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Slow Work

A common shadowy thought lurks in the depths of many songwriters’ minds, surfacing without warning. What if I never write a good song again? Like an unwelcome houseguest, this question often hijacks your most innocuous moments—brushing your teeth at the bathroom sink, frying an egg, driving to meet a friend for coffee—and then hangs around your life for an indefinite stretch of time. Later, returning to pen and paper, you find the thought still present, watching you from across the room.

I became especially acquainted with this reality after releasing my album River House in the fall of 2017. The album was in many ways a debut, my first full length project and the first thing in my life I felt unbelievably proud of. The songs had poured out of me in the span of a year, like casting a net I pulled up full every time. I didn’t fuss much with anything or edit any lyrics. There was an ease about the whole project and for the next two years as I toured the record and shared those songs, I felt them finding a home with people. I knew the work I’d done was good, that I wanted to keep going, yet at the same time, I felt a fear growing somewhere deep —what if the well is empty?

A year or two passed and as many artists naturally do, I felt myself itching to start another project, to say something new. But instead of a pile of songs, I had only one I was sure of and maybe 17 half-ideas in my Notes folder. So I got to writing, and, well, I hit a lot of dead ends. The last record had come so easily, but now the words seemed to fight me on the page. My inspiration deflated. The fear of not being able to write something good and true fully presided over my creative space, to the point that I would often feel I didn’t want to write anything. I majorly doubted I had a second album in me.

Then, two Januaries ago, I wrote a song.

I had been looking for new songs the same way I’d found the old ones, wanting to feel the old magic, but the new songs weren’t back there. I had to find another way in. Taylor Leonhardt

It started with trying to learn keys. I kept playing this one piano riff that felt like a mix between a gospel hymn and a Ray LaMontagne tune. And I sang out a line, “I will not hang my head, his banner is over me,” and I knew I had to keep going. I had been reading this poem by Teilhard De Chardin, the Ignatian priest, that begins with “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” It was the dead of winter then, and I was seeing in the woods behind my neighborhood the evidence all around of how much growth happens in the hidden places, deep underground. I had a sense that I was meant to learn what that slow work is. “He said I am his poetry, he won’t waste a word,” I wrote, and that chorus felt like a sign I had found my next direction. I had a feeling there was a reason these songs wouldn’t come fast. In fact, they would need some great patience, intentional waiting, slow trust.

This has been the hardest thing I’ve had to learn so far—how to unearth the song, how to push through the resistance that meets me whenever my aim is to make something beautiful. I remember the scene from Prince Caspian, when Aslan tells Lucy “things never happen the same way twice.” I had been looking for new songs the same way I’d found the old ones, wanting to feel the old magic, but the new songs weren’t back there. I had to find another way in.

It’s been a beautiful thing to learn to fight for the good songs.

To find the voice that comes from listening.

To trust that the well won’t run out, but I may have to dig deeper.

I’ve had to hold some things really precious and let other things go. I’ve had to invite collaborators into my writing room. I’ve had to get better at editing and rewriting song sections. I’ve taken myself on lots of long walks. I learned to ask for help. When I feel the familiar shadow of the unforgiving inner critic watching over my shoulder, I’m learning to usher it out the door. There’s more room in this house without it, room for all kinds of songs. “Only God could say what this new spirit forming within you will be,” Teilhard de Chardin continued. I see now what wondrous things are growing when you think nothing is. I know what a lyric and a melody can show you if you’re patient enough to let them.

And click here to listen to Taylor’s episode of The Second Muse, where she and her producer, Lucas Morton, share about the process of making this record and go into depth on the song “Hold Still.”


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