I’m currently in New York where my bestie from Nashville and I are here for ten days of songwriting bliss. We’ve got heaps of ideas, a few melodies and a couple of half-written songs to dissect and reconfigure.
But I wanted to take a second and share a few thoughts with you on the power of storytelling.
I recognize that many of you reading may have no interest in songwriting and may not be musically inclined at all, but I implore you to read further down where I list my five favorite story songs I because they will wreck your brain.
People hate on country music. I know… I hear ya. But country music has a special place in my heart because some of the best songwriting has been done through country. Them country-folk know how to write a good story song.
Music has such power. It moves your soul and spirit. As much as I love the feel of hip-hop music, one of my beefs is that so many hip-hop writers lack quality songwriting. Add some auto-tune and a few beats and you have yourself a new hip-hop single. I hear too many people sacrifice listening to well written music because they like the sound. The sound is great, but if the lyrics lack substance then you only have half of the equation.
A song with poorly written lyrics but a good sound is like a meatless hamburger, might be tasty, but it has no substance.
So here are my top five favorite story songs:
- TIE: Stop This Train (John Mayer, Continuum) and Wheel (John Mayer, Heavier Things)
*So, I couldn’t decide which of Johnnie’s songs to pick. The guy is not only a ridiculous musician, he’s also an incredible songwriter. I chose Stop This Train because he expertly weaves the metaphor of a train to speak of life, without making it cliche. The whole song is a journey, and I love that. Adversely, with Wheel, John takes a different approach. It’s as if each phrase were a story. I didn’t get his line “an airport, seen it all before.. where someone’s last goodbye blends in with someone’s sigh, cos someone’s coming home; in hand a single rose…” until I was in an airport viewing such scenes. Each phrase of Wheel conveys a metaphor or idea to contribute to the overall message of the song.
2. Speaking a Dead Language (Joy Williams, Songs from That EP)
*I’m not sure if Joy Williams meant to write this song about the Tower of Babel, but regardless, this is expertly written. Whether you’re viewing the song through the lens of broken down communication in a relationship or the confused speech at the Tower, it speaks volumes (pun intended).
3. Making Pies (Patty Griffin, 1000 Kisses)
*Patty Griffin just does not get enough credit. The woman is brilliant. A great singer/songwriter/musician in her own right, but she writes for countless other artists and therefore goes unnoticed for how good of a songwriter she really is. I LOVE Making Pies. JUST LISTEN. It will storify your brain into wonderfulness.
4. Crows and Locusts (Brooke Fraser, Flags)
*What to say about this song. Uh. It leaves me speechless. How a girl can get that much symbolism packed into a song by being inspired by a local farmer, I don’t know. I don’t even want to comment on the brilliance that this song is. I think I’ll leave to Brookie to explain here.
5. The Hand Song (Nickel Creek, Nickel Creek)
*Nickel Creek. So their last album didn’t pan out as well as the previous ones but they have some fantastic writing overall. Check out the three-verse amazingness that is in The Hand Song. The way that the choruses tie up the verses like a beautiful little story package, is fantastic. You must listen.
So there it is. My top five story songs (for now). Feel free to add some of your favorites below for me and the rest of the world to enjoy what is pumping in your ears. Happy listening!
The major intersections immediately surrounding my neighborhood have been undergoing an overhaul the last six months that makes Heidi Montag’s work look like child’s play. For weeks: cones have been laid out; temporary lanes have been set, yet they constantly change as progress demands; barricades have been imposed and enforced so that entire intersections are blocked for days on end. There doesn’t appear to be any end nearing for the Main Street makeover. And do you know what that means? More time spent listening to the radio traffic reporting (uh, yes I know it’s backed up seventeen blocks. Thank you, Captain Obvious!); seeing the red brake lights before me flash on and off in unison; and navigating city streets, filled with frustrated drivers (it could easily be equated to foraging through a mine field).
In case you haven’t noticed, I hate road construction. I mean, I really hate road construction. I cringe every time I approach an orange triangle proclaiming that traffic fines will double for violations within the next 20 yards, a detour is approaching, or there are men working. Don’t get me wrong, from time to time I enjoy being hypnotized by the florescent orange and gleaming white stripes adorning a fence, but not when it barricades the intersection. But perhaps, the unsightly neon colors decorating the city streets, and the inconveniences construction materials cause to our already rushed routes can speak to us about our lives.
It was during one of my recent metropolitan road trips, which required steering skills like those of the famous Finnish rally drivers, that I realized that construction is actually a sign of progress, growth, and ingenuity. Construction is healthy. Without it, we would all be confined to drive on roadways that were narrowly defined and rugged, our architecture would literally be from the dark ages, and there would certainly not be any shopping malls (how could we ever live?!). Construction breeds creativity. Yes, I said it: creativity.
