Storytelling & Songwriting

I was asked to submit a piece on storytelling and songwriting to Folk Radio UK, the largest folk radio station and music website in the UK. I enjoyed writing this, I hope you enjoy reading it.


Storytelling & Songwriting

I began storytelling a few years after moving from Ireland to New York as a break from music. I felt I had hit a brick wall creatively and decided to direct all my energy in a different direction. Music had become a dead end, or so I thought. The songs were increasingly hard to find, I felt I was no longer growing as a writer and that I had plateaued indefinitely. Storytelling allowed me to discover new performance venues, interesting people and a creative process that was so personal I never worried about sounding like anyone else. I was unique, my well to draw from was mine only. Everything felt fresh and new and slowly I began to rediscover what I had loved about music in the first place—a desire for connection.

Storytelling taught me how to visualize a narrative, connect events within it and then connect it as a whole piece to an audience. Each time I prepare a new story I first draw what I call a Story Map. This involves putting down the facts, which are essentially the basic foundation blocks of the story and then go about arranging them into a narrative that will draw people in while also being entertaining. All of this is done with a respectful loyalty to the truth, of course.

When I started doing music again and formed Supersmall, I began writing new songs that were more personal and visual, much like the stories I was mapping out to tell on stage. The difference, of course, is that I don’t consider Supersmall to be a storytelling band in a traditional sense; much of our narratives are told through a series of disjointed imagery.

Still, there are similarities between the way both a song and story evolve from its original “map,” based on a connection with the audience. Sometimes when I am asked to perform an older story, one that I haven’t told in a while, I return to the original story map. I always find that the story has since taken on a life of its own and changed significantly from what I initially sketched out. The facts are there but the narrative is leaner or greatly embellished in places in order for it to work best. The same can be said about a song. Sometimes when I return to a song I have not played in a long time I will have entirely forgotten the experience of writing it. In playing it on stage, the feelings and headspace I was in when writing it return, but maybe certain parts are embellished, certain lyrics are added because that is what worked best with the audience. Much like a story map, a song is a snapshot in time of what I was feeling at a particular moment, but despite the initial “blueprint” it is apt to change. It is part of the simple desire of connecting to an audience.

Storytelling has definitely changed my attitude towards music, as well. In the past I took music very seriously—there was little humor in the writing or performing of it. I was your typical clichéd somber singer-songwriter. With storytelling I avoided the darker, serious subject matter other performers were doing and leaned towards the lighter, more humorous material. I grew to thoroughly enjoy performing and grew in confidence enough to connect directly with the audience both during and after the show. In short, I learned to lighten up. This is all reflected in the new songs I was writing by having a more optimistic tone and upbeat tempo. I even enjoyed playing them live on stage, as opposed to my former, anxious self. I now also feel comfortable telling the history behind the songs and creating a more intimate atmosphere instead of hiding behind my guitar. I am now connecting, reaching out and enjoying the experience of it.

Colin Dempsey / Supersmall

Thursday, Montauk.

As Marisa reads by the water, I’ve been slipping out for adventurous drives in the new car. I tune into some obscure chatty AM radio station, turn it down low and explore the winding wooded roads towards the north shore. I found an empty shoreline with two antique chairs facing the water side by side, I plan on returning with Marisa at some point. Seagulls flew in front of the car dropping shellfish on the road and returning to eat the squashed remains my wheels left behind in an unsettling display of animal intelligence. This along with them trying to steal my food on the beach through ever more increasingly genius methods each day has convinced me that seagulls will soon be our new overlords.

Today I drove to Camp Hero and viewed the abandoned military ruins. I’d been meaning to do this on every previous visit to Montauk but wandering through the empty park long after the tourists had returned to the city was worth the wait.

I also discovered a farmers market on my return trip, the produce of which is being cooked up by Marisa while I type this. Did you know there is such a thing as Tiger Tomatoes, or is it Zebra Tomatoes? I could ask again but I’ve been told ten times already. Anyway, they’re stripped and look pretty awesome. We’re keeping them for tomorrow.

