I took snapshots of paragraphs as I read the books, Songwriters on Songwriting, Isle of Noises, and Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. These are the excerpts that resonated with me most about the creative process. They are numbered but not in the order that I read them and presented without attribution, since I didn't write down the names at the time.
I find these things to be true in my process for songwriting, graphic design, writing, film making, and other creative work. Reading a few of these at random is always helpful for getting me in the zone. I hope they are helpful to you too.
The more you write the better songs you write. You just have to get the shit ones out of the way. Everybody's got shit songs in them.
No, you mustn't. You've got to let them just arrive. Yeah, you can't question what you're doing because that could really get in the way of what's trying to come up.
Confronting the blues, acknowledging the blues, counting the blues, naming the blues through song, is the aesthetic means of expelling the blues from one's life. This is an expression of the historical role of African American song, whether secular or religious. It also reveals ho the blues spirit constantly contests the borders between "reality" and "art." In the work of Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith, blues song represent the collective woes of the community, along with the determination to conquer them. But, at the same time, it acquires a specifically female meaning, furnishing women with one of the rare vehicles through which their agonies, joys, and aspirations may be expressed.
We put down a pilot vocal over a basic recording for our own reference on a song we don't have lyrics to: we've got the melody and just make up words as we go along. Say it's "You Win Again" (hums melody and meaningless syllables) then sing You win again where we think it should be. Then we'll have the lyric session: play it over and over again, listen to it and somehow within that umming and aahing words form, you hear it. It's almost like, what could we be saying there? You hear with your brain words that you weren't actually saying. It's a strange think and that's the formula we've stuck to. It's amazing how much you can come up with like that. It's always worked.
The creative process is a very personal thing. One problem is: don't invite anybody to say anything critical when you are developing a song. It is crucial that you don't. If you feel that you're onto something special, that will uniquely come out as special in the end, the last thing you want it somebody coming in, "Oh, I don't like that...". They may be the cleaning lady, for instance, but it has a psychological effect. You just don't want that king of... you may think, well, what does she know, what do I know; it's not that. It can have a dramatic effect on how the song progresses, even to the point where you don't finish it.
If no one's watching that's completely fine. I'll stand in my socks spinning around with a little acoustic guitar just singing gibberish, hoping to pull something out. Then if you do, Mister Editor comes in the room and says, "Oh, let's see what you've got?" You're like a teacher coming in. You've done your drawing and your little essay: "Oh, I like that line; that's bad, that's bad, that's a nice word..." It's a real schizophrenic thing, 'cause you've got to be the complete shameless child to create. You know there's going to be a lot of rubbish in there, and then you have to put the child and put the editor head on to shape it up and turn it into an acceptable piece of architecture. The editor doesn't create: he just wields the axe and chops it about. The trouble is, I think the editor has grown too powerful and it's stopping me creating.
What happened there, I got the phrase a nurse's life is full of woe which I kind of liked, and I would have sat down with a guitar and bashed out a tune that fitted around that. Using that phrase as a piece of grit I would then construct everything else around that, including the tune. But when I couldn't write a song that convincingly conveyed that idea—and I couldn't—I still had a tune. Take the tune off, then use that as a way of forming an idea around it; use that as an anchor. That's just a way, that's not the way. There's a great poem by Rudyard Kipling, "In The Neolithic Age"; the chorus is, the punchline is, There's nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, (medieval term for song) / And every single one of them is right! There is no one way to write a song. It's like saying, "How do you have a conversation?" You don't know when you start it how you're going to do it, where it's going to go, how it's going to pick up. All you know is that subsequently it made sense and that it can be communicated to other people.
It's always followed the same path. I write a full song with chords and melody. I arrange it all, work it all out and sit there until the words come along. I wouldn't have three chords and a melody and take it to a producer and say, "Can we do something with that?" When I go into the studio it's done. I don't fuck about when I get in there. If I have four chords that I like I'll work on that—there won't be any words—until I've bashed it into a tune. I'll do a middle eight, work on the rhythm, the phrasing of how the rhythm of the words will be. Then I'll play it and play it until some words come along, and nine out of ten they don't. I've got about six albums' worth of stuff. It's a nightmare. Words just don't fall out of the sky for me. It's really frustrating sometimes.
