I confessed something during a show I played the other night: I think Taylor Swift is the shiz. I think she has a strong voice that she knows how to use to very good effect, and it's imperfect enough to be interesting. She's a real musician. She has excellent stage presence. And above all, I think she is a distinctive, inspired pop songwriter.

I keep going back to videos of her performing "unplugged," just her singing and playing acoustic or electric guitar (she plays well). That's where you can tell whether a song is truly a good song or just the result of production. "Wildest Dreams" on the album doesn't particularly stand out for me, but Swift performing it solo at the Grammy Museum slays me. I watched a video of her playing "We Are Never Getting Back Together," a monster hit that sounds great with her singing and playing.

Before she sang it, she told the story of how the song came about. And there's no question that having the inspiration of saying about an ex-boyfriend that "we are never getting back together" in the way that she did helped create a hit song. But what struck me was Swift saying that she had gone to the studio that day specifically to write a song. She and Martin were going to work until they had produced something good.

This is not an unusual way to work. It's how pretty much all pop songwriters work. You don't wait for inspiration. You make inspiration. You scribble ideas, or draw, or play an instrument, or whatever gets your juices flowing. You bounce ideas off collaborators. You write and throw away the stuff that doesn't work until you have not just a song but a good song. There are bands that do something similar: hole up together and write songs for the next album until they have enough.

Me, I've usually been of the lazy, wait-for-the-muse type. The upside is that I'm generally happy with what I write. The downside is that I have so little output. The muse is fickle. And if I don't block out time to write, other things will get done instead, and song output will be less than my output on this irregularly updated blog.

It would be dumb to say, as I have said, that I'm just not a prolific songwriter. The reality is that I don't work enough at it. Neither harder nor smarter.

I have rarely collaborated to write songs, and almost never in the way that Swift and Martin do. I wonder what that would be like. I do know that writing with another good writer is likely to do two things: produce more good songs and make both participants better songwriters. I say I "almost" never work that way because that's pretty much what you do at rock camp. But rock camp songwriting does not usually produce hits. You're mainly concerned with getting the song finished at all!

I don't know if any of the songwriters I know would want to do any collaborating. I could ask. I could also seek out workshops where co-writing is part of what you do. I'm so used to writing alone, in a very personal way, that it's a bit scary to think of working with one or more other people. But I bet it would do me a lot of good.


Pilgrim's progress

I'm about a week into my reform program. I hate reform programs and resolutions and self-improvement shit. I didn't want to change anything about my life. After too much time, I realized I was unusually stressed and anxious. Once I did realize it, I got over not wanting to change anything and started making changes. Because feeling bad sucks.

So far, not bad. It's been a week partly of being more conscious of how I already spend my time and partly of doing more priority things. I practised more, including with Leenie. I wrote an important email that took away the obligation to do something I really did not have time or desire to do. I sent some personal correspondence. I walked more, usually as transportation to do errands plus added distance.

It wasn't all work and then more work. On Tuesday, I did three fun things: took a road trip, had dinner out, and saw a band I love. Sweetie and I went out to dinner last night. And a lot of what I do is not work, including preparing meals and reading.

More time doesn't mean I get everything done. Some things are easy to do more of -- playing guitar and singing, writing to people, gardening. Some things, however, I'm not as good at doing.

Songwriting is one of those things. I get bored without new songs. I need new songs. But writing is work. I've mostly been a lazy songwriter, getting inspired occasionally and then following through. But with songwriting you need to facilitate inspiration, give it a kick start, and that means grabbing a notebook or opening a text file (I do both) and writing virtually whatever comes to mind, for a good hour at least. Topics, titles, bits of lines, rhymes, drawings, whatever. That's how you write more and write better. But it's one of those tasks that is easy to put off because it's daunting.

It's also too easy to put off house cleaning and maintenance. I can't say I've improved that situation much yet. But it's a lot easier to keep a reasonably clean and fixed up house if I don't let things slide until there are too many chores. Both cleaning and fixing are things that I should do at least every few days.

Getting overwhelmed is one of my biggest problems. The longer I let things go, and the more things there are to do, the more intimidating it is to start even one thing. It becomes easier to do nothing. The pile is so high! But there's nothing that will make the pile smaller other than to keep at it.

Most of the time I gained comes from being scarce on social media. As much as I enjoy tweeting, I was spending too much time on Twitter, and even then not keeping up. It's pretty much the same with Facebook. Unfortunately, the relief of having more time and less anxiety is offset a bit by the anxiety that comes from being out of touch. Without Twitter, it's harder to maintain contact with local people and know what's going on locally. Without Facebook, I lose contact with Vancouver friends and people far away and am unaware of even more events. And yet I'm afraid to do more than breeze in and out, lest I fall back into old patterns.

For the next couple of weeks, at least, my social calendar is fairly light. I will keep doing things I should be doing. I will keep leaving time to relax and do nothing (other than maybe watch TV). I will fill whatever time I have with things I claim to want to do. One of those things is hanging out with friends. I will try not to worry that social media invisibility will lead to actual invisibility. I do have email and text links to many people. I can reach out. I can hope that people reach in.


Sea change, maybe

I'm at the end of a few months of being heavily booked. Overbooked, really. Everything I committed to was something that I wanted to do. But the lack of downtime started to get to me. And I realized that the overbooking caused the things I claim are most important to me to lose out. I can't be much of a musician if I rarely practise or write or play out because I'm too busy with other commitments as well as stressed out and unable to focus because of two months of house uncertainty and repair (thankfully done).

