Ripped paper and scribbled notes... this is sometimes what the writing process looks like for me.
One of my worst fears as a singer/songwriter is someone asking me for tips on songwriting. Weird, right? You'd think I could easily give a few pointers given that I've made a lot of original material over the last few years.
However, I simply don't have a straightforward strategy I use to make songs. I recently read a book that talked a lot about the writing process and they gave several exercises to help craft lyrics. Things like journaling on a topic or object. Or maybe starting with a universal concept like "family" and building it from the base up. But when it's all said and done, songs that I try to force out tend to suck. I can sit down and go "I really want to write an upbeat song today about crashing Limos and not caring", but what I usually get is a headache and a desire to clean my house, go for a walk, or pay my taxes. The guitar is left in the corner sulking and the notepad remains white.
I get the need to practice your craft (and I feel guilty that I don't write more for the sake of exercising my brain). Cranking some songs out can shake off the cobwebs and help prime you for more solid songwriting. But when it's all said and done, an annoying fact remains: inspiration doesn't come when called. I can go months at a time without a real inkling of a song. Sometimes an idea will be floating around unfinished, but it is waiting for something to spark it fully to life. It's like a quantum particle. It's in a state of existing and not existing, waiting to be defined by some sort of observation. Geeky similes aside, I don't understand how these things decide to be. But they always do...eventually.
A few years ago, I met legendary guitarist Regi Wooten in Nashville through a mutual musician friend (Her name's Nalani and she's an amazing bassist!). He said something that really stuck with me. He said "The song already exists. It's just waiting for the right person to unlock it." When those songs sit on my mind's back burner, I see them as patiently waiting for the right catalyst to set them off (the weather, an interesting object, a cool phrase, a strange encounter with someone...who knows!?). It's just a matter of time before they burst out, happy to be released from the ether.
It's the most frustrating part of being a creative maker of anything. It happens to me every year when school starts up again. The job starts to consume every ounce of energy that I have. By the time I get home, I'm couched. My guitar sits in the corner sulking and a wave of guilt washes over me. Writer's block has come once again.
I'm still trying to figure out a solution for this. I've tried reading random articles, taking a walk, stream-of-consciousness writing, and now...blogging! But it's like I can't refill the energy that is expended on my day job. Song ideas and riffs float around in my head, beating against the corners of my mind like dazed flies on a window pane.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting John Craigie at a workshop for musicians in Fort Collins. John Craigie is a folk singer/songwriter from Oregon. I recently got into his music last summer after I heard "I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man". His style and humor instantly hooked me.
At the workshop, John talked about making covers your own and using covers as a way to get you out of your funk. He said something along the lines of "It's our responsibility to not produce a direct copy of someone's work, but instead do it in the way that makes you you."
I really appreciated this philosophy. I don't often learn covers because I usually find them boring at live shows. Even if they are done well, it doesn't add anything to the show or the song. It always feels like a cheap grab for the audience's attention. However, when you hear that cover that really is stripped down to emphasize the feeling and lyrics of the song, those make me get shivers.
Songs like Ben Howard's cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark".
It's a beautiful song that really captures the forlorn feeling of the lyrics...better than the rock anthem that Springsteen did for the original tune.
Since then, I have been trying to learn more songs from other artists and strip them down to their bare essence. One of my favorite covers I've arranged and made my own is a mash-up between The Beatles' "Oh Darling" and a hidden-gem from John Mayer called "I'm Going to Find Another You". I'll put the link here for you to take a listen.
Hopefully by playing with these covers and making them my own, something will spark and I will be able to start writing new content again!