You can start a song with a wonderful first line, but where do you go? I write quatrains that way. I write the last line of the quatrain because that's the clinch. You finish a line; you have to rhyme it with line two. Line two is easy if you've got line four. The first line is fine, but the two and four are what's important. This is a very clinical way of songwriting; I know it sounds that way, but it's a craft. You learn how to do it.
My sense of rhyme used to be more involved in my songwriting than it is. Still staying in the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work it back and then see If you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.
In fact, you have to wait for the audience—they're going to sit down, get settled in their seat... their concentration is not even there. You have to be a good host to people's attention span. They're not going to come in there and work real hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, the rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is sorting out.
Yeah. It's something I can't do today because I don't get the opportunity to write as much. But we always kept the flow going. We always had this work ethic going where we learned by working. And we tried to write every day. You can't write a great song every day, but we kept the flow and our minds were in tune. Now I throw out the ideas that are bad. In those days, I didn't.
As for advice for young songwriters: Don't be afraid to write a bad song because the next one may be great. It's just like anything else; you've got to keep the synapses in your brain going. And you have to think about it every day. The main thing is keeping your head free just to think about songs, which is a hard thing to do when you're raising kids or you've got a job and you're hustling for money. It's a hard thing.
No, I think it's a discipline. And I don't necessarily go by this, but it's a rule I think I should go by, and when I'm right, I'll do it, which is: music breeds it's own inspiration. You can only do it by doing it. You just sit down and you may not feel like it, but you push yourself. It's a work process. Or just improvise. Something will come. Or turn on the drum machine. Or turn on another stop on a keyboard. Or get away from the piano. But don't sit around and wait for something magical to happen in your head or heart.
Yes. I think that if you have a vision of peace, it's very strange living in a world that has so much war. I think that if you are a woman who honors some of your feminist roots, I think that it's a little bit strange to be in a male-dominated business. I think that if you're aware or sensitive to animal rights, it's strange living in a world that generally doesn't acknowledge animals at all. And on and on. And with the music too.
Sometimes it's like a difference tone. That's where you have a note and a note and the combination of these two notes give you a third note, which is a difference tone. You get a theoretical difference tone from lyrics which are set ironically. The sum total of the package is more than just these words, this chord. You get the third concept, which is that these two things don't belong together but somebody put them there. And so you get the extra message there.
Yeah. People are flowers, music is water and the musician is the hose. When you look at how Beethoven heard "Da-da-da-dum" it wasn't from the radio. There is an inner radio that is happening all the time. And the dial to turn it on is that you have to shut up. You have to shut up your mind, you have to shut up your mouth. And just listen.
I don't know if you've ever been to a place where it's so silent that it's loud. The silence is loud. Since I have learned to meditate, sometimes out of meditation you get the songs and you go, "Oh, now I see where Trane was getting all this stuff, or where Jimi Hendrix was coming from." Because silence is like a radio itself and the way you tune in is to make yourself more silent and then you hear the songs louder.
Since I became a professional, it's been hard for me not to critique my work while I'm doing it. And that can destroy it. 'Cause it really is a spirit being born. It's a living spirit. When people hear it, a spirit happens to them. And you have to be really quiet and careful with it when it's first being born, and you can't tell it it's wrong, 'cause it will just die. For me, they do. If before they're done I start to think something is wrong with them, they just won't get done. You have to keep going back and playing 'em over and over again and listening to them.
Lately, I get in a room by myself. No telephone, no TV, not much to look at. I usually start by writing down random phrases. Maybe I'll start writing about a certain subject and there's a phrase that strikes me, so I'll spin off from that.
Sometimes I turn on the drum machine and program a groove that I like and play guitar along with it. I play chord changes and sing along with that, gibberish or maybe some words. Sometimes I'll record that onto a little 4-track cassette thing and try to improvise a melody onto that. It's usually pretty basic stuff. It's pretty low-tech, in other words.
I'll sometimes start with a blank piece of paper and I'll think of a word. Just one word like "bend." And I'll put that in the middle of the page. And I'll circle it. And I'll just stare at that for a while. And other words will soon come to mind. Maybe "walls." Bend walls, I don't know why. And I'll draw a line from that circle that says "bend" to the circle that says "walls" and circle that. Now after a while, maybe "walls" says "paint" because that's where "paint" came from. Then I'll go back to "bend" and think of "rubber" or something, draw a line from "bend" to rubber." And I'll just keep building this out.