I started writing songs with my long-term song-writing partner Julian Kievit in 1987. There have been long breaks in between and over all this time, the way we do it has changed as well.
In the beginning, I would write a poem or three and Julian would pick one that he liked and find a way to write some music that went with it. We didn’t change the words much and were more focused on poetry put to music than writing actual songs.
Later, I was more focused on the genre than actual song-writing and was very focused on HOW I wanted the song to sound. Still later, I learned to play guitar somewhat better and became very focused on what could be done… what chords went together and how did the mechanics of the music work.
Song-writing is an interesting creative act because it welds a few disciplines together: Lyrics, musical composition, melody, harmony, technical skill and vocal range.
If you ask song-writers how they start, you’ll get an equally varied reaction: I have started with two lines of verse, with 3 notes that sound great together, with an idea, with a feeling, with a reference from a song by someone else, with a genre, with a message, with a strum pattern or a fingerpicking pattern. All are sparks.
The way we work now, we don’t get too hung up on what the spark is. We are very vague in that way, deliberately so. This leaves space open for MORE ideas to come in.
Once this funnel is open, we try to work fast through all the options. If something doesn’t develop, or stick in our heads, we discard it and move on. We don’t throw it away, we just leave it where it was and move on. As soon as something starts to develop, we focus on it and play with it until we get stuck again, then we move on again.
The key is that we have regular song-writing sessions… and we come back to everything that is started until it either turns into something on its own, it gets joined with something else or it eventually gets totally discarded.
In the beginning, I believed my creativity was magic: you made something, it was perfect, that was it.
Then I began to believe that everything you did had to be perfect, so if you couldn’t finish it in one session throw it away and start again.
Now I tolerate a far greater degree of ambiguity… I re-work, re-visit, break apart, re-join, bend and blend things around until it works.
I have acquired more skills, experience and influences. These factors are all part of the mix that creates this ability to deal with ambiguity. But knowing that things can be a process is a good start.
The bottom line is, we are writing much better songs this way. And it’s more fun too.