Idea Generation: Getting ideas for songs…

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We start every blog the same – we’re still learning and don’t position these ‘Song Cycle’ blogs as the lessons from masters.  These are lessons from amatuers, eager to share and eager to learn… In this blog, we talk about our experience around song writing ideas….

We are  not sure we can better Stewie’s take on this, so let’s start here:

Now our turn.  It should surprise no one that we’ve all found it hard to say where a song came from, but we generally have found that they come from either ‘the words’, ‘the music’ or ‘the mood.’   And, we find some arrive ‘whole’ but most arrive in fragments, requiring the band to knit them together.  And some songs ‘finish fast’, some torture us for months and many ‘stink up the place’ hanging out in the studio far longer than they should.  Hard to kill a song, but when it comes to song writers, we’ve become massive proponents of Capital Punishment.   And our final point, is most of what we’re about to say is ridiculous because most songs are delivered by the song fairy and if ‘she ain’t flying you’re s–t out of luck.’   So with that load of waffling rubbish, let’s try to be specific.

1. Word-born Songs… Because Jimmy is so rubbish musically, most of his songs arrive first with words.  Looking back, the ideas for these songs come from six sources:

    • ‘World Events’:  Some song ideas come from the work of others – movies, news reports, TV shows, which somehow inspire you to write something town.  Roadside Comedy started because it just seemed important to tell the story of a wounded soldier in Iraq.   A Market Town was a result of a brilliant BBC documentary about Wootten Bassett, the town that remembers fallen soldiers.  Sat out the 15th, was a result of a documentary on Ali-Frasier that horrified Jimmy – Ali treated Smokin’ Joe very badly.    Old Gray Posts was the result of reading stone memorials around Vermont, telling stories of adventures from a few centuries ago.   So the advice here:  read a lot, watch good movies, good documentaries, read stones on highways… be inspired by the world around you, which has given us far more song ideas than those in our little brains.  And watch Arrested Development just because it is so good and forces your brain to think differently, starting with the chicken scenes:

    • ‘Family Events’:   Our families have been a source of too many songs (many of them we had to write but wish we didn’t have the inspiriation).   Jimmy’s father death led to Box of Yellow Roses – it basically wrote itself verse by verse, as he went shopping for a suit, wrote the eulogy with his siblings and called his mom to make sure things were okay.  It just hung out in the back of his head and arrived done in Spain, music and lyrics.  Strange Clock was a poem that Jimmy wrote the day after his son was born.  500 Letters from New York, which is about his grandmother is a result of his dad showing him letters from his father during the Depression.   Big Old Bird was a result of wanting to tell a story of marriage as Jimmy and Kathy approached 25 years.  So the advice here:  study your family, the big broad madness of it and use them for inspiration.  Everything you need to know about love, life, death, heart ache is around your dining table.  Just listen.
    • ‘Stuff Happening to Good and Bad People’:   It’s no mystery that tons of songs are about the love cycle – early romance, commitment, break-up, re-commitment.  And if you are remotely aware, you’ll see folks going through all sorts of things and their phrases will be an endless source of songs.  Immovable Thing was inspired by someone at work, arguing about the ridiculous of people telling you ‘now’ during a tragedy that ‘time and distance’ will help. It is the one thing that you can’t count on ‘now.’  .  Chamberlain in Munich started with a family relative saying ‘Today has been a good day.  And we’ve had very few’ in describing getting back together with their boyfriend.  Their subsequent description of why it would work this time really did sound like Chamberlain coming back from Munich describing ‘Peace’ with Hitler.   Too Many Weddings was the result of Ed missing a ton of studio days because all his friends were getting married.  So, in addition to the dining room, hang out at bars and listen to friends’ stories and phrases.  With friends, it is all there.

