When COVID-19 started spreading more rapidly in the United States back in March, I saw an opportunity to get serious about music.
I’d learned to play guitar from my dad, a professional musician, but I seldom sat down and practiced on my own. Up until this spring, I had a few half-written songs that I was excited about, but I could never muster up the motivation to finish one.
I have a love of music that encircles all my interests somewhat perfectly: writing, singing, the art of creating, and (more recently) a growing appreciation for instrumentation.
When I hear a song that I connect with, a myriad of things happen. Usually, emotion is the center of it all. It’s always a line that catches my attention first. Sometimes it speaks to my personal experience, and sometimes, it’s worded in such a way that I’m placed directly in someone else’s experience.
Each appeals to me in its own way, but for different reasons.
Of all my favorite artists, I have the greatest soft spot for women who tell their stories. And there have been so many women who, through their artistry, showed me the universe they painted.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these women, so I decided to write about what they mean to me and how they’ve influenced my own artistry.
She’s on everyone’s mind right now since releasing album Folklore in July and Evermore on Dec. 11. But whether or not you enjoy her music, it’s undeniable that her achievements as a musician and a woman are awe-inspiring.
Last year she was named Billboard’s first Woman of the Decade for her chart-topping work throughout the 2010s. She was the youngest artist ever to win a Grammy for Album of the Year at 20 years old (until Billie Eilish claimed that title this year). She was the first female solo act to win a Grammy for Album of the Year twice, and also has three of the top ten fastest selling albums of all time.
Swift has not only been the most influential artist for me, but one of the most influential artists of all time. My interest started in eighth grade when I discovered her third studio album, Speak Now. This was the first time I came across music that I chose.
In the past, I’d dug into artists like The Beatles because of my dad’s band or classic 2000s alternative bands like All Time Low and Panic! At The Disco because of my sister. But this was the first time I can remember going out of my way to discover something new.
What I love most about Swift and her songwriting is that it transcends one specific era in my life. Not only did I watch her and her music evolve, but I related my own life experiences to hers as I grew up. Better yet, I look back on some of her older material with a fresh eye and understand it on a deeper level since growing into an adult.
I first heard the song “Never Grow Up,” at age 13, which Swift wrote after she moved into her first apartment and came to grips with the harsh reality of adulthood.
Lines like “Memorize what it sounded like when your dad gets home,” and “At fourteen, there’s just so much you can’t do, and you can’t wait to move out someday and call your own shots,” both pulled me backward and propelled me forward on the timeline of my own life.
I remembered when I was even younger and my dad would come home from work smelling like a mixture of the music shop and cigarettes and always shout “Hellooooo!” in the same tone as he walked in the door. I thought of what my future might hold one day as I settled into a life that I created for myself rather than one that had been decided for me as a child.
But now, looking back and listening to the song I’ve known and loved for the last ten years, another line sits with me: “I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone.” I sit and listen to the melancholy in Swift’s voice and I remember to squeeze my mom a little tighter the next time I see her.
I remember to look around my apartment and bask in its coziness for an extra second. I remember to smile at my puppy and give her extra kisses. I remember to try not to freak out about how quickly the last 10 years have gone, and how much faster the next 20 probably will.
I hear the song “Cornelia Street” and feel inspired to write about my old friend who lived on Eastview Avenue in Louisville. I hear the line, “You carry my groceries and now I’m always laughing,” from “Stay Stay Stay,” and think about the love and laughter I found in my own partner. I hear her mention meeting her lover on a Tuesday and use it as inspiration in writing the line “We met on Friday, but you break my heart on Sunday every time.”
I could go on forever about how many of her songs have touched my life, but what I want to leave you with is this: Swift’s artistry is honest, and the stories she tells give me permission to add the details into my own songwriting. Her courage and confidence as a woman and an artist gave me permission to dream as big for my career as she has for hers.
My best friend from high school, Ellie, fawned over Joni Mitchell.
I’d never heard her music before, but when Ellie played me the original version of Big Yellow Taxi, my limited, 16-year-old palette rejected what was unfamiliar.
