July 22, 2010
When I made the film, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, it premiered at the NY Film Festival. Big hall, maybe two thousand people in attendance, a lot of hype on the film, and the Festival organizers paraded us into one of the Royal Boxes, and as we looked down upon the crowd they looked up, applauded us like Kings and Queens, and then promptly turned away as the lights went down and the movie began. In an instant, we longer existed. Perched from above, I watched what was our film become theirs. I watched them take it and it take them. It was no longer mine, no longer something I was making or doing or hoping would work. Like watching your child leave home, I wished it well.
It’s the same with a good song. You experience it as you write it. You find that moment, that story, that image you want to illuminate. Combined with the right melody, chord structure, and unpredictable yet plausible rolling along of the lyric, you give it away. You hope they take it. A good song is a gift. You’re doing something they can’t. They are waiting to be transported. All the way back to the Greeks, to the guy at the end of the bar who says, “This one time I was hitchhikin’ through Texas…” to every fairy tale that starts with “once upon a time” – as people, as human beings we are suckers for a good story. Tell me a story. Tell it with structure, unpredictability, originality, something only you would think of, a point of view only you would have, and when you execute it, we will recognize it as our own, and this shared piece of art, in the end, will change them. They will leave the hearing of your song different. More than they were. Maybe you moved them. Maybe you made them laugh. Maybe you just made them think. But you gave them something only you could give them. And now it’s theirs.
I have a few songs that do that. They always land. They’re usually from the heart, from something that bothers me, makes me happy, sad, angry, a right I want to wrong, something I honestly – key word – honestly value in my own experience and by sending that feeling through the craft of songwriting – any story well told has an engine full of nuts and bolts and many moving parts underneath its hood – it becomes universal. Every artistic experience, when shared, be it a song, play, novel, painting, film, you name it, they all hope for one thing and that’s to shine a light on what it means to be human.
If I had to pick one of my own that does that on a consistent basis, it would probably be GRANDFATHER’S HAT. A song about someone who’s no longer here. Someone we miss. Someone in whom we see ourselves. Someone to whom we still remember by wearing something much like they wore. This song came from my wearing this old fedora simply because I liked it, and someone walking up to me and asking, “Is that your Grandfather’s hat?” I looked at him and instantly thought, “That’s a song.”
— Jeff Daniels