I’ve been thinking about the creative process a lot lately.
The questions songwriters are asked on the subject of “craft” tend to fall into the “what comes first — music or lyrics?” bag. I don’t think it’s ever that simple, though. Someone ought to make a documentary where they set up a camera and ask a lot of different artists — painters, sculptors, writers/authors/poets, musicians, filmmakers, and creators of all kinds — one question: what is the process of creating like for you? And then let them go on and talk about it for however long they want to, exploring whatever threads it leads to. But the main thing is getting at what happens when you create. How does it happen? What goes through your mind? How do you get from an empty head and a blank canvas to a finished painting? How does a six-word phrase and a half-formed chord progression become a full-blown song?
Maybe something like this already exists, but I’ve yet to hear about it. I know I’d watch it, and if it was done well I’d find it fascinating. I don’t think we often really explore or think about how it happens. We dance around the process without getting intimate with it. And that’s fair enough. It can be a pretty personal thing that’s tough to articulate. But I think getting a good cross-section of people to open up about what it’s like for them would be really interesting.
It’s difficult to explain what the creative process is like for me. It’s gone through a lot of mutations over time. For years I led two creative lives at once. In one of them, I would improvise songs while recording them, making it all up as I went along. In the other, I would write lyrics, usually at school, and then fumble around at home with a keyboard trying to give voice to the music that was in my head. For a long time the songs improvised out of nothing were arguably of much higher quality than most of the ones I spent time constructing in a more conventional way.
My improvisational skills were honed over the years, and it got to the point where I could hit the record button with nothing in my head and end up with an epic song that sounded like I knew what I was doing. It even seemed like there was some structure there. Form would emerge out of formlessness. After a while the two separate lives began to intersect until the written material started to get a nod once in a while, though it was often skewed with a lot of improvisation.
Then I decided I was after something different, and the writing began to dominate. There was still a lot of improvisation involved, but it became integrated into what was premeditated instead of the other way around. Hitting the record button and seeing what toppled out without any preparation or safety net grew less frequent.
Then things began to shift again. And one day it hit me that I no longer wrote songs at all. I caught them with a proverbial net. They were flying around all the time. All I had to do was open my eyes to see them.
These days, when someone asks me how I go about writing songs I have a hard time giving an explanation that I feel really gets across how it happens. A short answer doesn’t cut it, but if I rambled on as long as I felt the need to, I imagine I’d end up losing whoever I was talking to after a while. I’ve used metaphors before, including the radio idea, but never felt like I nailed it. I tried recording video footage of a song being written and posted it here, but knowing I was being filmed changed the way my brain worked and altered the process a little, so that didn’t really get at the truth of it either.
The best way I know how to describe it is like this.
Say you get in your car. Doesn’t matter what kind of car it is. It’s a hunk of metal with wheels and a couple armless chairs inside. They all pretty much look the same now. Not a lot of them have character like cars used to back when they all had their own distinct personalities.
Your car has its own personality. It has a radio. No CD player or cassette deck. Just an old-fashioned radio, from before the time of auto-dial and digital seeking and all those advancements.
I guess that would make your car pretty old. No wonder it has character.
So you’re in your car, driving along. The radio is turned off. Without warning it comes to life. You didn’t turn it on. It just is. The dial has some strange design to it that doesn’t allow you to manipulate it in any way — everyone else says it’s broken, but you know better — so you have no control over it. The dial has a mind of its own. It flies all over the place with no prompting from you until it lands somewhere. And where it lands, there’s a song. It’s you singing, though you’ve never heard this one before. Those are some good words right there. You listen to the song, it ends, the radio turns itself off again. That was nice.
You go home, write down the words, figure out the music, and marvel at this new song that was just gifted to you. You watch some TV, maybe play with the kids if you have kids, maybe toast some bread and eat it if you have bread, maybe just admire how its texture has changed and let the dog investigate. He seems to like bread that’s had a life-changing toaster experience.
Later on you go out to buy some milk. You’re driving along and the radio dial goes wild again, landing on a different station, playing a different song you’ve never heard before. This time you just get a verse and some guitar ideas before it cuts out, but they seem to have some promise. You go home and write them down too.
This happens all the time. Sometimes several times a day. Sometimes not at all for a week or more. But it’s a regular thing.
If the radio goes a few days without acting up, you know another spurt of activity is just around the corner and there’s no cause for alarm. All you have to do is wait for it to happen again. It always does, though not always when you’re expecting it to, and not always at the most convenient times.
Sometimes there’s a bit of static and you have to work to hear what’s going on. You have to do your best with what you get, since you can’t just massage the dial to the left or right a little to improve the reception. Sometimes you only get a fragment of a song. But most of the time a piece of music comes more or less intact, fully-formed, in clear, glorious stereo sound.
