Goliath and Honesty

Goliath_SocialMedia_1.0Artboard 3
Lyric graphic by the one and only Natasha Vanderburg

Songs are always born differently, but they always start with an idea.  Sometimes said idea just sort of comes out of thin air, and I try to catch it as quickly as I can.  That’s what happened on an overcast Spring day in Caronport, Saskatchewan, while I was collecting dead branches into the back of a trailer, and the line “I’ve got no need to follow the footsteps of kings//I just want to tend pastures and kill giants with pebbles and slings” wandered unassumingly across my mind, which I quickly proceeded to tackle violently to the ground and bottle before it evaporated.  I had just graduated from Briercrest, and instead of heading home, had stayed behind a month to mentor boys in the high school.  While they were in class during the day,  I worked for the college doing campus maintenance.  Quite often I’ll be in the midst of something quote unquote menial and an idea will come, seemingly out of nowhere.  I try to always be listening for them.  And when they do, it’s an attempt to hold that frame, like that moment when a photographer sees their loved one step perfectly into light and they tell them “don’t move,” praying they have time to get their camera ready.  In practicality this often looks like me singing clumsily into my phone’s voice memo app, and then trying to quiet my always-turbulent mind and just listen for God in all that forest and chaos.

In the coming six months Goliath became like the chunk of oak in a woodshed out back, that I would come back to to slowly chip away at bit by bit.  There’s moments when you really feel yourself crafting and weaving lyrics and music together intentionally and consciously, and while that could have been the case here, I honestly couldn’t tell you; the details are a bit fuzzy.  When it came to this one, time was a bit of a tricky thing.  I can’t remember how long I sat down to work on it for any given day.  Could’ve been hours, minutes, I don’t know.  I just remember when it was done.  I was proud of it (side note–I sometimes feel like songwriters in the Church aren’t supposed to admit when they’re proud of their work.  This is likely a self-imposed feeling; I’ve never heard it articulated by anyone, nor even implied for that matter.  But admitting one’s own joy in their “baby” does feel a bit sheepish, as does acknowledging it).  However, I didn’t really have anywhere to show it.  Gone were the Bible College days of coffee houses where I could do all my introspective existential crisis songs.  And in those days I was NOT about to put anything I’d written on the internet.  So it sort of lay dormant for a couple years.  I knew the music I was going to pursue releasing was explicitly for the church corporately, and I didn’t know where Goliath fit in that.  I kind of still don’t.

This is where I have to give credit to my good friend Michelle (she’s the one with the actual angel voice on L I O N | L A M B that makes you want to cry when you hear her, but like in a good way).  We were sharing songs with each other, and I decided to show her a couple I’d written but hadn’t really shown anyone.  When I finished singing, she told me the world needed to hear that song.  I told her I didn’t know where it belonged in the world of music I was about to release.  When the time came for my EP release show, I knew I was going to throw in some more songs than were on the EP to lengthen the show experience, and Michelle told me I had to include Goliath among them.  So we sang it, along with a couple others, which I bundled together and called “songs with no home;” the ones I feel have some sort of voice in the church, albeit not congregational. Though it’s not a worship song, it is a prayer.  Out of all the songs I sang that night, Goliath received the most overwhelming response.  This continued to be the case show after show as I included it in the sets.  I realized I would need to let the song into the world, but again left it dormant.

Months later, I was asked to speak on a panel at a songwriting workshop led by a man who at the time I knew only by reputation–Roy Salmond (who I’ve since developed a bit of a man crush on…the guy’s got some seriously Hemingway-esque qualities about him).  Roy asked me to present a song I was “proud of” as a writer, and I immediately knew Goliath would be the one.  After singing it on the day, Roy graciously offered for me to come record it at his studio down at the coast, at no cost.  A few months following that the song was recorded in Roy’s gorgeous recording space, released, and that same feeling that happened the very first time I released music came again; of surreality, trepidation, joy; all kind of mixed into a maelstrom not quite discernible.

