Most traveling folk like me have a reason for not being able to stay in place too long. Some just have itchy feet and a whole boatload of curiosity. Some people maybe got hit by a curse generations back, and if they stand still too long it catches up with them. Me, I have memories.
Memory is a strange thing. Some people keep nearly all of it in their heads with external cues that can trigger a replay or association. For me, memories swirl and eddy about the landscape as I walk, as though time were running in parallel layers. Sometimes I swing my path wide to avoid a particularly nasty undertow, sometimes I plunge right in and step sideways halfway into the past.
Places I’ve spent a lot of time I can see countless ghostly versions of myself and the people I’ve been with, until the landscape becomes positively choked with them like a garden full of morning glory and honeysuckle that leaves the air thick and cloying and hard to breathe.
Sometimes I sit where we first met, and watch the conversation play out again, muffled because sound is the first thing to fade. I wander from memory to memory following a trail, spending time with the shades of the past because I can’t see the present anymore.
Sometimes I wonder if ghosts are really just someone’s memories that up and walked right out of someone’s head, or maybe got revisited in that place so much that time thinned out just enough that most anyone sensitive can peek through.
Either way, sliding through time like that gets dangerous. Footing becomes uneven and it’s usually a sign that it’s time to be moving on. In a place the size of the Emerald City, I’ve been able to do a lot of my moving while staying local, but I’m still sometimes a creature of habit and that betrays me.
Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to live in other people’s heads. I wonder what other people see when they look at a park they’ve spent hours hanging out in. If the people who spend their entire lives rooted in place are able to keep their memories inside their heads where they belong.
Sometimes I grab on to someone in the here and now, as an anchor to keep myself moving through the present. Something that is too real to be me remembering backwards or forwards.
Keeping my nose in a book helps keep the memory ghosts from getting out of hand. For awhile I exist in someone else’s world though I’ve been known to sideslip just a little too far and disappear into the pages of a book. Invisible until I return from my adventures, or perhaps I’ve managed to sidle a universe over and have become part of the story for a time.
Words have power. They can pull you in and even bring the dead to life for a time. For as long as you allow imagination and memory to coexist there’s no telling where you might end up, or how real it might be. Words have let me live a thousand lives in a thousand worlds, and I have learned more of humanity than I ever could alone.
I’ve thought about trying to be more normal, but when the world is a canvas I can paint with my mind, why would I limit myself? Words become my palatte as I try to paint a map through the amazing multiverse I am lucky enough to inhabit.
Today my hat is off to Sir Terry Pratchett who taught me that funny can be serious, and how to find the absurdity in life without taking it personally. As he wished a bulldozer crushed the hard drive with his unfinished stories and I can’t find it in me to blame him. Who could have finished them? Who could have lent a touch so deft that you’d never know? He is gone these years now, but if I walk into the hall where I got to hear him talk, I will see him once again dispense his particular wisdom as the audience goes wild. At the end memory was the one thing he didn’t have enough of, so it seems fitting that my over abundance should serve to keep that moment alive.
As a songwriter, I often get asked “How does one write a song?” In light of that, I thought I’d share a few of the ways I sometimes get started when it doesn’t just come to me.
In all honestly, while there may not be as many ways as songwriters, some days it can certainly feel that way. A lot can depend on the kind of song you want to write, who your audience is, and the way you work best.
So how do I write my songs?
Quite often new songs sneak up behind me, all of one piece, and take me hostage until I get them pinned down. This has nearly gotten me fired from a day job before (but the song in question was totally worth it). Because of this I nearly always have something I can record and take notes with. Cellphones can be great for that.
Sometimes I just get lyrics, rarely just a tune. For the longest time I thought I could only write when songs ambushed me, which meant sometimes years would pass with nothing new. Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned that I’m perfectly capable of setting out on safari and stalking and ambushing the songs in my head instead of the other way ’round.
There are some simple exercises you can do to stretch your mind as far as lyrics go.
Make lists of good song title ideas either as they come to you or challenge yourself to come up with say… ten in a week. Do the same thing with good first lines. Then when you’re stuck on what to write about, go through your lists and see if anything jumps out at you and gets you going.
Find someone to collaborate with. If you’re looking to write a chart topper, guess what? They’re all collaborations. Seriously, go check and if I’m wrong, please do share!
Save all your good snippets. Eventually you may write the rest, find out they slide into something else perfectly, or a handful may combine to make a whole song.
Quantity. Be prolific and don’t be afraid to be terrible. You don’t have to share everything you create. Sometimes you’ll hate all but one line of something, but that line will be a jewel. Feel free to steal that and stick it in something better. You’re exercising your mind, learning how to build rhyming connections, a sense of meter, a feel for different rhythms.
