I’m about to start reading Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting for the first time – this is THE book on songwriting, full of interviews with so many great legends. I’m not reading it for inspiration, but just because I’m drawn to it as fascinating, for the sheer joy of hearing others describe their creative process, and to root myself in the tradition.
So before I read it I just want to note down, in my own words, how songwriting happens for me – because I imagine once I start reading that so much of what other people have said will resonate that I may stop thinking about it completely in my own terms. That’s fine with me, after all we’re all influenced by what’s gone before and people whose words are more eloquent than our own; but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put down what I feel about it now. Another way in which, I’ve been learning, every day is unique. It helps that I’ve been asked about this recently – one question in particular about how melodies come about, whether lyrics and music appear simultaneously, and how to go about avoiding plagiarism.
My starting point is that I believe songwriting is a form of magic, or rather, alchemy; songwriters take nebulous feelings and experiences and make them transferrable, exchangeable, and open to experience by others. There is also the specific alchemy, Rumplestiltskin’s straw-into-gold, where bad, miserable, even hopeless experiences can be transformed into songs that bring comfort. There is something in music that unites human experience and plugs into a depth of emotion we don’t normally get to access, and with songs in particular, the way that music lifts words and takes the meaning deeper – and vice versa for lyrics making the musical meaning more direct.
I don’t feel as a songwriter that I can particularly take credit for what I do. I can hone my craft so that I have more musical choices available and a greater range of words, I can practice and develop my own style, but the inspiration comes from elsewhere, and like any art it is a gift, to me first, before it reaches anyone else. If I’ve ever written anything beautiful or that has touched anyone else, it feels like it was as much a surprise to me as anyone. I cherish my songs because they came to me and they are the best way I have to attempt to express the unspeakable part of what I feel. Being able to make that attempt is a blessing on me, it keeps me going.
Writing for me usually starts with a couple of lines, a melody that seems to me to fit naturally with a certain lyric, or sometimes (particularly since I started writing on guitar) a chord sequence that calls to mind a lyric I’ve had stored away for some time. I keep track of these small lines on my recorder so I can come back to them later if need be. Usually a song starts with an extended session like this, and I will end up with a complete verse or a chorus or maybe one of each and a few ideas scattered around the rest of the song, depending on how long I have and how receptive I am. Very occasionally, I’ll get an entire song in one go, music, lyrics and all – it has happened, but not very often. Usually it’s a case of coming back to it at a later date to flesh out the rest of the lyrics and additional music once it’s had time to come together subconsciously. Often I will be left with one or two lines missing and this can go on for weeks, and is very frustrating – it’s tempting to just slide something in there but it’s far far better to wait.
In terms of sitting down to write, I do set aside specific time when I know I can be alone, but it usually has to be once I’ve done everything else and I know I can really relax – even then I can’t guarantee that just because I’ve sat down to write that I will be able to write on a specific song, or anything at all. The most important factor is to identify the feeling I’m trying to represent, or a particular memory that it’s coming from, and how I can trigger myself into getting into that feeling, and then I can write from there. Songs change as they go along and get affected by who’s in my life at the moment and what I’m trying to communicate to them. Most songs start out being about one particular event but almost always end up being relevant to several situations or about several different people, and that’s just on my side – I can’t imagine the variety of meanings those songs might take on to the people who hear them.
I believe that all music is interconnected and, in a way, recycled – there are only so many notes and so many chords and in popular music there is quite a narrow range of both music and lyrics that form the currency we draw from. In a way the most amazing thing to me is that unique songs continue to be made, when we’re all using the same means to express often the same emotions – and that it’s worth continuing to add to that ever-growing bank of songs with my own musical impressions. I don’t think you can completely avoid replicating melodies or chord sequences and often even lyrics are very very similar – there is too much music out there for one person to have heard it all so you could easily be repeating something that’s been done without even knowing it. This is particularly so with popular music as I think people enjoy music that is vaguely familiar to them already or reminds them of songs they’ve known and loved before. The best way to avoid falling into replicating others’ music is to listen to as wide a variety as possible while songwriting (which is most of the time, really, but I will try to avoid getting stuck in my favourite songs on repeat if I’m in a focused songwriting period as I’ll find I come up with very similar melodies).
In the end I think songwriting comes about from an overwhelming need to communicate, and songwriters write songs, emotional, political or otherwise, because other routes of communication or expression are insufficient for what we need to express. We write because we need to, and that’s why getting it out there, having the chance to write and sing and convey and have those things communicated and received, is the biggest gift of all.