  • Characters and Rites of Passage:  Another source of lyric-based song writing ideas is to write from a ‘characters’ perspective.  Jimmy writes a lot from ‘Bob’s perspective’, (read separate blog) who is the classic ‘bad boy’  – Jimmy works hard to make ‘Bob’ suffer, in songs like Breathe or make him look like a jerk in songs like Sarah Why.   Brad and Janet’s Oldest Daughter Frankie started by wondering what would happen if Janet was carrying Frankie’s child after Rocky Horror Picture Show.    71 Hours To Monday started by thinking through the life of someone in a job and home  they really, really hated.  Thinking through characters is a good way to get ‘outside your own head’, but it is fraught with difficults.  A lot of the songs on our cutting room floor are songs where we never really got the character right – you have to know something about what you’re talking about or the song seems forced.  Another source is ‘rites of passage’ – just say, ‘well, I’m going to write a boy’s first experience with girl’s song (Sandy in the Sleeping Bag), or Wisconsin was imagining what a day would be like on Death Row.   If you’re really stuck for song ideas, you can actually make a long list of topics and see if any of them inspire you.  You can also end up writing a lot of rubbish though.
  • Phrases:  Sometimes lyric-driven songs come from cool phrases that you think might work well.  Sandy in the Sleeping bag was a bit of that – trying to think through lots of puns for girls names.  Too Many Wedding was a bit like that – trying to write a song by counting down from 1-5 and then doing letters from A-E.  Weird.    Monkey Space Camp started because Jimmy was describing life with Mike and Gus like being at Monkey Space Camp.    Chamberlain in Munich started with that phrase – with Jimmy thinking it was a cool way to describe the delusions of a lover getting back together with their partner.   Depth Perception started because Louise was talking about a band called Depth Perception.  Cool phrase.   It is worth saving cool phrases you hear throughout the week. Jimmy always just e mail himself with them in the subject line.
  • The Song Fairy hits you on the head:  This is uniquely unhelpful, but it is true that some songs just arrive pretty whole.  The only advice here is to leave yourself the time and space to write them down.   While Roadside Comedy was definitely started with article about a soldier blown to bits from an IED, the actually words and music just kind of arrived done.   And it was a very bizzare song with a comedy chorus, but that is what the Song Fairy apparently wanted.

2.  Music-born Songs.  Because Ed is so steeped in music theory and chords, most of Ed’s songs are stories about chord combinations hitting him in the head, mostly on buses around London.  He then marches into the studio and tags some chords on to existing lyrics.   We’ve identified a couple sources of inspiration for music driven songs:

  • Other songs:  Yep, we cheat.   Jimmy will often say, ‘She’s Leaving Home meets Dry the Rain’ (this was for I’ve Just Seen a Face.’   Ed will shout – vocal harmonies like God Only Knows.   Jimmy thought 71 Hours to Monday should sound like Spider and the Fly (it does in the verses) and he wanted One Way Home to sound like Steamroller Blues (it doesn’t -Ed had a better idea!).   Some of the best song ideas come from being steeped in the brilliance of other song writers but thinking about odd marriages… What if the Libertines married Elton John and wrote music together?   A lot of Michael’s Discovery work is inspired by song-writers he recently heard.  He’ll be Leornard Cohen for a day!
  • Musical Phrases:  Jimmy will often know one musical phrase in a song – the bass riff of 71 Hours to Monday, the chords for ‘Line up, line up for repatriation.’  Ed will know a key riff – for Depth Peception, he knew the riff from the second Jimmy sang a few lines.
  • Messing Around:  And yes, a lot of songs just come from endless time messing around on piano and guitar.   Stuff just happens.  The great thing about writing as a band, is you don’t have to complete the idea – you have the phrase and you hand it to someone else who might have the next phrase.  Footprints was Jimmy messing around with the only chords he knew on the guitar.
  • The Musical Fairy Hits you on the head:  Again, this isn’t very helpful but sometime the song just arrives whole.  McCartney describes Yesterday that way – it was just there, and he hummed it to John so John could tell him who wrote it.  John didn’t know.  Paul had no lyrics, so he called it Scrambled Eggs for a while.  The fairy just pounded him on the head.  Oh, and the same day he recorded yesterday he recorded I’ve Just Seen a Face.  Good day at the office.