Rhyming dictionaries are your friend. They are not cheating. Professional songwriters use them all the time to help find more interesting and unusual rhymes and avoid the obvious over used ones (breath with death comes to mind). There are a few good online resources that show up with a basic search.
If you can coax something resembling music out of more than one instrument and you have access, try playing around with different ones when you’re writing the music and see how that influences you.
Whatever you try, give it a real chance. You’re unlikely to be instantly amazing at any technique, so give it time and be patient with yourself. At the same time, not every technique or exercise will match the way your brain works best. If something just doesn’t work, don’t beat yourself up over it. Move onto a different technique instead.
Most importantly, have fun with it! You’re probably doing this because you want to, but if not… if you’re doing an assignment and you just want it over and done with? Find a way to use that frustration and work it into what you’re writing. There’s plenty of room in the world for satire. 😉 There’s always a way to turn a simple boring songwriting prompt on its ear, inside out, or upside down while still technically including all the elements you’re supposed to.
Have a question about songwriting? I may not have all the answers, but you’re welcome to leave a comment and ask away!
A friend and I were discussing hunger. This was some time ago, so I hope he will forgive the artistic liberties my memory has taken with his phrasing.
“The problem with being a wealthy artist” says he, “is that you stop being hungry. Not that actual starving is good for creating much.” he added thoughtfully. “You’re too focused at that point on food itself. But when you’re not at all concerned about where your next meal is coming from it takes the pressure off. You can create when you feel like it, not because if you don’t you won’t eat next week.”
I nodded, thinking it over. “It seems like the best place to be if I follow your logic is the point where hunger is nipping at your heels but hasn’t quite caught up to you yet.” My friend flashed a grin at me, pleased that I was following along, and added “Of course there are exceptions, there are always exceptions. But it does seem to be true that fewer great creations happen after an artist gets comfortable than before.”
I’ve come back to this conversation over the years, mulling it over and looking at my own life. I’ve come to the conclusion that hunger can be metaphorical. That in fact for me, loneliness is a fluttering ravenous moth that sometimes breeds and swarms. When I am feeling totally safe and loved and understood and accepted my need to create drops significantly. When that moth is fluttering in the shadows I create company for myself in songs and stories and paintings. But then I want to share it with someone real, and the moth gets more persistent so I make something else to distract myself and so it goes.
As an artist, plenty of solitude suits me. As a person who quite enjoys not feeling lonely, I desperately miss the company of the ones I can just relax and be all of myself around. And yet, when I have that and months go by where I create nothing at all, I begin to fret and worry that I’ve lost whatever it was I had.
Right now I’ve a moth or two fluttering in the shadows. There are people I’m beginning to miss fiercely. But I’m writing like I haven’t written in years, and I’m not in a hurry for that to stop. Nearly an album in a week. And most of them are keepers. It becomes its own hunger after awhile, to create and keep creating.
I keep looking for that balance point. The place between starvation and total comfort and the more I understand the nature of balance and apply it to myself, the more I realize that it may not be a point so much as a tiny pendulum. Perhaps the shifting in and out of comfort is needed. Times to rest and be cared for and times to create without ceasing.
On the upside if I ever do become one of those rare wealthy musicians, I don’t think that will impact my creativity terribly much. I might not worry about my next several meals, but I’ll have a traveling roof over my head and I’ve yet to find a way to keep a moth or two from getting inside.
Inspiration can take many forms. A turn of phrase, the light just so making us see something familiar in a new way, a smell that triggers an old memory or perhaps a sound that you’ve never heard before and want to mimic. Many of my best songs are inspired by my muses, though not necessarily about them.
With my Goblin King much of the time it’s the worlds we spin and weave together, forming something tangible out of the essence of dreams.
With many of my other muses I was trying to reach out in some way, to comfort, to connect, and sometimes the song would slip sideways in my grasp and go somewhere completely unexpected that had nothing to do with what I thought I wanted to write.
My latest muse has me spiraling around, walking a Labyrinth as all my songs lately turn in on themselves and go elsewhere, and I realize I’m fishing in deeper waters than I ever expected. There are things that were too ragged and raw as they happened throughout my life for me to even wrap in a fairy tale. I couldn’t make them beautiful, I didn’t have the voice for strong and angry, and so all the raw material has just been sitting there, dark and heavy, weighing me down.
Suddenly I’m baiting my hook with a little bit of my current inspiration and catching threads of old stories and weaving them all together, making something beautiful out of something that I thought would never add joy to my life.
