Songwriting is an interesting endeavor. For each songwriter, there are that many unique songwriting processes. Most of my songs have one of three variations. The first, and most common, happens when I have an idea pop into my head for a story or theme I think would make a good song. Take my song, "Broken Watch." I thought it would be fun to write a story about a watch that kept terrible time, and that might have unforeseen consequences. Boom. Song. The second happens when I think about a particular line that I feel is so good I have to write a song about it. My song "Rooted" started because I thought of the line, "I'm not scared of being wrong, but I'm terrified of being lost." Everything else came after that. The third happens when I am playing music. I'll come up with a guitar lick or chord progression, and try to fit a story to that. My songs "O'Brien," "Figs From Thistles," and "When Atlas Shrugged" began like this.
"I'm sorry," didn't follow any of these trends. In fact, there wasn't much of a process of writing it at all. When my wife and I first married, I had weekly coffee meeting with a buddy of mine. I would wake up way too early for my taste, go grab coffee, then come home. At that point I would usually take a nap. The thing is, naps that followed coffee usually had very vivid dreams. In one of these dreams, I was playing and singing a song that I had written. It seemed so beautifully written. When I woke up, I immediately wrote it all down. Now, this has happened before, but what seems so great in dream land usually ends up being extremely idiotic here in the real world. But, with "I'm Sorry," I thought I had a great song. I sent it to my wife immediately, and she ended up calling me to see if I was all right. She said the lyrics were so sad and emotional it seemed hard to believe I wrote it without also being sad and emotional.
The story is pretty simple. When I wrote "I'm Sorry," or, rather dreamt it, a good buddy of mine was going through an ugly divorce. Now, this was the second divorce in that year that a good friend of mine was going through, and while I was keenly away of the high divorce rate in America, to have two occur in my circle, especially to such a young couple, it saddened me. It got me thinking about how we romanticize marriage as this perfect, happy ever after. A relationship that takes no work. If the marriage is good, there shouldn't be any problems. I don't really buy into this. In my experience, the only strong marriages tend to be those forged with fire. I never really bought into the "We're just not IN love any more." To borrow a phrase from 90's Christian group, DC Talk, I always felt that "Love is a verb," not an emotion.
Now, to the lyrics. The song structure is a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and final verse. The chorus is essentially an apology. "I'm sorry for the things that I have done. I'm sorry for the words that I have said. I'm sorry that I gave up when you needed me the most. I'm sorry that I turned and walked away." Each verse is a reflection on the stages of a failing relationship. Verse one is the realization that marriage isn't a perpetual honeymoon stage. Verse two sees the struggling with the idea that maybe this marriage failed because they didn't work through things. Maybe they gave up when they shouldn't have. Maybe they never belonged together in the first place. But, I suppose it's easy to question things in retrospect. Verse three is the attempt at beginning the process of moving on. The character wishes he could say it was all the other persons fault. He'd even settle if everything could be blamed on him. Unfortunately, "The truth is that it's somewhere in an ugly shade of gray," meaning neither party was the sole cause of ruin. Both, whether through purposeful action or inaction, cause this relationship to fail.
I consider this to be my saddest song. This is one of the few songs that doesn't end with hope, if even a little. I try to have most of my songs try to reach people in a dark space and offer a little comfort. I suppose this song could offer comfort in the way of helping people deal objectively with their problem. I really just wanted a song that showed that you can't blame brokenness on one person. Bridges are connected to two sides, and as long as one side wants, there's always a possibility for rebuilding.
A last interesting note about "I'm Sorry" is that I originally intended it to be a guitar and vocal only performance. I wrote it in a 4/4 time signature and just wanted a raw emotional song. As the band was working on "Another Anodyne," though, they had the idea to change the time to 6/8 and give it a good ole' country shuffle. Add in some piano and drums, and next thing you know we had a song reminiscent of the great Country songwriters like Dolly Parton or Johnny Cash. Or maybe that's just me trying to elevate myself to some personal songwriting heroes. If you want to hear the original version of "I'm Sorry," head over to my Bandcamp page. It's available for download there.