So that’s all essentially the backdrop.  The primary wrestle for me was how the song would be received.  I was pretty sure my generation would be okay with it; “authenticity” is probably the most common millennial buzzword these days.  What I wasn’t sure was how the soccer mom driving her kids to school while listening to Brit Nicole was going to feel about it (nothing against Brit btw–she seems really lovely–but I think you get what I mean).  How the parents who have Pureflix subscriptions because it provides “wholesome family entertainment” would sit with these lyrics.  But you know what?  They responded in like manner with those in my own age/life bracket…overwhelmingly positively.  With nuance and kindness and resonance.  My presumptions were just that–presumptions.  And this is when I realized that I think most people, regardless of tastes and demographic, are really just looking for permission to bleed.

So much of my indictment of current “Christian” pop “art” is related to the fact that it shies away from anything even remotely resembling real darkness or human experience.  And that is not me saying that all art that feels “real” needs to be dark and brooding–I by no means want to be a defeatist; after all, our faith is most substantively rooted in wild, visceral and beautiful Hope.  But the thing is, that Hope bears the weight that it does because it stands and laughs in the face of darkness and death–if all we write and film and sing is devoid of said death, then the Hope holds little water; what were we saved from?  From pithy “naughtiness?”  Were we “by very nature children of wrath”  (Eph. 2:3)  for trite and inconsequential reasons?  Because that is the impression of much that comes into the conversation around Christian art.  Obviously what I’m about to say is subjective, though I’ve found it to ring true with many:  often little in the mainstream Christian art offerings resembles actual human experience, and this is precisely what I find dangerous.  The Kingdom that Christ enacted is in fact alien and foreign to the self-worshipping bent of human nature–absolutely.  However, His full divinity was met with full Humanity–He is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be truly human.  Necessarily, I think, should we reflect true humanity in what we create.  People who don’t know Him should see Him in us in such a way that, whether they recognize Him at first or not, they say “you’re the most person-y person I’ve ever met.”  If you’re to tell someone who does not know Christ (or one who does, for that matter) that this (the Gospel) actually works–that it kills death and transforms hearts and lives the way nothing else can, that nothing can be a substitute for the power and freedom it brings–and then you present them with characters or lyrics or stories that don’t remotely reflect the realities of broken lives, how shall it ring true?

This is where I think the Psalms (and Jesus Himself) give us far more permission than I think we realize or seize.  In the presence of his God the Psalmist confesses (51), screams in anger and utter desolation (22), he longs (42).  Christ Himself, in that garden, literally bled His stress and fear and begged for a way out, even if ultimately conceding to the will of His Father.  His submission in that moment is so beautiful because of what it costs Him, and not some optimistic naivety.
And David, a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14) faltered until the end. And it’s into all that mess that Messiah comes and stamps His image, redeems and breathes life.

Now back full circle to Goliath; I didn’t set out with an intention for this song. It’s one of those ones that even as I was crafting it, its meaning was something I was discovering, and even to this day I think I’m still trying to fully uncover it. But to the best of my knowledge, I think it’s a song about expectations. Because as a songwriter and musician in the church, people often say things like “oh, you have the heart of David.” And don’t get me wrong, that is such beautiful encouragement and it brightens my soul every time. But feelings of inadequacy so frequently flood in, and I’m left to wonder. Because, I know my heart well, and I never quite like what I see. It’s that whole second verse is what resonates most strongly with my own being:

The youngest of seven // no one was ever looking at me //
Except the Almighty // staring right through my chest cavity //
The prophet man said God looked in my heart and saw a king //
But I know my heart well and I never quite like what I see //

I was unassuming for much of my life, and doubted that anyone paid all that much attention to my existence (though my Enneagram Four-ness led to me pretending my life was a movie pretty much all the time). And then all of a sudden people took notice and it was overwhelming and I didn’t feel ready. This song became a hard look in the mirror for me, and the hope is that it would be a mirror for the listener as well.

And so maybe you’re like me–that when YHWH comes calling to use us, our response is often “You sure about that, God? Have you seen me lately?” And of course He has…He knows us full well, far better than we know ourselves…and chooses to use us anyway. To His own glory, despite our weakness. And it’s that knowledge He has of our hearts that needs to lead us to honesty in our communion with Him. Because he knows the depths of us. And as soon as we fail to be honest, we’re just fooling ourselves, trying to fool Him, and failing to. And it is at the end of us that He meets us and does what only He can do. And we need not fear it.

