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6. Tucson, The Songwriting Oasis

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

In early March of 2017 I move to Tucson, about 10 months after moving to Huntsville. This rapid move was due to the “LDP” role I accepted with the company that hired me, which required that over the course of my first two years I’d work three different roles in three different locations. When I moved to Tucson, I ended up rooming with a friend who was also in the LDP program. We’d really only known each other for a collective two weeks when we decided to be roommates, but I had taken a liking to him and felt like he’d make a good roommate and friend.

A few months into my stay, living in yet another unknown city with no easy way to return to Florida each weekend, I had a lot of free time on my hands. So, I began to play guitar more frequently; I started re-learning some older songs and for the first time in many years, learning some popular cover songs. One day while drinking beers and enjoying the weather outside with my roommate, I asked if I could grab my guitar to play some tunes. He not only obliged me, but was excited to hear what I could play.

First, I sang some of the covers I’d been learning. Then, he made a couple of requests which I took my best shot at. And after that he asked if I wrote my own music. I told him I had about 3 songs to my name but I don’t play them often. He encouraged me to share them and so I did. I think it was the first time I played my songs for someone since visiting my brother the previous year. The moment I started the guitar playing & singing over-powered the nervousness I felt so intensely in my gut, and I felt right at home.

Much to my surprise, he was impressed and incredibly complimentary. He was the closest thing to a stranger I’d ever willingly shared my music with, so his opinion that the songs were good felt like it carried ten times the weight than that of my family and close friends (which is not to say in any way that I did not appreciate the encouragement from family & friends). After I quickly sang through all of my songs, he nonchalantly asked if I was going to record my music and make an album. I told him that I didn’t have enough songs to do that but it was somewhat of a dream of mine. His words were simple, and equally profound (something he has quite a knack for) and something to the effect of, “Well it sounds like you need to write some more songs man.” This sentiment wasn’t new to me, in fact I think most everyone in my life who supported my music said this. But this time, it was the right words at just the right time.

I believed by this point that deep down that there was something in me that could write a meaningful song. I was also acutely aware that my emotion/state-of-mind was the catalyst for every song that stuck with me. So, I took what I knew and promised myself that I would spend a solid hour songwriting the next free day I had. I wouldn’t get discouraged and start playing something else; I wouldn’t get distracted and start noodling on the guitar. I would make an honest-to-god, concerted effort to work on a song for an hour.

When the day came, I sat down to write and first took a moment to think about how I was feeling emotionally. I took some time to processes what thoughts were running around in my head. At the time things were difficult at work and in my personal life, so my anxiety was high. Earlier that morning I tried to explain to my girlfriend “what was wrong”, but once again failed to articulate that my anxiety is an inexplicable feeling that causes me to begin to emotionally & mentally spiral downward. I began to ‘sing’ some thoughts out loud, as they came in and out of my head, and a line stuck with me, “I’ve got a feeling that I can’t explain”. It wasn’t sophisticated, but I knew it was the starting point.

I kept saying the line out loud while I tried to figure out chords to sing over. After several minutes I stumbled on a progression of Dm-BbMaj7-Am7-Dm. At the time I couldn’t even name the BbMaj7 or Am7 chord, or know that they were all in the same key. All I knew was that they sounded nice to me and had a kind of “tense and unnerving” feeling to them. Now I had the beginning lyrics of the verse, the chords for the verse, and a solid idea of what the song would be about. The next step was to finish the verse, and I knew I wanted the next line to rhyme with “explain”.

I’d developed a method when I wrote poetry for creating rhymes that was (and still is to this day) critical to my songwriting. I find a word that rhymes that I like, and then start thinking of lines that end in that word. It is sort of a backwards method, but I feel like by knowing how the sentence has to end, I have a lot more control over what the sentence can be. After some research in a rhyming dictionary (which I will happily confess is a great asset to my songwriting) the word I settled on was “insane”. I can’t recall exactly what inspired it (I think at the time I was on a kick of reading biographies of famous philosophers) but the line was “better men than me have gone insane”.

