by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
The story of my songwriting experience in New York this summer begins before I arrived to intern in the “Empire City” and to live in Jersey City, N.J. — slogan: “You can set that trash just anywhere.”
It begins where and when many of my songs in recent years began: late at night, standing in my parents’ house in Omaha, guitar in hand, between the fireplace and the kitchen, trying to piece something together that feels organic and prods the thoughts and feelings that I ignore when I’m busy with school, work, and performing what I’ve written the last three years.
If it sounds juvenile and a little too idyllic, maybe it is. But for me, at least, songwriting is about trust. You make a pact with your emotions, your memory and your imagination. In exchange for fuel and inspiration and time, something genuine will come out: not truthful, but genuine. I hope that’s what people take away from a Little Marais show in a Lincoln coffee shop or an Omaha bar: even if they didn’t dig the voice and the finger-picking that the songwriting was earnest and genuine.
photo by Kayla Benker
The Omaha-written songs often remind me (unsurprisingly) of my childhood and what it means to me now, a year away from graduating college: somewhere nostalgic and peaceful. It’s the silent, tan house, the speckled kitten, the stack of 2000s Madden games, the dusty punching bag and the admission that I will visit them less and less. It’s sentimental. It’s sad. There’s no mystery here. That’s the kind of music I love, so that’s the kind I write. But I trust the cat and punching bag and my sleeping parents not to judge my malformed, skeleton music as it either comes together or doesn’t.
When I arrived in New York City on June 1 and my friend Bob explained to me “the breakneck pace” with which things were moving “out here” (there are jobs and promotions and restaurants open past 9 p.m.), I wasn’t thinking about writing. It didn’t reach me until I closed the door to my bedroom in the Jersey City, sat down on my bed with a borrowed Takamine Jasmine and played to my bare walls, wood floors and high ceiling. The echoes that came back at my eardrums returned with other noises in tow: ambulance sirens, sputtering air conditioners, and my upstairs neighbors having loud sex.
I did not trust this place. The sounds were telling me to “keep it down,” “be better,” “don’t copy the Tallest Man on Earth” and “that chord doesn’t set the mood quite right for our bed rattling.” Basically, I didn’t want people hearing what would end up all over the cutting room floor or telling me what should. Where I usually take a piece into the home stretch with too many words, they start with squeaky ooo’s and aaa’s like a prepubescent Van Morrison. It’s not always the pretty.
I had never wanted to write so bad with so much downtime in a new place full of new stimuli. I had to stop myself whenever I started, though, because it just didn’t feel right.
What came about was an approach to songwriting I hadn’t considered. I wrote the music at home, trying to keep the sound waves to myself, and took the lyrics on the road, partially out of anxiety and partially out of a slow admission for what a city with 400 years of history and 9 million residents has to offer. The 9 million people meant 9 million new voices and stories I could borrow, steal and adapt without any recourse. But I had to try and see them for the interesting, fruitful stories they are, not their connection to me.
It meant practicing some selective absorption, too. New York City, so far as I can tell, is full of two visible kinds of people. There are the tourists who jump at car horns and photograph taxis, and there are lifers who could sleep through Bane taking over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. With so much stimuli, the goal became to focus on what’s worth noticing — not every silly thing a teenager said on the train (“I’m calling it, dude. ‘Savages’ is the movie of the summer.”)
The first song to develop, “Drip,” started with a walk in Central Park, just as the Puerto Rican Day Parade was dispersing and people went spilling onto the avenues and into the subway stations. I was seeing the annual twilight of a force that had raged in pride and celebration and maybe a little bit of contempt for authority, but that was waning at that hour in the park, as teenagers jeered at police officers and each other, shared long and sloppy kisses, waved cell phones and Yankees caps and, of course, flags.
It’s a “character song,” with a young man (one of the teenagers probably) telling and alternately not telling his mother about the challenges of not being able to trust the place he grew up. I like to think there’s a lifetime between them of all the bonds a mother shares with her child, but they can’t muster anything to say about what inevitably and unforgivably changes.
It was then I figured out that if I looked for the same sort of inspiration that home provides, I would fly out of Newark Airport empty-handed at the end of two months.
This summer was more about the trial and failure than it was the results. Those will probably come next. Here’s hoping they show up this time next year when I should be anywhere but my Omaha house trying to write in the living room. I’ll probably be in a city I don’t trust, staring into the face of a future I don’t trust. And when that time comes roaring into the foreground of my life, I’d like to do what the best songwriters do well: look the future square in the face and write a song about being terrified.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer is a Hear Nebraska contributor. He's preparing for another semester as arts editor at the Daily Nebraskan as well.