When thinking creativity, many people immediately flash to the processes and work of artists, actors, or musicians. However, creativity in it’s purest form is so much broader than that: it’s a good idea with skin on. Creativity is making new interpretations of the same data, developing new methods of practice based on the interpretations, and executing some new result as a product of the process.
In simpler terms: as you are discovering new routes to work in the morning to avoid construction-induced-traffic, that construction has just bred creativity. Creativity and ingenuity are really just finding new ways to do something. The constriction of construction can force us to think, or at least detour, outside of the box. Eventually you will arrive at your destination, but wouldn’t you much prefer to be creative and take a new, exploratory route than the same, monotonous path?
If our lives are truly going to be lived out fully then we have to take an out-of-the-box or “off-the-beaten-path” approach in many areas of our lives. Stop looking at the challenges and obstacles in daily life as things to overcome, but rather see them as opportunities to discover new ways to accomplish the same task or achieve the same outcome; that is the essence of being a creative. So the next time that I’m 40 minutes late due to road construction, I’ll be thankful for the reminder that the process of creativity and discovering innovative routes is up to me.
Think back to your childhood when school let out for the summer (for some of us that wasn’t all that long ago). Remember those feelings that you had of no homework, no responsibilities; sleep in then play all day, carefree, wild, fun? There is something about that frivolity that reflects the essence of life.
As we grow older, we get a summer job, or become employed full-time. Eventually we get married, have children, and although the kids are out of school for the summer, we find very little respite from the hustle and bustle of duties and necessary daily routines.
This summer, I entered the summertime tired. But as my work schedule began to ease up and my school was out until the end of August, I didn’t quite know what to do with my time. By the second week of June, God began to move upon my heart to begin a time of prayer for an hour and a half everyday of the week for the rest of the summer. I gathered a few friends and leaders from the youth ministry and we began to spend hours each week at the church seeking the face of God and praying the book of Acts.
There was one particular day a couple of weeks ago that as I sat in the Prayer Room, I just felt this weariness. Granted, this was not just physical exhaustion—this was like I was tired in every part of my being. I couldn’t even mouth out words to pray. I began to feel guilty that at that time I wasn’t vocalizing prayers to God, I wasn’t searching the scriptures for new revelation, I wasn’t even writing anything in my journal with God.
Suddenly, I heard God speak to my heart:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Those words came from Matthew 11, but God began to encourage me to just sit before Him quietly and listen to His voice.
That day began me on a process of Rethinking Productivity. How is it that we feel guilty if we don’t make it to overtime in a work week? Why do we drive from place to place, doing activity after activity only to find ourselves tired, imbalanced, and unhappy? In many countries around the world, the typical employee is given 21-35 days paid vacation per year. The United States does not have a set policy, but the average amount of paid leave is 10 days. Do you see a problem here? We’re over workers.
Now, I’m not complaining about the number of days—I’m really more concerned about the mentality that we can fall prey to. Remember the old expression “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.” It is essentially saying that without time to rest, refresh, and enjoy recreation we become desensitized to the joy of life.
I guess the real problem is, is that as Americans, we often forget how to relax and have fun. I can bet that a one week vacation to Florida each summer isn’t enough to carry you through the troubles the other 51 weeks of the year.
We’ve got to be people who live lifestyles of simplified productivity. That means simply this: take time each day to CUT the noise, PUT DOWN the things that we “have to do”, DECLUTTER our souls, and STOP to listen to what God has to say.
I know that you may be thinking—my life is so busy and I don’t have even thirty minutes extra to spend. The reality is you don’t have to. I believe that it IS important to carve out time each day to spend with God—but who said that it had to be a certain amount of time, or all at one time? Personally, my relationship with God is much more free-flowing than 15 minutes of Bible reading and 15 minutes of praying through my prayer list each morning. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with a structure like that, but it just hasn’t worked for me so far. Instead, most days I go about it, praying in my heart, out loud, or under my breath to God. I continually aim to hear His voice and heart, and that takes effort on my part to quiet myself from the distractions of the world around me.
How we define and measure productivity is often by how many good things we did at work that day, how many errands we ran, the loose ends we tied up, how much money we made, or how many accolades we received.
Could it be that TRUE productivity is not defined by anything other than the value of our time spent with Jesus?
Remember the story of Mary and Martha? ¹ Jesus was friends with those girls and their brother Lazarus. The story goes that Jesus came for a little visit. Martha, being the lovely big sister that she was, became flustered that Mary wasn’t helping the kitchen. Jesus’ response to her was that Mary had “chosen what was better.”
I’m not saying that we should all shirk responsibility, but let us cut out those things which are extraneous and learn to RELAX in the knowledge of God in our lives, REFLECT on His goodness to us, RETHINK true productivity and RELATE to those around us.
¹Read the whole story in Luke 10