Later, with chilled beer and marshmallows we will set up a fire on the beach and resist the urge to go running into the waves. Although I swam a little today, we discovered that we are far more adventurous when drinking. This Saturday armed with some ungodly cocktail we plan to do some drunk dipping. Marisa’s fear of fish is considerably diminished when inebriated.


Inside & Out

I went for one of my walks last Sunday. After too much good company the previous night I had the mother of all hangovers to burn off.  I can’t drink that much anymore, not that I’m complaining. Light but consistent exercise, an improved diet and quality company has me feeling better than I’ve ever been, so a reduction in my biggest vice (beer) is welcome.

I walked to PS1 and yet again seen art that left me thinking about it hours later. I was having a bad time initially with every staff member telling me I was doing something wrong in one way or the other.

Please wear your bag at the front! Please don’t stand there! Please no drinking in the gallery! Please don’t walk that way!

The most embarrassing was walking into an exhibition and sitting in a chair facing a drawing on the wall. As I tried to find its meaning I was told that the chair was actually part of a larger piece. I was kindly told where to take my dullard arse. The Sculpture Center was closed but I caught some new additions to the soon-to-be closed 5Pointz.

As I walked over the Pulaski Bridge I decided to swing by a small coffee shop I heard about in Greenpoint. Upon arriving I liked the look of its neighbor a lot better and decided a change of location was in order. I was glad I did, the little gem I discovered had an entirely empty rear garden for me to enjoy my late lunch in. After an hour or so of draining blood from a stone in search for lyrics I decided the song I was rewriting was going to stay unfinished. I left and walked to my favorite bookstore in the neighborhood with the same stubbornness I always do, that I would only browse. I have failed every time although today’s rather bizarre impulse buy was an expensive mistake. I have no idea what possessed me to buy Do Cool Shit but  I did and I’ve not enjoyed reading it. Surprise, surprise.

I slowly ventured south into the bustling neighborhood of Williamsburg and caught the train home. I do these little walks for various reasons, mostly searching for inspiration and ideas (I’m a chronic daydreamer.) I love the city and I find that every time I move a little out of my comfort zone and explore areas further from Astoria, I find another reason to love living here.  Discovering a new gallery, coffee shop or bar that allows me to feel apart of, while also detached from the city is a day well spent. Being inside and out. I’m not sure i’m explaining this right but I do know that somehow these little adventures turn up in my music.  For this I’m grateful, it gives me a small sense of control over something I always felt was random and unpredictable. No experiences are ever wasted.

Writing for the sake of writing.

I promised myself I would at least try to write something on my lunch break today and here it is. I’ve been so caught up with my band that I have barely had a chance to do anything else. I’ve managed to do the rare storytelling gig but it has mostly been music and I’m loving it. We return to the studio on November 19th to begin work on our full length album. This time we are spreading it out over several months, a day here and there to spend a little more time on each song. Between now and then I’ll be making demos and trying to write new songs. So far I have four I’m excited about.

Friends and family came to visit and I had a glorious time putting all the weight back on that I’d previously lost while enjoying their company. I’m now back on the bike and walking wherever possible, while eating as best I can. Slowly I’m getting there, very slowly (Damn you beer!).

This year has mostly been about the band but I shall write about that on the band website, the reviews have been positive and the opportunities that have opened up for us along the way has brought me a renewed sense of confidence.

Yesterday I spent the day clearing out the small room I write and play music in. It was liberating removing large sections of my past in bags from the apartment. All that remains now is a desk, a piano and a few guitars, a notebook and pen. I felt no nostalgia for any of the items from the past that I discovered in the back of drawers or hidden in folders. I guess that’s the strongest sign that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been at anytime in the past. Although, I wouldn’t mind being 40lbs lighter though.

There, I wrote something.