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Saying Yes

People often ask how it’s possible that I write so many songs and I think about the scene from First Knight where a man has just been beaten in a dual by Richard Gere (Lancelot) and asks him, truly awed, how he has grown so skilled with a sword because he wants to learn. Lancelot gives him a few tactical strategies - anticipate your opponent’s next move before he makes it and learn to wait for the moment in which you know you have won or lost the fight - both of which the man eagerly declares he can do. Then comes the zinger: “And you have to not care whether you live or die.”

Clearly songwriting isn’t a life or death situation (despite the fact that we’re always writing about matters lying somewhere along the spectrum between the two), but if I am to answer that question it’s with a few tactical strategies - join a songwriting group with deadlines so you have to write when you don’t want to and always record ideas, no matter how silly or insignificant they may seem - but I, too, have a zinger: “You have to not care whether it’s good or bad.”

I know this is hard for a lot of songwriters. It’s tempting to only write when we think it’s going to be good, but if I just followed through on the best ideas at least half, if not more, of my 600 song catalog wouldn’t exist. They’re not all good (I assure you!) but many of them surprised me by ending up Something which is better than Nothing, and more importantly it kept my tools sharp and the pipes from getting rusty. I go through my days singing ridiculous random ditties about whatever it is I’m doing - the dishes, showering, having trouble deciding what to wear, petting the Nana Cat - and I record literally all of it. Only a negligible amount will ever be anything other than what it was in the moment, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because it’s saying yes to the Muse, it’s telling her that I’m listening, that I respect her, that I’m ready and open to receive. If I don’t catch the next silly idea that pops in my head I might not catch the next good idea that pops in there either. She might give it to someone else, someone who was paying better attention, someone who wasn’t telling her that her ideas weren’t good enough.

Many of my most beloved songs are not the ones that represent “Shawnee Kilgore” the best, but just because something doesn’t represent what I feel are my strongest songwriting attributes doesn’t mean it’s not mine, or of value to someone somewhere. My song Abraham was literally and figuratively thrown into the trash after an assignment to write a two-chord song about a historical figure. The lyrical content was so painfully simple I was actually embarrassed by it. Without my characteristically poetic-yet-usually-still-accessible linguistic complexity I felt like I had nothing to hide behind and was scared that everyone would see it - and me - for exactly what we were: nothing special.

My friend Daisy O’Connor asked about Abraham sometime later, if she had my blessing to play it. I was surprised but pleased, as I am any time someone wants to play something I’ve written. She started playing it out and people liked it. I started getting requests for it at my own shows and finally gave in to learning it. When the time came that my friend Dan Barrett was producing a record for Ruthie Foster and asked if I had any songs to pitch I sent him the painfully simple two-chord story and they ended up recording it. She said that as soon as she heard it she had to know what it would feel like to sing it. My little throwaway song, on a Grammy nominated artist’s record. In the words of the late Justin Townes Earle, who am I to say?

Every song is a gift, but it’s not the song we are gifted. It’s the seed. Say yes.

-- Shawnee Kilgore

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