First Friday Voices · Music

Some Notes on the Creative Process

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As a singer, songwriter and performer, I am continually learning about the nature of the creative process. Trying to adapt strategies to summon, channel and direct this force is a
challenge that requires a certain discipline. Each of my above stated occupations, (or pre-occupations) makes its’ own associated demands. Let’s start with songwriting.

For me, songwriting is sometimes the hardest and other times the easiest creative task. What I am most often asked is, “which comes first, the words or the music”. Usually, but not always, it’s the words. A line or phrase will come into my head, that evokes some feeling, place, person or thing and I’m off and running. Often to nowhere, but the point is to keep at it, pick up the pencil and write. I have several pads of paper with many pages of two or three lines, that went no further, but if I’m lucky, the words will just come flowing out on to the paper, first line leading to the second and so on, as if I’m just a medium through which the words are being manifested. I won’t even know what I’m writing about until it’s done. Maybe not even then. It’s kind of scary and exhilarating, like a motorcycle ride. You don’t fully get the impact of where you’ve been until you step off the bike.

Other times, it can be drudgery. This usually happens when I’ve made a decent start and I think, I know where I want to go, but nothing seems to come, to help me get there. The words have to sound right in my head, there has to be a certain flow… rhythm and rhyme. When it’s really not happening, I have to put it aside for awhile. Hopefully, I’ll be able to come back to it. Unfortunately, inspiration can’t be turned off and on. To paraphrase an old blues verse: “just when you think it’s on….it’s turned off and gone”.

Writing lyrics is not writing poetry. One can be poetic, but a song is meant to be sung. Not many songwriters can get away with sung poetry. And few poets that I know of can convincingly sing their work.

The music often comes from thinking/singing the words. A tune takes shape. Maybe part of the melody of another song can be the starting point for a new melody. Maybe the mood of the song suggests a melody. Maybe there is a chord progression you’ve been saving that fits the lyric. A tune can come from a lot of places.

Working it the other way around, putting words to a melody is a fun exercise. It’s like filling in the blanks in a puzzle. Each note is a blank that has to be given weight and meaning and it all has to make a certain amount of sense. Doesn’t have to be literal, but it has to sound right. If it’s someone else’s melody that has a title, that can be a key to what lyric is called for. If it’s your own melody or one without a title, just go for it. Take whatever the tune is saying to you, making you feel and put that into words. Sometimes a little “poetic license” needs to be applied to either make the lyric or the melody work. In my opinion, there’s no great harm in that.

I really admire the great composers and lyricists of the 1920s through early 1950s that wrote what is often called “the Great American Songbook”. Often writing for Broadway, they perfected the craft of the popular song. Then, in the 50s, the Rock n Roll songwriters, like Leiber & Stoller, turned the industry on its’ head, only to be revolutionized again in the 1960s by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and a host of singer/songwriters. I guess, I identify more with the latter era that is of my own time. If anyone is interested in hearing examples of my songwriting, I have a CD available for download at cdbaby. It’s called “Originals Anthology Volume I.” There are samples available to hear and you can purchase the whole CD of 15 songs for only $11.99.

Thanks to, my dear friend, Janis, for the opportunity to talk about songwriting here and thank you all, for taking the time to read my comments. Happy Spring! No foolin’!

Andrew Sexton

 

11 thoughts on “Some Notes on the Creative Process

  1. Andrew,

    I always like hearing about someone else’s process when it comes to creative endeavors. You and I are almost opposites when it comes to songwriting! I invariable start with the music – either something I’ve created myself or something from a collaborator – then improvise lyrics while listening to the music. I have used more traditional methods in the past (mostly in composition classes) but they don’t suit me as well as improvisation. There’s something in the pressure one feels while improvising which seems to bring out the best in me. When I sit and write, I get bogged down by all the paths I could follow and what I come up with feels strained more often than not.

    It all started with jazz. 😉 My Dad was a jazz musician and I heard a lot of his records as a child. I loved the freeform nature of the melodies and rhythms, loved scatting, and saw my voice as an instrument free to weave in and out of the structures already in place. Since I was also learning piano and took ballet from age 4, I had a strong grounding in Western classical music as well. The combination has been a blessing for me throughout my life.

    The one time I’ll write a song with lyrics first is when a friend or collaborator asks me to, or when I want to surprise someone by setting prose or poetry they were inspired by onto the piece of music they ended up making because of that inspiration. Examples include two songs I’ve done with iHussain (someone I collaborate with who lives in England) – A Daughter of Eve (using poetry by Christina Rossetti) and Emeralds of Rajasthan (based on his description of an instrumental piece he uploaded to iCompositions). I also wrote a poem for someone there to set to music which I then created a melody for – Children Together, with Rex Lee. Last, but not least, a lyricist at iCompositions, LunaBleu, asked people to use her lyrics in a song and I set them to music by another friend, Macoco, and that became If Now Were Then. (All of the mentioned songs are available for streaming at iCompositions.com – see URL below.)

    Since I was a poet before I started writing songs, I also feel that poetry is its own thing and isn’t always best set to music. On the other hand, in recent years I’ve been doing a lot of spoken word pieces (poetry set to, or set off by, music). I’ll go check out your songs at CD Baby.

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    1. Hi Carla,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post. I too, love to improvise and scat sing. And if its a blues progression, I can often come up with endless lines. (Used to play sax.) It’s rare that this works for me when writing lyrics outside the blues realm. Maybe I should try it more. I’ll listen to your music and get back to you. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So cool to read that- my Dad played tenor sax – I like baritone t he best, though – I’m a huge fan of Gerry Mulligan. BTW, I listened to several of your songs the other day and can’t get Love Our Lives Away out of my head! TTFN’

        Carla

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      2. Thank you Carla. That tune gets a lot of positive response. I don’t know if you saw, but I couldn’t get the link provided to work. So I have not been able to hear any of your music. Is there another way to access it, or maybe you could provide it again? Cheers!

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      1. Hi Carla,

        I reached your soundcloud space and listened to “Goodbye Blues”, really liked it. I am very impressed that you pieced it together using loops and I don’t know what. I have an app for doing that called Acid, but I haven’t played with it much. Look forward to listening to more of your stuff when time allows. Cheers, Andy

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  2. Thanks – and I can see why you think there were loops involved. The guy who runs Wikiloops is German and he used the word loops to get people to check it out, I think… it’s actually individual musicians who upload music they’ve made for use by the other musicians on the site. In the case of Goodbye to the Blues, I used someone’s music and added the melody and lyrics, then asked everyone to create bits to add (guitar parts and so on) and wove them together to make the resulting song.

    Take care,

    Carla

    Liked by 1 person

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