As I think back on the beginnings of christening myself a songwriter, I remember getting rare glimpses into the process of a song being born. The year was 2007, and I had just been introduced to a group of artists and musicians at a party I attended when I was back home teaching my brother high school, the year after I graduated college. A high school classmate of my own, Richard Gamble, had invited me to come out and meet him at a party in Midtown Memphis.
I remember walking outside the house, seeing a huge group of people I didn’t know, and they were so cool looking. Artsy. And then I’m in the kitchen and this chick passes by me, and she is sort of tip-toe walking through this very white and turquoise kitchen. She probably has some sort of fancy make up on. Not fancy like department store, but fancy like artsy. She could’ve also been plain faced, she wore herself like that more than often, but the trick is I just remember the blur of her face. It was her back that stunned me. She was wearing a feminine sportcoat, completely upstanding in the front, and as she passed me I read the words “You’re in a Space Time Breakfast” spray painted in white stencil against the brown polyester. I sipped my drink and realized I was not in Kansas anymore.
“I knew you’d meet your people,” my dad said when I excitedly recounted the encounter, “the weird ones.”
Outside during the party, I got asked if I’d like to join a circle, quickly declared everyone in said circle my new best friends, asked for a phone number of the guy standing to my right, who said I could come over any time I wanted. He introduced himself as Alex. His last name was “and judith” whom he shared a phone and an apartment with at that time, the girl with the “You’re in a Space Time Breakfast” Jacket. I was like, “you guys are so cool, I like you’re jacket, I’ll stop by soon.”
The next day I called and got directions to their house, also in Midtown Memphis, and said I would stop by on Monday. I tried calling after my workday and their phone was disconnected. I had the directions, so I headed over to “the third house on the right, the one with the monkey statue in the yard.” When I arrived, Judith was there alone and fairly surprised to see me. I had the sense that I was interrupting something, and we sat in mostly awkward silence as we waited for Alex to come home. I am not sure if I had changed out of my teacher clothes (I wore a shirt and tie every day to try to widen the age gap between myself and my students), but in any case I most likely gave off a very conservative impression to her paint-covered lifestyle. Alex arrived home and we all ended up drawing for a while. They played some music. And I witnessed something I hadn’t before: the creation of a song. I remember thinking what a joy it was to be a party to the moment of creation, of group energy so vibrant at the moment of birth.
I went back as often as possible, becoming quickly addicted to their creative culture. Art and music, art and music and art and music. I’d hear Alex describe them as his right and left hands. I would sit witness to so many of their friends come and go freely, become my friends, all of us witness the house itself build itself up as an epicenter for creation and listening and creation, and, surrounded by other artists, I quietly began drawing on a regular basis and keeping a sketchbook.
Years have passed and I am writing songs myself now, sharing that joy of creation and collaboration with as many musicians as I can get my hands on. One of them is the joyous and talented Derricka Smith. We’ve been working together as a team since the beginning of the year; I wrote a couple of songs for her to sing, opening myself up as a songwriter and collaborator in ways I hadn’t tried before. We have been working towards writing collaboratively, the desire has been to find the point where we can’t decipher who has written what, just that the song came together with both of us. This process showed glimpses of itself during our rehearsal tonight for our upcoming show this Friday, after we got through our performance-ready tunes and had gone over a new song, I kept fiddling on a guitar, a variation of the first chord progression I ever learned, all the same “E” shape moved around the neck. The song from the chord progression was was “Light the Fire” a worship song I learned at church as a teen. I’ve always fancied those chords, the way they sounded together, they are inherently tied to my first moments making sound with an instrument, and I fiddle around on them a lot, but have never really written a song with them. Derricka asks, “Is this a new jam?” and I fake around like, “sure” and start repeating the same progression. She says the words are “brand new man,” and we go from there. I bar the bottom two chords and try a different rhythm, then another, then one that makes us laugh and dance and stick with that. I often record these creation sessions on my iPhone for listening and refining ideas. I recorded an early run through tonight where we try out a new bridge and make mistakes and laugh and dance around the room. As I was listening to it on my drive home, it made me recall that moment of witnessing creation and I thought, there is something about receiving that energy that made me want to be creative, I’d like to share that story with others, that energy of creation. I thusly present Birth-Mode “Brand New Man.” More from Birth-Mode (working title) later.
PS – I eventually made a short film about The Warble, to learn more about what it was like to hand out with these creative crazies, press play
PPS – If you’re still hungry, here’s a one-take video we did for their song “Pineapple and Friends” – Another look at creation in action, we were laughing about making a music video of them eating a pineapple and singing this song, I went to the kitchen and opened a can of crushed pineapples, told them to stand against the wall, and hit record on the camera and play on the song. None of this was planned, but thus can be the nature of creativity. If you watch Judith at the beginning, she is asking “what are we supposed to do? Look at the camera?” milliseconds before popping into full-on show mode.