Finding inspiration

Sometimes reading about the craft of music and listening to the best of the art form is enough to spark the creative flame of songwriting. Other times, you find the beat and the words flow as if they were forged together. Then there are those moments no writer wants to think about. When the words just aren’t there. You can sense them in the distance, but they won’t venture close enough to grab. Like your cat when it’s time to go to the vet.

Call it what you will, writer’s block, being creatively stymied, Twitter time, Hell… whatever you name it, there is only one cure for it.

Write.

Just write.

Play through the pain. Even if it’s crap, write until it’s not. Obviously, this is much easier to say than do. Nothing is as daunting as a blank page, or a cursor slowly flashing in a way that is surely mocking you, like a slow clap for your lack of words. Thanks, cursor. But inspiration is a tricky thing. It comes in all sorts of forms, from a picture to a phrase to a feeling, and you have to be open to catch it before it passes by.

Cursor

The tyranny of the blinking cursor. Sarcastic attitude very much pictured.

While songwriting has to speak the truth, it doesn’t have to be pure autobiography. It can be, sure — Taylor Swift has brilliantly tapped the resource of her broken heart and connected with millions — but you don’t have to use your romantic crashes and burns to create a connectable song. It’s not a bad thing, as TayTay and Adele would agree, but it’s not the only way. You don’t have to translate the ins and outs of your journal into verses and choruses, but you do have to invoke your feelings: Loyalty. Trust. Love. Betrayal. Shame. Hate. Jealousy…

In a writing class many years ago, a fellow student read their work out loud. It was a short story about fickle love. It was brutal to listen to. The honesty of how it feels to be in the warm glow of love, and the soul-crushing shadow that steals  your soul when it’s taken away, hit a nerve with everyone who heard it. After the piece was done, everyone asked the author if he was okay — assuming he was in Adele proportions of heartbreak. Turns out he was fine… he wrote the story about his cat.

Smug cat

Smug bastard.

You don’t have to bungee jump off a bridge to convey the fear of falling and the relief of being saved at the last moment. We’ve all been there in some way or other, that train you thought you missed, that time you tripped and almost fell but steadied yourself in time. Use those feelings and create a story for them. Use whatever is around you and write about it. And keep writing until you hear your story’s beats.

 

Songwriting and storytelling

We’ve focused a lot on movies and novels in previous posts, but there’s another kind of storytelling that drives a lot of what we do: songwriting.

Writing a song

We love all kinds of music, whether it’s the beautiful inventive craziness of pop, the gritty edge of rap, the straight-up epic-ness of soul, or the gorgeous storytelling and soul-baring of country music. The through-line for us is songs that tell us stories, whether it’s a verse by verse evolution of things happening, or the evocation of an emotional moment in time. That kind of songwriting is a very precise form of storytelling, even more so than a short story, which is one of the most precision-based ways to get a story across, given the lack of time and space. Characters, situations, emotions, arcs, set-ups and pay-offs all need to happen immediately. Just as with short stories, there’s no runway with a song; you need a vertical take-off for the tale you’re telling. You have to grip the listener from the start with vivid, specific imagery that resonates. You need to use whatever tools you can to grab us and hold us close. Clever analogies, innovative wordplay, a flow; there’s a lot more in common with rap and country than you’d think.

FGL and Nelly

Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, rapping and… country-ing?

For us, the nexus of this kind of songwriting is Nashville. Dive deep into country music, and you’ll find everything you need to know about songwriting. It’s no coincidence that Taylor Swift, who has spent the last 15 months dominating the world with the epic, glossy, futuristic, confessional pop of the 1989 album and tour, learned how to get there by writing country songs.

Taylor Swift

Great country songwriters transport you from the first line, and grip you until the last (and beyond): Eric Church, Mark Irwin, Shane McAnally, Kelley Lovelace, Miranda Lambert, Jessica Roadcap, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton, Ashley Gorley, Chris Dubois… They tell heartfelt, vivid tales, wrapped up in hooks and melodies. Here are two examples of how to tell a story through verses and choruses (listen to the way these songs are constructed, the way they phrase the things they say, the way imagery is set-up and paid-off):

Miranda Lambert, “Automatic” (written by Lambert with Natalie Henby and Nicolle Galyon). This digs deep into a nostalgic vibe, and does so by brilliantly layering meaning upon meaning on the word ‘automatic.’ The theme of the song is yearning for a time when you had to work for what you got, whereas now everything’s just automatic. Analogies flow fast and smartly, as do memories of taking the long way around (ironically, given the speed with which they poetically hit the theme). Driving stick, taking photos (“the kind you gotta shake”), writing letters… very specific experiences become universal as Lambert reaches out for a time “back before everything became automatic.”

Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”, (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Brad Warren). Irwin and his co-writers do something very smart here, taking the chorus of a song that the character is listening to on the radio, and making it the chorus of the song itself. It adds another dimension to this story of someone driving angrily away from a row with their loved one, which is already made unusual by being from the POV of the person being driven away from. It’s a flawless example of how to take a story, and tell it in a fresh way, from a fresh angle. Irwin and co.’s approach gives the song life and heart; using the highway as the anchor for the song (“the highway won’t dry your tears, but I will… the highway don’t care, but I do”) makes it grab you. It’s not just someone telling you they care; it’s poetically constructed, which gives it more impact.

Smart analogies, vivid imagery, clever, complex and concise phrasing and construction: these themes reverberate through a good story and make for great music. It sounds analytical, and maybe even cold, but all this is the foundation on which beautiful, rich, heartfelt and soulful art is made.