Monday, June 28, 2010

Afraid of the Sea

Corine Bailey Rae is a singer-songwriter who had a couple of modest hits from her eponymous debut record that came out in 2006. The first was a simple acoustic "Like a Star" that she performed at the 2007 Grammys in an elegant cocktail dress and no shoes, perched on a stool with only a guitar for accompaniment. The second was a old-school R&B-inspired "Put Your Records On" that ended up in the background of a lot of films and television episodes that year.

So I've been a fan.

When I heard she was releasing a follow-up disc entitled The Sea, I was rightfully excited. Until I learned it was heavily influenced by the recent death of her husband, who had died of an accidental drug overdose. Whoa, I thought. That's certainly not going to be light and playful like the others. I was intrigued, but not ready.

A few weeks passed and I was gearing up for a road trip and in need of some new, unfamiliar music. I browsed iTunes and came across The Sea. I downloaded it. In my car, I listened to the first few bars of the first track, got impatient because it didn't sound like the other, and moved on to something else. Truth is, I was scared of subject matter. I thought to myself, do I really want to risk interrupting my emotionally-neutral driving jag absorbing the artistic fallout of someone else's grief. The answer was no. And so I opted for the other music I'd recently downloaded - the Kinks, Kelly Clarkson, John Mayer, and the Black Keys. Talented folk, but nothing seemingly pre-loaded about listening.

Which got me thinking about my own manuscript.

I'll admit, as proud as I am of my progress, and as much as I feel mine is an important tale to tell, I constantly feel like I dance around uncomfortably when someone who doesn't know me asks (usually prompted by my open laptop at a bar or coffee shop) "So what's your manuscript about?" Explaining that my brother died and that it is an exploration into, not only that, but my family's response to the untimely or unusual illness in our family, usually grinds the once-light conversation to a frosty halt. It doesn't help when I over compensate by attempting to explain that it is also about the bonds of family and friendship and love, and also contains a fair amount of humor and pop culture references.

Which it does, but really, the light (or enlightening) exchange they may have been looking for is gone. Not quite like chatting it up with the person behind you in line at the grocery store, only to have them tell you they've had an abortion (this revealed before you've placed the last items of your cart onto the conveyor), but there is a considerable, immediate weight to the exchange that I cannot escape.

Getting back to the Corinne Bailey Rae, I was out pulling weeds in my yard the other day, listening to my iPod on shuffle, when an unfamiliar song came up. Usually when this happens, it means the song is one of those "duds" from an album download and causes me to bump it to the next offering. But this song, from the very beginning was this sultry tune undercut with a funky beat, and heavy on the B12 organ. A perfect new-but-sounds-old song.

I put down my trimmers, pulled off my gloves and checked to see how something so good could have gotten onto my iPod without my knowledge. It was "The Blackest Lily" by Rae, a track from "The Sea." It was then that I had done the same thing to her piece of art that I pre-accuse potential readers of doing to mine, assuming it will be too raw or heartbreaking to take. And perhaps it is. Perhaps my whole effort will end up being little more than an extended therapeutic exercise.

But I hope not.

In the meantime, I've openly re-examined Rae's "The Sea." I'm still not a fan of the opening track, and I don't love it in the same way I did her debut. But I'm no longer scared of entering into it based on my pre-conceived notions of how I think someone who has lost a spouse to drug abuse might approach a piece of art.

And I've been jamming out constantly to "The Blackest Lily" despite the fact that I have no idea what it means...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Can Art Save Us?

So it's been a while since I've blogged.

And I've missed it.

More than I could have imagined.

What's been more interesting is the notion of how not writing for a few days has made me kinda, well, crazy. Perhaps more unsettled and discombobulated more than anything, but still. It's been kinda like what I imagine it means for someone to go off their meds. I don't mean to diminish the affect of medication for serious psychological issues, but it doesn't feel too far off on some level. I get all weepy and feel sorry for myself and don't want to go places and generally am not so fun to be around... Which is unfortunate for everyone (including me) because on my better days, I'm a pretty happy, insightful gal.

So why haven't I been writing? A couple of reasons. One, I just finished another draft of my manuscript and felt the need to take a mental rest while I wait for comments from a few smart readers. Also, I've been feeling the need to ramp up my job search considerably, endlessly combing the bowels of the internet for opportunities that match my unusual experience and skill set. Not that I think this is a bad idea, and it certainly has reduced my stress-level in that area. However, at the end of the day, the tangible outcome is difficult to qualify. I come to believe that halting the writing process is the more "responsible" thing to do, that it is something that I can come back to once I get myself "settled."

What I fail to realize, again and again, is just how unsettled I become. Ah, the irony. And it always takes me more than a few days of flailing to realize the source of my unrest. Part of me refuses to believe that something as simple as a post about a common pop song, or the edit of a sublimely perfect word, or 500 words on a local happening, or even an in-depth email can keep the existential what's-it-all-mean / why-bother-when-there's-so-much suffering dogs at bay.

Oh, but how it does.

Which gets me thinking about the emotional lives of those who chose to surround themselves with art. Growing up, I often found much peace in simply being among my family and watching TV, or listening to records with my brother, or even the endless hours spent bonding with friends playing pool in my basement and watching music videos. As an adult, I am pleased to be considerably more active, but I'll admit I will refuse to pull a single weed in my yard or walk a single step around the park without my iPod firmly attached to my hip. I find it difficult to read a book without marking a passage and transcribing it in my journal. The other night I forced myself to go to the Ohio Theater to see Some Like it Hot, and left the place postively gleeful.

Occasionally, I am suspicious. Surely this kind of delight can be achieved in other ways - human contact, comes to mind. And I have plenty of that in my life. Perhaps art "is" human contact, only delayed. Someone you've never met has a particular talent and has an experience. She writes a song about that experience, sitting alone in a room. Months later, an assembled team of highly skilled professionals have thier own experience crafting those songs into an album. A year later, a thousand miles away, one of those songs is chosen as a prom theme. Fifteen years later, that songwriter grows cynical and fades into obscurity. Until a filmmaker with a bit of a buzz, who hated the prom-song, but played the B-side over and over during his parents' divorce, offers the singer a chance to score a small but personal film that goes on to become the sleeper hit of a particular generation and inspires someone to write a book.

And on and on...

Of course, much of the above is high-level delusion. But I think smaller scales of that delusion is what keeps writers, painters, actors, musicians, and other creative people afloat. And sane. Until they decide they need to ditch it all in the name of responsibility. Not that being responsible isn't admirable. God knows irresponsible artists tend to turn into miserable dependents. And I know how lucky I am for the circumstances and advantages that allow me this kind of wandering existence without resorting to desperate measures. I just know for myself, when I get into a focused surge of needing to move into a new stage of my life, it is my creative side that often suffers most.

I just wish I'd keep forgetting this reality again and again.