For the majority of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, William Miller aka The Kid is trying to nab an interview with Russell, the lead guitarist and major talent of Stillwater. After a show, William gets Russell sitting down and plunges in: “Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you? Like ‘Love Thing’, where did you write that and, who is it about?” Russell deadpans: “When did you get so professional?”
It’s a classic scene: journalists ask musicians a variation of “What’s your process? How do you do it?” all the time. Why is to this answer important? Same reason people have used myths from time immemorial: we like to rationalize the mysterious. The Internet is replete with listmania, derived from exactly this desirous kind of thinking: “8 Ways to Become A Better _________,” “11 Ways to Write A _____________,” “So-and-So-Famous-Person’s 6 Ways to Achieve Fame and Fortune.” And typically, musicians first answer these kinds of howidunit questions with a caveat that we don’t like to hear, because it doesn’t really satisfy: that everyone has his own road and process to creating worthwhile melodies and lyrics. In ’93, Keith Richards gave an infuriatingly vague answer to the question of how he writes: “I just sit around and play guitar…[then] after about half an hour, incoming!….Suddenly I have a song… You just see what’s around…and that way you get rid of that whole idea of ‘I’ve got writer’s block.’” Recently Ne-Yo gave an interview and talked about writing for Beyonce: “No right or wrong way,” he said — “Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.” I watched an interview with Amelia Curran, the extremely talented Candian singer-songwriter, in which she emphasizes the necessity of hard work, putting in your 10,000 hours. She denigrates laziness. You want to write good lyrics? Well, she says, “It’s not rocket science.”
While I admire Curran’s no B.S. attitude, I’ve gotta argue that there’s a difference between proficiency and real creativity. So you wanna be a rock and roll star? Great, you’ve learned the instrument. Inside and out. You’ve learned to sing. But can writing a great song be taught? And if the our idols can’t explain how it’s done, where can we look?
About a month ago, on June 21st, the highly acclaimed singer-songwriter Wesley Stace wrote an article for The New York Times called “Songwriting on Demand” about his experience co-teaching a class at Princeton called How to Write A Song. He taught with Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-prize winning poet. The class was so popular, Stace writes, that he and Muldoon accepted twenty-four students, twice the number they had originally imagined. The concept was to bring poets and musicians together to write original tunes. But how to structure the production? Each week, Stace and Muldoon chose an emotion (“Jealousy, Anger, Joy, Defiance” etc.) to inform composition. When I read that, I remembered when, ten years ago, I told my mom that I wanted to apply to a young writer’s program. She encouraged me to get started early so I would have plenty of time to edit. Weeks went by, and the deadline for the application loomed—I went back to my mom and admitted that so far I’d written nothing. She was teaching a nonfiction writing class at NYU at the time and was used to galvanizing procrastinators because immediately she said: If you’re stuck, pick the feeling that eats at you. Start with that. Write that word down, and begin.
Writing is anything but modest. It’s brazen. It’s ego. It’s fantasy. While we all like advice, lists, role models, the necessary ingredient to putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard or fretboard is the certainty that what you’ve got stored up has to be expressed. You could be writing for your own band or someone else’s, but before the words and the melodies there must be irrational conviction.
There’s an exercise I’ve been doing lately — taking songs I love and chopping off their tails. I rewrite the bridge and the final chorus, maybe changing the melody too, just trying to take it somewhere new. It builds confidence to do this, and makes it easier to write my original stuff, because, hey, if you can rewrite Leonard Cohen, Laura Marling, or Bob Dylan, what can’t you do?