Here’s a burning question: how do you start a song?
Some people stare out the window and wait for an idea to arrive. This can take months, according to numerous reputable songwriters, so here’s hoping the view, at least, rocks.
Other people get stoned, switch on the tv, and strum guitar. Eventually, or occasionally, or one time ten years ago, they stumble on a killer riff.
I know a songwriter who comes up with song ideas while walking the trails near her home, another who fills notebooks with words that are like signposts directing him to the music, and another who always begins with a mood. She conjures moods with a chord pattern, a hurried or languid tempo, bright or dusky sounds, and the mood invariably suggests a story or a character or a memory or an emotion that grows clearer and more concrete until she knows what the song is about.
Then there are artists for whom the whole question is moot. Kristin Hersh doesn’t make up songs; she channels them. I think that must be a blessing and a curse. The idea of songs materializing fully formed is awfully attractive from a hard labor standpoint. It’s damn romantic, too, the notion of annointment. But the chosen few are literally out of control, whipped into service by a freakishly domineering muse. Sort of redefines too much of a good thing.
I decided that I needed to go away by myself to see if I could start a song. A long weekend visiting my father in Los Angeles was already on the calendar, so I booked a week in an old rock cottage in Joshua Tree, the most magical place I’ve been. I figured if I could find inspiration anywhere, it was here.
Jen had some advice in advance of my trip.
You know about the two sides of your brain, right? One of them thinks about things like websites and math and the other side does what people call the creative. I think of it as the file cabinet-y side and the swirly side. There are some people who are always on the swirly side. They trust in the cosmos. It’s hard for them to pay the phone bill. When the rain is coming down on them, they’re looking up and thinking nothing, just letting it rain. But you, you see the rain coming and you observe it. You analyze it and figure out how it forms rivers. What I want you to practice before going away is looking up at the rain and not thinking about it, getting your gaze away from the analytical.
When you’re being creative, forward motion is more important than getting something right. I used to write with the tape recorder on, or nearby, and I suggest you do this. I could feel when something good was happening and I’d try to play it as many times as I could. It’s not that I thought it was good, I felt it. It’s like running after a ball that’s going down the street, but as soon as you think about the ball, it vanishes.