Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lamb's Retreat for Songwriters - I Went, and Here's What I Thought

I went to Lamb’s Retreat for Songwriters in early November, 2012 and this is my report.  It was my first time attending such a thing, and I just got back.  

Harbor Springs is a place I love, having regularly traveled there throughout my life to go skiing at Nub’s Nob and Boyne.  So, it was a familiar place to go, and that made me comfortable.  The Birchwood Inn where it was held was a neat place because it epitomizes what you think of as an “up north” atmosphere.  A series of motel buildings surround a courtyard and there’s a main building where the events took place.  Both the room and the performance space were decorated in a ski lodge/log cabin/cottage style that made for a warm, relaxing experience.  

The four-day retreat consisted of a perfectly-organized series of events that included meals, song assignments, instructional talks from professional songwriters, open microphone performances by attendees, one-on-one conferences with the professional staff, a public performance by the professional staff, and finally the performance of assigned songs written by attendees on the last day.  Free time interspersed throughout the schedule was just the right amount, allowing for both the writing of songs and sharing of original songs in informal song circles.  The food (and of course, the music) was excellent.

It was a wonderful group of approximately 50 songwriters, most of whom had some connection with the midwest and Michigan.  It is a lot of fun to hang out with people who all enjoy the same thing.  I got to know a lot of great people as well as learn from them and be entertained by them.  There seemed to be a few more men than women, and the average age was probably 55.  Most played an acoustic guitar, but there were a few keyboard players.  Other instruments included harmonica, violin, cello, and mandolin.  Just based on getting to know a majority of attendees a little bit, I gathered that a little more than half had day jobs, while the others were full-time performing musicians.  The predominant genre was folk.  Baby boomer folkies who play live gigs, fingerpick well, and sing well – these are the types who really fit in.

Overall, how I felt about it was a combination of loving everything about it and not feeling like I belonged there.  It took some effort to keep the insecure thoughts at bay, but I did it and overall, had a great time.  Polite, respectful applause can almost be as nice to hear as genuine applause, and I got more of the former than the latter, but it’s all good.  A kind word here and there goes a long way – and some I received describing my music were “fun” and “clever” and “your humor brought a nice balance to the event” and “you are a better performer than you claim to be” and “great lyrics.”  The highlight for me was something I’d never experienced before – which was during a performance of one of my songs, without my prompting, the audience spontaneously sang along to the choruses with me.  Wow, what a great feeling that was.  Then later I was brought down to earth when I overheard someone comparing me to Adam Sandler – ouch, that stung.

In some ways, I felt like I fit in.  Well, I paid my money like everyone else, so I kept reminding myself that I was going to get as much out of it as I could.  Indeed I have written a lot of songs – hundreds – which, surprisingly was more than some of the other attendees.  My personality seemed to be well-suited to being able to strike up conversations with people, and my background of having had some wild and crazy times when I was younger probably helped somehow.  Appearance-wise, I suppose wearing jeans and a black shirt, and also having facial hair was not an uncommon look to have.  Being from Michigan helped.  I seemed to be more tech savvy than many of them, so one of the things I could talk about with them easily was home studio recording.

The ways in which I did not fit in?  The list here is much longer.  The majority of people were quite a bit older than me, had better guitars than me, were way better guitar players than me, were way better singers than me, were way better performers than me, and were way more into folk music than me.  It was odd to people that I was not a songwriter who plays live gigs.  The guys mostly had longer hair than me.  It was interesting to notice that a vast majority of attendees were not overweight like me, so that of course made me feel like I didn’t fit in.  Being a Generation X member who was raised on the Hard Rock of the late 70s/early 80s made me a little too young and a little too into rock to make it a great fit. 

One of the things I read about the retreat somewhere before signing up said something along the lines of “are you someone who writes songs in your head all day at work?” …and my interpretation of that little marketing line was that songwriting hobbyists with non-musical day jobs were welcome at this thing.  You didn’t need a “places played” or “people performed with” type of resume to fit in, I figured.  I was wrong about that.  Maybe the retreat is meant for people who are actually professional songwriters for a living, and this is meant as a way for them to take a break from their daily jobs of writing songs to learn more, like if you're an accountant and your employer sends you to a conference to learn about accounting techniques or something.  I am perhaps a new breed of songwriter, getting into the craft after the advent of the internet, digital technology and social media.  They didn’t quite get the idea of being a non-performing, online-only digital recording artist, which I claim to be.  For sure, I was different.

It should probably be renamed “Performing” Songwriter Retreat, or Solo Artist Retreat, since most everyone was a seasoned veteran of live performance.  Interestingly, it seemed like the average attendee was someone who started by playing cover songs perfectly for years before beginning to write their own material.  I’m the opposite – I’ve never learned a cover song, yet have written my own songs for a couple decades since teaching myself a few chords on guitar.  My focus has always been on the songwriting part, and I’ve never had a desire to get really good at guitar – probably because I’ve never had a burning desire to play my songs for groups at bars.  I’ve always figured I could memorize my best songs someday and then maybe get up the courage to play live in front of people, but my focus is on writing songs until I have many keepers.  Unlike most, I am someone who has already released 5 albums online, while many of them were surprisingly somewhat new to putting out their own albums despite playing way longer than me.  Out of the 500+ original songs I’ve written, I consider only about 50 of them to be fairly good.  By contrast, some people at Lamb’s Retreat were long-time touring musicians who only had a handful of originals.  

