Do you just “Go with the flow,” or do you keep on keeping on?
There are ways of doing both that I have found useful.
When all of the things just work ~
That first little quiver of excited inspiration – that frantic dash to pick up a pen or get to an instrument in anticipation of the perfect phrase, chord, melody, feel – the satisfaction of knowing it sounds as good as it did in your head – sustaining the creative flow in the moment – looking back and playing through your work as though it’s just appeared by magic. This is the stuff my dreams are made of! When this happens, I feel justified in whatever feelings of accomplishment I get in the moment, and I often actually get little bit high off the creative rush of making something that really works… When this actually happens. This is how I know I am meant to be a songwriter. This is more satisfying than pretty much anything else. Apart from the obvious. Of course that’s great too. And you probably lose weight.
We’ve all heard the stories of how so-and-so wrote this really stunning song in 15 minutes and didn’t have to edit it. I’m talking about that. It happens, just not that often…
The miraculousness of writing a song like this has become such a rare occurrence for me, what with that tricksy “Having to have a job” business, that I’m lucky if this entire process – from start to finish – happens for me twice a year… And still wanting to write songs, this leads me to my next point quite nicely:
When inspiration just doesn’t work ~
Okay, I’m actually going through this (sometimes lengthy) process at the moment. I generally find that unless I have an idea for a first line, either of melody or of lyrics, then all the fancy chords and rhythms in the world won’t help me start a song. (Having said that, sometimes the opposite is true, it just depends where I’m at really.)
So generally I start with a line. If I’ve played through it enough, sometimes more comes out quite naturally. The guitar part either happens before the line (like I’ve been experimenting and just not come up with any more apart from the guitar bit) or the guitar part will just sort of shamble sheepishly out behind the melody line in deferential reverence, much like a serf, behind his ascribed knight or vassal, in the dark ages.
Often, if I have an idea about what I want to write about beforehand, the song will take on another topic at this time, almost without my permission! I’ve learnt to go with whatever my internal monologue is singing/saying. Sometimes it doesn’t say anything, and I’m on my own. I think that’s probably when I am either uninspired lyrically, or when I can actually stick to a topic! I think if I ignore this voice, at least whilst in the writing process, but more and more in life and work as well, that’s when I can’t continue with a song and I get stuck. It’s really important not to edit yourself too heavily before your words are on the page. I can’t emphasise this enough. Write it down, whatever it is. You can edit it afterwards, but in the writing stage, you have to learn to disengage your normal sense of self-critical judgement. *Other people don’t think in words, and I get that. I don’t want to exclude anyone here, and if you don’t think with words as your primary thought form, I would be fascinated to hear about your writing processes in the comments below!* Sometimes, the editing happens when you form the melody and rhythm of words, but don’t let the rhythm become too formulaic or you will end up boxing yourself in and not saying what you need to say. I’ve met songwriters who would rather say something that made them sound quite stupid than change the formula or their rhythmical pattern and say the (intelligent) thing they first wanted to say! A good example of someone who changes their rhythm to fit in all their meaning is Ani DiFranco. If you have delicate sensibilities regarding swearing, A) you’re reading the wrong sharting blog and B) you shouldn’t watch this video of hers:
I love how she makes it seem so natural and conversational that the audience is singing along easily, and yet when you analyse how she is using the rhythm of her words, she’s putting meaning first and catchiness later… and it totally still works!
I figured out how to do this: Don’t be afraid to start lines early. That’s pretty much it. Don’t be afraid to cram a few words at the beginning or end of a melody line, because the likelihood is that the audience will appreciate the variation of your melodic/rhythmic theme! Takes a bit of practise to get used to it, but when you’ve got it, it’ll serve you like a trusty steed. And you won’t even need to invest in a nose bag.
When you’ve only got half a song ~
Okay. You’ve got a good chorus and a solid first verse. Great. You play it over and over. Great. Yep. That’s it. Mmm-hmmm…
Gradually, a creeping sense of bummeriness lapses into your initial feelings of practicality, worthiness and accomplishment. Yes, you’re doing great things, and this half-a-song is really catchy, or emotive, or whatever… But then… What next? What if nothing ever happens? What if this entire process has left you, a broken husk of a human, with just half a song, a cold cup of tea and a creeping sense of the certainty that you are in fact inferior to every single other being that has ever existed in all of time and space, and in all possible universes, including even plankton and ticks… What if this song is the one that would equate to your lifelong achievement in all areas of your existence? What if this is your ‘Imagine’? Eh? What THEN, you SHIT HEAD?! (Obviously, for dramatic purposes, I have regressed to my teens for this section of my blog. I find it impossible to take myself that seriously anymore these days. But you get the gist.)
Basically, my advice is to just leave it. Don’t look at it. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry. You will find it on a recording in six months and go… “Oooh! I’m really clever! I’ll just finish that song now!” And you will. The perfect phrase will magic itself up, and it will be even better than you could have possibly imagined, you peanut, because you will have let yourself off the hook. This seems to be a theme in these blogs. Hmm… (It’s because for years my sense of self-worth was really heavily caught up in my productivity in relation to music, and I had an undiagnosed illness which made doing things pretty much impossible unless I forced myself to do pretty much everything, which of course made me get more ill, which reinforced my belief that I was pathetic and couldn’t do stuff other people could easily do, including music. Now I’ve started treating my illness, suddenly everything is WAY easier and I’m realising what a hard time it is possible for one to give oneself! Coupled with seeing my relationship to music back then as an unhealthy relationship, almost with a third parental figure, I was generally a bit intense about it all. I still am of course, but I care far less about what people think now, which is really rather a good choice that I would recommend to anyone.)
Sometimes, I have written on commission, and that is such an entirely different kettle of fish than writing for creative expression, as I do with my craft, that I will have to post another blog about it at a later date.
So, on the whole, I would recommend recording your work in progress, maybe on your phone or a Dictaphone if you have one, as well as writing out the words as much as you need to. Then, if inspiration fucks off, as it almost invariably does, think “Good riddance, you interfering task-master, I needed to flea the cats anyway.” Or whatever your particular example may be. And then get on with life. And then do what inspiration says next time it comes along, this time when it interrupts you trying to wrestle with garden furniture, or trying to fart quietly in the toilets at work.
Remember, you are love.