[23 September 2009]
A few weeks ago I went to a reunion show of my all-time favorite band. This was one of the few performances the Picketts had given since they disbanded over ten years ago. While I watched Christy McWilson play the microphone stand like an upright bass and sing with her brows furrowed, I thought back to an earlier time in my life.
In my late teens and early twenties, I must have gone to over a hundred of the Picketts’ shows. I’ve never had much interest in breaking the law—except when it meant getting into bars to see the rocking rockabilly band play. I generally went to these shows with my older sister, Elise, and her boyfriend, Michael. Since I was using Elise’s old California ID from when her hair was died brown, I would enter the club first, alone, while Elise and Michael parked our grandma’s car. Then they would join me, a few minutes later, after the bouncers had surely forgotten that Elise Richman had already entered the bar.
In those days, my aspirations were simple: I wanted to be Christy McWilson. I wanted to sing beautiful songs while someone harmonized with me. I wanted to create melodic catharsis. I wanted to entertain people, to help them be transported from the dreary night, the smoky room, their growing debt as they sipped another frothy beer. I wanted to make them dance, make them unable to resist tapping their feet and nodding their heads.
I can tell you right now, I’m not a musician. I have not fulfilled my dreams, and since watching the Picketts give this rowdy, raucous, life-igniting performance, I haven’t been able to get Christy McWilson out of my mind. When I have to grade papers, write syllabi, or prepare lesson plans, I think of her and remember that life can be more. So I called her yesterday and interviewed her. It wasn’t quite that easy—first I had to friend her on Facebook and email her, explaining how she has been my idol for the past 16 years. But all of that really happened pretty quickly, and I made a phone call that very well could have changed my life.
I know a lot of dudes who are musicians who tool around on their guitars and make up riffs. And I know dudes who sing their songs, regardless of who is around, without seeming to care if anyone is listening or not. I’m not an easy-going tooler, and I had never before talked to a songwriter with whom I completely related about songwriting and her feelings about the process. McWilson describes herself as an “intuitive type.” She says she can only write songs when she has lots of quiet and open time. “I don’t just need an afternoon,” she said on the telephone from her hotel in California between a show in Chico and one in Redding. “I need several afternoons in a row.”
The time allows her to clear the “jumble of thoughts” that generally occupy her mind. Once she is able to relax, a melody comes, and the next step is to find words that express important, though sometimes mysterious, thoughts or ideas. Often, the meaning of a given line doesn’t make itself completely apparent for some time. This process of fitting words to melody can go on for years, in order to get just the right ones together. “I’m a slow writer,” McWilson says plainly.
Even after a song is finished enough to meet her high standards, McWilson is shy about singing it. “I don’t go ‘Give me that guitar, I have a new song I want to play you,’” she says. “I slink around, like I’m guilty.” If she does decide to play it, she’s more likely to introduce the song by saying, “I have a song—you’re probably not gonna like it.” Though she has been writing and performing music for at least 30 years, when she plays a new song her “hands still shake,” and her “heart beats” faster, more loudly. “It’s the hardest thing to do. I don’t have that bravado.”
And though she puts on a mean performance, McWilson claims it’s the songwriting she really loves. “I feel good when I work on a song,” she said. She describes songwriting as both “meditative” and as an act of “discovery,” and says, “I think I get more out of the creative process than just about anything else.” And then, because she doesn’t take herself very seriously, and because she is so down-to-earth, she adds, “You know. You must know what I’m talking about?”
She’s right, of course. What she said about the importance of songwriting and her writing process resonates with me. I’d just never talked to someone who worked the way I did before. The operable word here is did. I hadn’t written a song for years.
When I got off the phone with McWilson, I forced myself to write a song. I say “forced” because that’s what it felt like. I often get ideas for lyrics and melodies while I’m walking, and yesterday when it started to happen I sang them into my phone recorder on my way to the library. When I got home, I intended to go grocery shopping, but instead I made myself sit down and write down the lyrics I had come up with so far, figure out which key the song was in, and write a chorus and last verse. When my boyfriend Tracy got home from work, exhausted and burning with a fever, I asked if I could sing it for him. “You better,” he said and flopped onto the couch. I sat next to him and held my notebook in front of me.
“This is intense, isn’t it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Is it?”
I started to sing the song—about a woman who works for a major corporation and the sexism she encounters there. I was mostly doing okay at remembering my melodies and phrasings and keeping it together until I got to the chorus—“They will fire you”—where the lyrics felt particularly mean, and I started to feel awful for the woman who fulfills the feminine ideal and isn’t taken seriously in corporate culture.
“I guess this is intense,” Tracy said, smiling and urging me to keep singing. I got through the song and he, being a genius-musician who has taught himself to play drums, bass, and lead guitar, and has composed, recorded, and performed music since he was ten, didn’t understand why I had lost it while I was singing. He did seem to understand the song, though. And he told me it was “really strong,” words he doesn’t bother saying unless he means them.
I felt like a schmuck for holding my notebook in front of me like a choir girl and for stopping mid-song to cry, but I felt better when I remembered how McWilson feels when she first plays a new song. If her hands shake and her heart beats like crazy, I think my amateur song warrants freaking out at a higher level.
She mentioned during our interview that she had the day off and wanted to work on a song that afternoon. I like to think that after I thanked her for time and we each hung up the telephone, she and I did the exact same thing.