JEFF SHATTUCK MUSIC

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After 30 years, why do I finally like the songs I write?

Way back in October of this year, an article appeared in my Google Reader titled “Does Your Music Always Come Out The Way You Want It To?” It was inspired by an article in the New York Times by Michael Cunningham called Found In Translation, which eloquently investigated how ideas for novels progress from writer to reader through a series of translations, including, especially, translations into other languages. Reading both of these reminded me of an article I read a long time ago in The New Yorker called The Eureka Hunt about how ideas form in the brain. And all three of these articles together have helped me form a clearer understanding of how, in my mid-40s, I have changed as a songwriter.

To answer the question posed by the first article, the one about my music coming out the way I want it to, I would say yes (mostly), which is amazing, because it never used to. In the past, I was usually depressed after finishing a song. From the ages of 15 to 42, save for three or four tunes, the quality of my musical output typically fell far short of what I wanted. Even worse than knowing that my work was bad was not knowing how to fix it. Nowadays, most every song I finish I like. Which is not to say that they all come out the way I imagined them, because what I imagine and what I ultimately end up wanting are usually different. Ninety nine times out of 100, what I imagine turns out to be wrong in some fundamental way. Maybe the story of the lyric doesn’t really work, the instrumentation is inappropriate, the tempo is too fast. The possibilities for failure are endless and much needs to be explored. But in the end, after more work, I like them.

And here is where the second article comes into play. As I work on a tune, it goes through a series of translations, starting with the noise in my head being translated into guitars, bass, drums and voice via my home demo process, then a second translation happens as I play the demo for the musicians I rely on, Sam, Andy, Tim and Jaime and the various vocalists I use, and then a third translation happens when what’s been placed in their heads gets translated through their fingers and feet and mouths and into Jaime’s mixing console where it gets translated again before re-entering my head. What's my reaction as a listen? Usually a smile. Even the ultimate translation -- when a friend or even a stranger hears the the tune -- seems to go pretty well.

Why would this be? Why would I -- a person who has written precious few songs that he is proud for most of his life -- suddenly write close to 50 song I am genuinely happy with in roughly about three years? Did my severe traumatic brain injury in 2006 have something to with it? I think it did, and I think it was my tipping (over!) point as a songwriter, which brings me to the third article.

The New Yorker article describes how insights form in our brain. I highly recommend reading the article, but to summarize: insights, which all great ideas actually are, happen via the following process: there is a puzzle the brain needs to solve > the pre-frontal cortex tells the rest of the brain to be cool as it seeks to limit distractions that could compromise the brain’s computational power > the brain starts to look in all of the potentially relevant places for an answer > moments before the insight forms there is a burst of activity in the right brain (your hippie, creative brain) > you literally say, “Eureka!” (Well, maybe not eureka, but...) To put it another way, following some sort of input, the raw, emotional holistic feelings in the right brain get translated into cognitive actionable thought. But not just any thought, the “right” thought, which could be anything from the answer to a math problem to the chord your song needs to go to next. For example, I once read that Tom Petty had the intro to The Waiting for a week before he finally had the idea to stay on the D chord and sing, “Oh, baby, don’t it feel like heaven right now.” But the idea arrived in an instant; more important, he knew it was right, just knew it. Before my brain injury, I had a lot of ideas for songs but they never became insights, moments in which instinctively knew I had “the answer”. After my brain injury, insights started happening a little too fast (truly, I have struggled to keep up with the song ideas I have had that I think are good). Why would this be? No one knows, but according to my doctors my brain underwent shearing forces that changed how the various parts of it communicate, and in my opinion, this neuroquake has altered -- and improved -- my brain’s ability to turn flashes that would ordinarily go nowhere into flashes that become ideas.

But without my team of translators -- the musicians I work with all the way through to my most trusted listener, Catherine -- I would still be unable to have my music come out they way I want it to. So to all of you who have taken the time to listen -- and listen again -- and to play -- and to play again -- and then to listen -- and possibly play it all again -- I say thank you. You all rock.