SCALA

Courting The Muse:
Random Thoughts on Songwriting

NOTE: This is a copy of an article as published in the May/June 1999 issue of SCALA NEWS, the bimonthly newsletter of the Songwriters, Composers, And Lyricists Association.

Introduction

I was 15 or 16 when I wrote my first song. Unfortunately, I never kept a copy of it so I can’t tell you what it was about, but I’m sure it was immediately forgettable! This would have been in 1963 or ’64. With the meteoric rise of the Beatles and other pop acts at the time, I of course, had every intention of being a pop star myself and getting my share of the girls and glory! Alas, it was not to be.  

This period of popular musical culture also saw the rise and subsequent decline of folk music as a chart topping genre. It was during these years that my love and enjoyment of folk music came to the fore. Over the next few years a kept writing my ‘pop’ songs but I was also writing ‘folk’ songs as well. Eventually, I gave up trying to compete with the Beatles and decided to compete with Dylan instead!  

This is not to imply that I had no interest in rock music. I still have vinyl copies of some of the great 60’s albums by the Stones, Hendrix, Beatles, and others including Black Sabbath, and I continue to enjoy the best of modern popular music, but, ultimately, folk music became my all abiding passion, and remains so to this day.  

But enough of this potted history, let’s move on to the real reason you are reading this. 

Where Do Songs Come From?

To be honest, I have no idea. Well, alright then, maybe I do. Certainly they arise out of life experiences. They also come about as a result of a particular mood or feeling. And they almost always come out of the subconscious mind which operates at various levels of thought (or should that be non thought?). In fact, I’ve come to believe that my Muse and my subconscious are one and the same. If they are not, then they definitely share a very close, personal relationship! For this reason, I will refer to them from time to time collectively as my Subconscious Muse, and treat them as one entity. 

Songs can be inspired by many things; a news item, a line from another song, the view across a valley, a magazine article, your latest mid-life crisis, and much more. All of these triggers have resulted in new songs for me over the past couple of years, and all will, I hope, continue to be a source of ongoing inspiration. 

Mind you, I used to think I knew better than my Subconscious Muse. I would argue with it over the direction a song was taking, and often I would refuse to write down or complete a song because I felt it was not my style. After all, I was a serious writer of hard edged topical songs in the folk style, and the idea of writing something that smelt of pop or country music was anathema to me.  

Such is the arrogance of youth! Who knows just how many good songs where lost because of this attitude? Is this what Dylan meant when he sang,  

“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
- My Back Pages 

I’ve now learnt not to argue with my Muse, and accept any gifts of song he (my Muse is a ‘he’) chooses to pass my way. Over the past 24 months I have written songs in the pop, rock, and country styles of music – or at least my interpretations of these genre’s – as well as continuing to write in the folk style. I may never sing some of the songs I have written, even the good ones, but hopefully, other people will.

 

Unlock The Subconscious

Unlocking the subconscious is a bit like brainstorming. If you have ever participated in a brainstorming session, you will know that one of the most important rules is to say what comes into your head without self-editing your comments. Another, related rule is to not criticize other people’s suggestions until the brainstorming session is over. Criticism and self-editing block the subconscious, and stop otherwise spontaneous and sometimes brilliant ideas from getting through.  

Over the past two years or so I have begun to apply the rules of brainstorming to my songwriting. Once the initial song flow starts, my main concern is to keep the channel open and let the song come through.  

This style of writing may also be likened to ‘stream of consciousness’ writing. Ok, I know this is starting to sound like some New Age mumbo jumbo, but it works for me! I often think it is not me writing the song at all. I am merely taking down words, much like a secretary might. But where a secretary takes down the boss’s words, I am taking down my Muse’s words.  

Often I never know which direction a song is going to take when I write like this. Not surprisingly, this has led to some very strange songwriting experiences. For instance, a song about a middle aged man, reflecting back on his youth as an angry young man turns into a song about a dying cowboy reflecting back on his misspent youth!  

A song about John Howard and Australian politics, turns into a song about broken promises and personal betrayal (all right, I can see the connection too, but when you listen to the song, you would never guess that John Howard was the original motivation behind it!). 
Jim's Note: Click here to see and hear the finished song...

The lesson here is to follow where your Muse leads you. Since some of my best songs have been written using this technique I am quite happy to keep on employing this method of songwriting. Of course, just as in brainstorming where some truly awful ideas and suggestions will always be made, so too will you write down some embarrassingly trite and cliched lyrics. Don’t worry about it. The important thing is to move on and get your words down on paper while your Subconscious Muse is still with you. Later on you can sift through the mud and pull out any gold nuggets worth keeping. 

