Idea Generation: Inspiration vs. Perspiration
Written by Jimmy
No, we’re not very good at any of this song-writing stuff. And yes, everyone else is better. But the spirit of Abubilla Music is a community that learns and shares. So here are our views to date on the old inspiration vs. persperation debate about song-writing.
As always, we start with the experts and then give you our views… So a bit of the history of this whole debate and then a few lessons from our time in the studio.
Part One: The Inspiration vs. Perspiration Debate
- Edison: Every school kid knows the Edison quote (repeated often between 1903-1929: “Genuis is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.’ He was saying that all his ‘breakthroughs’ were the result of diligent non-stop work and experimentation. What looks like genuis in hindsight is a result of 9,999 experiments that failed, finding the one that worked.
- This dichotomy of endless toil vs. devine intervention has been applied to the ‘writer question’ ever since. Here’s a good quote on it from Writer’s Digest: ” At the keyboard, we’ve all experienced those moments of divine creative intervention when our muse bursts forth—ideas flow into inspired sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Likewise, no writer is exempt from those times when each word we type feels like agony. So which is it: Is our best writing purely the product of inspiration, when we hurl beautiful phrases to the page, or does our real brilliance come only through sheer perspiration? It’s the writer’s paradox…”
- It is a paradox and after about a billion words on the subject, most writers on the topic come back to the same thing: sometimes you’re inspired, but most often you need to ‘sweat it out’ and somehow a ‘nose to the grindstone is roughly the right perspective for your eyes fleetingly to see the light.’ Sports analogies are helpful here. An inspirational, magic Tiger Woods’ putt is actually the result of 20,000 hours on putting greens, preparing for the moment. A Wayne Rooney curling free kick against Arsenal, is a result of 10,000 kicks on the practice pitch.
- Chris Difford of Squeeze has a great analogy I think, when he talks about his lyrics. He says that each time he writes lyrics it is like taking a photograph. And after a few days you go into the dark room to develop the photograph and you play with the light a bit. You play with contrast. You work on the photo. The original picture, which might have been inspired, is re-worked and re-worked. The original picture, which might have been a work-man-like day shot of a tree, might through inspiration, be transformed int he dark room. And sometimes, the picture is unsaveable.
- So folks fairly quickly settle into a ‘it’s both.’ Which then leads to the issue in song-writing of how you prepare to do both. Generally, this becomes a set of discussions around ‘routines’ – which routines should I deploy during the sweaty sessions and which should I deploy to attract divine inspiration?
Part Two: Routines
- Sweaty Routines: The main insight about the sweaty bit of song writing is to break songs into little parts. So lyrics start with chracters, situations, phrases. Songs start with melodies, chords, etc… So ‘sweatin’ it doesn’t have to be ‘sit down and write a song this morning from scractch’ – it might be – come with five new characters for a song, or find three great chord combinations and record it as a phrase. This is quite liberating. With this in mind, the song-writing routines fall into two camps:
- Music Driven: Musicians will jam endlessly as a band and as individuals go through endless rounds of noodling through chord combinations. Here’s a fairly typical post of this type of song-writing: “As primarily a jazz player…..usually it starts as a ii-V vamp of some sorts, and then i will try to sing myself into a new direction or key once my improvisational ideas start to become stale. singing your lines a la George Benson kinda sounds cheesy as times but really helps develop that synchronization of what you’re hearing and what you’re playing.” A lot of musicians will talk about sending at least 2 hours a day working through combinations and recording maybe 4 phrases a day. Some log these and return to them with the full band and see if any spark. They talk about building an ‘idea library’ of phrases. George Harrison did this a lot with guitar ideas and then might fit one in to a Lennon-McCartney combination later (read a great article on Harrison here)
- Lyric Driven: The sweat part of lyric writing is about walking through a set of routines to find a topic. The best lyric writers talk about telling stories and will often thumb through books/music reviews, etc… to find interesting characters to work on. Once you’ve settled on the character or time/place you then must flesh out the story – this was the case with Squeeze’s Up the Junction, which Difford argues is a song that wrote itself, once he found the character and their story and the mood. The Sweaty bit then is all about collecting characters, phrases, moods, etc… and then when confronted with music, or with others see which might fit.
- Routines to Attract Divine Intervention: As I write this, what I find hard, is to me the same routines that you use to ‘sweat’ out songs seem to be the best for divine intervention – give yourself the time and space to write, either alone or with the band. And don’t always focus on writing a song, work on finding great song ideas… The key though is ‘time and space.’ Folks will talk about needing to get away somewhere so the mind can wander and find inspiration. So you get Leo’s 31 ways to find inspiration, which is as good as any list I’ve seen (things like, books, blogs, movies, conversations…) but they all come back to ‘sweaty routines.’ Force yourself everyday to be in a position to be inspired and inspiration might come. So the most important routine for divine inspiration – give yourself time and space in your day, devoted to song-writing. And maybe, as we’ve said in other blogs, the big old Song Fairy will bang you on the head.
Part Three: 4 Lessons from the Studio: We are believers in the 10,000 hour rule and are about 10% of the way there (greatness only comes after 10,000 hours of practice), so we’re definitely on the ‘sweaty’ side of the song writing debate. We’ve learned a bit though:
- Take folks away and start anew: Our biggest lesson is that we’ve taken the full band away, on our own, to work together on new music. We have settled into some basic routines where we all go to Spain fora week twice a year. The ‘deal’ is we have to work mostly on new songs and as we’ve evolved we’ve even set up two different ‘studios’ in Spain so individuals can be recording ideas in multiple locations. But it is the act of clearing the calendar and giving ourselves time and space to create which is key.
- Make everyone a ‘maker’ not a ‘taker’: We also have worked hard to make sure that everyone feels like they can and should contribute ideas. So the idea that we have multiple pairs spread around the Spanish house, thinking of new song ideas is key. It isn’t just one person.
- Start with something, though: We have generally found we’re not very good at going into the studio with literally nothing and coming out with a song. We stare at the floor a lot and get all awkward. So we tend to start with some and those are often lyrics that Jimmy will bring in the studio. But we often will then start with a tune around the lyrics, dump the lyrics and stick with the tune and go from there…
- Prepare to trash the ‘original’ idea and go for the second or third: Which means you have to remember that inspiration is about something that inspires something else. So even though we will bring lyrics in at beginning of session, we do often abandon these and go in different direction. And that is great. Don’t be afraid to trash the original source of the song if you move to a better place.