I’m a songwriter, and I think one of the most interesting things about writing songs, and learning about other people’s songs, is finding out the story behind a song’s composition. Not often do you get a window on an artist’s creative process, but with the advent of the internet and social media, it sure is becoming easier for artists to share how their creative process works. So I thought I’d take a moment and shed some light on how songs come together for me, in the wake of a really amazing co-writing session I had today with Keith Macpherson of Keith and Renee.

Some songwriters are pragmatic in their approach, and believe that you can only really write lyrics after you’ve got the music down, or vice versa. I find that sort of limitation creativity-curbing, in that it forces you to have a completed structure before the idea of the song can emerge. Though I don’t necessarily subscribe to one linear method of writing songs, I do find that writing lyrics as you go seems to give you more flexibility to change arrangements of song structure and add new parts easily if a lyric demands.

Mainly I try to do some kind of musical decoupage in which I am constantly writing down lyric ideas, recording ideas for melodies and chord progressions as I move about my life (which has been made MUCH easier in recent months by using my the Evernote app for iPhone) and then compiling those little scraps into a workable song at some later date. That being said, sometimes I will have heard a song in a dream and I use that as a kernel. I have a sinking feeling that it’s my subconscious disassembling and mixing together bits of other music I’ve heard in my waking life. But let’s not get too Inception-ey here.

Refining a song after the initial thoughts are put down is probably one of the hardest parts of songwriting for me. It forces me to come out of my own shell and bounce my innermost thoughts and feelings, in song form, off of other people I collaborate with. I sometimes feel anxious or downright silly discussing the circumstances under which an idea came together, or trying to articulate the theme of a song to someone. This is especially true when I know it’s been put together from pieces of five different puzzles, if you know what I mean.

Lyrics always seem to start as a stream-of-consciousness. Writing for me involves less planning and more just writing whatever comes out when I hear the music. Sometimes full songs have been written this way and not been touched after.

What I end up with is a sort of half-remembered dream, that only makes sense after a couple weeks of playing it over and over again, when finally the words start to build meaning when the context in which they were written becomes clear.It’s like I have to detach myself from the fact that I put those words on paper (or screen) and look at them as objectively as possible, and then the theme sifts itself from the sand.

Of course that doesn’t always pan out. Sometimes I will set out to write about something specific and it takes a long time for a solid set of lyrics that fits into a rhythmic pattern, phrases right and works thematically.

Ultimately, writing a song is different every time, which is what makes it such a rewarding pastime. In the case of the song I was working on today with Keith, there’s a very specific line of events that brought me to the almost-finished product I have today. They are as follows:

  • I heard about Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show on Kevin Smith’s Podcast, SModcast.
  • After becoming a regular viewer of Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, I dove into the archives and found a great interview with Billy West and John DiMaggio, the voices of Fry and Bender on Futurama.
  • Billy describes in the interview some techniques he uses for creating the unique voices of Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Zoidberg and other non-Futurama characters, including Popeye. West also mentions this in an interview I read about on Boing Boing, one of my favourite blogs. He said the inspiration for the Popeye voice came to him after he watched Genghis Blues, a documentary about the late blind bluesman Paul Pena, who traveled to Tuva to compete in a Tuvan throat singing competition.
  • I subsequently found and watched Genghis Blues and was inspired by Paul’s soulful songs, in particular the song Gonna Move (he also wrote Jet Airliner, which would go on to be a major hit for the Steve Miller Band in the 70s).

Then I started trying to put my own spin on that same joyful sound I heard on Gonna Move. And out came my song.

Noting this inspiration reminds me of another similar story. I once e-mailed I Mother Earth, one of my favourite bands as a teenager (and to this day) to ask them a question about the meaning of a song. I was asking about Good For Sule, which appears on their third (first post-Edwin) album, Blue Green Orange. It has a worldly quality to it, which had me imagining it was about the Lion King. In his reply, Tanna said it’s actually about an American professor named Sule who was torn between two worlds – the African village of which he was supposed next ruler, and the life he’d built for himself and his family in the US. Tanna said he had seen a documentary on television about Sule’s choice to either go to Africa and rule the tribe that his ancestors came from, or stay in the US. An inspiring story, apparently.

And now, you have a bit on the creative process for me. What inspires you?