From Thought to Song

by Carrie Bachler
Know you not, I think of you
I have, above my desk, tacked into the stiff plaster of the wall, a photo of John Lennon from 1967. It's my favorite photo of him, that I've seen. He's turned toward the camera, wearing a black hat, a white feather tucked into the side. Very stylish. His face is that of the early John - cheeks just a little chubby, yet, mouth upturned slightly in a shy smile. But the later John is there, too - the budding of the John we all know and recognize. The Windsor glasses, the hair just starting to get a little long, a little unruly, the sideburns getting out of control but still, at this point, fairly neat. And there's that contradiction of his in his eyes, too. He looks bored but inspired, carefree but guarded, happy but still, somehow, very sad. He looks like a complicated man and he looks, really, exactly how I want him always to be. Handsome, charming, brilliant.

People tell me that I tend to get a little obsessive. I realize this. I was never alive during John Lennon's life, yet I feel, almost, like I identify with him, in some small way. He was a person who, out of necessity to himself, I think, spent his life making music. Breakthrough music, beautiful music, music that changed a lot of people's lives. This is certainly where we differ, yes, but in his story I see a strong yet broken person, and I can relate to that.  I look at his picture, every time I sit down to start a new song. He inspires me.


Will you be an armored blanket?
I've been told that I tend to dream a lot. And I'm glad that I do. I need to be a dreamer; it helps me with my music. When I start my lyrics, I'm not thinking so much about other people's betterment, I'll admit; I'm not that noble. Heck, I don't think that John was, either. I think that he needed to make music for him just as I need to make music for me, for my sanity. Otherwise, I'm afraid, all my thoughts would bottle up inside and I would never be able to find my keys in the morning or figure out why I can never seem to make my way on my own.

I need people. I recognize this about myself, now. My lyrics led me there long ago. I know that there's no real reason for it; it's just me. And I don't need a lot of people; just one will do, usually. A nice man who is pleasant to look at and who, upon reaching a door with me, opens it up in one swift motion, saying nothing but guiding me through the doorway with a strong hand on the small of my back.

I do love chivalry. And I'm not afraid to admit it, in these days of fierce feminism and independent, working women. I am a working woman, too, but I love a man who starts my car for me on a cold winter morning. A knight to keep me warm. And why not? I am a strong woman with her own mind, but I don't, and never will, object to my innate need to be comforted and protected by someone who is, physically, stronger than me. And, in turn, I like to make a warm dinner for a man who will have it because, I believe, men have an innate desire to be comforted and protected by someone who is softer, gentler, than they.


A stab of fear comes through
I tend to ramble, and I'm sorry. But it's part of the reason why I love writing so much; I've got so many words in my head. And making them into lyrics - into song - therein lies my game.

When I get an idea for a song, I write lyrics all over the place. Everywhere, anywhere. I type them into my cell phone when I'm on the bus or the subway, scribble them on the back of my hand in the middle of the night, stick them to the refrigerator while I'm eating Honey Nut Cheerios in the morning. But I love to write, most of all, at my desk, under John's guiding eyes and with a pen with green ink. I don't know why; I'm not particularly fond of green, in any way, but the green ink seems so much more inspired to me, so much more concrete than black or blue and a little more enchanting. I keep a bowl of trail mix on one of my desk shelves, always. Sweet and salty together eases my mind; I don't know why. The lighting is low, barely lighter than dark, actually, and I light a vanilla-scented candle and sit cross-legged and scribble, doodling needlessly when words won't come and playing word games until they do. Beautiful - serene - dreamy - enchanting - magic. There we are; magic. Magic can be an interesting word, I think, if used in a somewhat intriguing way. He finds magic in his despair.

Initial, rough phrases like that, they come to me when I stumble upon a word that I like. And I realize that they don't come from nowhere. They're woven from me, my thoughts, my worries. Usually, the things I am the most afraid of. I live a lot of my life, I'm sad to say, pushing a weak stab of fear to the back of my mind. Fear about death, about life, about who I will be in both. And my lyrics reflect this aspect of my personality. A lot.


It's me again, just me
Magic in his despair. I could go so many places with that. A man who revels, almost, in things gone wrong, his world being mixed up, his head being filled with demons. Who finds strength in the destruction that eats him up and who is proud that he survives his train wreck of a mind. Or, a woman. Magic in her despair. A skinny, pale, gaunt woman who smiles a lot when she shouldn't. Who seems happy to people but who is, inside, a hundred shades of black.

To put it another way, I suppose, a woman who is me. A me who is lonely, alone. But something about that loneliness, that despair, makes the pen alive. And there's something wonderful, something exciting, something so very me about that. There always is.


Though me with him, we're two.
So it's how I write. My lyrics are a process, a story, some part of my head that has been hurting me and needs to get out so I can breathe. A sadness in me, a fear of my own shortcomings, a question of the unknown that I wish, only, that I could know. When it's out - the story, the problem, the fear - then I can make it dance.