Being able to transform that dead weight into soaring lyrics and melody and sometimes surprising humor leaves me feeling so much cleaner and lighter. And getting it out of the way leaves room for random inspiration to wake me up at 4am or to just see something and need to write about it.
To my Goblin King, my Wolf, Dragon and Raven, my Knight and Monk, my three favorite Pixies, my Fire, my 13th Doctor and my Peter Pan, and the muses I don’t have a nickname for yet. You probably know who you are.
Your songs are the ones everyone else love best. I couldn’t have gotten here without you. Any of you.
Thank you. Thank you for being exactly who you were and are and will be. Thank you for the conversations and stories and love and heartbreak. Thank you for sharing your compassion and your loneliness. Thank you for sharing the places that needed to be filled or wrapped up with a song or a story, and for finding it in you to appreciate what I came up with.
I look forward to seeing who I’ll meet down the road, what songs and stories will take shape, and all the new flavors I’ll get to learn to make.
If you’re an artist, my best advice is to seize life in both hands and live it. The good and the bad. Avoiding the bumpy and hard times is like removing half the colors from your palate. You can still make a pretty picture but it’s missing something vital. You don’t have to be defined by what those experiences leave behind. Instead use it as shading to define your art. Use what you need and discard the rest into the scrap bin.
(Not that I advocate seeking out that which will harm you, just don’t be afraid to live vibrantly and well.)
Waiting in a ghost town, standing in dry golden grass watching the colors of the world hover between a faded photograph as a whole and yet, taken individually each color has an inexplicable vibrancy. The more I look at each thing, the rich gold of the grass, the glowing red of Dara’s hair, the intense blue of the sky, the dark aged brown wood of the broken down farm building the more it makes no sense that taken as a whole the scene should seem slightly… faded? Grayed out? I can’t quite place my finger on it, and it’s changing too fast to matter as I sneak peaks at the rapidly disappearing sun through my filters.
The irreverent thought crosses my mind that Cookie Monster is eating the sun, but will spit it back out soon enough when he realizes it is not a cookie. It makes me giggle a bit as I make pinhole cameras with my fingertips and let eclipse shadows fall on my skin.
I start to feel sunburned and my eyes grow a bit achy, not from looking too long at the sun but because the changes in light are happening so quickly that my eyes are struggling to keep up. I can’t bring myself to care though as there is only there barest sliver of the sun remaining.
Suddenly the sky turns ultra-violet and periwinkle and no one ever told me it would do that, and the sun is a jet black disc surrounded by opalescent diamond flames that are a color beyond white and the sunset is everywhere, and I can barely breathe as I turn and turn and drink it all in, eyes wide in wonder and awe. The darkness shifts and shimmers about me as though I’m in an underwater dream on an alien world, and I’m glad I put on long sleeves before it went dark and cold.
I’m vaguely aware that mom is taking photos with her DSLR camera and Dara is shooting a panorama even as her eyes stay glued to the sky rather than the back of her view finder. I don’t even bother trying. I already know the things I want to capture most won’t get caught on my cell phone camera. I forget I wanted to see if a pinhole camera would capture the corona, because I’m too busy being mesmerized.
Then suddenly there’s a diamond flare and even without a shouted word of warning, we all know to tear our eyes away, because that last lingering second isn’t worth never being able to see it again, and the crowd cheers.
We cheer for the most profound thing we’ve ever seen, for the beauty and the lack of words and because all the energy has to go somewhere and we don’t know what to say. And we cheer because even though we wanted time to stop so we could stay like this for longer, something in us deep down is glad that the sun has returned. We wake as though from a massive collective dream and life becomes surprisingly… normal. Except that the memory keeps bubbling to the surface and we turn to each other and say “That was just…” and someone else smiles, with a light in their eyes and says “I know!”
And they do know. For 1 minute and 27 seconds (plus or minus) nothing else mattered. For 1 minute and 27 seconds at least a million people in Oregon alone (who when they left home might have been hating each other over countless things) all looked up and didn’t have room in their hearts for anything but the sheer magnificence of what they saw. That’s a special kind of magic, especially for an empath to be around.
I started texting a friend about it when I was back in range and he told me that all I needed to do now was write a song about it. I said “Well, actually…”
Because I had in fact just started one. There may not be words but it doesn’t stop me from trying anyway.
I won’t lie. The first thing I noticed about Leslie Hudson was her striking red hair. The second thing was her keyboard (a Roland), that she was setting up while I was helping run cables for sound for last Saturday’s Kenmore concert. Clearly I’ve been away from mine too long because I really wanted to find out how hers played.