These two lines brought me to the end of the BbMaj7 chord, so I needed some more lyrics for the remaining Am7-Dm chords in the verse. Going back to the song’s theme of anxiety, and my personal struggles with it, I thought about how I became incredibly restless when my anxiety starts to peak. After ruminating on that for a little bit I wrote “searching for answers to questions that keep me awake at night.” And just like that I had the first half of a verse, but more importantly, I had a sentence structure & rhyme scheme to follow.

I won’t walk through it step-by-step again, but using this same process I wrote the second half of the verse in much less time than I expected to. By the time I had to come up with the chorus, I felt like I had a process:

1. Play the guitar until I find some chords that “sound nice” and fit the song mood (which was easier for the chorus because I already have a verse that more or less established a mood and song key)

2. Reflect on the song’s guiding emotion/theme, and experiences from my life, while playing the chords to generate lyric ideas (which was honestly more ad-lib experimentation than you’d think)

3. Come up with lyrics that I like (the hardest part of which is generating that first line. After which you have a general idea of syllables/word count/rhymes/etc.)

4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 as much as needed (which generally means until the end of the chords created in step 1)

[I would like to add that I know this description is a little vague and “hand-wavy”, but it’s the best I can do to describe what the process was at the time. I did not know theory, did not have knowledge of common songwriting techniques, and didn’t really come up with my official process until 2019. I think at the time my successes for the most part came from a combination of many years of playing guitar, years of writing poetry to develop writing techniques, and an ear for melody (I could always hear when a note/chord ‘didn’t fit’]

Thinking back on it, I believe I managed to get the first verse, the chorus, and a lyric for the second verse that day. I got stuck on the second verse because I wasn’t fond of any of the lyric ideas so I set it down for the day. I was scared that, like every time in the past, I wouldn’t be able to manifest this songwriting magic again when I tried to finish the song. But when I returned to the song several days later, I finished writing the song lyrics by once again focusing on the song theme and drawing inspiration from my experience/emotion.

But being a “man of science”, I needed more than one successful attempt to be sure. A few weeks later I sat down to write a song, inspired by the phrase “we’re gonna be alright”, something my roommate would utter every time we were discussing what was bringing us down in life. Just like with “Uneasy Feeling”, I managed to start and finish “Things will be alright” within the week. And several weeks later, inspired to write a love song, I’d write “Until You”. The best part about these new songs was that they felt meaningful, like they would be songs I’d want to play for years to come. I knew I was beginning to unlock my talent now.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this success was that every time I’d show my new song to my roommate, he loved them. So much so that he started to tell our friends about my “secret talent”. He talked about my music more than I did, and was truly a never-ending supply of positive reinforcement. And this positive reinforcement was exactly what I needed at the time because I still had very little belief in myself or my talents. I was still deep in the clutches of an imposter syndrome I developed in college. Thanks to my roommate though, I started to break free once again from the insidious belief that my music wasn’t good enough and wasn’t worth sharing. And before the end of my 10 months in Tucson, I’d do something that scared me to death. I’d take the first step in overcoming one of the biggest challenges in this journey; I’d perform my own music in front of strangers at an open mic night.

Three days before I moved out of Tucson, the last chance I had to rise to my roommate’s challenge and perform at an open mic night, I sang in front of about six people in a coffee shop. Looking back, it is incredible how overwhelming that moment felt. I almost backed out after I got there, but I knew if I didn’t go through with it, I’d probably regret it for the rest of my life. My voice was shaky, I messed up chords, and I don’t think I ever looked up from my guitar, but I did it…I finally did it! And I’d like to say that this open mic was the moment I finally started believing in myself, that I finally recognized that music was so much more than a hobby for my life. But that moment won’t come for another 11 months, until I force myself to finally decide how important music really is to my life.

P.S. Make sure to check out my Instagram @austinbrocknermuic to see a clip from this Tucson open mic! While you’re there drop a like and comment on the video to show your support

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