In my mind’s eye, I can still see it: a glass jar filled with water speckled with bits of dirt and spices. Various flowers and grasses float in the water and stick out of the top of the jar. It smells ever-so-vaguely floral but mostly like dirty water. In reality, it is nothing at all like the magically pungent potion I had imagined making from all the ingredients I lovingly collected and thoughtfully mixed.
And that was that. A child’s experiment failed and a life’s work in perfumery easily abandoned.
Thankfully I did not give up on songwriting quite so easily even though the songs produced by my earliest attempts bear a strong resemblance to that jar of dirty flower water. Each overly long song resembled a jumble of too many undigested and indigestible ingredients swimming in a watery soup, never releasing their truest scents.
Here the ingredients were images and story snippets that each meant something very complex and important to me as an adolescent. I knew how to collect them, like so many bright dandelions, but I had to put in my now-proverbial 10,000 hours in order to learn how to cook them to get them to yield their essence.
The best perfume travels lightly on the breeze, touching our senses without overwhelming.
Most importantly it communicates between people: floating with the heat off one person’s skin until it reaches the next person’s nose. My early songs didn’t quite communicate. Perhaps I was afraid of stripping my precious stories and images of their original forms. But this kind of processing is an important part of turning such ingredients into song. I wasn’t willing to play with the ingredients and then play with them again.
As I continue to grow as a songwriter, I want to honor both parts of this process: the child-like instinct to collect a song’s ingredients and the hard, if playful, work of mixing and processing those raw ingredients. The dreaming and collecting part of the work is where the wonder comes from.
The girl who collected the flowers and the grasses was fully aligned with her own “What if?”
Process song ideas too soon and I end up with the musical equivalent of processed cheese: a song that sounds cheap and disconnected from its deeper source. But leave those collected words and melody snippets overprotected and under-processed and the song is a dud – it can’t quite float from my heart to another’s.
What lessons do you learn from early – if failed – attempts at your art? And what helps you keep both these parts of your creative self alive and well?