A Butterfly Net and a Shriner’s Hat
Q-What is your songwriting process, if there is one?
A-My process is to chase songs down with a butterfly net, catch them, pin them to a Shriner’s hat, put the Shriner’s hat on a drunk monkey, put a pinwheel in his hand and light the hole thing on fire. When it burns out there is a chord progression spelled out in the ashes and a lyric in chinese that is revealed when I sprinkle milkweed silk across the top of the ash. It’s a mysterious process.
I’ve yet to figure out how it works to be honest, and I’m someone who thinks about this stuff a lot. The basic idea is this. You come upon a concept that has weight and meaning for you, you look for a melodic color that suits the concept [do I put the red pants on this one or the burmuda shorts], you catch as much lightning as you can while you are in the moment, then you get your chisels and hammer out and hack away at it until you reveal the song that was in there waiting. Like I mentioned in an earlier blog, many times it feels like the song comes “through” you as opposed to “from” you. It’s not always the case but for me the songs that seem to have the most mojo and a sense of naturalness about the phrasing, lyric and melody are the songs that come through you as opposed to the songs you bang away at with your tools. You need both elements at your disposal though. For the most part I don’t get a huge piece of the song in that lightning moment. It’s usually only a piece of lyric and a taste of melody that comes through in those magic moments.
I do however spend a lot of time preparing myself for catching the lightning.
Recognizing when you are channeling something great is an important part of the craft. It’s not always the writing itself that’s most important. Sometimes it’s something more subtle-the recognition of the wheat from the chaff. The skill of hearing which pieces have something poignant, meaningful and lasting takes time to develop. This is why sometimes you hear talented writers who don’t seem to know which songs are the keepers. It’s an actual skill that develops and it’s a skill that some people don’t nurture or even recognize.
I think of being a songwriter in the same way that I think of my height, gender, eye color or any other part of my make up. I’m not a songwriter when I sit down with the pen and paper. I’m not a songwriter 3 or 4 hours a day when I’m working on songs. I’m a songwriter 24 hours a day. I try to keep the hat on no matter what the circumstance and it’s a problem when I’m driving. I try to keep my antennae up all the time. It doesn’t work like this for everyone and I’m aware of that. Part of what defines all of us is our limitations and I’m no exception. I didn’t come to the craft of songwriting and the world of music with any innate gifts. It took me many years to find my voice as a singer and writer but those sometimes painful years slowly wore away the outer layer of self consciousness and artifice and left me with a ragged and weathered but honest frame to work from. Smeagol’s love for the ring eventually turned him into Gollum. My love for this craft eventually turned me into a songwriter. Same thing but without the ragged clothing and volcanos. I have a pretty dependable backbone and I trust it. I’ve learned to listen to it when it has something to say about a song.
It really is a beautiful and mysterious process. To catch a quicksilver fleeting idea and wrestle it into a thing that exists is an amazing thing when it works and a crushing thing when it doesn’t. Songs come from all different directions. Some butterflies come in the window fully formed and quick on wings. Others I see only as a shadow from the corner of my eye and set after with the net and the Shriner’s hat.