Subtraction is just one of those beautiful words. Beautiful, all that taking away. Because to take away is to leave something rare and visible behind; it’s addition someplace else.

When I make up a song, I subtract:


Sound. A pause can be as beautiful as the note. It can make you want the note more.

Words. I look for what not to say, not what to say. I sing, “nothing remains of love” and you, the listener, fill in the missing pieces. I invoke your imagination to reveal the fullness of how little is left. Forced rhymes, familiar metaphors, clichés: I subtract them, too, because they get in the way of making art that’s new and genuine.

Last, I empty myself from the song. I erase the flesh of me and the ghosts of experiences that inhabit me. My life is just the scaffolding for the song, something I tear down as I work through it. Small details from my life are borrowed to make something that isn’t literally true, but something new and truer. If it’s art, the song eclipses the source material.

This afternoon I begin work on a new song. By night, what will be left of me?

13 thoughts on “subtraction

  1. I love the way you lay out the process. I’m fascinated by the way people talk, what they say in between their words. We reveal so much more about ourselves in the unspoken than we ever do in our words.
    Your use of scaffolding to explain the way you build your work is perfect. Our experiences afford us a view otherwise out of reach and to convey a depth of emotion needed to carry the words they must speak truth in their effect. In this way, we transliterate our experiences, and, when done skillfully, will speak to the experiences of others as fluidly as the mother tongue of their own.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know that so much of this is necessary and so true, something we all do in songwriting, but I can’t help but grieve for the loss — the loss of you in your songs. I’ve never seen it written so plainly although I’ve practiced it myself. I commend your reflection and honesty.


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