On Sadness And Pain In My Music

I just re-read an email I received from a friend who listened to my first printed album A Tide Rising. It’s such an accurate appraisal of my music that I wanted to post it here with my response — I think it’s a good articulation of how my music can come off to a lot of people and how I think about and approach my music. This was about 7 years ago that these emails were exchanged, so keep that in mind.

First of all, you are extreemly talented. I am a notoriously harsh musical critic, especially for your genre. But the creativity and dynamics of the music, and the quality of your voice have obvious worth. The progression of the Intro, though not amazingly complex, certifies, as I think, your ability in musical arrangement. “Fading”, I would say, is the obvious best on the CD. Your lyrical skill lies both in good control of imagery and felicitous choice of rythym and enunciation.

My criticism is mostly subsumed under one general observation. There is a wholly pervasive attitude of pathetic sorriness about it. This quality is common to your genre (as I perceive it) and is the reason that I don’t listen to much of it, but I expected much better from a Christian young man. The most frequently occurring words are identifiable at a glance: cry, hurt, pain, heart, ashes, etc. I, as a poet myself, understand the melancholic urge to be most moved by tragic beauty. But this is really, I think, cheap food for art. Indeed, by the time I’m listening to “Praying for Rain”, the very word rejoice comes as an oasis in the desert. And the same with the music. The really whiny, heavy piano bits stand out against the general, as I said before, dynamics and creativity as being redundant and undisciplined. (As a side note, I think there are more eloquent ways you could show emotion with your voice.) The parts I most enjoyed were the ones like “I wouldn’t change a moment, or take back a thing”, and the parts I least enjoyed were ones like “all I know is that it hurts inside”. I mean, seriously, are your days at the C– really so dark? I don’t see the Gospel applied to the pain and troubles which your music encounters. Especially the approach to relationships seems pretty whimpy. You’ve failed? Confess your sins and get going again. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Cor. 7) One predominating sentiment that I came I away from your music with was that you could make great songs about things like holding hands and walking down the street. I hope the suggestion doesn’t offend your sensibilities too badly; I realize that to listen to such advice might feel to the artist like some low kind of “catering to the audience”.

So, these were my thoughts, and you can take them or leave them as seems good to you. Thanks a lot for sharing your music with us!

and my response:

R–, thank you so much for your feedback! M– forwarded me your email, and you’re quite right in that I desire feedback. I wanted to say a few words in response. (looking back now that I’m done writing this it looks more than a few words…. Oh well, I waxed wordy, what can I say, I’m a romantic… ;P )

You stated as your main objection that “There is a wholly pervasive attitude of pathetic sorriness about it.”
It surprises me sometimes the variety of feedback I receive on this point… I hear many people say something to that extent. Something like “Your music is so… sad…” I certainly don’t deny there is a pervading sense of melancholy about the album. It is my observation that my genre is mostly consumed with self pity, self hatred, broken love relationships, and general hopelessness. I do admit that these figure largely as influences in my lyrical writing. My hope in writing my music is to express pain, but not in a hopeless way. Because to be quite honest, as far as I can tell from their reports to me, most people feel pain, and they feel it quite often in life. It is a part of what we feel as fallen humans, but I don’t think that it’s bad in itself. If it leads to self-pity and apathetic stagnancy, it’s bad and will drag us away from God. If it leads us to look heavenwards and cry out for mercy, then I believe it to be a necessary thing. But it can be very hope-giving to me when I hear music that expresses something I can relate to, because then I feel like I’m not alone; I feel like I can express what I’m feeling precisely and powerfully through what I’m listening to. So I hope to give something to people with which they can empathize. 
 
When I am inspired to write music, it is always by pain. I couldn’t tell you why. Music is my way of taking pain and expressing it but not letting it bury me in self-pity and apathetic stagnancy. At the same time, I desire to create something beautiful, and to share it with other people. What I attempt to do is to have an attitude towards pain in my songs that is not self-hating, not apathetic, not angry, and to be able to try and give an example of a Christian way of saying in essence “This hurts.” I know I fail to do that on occasion, but I don’t want to be dishonest either. I certainly don’t claim to be a perfect person, and my music is a reflection of that. Can’t Come Undone, for examples, as you can probably tell from the music, is I think the shallowest song on the album. It was just me sitting around feeling litterally up tight, so I wrote a song about it, and decided I wanted to try making a catchy poppy auto-tune type song. It’s more of a musical experiment than a deep insight into anything interesting, lol. 
 
And, now M– just forwarded me your second email. lol. No worries at all, I actually really did appreciate your criticisms. My album would not be half as good as it is with the criticisms that my friend J– makes. It always helps me to think about things and change my music. And you make a good point, as Christians, we should not be consumed with sorrow, but with joy. My music, believe it or not, (I’ve been composing songs for about two years, some 40 or 50 of them thus far), has gotten *significantly* less dark and depressing from it’s beginnings. Hard to believe, right? lol. So it’s definitely a work in progress, and I’ve been feeling that as a Christian I need to work towards being more joyful and peaceful in my music. As I’m sure you know being a poet yourself, it is all too hard to do so without being sappy. But you affirm my desire to move in that direction. Oh, and btw, none of those songs were written at the C–. My days at the C– are decidedly NOT that dark. lol. Those were all written back at home over the summer and the year before. 🙂