What exactly is a songwriter? (Yep, I’m beginning this article with a good old-fashioned definition intro. Bear with me, I promise I’m going somewhere.) At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Two small words slammed together to explain part of a person’s identity. A songwriter is a writer of songs, right? Well, if I had my way with Webster, I would change this undervalued term, or at least its definition, to “musical storyteller.” Good songwriters are compelled to tell stories of the human experience. They use their gift of storytelling to address life, loss, love, and all those other slippery subjects that basically boil down the core human experience: survival. Songwriters find ways to capture these beautiful and tragic moments of survival in a way that others can relate to. Songwriters are survivors who share. Case in point: Michael Tiernan, a San Diego songwriter, and a true survivor in every way.
Michael Tiernan, 39, has called San Diego his home since 2000, citing “a girl, the waves, my family, and an Italian restaurant” as his main reasons for settling in the city. Since that time, he has grown to become a well-known and well-respected member of the San Diego songwriting community, cranking out an impressive and heartfelt four-album discography, ranging in style from folk-rock to Americana to pop. Listing influences like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Wilcox, and Martin Sexton, Tiernan describes his current sound as “Jack Johnson meets Coldplay; beach meets the city; temple hits the tavern.”
Born in Salinas and raised in Redlands, life started throwing Tiernan curveballs at an early age. At 16, he was diagnosed with cancer. The following year, he began to play and write music. “I point to that period of my life as really shaping my path. Music helped me emote and grieve in addition to helping things make sense to me and point to some meaning behind it all. It also helped me celebrate and be thankful for my life. Overall, music simply helped me look within, gave me space to spend with myself, discover my own path, meet up with the spiritual side of reality, and connect with others.”
After high school and a short stint at Redlands University, a fully recovered Tiernan took hiatus from the Golden State. He travelled the country, attended and finished college at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio (where he played in a popular band called ScrapApple), and spent some time in Europe. Music became a great form of expression throughout his travels. “You just get to know yourself better when you travel, and you learn how to observe more, appreciate more. That ended up in my songwriting.”
While Tiernan would eventually convert his passion for music into a full-time career, he only arrived at the decision to do so after exploring another passion: Catholic priesthood. Entering the seminary in 1997, a 24-year-old Tiernan studied in Denver, Italy, Ireland, and even Rome. Rather than taking a back seat to his studies, music continued to pique Tiernan’s interest, and soon developed into a natural expression of his spirituality.
He explains, “Spirituality informed my music, but music helped me open myself to a wider expression of spirituality as well. I really blossomed as a songwriter on a 30-day Ignatian silent retreat that I did in my first year in the seminary in Colorado. I had been writing songs here and there for years before, but it was during that time where the songs just flowed, almost effortlessly, and a lot of them.”
He continues, “Writing is almost a prayerful experience for me and it’s the only prayer I have left in me. If prayer means getting in touch with the source of all things, then that’s what music, and especially writing music ,is for me… There are several things that can pop up and renew me spiritually — observing, listening, experiencing my kids — but it’s music for me that is the tried and true place I go to feed myself spiritually.”
After three years in the seminary, Tiernan decided to discontinue his studies and embark on a different kind of quest. He headed to San Diego, got a job in an Italian restaurant, and started recording music. While spiritual elements remained present in his music, “I definitely despised it when people asked if I did ‘Christian Rock.’ It was definitely not — songs could come out as I was reading Christian mystics or Zen teachers — it all came from the same place for me. Later on, and especially after my first album, the music became less ‘spiritual’ in topic, and more to do with everyday experience and story of the busy person — but always, the process of songwriting for me is a very spiritual practice.”
It was around this time he met and married his wife, Tracy. With his bride’s encouragement, Tiernan finally took the plunge into a full-time music career.
What gave him the courage to do what so many talented songwriters are afraid to do? He answers, “I guess what gave me the strength/courage to do it was just how I understood and believed in my own path — that I’ve always felt called to do something since I was a teenager, went through cancer, and sort of had a spiritual awakening/transformation at the time. Music was the best way for me to live out what I felt I was called to do. I believed it would work out somehow, and I’ve believed that ever since.”
Tiernan also gives credit to his strong support system — family, friends, and fellow musicians like local bluegrass player Chris Stuart. “I had seen an article about him in the local Del Mar paper, and I looked him up to try to pick his brain. He told me not to wait any longer, that I would find my path, and the road would open up,” Tiernan says. “I quit and put all my time into learning the business and playing out,” He adds, “My wife has always worked her ass off too, and it helps that she also believes in my path. She’s pretty amazing.”
