Of Toilet Rats and Songwriting
I once found a rat in my toilet.
It happened one spring morning in my apartment in Somerville, MA. Barely able to function (I had just woken up), my eyes slowly focused on a shockingly large, furry creature that had wrapped itself along the side of the bowl. After some wake-the-neighbors screaming, I called my brother-in-law who suggested I fashion a long pole out of newspapers with which to pull out my toilet guest. Not really keen on arts-and-crafts that early in the morning, I called the exterminator.
Forty-five minutes later, Joe, was at my doorstep. With one hand in the toilet, he finished the job of drowning this poor animal (already on its last breath) while he chatted me up about the guitar I keep in the corner of my living room. Joe was a music buff and I’d just finished my first record.
Turns out, Joe’s son worked for a famous music label, so he grabbed a copy of my CD to pass along. I’ll never know if Joe’s son actually listened to my album because his record label, like so many others, went the way of one toilet rat we’ve come to know and love: It died. I was stuck with a $121 exterminator bill—and I continue to be woefully anonymous. (The consolation prize: My story is the royal flush in the game of Worst Apartment Ever.)
I am a singer-songwriter. I write songs and bring them to my band. We arrange layers of music behind the initial melody and we rehearse these songs weekly, steadily polishing them to near-perfection. We book gigs at bars and music clubs with audiences that run the spectrum of drunk and rowdy to timid and polite (we enjoy both), and at the end of the month, we make far less than an employee at McDonald’s makes in an afternoon.
It’s a path I believe I was meant to follow-but one I came upon in a roundabout way. An English major in college, I left school with the intent of becoming the next Amy Hempel, Joyce Carol Oates, or Dan Patterson. While I slowly nursed a handful of short stories to life, I funded my endeavors with a steady stream of odd jobs: waiting tables, managing a coffee shop, serving drinks at a theme restaurant featuring an electric chair (a story for another day), and covering the small-town beat as a reporter for a local newspaper, to name a few.
But along the way, I found the blank page, with its endless possibilities and chaotic freedom, more than a little frightening. In addition, I was coming to terms with a life-long singing obsession I could no longer ignore. Surrounded by these two dilemmas, I really had no choice but to try my hand at songwriting. In those moments when I first mixed lyric with melody, a star was born. Not a star you’ve ever heard of, mind you. More like one of those stars way off in some distant galaxy with a long string of abstract letters and numbers behind it like AR-1VM—but a star nonetheless. I’ve been songwriting ever since.
Having the boundaries of rhyme, melody, a chorus that repeats, and a time limit pares down the endless language options, challenging me to create something from very little. Anything that limits your freedom of expression can yield something more creative. (Like how convicts can make prison shanks out of old toilet paper and bed sheets.) Songwriting is less frightening than a wide-open page, but maneuvering within its rigid structure offers some amazing rewards.
There’s phrasing to consider: Against the underlying music, a clunky phrase sticks out like a pasty Irish girl on a beach in Rio (I speak from experience), so smoothness is key.
There’s also the matter of tone: Does the music match what’s being said with the lyrics? It’s not often you hear a murder ballad or a tale of soul-crushing, unrequited love over cowbell and mariachi horns. Sad words have more impact over a doleful melody; happier times usually warrant something more upbeat. Occasionally, you can mismatch the words and music to create that good, old-fashioned literary device: irony.
And then there’s the vocal performance to consider. I challenge myself to sing all kinds of music, but I definitely perform some material better than others. A song should have lyrical impact, a solid structure, and a memorable (or even catchy) melody, while also providing a base to highlight a particular singing style. No easy feat.
Of course, music can make things easier, too. A pretty melody can elevate even a simple choice of phrase into something complex, sublime, and achingly visceral. Just ask Justin Bieber.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get my “big break” in the music business, and as an unrecognized artist, I may have to continually find ways to fund my artistic pursuit. But even on the worst days, when I’m confronted with the sadness, ugliness, and cruelty in the world—those rat-in-the-toilet mornings where nothing seems right—I can hear a song that shakes me from my melancholy, reminding me that people have the ability to create beauty with their art. No, Joe’s son never got me a record deal, but Joe himself loved the album and every once in a while, I get a postcard from him saying hello. I may be invisible to the world at large, but there’s one guy out there listening to my music on his way to the next job.