What I like best about music is that I do not begin with words. Or a problem, conflict, or even an idea!
When I was a teenager I wrote the standard bad teenage poetry, translating my angst and anger into words. I wrote for my high school paper; as an editor I dealt with the words of others. I wrote so many essays in college—oh, I got totally fed up with writing essays! Later I wrote several screenplays and skits. Writing drama for me is like having a courtroom trial happening in my mind, characters are making their cases with evidence being analyzed and discussed. My stand-up comedy routines were crafted litanies of complaints, my solo theater shows mostly monologues. In all these media, I strove to incorporate the visual and auditory whenever, wherever, and however possible. But everything always began with ideas and words.
Not so with music. I sit at the keyboard doodling with notes or strumming the guitar changing chords and rhythm at random. Hearing the sounds, some emotion occurs inside me. Music is the abstract form I’ve been looking for all my life; maybe one day I might know enough to compose a good instrumental.
At the piano or guitar, a scrap of melody emerges. There’s a delicate balance between encouraging and allowing. The scrap may get bigger right away or not. It might just want to be a scrap for a while. I keep playing and listening to it, feeling the emotion, letting it give me its message. A few words come... Many songwriters say the first thing they get is the chorus and that’s usually been my experience, too. I may end up with almost the entire melody before I have a clear idea of what the song is about. Sometimes I know right away. Here’s what happened with a few of the songs.
Look Away— I wrote the beginning of the verse melody when I was 7 years old sitting at my mother’s piano in Oakland. I remembered this when I finished the composition over 40 years later. Because of this I wanted it to be about my family. It was one of the first songs I wrote and I hadn’t learned yet how to simply allow a song to happen. So I kept wrestling. Finally a particular aspect of my family, the love triangle, showed up and hung around. I saw a scene in my mind and gradually took down the dictation.
Family Album—I was strumming away on the guitar in a rhythm that suited my mood, back and forth between 2 chords. These odd, nonsensical instructions that became the chorus started coming into my head. It stayed a fragment for a long while.
The Waiting Song—I’d been strumming the guitar and stopped. Staring into space, feeling grey concrete between my ears, I felt sad and lonely. I was waiting for inspiration and heard only the ticking of the clock. This reminded me of several unhappy past relationships. A chunk of the chorus came, then, because the verses really feed into the choruses, I had a general sense of how the verses should go.
Melt—I had most of the melody but none of the chords yet. I kept playing it, sensing a confession, a feeling of redemption. Suddenly I heard “like the sun” at the top of the chorus. That told me that somewhere in the emotional landscape of the song there was no sun. Okay! I started figuring out the chords and soon realized exactly what the story was-- the story of a particularly good hug I received some years ago. I did not get the sexual double entendre for quite a while.
The moment of inspiration is so exciting! It’s my favorite part of the creative process. I always feel delighted when I start a new song. As the saying goes, “It’s all downhill from here.”
However... the ride will be interesting and definitely full of surprises!