Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Musicians are sometimes not great at being pragmatic or at least, it’s not our natural leaning. This is especially true when it comes to songwriting.
The Creative Mythos
I think this is in part because there is a mythos around art and the creation of it that is relayed in stories about artists creating their masterpieces. The story goes, in songwriting at least, that the artist creates this iconic song in a moment of profound brilliance and providence, it was so natural and everything came together in some sort of metaphysical epiphany and on the other side they stood there with a song in their hand that went on to become a classic evergreen played on radio forever and a day. Plus, it only took them half an hour to write. Therefore, if you want to write a great song, that’s how you do it because that’s how great songs are written.
I think we like stories like this because they are transcendent. I know I do. There’s nothing wrong with that and I believe it genuinely happens BUT I believe it’s the exception and not the rule. I also think there is also more to the story than that …
I recently read a book called The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In a nutshell it’s about how we make assumptions about people’s success in life without taking into consideration what’s gone on before and how that has affected their ability and circumstances to be successful at something.
One very interesting observation and one that should be quite encouraging and hopefully inspirational (depending on how you look at it) is the experiences of arguably some of the best songwriters in popular music history, the Beatles.
Practice Makes Perfe … Ah, Hit Songs
In Gladwell’s book he points out that the Beatles spent significant time in Homberg, Germany playing music for up to 8 hours per night over the 3 years they worked there. All up he calculates that they spent 1200+ hours playing in those 3 short years. He goes on to point out that this is a phenomenal amount of experience crammed into a very short space of time.
When I think about my own experiences in bands over many years I don’t think I’m even close to playing 1200+ hours live. When I think about it only bands that are touring extensively and for many years rack up those sorts of hours on their instruments as a group and it shows.
Have Melodies, Will Write
Hours of playing aside, I think about the songs they were playing. They were popular songs and they had to know A LOT of them to play for 8 hours at a stretch. Those melodies would have been swirling around in their heads and when it came to write their own songs I can see how it would make it very natural for them to be able to create amazingly catchy pop melodies and arrangements. It’s not mythical and their not superhuman, they had just done a lot of inadvertent practicing.
So what’s my point? Let me tell one more story.
The Saddest Thing I’ve Heard Today
I was talking with another musician from a band I’ve been mastering an EP for recently. These young guys are making some great music both as a band and as individuals. So he was telling me how one of the members of the band wasn’t going to start writing his album until he had a vintage tape machine to record it too. I heard that and was like “What the?! That’s the biggest load of horse fluff I’ve heard”.
Unfortunately this guy was buying into a common and bogus way of thinking about music making. He was waiting for the “the perfect moment” to start making his music. I’ve been there an it’s a bunch of self-sabotaging garbage.
The Time Is Never Right (It’s Always Right)
The truth is, there is no “perfect moment”, most music gets made because people have a goal to write music. Most “great” music gets made because the people writing it have written, and written, and written and they continue to choose the write even when they don’t “feel it”.
Do I believe in providencial moments and the touching of something spiritual in the making of art, you bet, I’ve experienced it myself many times. But I know that when I wait for those moments with nothing in between I won’t create a situation where those moments can happen.
If I don’t have my guitar in my hand at the very least, I’m not even going to be thinking about writing a song. Sure the inspiration might hit when I’m away from my guitar but I know that inspiration is far more stirred up when I’ve been noodling away at a song.
The Myth of The 30 Minute Masterpiece
I think the bottom line is that as songwriters we need to push through and put aside the idea of the “perfect moment” or the perfect song for that matter. Many artists who write evergreen classics didn’t know they were writing them at the time yes they can reflect later and say that it took them 30 minutes to write that and what we get from that story is “songwriting should be easy, natural and happen in this profound moment”. What maybe we should take from that is, wow, that person must have spent hours & years honing their craft to arrive at a moment where this song that not even they realised was going to be a classic got written.
The Songwriting Habit
The lesson for us is if you’re not even writing, you’re not even in the game. If you’re not honing your craft daily you might never get to that moment where it all comes together into something timeless.
So much about being a creative is our headspace. Believing in half-truths and bogus assumptions are some of the biggest stumbling blocks. Building great habits around songwriting and not relying solely on inspiration is key to actually writing great songs.
Remember The Good Times & Cultivate Passion
That’s not to say that it’s a hard slog and just discipline. As Stevie Wonder (who recorded 200 songs in 2.5 years) has indicated, it’s not so much imposed discipline but the passion that drives him.
Cultivating your passion and reminding yourself of how much you enjoy writing and recording music when you don’t feel like it or are discouraged. I can’t count the number of times I’ve not been completely jazzed about hitting the studio but once I’m in here the inspiration and fun of creating starts to bubble up and I’m glad I pushed myself to get writing. I keep those experiences in mind the next time I’m not feeling the studio vibes.
Enough Of The Self-Sabotage
If you’re a songwriter your biggest hurdles isn’t getting creative it’s actually building habits that allow you to be creative. It’s putting a guitar in your hands or a piano under your fingers regularly. It’s about switching on your studio equipment and putting aside a couple of hours to write and record regularly. It’s about finishing a song that last 5% so you can release it and knowing and reminding yourself it’s not nearly as hard as you think. (All of these points I’m reminding myself of too)
You don’t need a vintage tape machine to start recording your music. You don’t need a new guitar. You don’t need to watch that cat/fail video before you get started. You just need to make a start and then make time regularly to work on it. Whether you feel like it or not.
In those moments of habit you will find inspiration, creativity and profoundness. And who knows, you might write a classic song that gets played on radio all the time and then you can tell the story of how it only took you 30 minutes to write.