Thursday, August 16, 2007

On Songwriting: Inspiration - Part Three

Writers of any genre often talk about the discipline it takes to be a successful writer. And I believe it. As I’ve said before, once you realize you’ve got the God-given (or natural) talent, it’s up to you to hone and nurture it. Once you’ve learned the rules, you can’t just stop there. And you’re never really done learning the rules anyway.

Think about a professional athlete. It’s one thing to be able to throw the ball at 90 mph, but it’s quite another to pinpoint the spot where you want it to go and then get it there. Some people have spent a lifetime studying and understanding the rules and plays and nuances of a sport, but you wouldn’t want to see them on the field. The professional athlete realizes that he or she was born with some sort of ability and then works very hard to master that ability. It takes practice.

I’ve read and heard writers in interviews describe their daily rituals. Some get up at 5:00 A.M. and write for 3 hours, about anything. Maybe they get something usable, maybe not. For them, it’s about the discipline, the practice. Some need to treat it as if it were a regular job – set times to write and take breaks. Some write when they can, where they can. Everybody has a different routine. Writing is usually a very isolated task. People develop their own techniques, whatever works for them. But, they always do it. They always adhere to the routine, as much as possible, and they always write and work to hone their craft, to perfect their style, to get better with every book, story, song, page or phrase. At least, that should be a goal, to always improve.

The discipline, the just doing it, I think, is important. Indeed, professional songwriters, that is people who actually make their living writing songs (think of the old Brill Building, or Hollywood writers, or Nashville songwriters) often have to sit down on a daily basis, possibly in an office-like environment, and create. Even if they’re not feeling particularly creative that day. So, how does one reconcile inspiration and discipline, creativity and a work ethic? It’s not always easy.

When I was in college, I met a famous singer/songwriter. I didn’t much care for this singer/songwriter’s work, but he was wildly popular and had sold many records. A friend dragged me to the concert, countering my protests with the old “you’ve got to see him live and in person” promise. I still didn’t like him. Actually, I had nothing against him. It was his songs I couldn’t stand. But, he was a famous, working singer/songwriter, and I was an aspiring, not-famous singer/songwriter, all of 19 years old. So, when I found that this famous persona was completely accessible after his concert, I stood in line with everybody else, shook his hand with everybody else, and waited until everybody else had left the building, and then I stalked him. My friend and I slipped backstage and followed him into his dressing room, and when he turned around and saw us I stammered, “I’m a songwriter, too!” I’m not sure what I was hoping to get out of this – maybe a “well, here’s my guitar, let’s hear what you got. That’s fantastic! I’ll put you in touch with my label!” That didn’t happen. What I got from this famous, working songwriter with many albums under his belt and a world-wide following was, “Well, I hope you’re not one of those songwriters who need to be inspired.”

Of course I was! I was flabbergasted. I don’t remember if I said anything after that or not. All I remember was being confused and speechless. And knowing that my record contract was not materializing that day. And, I used this encounter for many years to “prove my point” about how bad this guy’s songs were. But I was wrong to do that. I still don’t like his songs, but, whether I admitted it or not (and I didn’t for many, many years), I learned a valuable lesson that day. Working songwriters work.

As songwriters, we need to find ways to be inspired and sit down with a workman-like approach. Some writers carry note cards with them where ever they go so they can jot down ideas when the muse visits. Sometimes they just write down observations about the world around them. That’s a way of being, and being prepared to be, open to receive. I would be better served if I wrote down more things. I tend to rely on my memory which, I always forget, is practically nonexistent. I know a songwriter who wakes up in the middle of the night with ideas and sings them into his answering machine, the nearest and most accessible device at his disposal, for later retrieval. His family has gotten used to hearing weird little snippets of unwritten songs being sung by a very tired man when they listen to messages. They’ve also learned not to erase them. Every writer needs inspiration. But, every writer needs to practice their craft. Forever.

(I think it might have been Pablo Casals who said he never says he learned how to play the cello because “learned” implies that he’s done learning everything he possibly can about the instrument. He says one must never stop learning one’s craft.)