Concerning the end of the song–again, not really a planned exercise. Once the line was written, there was simply nowhere else for it to go. So often the temptation is to wrap things up neatly and cleanly. For there to be a bow on top. But reality often doesn’t get Hollywood endings and life far more often resembles a fog then a romcom. And this felt like it needed to be left in tension. There are moments unresolved and this song is no different. And they leave us all the more expectant of the Hope that will pierce through all that black and bring the Day that does not cease. And it is that black that shows us just how radiant His light really is.

j

Top Ten Tips For Beginner Songwriters

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If you’re a musician, it’s probably happened to you.  You know you have something to share with the world, something to say that’s yet to be said, something yet to be sung. But for the life of you, you just can’t craft it into something viable, something captivating.  There’s all this brilliance dancing around in your head, but it just doesn’t seem to want to land.  Songwriting, like any form of meaningful and piercing art, rarely consists of raw creativity, but rather channeled creativity.  Just like you had to learn disciplines with your instrument to actually make music, so it goes with songwriting.  If you’re struggling to put this into practice, or have written before but find yourself in a rut, these are some tips to help you get started!

I.  Make Your Song Memorable

There’s a lot that goes into a memorable song, but let’s start with something easy and tangible.

The key to memorability is two-fold:

a) simplicity 

b) repetition

If you’re thinking, “But I don’t want to write simple repetitive music!”, hear me out.

a) Simplicity—done well—is king.

Too often young writers try to “say it all” in a single song, and it ends up being far, far too broad.  Try to narrow your song down to a single idea, and elaborate on that idea.  Instead of saying everything, try to say one thing really well.

Try to ensure that everything in the song, whether musically or lyrically, helps to convey the idea of the song in one way or another.  Simplicity brings focus and direction to a song.

b) Repetition is what glues our brains to a song.

Music itself is based on repetition and variances of established patterns.  The best melodies and lyrical hooks involve a great deal of repetition.

Hooks are the best way to make a song memorable.  A hook can be anything in the song, but not everything is a hook.  A hook can be a melodic idea, a lyrical phrase, a riff, that is repeated  throughout the song.*  The primary hook is what people would typically think about when trying to recall, describe or sing a song for someone else (“it’s the one that goes like ‘______________’”).  There can be multiple hooks in a song (and different kinds), and the more deeply you hook, the more memorable a song will be.

(*people often mistake a chorus for being synonymous with a hook.  A chorus absolutely can be a hook and often is, but it does not  have to be the primary hook).

II.  Musical/Lyrical Consistency

Be consistent with the rhythm of the melody.  Make sure it flows—don’t force syllables into a phrase just to make sure it rhymes.  And DO NOT flip syntax just in order to make something rhyme.

I’ll explain what I mean by that…

Here’s a negative example:  the pop song Beautiful Soul by Jesse Mcartney.  In it, he sings, “To you I’ll be always faithful,” flipping words around just for the sake of rhyming.  In modern English we say, “I’ll always be faithful to you.”  His wording is archaic, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, especially in writing for the church.  With the right subject matter—or if done consistently in a song—archaic language can be awesome.  But if it’s shoehorned in only one instance (as in this case) just to rhyme,  it just sounds immature, like he doesn’t have command of the language.

Make sure the lyrics sing naturally—if you have to elongate or stretch certain words beyond what sings comfortably, or cram a ton of syllables into a small phrase just to fit them in, the song will feel amateur.  The lyrics and melody fail to blend seamlessly, and even an untrained listener will instinctively feel that you have command of neither.  And if you want to have command of the language…

III.  Read Voraciously (if you don’t know what “voraciously” means, you aren’t reading enough)

Seriously, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, read as much real literature as you can possibly get your hands on.  You will subconsciously be learning what makes for good writing, and it will provide you with a vocabulary and syntactical arsenal that will greatly expand your lyrical ideas and creativity.  I strongly recommend reading British authors, especially from the late 19th Century to the early ‘50s.  Their elegance and command of the language is perhaps the deepest well to draw from, while not being too far removed from our English today.

