Big Bang Theory

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.



Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tagged: , ,


  1. Tai Irwin
    Posted April 26, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    It surprises me that you didn’t mention all kinds of artists who gave you advice. This is a great place to start. Partnerships are crucial sometimes. Put yourself in situations that lend themselves toward creative sharing. I’m fortunate to have two incredible crackpots to bounce things off – and they are encyclopedic geeks like me.
    We have common ground that extends for miles – then suddenly breaks off without warning. One friend’s wife was present (she sings with us sometimes) and after hearing me go through the basics of the tune I had in my head for three months, wrote lyrics to it on the spot. We did one take of it to have it down, with a few mistakes, but it represents what I had been hearing, together with two other points of view. We would take the REM/U2 model and share songwriting if it came down to it.
    Sharing, and not being afraid of others’ ideas – to me it’s the key to jamming, and also in the process of creating – aka “making shit up.”

    • joan
      Posted April 27, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Tai, you speak truth. Partnerships are vital. I feel that Jen Trynin plays that crucial role in my creative life right now, even if we’re not sitting down to write a song, per se, and there will no doubt be others along the way. But I also believe that being alone, rooting around inside, figuring out what I have to say and how I’m going to say it, is just as important. My sense is that there’s a time and place for both solo vigil and fruitful collaboration. Stay tuned.

  2. Blake Boris-Schacter
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I can’t speak to songwriting as a whole, but I can speak to how to I write lyrics. I have personally found that sitting down and trying to write lyrics with no idea what i want to write about, only leads to lyrics that sound like I’m trying too hard to write a song. The options are sometimes just to great, the possibilities too infinite, to get true inspiration from simply wanting to write a song. On the other hand, when you are overwhelmed with emotion, and want to express your anger, sadness, or joy about something so specific, sometimes you are so wrapped up in the moment that you can’t find the words.
    Personally, I find my best lyrics come from when someone tells me something about their life that I have never gone through, some intense life experience that I want to be able to sympathise with, and let them know I understand. Normally, I dwell on their situation, and try to put myself in their shoes. This gives me inspiration, but since I am not personally going through it, I can better concentrate on the songwriting and not just getting my emotions out on paper.
    However, as obvious as the answer may be, I’d like to answer your opening question. How do you start a song (at least from a lyrics only prospective)? With a line you LOVE. If you don’t love the first line you wrote, start over. This does not have to be the first line of the song, it can be the first line of the chorus, or even the last line. That can all be sorted later.
    Anyways, those are some quick thoughts. Happy writing!

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