Technical instrument-playing skill seemed to be a valued one in which more importance was placed than I expected.  Another observation I made was that the emphasis was way more on performance than on writing.  People seemed to think you can't be a good songwriter if you don't regularly play out in public.  For me, I just love the creative process of writing a song and then recording it, and I’ve released and sold the best of those recordings, thinking I’d only try performing them live after I had a lot of really good ones first.  My approach is backward comparatively with the others who attended.  Most of these folks were perplexed when I said that I not only didn’t know any cover songs, but also hadn’t bothered to memorize most of my own original songs because I only like spending my free time writing and recording.  A lot of people asked me “who do I write for?” and I said “myself”.  I think maybe they thought if I was a non-performing songwriter I must have written songs for other artists and had “cuts,” or maybe they wanted to point out that if you don’t write for your fans (or in my case, if you only have online fans), you’re not in it for the right reasons.  Anyway, I detected they thought I’d gone about it all wrong and hadn’t paid my dues perfecting other people’s songs in front of live audiences first.

I was confused about the advice I got about writing personal songs for yourself – some seem to think the only reason to write a song is if it comes from a personal place, as if intentionally writing a song with commercial appeal for an artist to cut was not authentic and some violation of creative art.  It is clear they thought getting audience feedback was very, very important.  In one of the informal song circles where I played what I thought was one of my best songs, I sensed people in the circle sighing, yawning, talking, and even getting up to go to the bathroom, so that was good audience feedback for me.

Not unlike the reliability of information you find on the internet, I got conflicting songwriting advice from the pros at Lamb’s Retreat.  While some said getting audience feedback from performing live in coffee houses was important, others said playing for that kind of audience was a waste of time because people don’t care.  On the other hand, this retreat provided guaranteed polite applause, so it would be easy to walk away thinking you’re better than you really are, just like only listening to what your family or closest friends think of your songs.  Similarly, while some advised to rewrite constantly and apply tools of the craft to a mediocre start to a song, others preached a garbage in, garbage out philosophy where no amount of rewriting would help elevate to keeper status (this, by the way, I agree with).  

Finger-picking and very serious subject matter are not my forte, and these two aspects were prevalent.  Although I’m a somewhat sophisticated person, my music is not so much, and this definitely made me not fit in.  I went with two humorous songs in a row to make a good first impression when I had my turn at the open mic, but going with a statement song would have been a better approach in retrospect.  For my song assignment, it just worked out naturally to also be a funny, unsophisticated song with (heaven forbid) sexual overtones, so these people probably think I’m a crude hack.  

I’d like to think that my contribution, aside from making some people laugh (both at me and with me), was making them feel better about themselves by being worse than them.  We’ve all been to a public open mic night before where there were some performers who are literally learning to play their first guitar chords in front of a live audience and we say to ourselves “at least I’m better than that guy,” or watched a show like American Idol where surprisingly many singers sincerely think they’re great singers despite opinions to the contrary from pro judges and millions of viewers, and thought “at least I’m better than these people” – which is the sort of reaction to my music I’m sure many attendees had at Lamb’s Retreat.

So, in conclusion, I had a great time, got a lot out of it, met some great people, learned a lot.  All this was due to the fact that I kept an open mind, stayed positive, and tried really hard to not let my insecure thoughts spoil it for me.  Thinking back on it now, I guess I sensed through indirect and non-verbal communication that I was being sized up and judged a little, and I sensed that there were some people who were a little condescending and had something about them that made me think they were elitists.  For a creative group, you’d think they would be welcoming and accepting of any kind of songwriter, but in reality, they were very much a group where it was obviously birds of a feather flocking together.  

Very nice, interesting people to hang with…just not sure I could really hang with them, talent and skill-wise.  At the same time, people seemed to like me, and it felt good that someone invited me to the Bar Harbor after the event ended, which seemed to be an invitation-only tradition for the more professional long-time attendees in the bunch.  Although they said they sent everyone a list of the attendees email addresses, I never got it, so that made me feel like they didn't consider me to be one of them.  That said, I feel more connected to the songwriter community in Michigan than I ever have, and I’m definitely inspired to get better.  Roughly 99% of all attendees had been there before, so I definitely felt like an outsider to an exclusive club in many respects, but that said, most people seemed to go out of their way to make me feel welcome and said they hoped to see me again.  Will I attend again?  I’m on the fence, but I’m really glad I went at least once.  For sure it was an honor and privilege to be able to attend something like Lamb’s Retreat, and an experience I’ll never forget.