And in addition to reading…

IV.  Consume As Many Different Forms of Art As Possible

Inspiration can come in almost any form.  The best music helps people to truly feel and connect with something that words alone can’t do.  Often, an experience had in one art    medium can be transferred into another.  For instance, I used to often be inspired with song ideas from attending my sisters’ dance recitals and competitions.  The combination of the movement set to music would often spark up different lyrical and melodic ideas in my head that weren’t explicitly related to what I was experiencing in that moment, but they emoted in the same way.

Like reading, taking in as much art as possible in various forms expands your  arsenal, and can inspire you in the moment or down the road.

And speaking of inspiration…

V.  Read Scripture Until It’s Coming Out Your Ears

For those who want to write music to or about God, whether for congregational or non-congregational purposes, this is crucial.  And honestly, even if you just want to write about anything.  The hymns that have stood the test of time until today were written by individuals who knew their Bibles—and wrote from a depth and richness of understanding that was conveyed in their lyrics.  Much Christian music currently being written treads in shallow waters for lyricism.  There is no better place to find more nuance and subject matter for a song than God’s Word.  And there is so much in Scripture we could take advantage of lyrically but don’t!  Worship songs often go back to the same wells for lyrical ideas over and over, when there are so many different ideas from Scripture to draw from…so draw from new ones!

VI.  CLICHÉS DISENGAGE THE LISTENER—DON’T USE THEM!

“We give you all the praise.”  “All of my days.”  “I give You everything.”  “Your amazing grace.”  “I will worship with all of my heart.”  We’ve heard things said the exact same way thousands of times.

Clichés are tempting to use because they’re “tried and true.”  It’s not risking anything to use a cliché, and so there is great temptation to use one in order to fill in a lyrical gap or lend credence to a song.

The problem with clichés is that they pretty much instantly disengage the listener.  Clichés become cliché because they’ve been used a thousand times.  When a person has heard a concept said the same way over and over and over, it becomes hard for them to really process its meaning when they hear it.  The brain just shuts off.

Clichés  are often very general as well, especially in worship music (see above examples), which, again, keeps people from engaging as fully.  The broader the brush strokes, the lesser the impact.

More important than just not using clichés, however, is finding something new to say! Or a new way to say it!  Don’t write lyrics that you think will “get by” by today’s standards.  Write the lyrics you wish others were writing.  Which leads us to…

VII.  Make Sure Your Song is Actually About Something

Don’t just write music for no reason!  Write something that’s from you.  An idea, a feeling, or an experience you’ve had.  If you can’t tell someone what your song’s about, the lyrics likely won’t convey it either.  And it’s not that ambiguous lyrics are bad, they can be fantastic.  There are plenty of songs where I’m not fully sure what the writer had in mind, but they’re still brilliant.  But if you just are stringing together a bunch of phrases, hoping something sticks, there will be nothing to compel the listener.  Like tip #1, you want to try to say one thing really really well.  And even if your listener isn’t quite sure what that is, your conviction should be clear.

If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, here’s an exercise:

Try starting with an actual physical object.  Could be anything  Then ask some friends what comes to mind when they think of that object.  What feelings it calls up in them.  Do this until you end up with something a bit more abstract.  Then, use that object as a vehicle to explain that abstract idea.  Help people connect with the abstract through the tangible.

For example, I did this in a lecture at a young adults conference I played/taught at, and asked someone to name something.  First thing was “popcorn.”  I wrote it down on the board.  Then, I asked people to start saying things that came to mind when they thought of popcorn.  Eventually, someone said, “it transforms.”  Another person talked about movies, and I led that towards shared human experience.  First date.  We tried taking different ideas in different directions.  Specific, tangible things help people understand and feel what you’re trying to say.  It’s more real.  Or, try it in reverse!  Start with an abstract concept, and try to figure out some physical thing that could convey that idea.

VIII.  Write Leanly

Writing “leanly” means squeezing the most out of the words that you use.  Try to find the shortest, most effective way to say something.

People often confuse lots of big words with strong writing, but that simply isn’t the case.  Sometimes good writing will require a great deal of words, but it is certainly not necessary—or even ideal—for strong writing.  Strive for what one of my college professors, Keith Molberg, called “pregnant brevity:”  saying things that are full of meaning and depth in as few words as possible.  Learning how to write like this goes back to the fourth tip—reading and listening to strong writers will help intuitively form a basis for lean writing.

