Since leaving university, I have pretty much become a full time songwriter. This means I have to ensure I am self-disciplined with my productivity, including songwriting. During my time at university I had lessons about songwriting, my friends were songwriters, even the people I lived with were songwriters, and I was surrounded by musicians virtually all the time. I found this was a great source of inspiration, with influences and ideas flowing constantly because I was surrounded by an enthusiasm for writing. Now I have left, it’s a little harder to stumble across such easy inspiration. However, something I do have on my side is time. Without having to concentrate on essays and dissertations, I have time to dedicate specifically to songwriting. I thought I would share some tips that I have found help me stay inspired and motivated, that might be useful to any songwriters out there. I can also look back on this when I’m struggling myself, as I often succumb to writer’s block.
CREATE A SCHEDULE
At university, the only schedules I set myself included my academic timetable and library essay sessions. I very rarely set myself a writing schedule, I just wrote whenever I felt inspired or had the time. Of course, even now I still write when I feel inspired or have an itch to create something, but now that I have the luxury of flexibility, I like to commit more time to writing, as not only does this enhance my productivity, but also provide practice and techniques even if many of my ideas or songs get scrapped. Eventually the process will allow me to write something worth keeping.
Being a bit of a stationary fanatic, I like to make lists and plan all of the tasks that need to be done the following day in my diary. This is when I include a writing session. I like to dedicate at least 1-2 hours of writing on an average day (and more if possible), but I don’t necessarily restrict myself to certain times, just when I’m feeling most inspired, which for me is often in the evening. But sometimes I do it smack bang in the middle of the day to break up my tasks that mostly involve using the computer. It gives me a break from staring at a screen and lets me be creative so that when I start my afternoon tasks, my mind is fresh! So typically, I will write for a session in the middle of the day and come back to it in the evening for as long as I want. I also have a part time job, so this isn’t always possible, but this is why planning can become important, ensuring that I am including writing at some point. So far I have found that my productivity levels have increased!
LISTEN TO MUSIC
This is an obvious one, it’s most likely what got you writing in the first place but it may also be the most important one! Falling in love with a song is one of the best feelings, and songs often create memories. Mambo No.5 for example takes me back to being a 6 year old at my parents’ house parties, and being allowed to dance to that song before being tucked up into bed. Even if I hear it now, I have the urge to pull off some terrible dance moves!
What I’m trying to say is that listening to songs you already know and love can be inspirational even if you’ve heard them a hundred times before. For me, Laura Marling is a key influence. Listening to her album I Speak Because I Can for the first time as a 14 or 15 year old is what made me want to write in the first place. When I listen to it now I am instantly inspired by her melodies, lyrics and phrasing. Each time I listen, I often discover something new that I had missed before and it gives a whole new perspective to the song. This happened recently when I found an article depicting the meaning behind her song What He Wrote, that was inspired by love letters from World War Two. This strongly influenced the way I now write as it opened up many doors to song topics.
As important as it is to listen to old favourites, exploring new songs is equally significant. By this, I mean new songs to you, not necessarily new songs that have just been released, although obviously I’m not excluding them! For example, as part of my studies, I focused on Kate Bush having never really listened to her before, and although I wasn’t a fan of it all, I was intrigued by her style and influences.
New releases are useful to take influence from too, discovering up and coming musicians or even niche genres is something I really enjoy. Even as I write this I am listening to an Australian songwriter called RY X, and although it is not the style that I write in, I am drawn to his ambient sounds which I feel I could borrow to incorporate into my own works. I like him so much so that I have bought tickets to see him this month, and I hope that seeing him live will give me even more
WATCH OTHER MUSICIANS AND SONGWRITERS
This has to be one of the best and fun sources of inspiration, if the buzz in the room at a gig isn’t enough inspiration then nothing will be. The electricity in a room full of people who admire one particular musician or band is such an exciting feeling. You feel as if you are part of something very special with live gigs. Not only are you listening to some of your favourite songs, you are seeing them performed by the creator and it’s a different experience to hearing it through headphones. One of my favourite aspects of this is watching how each musician on stage performs. Everyone performs differently, and this is another way to gather ideas on how to perform once your songs are written. It does not matter if the artist in question is world famous, or someone who lives next door to you, in some way the performance will inspire you and will provide endless ideas. If you are unable to attend gigs, then watching live performances on YouTube can still be a really helpful tool, and is something I often do in between going to gigs.
If you have read some of my other blog posts, then you might have known that this would be on my list. In a similar way songs are useful for creativity, I find books and stories are too. A couple of blogs back I wrote about a play called The Crucible which has been the core to my song Abigail. I found the story interesting and eerie enough that I wanted to write something about it and so I found becoming the character, Abigail, achieved this. I find this is a great way to write, taking on characters to evoke different emotions and feelings in songs. This allows you to experiment with different stories and personalities that you perhaps couldn’t do from your own life experience. At the age of 21, I feel I have not yet had enough life experience or wisdom to write personally, but writing as a character allows me to incorporate both reality and fiction. For example, Abigail focuses primarily around jealousy and anger, and although the plot is twisted, at some point the listener will have felt the emotions of jealousy and anger and will be able to relate to the song in some way.
THE HOLY GRAIL: THE THESAURUS
Thank goodness for the dictionary of synonyms.
If you’ve been using the same word throughout a song and are struggling to think of another, use a thesaurus. If the word you’re thinking of doesn’t describe well enough what you’re trying to say, use a thesaurus. Even if there’s a word that doesn’t have enough syllables to make the perfect sentence in a section of your song, use a thesaurus. I can’t express enough how useful I have found this as a tool in helping bring lyrics to life by using what is essentially just more interesting words.
Another device I find super handy is a rhyming dictionary. Google can offer you many of these and when you’re desperately looking for a word to rhyme in your song, a rhyming dictionary will do just the trick, and will often end up triggering extra ideas to use!
AN EXTRA HELPFUL TIP
Something else I regularly do is select a book I’ve never read before and open it on a random page. Carelessly scanning down the page, words and phrases will often pop up and stand out before you, and jotting these little phrases down can be extremely useful. You can alter them to suit your song, but in a similar way to the thesaurus, it can enhance your writing. It could even be useful to use the word or phrase as a song title and write a song based around that!
And finally, something a little cheesy but crucial, is being yourself when you write. As effective as it is to take influence from other people, being yourself when writing is invaluable. It’s what makes your music yours, and we don’t want everyone sounding the same. What a boring place the world would be then. And don’t forget the reason you started making music was for yourself anyway, so stay true to that.
I don’t claim any of these tips to be the only way to write, or even the right way. I believe that there is no correct way to write songs, if there was, nothing new would be created! But these points are just techniques I find useful when I’m struggling to find inspiration musically and thought that they could be helpful in some way. I hope that for some of you this might break through the dreaded writer’s block!