The Flash


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

6 thoughts on “The Flash”

  1. The top-level post got too long to include this, but I want to apply the abstract description above to what I’ve been doing the last couple weeks with Sally Ride.

    About three weeks ago, I had a couple songs for the upcoming SR complete (“Holy Moses,” Cory’s “Cause 2 B Uneasy”) and some raw ideas written down (“Organ,” “E Riff,” “Goddamn”). I wanted to write a full EP, and while I can never force the Flash to happen, I know how to create good conditions for it (mostly getting up in the morning and writing before talking to anyone, also just playing the ideas over and over so they get in my head and lyrics/melody might flash).

    So I’ve been crafting :-) every morning I can, and now there are nine tunes completely written. Thursday night I told myself, “alright, tomorrow morning there’s nothing, you can try and knock out lyrics for that ‘baby bells’ tune” and it worked. There was no guarantee, I can’t write under pressure, I can just give myself lots of good opportunites and experiences where writing tends to happen.

    This recent push on SR is the most intense writing I think I’ve ever done, and it’s been rad to find that it works. I’m out of SR ideas, but they have suggested some other possibilities for echoes in the future.

    I hope this is somewhat clear (if necessarily incomplete); I certainly invite questions about it all. -h

  2. This was a cool idea for a blog (big nasty propers to whoever suggested it). I think Howie’s method of harnessing creativity is pretty common; it’s hard to force yourself to write something awesome and it happens VERY RARELY. So what you have to do (just like Howie said) is to put yourself in positions that are condusive to creative thought. KNOW YOUR TENDENCIES AND EXPLOIT THEM! USE DETERMINISM TO CONROL YOUR FREE WILL!.

    Also, when you force yourself to write stuff, it turns from fun into work, which automatically makes the process more self-aware (and “sucky”).

    I work pretty much the same way; I’ll get little ideas for a cool melody or chord progression while I’m doing something weird like showering, and I’ll also get ideas when I’m in bed waiting to fall asleep, and I come up with most of my ill sh*t when I am just messing around on my squeezebox while watching “Yo, MTV Raps!” I’ll just be kind of screwing around, messing with the 3 chords I know, and I’ll hum along to see what works, melodically. (this next bit is very important to anyone who doesn’t like to get discouraged): most of what I just come up with on the fly SUUUUUCKS!!!! Only once in a while does something sound super awesome. If you were to figure out a ratio that represents my awesome ideas for songs to my cruddy ideas for songs, it would be something like 1:8 or something like that. I don’t know how often Howie strikes gold, but unless I’m on fire creatively, it takes hundreds of tries for tens of songs I like. (In case anyone gives a care, the reason I’m not a prolific songwriter is because I don’t actually feel like playing around on my guitar but once every few days, but when I mess around on it more, I write more songs).

    Lately, I’ve noticed that a lot of my inspiration comes from listening to bands I love and getting jealous/inspired/motivated. Some more recent songs have been written out of an envious admiration for Spoon or whoever. I listen and think, “I want to write a song like that, but that sounds like something I’D write.” If that makes sense. Just like how most of the songs Howie writes are him trying to get as close to AC/DC without actually BECOMING Angus Young. Although he treads dangerously close to that line all too often (“Back in Perrywinkle?” “Freeway to Heck?” Come on!)

    Cory Alan

  3. (Note: “showering” isn’t “doing something weird” for me. I promise.)

  4. Justin and I have never tried to harness the Flash, but I can see how it would work by putting yourself in that situation. For us we just play until something comes. It takes months for just one song to come out.

    Take A Chance, for instance, was a song that started out as a flash. Justin called me and played me most of the song but didn’t have words. I like it, and he intentionally messed around for the next few months trying to finish up the song, but it never went anywhere. Three months later, I got another phone call, and the Flash was back and the song was done.

    Same way with lyrics. Sitting down and trying to write words to music we’ve had for ages never gets us anywhere. It just comes when it comes, and usually when they both come at the same time is when a song really clicks (i.e. Disagree)

    I like the fact that Radiohead doesn’t really schedule themselves to make a new record, but they just wait until the Flash comes and then they go with it. That’s (if i remember right) what they did when Kid A came out, and that’s again what they’re doing now. I always figured that’s how I’d want to be a musician, not feeling pressured to write music, but just having it come as it will.

    Good post howie!


  5. That’s interesting that you mention Radiohead, because there’s this quote by Thom Yorke that says something like “When you’re writing a song, don’t ever try; once you start trying to write a song, you’re f*cked.” I think he means that you can’t force art, even if there is conscious “trying” involved when it comes to fleshing out the mother-bugger.

  6. we should put “USE DETERMINISM TO CONTROL YOUR FREE WILL” on a bumper sticker or t-shirts.

    Radiohead / trying – I understand where Thom’s right… but don’t you have to START by trying? Radiohead probably doesn’t need that anymore… but I think the rest of us are caught in a ping-pong between Flashing and Trying. Flashing might lead to the best stuff, the keepers, but Trying gives you experience and skills and tools and ideas which in turn improve your Flashing and your ability to do something with it when a good one comes.

    Maybe you never record or perform your “Tries,” but I think they probably have to happen in order to improve as a songwriter. Take that, Thom’s eye! -h

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