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.”

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