I walked to work this morning, listening to Spotify. I have about 1500 of my favourite songs saved, and what I like doing at the moment is just hitting shuffle at the beginning of a walk and listening to whatever it throws up.
Well, just as I passed the Tesco petrol station on Abbeydale Road, I heard a familiar piano intro, and I realised that I was listening to one of my own songs – “There Was a Boy” from The ManBoy LP.
I’ll admit it – sometimes I listen to my own songs. I like them. Why wouldn’t I? I made them, after all. This time, however, it was a genuine accident – I didn’t realise I had any of my songs saved on my phone.
So I listened to the song – John Wilson on piano, Joe Wood on drums and various classroom percussion – and I recalled in my mind’s eye recording it with Alan Smyth, and that got me thinking about the writing process, which was a peculiar one.
I had walked that day to Starbucks on Ecclesall Road – armed with an A4 notepad and Uniball UB157 – ordered one of those plant-pot sized filter coffees, and then proceeded to pretty much just write the song. In about the time it took to physically write down the words, I was done. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know why it was so easy and effortless. But it just was.
That’s not the way it normally is for me
Looking back – having started the writing of hundreds of songs since I was ten years old – I have written just two types of song: Songs that have stuck around, and songs that have not.
That in itself isn’t particularly strange, is it? If I were a painter, I wouldn’t expect to deliver on my initial vision perfectly every time; if I were a screenwriter, I wouldn’t expect to knock every scene I wrote out of the park. It’s not unusual or unexpected that I wouldn’t be in love with, and want to keep forever, every song I wrote.
But what’s interesting – to me at least – is that there is an undeniable difference between the songs that I keep around, and the ones that I don’t.
And this difference is at its starkest during the writing of the song.
When I’m writing a song that ends up sticking around, it feels bigger than me. It feels as though it already exists somehow. It feels… inevitable, as though I can hear what the finished product will be like. Just as Michelangelo chipped away everything that wasn’t David – revealing David – I feel like I have something in my head that I can compare my work-in-progress to. Something to aim for.
It’s as though I’m not so much trying to write a song, as I’m just… writing it. Rather than scouring my mind for ideas, it’s akin more to hearing something on the radio, and then writing that down.
When I’m writing the songs that end up on the scrap-heap, however, it’s a slog and it’s a strain. There is no sense of inevitability – no aural picture in my head to compare what I’ve got so far to.
It feels like it’s up to me and me alone to turn this scrap of an idea into something. And sooner or later, I give up. I have no skin in the game.
For example, another song from my ManBoy LP – “Lady Love” – was written on a piano in the place I used to work, whilst waiting for a student who never showed up. I was noodling around with some chords I liked and humming a melody. I grabbed a notepad, and wrote three verses. I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know what it was about… I just know that as I sat playing it to myself on that piano, I really liked it. And two years later I recorded it exactly as I wrote it.
On the other hand, I have a folder in my loft containing literally one-hundred complete songs that I wrote in a one-month-long frenzy as a resident at Bank Street Arts. I made little demo recordings of every single one as I went, and when the month was over, I listened back to them all. There were nice moments in every song, but none of them were songs. Why?
There was no inevitability.
What can I do with this information?
Think about surfing. It doesn’t matter how much you strain mentally, how much you wave your fists at the sea – waves show up, or don’t, on their own schedule.
The only thing you have control over is what you do if and when the next one shows up. You have two choices – either you adapt yourself to the wave, and ride it, or you stand rigid, and let the wave batter you about.
Similarly, you can’t control when these moments of inspiration come, or what they look like when they do. But you can be ready to drop everything and follow them.
Although it can feel risky to stake everything on hunches and inspiration, it’s not when you actually think about it. For starters, I have enough personal experience now of both following my hunches, and of ignoring them, to know that I am always rewarded for following them and always punished for ignoring them. You could set your watch to it.
But besides that, what are you actually gaining by ignoring them? Security? Protection? Peace of mind? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel particularly secure, protected, or at peace when I go against what I feel in my bones to be the right thing to do.
There’s a reason for inspiration, for gut feelings, for hunches. It’s at your own peril that you pretend you don’t hear them. If you listen, though, and act on them, you’ll discover untapped inner resources – life will literally open up. But it will close again the second you stop listening to them.