So, where do you get ideas? Teach yourself to be sensitive to sounds and rhythms. Let words create images in your mind. Expose yourself to all kinds of stimuli. Learn how to open yourself up to the divine and spiritual powers in the universe. Be open to receive. And think of them in your head.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On Songwriting: Inspiration - Part Two

There’s a quirky little book out there by W. A. Matheiu, published in 1991 called “The Listening Book.” I discovered this book by accident one day while rummaging around a used book store. I was teaching music to preschoolers and middle-schoolers at the time and I immediately started adapting much of what the author was talking about and incorporating it into my lesson plans, my teaching strategy, my pedagogical philosophy and my own approach to life in general, and life as a musician and songwriter specifically.

Matheiu is a composer and musician and, among other things, worked (as a pianist) with improvisation groups such as Second City and The Committee. I don’t know if you’ve seen a professional improv show live on stage, but the piano provides the musical and, often, emotional, backdrop for the sketches and transitions. Sometimes the troupe presents a rehearsed show, but there is almost always an improvisational component or section where nobody knows what’s coming next – not the audience, not the performers, not the pianist. The pianist not only needs to be able to improvise on the piano, but he or she needs to be sensitive to the words and actions on stage in order to set the mood and punctuate the situations, jokes and transitions without stealing focus. It’s a hard job. It requires a whole different kind of listening.

In his book, he talks about different kinds of listening. As a songwriter, I know I hear things differently than most people. Listening is, or should be, an active, not passive, undertaking. (We can try to play with the semantics and make distinctions between “hearing” and “listening.” But, let’s not.) As I’ve alluded to earlier, listening, for me, is a whole body experience. I hear words and sounds and breathe them into my body. I let them occupy space beyond my ears.

Sometimes, especially when I’m “open to receive,” ordinary words and phrases pop into my head and all of a sudden take on a new, or previously unperceived, meaning. It can be a word or a phrase I use a hundred times a day and suddenly I’ll hear a rhythm, or a sound, or, more importantly, an idea or see an image, that take that word or phrase in a whole new direction. I hear in colors. I hear in shapes. I hear in images.

I’m aware that there’s a condition, or psychological phenomenon, called synesthesia, where one’s senses are more intertwined than usual. People with synesthesia report seeing colors when music is played, for example. It varies in different people. Some see a color, even in different shapes, for certain sounds, like the telephone ringing, or see a specific color for each letter of the alphabet or number, or word. It’s more common in children, but some never “outgrow” the condition. I don’t know that what I experience is synesthesia, but, whatever it is, I like it.

I think people, especially people who are in the arts, can learn to be more perceptive and sensitive to the world around them. I think we can consciously make ourselves more open to receive and, thus, become inspired. It takes practice and deliberate effort, but, like anything repeated, becomes habit and natural and commonplace. So, learn to be open to new ways to experience words and sounds and the world around you, whatever that means for you.

Different people are inspired in different ways by different things. I’m a title person. I like the way titles sound – song titles, poem titles, book titles. If I get an idea for a title, that’s often enough inspiration for me to, at least, get me started. I’ve learned over the years not to force the process. When I get a really good idea for a title in my head, I know better than to sit down and try to make myself write a song. I’ve done it, and those songs usually don’t make the cut. They sound, well, forced. I do sit down and see if anything worthwhile happens. I might get some usable ideas or material, and if it all flows out all at once, all the better. But that usually doesn’t happen. I know my own process. I know that if I let the idea steep, if I let that title rattle around in my head for a while, that the song will reveal itself to me when it’s ready for me to do some serious work with it.

(There is something to be said for discipline. And I’ll say it later.)

But, it doesn’t always happen that way as described above. Sometimes I’ll write a song and find no discernable title within its lyrics. That’s happened to me specifically with my songs “Joshua’s Band” and “Edge of the Ocean.” “Joshua’s Band” was named by a 7th grade student of mine at the time when I played it for a class and told them I couldn’t think of a title for it. “Edge of the Ocean” probably still isn’t the best title for that song, but it’s the one that emerged over time and stuck.

