I am a signed musician in the indie band Roan Yellowthorn (more about that journey here.)
As a musician, there are two questions that I (along with every other musician) get asked a lot. They are – ‘where do you get your inspiration?’ and ‘how do you write a song? Do you do the lyrics first of the melody?’ In an interview setting, it’s not really enough time or space to give a good explanation.
Usually when I am asked this question, I give a terrible answer that has little bearing to reality and is jumbled and confused. I don’t have a sound-byte ready, and, in trying to make it brief, I do no justice to the long answer that I have in my head. So, now that I am an inveterate blogger (with a whopping 4 posts to my name) I will tell you the long answer, the one I never have time or space to give. Here, friends, is…
#1 – The Inspiration
The first thing I need in order to write a song is inspiration. Inspiration has come to me from many places. I’d say they could be broken down in three categories:
- My life
- Someone else
The first category includes mostly books and TV shows. Some songs I’ve written that are inspired by something from this category include ‘As Long As Water Runs’ (video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2xGNNhMu3Q). This song is unrecorded but I play it live a lot. It was one of the first songs I wrote and was inspired by a part in the book ‘A People’s History of The United States’ by historian Howard Zinn. The part of the book that inspired me was about the US government’s treatment of indigenous people.
The immoral contracts that European invaders coerced indigenous people to sign promised that ‘as long as grass grows or water runs,’ the land belonging indigenous people will not be encroached upon. This promise was broken again and again.
Reading about this terrible history overwhelmed me with feelings of sorrow and indignation. I usually write when I become overwhelmed with feelings that I don’t know how to integrate in any other way and so I used the phrase ‘as long as grass still grows and water runs’ as the basis for a chorus and wrote the rest of the song around it.
Other examples of songs inspired by media are
1 ) ‘Two Children’ (video here https://bit.ly/2Qz5ekG) is about Catelynn and Tyler from the MTV show Teen Mom, which I was obsessed with for over 10 years.
2) ‘How Are You’ (https://spoti.fi/2RhVKzj) is about one of my favorite artists, Grimes. It could also fit into category #3, but I’m putting it here because I was mainly inspired by the music video ‘Flesh Without Blood/Life in The Vivid Dream.’
3) ‘He’s Not,’ is a new and unrecorded song but it was inspired by a scene in ‘Jersey Shore Family Vacation’ where Ron admits he still loves Sam. What can I say? I find inspiration where I find it.
4) ‘Fragment’ (https://bit.ly/2SQogFe) was inspired by one of my favorite poems, Fragment 31, written by the ancient Greek poet Sappho.
This is where most of my inspiration comes from. Since I usually write songs when I am overwhelmed by feelings I can’t integrate in any other way, my own life is fertile ground for inspiration. A lot of the material comes from old stories that have churned around in my brain for years before I feel like I have enough perspective to see them objectively. But I have a lot of songs written about immediate emotions. Some examples of both:
1) ‘Indigo’ (https://spoti.fi/2FhdW5P) was written in the heat of the moment, when I was feeling overwhelmed by the lack of direction and artistic productivity in my life and was wondering, literally, ‘will I ever feel contented like I’m good enough to be/ All the things in my mind that I invented / Will I ever feel like I deserve the happiness I seek / Or will I always be tormented?’ One of my favorite songs.
2) ‘Lie’ (https://bit.ly/2p7hH3y) was written about a divorce that happened in my family. Like ‘Indigo,’ it was also a song quickly written in the heat of the moment in one session. Another one of my favorites.
3) ‘Do You Know’ (https://spoti.fi/2Rfv6ap) was written about a boy I grew up with. One of my first relationships and one of my first loves. I had a dream where I re-experienced the feelings of my 13-year-old self and decided, instead of eating candy or looking at the internet to distract myself, to put them into a song.
4) ‘Talk About It’ (https://bit.ly/2vQRbzv) was written about a past relationship that ended without closure. I wrote it to process the feelings of lingering disquiet that haunted me afterwards.
5) Fingerless Gloves’ (https://spoti.fi/2C8M93y) was written about an encounter I had with a previous partner, where I met his new partner and thought about all of the things that were going unspoken between the three of us.
1) ‘The Last Time’ this one is coming out soon. I wrote it about an experience that my partner Shawn had in a past life (before he met me!)
2) ‘Factory Man’ (https://spoti.fi/2RHi5pA) was written about a man I know. The song is my portrait of him. He is an artist who works by day in a factory.
#2 – The Writing
Once I have a feeling in focus, I can start to write about it. The first thing that I do is meditate. I find a quiet place where I won’t be interrupted, and I meditate on the feeling. I let myself feel it completely. This is what is sometimes difficult, emotionally, about writing a song; you have to let yourself completely feel emotions that may be painful, uncomfortable, unresolved, and/or overwhelming.
I strive to be honest in my writing and, in order to honestly convey how I feel, I have to know exactly what it is that I am feeling. I studied Latin in school and I always come back to a quote spoken by Cato the Elder that translates roughly to ‘When the thoughts are clear, the words will follow.’ Truer words were never spoken!
Once the thoughts are clear, I start to write.
Usually my meditation will result in a phrase that encompasses the emotion I’m feeling. I start with that and, from there, I write what is basically a poem but with song components in mind (chorus, verse, bridge).
As I am writing the lyrics, a rhythm begins to develop. That informs the structure going forward.
I keep meditating on the feeling as I write, leaving myself open to any musical or structural ideas that might come to mind. Eventually, I have the rough structure of a song. Sometimes it comes out more or less fully formed, and sometimes it takes a few sessions (or even months of leaving and returning) to get the parts in place.
Almost always, I have a verse and the chorus first. Then I have to mirror the verse so that I have a second verse. And I usually make some tweaks to the chorus so that I have an ‘a’ and a ‘b’ chorus for variety. The bridge almost always comes last, when the verses and chorus are pretty much shored up.
If, while I’m writing, I feel like I need some drama, I’ll insert a shorter phrase. If I feel like the song is too boxy and uniform, I’ll make sure to put in some phrases that have a slightly different structure. It’s an organic process that’s entirely based on feel. There are influences and allusions layered into each song that cannot be described in words – they take the form of colors or shapes; textures or moods.
Once the words are in place, its time to write the music. At this point, I usually bring my notebook (right now its a lime green moleskine) over to the keyboard and explore. This is the fun part.
The rhythm that developed during the initial writing is usually a thinly-veiled tune and, by sitting at the piano, I’m able to pull out the chords that are just underneath the surface to create a full-fledged melody.
I keep in mind the influences that came into play during the writing and use them to inform the writing of the melody.
I usually try to make the chorus more dramatic than the verses. And I never want them to be too similar to each other, melodically or structurally. Sometimes that means I sing in a slightly different phrasing pattern, use sparser chords for either one with less or more melodic movement, or insert a dramatic melodic element. Anything is possible. If I feel like I’ve done certain things a few times in other songs, I try to switch it up and do something different. Each song is part creation and part discovery.
Once I have a rough melody, I go over and over and over the song. I sing it while I walk, while I drive, at the piano. This is the polishing stage where I tighten everything up; replacing phrases that are ungainly, words that sound ‘off’, bits of melody that don’t feel ‘right.’
After that, the song is done. It’s a thrill every time. It never gets old.