Writing with Purpose: Civic Fellows compose original songs for victims of gun violence

For the Civic Fellows’ final project of the 2019 calendar year, we had the opportunity to work with Sara Lee and Rex Horan of the Irene Taylor Trust and with Purpose Over Pain, a support group for parents who have lost their children to gun violence. The project objective was to create original songs to honor the memories of their loved ones.

The project began with a two-day long workshop led by Sara and Rex. During this emotionally intense period, the fellows were tasked with learning all the ins and outs of songwriting. We practiced writing melodies, harmonies, and lyrics, and towards the end of the workshop we had the chance to briefly meet with Keanon Kyles, Meagan McNeal, and Sarah Ponder, the three vocalists who would be working and performing with us on this project.

Following the workshop, we had our first meeting with the Purpose Over Pain participants. After a quick dinner together, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. As an icebreaker, the families were asked to recount a funny story of their loved ones. Although the stories they told were mostly light-hearted, emotions ran very high, and I was reminded of the importance of the work we were about to begin.

The following day, the three groups of fellows met with their assigned families. This was an opportunity for us to learn about their loved ones and to get a better a sense of what kind of song each family had in mind. The stories painted pictures of their loved ones that were incredibly vivid, and by the end of our meetings we had a pretty clear sense of what route we wanted to take with each song.

Over the course of the next three days, the fellows worked to write drafts of their songs. Throughout this process, Sara and Rex made themselves readily available to answer all of our questions, and Nic provided us with plenty of snacks (which proved to be equally as valuable). Once our drafts were finished, we held a workshop with the families at BreakThrough FamilyPlex. Even in the draft stage, each song had a very distinct personality, a reflection, no doubt, of the rich and colorful stories we heard from the families in our one-on-one meetings.

The fellows met a couple of days later to record the instrumentals for our songs at Chicago Recording Company. This was a novel experience for quite a few of us, myself included, and although most of us were a little rusty (writing two songs in three days doesn’t leave much time for practicing), we all had a really good time getting to play and listen to each other’s songs.

The project culminated a few days later with a concert at Austin Town Hall. We were pleasantly surprised to see so many people in the audience, including families who participated in previous years’ songwriting projects.

It is safe to say that this project is unlike any other in which I have ever participated and has consequently challenged me in ways that I could not have predicted. I feel as though I have grown tremendously from this experience, both musically and emotionally, and although the circumstances from which this project has arisen are tragic, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in such meaningful work with my colleagues.

By Civic Fellow and violin Tabitha Oh.

TOP: Purpose Over Pain family members share stories of their loved ones at the December 2019 concert. Todd Rosenberg Photography.

LEARN MORE: Purpose Over Pain members and Civic musicians discuss what the songwriting process is like. May 2019 | Green River Films