I’m certain no reader of this publication needs to be reminded that a full-time musician is a rare specimen in San Diego. Staying afloat in the over-saturated, shark-infested waters of an undervalued art form requires not only talent but also a tenacious supply of adaptability, self-worth, and business savvy. Fortunately, Tiernan developed these characteristics and has found a way to merge passion with practicality.
In addition to a longstanding residency at En Fuego in Del Mar, Tiernan casts a wide net in terms of seeking financial stability. Even though he refers to the business of music licensing as “fickle,” he has managed to land lucrative placements for networks ranging from MTV to the Discovery Channel. “I watch TV in a whole different way,” he says, “mostly paying attention to where my music might be a great fit.”
Tiernan has also carved out a unique musical niche within the wedding industry. He states, “Over time, I’ve been able to build a nice little private event business with my music, and that has helped me pay the bills and now that I have kids [daughter Elizabeth Grace is 31/2 and son Jacob Joseph is 2], support them as well.” He continues, “I did a lot of regular church gigs that paid early on and started getting asked to do a lot of weddings, as well as a ton of restaurants that had at least a little in the coffers for a music budget. As it turns out, the wedding business grew and grew, and I started to develop that a lot more, offering different music options where I play live for the ceremony, dinner, first dance, then later take over as MC DJ.”
Shrugging off jokesters that poke fun at him for being “the wedding singer,” Tiernan points out that “the business has been quite beneficial to my own music career.” For example, “A couple weeks ago at Anthology, it was amazing to see that probably 30-40% of the crowd were former or current brides and grooms. You become a part of their lives and they turn into fans for life, along with their family and friends.”
Like many songwriters, part of what makes the craft so rewarding for Tiernan is being able to connect with others. His “wedding singer” persona not only feeds his family, it also feeds his soul. “It’s such a special feeling to see the power of music right there in action in bringing people together and helping define what they feel for each other, as well as creating an atmosphere for people to celebrate within.”
While Tiernan is an expert at lending his talents for celebratory occasions, he is no stranger to helping others find solace in music. Three years ago this July 7th marks the anniversary of his brother Joe’s passing due to complications from cancer. Tiernan details the painful experience:
“It was his struggle with cancer that was really the most traumatic for me, as well as for my family. I had just found out we were pregnant with our first when I found out my brother had stage 4 bullshit cancer. He called me to tell me his diagnosis while I was at band practice, of all places. That night I wrote, well, began to write, the song ‘Strong,’ which is on my last album, which is dedicated to him. I used his words, ‘I am Strong’ as the main line of the song.
“One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received as a songwriter and just as a human being, as well as one of my most difficult performances ever, was playing that song for my brother on the last morning of his life. I can’t recall the memory without getting tears in my eyes, but it was a beautiful moment.”
“I spent the night one of the nights in his room with just him and his wife. He had been completely unresponsive for about 10 hours through the night and early that morning his wife stepped out to get a coffee. I grabbed my guitar, sat next to his bed, just he and I in the room, and I said, ‘Joe, I’m going to play you your song. You inspired it and I want it to inspire others.’ “
“I choked it out for him, and when I was finished, he woke up from his unresponsive state, turned his head and looked at me, and I noticed tears in his eyes. He tried to say something about the song, but couldn’t get it out. He could only get out, ‘Maybe you could…’ I’ve taken his few words and response sort of as a mission to get this song out to as many people as possible who have ever experienced going through the crucible of cancer, those who have survived and those who have lost someone to cancer. I’ve been asked by several cancer survivorship groups to play that song at their events and had been active within the cancer community long before my brother had cancer, so it has been a recurring theme and effort in my music to help those undergoing cancer treatment with music. It has helped me make some sense out of it all as well and helps keep me more positive than pissed, more helpful than hateful.”
On a global level, Tiernan’s contributions to the cancer community perfectly exemplify the healing, connective power of music as well as the importance of songwriting as it applies to the human experience. On a local level, Tiernan’s contributions to the San Diego songwriting community provide a much-appreciated template and working survival guide to other songwriting hopefuls looking to combine creativity with career, yours truly included.
As expected, Tiernan addresses his respected position in the San Diego music scene with a humble self-assurance and gratitude that undoubtedly landed him there. “The San Diego community really helped me in my career, especially starting out… I feel so out of touch these days with the local music community, as family and gigs are about the only thing I can keep up with these days. I just applaud anyone who has the courage to work on their music and try to get it out there. I know how incredibly difficult it can be, in doing the personal work it takes to find a vocation in music, and then trying to navigate the zillion ways there are to try to get your music out there.”