Just this past weekend, I felt something shift. I have no idea if it's a permanent shift. I imagine not. But I hope some of its impact endures. Right now I find I have at least some resolve to change the situation, to reorder my priorities. I feel the change even physically. My appetite is down (for me, that's a good thing). I feel more energetic, a nice change from the usual. I found myself on a social media break (it happened, then I realized it), not total but substantial. I have more time and energy to work on my time.

When I need to figure stuff like this out, my analytical and obsessive-compulsive sides tend to kick in. Probably both of those played into my creating a table of priorities. I entered activities that I do or want to do. I marked each as to whether I needed it, wanted it a lot, or wanted it a little. I added the frequency of activities, first as it is at present, and then as I want it to be. The table evolved as I added information, sorted it differently, remembered more activities, added and removed columns. It's full of colours too.

It's a chart of my life. I never realized my life fit into a Microsoft Word table.

The still-evolving table is currently sorted by desired frequency, so it's easier to see activities that need to happen daily, often, weekly, and so on.

Most important are the activities I need or want to do pretty much every day, such as work, walk (my only real exercise), practise music, make dinner (I get breaks from that), and screen films ('tis the season). There are things I should do at least every few days, such as housework (best if I keep at it regularly) and gardening (both so my garden will thrive and for my own mental health).

Just as important are the things I've been doing daily that I need to reduce or eliminate. At this point, that's pretty much just social media. It's not just the actual time on social media. It's the overhead of sitting at my laptop too often and for too long. There are always other things to do on my laptop when I'm not on Twitter or Facebook.

The chart also shows other things I need or want more time for, such as reading and personal correspondence (mostly email but occasionally handwritten). I would like to get together with friends more often, which is way better than social media interaction, but when it's less often than I wish I'm not going to stress about it.

The chart helps me be honest with myself. Am I ever going to play softball? Not without eliminating or drastically reducing at least a few other activities, and that's unlikely. Do I really want to blog more than I do? Probably not. My blog seems to run only off sporadic inspiration, not steady hard work, and that's okay. Songwriting, however, is something I need to do every day, or at least every couple of days. Block out time with minimal distractions and write.

One thing that's going to take a hit is political volunteering. I've realized that while it's something that I sometimes love to do, mostly it's something that I feel I ought to do. One reason that's been stressful lately is that I'm not very good at "ought to" volunteering. I'm a better volunteer when it's something I love to do, such as my arts and civic involvement. I'm always a political junkie, but only a sporadically enthusiastic political volunteer.

Full-time work makes a huge impact on the schedule, not just in the time it takes but in the desire not to work during non-work time, even when it's work I want and need to do.In only a few years I will be able to stop working. I have not yet managed to get my hours reduced, but at some point work hours will cease altogether. I can only imagine how my life—and chart—might change.

While I'm still working, however, I need to manage my time. There really aren't enough hours in a day (and sleep is not optional), so I have to divide my waking hours more carefully than I would like. I'm not very disciplined! But occasionally I get determined, and while that's so, I'd better take advantage of it.

One day at a time. I'm not going to get this changed all at once. I hope I stay determined for a while, however, lest this blog post become an embarrassment. Long-term determination has never been my strong suit. That itself must change.


Vox pop

Over the years I've heard a fair amount of praise for songs I've written. As well, I've been complimented on my guitar playing, which surprises me but I'll take it. But I don't think I can remember anyone saying that they liked my singing.

Most of the time, I don't like it either.

I've been singing for pretty much as long as I can remember. I liked to sing as a child. When I learned to play guitar at 16 and began to write my own songs, of necessity I also became a vocalist. I've sung on my own, in a duo, in bands, and in choirs. I've sung my own songs and cover songs. As a chorister, I sing on key. My harmony singing is solid. But as a lead vocalist, I am meh at best. I sing with passion and intent, but quality, not so much.

I don't hate the voice I hear recorded, but I don't love it. I think it's harsh. Not very pleasing. Just not very nice sounding.

I don't know if others feel the same way. Or rather, figuring that some must feel that way, how many of them are there? Does my voice put people off? Does it make them not listen, or not listen again, to my songs?

The only bands of mine that achieved some level of success were those with a lead vocalist who wasn't me. I know my songs are good, but maybe that only really comes across when the vocal is by someone who sings better than I do. Maybe my voice will put people off from listening more than once and really liking. Moreover, it's just guitar and vocal now, with some percussion help from Leenie. When so little is going on, all the parts had better be worth listening to.

Since I still want to play professionally and get booked, I hope that somehow my voice pleases other people more than it pleases me. Or that they find my voice interesting. Or that it's an instrument the sound of which they happen to like. Other people hear me differently than I hear myself, and maybe I sound better to them than I do to me.

If that's true, then not having a good voice won't hold me back. Despite higher vocal quality expectations for women than men, there are women whose unconventional vocals are well appreciated. Hardly anyone can sing like Beyoncé or Adele anyway. Courtney Barnett's voice is distinctive in a pleasing way. PJ Harvey's voice can be challenging. I aspire to have a pleasingly distinctive voice. I'm probably more the challenging type.

It's really since I "went solo (again)" that I have been consciously exploring my voice, probably more than I have ever done. I'm looking for its strengths and strengthening weaknesses. I'm trying new things and taking risks. I listen to distinctive women vocalists, including Leenie, and learn from them. Leenie has also influenced me to make more extensive use of my capo, not just to create a key but to find the best key, the one where the melody, especially the chorus, is in a sweet spot for my voice.

It's funny how I feel at one with my guitar but not so much with my voice. My guitar is an extension of myself, and it expresses something about who I am. I want my voice to be and do those things as well. The work I've done hasn't improved my vocal quality that much but I think it has improved my expressiveness. Just have to see if that's enough.