My passion for songwriting has often landed me in unexpected terrain. Songwriting with U.S. soldiers who have returned from combat is certainly one of the most unusual – and rewarding – career turns I never imagined.
What started with a chance meeting after a challenging performance in a military hospital cafeteria has turned into some of the most moving, profound experiences I’ve known as a songwriter. Working with soldiers is to work with men and women who have served our country in situations that embody the lowest — and the highest — of of the human condition. To give voice, never mind a complete song, to somebody who might not otherwise be able to describe those experiences is more gratifying than anything I’ve ever done.
Since 2010 I’ve worked with groups of combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Weekend retreats with about a dozen soldiers and their families have yielded more than 40 songs, and, more importantly, offered a path to help wounded veterans and their families cope with the aftermath of combat.
The next SongwritingWith:Soldiers project is scheduled for late April 2013 near Fort Hood, Texas. We are grateful to our funding partners The Bob Woodruff Foundation, The ASCAP Foundation and Lockheed Martin for their support in making this project possible. Songwriters Radney Foster and Jay Clementi, who teamed up with us in previous retreats, will be back working with us again.
More about the sessions with U.S. veterans:
How is writing with a soldier different from collaborating with another songwriter?
The soldiers aren’t “songwriters.” So it’s up to me to come up with the structure and melody and make it all work as a song. And it’s up to me to listen. The joy of it is that it shows me again and again that everyday stories, and everyday language, are the raw material of songs. All I have to do is take their stories, use their words, and write it all down.
How do you approach it?
First, we just talk. I’m looking for an opening, some way to get inside the soldier’s head, inside his experience. It’s like a house. I want in, and sometimes the door is open, sometimes I have to crawl through the window. Eventually they say something, a word or maybe a phrase, and that becomes the starting place. Maybe it’s the hook, maybe a first line. And then we just go, building it verse and chorus until the thought feels complete.
When it’s finished, we immediately record the song on my laptop. Probably my favorite part of the whole experience is to sit back with the soldiers and listen to our songs. The look on their face is worth everything: the smiles, tears, respect – it’s all there.
How do you build intimacy with somebody you’ve just met, especially for something that is so emotionally heavy?
The important thing is to ask questions and listen. People want to talk, especially if there is somebody there who wants to listen. When we’re starting to write a song, I try to be as calm as possible, both internally and externally. I think others can feel when you’re calm, and when they can trust you.
Also, I make sure they know upfront that anything they say remains confidential if they want it to. That’s more important than anything else.
What do you find most challenging?
It’s two-fold: First, to remain present with the person while we’re writing, and to keep the focus on them. I try really hard to stay internally still when they begin to describe their experiences and emotions.
Then, when it’s all over, to find a way to deal with the stories I’ve heard. I tend to absorb everything around me when I’m writing a song. And these veterans tell us some pretty vivid stories about combat and its aftermath – and those images can stay with you a long time. So the challenge is to allow them a place in my consciousness without being emotionally overwhelmed.
Do you have any particular goals when you sit down with someone?
I want to be a conduit, to find a way to craft a song that reflects their story. I have to be still enough first to hear them, and then to process and formulate their thoughts into the words and melody of a song.
Are there times when things don’t work out?
Sometimes the results may not be what we’d thought they would be when we started. But that doesn’t mean things didn’t work. I’ve had times when I’ve been too personally drained from other stories I’d heard to really bring myself to a writing session. I have nothing to contribute, except to listen. Sometimes that is the greatest result. We can always get back together to write the song. Even writing with other songwriters there are days when nothing seems to be happening. The trick is to abandon all expectations, and then whatever happens is a success.
When I first started this project I talked with a veteran named Mike. He’d seen the worst of what three tours in Iraq could offer. He told me about the killing, the bombs, seeing people die right in front of him. Then he told me that now he sees no reason, ever, for violence. Period. His best friends were his Iraqi translators, all of whom he managed to bring to Colorado and help set up grocery stores. He was a man of war who’d become a man of peace.
It was my last session of the day. After he finished talking, I was in tears, humbled, emotionally leveled. I had nothing to say, no strength left whatsoever to respond. No songs. No poetry. Nothing. And I told him so. He simply stood up, shook my hand and thanked me for listening – and for doing what I do.
That was humbling. And it also made me realize the power of songwriting, and that there is an amazing use for this work.