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Where Do You Go When the Well Runs Dry?

OK, you’ve written your 12-bar song. You’ve also applied the jazz chords you learned from your mate. You’ve written the one about the person who loves you, and the one about the person who doesn’t. Your political activist phase lasted a week and you are grateful that you got two decent songs from that. You’ve done the hangover song, the suicide song, the tragic song. You’ve even done that ridiculous happy one. Ideas are flowing; it’s been a great 12 months.

Suddenly, you have no idea what to do next.

When inspiration isn’t forthcoming, it can be puzzling and disappointing.

Where did it go? What can you do to get it back?

I will look at these two questions from a personal perspective. I offer no absolute answers, as we all approach the creation of our songs in different ways - what works for me might not work for you.

Where did it go?

When inspiration deserts us, we might be quick to attach the age-old phrase that is attributed to the blocking of the creative process. I prefer to avoid using the term “writer’s block” as it has connotations of being a clinical condition; requiring the attentions of a crack team of psychiatrists before the problem can be remedied.

There could be many reasons for inspiration packing its bags and taking a holiday.

Maybe you have written all the songs you have to sing.

It might be true. If you only ever play the same four chord turnaround, and only write songs about toast and vegemite, maybe there’s a limit to what you can do. But that’s doubtful.

Is discipline the problem?

There has been a lot written about using a disciplined approach to facilitate your songwriting. This has value, especially if you haven’t written in a long time and don’t know where to begin. I believe, however, that churning out songs mechanically for 60 minutes every evening, sitting in the same spot, using the same pen etc may end up having a detrimental effect. It’s a bit like being forced to eat Brussels Sprouts. If you were left to develop your palate naturally, you may find that one day you quite enjoy them. But if the very mention of the vegetable in question reprises memories of childhood nausea, pitched battles with parents and a recollection of the foulest taste in your memory, you’re probably never going to enjoy them. Being disciplined has its place, but be careful how much pressure you apply. Don’t turn something joyful into a chore.

fender & vox

Sick of sounding like everyone else?

Worried that people think you sound too much like someone else? Concerned that you have nothing original to give? Don’t worry about it. There are only a few chord progressions that work, and they’ve all been done before. By the time you finish the song it might be easy to pick your influences, but chances are it will still sound like one of yours.

Maybe you are trying too hard?

Not every song has to feature a sparkling bridge, lyrics that will save lives or a collection of esoteric chords known only to you and members of a little-known collective in the Aran Isles.

Sure, it’s great when you’ve finished what you consider to be a masterwork. But I bet most people have been equally happy with some of their “simpler” works. Sometimes simplicity is the key.

I believe that all of these aspects are worth investigating, but in the end it boils down to one thing. It is the desire to write that vanishes.

Let’s face it, if you know three chords, and can read the newspaper, you can write a song. Granted, a 12-bar rocker about the new superannuation arrangements may not be the best and/or most interesting thing you’ve ever written, but if you haven’t written in a while, it might provide some relief. But where is the desire?

What can you do to get it back?

Writing songs by applying a disciplined approach is one way to get back into a sort of songwriting groove but, as mentioned earlier, used in isolation it may prove detrimental. What we are chasing here is a return to those classics you have penned in the past, the ones with the big choruses, irresistible hooks, and lyrics that paint perfect pictures. The songs that make you want to keep writing.

my music room

Environmental concerns

If you have a place where you usually play and write, make sure that you feel good while you are there. Fill the room/corner with things you like, that make you feel good about what you are doing. It’s hard to pen a masterpiece when the television is blaring and your partner wants to talk about their day.

Write, write, write…

Even if the songs aren’t coming, even if you think you have nothing to say, carry a notebook and scrawl whenever anything interesting enters your head. I am surprised at how many times I whip out my journal and make a note or two. These seemingly unrelated, random things may look like they belong together when you read them in a week’s time.

I used to write two poems every morning for a website-based competition, simply to keep my hand in. One competition asked for a haiku to accompany a picture. The other called for the writer to use a limited set of words which were provided on the site. Both were restrictive but I enjoyed the challenge. I did these things for me, I never had any real thought on “winning” anything.

Check out your back catalogue

Every songwriter has a pile of unfinished works – snatches of melody, a chorus, a few good lines – even complete songs that you just fell out of love with. Have another look. It might be that with the passage of time, you can breathe life into some of your “lesser” work again. But beware, it may be that whatever kept you from finishing these song in the past will strike again, driving you deeper into the mire.

Same sentiment, different song

If you can’t think of anything new to say, re-jig something you have said before. Maybe from a different perspective, maybe not. Who says you can’t make statement about the things you care about more than once? Certainly not Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg or Bob Marley.

Record everything

If you rehearse regularly, get hold of a recorder of some sort and press “record” while you are playing. In between songs during rehearsals I am often noodling with progressions and licks and, again, I am surprised to see some of them proving useful in middle eights and the like later on. They would probably be lost forever without recording them, or at least be parked so far back in my brain that it might be twenty years before they reappear…

Get out and about

I never come home from seeing live music without wanting to pick up my guitar and play – even if it’s just for a few minutes. There’s always something to learn from watching others and if you can bed something down quickly, you might find you have a new string to your bow.

fostex x-15

Change your discipline

If you generally start your process with the music, write a set of lyrics first for a change. If you write at night, try doing it in the morning. Shake things up a bit.

Tap into your heroes

We all have our favourite artists. Those that, in the past, have inspired us. Read a biography, borrow a DVD or treat yourself to a new CD; see if the inspiration comes again.

Listen to something new and different

If you’ve never listened to country, go and get yourself a Hank Williams CD. Or something by Emmylou Harris. Listening to a new genre can often show you different ways to stitch your chords together. You might also pick up some new rhythmic styles. On a slight weirder note, I have been known to sit at my PC, listening to recordings in reverse. Again, new chord progressions! If it was good enough for the Stone Roses on their universally lauded first album, it’s good enough for me.

various strings

Try different chords/tunings/instruments

For example, invest $25 in a cheap ukulele. They are fun to play, relatively easy to learn on; there’s free sheet music available on the internet.

Strap on your old harmonica and accompany yourself while you are strumming.

Try some open tunings.

In closing, I hope that your well never runs dry. It might get low from time to time, but I am sure that if you look hard enough you will find something to keep you going. This article includes some of the notions I have entertained when contemplating my songwriting. I am sure that there are many other tactics that could be employed to keep the songs flowing. Good luck!

© Copyright David Robinson, 2006

Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author