I like dissonance. A lot. It's an unusual thing to like, perhaps, but when I sit down at my piano, to add song to my words, my hands often lead me to a very dissonant place. When you hear a song starting that way - just a little off, a little ugly, growing more and more... disconcerting, I guess is the word - you need it to resolve. You need a nice, pretty chorus to come along, some beautiful chords that sound like marshmallows and make you feel content again. Dissonance is a very powerful thing in that way, mostly because it makes the hook of the song, the crux, not only necessary but that much more satisfying.

My black lab, he likes dissonance too, as far as I can tell. He always helps me to work, no matter if I've been working on the same dissonant song for weeks. His name is Winston, a small tribute to my favorite ghost, and he sits with me, faithfully, chewing a bone in the corner and pretending not to care one way or another that I'm there. But I see through him. He's at my heels if I leave to get a soda and at my heels on the way back and would never, save for me being there, choose to make the office his home for the evening. He's my best friend, more so than any human ever could be, because he is always there, just there for me, for no other reason than he doesn't see what else could be more important.


Come into my song, be my secret note
Overly emotional and sensitive to a fault. I can't help it, though; it's just me. And I am drawn to others like me in that way, I'll admit. It's why I can't listen to artists who don't write their own music; why I can't identify with musicians who choreograph their work, their dance, to a point where it becomes mechanical, wooden, meaningless. Call me snobby, elitist, if you will, but I root, always, for the tortured soul, the one who is so overcome with emotions that he has to get them out, to write music and words, to make art, to ease his mind. The one who is so sensitive to the world and all of its broken dreams that you can see the emotions pouring through his rhymes and riddles. I feel like I love these people, when I find them, because they are, to me, real.

And so I write my hooks, my catches, for them. It's one of my secrets. I write chords that I'd think my heroes would like, making the song happy, sad, painful, rainy... it all depends on who I am thinking of at a given time. Maybe he loves bourbon and coffee so the chords will be murky and dark, or maybe her voice sounds to me like lily pads so the keys are light and staccato. And maybe they'll hear my songs on the radio, sometimes, and like them but not really know why, just why, they are drawn to them.

That, I think, would be pretty neat.


I'm not alone, here, I'm alive
The technical stuff bores me. Dreadfully. I'm no producer, no left-handed mind who knows how to turn the dials just right to make my voice sound a little clearer than it is, a little softer. It's over my head or under my heart and so I ignore it, mostly, the recording process. When my song is finished, I record it out of necessity but sing it, on stage, to bring it to life.

I think (or believe, rather) that a lot of things are more alive than we give them credit for. John Lennon, he's alive. More alive than many of the limbs and mouths and eyes who sleepwalk around town in beige overcoats with flowcharts and boredom in their eyes. Pictures are alive, too, photographs. Smiles and bunny-ears and pink cheeks from the past that refuse to die. And the sky, it's brimming with life. If you just look you can see it fill with tears or freeze solid or smile so brightly that you can't help but smile back, too.

The stage, though, the stage is where life exists the most, for me. Where my words get lost in the crowd, the keys dance, voices high and deep and croaky and off-key run through my ears. There's great, cathartic life there, everywhere, and it's there where I breathe the freshest air.


I'm free again, for a few
The best part, why I do it all, is that there's just nothing else in the world for an hour or two.  No annual physical at the doctor's office sitting uncomfortably in the back of my head. No birthdays not to forget, no bills to pay a month late, no regrets about the past or worries about the future.

I wonder, often, how much time we all spend worrying about things that never happen, preparing for crises that never occur, hardening ourselves for heartbreaks that come, it seems, all too often. A lot of time, I'm afraid, but out there - out there my feelings don't hurt and my thoughts don't wander and my worries get lost somewhere in the trees. Because out there, there is no time. There's just some cool breeze, some bright lights and sweat and, what I seek the most, some freedom.


Until tomorrow, when I'll hide.
I believe there are a lot of things that, while we're here, will never go away. Things you can count on. A sunrise in the morning and a sunset in the evening. A black lab bounding down the stairs to the sound of the front door opening when you get home. Leaves that turn red and orange in October and drivers who tailgate you in an ice storm. Lots of things never change, and they never will.

My feelings about life change all the time. Yesterday I was never happier to feel raindrops in my hair and tomorrow, maybe, I'll wonder if one ever really has a true friend in this life. Sometimes the morning greets me with a shove and other times the sun lifts me out of bed and once in a while I just stay there sleeping. The world is cold, the world is warm, I have faith in humanity or I'm ashamed of it. It all depends, really, on how my brain feels like behaving on a particular day.

What doesn't change - in my head and in my heart, at least - is my way of dealing with it all. I'm scared or I'm lonely or I'm worried and so I think and I write and I play and I sing and I live, for a while, before starting it all over again. It may not be your perception of a good life, of an ideal way to play the cards, but Winston and I, we think it's a pretty good gig to have.
Carrie Bachler is an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2007, Carrie Bachler