want to break the spell. Right away, for reasons I don’t know, I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. It’s an amazing (and amazingly dark) book about a father and son trying to survive the apocalypse. They’re traversing the wasteland of America with hunger at their heels and man-eating wretches on their heels, too, trying to reach the ocean where the father believes they’ll find help. Along the way, he tells his little boy again and again that they have to “carry the fire”. It’s a simple, beautiful metaphor that can mean quite a few things. I started singing that phrase during soundcheck, and pretty quickly staked my claim on Ben’s piano part by asking if I could write something to it.

Here’s the recording from that day. Listening to it, you may wonder, “Why all the fuss?” It may not hit you at all. All I know is, it led me to a song. (That’s Josh Wilson playing the pretty acoustic guitar stuff.)

It was about a month later that I finally managed to write the verses. They came after a long, hard conversation with a dear friend whose marriage was foundering. He wept, and I ran out of words. I finally tried to put down in a song what I wanted to say to encourage him, and came up with this:

Carry the Fire I will hold your hand, love As long as I can, love Though the powers rise against us Though your fears assail you And your body may fail you There’s a fire that burns within us And we dream in the night Of a city descending With the sun in the center And a peace unending I will, I will carry the fire I will, I will carry the fire Carry the fire for you And we kneel in the water The sons and the daughters And we hold our hearts before us And we look to the distance And raise our resistance In the face of the forces Gathered against us And we dream in the night Of a King and a kingdom Where joy writes the songs And the innocent sing them I will carry the fire for you Oh, sing on, sing on (Light up the darkness) When your hope is gone, sing on And we dream in the night Of a feast and a wedding And the Groom in his glory When the bride is made ready I will carry the fire for you

A few words might be tweaked here and there before all is said and done, but that’s more or less the lyric. Caitlin asked about getting too comfortable with formulae or song structures, as opposed to (I assume) pushing yourself into unfamiliar territory. I think this is where exercising good old fashioned discernment is the thing. If you’re a lover of good songs, and a student of good songwriting, you’ll eventually learn how and when to break the rules. There are conventions we all recognize (i.e., verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus, or if you rewind to 1989, verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/ELECTRIC GUITAR SOLO/chorus), and most popular songs these days fall into some version of that. It’s not a bad place to start, and it’s a tried-and-true way to structure a song. But you also have to be willing to follow your nose. You have to be willing to let the song go where it wants. I think that’s the best question to ask, when you come to a writing crossroads: “Where does the story want to go?”

I got home from a weekend of touring yesterday and my daughter Skye (9) had written me a song. It was a sweet, sad song about how she misses me when I’m gone, complete with a verse, a chorus, another verse, a chorus, and a pretty hook of a la-la-la melody. She’s pretty brilliant, and is already saying things like, “I was going to do another chorus, but the la-la-la felt better there.” She’s too young to care too much about song structures, or to feel pressure to conform to the confines of a radio single, or to get hung up on the coherence of an idea. She just sits down at the piano with an emotion and tries to fashion it into a song, without self-consciousness or hubris—just freedom.  It’s a great reminder to me of how best to approach the process. The Kingdom belongs to such as these.

This new song, “Carry the Fire” isn’t much like anything I’ve ever written. I’m fine with that. Actually, I’m excited about it. To answer Caitlyn’s question another way, the way to push yourself into new territory isn’t about pushing yourself as much as it is allowing yourself to be pulled along. I was talking with Sally Lloyd-Jones last week, and she described the way she felt going into her new project: “I feel like I’m following clues.” Exactly.

Here’s a snippet of the song as it its early stages in the studio. This is a scratch vocal, scratch guitars, and no bass—so there’s a lot more that has to happen before I even start singing the keeper vocal. Then comes background vocals, guitars, mixing and mastering. So don’t judge too harshly. (Pretty please.)


Well, I’ve run out of room here. I guess there’s going to have to be a part four, and I’ll try and get to the rest of your questions there. Thanks for reading, folks!


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