ONLY NOISE: Campfire Songs

I never went to summer camp as a child. In fact, I didn’t really believe that anyone else did, either. Summer camp, like talking dogs and successful marriages, was the stuff of movies. Camp was a tradition I never longed for, or understood, or even thought of. So I was a bit surprised last month when my sister asked me to help out at her Teen Songwriting Retreat – as a camp counselor.

A singer/songwriter, producer, performer, and music teacher by her own right, my sister has been cutting records and touring extensively since the early 2000s. Comparatively, I am far newer to the biz, and much more detached considering I merely opine when other people make music, but certainly don’t make my own. My few musical efforts have been tortured and short-lived, contributing only to a novice career in music criticism.

Music is sort of the family business, however.  Our dad, uncle, and grandfather have all played music professionally at some stage in their lives.  Our dad has worked in pro-audio, co-owned a record store, and currently owns a bistro-cum-music venue, where my sister plays a few times a year.  Because I live so far away, and cannot contribute to the family showbiz community in quite the same way, working at my sister’s retreat seemed like a nice way to finally complete the circle.

Though I had no prior experience working with teenagers in any capacity, and the thought of singing in unison around a campfire makes my blood curdle, this occasion was not to be missed. Firstly, my sister is like, the most wonderful person in the world. Secondly, my sister’s wife (who was manning the kitchen for the retreat) is like, the second most wonderful person in the world. And thirdly, they both live on big, gorgeous farm acreage in rural Washington…in grain silos. They’re pretty much a hippie dream couple torn from the pages Modern Farmer, but better.

In the weeks leading up to the retreat my sister asked if I would be down to talk to the kids about what I “look for” in new artists as a music journalist. Perhaps I could answer their questions, and maybe even inspire them with my fangirl banter. Sure. Why not? But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if I had anything at all to offer these kids aside from my jaded New York sensibilities (“All of the music venues you love will eventually shut down.” “Never trust drummers.” Etc.) Would I only be able to contribute cynical ramblings?

As it turned out, there was a lot more I could offer them. Namely: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My task wasn’t so much to inspire young Dylans and Nilssons with tales of freelance writing, as it was to make sure they stayed alive for three days. For the camp’s duration I was kitchen assistant to the head chef (my sister’s wife), or as we called her, the “Kitchen Goddess.” The Kitchen Goddess (KG) was an expert at organizing the day and delegating tasks. This created a symbiotic relationship, as I (unlike a musician, but very much like a journalist) am great at taking direction from higher ups. The KG was like a dream editor, stepping in only when a serious rewrite was in order – like the time I over-stuffed a quesadilla, setting it up for structural failure.

Our daily routine was nothing short of divine; I can only hope that by the time I hit 70 my life will be so blissful. To start the day, the kids (ages 12-16) woke up in a yurt tucked away in the woods, roughly 200 steps from my sister’s farmhouse. From 8:30-9:30 we would enjoy the aptly but un-poetically named “Coffee, Tea, and Cocoa Hour” while watching the resident dachshund lope around the garden. Once adequately caffeinated, the KG and I would report to the kitchen for breakfast duty as the songwriters partook in any given form of exercise; some days kicked off with Tai Chi, others with freeform dance parties – anything to get the blood moving, short of Cross Fit.

As the day rolled along I’d shuffle between meal prep and long stretches of reading. I’d started the weekend with a Norman Mailer novel about a man strangling his wife to death, and finished with a historical essay on blues legend Robert Johnson, who was poisoned by a jealous husband – hardly the stuff of typical YA novels, but hey, at least one of the books was about music! Throughout the weekend I’d catch snatches of songwriting challenges the kids would participate in, the most memorable being a “Chip Bag Challenge” in which teams had to write an entire song using only the text from, you guessed it, a bag of chips. The most successful hit to surface was a severe earworm entitled, “Cheetos Crunchy.” I’m tellin’ ya, all these nascent hitmakers would have to do is send this cut to Frito Lay and they’d be set for life. The composers of “Cheetos Crunchy,” however, had far more integrity than I do.

Aside from making hits from a bag of chips, the whole goal of the retreat was to nurture the kids’ creative tendencies as they labored to write, record and perform one original song in under four days. Because of the compressed time frame, the bourgeoning writers were allowed large patches of alone time to hone what my sister called, their “song babies.” The kids would spread out all over the farm, sitting in the grass with their guitars and notebooks. My main interaction with these rehearsal periods occurred on my break time, usually spent picking blackberries or collecting eggs from the chickens.

It was one such evening in the blackberry brambles that I heard the cry of a song baby. A sixteen-year-old kid named Caleb* from Blaine, Washington was strumming his guitar aggressively, singing the roots of a well-formed ballad. It struck me that this was the closest I had ever come to witnessing raw process in terms of songwriting. Hearing a song’s formation is a bit like watching time-lapsed photography of a plant sprouting – you’re not quite sure how all of that change occurred in plain sight, and yet went unnoticed.

By the time Sunday rolled around, all eight of the kids had achieved more than most artists accomplish in a year: they’d written great songs, recorded them in a nice-ass studio, and performed in front of a crowd. Meanwhile, my crowning achievement had been finding a trick to chopping onions without weeping: sunglasses.

All jokes aside, there was more to the retreat than morning coffee, s’mores, and singing. The entire weekend was like a crash course in vulnerability – whether that meant pouring your soul into an in-progress composition and sharing it with a dozen strangers, or playing your favorite song for the group. The crazy thing was that when it came time to share music, or even just stories, the kids were the brave ones; I on the other hand, a 27-year-old college graduate, found myself worrying if a bunch of teens would think my favorite song was cool. While I squirmed in vulnerable moments, the participants of the 2017 Teen Songwriting Retreat flourished. Maybe that’s the difference between a musician and a critic.