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.

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