When I was early in my songwriting journey, perhaps 15 years old, my father sat me down. "There's something I have to tell you," he said, looking me straight in the eyes. What he said next surprised me and changed my life.
My father started playing guitar as a small town teenager in the Southwestern mountains of Colorado. For him, it was a rebellious act to a non-musical family, none of whom played an instrument. He was immersed in the music of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and all of the other greats. In his room, day and day, week after week, month after month, he would work on his craft, writing songs, learning licks, etc.
Watching me fall in love with the same art form, he observed some of the same behavior in me. Which led us to this fateful conversation. "I've seen you spending your time playing guitar all day. If there's one thing I can tell you, it's that I wish that I would have stopped playing long enough to have lived life rather than just sitting in my room, chasing music. The biggest piece that I missed was that it's important to put the guitar down and go live. You have to have things to write about in order to write songs that mean anything. "
Now, I'm definitely paraphrasing here...and it's possible that I could have imagined this conversation taking place very differently than it happened, but this is how I remember it. Those words made a huge difference to me. I began purposefully living and seeking out experiences, having relationships, reading books, seeking out art that might move me. And he was right, I did find things to write about that resonated. Strangely, when I did come back to the guitar, I was much better at the instrument. This pattern has repeated over and over for me.
To this day, when I'm experiencing strife in life, I become eager to see how it will manifest in my work. I sometimes long for the emotional turmoil that allows me to sit down at the piano or guitar and hit a chord, somehow just knowing which one comes next.
The point here is that while I love to work on the craft as much as the next guy, I also realize that an expressive art form needs something to express. That thing is life and it rarely comes and knocks on your door. You have to go live it, revel in it. Then, from the deep part of yourself, use your art form to express.
This piece of advice has stuck with me ever since and has made me all the better for it.