Many more of my songs, however, have started with the germ of a title. “With These Hands” is one notable example. In fact, when I thought of it, I thought it was such a good title – a title that got right to the crux of what I wanted to say, that had such a strong, fully developed image – that it must have been written already. I thought I must have heard it somewhere before and stored it in my subconscious where it was waiting to be plagiarized. I went around asking people, before I had one word or note written, if they had heard of the song “With These Hands.” It was such a good title that some said they had. This was, if you can imagine such a time, before the days of Google. I did some research, and when I was satisfied that the title, and more importantly, the idea, was not already a song, or at least not a well known song, I set to work on it. Titles aren’t copyrighted anyway.

So, how did the idea come to me? I don’t know. I was thinking about hands. I may have been thinking about that line in one of my favorite Paul Simon songs called “Duncan.” It’s the last line of the song, after he’s made love to a woman who takes into the woods “sayin’ here comes something and it feels so good,” and he concludes with:

Oh, oh, what a night

Oh, what a garden of delight

Even now that sweet memory lingers

I was playin’ my guitar

Lying underneath the stars

Just thankin’ the Lord

For my fingers,

For my fingers

I was thinking about all of the things hands can do: build great structures, plant tiny seeds, cause destruction, tenderly wipe tears, be used as weapons, or instruments of passion. I probably said something to myself like, “I wrote that whole song with these hands.” Then, because I’ve attuned myself to hear these kinds of things, because I was open to receive, the phrase “with these hands” jumped out at me and said “hey, there’s a song in here!” I’m an impatient songwriter. But, because I’ve learned when to push it and when to leave it alone, this song took over a year to complete. I waited for the direction of the second half of the song to reveal itself to me, and, when it finally did, it was worth it.

“Metaphor” is another title that jolted through me like a lightening bolt. You could almost see the light bulb above my head. How many times have I read, said or used the word “metaphor” in some other context and not realized that there was a song there? But, this time, I was open to receive. I was driving – and I remember exactly where I was – and suddenly that word came into my head and I knew what kind of song I wanted to write. I had no structure, I had no melody, I had no inkling of tempo or style. I just knew that I had an idea worth waiting for and exploring. I knew that the word “metaphor” would probably not even be in the lyrics, but that there would be a list of some kind. The seed had been planted and was ready to be patiently tended and nurtured.

“The Silent Son” and “She Knows God” are some of the other songs that have sprung from their titles. And I wrote a poem once based on the phrase “one single act of kindness.” That phrase had been rattling around my brain for a long time, maybe a year, before it revealed to me what I should do with it. I knew it would be a good title. It has a natural rhythm and it’s suggestive…of something. It could have gone in any number of directions. I’m going to reprint it later as an example of something else in another chapter, but the point is here that it doesn’t really matter where it went, but how it came to be; Words, sounds, shapes, rhythms, and how they evoke some reaction or emotion, and how you need to be sensitive to it. Be open to receive.

Often, for me, titles are more than just the names of the songs. They encompass much of the meaning of the song. They are evocative. They can act as a compass, or an anchor, much the way that a mission statement can (and should) guide a business or organization. A good, clear mission statement will guide everyone in the organization, from part time volunteers to cleaning staff to board members to administrative staff, toward the same goal; it will let each person know exactly how to do his or her job. That’s what a good title does: it guides and informs every word in the song.

Monday, August 06, 2007

On Songwriting: Inspiration - Part One

Ah, inspiration. You can’t teach it. Just as you can’t teach a politician how to have charisma, or a performer to have stage presence, or someone to feel the Holy Spirit move through them. But, you can learn to be open to it. Or, at least you can learn about being open to it.

One of my favorite quotes about creativity and inspiration was in an interview with an author. As is typical, I don’t remember who the author was, but it seems to me that it might have been Kurt Vonnegut, or someone like him – prolific and insane and amazing. Or maybe Edward Albee. He said something like, “People always ask me, ‘where do you get all of your ideas?’ And I say, ‘I think of them in my head.’”