Sometimes things are a little jumbled and out of order. Maybe you get the middle of the song before the beginning, and the end before that. Maybe you have to wait a few minutes after one part of the song plays for another to come along. Sometimes the words or the music come at different times, on different days.
It can be a lot to keep track of. But your brain figures it out and unscrambles it all pretty fast. You adapt.
Other people sit down in your car and nothing happens. The radio is indifferent to them. This is your radio. It works only for you. Sometimes the songs it plays for you seem out of character, but you’ve learned not to ask questions. If you try to twist the songs in directions they don’t want to go they might fall apart, and if you try too hard to impose your own will the radio will fall silent. It chooses what the music is going to be.
You can exercise some amount of influence, but not to the point of becoming the dominant force. Your job is to do your best to preserve the spontaneous broadcasts you’re privy to, tweak them until they’re assembled as well as they can be (when tweaking is needed), figure out which ones are worth pursuing (because the radio doesn’t edit things or discriminate and will sometimes give you substandard material to work with), and then do with them what you will.
That’s about it. I don’t think i can explain it much better than that, aside from repeating that I don’t really feel like I write songs anymore. I just try to always be open to the songs and ideas when they come, whenever they decide to come, wherever it is they come from. I’m just the guy sitting in the car, furiously jotting down what I hear broadcasting on the ghost-fried radio. It works out well that I don’t drive. My hands are always free, and it’s easier for me to get it all down.
Bringing the metaphor down to earth, I guess I would be the radio, and that would make me the receiver, with my brain the antenna or transistor, and my body the transmitter.
Where the electromagnetic waves originate from, well…that’s a mystery to me. My albums are not only snapshots of wherever I happen to be when they’re recorded, though I still think that’s a pretty good way of starting to understand why there are so many of them and why they don’t all sound the same. They’re also my best attempts at preserving, translating, and making sense of the transmissions sent my way.
If things keep going the way they are, a lifetime probably won’t be enough to get it all down. But trying is half the fun, iddnit?
Also on the subject of writing, that cheap classical guitar I got has decided to inspire new songs with a vengeance, and it’ll probably end up showing its wooden face on the next album a fair bit. The songs I’ve written on it so far don’t really mess with structure like most of the others do, but I think they fit in somehow. Alas, it looks like my plan to have the album finished this month might have been a little too hasty. It might get close, but it won’t quite make it there. Better not to rush it.
Hey, didn’t I say this same thing almost exactly a year ago while working on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY? I think I did. I was pretty close to getting four full-length albums out there this year, too. I guess there’s always next year. In any case, barring Kanye West moving to Windsor and suing me for having the same last name as him, the album should definitely make its way out there sometime in January. I already have the album title and the cover art/font/design stuff figured out, and though there are several songs that still need to be recorded, I have a pretty good idea how many songs there will be, what their names will be, and what they’ll have to say.
It should be interesting. I haven’t played around with form and dynamics this much in a long time. It’s good to be back. As fun as it can be to write songs that follow more conventional and predictable paths, for me it can’t compete with the challenge of constructing a song that keeps changing until it dies and yet still feels like an organic, self-contained thing. Some of these songs might be some of the more drastic things I’ve ever done in terms of how much they mess with structure.
One track begins as ambient mandolin resonance with some distant harmonica and then becomes a skeletal archtop guitar-driven bluesy thing, which mushrooms into a somewhat jazzy groove with a slightly off-kilter rhythm. That goes through several shifts in tone before leading into a more driving rhythm that would be the climax in a different song, only for it to get broken apart. Then rhythm is abandoned altogether as the music and singing become dissonant and free. That dissolves, and then things lock into a new rhythm that accelerates while something that resembles a jagged guitar solo keeps trying to rip it all apart. That splinters and dissolves into more rhythmic freedom and dissonance, and then a free-form piano section with bugle accents closes the song.
In other words, if you enjoy songs with singalong choruses and lyrics about holding hands and learning to understand, you’re gonna dig it! You dig?
Not on the subject of writing, but still sure to thrill you — I showed up here. Thanks, as always, to everyone at CJAM for playing my noise, and thanks to Adam for giving me a nod on his list. There’s nothing quite like hearing yourself on the radio, or someone else telling you they heard you on the radio, or the radio donning a three-piece suit and telling you your stock will rise in the third quarter. New noise is coming soon. IF I HAD A QUARTER… having the distinction of being the highest charting of my CDs in the year-end top thirty is a huge surprise to me, and it cracks me up.
It just goes to show — the bloated quasi-breakup album will never die.