Jessica Xavier on Songwriting and Recording Changeling
I have been a musician for forty years, and had longed to be a songwriter for much of that time. In high school, I started writing lots of chord progressions on the piano, but no lyrics. I was a music composition major in college for three years, writing lots of atonal, polyrhythmic crap to please my professors. After graduating in 1981, I joined an original band that kept changing personnel and eventually I was the only 'original' member left! I wrote lots of keyboard parts, some endings and beginnings, and even co-wrote a tune or two. But never lyrics, for I had nothing to say.
I believe that the most important thing any songwriter must have is something to say. A pleasing voice, nice chops on your instrument, the ability to write good hooks, arrangements and melody—yes, all that is important. But something meaningful, lyrically—even if it is the nine billionth spin on “Boy meets Girl”—is the most important quality that distinguishes a songwriter from a hack. It sounds so easy, you say?
It’s not. Writing lyrics is the Waterloo for many if not most musicians. There are lots of great singers and players in music, but there are very few great writers. It’s seldom that instrumental ability and songwriting skills go together. Putting words that say something together with music underneath is a unique form of alchemy. Of course, lots of people say they don't listen to the words at all, or perhaps just the chorus, repeated over and over again. These folks must not listen to rap or hip-hop, of course—that is about the power of words and rhyme. (Rap is also about misanthropy that's thinly disguised as misogyny—but that’s another story.)
There are lots of one-hit wonders who managed to hit the mark just once, to be haunted by their audiences pleading them to play that one hit over and over again—as if it was the sum total of their life and art. In commercial art, whether it’s called “Adult Contemporary” or “Top Forty” there seems to be a statute of limitations, and the memory spans of listeners are uncomfortably short. But truly great songs, with great melodies and lyrics, last forever.
As I grew older and the struggle with my gender identity became more intense, a flood of new ideas began to enter my mind. They began to take form in my scribblings. At work or on the bus, I'd write snatches of couplets and rhymes that seemed to make sense, but only to me. I almost meditated on them. Soon they began to take the shape of complete songs, and although I had been only a harmony singer in my previous bands, melodies began to emerge, too—that I somehow managed to croak out. How these thoughts became songs is a mystery to me, even to this day. I've thought it was the Muse, but I don't know if it’s Calliope or another one. I do know that when she comes and sits on my shoulder, whispering into my ear, I had better stop everything else, because magic is indeed afoot!
By the time I finally came to terms of self-acceptance and decided to gender transition, I had discovered a new way of coping with my life. It was a lot cheaper than psychotherapy. I just wrote songs about my difficult life. At the time, it didn't matter that I couldn’t perform or record these tunes. I played them at home, on my piano, or simply sang them in my head. They got me through the many hardships of gender transition and all the accompanying tragedy of rejection and loss. But perhaps most importantly, I discovered that I did have something to say—and something pretty unique at that. I had finally become a real songwriter.
With some friends in my local support group, I formed what I believe to be the first all-transgendered quartet, The Cherrys. We sounded okay, but my voice was atrocious. Although I took speech lessons for my speaking voice and even got a singing teacher to try and reach into alto range, I didn't sound like a woman and worse, I sang off-key more often than not. But I persisted, because I had an unshakeable faith my tunes. They were good, and I knew it,
having worked with two great songwriters (Matt Riedl and SONiA Rutstein of Disappear Fear). But the band didn’t last, and I couldn’t find other transgendered musicians who were willing to work with me. So I got into MIDI and music sequencing, learning how to write drum parts in addition to keyboards, strings, woodwinds and the like. I found a way to make my songs sound complete—even without other musicians, with the exception of my dear friend, Dave.
When I played some crude demo tapes of this music or performed it live for my friends, much to my surprise, they liked it. Then to my horror, they told me I should record it. Oh, great. Like I can afford to do this, being openly me, running national and statewide transpolitical organizations without resources, suffering employment discrimination, yada yada yada. Just what I need—another fantasy to dominate my life.
But eventually I realized that I had to record a CD, because ... well, because art must. Like self-acceptance of being transgendered, it seemed inescapable to me—like destiny. I also knew that since I couldn’t have children, soon there would be nothing left of me on this earth. So my songs are my personal legacy. As I grew more and more ill from the stress and strain of the transpolitical movement, my priorities began to change as well. I had done so much for so many others, but I needed something to sustain me. My songwriting had kept me going through the darkest of times, and believe me, I have been through some very dark times, in the company of my peers within the movement. So I began saving my money. I picked ten songs that I thought Dave and I could pull off. And Changeling was born.
With our trusty DAT machine, ELMO, Dave and I had performed for years as a duo, Me Neither. People often asked us what we called our music. I told them it’s original pop. When pressed, I'll say it’s “Alternative Music for a Future Without Fear.” Some friends called it folk music. When I asked why, they said “because the lyrics matter.” A good friend of mine in New York, Chelsea Goodwin, called it Trans Soul music. Others have said its show music—as in Broadway musicals! Whatever. I guess I really can't be categorized because I have pretty good songwriting range. I write in a lot of styles and my tastes in music are ever changing.
The actual recording process was one of the more painful experiences of my life. I was ill-prepared for the demands it placed on me. The Peter Principle pretty much applied during the entire 18 months. Dave and I went through extended periods of unemployment, but meshing everyone’s schedules was still impossibly difficult. My producer agreed to work below her usual hourly rate, which was generous, but ultimately we had to rush through the overdubbing process, especially the vocals. Her DAT decks went down twice for extended periods and she had lots of other gear fall apart. During one session, I came down with appendicitis while playing the piano part to Unity. In the end, we succeeded in finishing the CD—if only out of sheer stubbornness. I’m sure that when folks hold it in their hands, they’ll have no idea of how difficult it was to write. And sequence. And record. And produce. And press. And market.&nsbp; And so on.
But every singer/songwriter has to start somewhere, and Changeling was my point of departure. And for what it is, for all its imperfections, I am proud of it.
“Sometimes it’s not the singer, but her song ...”