While the Iron is Hot

Yesterday I left work at 4:30, eager to get home after two eventful days in Melbourne. I’d been rained on multiple times, had countless conversations, sent many emails, got my artwork finalised … I was tired and wanted to go to bed, as the song says.

It was blowing a gale as I left work, cold drops being blasted into my eyes. The air was crisp, smelling of cloud and river and wet footpath. It was a true Melbourne day. As I struggled against the elements, making decent pace to ensure I didn’t miss the train, I was hailed by a guy trying to find his hotel. Dragging his little suitcase behind him on its wheels, he was probably wondering if Melbourne is always like this. No, but when you strike one of those days it can be hard to imagine the city any other way.

Pondering this, the phrase “it’s bleak in Melbourne today” jumped into my head and started running around in circles trying to get my attention. I was cold, I was tired, in a hurry. Why would I pay attention to an obvious phrase?

But pay attention I did. As time has passed I’ve learned to value those little prompts. They come at the most inopportune times (recall me mentioning the guilt of working on a song while my wife mowed the lawn) and you’ve just got to commit to capturing them. So on I marched resolutely towards the railway station, singing the phrase under my breath, warming and kneading it until I could draw a new thread out of the mix. First one line, then another. Eventually a third and slowly a fourth line emerged. Suddenly I was into a chorus, knowing as I walked that I had to keep this thing rolling around until I could capture it somehow. Eventually I reached the station, where my train wasn’t yet ready to board. How could I record the rough form of the song? When there’s no option, you go with what you have; I grabbed my iPad out, stood at a concrete barrier with commuters rushing all around me, and muttered into the mic end of the device while in recording mode.

It’s silly, to have been writing songs for more than three decades but still feel incredibly awkward about my need to capture song ideas while out in public. I got a few strange looks but finished the job and breathed a sigh of relief. On the train I jumped into GarageBand and started playing with feels and chord progressions and such, but didn’t go back and listen to my rough vocal. It’s more in the nature of insurance; I’ll play with the sound of the song and possible record another set of vocals before going back to listen to the raw idea as I first captured it. Often when I do that I discover that the mature idea in the demo has had too many rough edges rounded off, and I then work backwards to get closer to the original germ, fresh from my head.

All of this is just to illustrate a point that I’ve made many times to others: you should never let an idea slip away, even if it seems banal or unoriginal. You have to collect all those ideas, work on them until they reach their conclusion, and only then (and only after some time has passed) can you evaluate their worth. In the meantime you’ve practiced your skills yet again. The short version of this is “you have to write lots of crap to discover the gold”.

So. Next time that little tune or scrap of doggerel lodges in your head, grab it. Work it. Finish it. Strike while the iron is hot.

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