Mitchell’s voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. The folksy strum of her non-traditional guitar tunings paired with her famous falsetto (and occasional yodel) was far more off-putting to me than the clean, polished Counting Crows cover of the same song. I immediately concluded that her music was too eccentric or weird to be enjoyable and set it aside.
It wasn’t until 2018, when I was 21, that I decided to give her another chance. I first listened to Mitchell’s A Case of You from Blue, which is often regarded by music critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.
I soon realized that I had greatly misjudged her musical genius.
“You’re in my blood like holy wine,” she sang. “You taste so bitter, and so sweet. I could drink a case of you, darling, and I would still be on my feet.”
Despite my life being incredibly ordinary compared to Mitchell’s, I could relate to the image she portrayed. Anyone who’d been pricked by love’s thorn could relate: love trickles into your bloodstream against your will, like a poison. Adorned with the wonderful properties of attraction, it makes you feel buzzy and bright like a sweet wine, but can turn equally bitter in an instant.
I connected with writing styles like Mitchell’s early on through artists like Taylor Swift, who coincidentally cites Blue as one of her biggest influences due to its autobiographical lyricism.
What astounds me perhaps the most about Mitchell is that she pioneered the role of the female singer-songwriter that Swift and many other artists expanded upon decades later. While many great musicians came before her, Mitchell emerged as a strong female artist in a music industry that was largely dominated by men at the time.
She describes herself as a painter who was “derailed by circumstance,” and has been quoted saying, “I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.”
Whether it be through flowery language or flowers painted with watercolor, I can relate to this sentiment wholeheartedly. I express my sadness through the stories in my own songwriting with trials, tribulations and eventual resolutions. But the joy life gives shows naturally through the full spectrum of colors in my own art, and it hangs in the air like a painting running infinitely across a canvas.
Mitchell has meant many things to many people. Through the trials of her own life and the songs they produced, she showed me that I can pursue anything, any way I want.
She defies traditionalism and sees the world as her own playground. Her unconventional artistry was born from a number of different trials and tribulations throughout her lifetime.
At age 9, Mitchell contracted polio during an epidemic and was hospitalized for weeks. Years later when she was teaching herself how to play guitar, her left hand was weakened from her bout with the disease, so she created alternate tunings to compensate.
These tunings would become a cornerstone of her unique sound and ultimately set her apart as an artist. In a 1996 interview with Acoustic Guitar magazine, Mitchell said she has used 51 different tunings in songs she’d written throughout her career.
Another major influence on her distinctive sound was her seventh grade English teacher, Arthur Kratzmann. Overall, Mitchell struggled in school, believing from an early age that a formal education taught students what to think, rather than how to think.
But Kratzmann recognized her potential as a poet and challenged her use of clichés, helping mold her free-thinking mindset. His influence on her artistry and life was so profound that she dedicated her first album to the teacher.
Mitchell will be remembered as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th century, as well as a major influence for female musicians.
She’s given me permission to see the beauty in the peripheral details of life and look at art as a way of being rather than a formulaic process. For that, she’ll always be a source of inspiration in my life, encouraging me to stick to my craft through her creative genius.
With three kids in tow and a history of addiction, Glennon Doyle started the online community Momastery in 2009 and became one of the most popular Christian mommy-bloggers around. Then, she became a published author.
I came across her writing in 2020 when my boss recommended her newest memoir, Untamed. The book became my ultimate feminist doctrine — by detailing her own trials and tribulations, Doyle laid a framework for women who wanted to learn how to follow their hearts and undo their social conditioning.
Women, Doyle argued, are taught to behave in a fashion most beneficial to our patriarchal society: to be quiet, to be nice, and to serve their husbands, careers and families.
Doyle offers women the realization that serving themselves and their own “wild” — a term she uses frequently to refer to one’s innermost desires — will lead to a fulfilling and honest life.
The strength in her writing was always her ability to speak the truth and invite her readers into the most intimate parts of her own life. Her blunt honesty establishes trust between her and her readers and inspires them to look inward for answers to their struggles.
