Real Good For Free: the creative process, fame, and my once-upon-a-time music career

Before I was Liz McEwan, I was Liz Bowater. And, back when I was Liz Bowater, I fancied myself a songwriter. And it’s true that I was a songwriter if all it took to call yourself “a songwriter” was, literally, writing songs. But that’s not enough, is it? Part of the creative process requires not only creating and releasing the product of our creativity, but also having an audience to receive it and (hopefully) appreciate it.

For ten years or so, I spent every extra moment writing and playing music. And those years were a lot of fun. I played some fantastic shows, met some amazing musicians and music lovers, traveled a bit and learned the joys (and loneliness) of days on the road.

When I moved to Cincinnati, my music was a first point of contact for me and was how I met many of my first friends. Cincinnati gave me a warm reception but my “career,” for what is was worth, was short-lived.

The truth is, I was never cut out for a music career. I don’t deal well with criticism and am really uncomfortable with the idea of fame. I’m a decent writer but a poor guitar player. And I don’t collaborate well. I didn’t know the first thing about promoting myself and I guess I simply “didn’t want it badly enough” to push and push and push.

So I self-released one last (mediocre) album back in 2011 and, when it didn’t really get any attention, I just sort of walked away. It was painful but not crushing. Realizing my music was never going to be a big deal was more of a slow acceptance than a moment of shocking realization.

At the height of my songwriting, I was deeply embedded in a crisis of my faith. I was having a hard time connecting with people. I was processing confusing thoughts and relationships and music became an outlet for expression and connection that I didn’t really have anywhere else. It was a bridge from me to other people. (For a taste of my greatest inspiration during this season of my life, read this quote by Frederick Buechner.)

When I stopped writing music about six years ago, it wasn’t on purpose. I tried and tried to put words on paper and to music and it just didn’t work. The proverbial well was just dried up. I think it was a mixture of a) embracing a new season of life that I hadn’t yet figured out how to process creatively and b) lifestyle changes that no longer allowed the same late-night-alone-with-a-glass-of-wine-and-a-cigarette writing method. I was now married with two young kids and things were just different now.

Somewhere along the line, I started pouring my creative, late night energy into blogging and then freelance journalism. These days, my writing gravitates more toward the cerebral. I’m writing more about other people. More about ideas. My own emotional processes, I suppose, are being handled differently.

It’s kind of embarrassing to think back on all the time and energy (and money) I spent trying to build a career from a few dozen decent songs. (And, oh Lord, the promo photos! What a joke, right?) Some of the songs themselves are worth forgetting altogether, to be honest. But I really do miss it. I miss the manic writing sessions. I miss the performing.

Most of all, I think I miss being able to package myself into a song and deliver it to friends and strangers so easily.

When I consider the future of my writing, I do a lot of self-evaluation. I ask myself why I feel so compelled to do this. Why am I willing to stay awake until 2am after a long day of taking care of four young kids just to get the words down? What is so important about these words (musical or not) that I absolutely must get them out of my head and out to someone else? What are my intentions?

I guess the answer to “why” is that it’s complicated. (For a peek inside the introvert writer’s head, read this.) I have sometimes written for selfish reasons and sometimes for idealistic reasons. Sometimes it’s just because I love language and I love ideas and I love engaging with other people about those ideas. Sometimes, especially in the past, it’s because I’m hurting or confused and I don’t know how else to reach out.

I don’t think I can stop writing. But I’m never sure what I’ll write next.

I have ideas for blogs and children’s books and non-fiction books and all sorts of exciting writing projects, including some church music if I can ever find my way back around to that sort of thing.

But one of the things I’ve learned from my experience of trying (and failing, I guess) at building a career at songwriting is that it’s never really just about the music. It’s about the connection. It’s about the bridge that music builds between people and the community those bridges shape.

I’ve also learned that our greatest artistic contributions to the world are only as great as our motives in producing and sharing them. The world can sniff a rat a mile away and can tell in an instant if we’re just one more clanging cymbal, dying to be heard at all costs.

And, lastly, this:

Some people love the things I write. Some people hate them. Most people simply don’t care who I am or what I have to say. A failed music career taught me that. (And taught me to be okay with it.) My job is just to speak the truth as it is and let things fall where they may.

Sidenote: Have you hear this song?

Real Good For Free– Joni Mitchell

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green*
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.

Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money

Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free**.

* This is the namesake of my blog, by the way.

** Part of what inspired this post was my decision to dig up all of my recordings and release most of my songs online for free. You can find them here. I kept the most embarrassing ones for myself and those who were there the first time around and have the original hard copies. If you take a listen, let me know which is your favorite. It’s always fun to know.

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