Notepad

I’ve been writing songs for 36 years or so, seriously for more than 30 years. Those first few years were more about emulating and wannabe-ing … which is not at all a bad way to start. You’d think though, that once I got the knack (no, that’s not a reference to the 70’s power-pop group) I’d pretty much get on with the job and churn ’em out with some regularity. Fame and fortune would of course follow closely.

But that’s not the reality of it. I have wrestled every one of those years with the fear that I was kaput, that my best songs were all behind me. It’s a rotten feeling, far worse than when someone first criticises your songwriting (although yeah, that was tough too). And every time I push through it with the help of a simple tool.

Songwriting is a craft more often than it is an art, however. It’s a skill and a discipline you master. You don’t sit on a mountaintop waiting for inspiration to strike, you have to set up your creative environment and get to work. I always say you have to finish writing 100 songs and you might find there’s a gem among them. The keyword here is finish; it’s no good to come up with that sweet riff for the intro to your great masterwork only to give it away when the verse chord progression isn’t forthcoming. The discipline of the process is to find ways to jog your creative wheels into motion. There’s a bunch of ways to do this, but in my experience the most reliable tool is your audio notebook.

I used to have a beat-up old cassette recorder that did the job. I’d sit in my room every night without fail and noodle on my guitar, usually singing meaningless words over the top. If I heard something with even the slightest merit I’d record it for 30 seconds or a minute, then move on if I wasn’t hearing the ‘next bit’.

On the odd occasion I’d review these tapes, but that cold-blooded process rarely resulted in anything new.

The real benefit of my musical snippets was when I had a partially-completed song. My personal rules told me I must finish it, but if I had no middle eight or (rarely) no chorus … out would come the cassette deck and I’d listen through, listen with intent, for that moment I could use to finish my song. Aside from being a wonderful source of potential inspiration, it took the pressure out of songwriting. If I was stuck I knew I could plunder my own ideas, squirreled away for my musical winter.

These days I have my trusty iPad 2. So reliable, so available. I have a little app that lets me record with the built-in mic, with just one tap of a button. Then I name every snippet; if I record two bits that are related I’ll give them “#1” and “#2” indicators. Some of the names I give are crazily fanciful, but it doesn’t matter what I call them – it’s just for some recognition later.

I just lay in bed and reviewed my notes from the last year. A handful of songs that sprang complete from my right brain, but mostly just interesting tidbits. I was moved to write this blog entry because I was struck anew by what a juicy resource those snippets truly are. Most of them could be dropped into a movie soundtrack to underline an emotional moment.

My advice to the wannabes out there? Do your right-brain the favour of capturing its output. Then use your left-brain to craft something out of the disparate pieces, play with the juxtaposition of light and dark phrases. Use your snippets like Lego, play and build things up, then tear them down again. This is where your building blocks come from – now go forth and play architect with them.

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