As I write this article, I am putting the finishing touches to a new song called Stars Like You. The initial outpouring of words took around 30 minutes, at the end of which I had written four verses, a chorus and a bridge. I have since dropped the bridge, and made substantial changes to the whole song, and still I continue to tighten up the lyrics each time I sing it. By the time I have finished the song my initial 30 minutes will have blown out to numerous hours spread over a week or more. At this stage I think I have a singable song, but it may also end up in the back of the filing cabinet. Which leads me to this totally gratuitous pop quiz…  

Q: What’s the difference between a good songwriter and a bad songwriter? 
A:
A good songwriter knows when s/he has written a bad song! 

Feeding The Muse

It is important that you look after your Muse and keep it well stimulated. I do this by reading; by trying to get out of town (a recent eight day road trip interstate led to five new songs); by trying to get to live concerts, and by listening to lots of music. While I don’t listen to a lot of commercial radio, I do on average, buy one or two secondhand CDs each week. Recent purchases include Bjork, Lou Reed, Alanis Morrisette, Shawn Colvin, Chris Smither, Lyle Lovett, Frank Zappa, Iris DeMent, and numerous others.  

By listening to a wide range of music, and different styles within music genre’s, I believe it helps me to think ‘outside the square’ and look for new ways of expressing myself through my songwriting.
Jim's Note: Click here to see a complete list of my CD collection...

 

Heeding The Muse

Just as you should keep your Muse well stimulated, so too should you pay attention when it has a new song for you. A well cared for Muse may sometimes present you with new songs at the most inconvenient times, but woe to the person who ignores their Muse because they are too busy doing other things! And a double helping of woe if you ignore your Muse on a regular basis.  

Songs have come to me while I’ve been driving; standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes; on the toilet; and even while I’ve been in bed asleep. Of this last location, I have yet to perfect the skill of writing while sleeping. Alas, this has resulted in my losing several songs because I refused to wake up and write them down. I thought I would remember them and write them down in the morning, but by the time I was ready to commit words to paper, the songs had moved on – probably to someone else!  

The lesson here is to seize the moment, and put yourself through the discomfort of lost sleep, or whatever else you happen to be engaged in at the time, to at least get the initial ideas and themes on paper while they are still fresh in your mind. Clearly I still have a few things left to learn. 

This reminds me of an occasion a few years ago when my Muse tapped my on the shoulder as I was driving into the city to attend a seminar, and proceeded to give me a new song complete with tune. For an hour and a half I sat through the seminar humming quietly to myself, while I studiously took down ‘notes’. I was of course, working on my new song, and desperately trying not to forget the melody.
Jim's Note: Click here to see the song I eventually wrote...

Rules Are For Breaking!

Will your song be bad if it doesn’t have a middle eight (or bridge)? Should every song have a nice catchy hook? Does it matter that a song has no chorus? Should you worry that your song is longer than 3 ½ minutes?  

The answer my friend is blowing in the… sorry, the answer of course, is – No.  

I’m sure many successful performers thank their Lucky Muses every day for this fact. Bob Dylan led the way with Like A Rolling Stone in 1965. When it was released on a 45rpm single it had to be spread over two sides. And where would popular music be without such extended classics as American Pie, Stairway To Heaven, and one of my personal favourites, Layla, by Derek & The Dominos (aka, Eric Clapton)? All of them break one or more so called songwriting ‘rules’. 

My approach to songwriting length is simple. Concentrate on telling the story. If I can tell that story in three minutes, fine, but if it takes me longer, and it generally does, then I’m happy to take the extra time required to tell it. 

As to the other ‘rules’. Some songs are born with choruses, while others are not. Some suggest possible bridges, others never do. Still other songs come with hooks attached, while others get clean away! I don’t pretend to know why this is, and I don’t worry about it. I just try to accept the songs for what they are, and hope they turn out ok. 

Words Or Melody First?

Almost every song I’ve ever written has started with the words. Other writer’s start with a complete tune, or a simple guitar riff. I have several interesting chord sequences I play from time to time, but to date, my Muse has yet to suggest a set of lyrics to go with them. One day he may, but then again he may not. Maybe I’m missing something here. Could it be that the ‘tunes’ are meant to be played as instrumental pieces only? One day I will try them with a few other musicians and see what happens.

 

Fade Out

I don’t know if any of this has been useful, but I always find it interesting to see how others go about the process of creating new music. In the end, the only thing that really matters is that you just get on with the task before you – that of producing the best music you are capable of, and then presenting it to your audience where ever they may be. Good luck – and may the Muse be with you. 

© 1999, Jim Lesses 

JIM LESSES: Sometimes I Wake Up Naked

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JIM LESSES: American Dream

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