Now that you’ve taken the plunge into the wonderful world of songwriting, you’ll find that it’s hard to live without your art. Yet, you’ll want to refine it as much as possible.
We’ve looked at inspiration and now know that we can stimulate it. However, it’s not always that easy. Sometimes, you’ll have everything in place, but the ideas just don’t come. Maybe your mind is filled with too many ideas all trying to get out at the same time.
What you need then, is a catalyst. Something that will redirect all of your ideas in the same… direction. A catalyst can come in many forms, you’ll have to find the one that works for you. For myself, as idiotic as it sounds, it’s the boob tube. I like to keep my 12-string in the living room. It looks good. No, I’m not married or living with a person of the fairer sex, so I can have a guitar in my living room if I want to. But it also serves a couple of purposes. On the one hand, it allows me to get in some more valuable practice time. I love a good commercial, but they seem to be the exception rather than the norm. So when I watch TV, I have the guitar on my thigh and I play it during commercial brakes. And if I stumble on to something more interesting, I play it during the program. You can easily get in an extra half hour of practice this way.
But it’s second purpose is even more interesting. Most TV shows have background music. Sometimes you’ll hear something, just a note or two, that will send your mind racing in a whole new direction. Hence, the catalyst. The idea was already forming, by hearing this background music, it all fell into place. Now don’t worry, this isn’t plagiarism. Unless you’re taking a whole pattern and using it as a main theme. Often it will be just the mood that will inspire you. Or it could be the theme of the show itself.
Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind
As an example of this, I’m an avid reader of Science-Fiction novels. My favorite author is Philip Jose Farmer who, with great skill, combines adventure and Sci-Fi. A few years ago I read one of his novels entitled Blown. The second edition was subtitled Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind. Great title, don’t you think? I always thought it would make a good title for a song, but never got around to doing anything about it. One Sunday, recently, I was watching one of this season’s rare good episodes of The X Files (maybe it would’ve been better if they’d dropped Mulder. But not Scully. Don’t touch Scully). I felt like writing a song that night, but had no ideas. By watching the show with my guitar, it just popped into my mind as loudly as the trumpets of Jericho: Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind!
Now with a title like that, I could write totally unrelated verses. I could even write unrelated lines within the same verse! There could be no chorus as there would not be order in a ruined mind. Easy enough! An hour later, the song was written: three verses of eight lines each. But not that easy to write… I had all of the music down by the time the show finished. Then I went to my daughter’s room which, for lack of space, doubles as a studio/music room when she’s not with me. I had the first two lines of lyrics written down… and… got stuck. So I went to make some coffee, at which point the next two lines jumped out at me. I hurried to write them down, picked up my B.C. Rich, turned on the mixer board and sang and played it. Great. Stuck again. I put the guitar down and sat in front of the computer. At which point, of course, the rest of that verse just fell into my lap. Anyway, the next hour was spent pretty much that way. Picking up the guitar and having no ideas, setting it down and getting some. At one point, nothing was forthcoming and I was considering finishing it later. I even listened to half of Tin Machine’s first CD before finally nailing it.
Your old Drill Sargent or your old English Teacher is going to hate me for saying this, but there’s only one thing you can do about discipline: throw it out the window. As an artist, it will only serve to limit you. By being undisciplined, you can tap into energy that’s unavailable to others. That doesn’t mean, though, that you mustn’t give yourself a little kick in the backside every once in a while…
I’ve mentioned before that if you’re working on an idea and it’s going nowhere, leave it be and go back to it at some later time. That’s still true. Nevertheless. Nevertheless, if you’re really inspired and are halfway through a song and don’t feel like finishing it (you’re tired or you just don’t wanna), do it anyway. You’ll thank yourself later. If you have the inspiration, follow through to the end. So what if you’re a little tired on your way to work tomorrow? You can always make up for lost sleep. Not for letting go of an idea.
Get a scrapbook
In my first article, So You Want to Be a Songwriter?, I mentioned the idea of carrying a pocket tape recorder to note your musical ideas when you have no time to write them down. You should also have a scrapbook (no, you don’t have to go out an buy a book marked “Scrapbook” on it, you’re not in kindergarten anymore). It can be in any form you like, a file folder, a binder, whatever works. As long as it’s very visual and easy to get at.
What you wanna do with this is right down notes, words, sentences here and there that pop into your mind for no apparent reason. Cut out pictures or articles from newspapers and magazines that have an appeal for you. Anything at all that inspires you (No, your girlfriend won’t fit into it. But a photo of her will). I once wrote a song solely based on a bunch of photos of a girlfriend. Nice photos too, very detailed. I dumped her, but I still have the song, though… I think I got the good end of that deal.
Every once in a while, when you’re looking for ideas, take the scrapbook out and go through it. Something might hit you. Maybe you’ll look at those lines you jotted down and realize that they all fit together.
Some things may stay in there for years. Don’t worry about it, don’t try to force the issue, it’ll come in its own sweet time. Like it took me a couple of years to write a song based on the title “Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind”. There’s one photo that struck me during the Bosnian war and I still don’t know what to do with it, but it will be superb! It’s day will come.
As part of expanding your horizons, co-writing is a good thing to do. You may find after a while that a lot of your songs start sounding alike. If you start writing with others, they are bound to take you into directions you would never have dreamed of. This is based on a simple fact: they are not you. They don’t think the way you do, they don’t see things the way you do. They bring in a whole new perspective. It won’t always work, some people you just won’t be able to achieve good results with. That’s a matter of style, personality, etc. And it’s all fair. But give it a try. With today’s technology, you don’t even have to meet the people you’re writing with. You can eMail someone a simple MP3 consisting of guitar and vocals. Add a lyric/chord sheet of what you have and voila! The other person can pick it up and work on it on his/her own time.
An exchange of ideas, of points of view, of visions. Another way to come up with songs.
You’ll also find that as you progress and become more serious about your art, people will start coming to you with poems, bit of music, a few words, and ask you to make a song with them. Never say no without at least trying.
As usual, feel free to email me with comments or questions. Or progress reports.