Eliza densmore

 

52 days // HomE, Philadelphia, pa


 
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Born to a gardener & a journalist who would blast The Beatles, Canned Heat, & Peter, Paul and Mary during car rides to-and-from their rural Massachusetts home, it's fitting that Eliza Edens is a musician who takes an observational approach to the natural world around her. Combining the adventurous fingerpicking of The Tallest Man on Earth, the calm resolve of Laura Marling, and the aching pulse of Bon Iver, Eliza spins songs with wistful lyrics and winding melodies that belong somewhere between your tumbledown front porch stoop and a hazy bar in the big city -- and leave a little space to linger. She is a grantee of Club Passim's 2017 Iguana Music Fund and is currently crafting a debut record.

 

Find more of Eliza’s work at www.eliza-edens.com/

 
 
 
 

 

I completed my ALT- residency in the summer of 2018 in Philadelphia. Each day for two months out of the summer, I’d wake up, write morning pages to get any strange dreams or stale thoughts out of my head (a technique adapted from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), drift downstairs to make coffee, and then sit down to write. I often wrote in the three-window bay of my room, which looked out to a brick wall. If I got close enough to the windows, I could peer out through the alley to a slim view of the street and catch glimpses of passerby, hear street noise, and detect minute changes in the weather. It was the closest access I had in my room to the natural world. I’d write until I grew tired, maybe take a walk or run errands for a couple hours, and then continue writing. My participation in the residency was a way for me to dive headfirst into the writing process for a full-length album concept I had developed and received partial funding for earlier in the year. 

 
 
The writing nook.

The writing nook.

 
 

The songwriting process has always been a series of trials and errors for me, and this residency was no different. The act of creating is always a challenge. I’ve found that the best way to work through the challenge is to immerse myself in the consistent and laborious practice of songwriting. This is exactly what the ALT- residency allowed me to do, by symbolically lighting a fire under the seat of my pants: I had to write. 

This pressure to work intensely on one project, day-in and day-out, was something I could only compare to my past experience with through-hiking. I had spent the summer before in the Colorado Rockies, hiking what’s known as The Colorado Trail. While hiking, my daily task – step to step, day to day, pass to pass – was to keep moving despite inevitable obstacles: achy and tired legs, blistered feet, and unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms. Nothing else mattered, except walking to the next campsite. Each day I chipped away at the miles, and each day I closed in on my final destination of Durango, Colorado, 486 miles from the start of the trail outside of Denver. 

 
 
The beauty and danger of the Colorado Trail. L: wildflowers in the San Juans. R: angry afternoon weather, with no shelter in sight.

The beauty and danger of the Colorado Trail. L: wildflowers in the San Juans. R: angry afternoon weather, with no shelter in sight.

 Through-hiking is obviously a totally different ballgame than songwriting, but they both require an unflinching and enduring dedication to a long-term goal, comprised of daily work that sometimes feels inane and demoralizing. It’s the daily process that matters most – the continuous flow of movement and forward progression. With through-hiking it’s admittedly an easier process: everything’s mapped out from point A to point B. With songwriting it’s the opposite – there are roundabout ways of writing songs: re-tracing steps, re-writing lyrics over and over again, or going off on a musical tangent that leads to a dead end – it’s more like bush-whacking. I had to blaze my own trail for these two months, with tips and encouragement from teachers, friends, and artists I admire in the back of my mind. It was very solitary, and during most of it, I felt I was fumbling around in the dark. Most of the material I wrote during that time I wasn’t 100% proud of. Yet I still grew because I wrote it, just like how I grew on the trail: I became more self-sufficient, bolder, and solidified a strong work ethic. 

I captured a part of my experience on The Colorado Trail with a song I ended up writing during the residency called “When Silence Turns To Sound.” It’s about the change that constant movement can catalyze, and it serves as a nostalgic ode to self-transformation and the strength that can be found in the well of an individual’s landscape of memories. Here are the lyrics on this journal page (they differ slightly from the lyrics of the demo), as well as some insights I had into my own process after finishing the song: 

 
 
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During my ALT- residency, I grew to understand my process in a deeper, more functional way. When I was hiking that summer in Colorado, every so often at certain passes or viewpoints, I could see the ragged spine of mountains I had recently walked over, just days before. In my mind, I would go over what it felt like to walk that terrain and feel a sense of progress and growth. Looking back over my songwriting during the ALT- residency, I have a similar sense of progress gained. Here are some more specific takeaways from what I learned during the “trail” of my writing:

Pages of process.

