In 2004, after almost 20 years of writing music, Jacob Wren decided to put his instruments away for good. There wouldn't be a farewell show, or any commiserations from fans and record labels, because the Canadian artist, stifled by fear, had only shared his 58 completed solo songs a handful of times.
Public creative accomplishments did not elude Wren, however. He’s a recognized author, and, both on his own and with the Montreal collective PME-ART, he stages exhibitions and performance art pieces online and in the real world.
Every Song I've Ever Written is the latter. It’s a piercingly personal manifestation of PME-ART's mandate of questioning the world and performance. In two shows this week at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, Wren’s secret catalogue of mordant singer-songwriter tunes, covering topics like environmental collapse and heartbreak in a Daniel Johnston-esque whinny, will explode onstage. To further decipher the show, Wren has uploaded all of the music online, and set up a portal for other musicians to send in their versions.
What’s the toll of so much creativity stowed away out of insecurity? Wren told The FADER about what we can all learn from his experience of keeping a creative outlet all to yourself.
Give yourself permission to be admired.
One of the first times I played a few songs at a party, someone came up to me. I didn’t quite hear them, but I thought they’d said something negative and I apologized. They didn’t understand why I was apologizing — apparently they had said they thought my songs were brilliant. But I also didn’t feel I was allowed to be singing in front of people. I probably felt I wasn’t cool enough.
Not sharing your work can be a form of self-defense.
Working alone definitely allows for a different kind of fantasy and ego. I could be sitting alone in my room believing I was writing the greatest song ever. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to play it for anyone, and possibly have to learn that it wasn’t.
In a way, writing all those songs was an endless and ongoing conversation with myself. The main thing it taught me is something I’ve always believed about art anyway: that the only way to learn is through doing, through trial and error. I was writing songs in conversation with myself, and also with all the other songs I’d ever listened to and loved. And I think I really did learn something from all of that.
The Internet can make you feel small.
I wonder if I’d had the internet I might have found some way to get the songs online as I wrote them. Probably not. Or if that would have made any difference. I do think I had some feeling of importance around writing songs that I might not have had in the internet age. I don’t think I was aware just how many songwriters there were in the world and this particular lack of knowledge allowed me to feel more special. Perhaps I would have felt that songwriting was more insignificant if I had been doing it in now.
Your stuff probably isn't as bad as you think it is.
In a way, the project is a bit like reading my teenage diary in public, and then also seeing what else we can do with the material. Some of it is embarrassing but, surprisingly (at least to me), much of it is also not. Looking at the songs now does, very much, feel like looking back over a very specific period of my life.