Sometime, write about some of the ways that songs “come to you.” As someone who has never had that “flash” for word/song/art etc. I marvel at the “nothing to something” process – and I know that at some point the WORK element kicks in to formally shape the project.
– email to howie, 5 July
My songwriting is always a blend of intuitive “flash” and conscious craft. The best tend to happen when the initial idea is shaped quickly into final-draft form; these seem to be the most integrated to me (but that may come from my own experience, and not be shared with listeners).
The flash comes in three different ways I can think of, one more than the others. Most frequently, I’m doing something regular – reading, dishes, email, working – and I become aware of a bit of music that’s been bubbling through my mind for awhile. It could sound like anything, from guitar or piano to orchestra. I run to the nearest instrument and start playing along, humming, figuring it out. Sometimes I get it almost exactly, other times I can’t seem to parse my own imagination so I try to pull something that catches my ear out of it anyway.
This also can happen from a sort of dream state, either right before I fall asleep or when I wake up (flash type # 2). Thirdly, once in awhile when I’m playing guitar, I’ll be noodling around with no aim and happen on a series of notes or chords that strike my attention, and that will become the raw material for a song.
When I’m working with a new flash, I first try to put off my conscious, crafting self and allow the flash to do its thing and play over me. That’s hard because my nature is to jump right in and shape it immediately, instead of letting it find its own shape. The whole intuitive side of songwriting is opposite of most of the rest of my personality, which makes it kind of mysterious, fun, and fragile.
The flash yields anything from a couple guitar ideas with no melody to several different instrumental sections (3-5) with some melodic phrases attached (rarely any lyrics). The “craft” then is to take those raw ideas, and turn them into songs. For any given song, it can take a day, or months and months. Lyrics usually start from a single “flash” phrase that pops out of me while I’m humming a melody, and are built around that. Arrangements of the various parts are determined by the lyrics, trying to make the whole thing tell a consistent story – I try to be pretty open to unorthodox arrangements, stretching verses, cutting choruses, having six different parts in a song, as long as it all works together.
“Nothing to something” is true to my experience. The flash, paradoxically, does and does not come from “me” – it’s not magic or metaphysical, but from a subconscious place that can feel like “other.” And after shaping it (think of a potter), it becomes something – a song. I’m kind of in awe if I think about it; it feels like a gift – not that my particular songs are a gift to anyone – but that we humans are so complex that such things can happen to us, and we can participate in them. Maybe we are such things as writing songs (or baking cookies, or teaching children, or any of the other miracles we perform daily without even noticing). -h