Pages of process.

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Songs have a winding and unpredictable way of coming into existence. It’s a matter of putting in the time to be open to ideas and having the skill to sculpt those ideas into the best songs they can be – or in some cases, letting the songs go where they intuitively need to take themselves. There are times, and usually these conjure the really special songs, when I feel that I am only a vessel for the song to exist physically in the world. These are the easier songs to write, because they seem to flow into existence, with little effort needed. 

“When Silence...” was not that kind of a song. Its seed grew out of a guitar part I messed around with one day and notated the tablature for so I could return to it. I began playing the notated part again one day, and it led me to search for a contrasting set of chords. I found those chords, and then started humming a melody over them. I gently sculpted the melody into being while playing the fingerpicked guitar line, mimicking the motion of the guitar line with the vocal melody. I then decided that the first part I had notated would serve the song best as a bridge section. After finishing the structure, lyrics started coming to mind that fit the emotion of the music. Lyrics are the hardest aspect of songwriting for me – they usually never come first – and this residency forced me to come up with some strategies for generating them when I felt like I had hit a dead end. 

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Lyric strategies: what to say, why say it, how to say it, and how to sing it. The first drafts of lyrics often end up in the trash but are essential to move toward the “flow state,” where words and ideas are freely floating around in the brain without judgment or inhibition. My lyrics often sound borderline stupid at first but, as the saying goes, writing is re-writing. It’s a constant push-and-pull between the melody and the lyric. There’s a lot of trying out different lyrics, thinking about word choice, phrasing, and how the song will sound sung out loud as opposed to read on the page. 

Besides playing “word stew” on the page, another strategy I started to employ was singing a bunch of words stream-of-consciousness style, recording that take, listening back, taking note of what sounded good, and moving forward with the ideas that stick. Oftentimes, I realize that the words that come to mind start to tell a story about an emotion, experience, or idea that I haven’t quite processed yet. I hash out the words, over and over – as if I’m assembling a puzzle of my own making – and then put the song away for a couple days. After a few days or weeks, it’s easier to see if the words and music have any lasting emotional resonance and are worth sharing with an audience. 

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The balance between emotion and restraint. The most important end goal for me, and many other artists, is raw emotion. The best artists strike a balance between emotion and restraint with the right touch of skill and nuance. This balance is crucial because listeners can only take in so much emotional information at a time. As a writer, it’s my job to carry the audience gracefully from moment to moment with consistency, mastery, and fluidity. This residency helped me get closer to that balance by forcing me to write more songs. 

Show up and finish the work. This program set in stone for me the importance of the sheer patience, persistence, and drive it takes to finish a song and not walk away. I know plenty of songwriters and musicians with a hard drive full of demos and unfinished songs. I strive to not be that person. This is integral. There is truth to the idea of a “lost cause,” and some projects aren’t worth the time to finish, but I believe it’s a good ethos and habit to live by, in art and in life: finish the project. 

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I’m writing these words now in the depths of February 2019. Inevitably, a few things have changed: I live in a different house, have played these new songs to audiences around the Northeast, recorded the bulk of an album, and am counting down the days until warmer weather hits and I can go hike again. This past summer and fall was a period of intense focus on music, and I’ve come out on the other side of the seasons a little bruised up and with a gentler outlook on writing & touring. I’m remembering to take care of myself in the process of it all. 

I try each day to abandon the unhealthy idea of “making it” that permeates how we talk about artists in American culture. I am making it right now, I have been making it, and I will continue to make it. I will continue to make art. I am humbled by the opportunities I’m given to grow as a songwriter and eager as ever to keep pushing boundaries. I hope the road ahead is fruitful, exhausting, challenging, bewildering, and awesome. If it’s not, it’s time to move on to a different trail.