Writing music is a complicated process, which is why this blog post looks at five musicians and how they inspire themselves creatively when they are working on their music and song lyrics.
Over the last 12 months, we have lost lots of talented musicians like Lemmy Kilmister, David Bowie, and now Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen who was known for his dark poetic, songwriting. Last week the 82-year old passed away despite working right up until recently and releasing his latest album last month.
Cohen talks about how he inspires himself creatively when songwriting in a 2014 interview with the Brain Pickings website.
When asked about where his songwriting ideas came from, he addressed the questions by quoting “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.
Cohen also admits that it takes him a long time to write songs and that songwriting doesn’t come easily to him as he touched on how he fights boredom by putting in a lot of hard work and perseverance.
He added: “My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise, I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.”
The legendary Nirvana singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain is well known for his dark lyrics and melodic rifts even though it’s been 22 years since his death. His former band member, bass player Krist Novoselic, spoke to Rolling Stone Magazine about Kurt’s songwriting process during the reissue of “In Utero” 20 years after it was released back in 2013.
Here’s what Krist had to say about his former friend and bandmate: “There were songs that Kurt would woodshed. He would come in with it, and we would work it out, build it up. Some songs were made up on the spot, coming out of jams, which took a few rehearsals to come together. But, they would find form. That was another thing with Kurt – he could have a riff, but then he was so good at vocal phrasing. He would usually write the lyrics at the last minute. But Kurt was so good at vocal phrasing [in rehearsals]. And, voilà – you have a song.”
The singer-songwriter and actor who was known as “The man in black,” sold over 90 million records worldwide throughout his career. Many of Cash’s music contained lyrics that expressed sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption.
The musician was taught to play the guitar by his mother, and he began playing and writing songs at the age of twelve. When Cash was young, he had a high tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone.
In high school, he sang on a local radio station; and years later, he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother’s Hymn Book. Cash was influenced by traditional Irish music that he every week by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
When Cash was younger, his family farm would often get flooded, which later inspired him to write the song “Five Feet High and Rising.”.
The American folk singer-songwriter was discovered by the late Johnny Cash who helped him get signed to Columbia Records.
When Dylan is composing, he says, he’ll take a song he knows and play it in his head. “That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax,” Dylan says. “I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song … At a certain point, some of the words will change, and I’ll start writing a song.”
In a 1991 SongTalk interview with Paul Zollo, Dylan spoke more about his songwriting in detail. “Feelings really aren’t my thing,” Dylan says.
Songwriting is about craftsmanship, perspective, lyrical meter, simple melodies, having something to say, and a “pure-hearted motivation” for writing.
A songwriter should be able to sort and identify different types of thoughts, Dylan says, and be able to define them as good or evil. He also is open to ideas offered by his subconscious and unconscious mind and is concerned about over analyzing, which can stifle creativity. “Your primary impulse is going to take you so far,” Dylan says. “But then you might think … is this one of these things where it’s all just going to come? And then all of a sudden you start thinking… and my mind starts to get into it; that’s trouble right away.”
Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not that will take you down the road.”
When inspiration and execution collide, Dylan suggests changing key. “Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not that will take you down the road,” Dylan says.
In 1968, just before the Beatles split, musician, John Lennon, opened up about his songwriting process and how he inspires himself creatively in an interview with Rolling Stone.
John said: “He used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. He will be writing completely free form in a book or just on a bit of paper, but when he started to write a song he’s thinking dee duh dee duh do doo do de do de doo.”
Lennon said that he was musically influenced by Bob Dylan and Little Richard.
Lennon also reveals information about his trip to India with the rest of the Beatles. Most of this session he had written his music on guitar and not the piano because the band only took their guitars out. John said “I missed the piano a bit because you just write differently. My piano playing is even worse than me guitar. I hardly know what the chords are, so it’s good to have a slightly limited palette, heh heh.”
Are you a musician? Would you like to share how you inspire yourself creatively to write music? Comment below or send me a tweet @digitalclassic.