Image Credit: Daniel Kramer
It happened in Cleveland. I thought I knew but I didn’t know. I conceptually understood that much of the music that fuels our personal soundtracks originated in the pages of journals, but it wasn’t until I was standing in front of a display of notebooks with lyrics scrawled in them at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that I viscerally got it.
At the time I was driving cross-country from Maine to Malibu with a dear friend and my dog. Our exact route was somewhat loose but we’d agreed that wherever we stopped along the way we’d do something unique to that location, a random activity that we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So there we were in Ohio with a couple of hours to kill and the museum was calling. While my floppy puppy was at a much needed groomer visit, we paid for tickets and had a wander. I didn’t expect it to be a profound experience, but you never know where lightning bolts are going to find you.
Checking out the exhibits of memorabilia - amidst Greg Allman’s Hammond organ, Alice Cooper’s leopard-print high-heeled boots, the very first Talking Heads T-Shirt and John Lee Hooker’s guitar - were words scrawled on paper with what looked like varying degrees of urgency. Like stars that fell from the sky, it shocked and amazed me to see handwritten language that would become anthems sung aloud in arenas. It all began here, jotted down in cheap spiral notebooks, on yellow legal paper and multiple pages of hotel notepads (the kind placed by a phone).
From Thom Yorke to Stevie Nicks and beyond, the songs that we know by heart - the ones that exalt and comfort us - all started with simple tools: pen and paper. Angus Young, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and so many more recording artists whose lyrics are woven into our memories use the act of writing down their thoughts as an inherent part of their process.
I’m no lyricist, and I’m not suggesting that each time we crack a notebook we’re one step closer to writing a hit song. On the contrary, the act of putting pen to paper is intended to be just for you. Maybe you’ll choose to share a piece of it with the world like Taylor Swift, but that’s not the point. It’s the act of doing it that provides the mental, emotional and physiological benefits.
And you’re in very good company. Rockstar company. So if you ever find yourself internally discrediting your journaling practice as frivolous or fey, remember it’s what fuels booty-shaking dance parties, ecstatic concerts, and all those tracks we sing aloud with the windows down. My friend and I sure put this knowledge to good use on our westward road trip.
You can also use music as a way to freshen or deepen your journaling practice. Curious? Check out some ideas here:
I get it, sometimes a blank page can be intimidating. Not sure where to start or what to write about? Or maybe you want to stretch your writing practice in a new direction rather than doing the same-same? A prompt can help. You can tap The Deck (AllSwell’s deck of 52 write/draw journaling prompt cards), and you can also use a song as a way to inspire your own writing:
- Pick a tune and listen with presence. Headphones come in handy here. Maybe close your eyes so you’re limiting other sensory input, which will help you focus.
- You can focus on lyrics - or not. Maybe you’re hearing a phrase differently than any other time you’ve heard this song because of the intent you’re bringing to the process. Or listen to the song as a whole, not the sum of its parts. Let it wash over you.
- Pay attention to what physical feelings emerge, what images and thoughts.
- Crack your notebook. Write. It doesn’t have to be in direct relation to the song. You’re not reviewing the album for Rolling Stone. You’re simply in dialogue with the piece of music, letting it be a portal into your own state of mind.
- Don’t like where it takes you? That’s okay. You 100% have permission to pick another one. Start again.
- You can also try using music as a backdrop for your writing to help set a mood. I have spent a lot of time honing playlists for AllSwell workshops, choosing songs that will support rather than distract. I find that lyrics in other languages work well (you get an overall feeling rather than snagging on words). Bring on the bossa nova. Instrumental is great, too but I avoid what I call “spa music” - no pan flutes. Here’s one of my go-to playlists for you to experiment with.
Sticking with the theme, in this AllSwell Roundup I’ve gathered a handful of music-related resources that have gotten my wheels turning (and feet moving) lately. Dive in and enjoy, no mosh pit required.
And if you’re not feeling much like a rockstar these days, it’s not too late to sign up for the MOJO Series, 4 weekly digital workshops kicking off with me on Wednesday, October 19th. There are just a couple spots left so if you need your pilot light turned up, here’s your shot.
Image Credit: Jem Stone, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Terrance Hayes’s Soundtracks for Most Any Occasion
The Paris Review asked poet Terrance Hayes to make a playlist for their readers and it’s a damn good one. Many of Hayes’s poems derive their titles from song names and lyrics; others are influenced by the mood of a particular album or track. Music, he says, “changes the air in the room,” to which I nod my head in agreement.
Image Credit: Khruangbin
Khruangbin - "So We Won't Forget"
Khruangbin is my go-to for music to journal by. (If that’s not a category on Spotify yet, it should be.) I really enjoy the entirety of Song Exploder - and their sister podcast Book Exploder hosted by Susan Orlean is pretty rad, too. I picked this specific episode for you because in it you hear how their bassist, Laura Lee, found her way to journaling and the ways that has influenced Khruangbin’s music.
Image Credit: Aristos Marcopoulos/PRNewsFoto/Legacy Recordings via AP Images
A Tribe Called Quest-"Scenario"
As a native New Yorker and child of the 90’s I’m an unapologetic East Coast hip-hop girl. And there are few acts that express that era better than A Tribe Called Quest. The whole podcast series is a fun ride, but this episode dedicated to Tribe’s cut “Scenario” will either bring back a whole slew of memories or offer up a musical education. Co-created by a posse, listen in and hear how greatness is made in a group setting.
Photo Credit: Tom Kelley
Bowie's Bookshelf: The Hundred Books That Changed David Bowie's Life
To me it always feels slightly pervy to check out someone’s bookshelves. It’s such an intimate peek, like looking through their lingerie drawer. And here Bowie opens his robe to share what books most influenced him. Plus, rockstars read. Here’s proof. So if you wanna channel some Bowie vibes, dive in.
Image Credit: Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
How Björk broke the sound barrier
I rarely cite two resources in a newsletter from the same outlet but the Björk episode of Song Exploder is so immensely moving that I decided to break my own rule to share it with you. Björk’s description of her creative process - not just how she works but why she chooses to take risks - is coupled with the lush track, Stonemilker, dripping with auditory beauty. I’ve listened to this episode multiple times and it never fails to result in chills. The good kind.