I want to write a song today. There’s something about hanging out with your kids all day that can make you feel kind of useless. Anyone that tells you otherwise is A) lying or B) hasn’t ever done it as a lifestyle thing. Spending one day with your kids is great. It’s highly rewarding. Spending every day with your kids with no sign of a break in sight is literally working at a 7 day a week job that starts the second you get out of bed and goes until about 830 or 9, where your bosses are never satisfied and often want you to do completely contradictory things, and then yell at you when you screw it up, as you inevitably do. Oh, and they follow you into the bathroom and are right there while you eat. It’s like that. AND, you don’t get paid, AND you feel like everyone has the following thoughts when they consider your ‘workday’: “eh, that dude’s not even working…loser” or “that shit’s easy” or “man, I wish I could just hang out with kids all day…I hate my fucking shitty job.”
Now, look, I know that taking care of kids isn’t working at a factory. Shit, there are several great moments with these monsters every day, and I feel really lucky to be able to hang with them all the time, especially when they’re small, but man, don’t go so far as to think that means that it’s not a little bit soul destroying in its own right. It is. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but when I start missing a lot of sleep, I start to feel helpless, and the desire to become a useful human being starts to overwhelm me (I know that raising kids is one of the most useful and important things I can do…this is what’s known in the business as ‘grapling with the irrational feelings’ bro) and in order to feel like a useful human being, I tend to write things, particularly songs. I thought I’d talk about that a little more today.
One thing I like to do when I’m writing songs is pick a band I’ve heard of but have never listened to, and try to write a song that approximates what I think they’d sound like. It’s a good exercise if you’re a songwriter, and it’ll send you down some interesting paths. Now, I don’t know about what you’ve listened to and what you haven’t, and this doesn’t even need to be an exercise where you pick obscure bands. Let’s say, for example (and this one’s probably pretty bad, but it should get you on the right track) that you’ve never really been a fan of the Clash. Sure, you like ‘em well enough. You’re familiar with London Calling and you’re familiar with Rock the Casbah, and maybe you know ‘lost in the Supermarket’ or something but otherwise, you’re not really a fan. You have nothing against the clash, you just don’t, you know, really know them.
Well, what would a b-side off the London Calling single sound like? How bout from the Sandanista/Rock the Casbah era? What if you’ve never heard At The Drive In, but you know Mars Volta and you know that they used to be in a spastic punk band. What would that sound like? OR, what if they’re your favorite band, and you know that a lot of people say that ATDI sounds like the listened to a lot of Rites Of Spring but you’ve never heard them…What would the band that influenced your favorite band sound like? What does Nomeansno sound like? All you’ve got to go on is the name and the weird picture of the cow on their record. Write a song that sounds like Nomeansno.
That’s one exercise I like to use, especially to switch shit up. Another thing I like to do is find songs that I really like, and take my own words, and without figuring out the chords, try to guess what the chords are and use my own words to approximate the same feel. This almost never winds up sounding even remotely like the song I’m trying to copy (as I don’t figure it out beforehand, leading to weird chord changes, and I’m using preexisting words, which lead to different melody rhythms). This is a good way to try out a groove or a feel that you’d normally not try. A variation on this is finding a melody in a great bridge, breakdown or outro, and basing your main verse or chorus melody on the single line of that non-repeating melody.
But again, we get stuck on words, eh? How do you get good words out? Last time I talked about really nuts n bolts shit re: lyrics, but this time, I’m just gonna throw out a few techniques for potentially shocking your brain into creating something. One thing I like to do is start with a single word and let stream of consciousness take over. For example when I was in the shower one day, I decided for some reason that I wanted to start a song with the word “leveling.” It’s not that interesting of a word, but I felt like it had lyrical potential because something that’s leveling is something that necessarily brings someone or something down to another plane where suddenly they’re equal to something they were once above. I thought about this word while I was in the shower and it came to sound pretty pathetic in my ears.
Leveling was something that really kind of kicked your dick into the dirt. So, in using the form of the word (the gerund) for stylistic purposes and the meaning that I’d latched onto, the next word when I sat down was ‘groveling’ (matched for its phonetic, formal and contextual similarities) and from there I went into ‘gravely’ and ‘groans’ because the alliteration appealed to me and the notion of pathetic whining implicating someone as an equal really seemed like an interesting twist on my initial take on ‘leveling.’ By that time, there was a mood that existed that enabled me to kind of bust out into more sentence-esque lyrics. But it all started as a very simple stream of consciousness exercise.
There’s nothing worse that you can do as a person that wants to be creative than wait until you’re feeling inspired. That’s when you find yourself in ruts. It’s when you have no fucking idea what to do, when you need to create from a wacky compulsion or because you’re on a strict regimen (both things that I’m under the yoke of, and not necessarily always happily, just BTW) and you’re forced to think about how to do things in a different way than you’re comfortable, that’s when shit gets cool and weird.
AND nothing motivates like success. When I finally crack through and do something interesting, usually after trying some desperate technique (I touched on this in another entry…switching up how and where you write is really productive. I used to always write with a pen when I wrote lyrics. For my newest record [4 demos soon to be done] I wrote a lot of the lyrics on the computer. This creates a whole different speed of working. With a pen, sometimes by the time I got to the end of a sentence, my mind will have thought of a different or better word to use than I was intending when I started the sentence. Sometimes, with a computer, I can more easily keep up with my racing thoughts and capture ideas that escape me when I’m using a pen. I do things as simple as switch from lined to unlined notebooks, or take my computer to the dining room table instead of my desk. These techniques are vastly more effective than they may sound) the results of being happy with my output (for a change) are so inspiring that another song almost certainly follows that’s similarly inspired. I wrote On With The Show and March of The Elephants on the same day. I wrote Cut It Up and Recovering the Opposable Thumb and Key to the City in a two day period (cut it up being the first. It was actually, to bring this full circle, my take on a song by some scumbag rocknroll band I’d never heard…I can’t remember who it was, but I remember that I wanted the song to sound like the kind of song that bikers listen to in their clubhouse while they bang prostitutes and do gross drugs….depraved. That’s not to say that’s how it ended up sounding…matching your intention and your results aren’t important AT ALL. What’s important is pushing yourself to do something interesting, and fuck, if it happens on accident, well, penicillin happened on accident. Booze happened on accident. Car tires happened on accident. There’s nothing wrong with fucking around until you stumble onto something. It’s the opposite that’s true. You’ll NEVER do anything worth a shit if you’re not doing something that you may very well fuck up terribly). If you write a song you like, that you really think is above and beyond, the worst thing you can do is stop. That momentum will very likely take you to bold new creative places.
Speaking of bold new places, I’m going to the gym.