3. Mood-born Songs:   Some times you just want a mood and that’s all you have.  The best example of this for us was No Bells.  We were listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass do Stormy Weather and we wanted to do something similar for Louise.   Jimmy knew he wanted to write a song about a ‘war widow’ in terror of the door bell ringing with news of her fallen spouse.   And he suddenly recognised that he could write it in this ‘mood.’  Lew had chords that he’d wanted to put in a Joe Pass song and gave them to Ed.  Louise could instantly feel the mood of the song and create a harmony over Ed’s chords.   But it started with a mood – we wanted to write this song:

4. Whole or in Fragments?:  We’ll talk more about this later in other blogs, but we just want to make the point that an ‘idea’ could be a fragment or a fully realised song.  Don’t be afraid of fragments – with the right set of collaboraters they can take your fragment to a great place.   One of the best songs of all time was the collision of fragments – Lennon had written a song about the uncertainty of life and what it all means (I read the news today…).  McCartney had another fragment about the routine of mornings (woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head).   George Martin had an idea about a chord.  A big chord.  Three fragments – a Day in the Life.  Don’t be afraid of fragments.

5. Fast or Horribly Slow:  Again, we’ll talk more about this later, but don’t be afraid to let a song live awhile in the studio.  Everyone has a magical moment when a great song emerges whole.  We love these moments.  But we’ve had pretty good songs live a long time in the studio before they were ready.    Our best examples is Sat out the 15th, which went through 5 or 6 different versions before Andy decided it needed a cello and a beat boxer.  Really!  The only issue is don’t let the songs hang around too long.  Sometimes they need to be thrown out.  If anything we have erred too much on keeping bad songs.  You grow to like them even though they’re rubbish just because they’ve become friends – not very good friends, but you’ve shared some times.  This is dangerous and leads to some bad songs appearing on albums.   You know which they are. Sadly, we do too.

6. Good or Horribly Bad:  And that brings us to an additional point on ‘idea generation.’  Not all ideas are good.  Be ready to trash them.  Be ready to tell your band-mates nicely that the idea is a really bad one.  We refer to these as ‘ED Water Moments’ and those who are our long serving fans will remember why.  If you don’t – here’s the blog.  The point is – don’t fall in love with yourself.  9 out of 10 ideas are rubbish.  Be prepared to say so.  To know so.  To trash 90% of what you are thinking. The brain’s big, the world’s big, there will be more ideas…

7. Getting in the mood vs. ‘get on it’:   There’s a lot written about getting into the mood to write songs and how to address writers block.  Jimmy thinks most of this is ridiculous but that is because he is on the extreme end of the persperation vs. inspiration argument.  Some artists believe absolutely that you have to wait until the fairy hits you on the head – and there fore they spend a lot of time trying to get into the mood for the fairy to strike or to go to situations that might inspire. So lots of long discussions about ‘walks in the woods’, exercise, the right teas, etc…   Others believe that you just have to be disciplined and write and there is a benefit from systematically going through phrases, stories you’ve heard, family experiences, friends experiences, etc. until you get an idea.   This is the perspiration side —  If you’re on the inspiration side, you better make sure you have a patient set of band mates — willing to hang out until you come up with a song.  If you’re on the perspiration side, you better make sure that you throw away a lot of your stuff – because much of it will be rubbish.

8.  Resources:   There is a lot of good stuff out there to tell you about idea generation.  Here’s a list of some interesting things we have found:

  • The Chord Wheel:  A fantastic tool to help you think through chords and keys.  You can buy it at Amazon.  Here’s the link to the UK site:  click here.
  • Song-writing Forums:  A nice website to look at song writing.  Walks through 3 songs and gives more background:  Click here.   Here’s another nice series on song writing starting with ‘Can’t Buy Me Love.’    click here.
  • Idea Generator:   There’s an on line song idea generator.  Might help you – it certainly gurantees that 100 others are writing the same song!  Click here,
  • Artist discussions:  Sting talks about idea generation.  Click here.  Talks about finding a little ‘kernel’ to run with.   Michael Jackson has a fascinating clip, which includes a description of his beat boxing to Billie Jean.  Click here.   He has a lovely phrase, ‘get out of the way of the music.’   McCartney talks about ‘where songs come from here:  click here.


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