Empty House

This is part [part not set] of 12 in the series 26 Songs

The end of February is fast approaching, and I am nowhere near the fourteen song target for February Album Writing Month. Unlike at my day job, where I can usually hunker down and churn out accounting memos and checklists and reports one after another, I am not blessed with the ability to be a prolific creative writer.

Terence quite accurately sums up my typical creative process as follows:

Pie chart of Deb's creative process showing 85% of running around bemoaning the constraints of what she has to write, 10% of sketching out ideas then complaining about them being terrible and 5% frantic scribbling in the last few hours when it all comes together.
Deb’s creative process.

Which basically means that right now I have no finished songs and half a dozen sketches. Somehow I don’t think sketches count for the purposes of FAWM; at least everybody else seems to have pretty polished pieces up. I’m sitting here telling myself that it’s okay to not be a fast writer and that a few songs and half a dozen sketches is better than zero songs. And then I’ll remember this page from when I was reading The Richard Rodgers Reader which is always thoroughly depressing and makes me question my abilities (emphasis mine):

The speed and ease with which Rodgers turns out successful show tunes has become one of Broadway’s persistent legends. The melody for Bali Ha’i from South Pacific is supposed to have been jotted down in five minutes while he was having after-lunch coffee, and it is undoubtedly true that he seldom spends more than a hour on the first draft of any of his tunes. Oscar Hammerstein often expressed astonishment, combined with a little envy, over Rodgers’s ability to instantly set to music a lyric that had taken him a week or so to perfect.

…The pure melodist…is nearly always a fast worker once the melodic inspiration hits him, and his melodies usually well up as full entities from some unconscious source. For the popular tunesmith who depends on professional arrangers for the details of orchestration and extended musical development, the writing down of a melody — plus a few basic harmonic ideas and perhaps an indication here and there of a notion for appropriate orchestration — is a process that can be accomplished in a few minutes. The melodic gift must be present, though, and, as Igor Stravinsky has recently pointed out, it is a really mysterious and unanalyzable phenomenon. Some people have it; others don’t. You can’t teach it, you can’t reduce it to a science, and you can’t subject its products to any very rigid intellectual criticism. More than any other aspect of music, it is a matter of pure talent.

Whether this is accurate self-perception or deluded self-deprecation, I’ve always felt that I am not very good at coming up with great melodies. I can come up with something that I usually feel okay with, but I don’t think I’ve ever written anything particularly catchy. Everything I write seems to be sad/cynical piano vocal ballad, and I don’t even know where to start to try and write something pop, catchy and up tempo. Usually after I write something and someone else hears it, they typically turn to me and ask, “Deb…are you okay???” Yes, I’m fine. Really.

Anyway. When I think about melodic gift, I always think of Laura Thoren, a girl who happened to take the same Musical Theatre Writing Workshop class as me in the Spring 2008 semester at NYU. The class itself was an amazing and incredibly fun experience – and inevitably every week no matter what lyricist she was paired with, Laura would bring in addictive, catchy songs that would stick in my head for weeks after. Even today, six years later, I can still remember the two songs she wrote with two other classmates, Jack Moore and Manuel Perez, for their final assignment, Frosh The Musical.

This is not one of the songs I was talking about, but another one of her uptempo catchy numbers of the type that I still can’t write:

Sometimes I wonder whether my inability to write these happy, catchy, uptempo numbers is because it’s not true to who I am.

Oscar [Hammerstein] also said, “Say what you feel, not what other song writers feel.” When I started out writing love songs I would write about stars and trees and dreams and moonlight, the usual song writer’s vocabulary. That’s fine if you believe it, but I didn’t.

—Stephen Sondheim on Theater Lyrics

Maybe it’s to do with all my classical training. Maybe it’s because of my instrument (I mean, just suppose I played electric cello – what kind of songs would I write then?). Maybe it’s because no matter how far I get, I still feel like I’m no closer to the finish line.

At any rate, I’m feeling a little deja vu right now. Third time around, and I’m still sitting alone in my New York City apartment, dreaming about the future and counting down the days until I leave. I miss my wonderful husband.

I don’t know why I always write things that are slightly too high for my vocal range. I would also post the score…except for the fact that typically when I write stuff and then I get near a piano, what I end up playing does not remotely resemble anything on the page. Including ad-libbed lyrics, altered lines, etc. This version of the sketch that I ended up recording is also kind of but really doesn’t resemble what I sung to Terence on Valentine’s Day. Anyway, insert standard disclaimers here about how much I suck at writing bridges and this being a work in progress.

It’s been two months today
Since you left here to stay
Somewhere else
It’s been winter and spring
Since you packed up your things
And I still linger on

Here in this empty house
Here in this empty house
In the spaces where your shoes used to be
Is the empty space
Waiting for you

It’s been four years today
Since we laughed and we prayed
For happiness
It’s been summer and fall
Since I last woke at dawn
With you looking on

Here in this empty house
Here in this empty house
In the spaces and corners where your clothes used to hang
Is an empty space
Waiting for you

Days are not days living without you
Nights are not nights living with you
And home isn’t home without you
When I’m here all alone

Here in this empty house
Here in this empty house

Empty House by Deborah Lau

One response to “Empty House”

  1. Terence Avatar

    I think that excerpt from the Richard Rodgers Reader is really focusing on the what it takes to be able to rattle off songs in minutes, rather than whether or not you can write good music.

    As with nearly every endeavour in life, you get the best results with a mix of talent and hard work. When one is lacking, make up with the other.
    With things of this creative nature, how you get there isn’t as important as the result.

    PS Your lyrics are a little off =P

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