Let the verbs do the work.  Instead of using a regular verb and an adjective to colour it, use a more interesting verb that contains the idea of the adjective.  Instead of saying “she walked slowly into the room,” say, “she ambled into the room.”  You don’t need to say she “slowly ambled;” the idea of “slowly” is already packaged into the verb.**  If you need help finding new verbs (or any words, for that matter), use a thesaurus, it’s a great tool and easily available online!

IX.  Co-Write/Get an Editor

No matter how skilled a writer you are, we all have blindspots.  We hear everything through our own filters (ones we aren’t even aware of), and because of that there are always things we miss. This is why writing with others and getting an editor is so critical.

Choosing who will be your editor is extremely important.  It needs to be someone you can trust, someone you can be vulnerable with, someone you won’t be specifically writing for.  You need to be able to feel the freedom to be yourself in your writing, the editor should only help trim the fat and make it better.  So, you need someone who you know doesn’t have an ego at stake and desires to see you do your best work.  They don’t have to be musical or a writer themselves, but it certainly helps!  In fact, it can be great if you can show your music to one person who is savvy when it comes to music and writing, and to one who doesn’t know music and writing but has a critical eye and a good instinct.  That way you can see how it will land with musical and non-musical audiences alike.

If you don’t have access to other writers or people to edit, you can also serve as your own editor, by using time.  Simply write, and then don’t look at or think about the song for a while, at least a few days.  Then come back to it.  Sometimes we write something in a moment when we’re inspired, and the critical aspect of our brain shuts off.   THIS IS A GREAT THING!  It allows us to better exercise our raw creativity and come up with better ideas.  Sometimes while in that creative mode, however, we come up with things that don’t quite make sense (this happens to me a lot).  By spending some time away from our work, and coming back to it later, we get out of that space and are able to analyze with a bit more objectivity.    Sometimes I’ll return to a song I’ve left for a while and look at a line and go “what was I thinking?”  Self-editing is invaluable.

X.  JUST DO IT!

We all know what they say practice makes…

But really.  As much as you might not want to hear it, some of the best songwriters became great because they just write.  A lot.  Jon Foreman, one of the most poetic and creative songwriters working today, writes virtually every day of his life.  And as far as a professional touring musician goes, it’s hard to get much busier than him, so a lack of time is no excuse.  But in reality, lack of time is rarely the issue…

As musicians and creators, our art is part of our identity.  It just is.  And fear of failure, or a fear of making something that isn’t profound, may in fact be the biggest thing holding so many of us back.  It’s as though we were to make something that wasn’t great, we ourselves are lacking in some way.  And that’s just not true!  The reality is we will all make art that’s not all great 100% of the time, but it’s in doing that that we learn how to do it better.  Back to Jon Foreman—even with all the music he’s put out, between his solo music and Switchfoot and Fiction Family (not to mention all the writing he’s done for other musicians)—if he’s writing music daily, how many songs does that mean he’s written that will never see the light of day?  We have to accept that not everything we do will be a work of genius.  But it is those trudging, struggling times that help hone our abilities as writers, and it becomes an actual craft.

A common myth is that we have to be “inspired” to write good music, let alone write at all.  Not true.  This was debunked for me when I was in a songwriting class and had very real deadlines to meet in order to do the class!  Deadlines force the wheels to turn, and while the writing that occurs in that time may need some refining, it will teach you how to quickly get in a “creative space.”

Deadlines and writing for a specific purpose give focus and (surprise surprise) purpose to your song.  Is your church about to launch into a specific sermon series?  Talk to your pastor about writing a song that the church can sing for it.  Your friend’s getting married and wants you to sing at the wedding?   Offer to write them an original.  Are you leading worship at a Bible camp?  Write a song around their theme for the summer.  These        deadlines will help you to get over the false notion that good writing requires the stars to align perfectly in order to happen, and simply write.

There you have it, those are the tips!  Now, go write the music you wish was being written.

j

**A quick note:  some of the ideas in this post (especially around memorability in a song) were things I learned from my mentor and songwriting professor, Ken Dosso.  His work with me was invaluable in helping me learn how to channel my creativity and hone it into something stronger.

The verb example comes from Successful Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis (1998).

If you’d like to hear my debut EP, you can find it here (also available on all streaming services):

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