People often ask me as a songwriter, ‘where does your inspiration come from’? It’s a tricky question, because sometimes an idea just seems to arrive without me having any idea how it got there. When this happens it can feel so easy, it sometimes feels like cheating.
But other times, I find myself pleading with the muse for an idea, bashing their door down until they relent and hand over a spark which then, eventually, becomes a song. This not only takes several hours of dancing around a lyrical or musical concept that feels just out of reach, but it’s also exhausting!
Either way, inspiration and ideas for songs are like a cup - in order to drink from it, you have to keep it full. So the times I am wrestling with the muse for an idea, it probably means I haven’t filled my cup for a while, and is potentially a sign I’m heading for creative burnout. The times when inspiration comes most easily is when I top myself up with ideas from the world around me. So here are 4 ways I keep myself inspired.
- Calling all Couch Potatoes
TV and films are such a great source of inspiration when my idea well is running dry, both in a musical and lyrical sense.
Musically, I am hugely inspired by songs used in the soundtrack or as a part of the score. Just watch a scene from a movie with no sound and you’ll realise how important it is to influencing the audience’s feelings, whether it be sad, scary or funny. I recently went back to Stranger Things Series 4 and re-watched sad or tense moments to analyse how and when the music changed, while thinking back to how I felt when first watching it. This whole process gives me inspiration for when I’m next writing a song to determine what mood I want to set musically, and how I want the listener to feel when hearing it for the first time.
In terms of lyrics, I get so many conceptual ideas from character dialogue: whether it’s an exact quote from a script or a provocative line that challenges the way I think about something, I make a point of noting them down in my song bank of ideas (aka my Notes app on my phone) - that way, I won’t forget them and can bring them into writing sessions to discuss with my co-writer(s).
2. Noses in Books
Whether it is fiction, biographies, poetry or simply the news, I find reading an amazing way of finding interesting lyrical titles or song concepts to bring into a writing session. A lot of the time, we’re trying to find new ways to say the same thing, and the imagery that comes from a powerful poem, or a turn of phrase written in a memoir helps me find a way to do that.
But if reading isn’t your thing, podcasts are a great source for inspiration too. The conversations that are being had might be something you want to put into song, or might make you think about a topic you want to discuss with your co-writer to then flesh out in a session. Just don’t forget to note the ideas down!
Also, going through the lyrics of my favourite songs and analysing what it is I like about them is a great inspiration practise for me. I did this a while back with the song When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by The Platters, written by Otto Harbach. I love the idea of the picture it paints : ’when your heart’s on fire, you must realise, that smoke gets in your eyes’ - it’s a perfect example of finding a new way to say “love is blind” and it shows the listener exactly what that feeling looks like.
3. Let’s get Classical
Heading back to the 18th and 19th centuries can be hugely inspiring. The Classical composers had such a way of conveying emotion through melody and I find it a wonderful way to reset myself when I get stuck in a rut with chords 1, 4, 6 and 5. There are so many interesting counterpoint melodies, so many modulations and variations in each piece its no wonder that Classical music can bring out so many new ideas for different chord patterns, or new ways to play with melody.
4. Take the Headphones off
Whilst I’m very supportive of all privacy laws, you will be astonished at how many great lines and snippets of conversations you overhear when walking round town without your headphones on. When people are in natural conversation with friends or a server, their guards are often down, which means they can say the most brilliant conversational lyric without even realising it. So whilst it’s nice to take a walk listening to our favourite music or sitting in a coffee shop with a new podcast, sometimes the world drops golden inspiration nuggets in the form of other people’s conversations. Just make sure you have your notebook at the ready!