#5 The Artless Artist (“The Fine Print” track by track)

For the third album in a row, I’ve decided to showcase each track in a “behind the song” blog series. I hope some listeners find it interesting or helpful. “The Artless Artist” is the fifth track from my latest release, The Fine Print. For convenience, the lyrics and YouTube & Spotify streams are at the bottom of this post.

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This song deserves more love than it gets! The reason I don’t play it often is that — when played acoustic — it’s not really a fan favorite. There’s also the stupid reason that it has a lot of full F chords and, like most mediocre guitar players, I hate that chord. I have tried (as Frank Turner, the artist I most often try to imitate, often does) just playing Fmaj7s, which are much easier, but a lot of times it just doesn’t sound right. So, instead, I work my ass off to play the correct chord in the recording, and then I avoid playing it later.

But there’s a lot to like about this song, for me at least.

It started, predictably, with the phrase “artless artist” popping into my head because it sounded good and I knew that it would make an interesting concept for a song. I kept chewing on it, and I thought it would be a good song to discuss my all my social problems and anxieties. I was really excited about it. But, as is common for me, I kind of got too excited, which put too much pressure on me to write a great song, and made me not want to write it at all.

This was one of many songs I forced myself to finish during 50/90 because, when you need to finish 50 songs in three months, you just don’t really have the luxury of worrying about song quality. You flesh out every idea you can come up with, and finish every song that you start. (Okay, neither of those is really true because I have hundreds of ideas and I start hundreds of songs a year. And if I truly feel like I’m not ready to finish them without ruining them, then I don’t. But it’s kind of true.)

I finished the chorus much earlier than the rest of the song; the four lines just came pretty easy to me. That is often the case for me, as I’ve said before, because for some reason my brain is good at coming up with catchy, hooky, simple, concise bits, but I struggle with flowing verses. I either can’t think of enough to write, or I have trouble stopping myself from rambling on and on. Then when I have those verses that are either too rambly or that consist largely of filler, I struggle to come up with interesting and catchy melodies because, well, the lyrics don’t lend themselves that well to them. You’d think I could just piece together a whole bunch of quick, catchy lines to make a verse, but somehow it just doesn’t work that way. Writing choruses and writing verses are two different skills. However, I think I’m getting better at it through deliberate practice.

For the verses of this song, I can’t remember the exact process, but I remember having a giant wall of text on the topic to work from. It was either bits and pieces I had written over the course of many months, or maybe a free write or brain drain that I had done one day. Regardless, this made it much easier to write.

Interesting side note: When I first started writing intensively, I thought it was easier to write a song from scratch than piece together a bunch of existing lines and mold them into a song. But as I get more experienced, I’ve learned that in some ways, the latter is much easier. Piecing together a song from existing material takes more hard work and can take longer than writing if you’re already feeling creative, but writing from scratch requires the mental focus and clarity to be creative. So if you’re feeling mentally tired or uncreative, having existing material or co-writing with someone who already has ideas can be a great way to be productive.

Anyway, in this case, I took my few dozen lyrical lines written about social awkwardness and difficulty, and in a fairly short time I had sorted them into two verses and a bridge, moved around or added rhymes where they made sense to me, and matched the meter and rhyme scheme as best I could between the two verses. This is a process that’s become very enjoyable to me, actually.

Outside of the chorus, which I think I did a great job with, I don’t think I could point to any lines here that I think are particularly pithy and catchy. But I love the overall picture it paints. It reads like an encyclopedia entry about all the social difficulties I’ve encountered in my recent past. And it just feels so idiosyncratic — the same exact aspect of the song that other people criticize because songs will never be popular if they’re not “relatable,” is what makes me love it because it’s so me and it’s something I can hold onto for comfort whenever I experience these situations. When no one else has sung a particular experience of yours or the way you feel in a particular situation, it just feels amazing to be able to sing something that you wrote yourself and have it describe you completely perfectly.

Honestly, whenever I read these lyrics or sing the song, I love every line for that reason. It just hits so hard for me, and none of my favorite lines would hit as hard without every single line leading up to them. But the bridge is probably my favorite because it’s a good summary of how I feel on the subject:

And I am constitutionally incapable of telling lies
So I let my cards fall all over the table
Because I’ve learned over time
That if you never speak, people will assume you’ve got nothing to say
And without meaning to be cruel
They take the microphone away
So make sure you sing before it’s too late

Yes, it’s true that I’m pretty much incapable of lying. And I’ve learned to love that about myself and lean into it. Just be 100% open, honest, and vulnerable. I think it’s a strength. A lot of people following the same career path that I am might be hesitant to ask for opportunities or tell someone they admire them, but I’m not, because I know that I couldn’t hide those feelings and wishes even if I wanted to, so I might as well just say it. Many good-hearted, creative people appreciate vulnerability in others and it makes them want to help you. Some people are put off by it though, and that’s the risk you take. You win some, you lose some. But like I say, the very worst outcome is that you don’t say it, and you don’t get offered the opportunity that you could have been offered, simply because no one even knew you wanted it.

There are definitely other people out there who can relate to these experiences. It doesn’t matter if they’re artists either; that’s not the important part of the song. And I like to hope that someday, a lot of these people can discover this song and feel understood through it.

Production-wise, this is the most rocky sound I came up with; I kind of went all out with a super cool drum loop, electric guitar chords and melodies, poppy harmonies, and a bass line I wrote. I was going for heavy folk punk, but in my opinion it came off more like quirky indie rock. But that’s cool too! I think the full-on rock band sound made it a lot of people’s favorite production-wise — partly because that’s a popular sound, and partly because it was just such a drastic change from what I normally release. If only the lyrics were more widely relatable, then more of those people might have listened on repeat, ha. But again, I have no regrets because I wrote exactly the song that I wanted to write.

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LYRICS

The artless artist fell short again
Ruining a perfectly good shot
They shook her hand and quickly forgot
Can an artless artist ever find success?

I think about friends just like I did when I was five
Everybody has a story and something to teach me
And could end up being my best friend for life
But I’ve been fooled by so-called “friends” time and time again
With compliments and invitations to pretend they like me
But they were just using me till they find somebody better
Whenever I’m with a friend and we meet a stranger
Somehow by the night’s end, they become fast friends
They start keeping in touch every day
While the stranger soon forgets my name

I’ve been invited to cool parties once or twice
Introduced to people who I want to like me
But I cramp up lest I show too much excitement
And everybody says they hate all that’s insincere
Yet the way that they choose to get ahead is to pretend that they’re everyone’s best friend
Always asking for details they never want to hear
But me, I can’t pretend when I’m not interested
I don’t have a fake smile or a cool new way to say goodbye
I just awkwardly walk away, and every time I just say

The artless artist fell short again
Ruining a perfectly good shot
They shook her hand and quickly forgot
Can an artless artist ever find success?

And I am constitutionally incapable of telling lies
So I let my cards fall all over the table
Because I’ve learned over time
That if you never speak, people will assume you’ve got nothing to say
And without meaning to be cruel
They take the microphone away
So make sure you sing before it’s too late

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