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SiS Featured Songwriter: Val D’Alessio

10 Jun Posted by in Featured Artists | Comments
SiS Featured Songwriter: Val D’Alessio
 

Ask a songwriter when their writing journey began and you will usually find memories tied to a certain age or a certain musical experience. But for Pacific Northwest singer-songwriter Val D’Alessio, the writing muse is inextricably woven into a specific place – one whose unromantic nickname belies its effect on her songwriting career: a group of cabins affectionately known as ‘the Lumpy Dumps’.

“I remember exactly how I started writing songs. I had been playing and performing music since the age of 10 but I had never been able to write my own songs until I reached the ripe old age of 33. I was living in a group of cabins affectionately known as ‘the Lumpy Dumps’ in Bellingham, where a lot of creative crazies lived. It was the perfect setting for me to discover the joys and success of songwriting for the first time. I sat down with my guitar and started noodling and didn’t stop until I came up with something! Low and behold, I was visited by the muse right there in Lumpy Dump #11, where I wrote all the songs on my first CD, in a relatively short period of time.”

Val recalled that she, “felt like the Grandma Moses of songwriters at that time because I was around a lot of musicians who were quite a bit younger than me, and they were already boldly writing and performing their own songs. I was determined to write some songs, and I wasn’t going to let my inner critic prevent me from moving forward with that intention anymore.”

Though she started writing later than some, Val’s passion for music began in childhood. After an early start where she “taught herself to play Beatle songs at age 10, sitting in her room in Winthrop, Maine,” Val moved on with her brother to form a classic-rock band and then to acoustic music when the band broke up. After this time, she explored the guitar stylings of James Taylor, Mississippi John Hurt, and other blues artists, as well as the tunings of Joni Mitchell.

Val, according to her bio, “moved across the country, covering songs in various music configurations including solos, duos, and bluegrass bands, finally playing lead guitar and singing harmony vocals for Bellingham, Washington-based acoustic-pop band ‘Men Without Pants’. She loved the band’s name and their catchy songwriting. However, she still found herself playing the same support role as she had in most of the bands she had been in before. She passionately wanted to develop her own musical voice and songwriting. And it was at the Lumpy Dumps that her passions became a reality.

Val admitted that her writing process now differs from her early process in Bellingham. “Probably like most writers, my process varies. Typically, I noodle around on the guitar waiting for a riff and chord progression to find me. This immediately gives me the feeling or mood of the song. I then start singing a melody over the chords and let dummy lyrics, or a stream-of-consciousness with words flow, until I find out what the song is about. Once I get a sense of what the song is about and get on a creative flow with lyrics, everything else seems to fall into place for me.”

Though this is her “typical songwriting process”, she also explores other avenues for coming up with a song. “I enjoy having a song topic or title come to me in the form of a complete idea. For example, my song ‘I Hope I Screw This Up’ was a title I saw and lifted from a T-shirt someone was wearing. Less often a melody comes to me first in either a complete form or in pieces. I love it when that happens. I love a great melody! It brings me into a song and great lyrics keep me there.”

Oftentimes, writers comment that their ‘zone moments’ come when they are least conscious of a process. Val herself commented that, “The best ever is when a song comes more through me than to me. It comes almost in complete form with melody and lyrics. This doesn’t happen very often but when it does I am always very pleased with the song.”

A career as a performing singer-songwriter, while rewarding, is also fraught with challenges. For Val, “My greatest challenge as a writer is to relax and allow creative flow to happen without pushing or struggling. It is a challenge of focus and intention, in which I allow the muse in without letting the distraction of negativity prevent the creative process.

“My challenges as a performing songwriter are similar: It is to relax and go with the organic flow of the evening. I want to allow myself to ‘screw up’ and recover without losing my focus or allowing negativity to distract me from my intention of connecting with an audience. My desire is to be fully present with the music and let it flow with the intention of connecting with those who are receptive to my music. I want to stay in an attitude of gratitude of appreciation for my audience and the opportunity to perform, without being distracted or derailed by negative thoughts. I like to imagine that I am in my living room, after I have just finished writing a song, as I am performing for an audience. I love that feeling of being on fire with a creation, when the self-doubt goes away and I am most present and connected to the music.”

As a musician trying to make a living, the struggles are not tied to the externals of money but rather to internal dialogues. Val explained, “The greatest challenge… is to value and honor my dream of making an abundant living as a singer-songwriter without allowing the mind-clouds of negativity to distract me, mainly self-doubt. The challenge is to be happy with where I am as a performing songwriter and excited about where I am going at the same time. When I am able to hold that focus, everything about making a life as a musician seems to fall into place.”