Lee Coulter, an established San Diego songwriter and close friend of Tiernan’s, returns the applause. “I get to introduce Michael occasionally at shows and I always do so by blurting ‘the nicest guy in the music business!’ But I honestly think he could be. I’ve seen the rare sight of [him] frustrated and it’s like the rest of us on a good day. He works like a maniac and wears his love for his wife and kids on his sleeve, so basically just being around him makes you a better person by association.” Coulter continues, “Personally, he helped me get gigs and make a living when I first moved to San Diego when it could otherwise feel like a competitive scene. I owe a lot to him. I’m glad he gave up the priesthood and put his compassion into being a rock star. It’s so cliche to be badass in music that I think it’s actually more badass to be the nice guy. In which case, MT is totally badass.”
Although Tiernan’s ability to find footing in the music industry is highly impressive, perhaps the most “badass” quality I admire is his ability to maintain it.
“I think longevity has to do not with what other people think about you, but what you think about yourself,” Tiernan reasons. “I really think it’s a question of vocation, of being ‘called’ to be a musician or songwriter. If you know it’s your calling, you’ll persevere through all the hardships that might make you burn out. We’ve all burned out in certain ways, but that’s because maybe we’ve been going down a path that no longer serves us or our goals, so it’s time to re-assess and find another way… I just know that for me, the satisfaction from doing music probably can’t be matched by any other career choice that I’ve come across, so I stick with it through thick and thin. I just believe in it — a lot of it has been just blind faith. Stupid at times. Ridiculous. But real.”
Like a hammer without a nail, blind faith might be a useless tool for a songwriter without the talent to back it up. Tiernan, fortunately, has both. His original music has earned recognition in a host of local and international songwriting competitions, including a Top 5 award in The Great American Song Contest for his song “Easy” in 2011. His most recent achievement was an Honorable Mention nod in 2012’s International Songwriting Competition for the song “L.A. Can Wait.” That’s no small feat for a contest boasting over 16,000 entries. Tiernan elaborates that the song is “for songwriters who have tried to go down the beaten bath but have had to find new ways of following their dreams. That song is very personal to me, as I wrote it after I found out I was going to be a dad for the first time.”
L.A. can wait / Nashville can wait
I’ll put a hold on Austin / I just want to get lost in you
(from “L.A. Can Wait” off of 2010’s L.A. Can Wait)
A self-proclaimed lyric geek, I asked Tiernan to hit me with one of his favorite original lyrics. His response earned my geeky stamp of approval:
And we can’t afford to disagree
We’re all talking about the same damn thing
Words are fingers pointing at the moon
Notes mistaken for the tune
(from “You Hide” off of 2007’s Spaces)
As for live performances, you can catch Tiernan trying out new material at his regular solo gig at En Fuego on Wednesday evenings, or rocking out with his band on some of the biggest stages in San Diego. He is a regular at the Belly Up in Solana Beach (most recently sharing a bill with Dawn Mitschele and Lee Coulter last month), and he played a headlining set to a sold-out crowd at Anthology in May. (That’s a 500+ capacity venue, people!)
More writing, recording, and performing is on the way for Tiernan. A new album will be in the works at the end of the year, thanks to an overdue surge of new material. He explains, “After my last album, I went into a bit of a writing drought. Just trying to keep up with my second kid, and with a growing music business, I had no time to write and I was pretty exhausted all the time. There has been so much going on for me in the past few years personally that has just been waiting to get put into song.”
“I’ve been writing in my head through it all, dealing with the loss of my brother, to having two new kids, to just dealing with the challenges of being too damn busy. Finally, the past few months, I’ve been able to work on some songs, and I’m so grateful and exceedingly happy about what’s been coming out. A lot of it is really celebratory stuff and some of it is pretty heavy, grieving type stuff that I needed to get off my chest with losing my brother. I feel like so much has been bottled up inside and I’m finally getting it out through music. Thank you, music, again! It really does come to the rescue.”
Another primary goal for Tiernan includes finishing a book project titled Spaces, which he began working on at the same time as his 2007 album of the same name. “I hope to get back to that and sharpen up my ideas for an eventual book. It’s basically about how to create space and sanity in this crazy, frenetic lifestyle that most of us lead these days.”
“Other goals I have are to not get too freaking busy and to make time for my family. We did the best thing we could possibly have done for us this past Christmas — I went out and bought this killer little camper trailer, and since January we’ve done several camping trips with our kids, to the beach and to the desert. That has been so awesome to just put everything aside for a few days and just be with my kids and my wife with no distractions. That’s where the music comes back as well. Giving myself the space to just be! Makes me want to sing new things.”
I’m tempted to ask Tiernan how he will use music to brave the great outdoors. But something tells me he’ll survive.
You can catch Michael Tiernan and his band perform live on July 12 at a new venue in Tierra Santa called Vision, located at 11260 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego, CA 92124. Show starts at 7pm. Tickets are $15 in advance. For more info on Michael Tiernan, including a show calendar, visit www.tiernantunes.com