Some Notes on the Creative Process
As a singer, songwriter and performer, I am continually learning about the nature of the creative process. Trying to adapt strategies to summon, channel and direct this force is a
challenge that requires a certain discipline. Each of my above stated occupations, (or pre-occupations) makes its’ own associated demands. Let’s start with songwriting.
For me, songwriting is sometimes the hardest and other times the easiest creative task. What I am most often asked is, “which comes first, the words or the music”. Usually, but not always, it’s the words. A line or phrase will come into my head, that evokes some feeling, place, person or thing and I’m off and running. Often to nowhere, but the point is to keep at it, pick up the pencil and write. I have several pads of paper with many pages of two or three lines, that went no further, but if I’m lucky, the words will just come flowing out on to the paper, first line leading to the second and so on, as if I’m just a medium through which the words are being manifested. I won’t even know what I’m writing about until it’s done. Maybe not even then. It’s kind of scary and exhilarating, like a motorcycle ride. You don’t fully get the impact of where you’ve been until you step off the bike.
Other times, it can be drudgery. This usually happens when I’ve made a decent start and I think, I know where I want to go, but nothing seems to come, to help me get there. The words have to sound right in my head, there has to be a certain flow… rhythm and rhyme. When it’s really not happening, I have to put it aside for awhile. Hopefully, I’ll be able to come back to it. Unfortunately, inspiration can’t be turned off and on. To paraphrase an old blues verse: “just when you think it’s on….it’s turned off and gone”.
Writing lyrics is not writing poetry. One can be poetic, but a song is meant to be sung. Not many songwriters can get away with sung poetry. And few poets that I know of can convincingly sing their work.
The music often comes from thinking/singing the words. A tune takes shape. Maybe part of the melody of another song can be the starting point for a new melody. Maybe the mood of the song suggests a melody. Maybe there is a chord progression you’ve been saving that fits the lyric. A tune can come from a lot of places.
Working it the other way around, putting words to a melody is a fun exercise. It’s like filling in the blanks in a puzzle. Each note is a blank that has to be given weight and meaning and it all has to make a certain amount of sense. Doesn’t have to be literal, but it has to sound right. If it’s someone else’s melody that has a title, that can be a key to what lyric is called for. If it’s your own melody or one without a title, just go for it. Take whatever the tune is saying to you, making you feel and put that into words. Sometimes a little “poetic license” needs to be applied to either make the lyric or the melody work. In my opinion, there’s no great harm in that.
I really admire the great composers and lyricists of the 1920s through early 1950s that wrote what is often called “the Great American Songbook”. Often writing for Broadway, they perfected the craft of the popular song. Then, in the 50s, the Rock n Roll songwriters, like Leiber & Stoller, turned the industry on its’ head, only to be revolutionized again in the 1960s by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and a host of singer/songwriters. I guess, I identify more with the latter era that is of my own time. If anyone is interested in hearing examples of my songwriting, I have a CD available for download at cdbaby. It’s called “Originals Anthology Volume I.” There are samples available to hear and you can purchase the whole CD of 15 songs for only $11.99.
Thanks to, my dear friend, Janis, for the opportunity to talk about songwriting here and thank you all, for taking the time to read my comments. Happy Spring! No foolin’!