With new musicians you never know what you’re going to hear. With new musicians that Sooj brings in, you do know they’re going to be amazing.
Soundcheck and Leslie kicked it off with just a bit of Sisters and Sinners (from her album The Wanderlings Volume 2), a gorgeous bluesy pub in limbo frequented by the women of the Bible, and I was in love. You may not know this about me but I love to go blues dancing, and this was smooth smoky perfection. Thankfully she was kind enough to do more than just tease the sound crew with a taste and I got to dance to the whole song once the show proper started.
From the same album comes Carving Knife, fueled by bitterness sung by those forced by circumstance and emotion into the role of the villain. The dance floor is about the only place I allow myself the luxury of really feeling dark and bitter because I can dance through it and leave it behind, and this song is made for dancing to.
Nibble Nibble is inspired by Hansel and Gretel, sung by a very unapologetic coaxing witch. Those of you familiar with my music may be starting to see part of why I’m so delighted with Leslie’s songwriting.
The rest of the album is heavily myth and folktale based, and worth the musical tour through the history of Ireland.
The Rift can be found on Wanderlings, Volume 1 and it isn’t the song you might think. It’s about a warlock who carved out his own heart so as not to feel, and is sung from the heart’s perspective. Whatever context you wrap it in, this one hits me hard right now.
Tantalized is a seductive tasty piece of music to dance to, based on a shapeshifter folktale (as retold by Jane Yolen) called the Serpent-Woman. Leslie is really, really good at enjoying being the villain.
Like volume 2, the rest of this album is very folktale based with some familiar favorites and well worth a listen.
Stepping away from the folklore and fairytales, Leslie takes us Into the Mirror with her song Cracked which feels a bit like some of the music I’ve been writing or trying to write lately. It certainly resonates very strongly. I’d love to bring some of the fierceness of this song into my own music.
My Dear, My Doubt is a song I want to be able to sing, and do justice to. The whole of it holds meaning for me but for those that are link adverse, I’ll quote part of the first verse.
“Where are you when I need you
To watch me struggle through
Not to save me
I can swim
Just to bear a witness to”
The Redhead League is a concept album about nine red-headed comic book characters. Anyone that loves fan music (Filk) this one is for you.
Welcome to Eden is Poison Ivy’s song, and I seriously want to blues dance to this one. It’s super tasty, like most poisonous things are.
Unmasked is sung by the real Mary Jane Watson, a woman attached to her freedom unwillingly in love with a boy. A Spider-boy.
Feel it All is sung by Jean Grey, and as an empath myself, Leslie gets it, intimately, and writes it well. This is one of those “wish I’d written it” songs, but really I’m glad that someone did so I can listen to it.
I particularly like Children of Light. I know I’m not a hologram, but I still identify with the song.
“I am more than my programming told me I was.
We’ve a right to determine if it matters.
It matters. “
For Awhile is about a symbiont relationship, but to me it also captures some of that feeling of meeting someone for the first time that you’ve somehow known forever.
Empath is what it’s like to be me. Or, since we are talking Star Trek, Deanna Troi. Better, more beautifully than I’ve been able to put it myself.
“Your heart is an ocean
Your mind an expanse
A map I can follow without a glance
No I can’t shut you out
Even when I try to be lonely
An empath am I.”
This is a musician who has serious range. Stylistically, emotionally, topically, take a listen and you’ll probably find something to love.
Apparently this song fountain I’m sitting on doesn’t think basic human needs like sleep are terribly relevant. In this particular case I blame interesting dreams and Leslie Hudson for the new song Mirror, Mirror. Sung from the perspective of an abused and lonely child who finds a magic mirror tucked away in the attic, before she grows up to be an Evil Queen. Sadly my second dreaming songfish got away because I couldn’t wake up enough to get it down.
…Hang on. There’s a song in that. *scribbles frantically*
Oh! And just to tease you all, at least until I have a Patreon setup (which yes, I’m working on), some of these new songs finally have a bit of that bluesy feel I’ve been reaching for and never quite finding.
It really helped me get past the internal block that had me thinking I just couldn’t get there when I started singing along to several of Leslie’s songs and found our ranges match well, and I could follow what she was doing with her voice. Suddenly it was like something clicked in the back of my head and it was like “oh! I can do that. ”
I still can’t manage the slight snarl that she and Sooj do so well, but it’s also hell on your voice done wrong, so baby steps. Actually, I’m somewhat curious if it’s something that just comes naturally to some people, or if it’s reasonably learnable without damage.