Oct 2012 16

Since the recent months of overworking and the change of seasons season have finally caught up with me in the form of a devastating headcold, I thought I’d take a minute to jump the hurdle and write the first in what is hopefully a long series of entires into the SBL blog (which for now I’ll amusingly subtitle the “Ego Blog” but we’ll see if it sticks).

Lengthy disclaimer:

A blog was something I was certain I wanted as part of the new website (since Twitter feels a little concise for me; I have a reputation for being verbose), but how to best use it?  I want it to be more than just me talking about my day and my own music.  First of all, all that self-promotion gets embarrassing after awhile; secondly, I want to use this as an opportunity to branch out and connect with others about not only what I’m creating, but what is driving and inspiring me.  Don’t get me wrong, I get a kick out of talking about my own music, but if you REALLY want to get me started, start talking to me about 11-17-70.  I want to draw those of similar enthusiasm to this little hole in the internet.

How best to do that?  Interviews with respected musicians?  Reviews of records that come into my aural sphere?  Experiential anecdotes that transcend the personal to become, at least in part, universal?  Or just post pictures of food? Otherwise this blog risks drifting into the sort of self-analytical questioning and approval-seeking typified by the Xangas and Blogspots of my youth (Bethany, why didn’t you love me?).

End disclaimer.

At any rate,  today’s topic: songwriting and where it comes from.

Since so much of my energies had been going into the new record for nearly a year, I really hadn’t been doing much writing (my newest song leading up to the album release was Spilling Down All Over the Place, which I wrote in the summer of 2011, over a year before Songs to Make You Wealthier and More Attractive came out).  That “dry” spell scared me, even though in the back of my mind I knew that without warning I could have one of those spurts where I write four or five songs in the space of a month.  One of those stretches years ago birthed Children, Wakeup Call, I Am Is You, and Rumors in Reverse from the first Flying Pigs album, as well as others yet unheard.  There’s no explanation for there where and when; sometimes it just happens, when other times the words and/or music don’t come, regardless of what I try.

The creative process has always been a fascinating study for me; nothing intrigues me like hearing people discuss how they work.  This interest is not strictly limited to music and lyric composition, either; anyone who fills a space with something that didn’t exist before has a story, and I love me a good story.  Especially when you can sit in your bed and eat chocolate cake while listening to said story, a pursuit that has become much easier thanks to the invention of the internet.

My own idea generation matrix, however, doesn’t really have much rhyme or reason to it.  It’s about finding some kind of hook — whether a thread of melody, a series of chords, a rhythmic pattern, or (most often these days) unusual subject matter . . . and then caring enough about it to follow it to some sort of completion.  Sometimes that takes minutes.  Other times it’s taken me years (it’s amazing what will stick in your head after you cast it aside).  It’s hard to say where it comes from; anybody who has ever written or made anything (which I imagine, dear reader, you have) is pulling from their own unique mishmosh of influences and experiences, and on a good day they come together in a way that is the right balance of unique and familiar.

For me, though, this leads to the occasionally crippling concern of repeating what you’ve done before.  This might sound a bit overly cosmic, but it’s true: when you’re pulling music out of yourself, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether its something new or something you’ve assembled (and sometimes it’s somewhere in between and you have to figure out what is what, lest your drummer point out to you that a fairly interesting new piece suddenly veers into a 1987 hit for Michael Jackson, not that this has actually happened to me and J.P. Feenstra).

Paul McCartney famously dreamed the music to “Yesterday” in its entirety and spent months playing it to people trying to figure out whose song it was.  Conversely, Ringo used to bring in original songs to the Beatles only to have the others inform him, through laughter, that he had once again rewritten a Jerry Lee Lewis song.  So inspiration is a fickle lover.

But there are always ideas: I’ve got a notebook full of song fragments from the last few busy months, I’ve got unfinished and unused tunes scattered from this year back into the early 2000s (again, knowing what’s worth keeping is always the trick).  I’m also enjoying bringing in new ideas catering to the Ego Band; the new record was mostly composed of songs that had existed for some time and I had arranged prior to my collaboration with Will, Jason, Josh, and Drew.  Now that the band has found its sonic niche (which sounds sort of like throwing Elton John into the Allman Brothers Band), I find myself catering the music to the musicians, instead of the other way around.  It’s a subtle but exciting variation for the writing process.  Giving yourself some guidelines is always helpful.

And I try to keep in mind something Bruce Springsteen once observed, that he was insecure about his ability to write another decent song until he realized that he had more music inside of him than he could ever get out on paper.  Then he could relax, and away went the writer’s block.

But lest we get ahead of ourselves, my other priority is making sure people hear and enjoy the songs that have already been birthed, as it were.  It’s a long road, and (much like actually writing the songs) if you think about creative ways to plug yourself too much, you can burn out and stifle the process.  So now is definitely a time of some relaxation and rejuvenation.

All of you creative people reading this, I’d love to hear your stories, thoughts, or questions.  Songwriting isn’t rocket science, but there is a certain magic to it in addition to its logic, especially since it’s one of those rare things that no two people do the same way (part of what attracts me to the art, I think).  In the meantime, I’ll be eating chicken soup and awaiting the next grand idea.  The ideas actually come fairly often — now, getting out of my chair to DO something about it, that’s another story.

So until then, here’s Stephen Sondheim talking about writing “Send In the Clowns” like it’s no big deal.


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