Retreat - The noun retreat means a place you can go to be alone, to get away from it all. A spot under a shady tree might be your favorite retreat from the sun, or your bedroom in the basement may serve as a retreat from your siblings.
From time to time I take trips, normally by myself, for two or three days, to focus on nothing but songwriting. I normally take three to four of these trips a year. Of course this isn’t the only time I’m writing songs. I’m constantly writing and working on new songs throughout the year. But I find monotony and routine to be the enemy of creativity. I find that by removing myself from my day to day environment and distractions and going somewhere new for a few days, that it pushes me out of my comfort zone and helps me reach a mental space more conducive to creativity and songwriting.
Sometimes this is as simple as going to a small town away from the city and booking a cheap hotel room in a more inspiring environment. Other times, I go somewhere further and even more awe inspiring. I’ve taken songwriting trips to places as far away as the Bahamas, The Cayman Islands, Mexico and The Dominican Republic.
Of course, budget is a consideration when planning these trips. But since I more than qualify as a professional musician in terms of what I earn as a musician, I can legitimately deduct the cost of these trips from my tax return, which makes them more affordable. I also tend to stay in very affordable places when I travel, like hostels, or by using sites like Airbnb or couchsurfing to find economical or even free places to stay. You'd be surprised just how affordable travel can be if you're resourceful and flexible.
These trips have yielded positive, but mixed results. Some of the trips have been more creative and more fruitful than others, but all of them have led to new songs and new musical ideas that I doubt I would have arrived at had I stayed in my normal, familiar environment.
It’s hard to force creativity and inspiration. In my experience you can’t will yourself to write a great song anymore than you can will yourself to feel hungry. Just getting on a plane or driving in your car and travelling to a different environment isn’t going to automatically produce amazing songs any more than sitting down and trying to force yourself to eat a meal when you've just eaten is going to make you hungry.
However, putting yourself in a new environment, free from the distractions and routine of your normal, day to day life, allows you to look at the world a little differently, free from the rote nature of a life lived habitually. For me, this seems to be the time I feel the most alive and inspired and it tends to lead to periods of increased creativity. This isn’t to say you can’t replicate this feeling, or at least get close to it, when you’re at home, in a familiar environment. It’s just a little harder to do in my experience. Traveling to new places forces you out of your routine and alters your perspective on life, which lends itself to making new creative connections and insights.
Several times I’ve even taken extended trips of a month or longer to places where I’ve lived and worked from while focusing on songwriting. These trips are of course a little harder to plan and it requires dealing with a lot more logistics, but these trips have been particularly inspiring and rewarding, in ways beyond just writing new songs.
One of the challenges with taking two or three day songwriting retreats, is that there is a sense of pressure in trying to write something quickly, which sometimes backfires. Inspiration tends to happen on its own schedule and its own time. It can be encouraged and nurtured, but it can’t really be forced. When you have more time to devote to the process of songwriting, it's easier to allow inspiration to unfold on its own time frame, while you do everything you can to encourage it, including daily periods of songwriting and lyric writing.
In 2014 I decided to experiment by taking an extended trip of several months to the Caribbean to write and play music in the tiny beach town of Cabarete, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Cabarete is small, with a population of roughly 37,000. Although not as known as Punta Cana, on the opposite side of the island, it has a steady stream of tourists and a thousand or so expats, primarily from the US and Canada, who call Cabarete home, year round.
Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Cabarete has what’s known as one of the top five beaches in the world for kite boarding. There’s a great beach to surf a few miles north. There’s one street, about a mile long that runs through the center of town, with the beach on one side and a few dozen restaurants, bars and pool halls that line the other. Other than hanging out at the beach, surfing, swimming and drinking mojitos, there’s not much to do in Cabarete, which is what made it the perfect place to spend several months playing and writing music. It’s hard to not be productive when there’s so few distractions.
I had taken a shorter trip to Cabarete the year before and met Brian, the owner of a bar and restaurant called "Lazy Dog" that hosts musicians six days a week. Upon my return to Cabarete, when Brian learned I would be staying for several months, he offered me a job playing music three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I jumped at the offer. My main goal in spending time in Cabarete, was to focus on music and running my internet business from a more inspiring and picturesque environment. So the chance to gig three times a week, for cash money, playing both originals and covers was exactly what I was looking for.
I wrote a lot of songs during my time in Cabarete. On one day off, I woke up, particularly inspired and wrote three songs in about two hours. The song below, Naked And Alone, was one of them. The story behind the song is that I had developed a bit of a crush on one of the servers that worked in one of the bars I performed at, who we’ll call Carolina, which is what I call her in the song but isn’t actually her real name.
I ended up playing this song at almost every gig I played during my trip after I wrote it and it became a song that I would get frequent requests for. By the time I left Cabarete, people were singing along with this song when I played it at shows. For better or worse, nothing ever transpired between "Carolina" and I, but it doesn't matter because I have this song and will have it forever.
The melancholic sense of longing that permeates this track might seem like a weird juxtaposition to the sun-drenched Caribbean beach town where I wrote it, but music is funny like that. It's not just our location that dictates the mood of songs we write. It's the music we listen to, the experiences we have and a host of other things that end up informing the music we write.
I don’t try to write Latin or Caribbean influenced songs just because I happen to be in the Caribbean. My goal with travelling isn’t necessarily to be inspired by the local music, although I sometimes am. More often than not though, I simply find that when I’m feeling inspired and living life to the fullest, I’m more likely to be inspired to write music that I feel strongly connected to. For me, travel has been a great way to facilitate this sense of inspiration.
Here it is, Naked And Alone, a song inspired by my time living on the beach in Cabarete and a Caribbean server named "Carolina" and our unrequited love. I recorded this song last year in LA at my producer Gary Gray's home studio. I sang the vocals and played all the guitars.