For Some Iowa Musicians, Songwriting Is A Much Needed Escape

May 4, 2020

There is one thing all musicians rely on – the alchemy of songwriting. Without it, there is no performance; there is no product. There is no recording; there is no live stream. There is no way to reach an audience. The song is also the most mysterious thing about an artist’s craft. 

Even in the new COVID-19 reality, artists have adapted and found ways to share their work. While venues remain closed, many artists and bands have replaced the live, in-person experience, with online performances. But what, if anything, has changed about songwriting itself?

Songwriting is a mystery. No one really understands it completely, but it is a topic covered in any discussion with a songwriter. There are always questions about the melody, the chord changes, the subject matter, the lyrics, the rhythm, and the song’s intent. On top of all of these elements, musicians are now layering in the weight of the “new normal,” the cultural weight of learning how to live with a novel virus for which there is not yet a vaccine.  

I wanted to know how everything swirling in the ether about the pandemic is affecting the way Iowa musicians are approaching songwriting and how they are finding inspiration.

Many of the songwriters I contacted said that while the COVID-19 situation is creeping into some of their new work, they have been able to create new material that has nothing to do with it.

Dave and Anne Ducharme-Jones have continued to work in the studio on material for their third album. Much of that material is not focused on the pandemic, although one new song is definitely inspired by COVID-19.

Iowa City singer-songwriter Elizabeth Moen pointed out that songwriting for many is an escape, which holds true even during a pandemic.

“Songwriting for most writers is a way to process things and tell stories, so if people are writing about topics that aren't about the pandemic, I see that as a way to give your mind some space to not think about it,” Moen said.

WRITING DURING PANDEMIC

The uncertainty and anxiety it's caused in my world is definitely influencing the ideas and songs I've been working on these past few weeks. Whether those themes remain in the finished product isn't all that important to me at this point. Working through the things that are troubling me is, however. - Joel Sires

Ducharme-Jones feels songwriting can serve as a much-needed diversion.

“It doesn’t feel inappropriate to work on songs unrelated to the pandemic. In fact it’s refreshing to have a break from thinking about it, a reminder that it doesn’t define all of life.”

Anne Ducharme-Jones has worked as a psychotherapist counseling adolescents and young adults with anorexia, bulimia, and related body image disorders. Additionally, she taught yoga for ten years.

“Songwriting for me is another form of yoga or therapy. It’s something that brings me into the present moment,” she says. “When I’m working on a song, I’m focused on the process and not in my head worrying about whatever else is going on in my life. I am inspired by what I’m thinking and feeling in the moment, and I’m focused on finding the next lyric or listening for the melody that feels right for this piece.”

Joel Sires of the band TWINS says normally his writing does not deal directly with world events, but a life-altering event like the current pandemic is very difficult to ignore.

“The uncertainty and anxiety it’s caused in my world is definitely influencing the ideas and songs I’ve been working on these past few weeks. Whether those themes remain in the finished product isn't all that important to me at this point. Working through the things that are troubling me is, however," says Sires. 

ISOLATION

Moen is using the extra time in isolation to develop new skills, has borrowed recording gear and is learning to play new instruments. She says she is planning a future release that will feature the results.

“I plan to choose my top four quarantine songs and record those myself and release them as an EP. I'm very new to recording, mixing, bass, drums, synth, etc. on my own, but I think it would be a great way to challenge myself.”

Elizabeth Moen on stage at Hinterland in 2019.
Credit Madeleine King / IPR File

She has announced she is offering songwriting lessons for beginners and for songwriters at the intermediate level. She can be reached at elizabethmoenmusic@gmail.com

Sires tends to do most of his writing alone. He says the isolation has not slowed the creative work, however, there is less useful feedback throughout the process.

“I certainly do miss the instant feedback I get from playing a new song for a friend/band member or for a live audience. That is invaluable and very important for me to keep on track and not spend hours chasing down a bad song and burning myself out,” he says.

FOCUS

The current situation may be affording songwriters additional time to write, but how does one remain focused? Sires says an attention span is worth more than gold.

“I think keeping focused and invested in what is in front of me and not letting my mind wander or get lost in some nihilistic mood swing can be a challenge,” he said.

At the end of the day, he calls music “salve for the soul” and says he’s still thankful his “creative spigot” is still flowing.

Anne Ducharme-Jones advises people dealing with anxiety or depression in the current situation to avoid internalizing their feelings.

“Reach out to people you trust, and touch base with your physician or therapist to discuss your symptoms. Shine some light on your thoughts and feelings instead of keeping them in the dark. It’s a difficult time for everyone, and we have to get through this together.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health has a mental health support line that someone experiencing anxiety or depression symptoms can call anytime. Call (855) 581-8111, text (855) 895-8398 or go online to yourlifeiowa.org for live chat.

Many mental health care providers across the state are also offering virtual appointments for anyone who may need support.