April 19th, 2020

Words & Illustrations by Stella Harvey

For the first time in a long time, my acoustic guitar and I have become best friends

I’m sitting on my front porch, the last bit of the spring sunlight shining down on the tips of my toes as the day comes to a close. My acoustic guitar rests in my lap, its wavy body gently positioned on my upper thigh, my elbow resting softly on the curve closest to my heart. The pages of my journal sway as a gust of wind blows over me on this rare 60-degree day in the Pacific Northwest, my recent lyrics scrawled across the pages.


A year ago, I couldn’t imagine playing my guitar in the open spring air, no matter how beautiful of a day. I loved hearing my musical friends and bandmates play together as we lay on our hand-me-down college couches, but whenever anyone asked me to join in I was always overcome with fear and anxiety.


The first time I can remember picking up a guitar, I was sitting in the dusky Seattle bedroom of my first boyfriend. I was 14 years old, and I remember nervous excitement washing over me as they handed me their red and black Gibson SG. As my fingers grazed the bouncy strings, my mind drifted to Jack Black playing the same style of guitar in School of Rock, one of my favorite movies as a kid (and now, honestly). The excitement I felt the first time I saw that movie rushed back to me, and I imagined myself playing on stage like the powerful local bands I had recently started going out to see, like Tacocat and Acapulco Lips.


My joy was short-lived, though. Anxiety welled up in my chest as my boyfriend started showing me how to play a few chords. As he helped position my fingers to play a G chord, I felt frozen. My painted nails were too long to comfortably press down on the strings, and my brain and hand felt disconnected as I tried to move to a C chord. I made up an excuse for us to stop, embarrassed that I couldn’t get the hang of playing right away, but my boyfriend didn’t give up--they sent me home with their guitar to try playing on my own. 


For the next few weeks, I spent hours in my room rewatching YouTube videos and practicing the same chord progressions over and over again. When my boyfriend and I broke up a few months later, I started playing a used acoustic guitar my mom brought home from my sister’s school auction, building up my calluses on its thick metal strings. I learned covers of my favorite band’s songs, like “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire or “Ooo” by Karen O, and practiced till my fingers ached. Though my confidence grew with every new song, the thought of playing and singing in front of anyone gave me the same anxiety-stomach ache I felt every time I had to give a presentation in class.

A few months into playing the same handful of songs to myself in my room, I was gifted a shitty electric guitar and started slowly entertaining the idea of playing in front of people. I played a few songs to my best friends Sophia, and before I knew it, she had told her musical boyfriend that I played guitar and even sang a little, too. He asked me if I wanted to play together, and soon another one of my best friend’s boyfriends wanted to join. Suddenly, I was a part of a full-fledged band with two teenage boys who played multiple instruments and had experience writing and playing songs around local all-age venues. I had quickly gone to the deep end of the pool, and I felt completely out of my element. Soon, we started writing songs in my friend’s basement, and eventually, decided to sign up for a few open-mics around Seattle.


On the night of one of our first shows, I couldn’t eat for a full 24 hours before. As we walked up to the small stage, lights blaring in the dark venue, adrenaline took over and my limbs went limp. The next thing I remember, we were walking off stage, my face hot and red from nervous energy. As I quickly put my guitar away and started collecting cables from the stage, a smile grew wider and wider on my face. “I freaking did it! I can do this,” I thought to myself.


With every show we played, I felt more confident on stage. My band started opening for our friends’ bands, and we recorded an EP of our original songs, which I contributed a handful of lyrics to. Whenever we wrote together as a band, I remember feeling so much pressure trying to think of good, meaningful lyrics on the spot. I would stare at the blank page, willing myself to be creative, but the only thing that would come to mind was the constant feeling of being inadequate and replaceable. From time to time, I would try to sit down and write a few lyrics by myself, but a warm prickly feeling made me put down my notebook when I couldn’t think of a good rhyme or inspiration didn’t spark right away. 


As we got older and started getting close to graduating from high school, the joy I felt the first time we played was eclipsed by anxiety. Sharing my own personal thoughts, feelings and stories through song felt impossible when my inner monologue was constantly telling me I was not good enough: “Everyone is so much better than me,” I would think whenever I tried to play guitar. “How could I possibly learn how to play as well as people who have been taking lessons since they were kids? I’m just here playing covers I learned off of YouTube, what do I have to offer?”


Over time, my friends broke up with their boyfriends and we all started to carve out our paths for the future, and the band dissolved in the quiet implosion. As I prepared to move to college in the northern Washington city of Bellingham, I kept picking up my guitar and trying to hum along with lines jotted down in the middle of the night or after an argument with my parents. On the rare occasion I wrote a chorus or verse that I liked, within a few days I would find something to dislike about it, and discard it into the cemetery of half-written songs. Sometimes I wonder how many songs or lyrics died in my journals because I didn’t give them a chance.

In college, I linked up with a group of friends who I knew vaguely in high school, and we created a colorful, spunky band called WIGS. Playing in WIGS is like taking a deep breath of fresh ocean air: after band practice, the joy of playing with friends who want to hear my voice lingers in my mind and body like sea salt in my hair. Playing music with my bandmates Anna, Owen and Sean taught me what feels like the most cliche lesson in the book: playing music doesn’t have to be about being perfect or making something that everyone is going to like. It’s about having fun and lifting some of the shit that’s weighing you down off your back. 


I’m relearning this lesson now in these strange self-isolation days that feel just as long as they do short. So many of the things I used to fill my days with have gone away during this pandemic, not only freeing-up time, but also creating a strange new space. Maybe it’s because I’m only seeing my roommate and best friend Piper every day, and have the freedom and challenge of creating my own schedule as I go, but the world feels physically and mentally different.


This odd space between me and the rest of the world has allowed me to connect with myself in a way that has been sidelined for a long time because of school, work and planning for the future. It’s been easier to let my guard down and write about how I am feeling every day, and for the first time in a long time, my acoustic guitar and I have become best friends. She welcomes me with open arms whenever I need a moment to play an old cover or hum about whatever is on my mind, and during these days where just about everything is up in the air, having a friend to sing to if the best gift I could ask for. 


Lately, my inspiration has been coming from the conversations I am having with my friends and family over Zoom and FaceTime. There’s a lot of fear going around that people really need to talk about, but there is also so much joy and love coming from people who are finding new ways to connect that they never would have considered before. When I look out my window and see that the sun is staying up until 8 p.m., I feel thankful to have songwriting as a coping mechanism to help get me through this strange time. 

Stella Harvey is a journalist, illustrator and musician from Seattle. She aspires to be an investigative journalist and enjoys creating art with themes of growing up, intimacy and community. You can follow her at @soft.stella