For much of my life, I wanted badly to be a better songwriter. I took the advice from my teachers and wrote almost every day, but it seemed like I was just pumping out one mediocre tune after another. Sure, songwriting takes practice like any other skill, but I was missing two key components of songwriting that no book, class or video could ever teach me. Self-knowledge and self-love are crucial aspects of creating meaningful art; I was so full of self-doubt and struggled to express myself in front of others in an honest and open way.
One thing has remained consistent about my personality over the years; I overthink things. I ponder, worry, doubt and brood. I’ve often waffled about whether or not this is a blessing or a curse. I pride myself on being exceptionally perceptive and conscientious, although anyone that’s ever created anything can tell you that overthinking leads to a downward spiral that quickly provokes the dreaded state of writer’s block.
I spent the majority of my young life trying to be like everyone else. The clothes I wore, the music I listened to and even the way I spoke were all canned expressions of my desire to fit in. I lacked the courage to write and share honest music because I was too afraid of being judged; I wanted to be liked by others, so I played it safe and did my best to copy things that other artists were already doing successfully.
I struggled with authentic self-expression for much of my young life. I dyed my hair constantly in high school; I’d heard somewhere that dying your hair was a form of self-expression, and I convinced myself that that was why I did it. I frequently browsed the net searching for the perfect shade for my next pigmentary escapade. I tried it all; red, pink, purple, orange, bleach blonde, you name it. But the thing was, dying my hair wasn’t self-expression at all; it was a desperate attempt at being somebody that I wasn’t because, at the time, I hated myself.
Eventually, I got sick of keeping up with dyed hair (or maybe I was just actually ready to be myself) and I mustered up the courage to go back to my plain-jane natural color. I remember the day that I dyed my hair back after years of hiding behind a rainbow veneer. I stared back at my blonde locks in the mirror and thought, “wow, this is me.” It wasn’t flashy or creative, it was just me, and for once in my life, that felt amazing.
I fell into the same trap when I began creating music, too; songwriting was supposed to be a form of self-expression, but for me, it was anything but. I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t have the right tools to help me find out. I’ve always been enamored by an artist’s ability to be open and honest about who they are and the way they experience the world. More than anything, I was jealous that they could share themselves so openly and be met with love and connection by adoring fans.
In search of that very same love and connection, I began creating my own music, but my lyrics were squeezed out of the creativity desert that lies between aimlessness and self-doubt. It was a contrived culmination of music from artists I liked: a Frankenstein patchwork of sound brought to life by the fear not being seen as valued as a human being by others.
If I were trying to sell you something, I’d probably tell you that once I started doing this “one magic thing” my whole life made a 180 and now everything is awesome. I’m much more grounded and secure in who I am, but authenticity is still something I struggle with every day. Self-discovery is a long and difficult process that lasts a lifetime, and it looks different for everyone. Authenticity must be cultivated daily; it grows when we start every day by committing to listening to and being ourselves. For me, that process has been made up of constant self-work, journaling, yoga, therapy, and of course, making and performing music.
Everything changed when I stopped writing music for other people and started writing it for myself. (Obviously, if you’d like to write commercial music you must keep your audience in mind, but that’s a different discussion for another day.) I’m not the greatest composer in the world, but I’m able to write new songs every week without beating it out of myself, and at the end of the day I’m actually proud of what I’ve created. And the best part is, I don’t really care anymore that some people won’t like it. It’s impossible and exhausting to try and please everyone. The best thing I can do is be myself and let others decide for themselves. It’s a great feeling to step on stage and be able to honestly think to myself, “well, love me or hate me, here I am!”
There was a beautiful shift that occurred in my life when I begin to create music from the heart. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone; I’m just sharing something that I created that I’m passionate about. When art is created by the raw and honest expression of emotion, it suddenly takes on the role it was intended: a medium for connecting with other people: a cathartic process: a tool for healthy self-expression.
Being loved and appreciated for who you are is one of those funny paradoxes of life, like trying too hard to fall asleep; the harder you push, the further it seems to slip away. As Allan Watts says, “the reason why you want to be better is the reason why you aren’t.” Copying artists may be the safe and easy thing to do, but an audience can smell inauthenticity a mile away. Beneath cadences and chord progressions, songs are born and driven entirely by their emotional content; if we’re struggling to connect with our own honest emotions, our music will be largely dry, flat and inauthentic, and an audience doesn’t have to understand a lick of music theory to feel that from a song.
I suppose there’s not many books or courses on living and creating with authenticity because it’s not an easy thing to teach. Self-confidence shouldn’t be thought of as something you have, but rather, something that you do. When you sit down to write a piece of music, just be sure to ask yourself, “who am I writing this for, and why?”