This is a question that I get asked a lot. I love when people ask me about the inspiration behind a specific song because I usually have a concrete answer of how that went down.
Overall, it’s both intricate and tricky and also very simple. I write what I feel.
I’ve heard other people call this “write what you know” and maybe the term even comes from screenplay writing but with songs it’s more about how you feel about what you know, or often don’t know, in the song.
Most often for me I’ll have a little melody and lyric idea come to me out of the silence of driving, walking etc... I think it’s important for us to all find more time to be quiet and take time for our creative spirit to have space to emerge.
Once that flow starts, the best thing to do is stay out of your own way.
Don’t judge the writing too much but just see how far that initial spark of inspiration will take you; sometimes you’ll be surprised. I’ve had entire songs fall out nearly full and complete in only 15 minutes. Once that initial visit with the muse is through then it’s time to woodshed and dig into the song but hopefully that first spark of inspiration gave you some good bones for the song. The important thing is just not to get in your own way too soon.
I may be lucky that I am usually inspired with lyrics and melody coming all at once, I usually have a kind of idea for the chords too in mind when I start. There are times when I sit down to write though and start with a guitar part, a line I love or a few words I think would make for a great title and then it’s something else all together.
I recommend keeping a running notes file or journal of things you come across that you find inspiring, sometimes I hear something in conversation, see a great magazine article title or advertising phrase that inspires something. Those things are good to collect and look over when you want to sit down to write.
Here are a few ideas if you’re starting with nothing and want to write a song...
Start playing one of your favorite cover songs on your instrument. Try changing them up a little, play the progression backwards or finger pick if it’s normally a strummed song or vice versa. Sometimes you’ll find a cool guitar part that can spark your own song. I’ve even tried pretending I don’t know how to play guitar and turning the guitar upside down to play as a lefty would. Other instruments you don’t normally play are great for inspiring this kind of experimentation too.
As far as lyrics go, think about something you went through that was bigger then just your day-to-day. An experience where you were more emotional or felt like you had a heightened experience is a good place to start, it could have been happy, sad, frustrating, inspiring.
With that experience in mind, here are a few prompts to get flowing. You may want to write stuff down or you may want to just put on the voice recorder and talk this through and then listen back. When I co-write I talk through this stuff with my co-writing partner and then we pull out each other’s best truths and realizations into lyrics for the song.
What would you tell that person if you could go back in time knowing what you know now? This is a good one even just for what you would tell yourself looking back.
What did you want to say to the other person that maybe you couldn’t say or you knew they couldn’t hear?
How did the experience change you?
What do you wish would have happened?
Why did things workout or not workout?
Are you seeing a pattern here? I just want you to ask yourself questions and try to find the truth in the experience. That is what makes the basis for great lyrics. Keep going as you answer the prompt, asking why, how, what questions to dig deeper.
There are a lot of other things to learn about song form, rhyming etc. You can study songs you love – I really recommend actually digging in and learning the song yourself because that helps you get a feel for the structure, meter and melody in a way nothing else does.
There are lots of books on the subject too. I always love things by Jason Blume and Judy Stakee has a newsletter you can signup for where she talks about songwriting every week and gives great lessons and homework for songwriters.
Writing with other writers has always taught me a lot – even in the sessions that didn’t produce a song where we weren’t the most compatible team. If you keep at it you will become a better songwriter.
Good luck with your songwriting! And, if you want to hear more of the stories behind my own individual songs they were published in the song book back in March on my Patreon page at https://patreon.com/nataliegelman