There’s not much more I can add to that. It kind of sums it all up. Anything else I add will just be redundant. So, here I go.

If you look up the word inspire or inspiration in the dictionary, you get a lot of definitions, but not much help. The American Heritage Dictionary offers one definition for inspiration as: Stimulation of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity. OK. Most other dictionaries also state that inspiration is related to a divine influence on the mind and soul of humans. And they also concur that inspiration has something to do with the respiratory system, as inhaling. I like the idea of combining those definitions and coming up with an image of breathing God, or whomever or whatever is divine to you, into your lungs. Literally, physically breathing God into your body and trusting that power to stimulate you.

I often think of breathing as one of the most intimate and holy acts one can do, in fact, must do. I believe that we breathe, or that it is possible to breathe, more into our bodies than just air (and I’m not talking about pollutants). When I taught music to children in schools, I would have them lie on the floor on their backs, close their eyes, play a recording of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and tell them not only to listen to it, but to breathe it into their bodies. To let those perfect, haunting, sublime notes enter them and occupy space, to feel the music. I would do this with children as young as first grade, and I would watch them do it and get it.

I’ve used the image a few times in my songwriting. As mentioned in “Wasted Words – Part One,” in my song “She Knows God” I wrote:

But she always breathes the air that surrounds her

And it fills her with more than just breath

And in my song “Haruach” I allude to it this way in the bridge:

To everything there is a season

A time to mourn, a time to pray

And I don’t even know the reason

But it moves through me every day

Many artists have many different analogies about inspiration and ideas. And there are essays and books on the subject. One excellent book is called “The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julie Cameron. She talks about opening yourself up to the creative forces in the universe, like an antenna pulling in reception. I think it’s since I read that book that I’ve used the analogy in a way that sounds more like a sports metaphor. I’m not much of a football fan, but I call it “being open to receive.” Actually, it also comes from certain spiritual cultures, such as the Shakers, who never attribute their hymns as “written by Brother so-and-so,” but as “received by Brother so-and-so.” I once heard Arlo Guthrie in concert liken getting ideas for songs to fishing in a river. You sit there with your pole and line in the water and every once in a while you get a bite and pull something out. The ones you miss keep going downstream for someone else to get. He said he was just glad he didn’t live downstream of Bob Dylan.

* * *

I’m inspired by words. And images. Especially words that create images. I’ve become attuned to hearing words differently than most people. I hear the sound of words. I hear the shape of words. I hear the natural rhythms that words create.

When I do songwriting workshops, where our goal is to write a song as a group in a given amount of time, once the topic is chosen, I start by brainstorming. I have a large piece of paper and a marker and I’ll usually start by saying, “Tell me everything you know about…” I’ll start jotting down the phrases and when my ear picks up some sound or rhythm or image, I’ll probe more along that line. I’ll ask leading questions. I try to make them think in unusual ways. I like unusual word combinations. When someone raises their hand tentatively and then says, “Forget it, it was a dumb idea,” I’ll make them say it anyway because, often, it’ll be the phrase that that ends up driving the song. People are afraid to explore, to get out of their comfort zones. Don’t be.
In this first part of the exercise, I tell them not to rhyme. I try to prompt them to dig deep and get away from those stock phrases and ordinary images. If the topic is “peace,” for instance, we usually need to dig way down because it’s a topic that’s been written about so much and it’s so easy to become cliché. When I say, “Tell me everything you know about peace,” inevitably they’ll start with things like, “not war,” “love,” “calm,” and “quiet.” Those are broad generalizations. We need to get more personal. We need to localize and identify one aspect of peace. If I’m lucky, someone might say “harmony.” Now we’re scratching at the surface of an image. I’ll probe. “What is harmony?” “It’s singing together.” A good image. “It’s putting separate parts together.” “It’s individual voices coming together for a single purpose.” Now we’ve got some stuff on which to build.

