I love songwriting. As Janis Ian said “One of the hardest things of all is to start. Just sitting down and getting over your own intimidations. Every professional songwriter I know is terrified every time they sit down to write. You’re always convinced that your next song is going to be your last, or that it’s going to be your worst, or that you’ll never be able to write anything as good as your hit. It’s a constant terror. I think all artists live in a constant state of terror.”
I wrote my first song when I was seventeen. It wasn’t very good. But the thrill I felt when I finished it was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I wasn’t writing for recognition, or money. I was writing for the sheer joy of creation. To start with a blank sheet of paper, and create something that didn’t exist before amazed me. It still does.
It’s a mysterious process, this making something from nothing. It’s not something you really control, but you do have to work hard at it. Songs don’t just fall from the sky. You have to sit down every day and try to improve your writing, one word at a time, one line after another. As Nick Cave says:
“Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day…. and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.”
It requires diligence and hard work. But the rewards are fantastic. It’s fun, it’s therapeutic and cathartic to explore the world outside and inside your mind, to retell stories that have been told many times before through your own unique perspective, your own point of view.
Some songs come quickly. More often than not good songs take time. As listeners we don’t often get to see the process, we just sit in awe, listen to the finished ‘product’ and wish we had the talent to produce such wonderful works. Occasionally those who mine the seam share their secrets, their insights. I love this story of Leonard Cohen’s:
Hallelujah…. “was a song that took me a long time to write. Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago and he was doing that song in concert. And he asked me how long it took to write it. And I told him a couple of years. I lied actually. It was more than a couple of years. Then I praised a song of his, ‘I And I’, and asked him how long it had taken and he said: Fifteen minutes.”
The power of music and words to communicate common feeling and experiences, to help us cope with life, deal with problems and not feel alone, to comfort, inspire, challenge and emotionally move us is a miracle. Songs keep us company. They bring us back to other times, other places. They’re like prayers, like road maps to the soul.
Songs are my bible, my guide through life. Listening to and writing songs is my way of finding meaning in life, a way of creating my own world, a world I want to inhabit, a world I can make sense of.
In these days of streaming and free downloads, can the ‘songwriter’ survive? It’s financially difficult but you have to ask yourself why you write in the first place. I do it for the same reasons I’ve always done it, to try to make some kind of sense of my life, to reflect on the present and the past and prepare myself for the ‘new world out there waiting for me’.