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Song-Telling Tuesday: Josh Cleveland and the Roots of Writing

Photo by Josh Cleveland

“I think the glory of it all is that the meaning of songs can evolve. People have different interpretations. As a songwriter, if you’re open to that, the connection you can have with the audience is the best.” ~Josh Cleveland


Throughout every artist’s career, songwriting develops in stages. Josh Cleveland is no stranger to lyrically-driven songs over the years, and although he’d like to think he’s evolved, the mechanics of songwriting always seem to come from the same root. It’s a root designed in conveying his message and allowing his voice to shine. The process for getting to that destination has been the main ailment he’s been challenged with.

His largest shift in writing has been in which element comes first; the music or the lyrics. In the past, he used to start with the lyrics then build music around them. He’d force himself to finish a song, paired with lyrics, and often neglect the mood of how the two should tie together. 

His focus now is on writing a bed of music first, then slowly writing lyrics that cater to the feeling. It all starts with the mood and caring about what the song is going to say. There’s more pressure to say something which matches the instrumentation and design. If the lyrics match the sound, it has a greater chance to reach someone and impact them. This alignment and intention makes it easier not to lose the message. It also makes it easier for someone else to connect to it and find value in the message.

Photo by Heather Cody

The main message is always tied back to his voice. Josh has learned to write with a specific intent, to write in a way that he can sing it. This goal sounds like a simple one, but becomes complex very quickly. Work goes into finding the right vowels that sound well and flow with his voice. He’s learned what consonants compliment his tone during the big moments in songs. He’s aware to sing dynamically and utilizes his strengths with melodies and lyrics.

Josh uses the metaphor of the song being a house. If he can lay a foundation based in a specific mood, then his voice can build the walls. The voice becomes the character and structure that the listener sees, much like paintings on the wall. “I don’t want to accidentally write something kitschy” Josh reveals. “Paying attention to how the lyrics lay within that house is important in moving someone with your words.”

Lost In My Arms

Performed at weddings more times than he can count, “Lost In Your Arms” carries different meanings for the listener and author. Written about his dad when he was diagnosed with cancer, people don’t hear that sense of longing, where he’s about to lose someone. They hear the future and getting lost in a good way.

“I feel lost and afraid, it seems that hopes gone away,

I feel shattered and scattered and I can’t find the words to pray,

I need to be lost in your arms. I wanna be lost in your arms.”

The first thing that came to his mind when receiving the difficult news, was his dad’s exceptional ability to hug. Josh wrote the song with the knowledge that that comfort and embrace were limited. For others, the relationship is built on getting lost in each other, solidifying an eternal moment and image in holding each other throughout life’s difficulties. 

“When my heart seems to fail, and my feelings, they get the best of me

I feel broken and no words spoken, can bring me up from my knees”

His dad was a preacher and used to do a lot of weddings. When Josh performs it at weddings now, it adds a sense that his dad is there. It gives him comfort, peace, and joy in the idea that this is how his dad would have wanted it to be. Not a song about loss or sadness, but about hope and love. “My dad was all about not having things be in a moment, but to be bigger than the moment. Hopefully, this song serves that purpose.”

The line Josh takes the most pleasure in is toward the end and was a late add into the lyrics. It’s a pivotal moment in the song and one in which Josh showcases his emotional range. It also sets up the ending, where everything breaks down. The instruments create that longing feeling, while the vocals softly string out that soulful wish.

“Where my fears can’t do me no more harm

that’s where I wanna be, that’s where I wanna be”

His dad always said Josh was afraid to live his life, afraid to really reach for something and not make it. Watching someone go through cancer, fear becomes trivial and you realize there’s no reason to let it take you over. This lesson, and the resulting loss of fear, are what his dad gave him when he left and are now immortalized in the song.

Rear View

Paper towels have many different uses, especially when it comes to songwriting. For Josh, the story of this song started years ago with a paper towel. When driving back and forth between Wisconsin and Minnesota for his daughter, there was a time when he was about to drop her off. He looked back in the rear view mirror and her head was down. His daughter said, “I just don’t want you to leave.” As a dad, he was broken into a thousand pieces. Driving away, he looked back and there was this empty kid’s car seat. It was the worst feeling ever.

“I’ve got nothing in my rear view

except this empty space for you

well you’re still filling up my mind”

About halfway home, he pulled over at a gas station. Grabbing a paper towel and writing down the opening line, he held onto it for many years to remember that moment. Pulling the line out to build a song around it, the message grew up into a more adult, bluesy tone. The song speaks of doing his lady wrong, saying goodbye, and realizing he’s left here with all the things he regrets. She’s moved on and he’s stuck here. The shift in meaning from the moment he wrote that lyric to the finalized version of the song is a clear example of how people can interpret and take what they want from lyrics.

“I’ve got a lot to answer for

pieces to pick up off the floor

but none of them are going to make you mine” 

The line above ties back to that fateful road trip and the worry over if his daughter ever asked about why her parents relationship didn’t work out. Josh has learned there’s nothing you can do to bring it back, but to take ownership and move one. Listening to the song is powerful when knowing there’s dual meanings and intentions in the lyrics.

“I’ve got two hands on the wheel

but control is alluding me still

and these tears that I cry are flooding into my soul”

“Rear View” is a song born from an emotion and then re-imagined with clever lyrics that allow the listener to equate it to their own lives. It’s a solid piece of songwriting that teaches a valuable lesson; cleaning up for your actions sometimes all starts with a paper towel lyric. 

Josh Cleveland Promo Shot
Photo by Heather Cody

Song Production

Josh Cleveland references two special moments in the production of “Lost In My Arms.” While laying down the song at The Library, he shared the meaning of the song with bassist Ian Allison. In true “hug” fashion, Ian opened the song with just the bass. The tone and feel of that moment was designed as a loving embrace. For Josh, knowing that Ian cared about what the song was about, then designing a line to replicate that mood, inspired the rest of the song.

The other moment came weeks later when cello was added to the track. The song was tracked with space and a skeleton foundation that just builds and builds. When the cello was tracked later on without Josh being present, it dives into the song after the first chorus. Upon hearing that moment for the first time, he had to pull the car over in astonishment. “It was exactly what the song needed in that moment”, Josh claims.

Josh Cleveland Jan 26 LTD Brewing
Photo by Laura Smith

As a previous contestant of The Voice, Josh Cleveland has come to better understand and utilize his pipes in songwriting. It’s been his root that he grows from and develops his music with. It’s provided him a powerful tool with his career in Youth Frontiers, where he continues to spread positive songs and messages to young adults. It’s the perfect job for an artist that is genuine and authentic in what he says. It’s a testament to his past and figuring out where he wants to be.

Catch Josh Cleveland perform at The Marsh on July 24th or outside at the Centennial Civic and Veterans Memorial Amphitheater on August 27th.

Written by Smouse

Having spent 13 years recording and producing Minnesota artists, along with running a small record label, Smouse is a passionate advocate of musicians and artists in Minnesota.


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