I might ask, “Who uses harmony.” “Singers.” “Voices.” “A choir.” Now we personalize. “Pretend you’re in a choir. What would you be doing or thinking?” Someone might say, “We come to this place from our own separate lives. Each one of us alone can’t do this, but together we are strong.” Well, that’s damn near a song. I’ll write that down verbatim, but I’ll keep going to mine some more ideas. I don’t want them to get hung up on rhythm or meter or rhyme yet. When we’re ready, I’ll come back to that and it’ll become our focal point or, at least, our starting point.
First, listen to the natural rhythm of the sentence:

We come to this place

From our own separate lives

Then, of course, there’s the message. And, finally, but in no way less important, is the image. There’s a solid concrete metaphor going on here.

Now we need to shape it.

We come to this place

From our own separate lives

Each one of us alone can’t do this

But together we are strong

And now I introduce rhythm, meter and rhyme. The first two lines have a natural flow already, so we’ll just leave them as they are for now. “Each one of us alone can’t do this” is a little awkward and doesn’t fit the meter. “How can we rephrase this, keeping the intent, but adhering to the rhythm?” (Limitation? No! Opportunity!) How about:

We come to this place

From our own separate lives

We can’t do this alone

But together we are strong

That’s good. But it doesn’t rhyme. Does it have to? No. But I like songs that rhyme. And, unless you’re Paul Simon (“The Boxer”) it’s very difficult to pull off. But, before we begin rhyming, let me point out a couple of things about this quatrain that may influence our rhyme and, probably, the rest of the song, both in structure and message. I like the phrase “this place” in the first line. I like that it is not specific (yet). It can give us an opportunity to reveal what or where “this place” is later in the song. Or, it can just be this place, the one in which we are singing right now. It can be the “everyplace.” In your home, on the streets, in the White House.

A digression: I know I keep saying “be specific” and “create images.” But there’s this dichotomy. An actor always needs to be specific in his choices. But he will also know the rule about “less is more.” And a good actor will know when to use it. It’s the same in songwriting. Sometimes, less is more. Let the listener use her imagination. The specific is already in the message – uniting for peace. Let “this place” be any that the listener chooses. It will be a stronger choice for that listener than you could have made. And you can always get to “that place” later in the song if the song leads you there. Maybe the reveal can be in a bridge that would go something like:

We will gather at the pulpit

We will march on city streets

We will sing it from the mountains

We’ll tell everyone we meet

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

OK. Back to our quatrain. I also like the non-specificity of the word “this” in the third line for all of the same reasons that pertain to the first line. But, now the second line is weak and needs work. While it adheres to our meter and hits the accents at the right places, it has an awkwardness, a clunkiness, to it. It doesn’t flow. It sounds forced. It sounds, to my ear, like a line that shouldn’t be there. It should be better. Whether the third line stays the way it is depends on what happens to the second line. But, I like the last line pretty much as is. The only question for me is whether the first word will be “but” or “and.” And we won’t know that until we discover the middle two lines.

So, I like the word “strong” at the end of the fourth line, which means we probably want to rhyme it in the second line. What rhymes with “strong?” Well, I think there’s an obvious rhyme in this case – “song.” It kind of fits with where we started from in the first place: Harmony. And I don’t think it will be a bad rhyme or a forced rhyme when we find the right piece to the puzzle. Let’s see if we can keep the intent and reshape the words a little. How about:

We come to this place

We sing our own songs

We can’t do this alone

But together we are strong

That’s a good start. It may get tweaked a bit more as we go along and refine. I don’t know yet whether it’s a verse or a chorus – it sounds like a good first verse opening, so far – but, we’ll let the process lead us there. This is a game of give and take. Be open to the muse, let her lead you, but be in control.

This was a little peek into part of a workshop process that I’ve honed over the years. My own, private songwriting process is different, of course, but has many of the same elements. But, the point is here to listen to words – the sounds, the shapes, the rhythms – and let them be an inspiration.

Coming up in Future installments: The Listening Book, song titles, meeting a famous songwriter, and what comes first, the music or the lyrics? The answer to the last question is “yes.”