Susan Kussman, above, from a collage of pictures of her and her family
Sometimes folks ask me “how exactly do you write a song?” Every song is different, although I have my go-to methods to get started. I often drink coffee and read poetry till I’m misty eyed. Then I start writing. I like to use a notebook and pencils, rather than a computer. For me, late mornings are my golden time.
If you could care less about this type of songwriting navel-gazing, please jump to the bottom and read about a concert we have coming up. But if you’d care to know, I’m going to dive deeply into the nuts and bolts of a certain song.
The most recent song that I’ve written/received is called “Zero Control.” It started a few weeks ago with a melody and a few chords in the wrong key for my voice (G). I liked the way it had a sing-song vibe, and as I sat on my front lawn with my old guitar, I kept singing “I can hang around.” The words were dumb and extremely accurate. Indeed, I can hang around: I’m good at it.
Then a few days later came news that my oldest, dearest friend Dylan was flying back to California to be with his mother Susan. She was near the end after a long sickness. Dylan went to her side—his brother and sister were there, too—and they held a vigil for a few days. Dylan played his guitar and sang to his mother as she slept, one foot in this world, the other in the next. I felt my heart breaking as Dylan spoke over the phone, describing what was happening. I could imagine how he felt and how hard it was, and how hard it would be going forward.
I went back to the song and the song took focus. I switched the key, dropped it down significantly (E) and slowed it down (a lot). I thought about how I felt playing guitar at Katie Pell’s vigil. I thought about how sad I felt those nights, thinking about Katie’s great talent and spirit. Totally irreplaceable.
Katie had some good words about making art. She said, “It’s none of your business what people think of you.” I like that very much. Similarly, Debby tells me, “It’s not for you to judge.”
So, I put pencil to paper and the “I” wasn’t really me anymore, it was more like me and Dylan together, and everyone who has lost someone. I got this verse:
That night I was so down
Drowning in her vigil
I can hang around
I’m told that I can take it
Though her life it crash down
Crater in a dusty cloud
I’m told just to take it
I thought about Dylan’s mother with her Irish red hair. She was an actress and resembled Shirley MacLaine with Mia Farrow’s style. I thought about how she was like an aunt to me, when I was a boy in California. I added this:
A sedative of Irish frost
The gloomy peace a morning brings
Submission is a form of loss
Sha sha sha
Submission is not giving up the ghost
Submission is not giving up the ghost
For me, it’s the words that make me take up arms in defense of the song. And if I can’t get behind the words, I have a very difficult time singing a song with any kind of oomph. I know for others—Paul McCartney or Joe Reyes—the words are often secondary (they are both damn near geniuses with words, by the way). For them, the melody and music are the fount of the power of the song, and I don’t disagree. It’s just that for me, I’m a words person impersonating a musician, or so I think.
Then I hit upon the chorus for the song. Rhett Miller says "the chorus is the thesis statement for the song.” He says it should be good. I don’t know if mine is good, but it’s definitely a thesis: “I have zero control.” It sums up the whole damn thing, and sung repeatedly it feels like a mantra. Like relinquishing control. Relinquishing the angst.
I truly have zero control over the wonderful and terrible things that have happened to me in my life. We have zero control over time and its indifference. And as I take the early form of this song to the Buttercup studio, I have slim control over the song that I’m calling “Zero Control.” I’m serious—the song is changing on its own accord, asking to be played very softly with a rhumba-type rhythm, a far cry from where I started. Joe and Odie and Chris listen and add their pretty fingerprints and talent.
This leads me to a new place in my understanding of songwriting. The sense is that I’m not so much "composing" a song as feeling around in the ether, like it’s already out there and I just have to grab on to it and help bring it in to focus. It’s not me writing it. It’s me finding it.
Since I’ve been writing about loss and grief so much, why don’t you spend a moment with our video for "Kite." The audio is the demo we recorded on my now deceased 4-track cassette recorder. The video was shot on super 8 film in San Antonio by Charlie Morris, at Brackenridge golf course when it was being re-constructed. There was no grass, just giant hills of black prairie mud. It gives the video a sparse, mournful look that we couldn’t have planned for. Again, zero control.
Thanks for your time and your ears,