In the songwriting journey, writers often seek inspiration from the world around them, and for Val D’Alessio, that inspiration comes from community, which she says is, “an absolute source of inspiration for me as a creative person. I adore the SiS organization and all the people who contribute their time and talent in this community.”

Another part of her community that inspires Val is children. “Children are such natural ‘allowers’ and generators of creativity. They naturally understand the value of their creations and can offer them freely to others. The ‘young songwriters’ in my life, children who have come to me through my music teaching practice, have been my greatest teachers. They often model how to allow creativity to flow in a much easier way than adults. They are my teachers by example, and they hold a wavelength of purity and love like animals do. In fact,” she added, “I think of my cat, ‘Little Cat Stevens’, as my spiritual advisor.”

Because Val is inspired by the spontaneity of children, she advises adults who want to write to do what children instinctually know how to do: “Relax and allow yourself to feel the joy of the journey with songwriting. Know that your creative expression matters and you have something to express in a way that only you can. At the same time, let yourself be light with the process. If you set out to write songs because it’s fun, you can take the pressure off yourself and allow creativity to flow. You don’t need to worry about writing a ‘great’ song or even a ‘good’ song when you’re starting; just get it out. You just have to remember how you would do it when you were a kid.”

For adults, she also cautioned, “Don’t engage with those nasty, negative, critical voices that say, ‘this song sucks’ as you’re writing it, or even after you’ve written it. Love yourself and get over yourself at the same time. You don’t need to carry the burden of profundity with your lyrics or try to be dazzlingly original with your melodies. If you allow yourself to be who you naturally are in your creative expression, you can’t help but be original.”

She went on to explain, “I believe you learn to write songs by writing songs. You will discover how to edit and craft your songs as you go along. Trust that your songwriting process will develop over time but that the main thing is to get in there and mingle with the muse. Find out what you have to say and have fun with the creative process. That’s where the magic begins in songwriting.”

Once the song is finished, then the ‘how-to’ of performing becomes a next-logical-step. In Val’s own journey, “When I first started writing music, I played at Victory Music open mics, sometimes three times a week, because I knew they were a very supportive, inclusive songwriting community. I also had the advantage of performing my songs for some very developed performing songwriters who were my friends when I first came out as a songwriter. I knew they would give me insightful feedback and would be encouraging as well.”

For writers who are first testing the waters of performing, Val suggests what worked for her: “Play for people who you think will be supportive and encouraging of your growth as a songwriter… you have to get out there and play your songs for others in order to learn how to perform.” One question that looms for many is to puzzle out where the best places to play would be. Val advises, “First ask yourself WHY you would like to perform your music for others. I find that when I perform my music with the intention of connecting with others because it is fun and I believe I have something to offer and receive from them, I have much more fun, and I feel successful in the process. Feeling appreciation for my audience and the opportunity to perform frees me up to let my creativity flow in performance. It also allows me to be receptive to the gifts of my audiences, and there are so many! Performing is a very co-creative, organic process for me.”

Val utilized the resources of place and community to help her develop, but she credits her best career and life resource as, ‘the Source’, or what some people refer to as God or a Divine Presence.” She continues to rely on this source as she begins the next step in her career – one that also involves place and community. “I am in the process of connecting with a musical partner(s) with the intention of traveling around the US and eventually other countries, as we perform our music to receptive audiences, while making an abundant living from it. Right now I make the bulk of my living from my music teaching practice. I am excited to have it be the other way around at some point. I want to be traveling and touring frequently with my music and continuing to assist others with their creative expression in some capacity.”

Val D’Alessio is the living embodiment of one of her favorite Carlos Santana quotes: “If you stay in your heart you will always be inspired. If you are inspired, you will always be enthusiastic. There is nothing more contagious on this planet than enthusiasm. The songs become incidental. What the people receive is your joy!”

Val’s joy, this following of her heart, led her to a place where she could truly say she was centered in her calling. “Later on in life, when I began playing my songs out, I was more certain about the rightness of my decision to become a performing songwriter. It is an amazing feeling to feel like you have connected with people in a meaningful way with the songs you write.”

Though now fully immersed in songwriting, which she describes as both good and addictive, Val D’Alessio still gives a nod to that birthplace of her songwriting muse in Bellingham, Washington. “The belief that I was doing what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing by becoming a songwriter came gradually. I think I subconsciously knew it immediately in Lumpy Dump #11, where I first began to experience success at getting my music out of me.”

About the Author
Char Seawell

Char Seawell is a singer-songwriter, novelist, and essayist from Bothell, WA.

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