In August 2016, she gave readers an even closer look into her personal life when she announced that she and her husband, Craig, were separating. Then, that November, Doyle revealed she was in a relationship with Abby Wombach, an American soccer player whom she met on a book tour.
Doyle later wrote in her 2020 memoir Untamed that she had struggled for a long time with her sexuality and grappled with how her relationship with Wombach would affect not only her public perception in the Christian and mommy-blogger communities, but how it would affect her children.
Ultimately, Doyle decided that following her heart might not be the easiest path, but that it was one that would lead to a more honest, open and happy family.
“The truest, most beautiful life never promises to be an easy one,” she wrote in Untamed. “We need to let go of the lie that it’s supposed to be.”
Doyle believes in recognizing truth and beauty as a way to set yourself free. Getting in touch with her innermost self is what allows her to undo her social conditioning and unleash her hidden gifts.
“Our minds are excuse makers. Our imaginations are storytellers,” Doyle wrote. “So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful?
“Then our imagination rises inside us, thanks us for finally consulting it after all these years, and tells us a story.”
While reading the book last spring, I started to imagine how I wanted my life to play out.
Doyle said in her book that writing a story about one’s own life makes us much more likely to dream up what we’d really like to see for ourselves, rather than sticking to the script — our preconceived notions of what our lives should be.
So I decided to write my story.
I dreamed a life of travel, migrating like a nomad for the next five to ten years. I imagined living in Germany with my best friend, James, for a time and finally brushing up on my German skills. And I thought of the guy I could never forget and how one day I would talk to him again. I pictured what it would be like to teach English as a second language in another country.
I wrote and wrote and let whatever was inside of me spill out onto paper. And alongside all of these fantasies I drummed up with the stroke of my watercolor marker, one thing was a constant: through each step of my beautiful, true story, I was playing music.
I was traveling around the country and playing gigs wherever I wound up to make a little cash and have a lot of fun. I was writing what I knew and what I felt. And I felt free.
I’ve always had the hardest time with creating. I was born a visual artist. But somewhere along the way, music caught my gaze. Telling stories caught my attention.
I was never “good enough” to pursue it, however, because I was behind the curve. I hadn’t taken viola lessons from the age of five like my best friend. I hadn’t been a musician for the past 50 years like my dad. I was just somebody who liked the sound of music and knew how to play basic chords on the guitar.
And so I battled myself for most of my adolescence, trying to understand how my motivation to draw fit in with the music that was always bouncing around in my head.
I tried to understand why I liked being creative at all, or what being creative even meant. Sometime around age 21, I started to open myself up more to the idea that I just needed to let the ideas out somehow, rather than constantly deliberating on who I was “supposed to be.”
I had written a few half songs that I never seemed to be able to finish. I remember the day I finished my first song.
I was sitting in the yard reading Untamed last spring. I had been feeling depressed. Uncomfortable. Cooped up. The cabin fever from quarantining with my parents at the start of the pandemic was really, really getting to me.
I looked up at my mom and faked a smile so that she wouldn’t ask me what was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to her about it, it was that I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t have anything new to say. I didn’t have any energy.
Then, the first line came to my head: If I feigned a smile for you, would you not know what I’m thinking?
I dropped the book in the lawn chair and ran to my guitar. And that night, I finally finished my first song. I called it Broken.
Reading Untamed and learning about Doyle’s story awoke something within me. It showed me that I don’t have to be the best at something to love it. That being the best or pleasing the world wouldn’t make me happy in the end, anyhow.
Thank you, Glennon, for your infinite bravery and honesty.
Although Swift, Mitchell and Doyle have all produced unique content throughout their careers, the commonality between them lies in the honesty of their craft.
Each woman takes pieces of their own lives and puts them together to create something beautiful. Each woman uses their own hardships to connect with the world around them. And each woman tells a story.
As of right now, I’m in the process of taking singing lessons and working on my songwriting. I’ve written somewhere around 20 songs at this point, which is far fewer than I would like, but I’m bounds further than where I was when I started my songwriting journey.
The most important thing I have discovered while exploring my own creative path, however, is to be open and enjoy the process.
And that’s just what I’ll keep doing.