Sometimes I’m asked at gigs and it catches me off guard. It’s always a difficult question to answer succinctly to a stranger, and causes me to stutter and stammer incoherently. “I’ve always done it”, is as lame a reason as it is true. Songwriting, that is to say.
But to me it’s all rather obvious since it’s an internal life that gets externalized through the act of songwriting. More accurately, its expression is stimulated by the act of simply noodling on my guitar without the intent of writing a song being present at all. But once the gears are engaged, so to speak, then whatever store of resource that resides within seeps up like some osmosis into my consciousness.
What does crop up which is caused by the stimulation affected by simply improvising (say) on chords and / or melodies based on scales will depend on a multitude of unrelated events in my life – contemporary and historically. These “events” can be superficially trivial or deeply personal or even completely impersonal. I’ve even written a song about a cowboy after watching Western TV shows.
The extent to which they are autobiographical spans the whole spectrum from not at all to almost journalistic.
Some songs are borne out of empathy and portraiture as distinct from being vehicles for self-expression. Other songs are more concerned with the sound and expressiveness of the language used than with the meaning it conveys. Yet others are a means of catharsis. Others still are long-winded and overblown ways to tell a joke. Whatever kind of song comes about is caused, not intentioned.
What is an anathema to me is to go into the studio for the purpose of writing a new song. I don’t do that. Sometimes I will go into the studio for the purpose of trying to finish a song that is already underway – in fact, without that discipline no song would ever get completed! Coming up with new “stuff” – they can’t be called “songs” – is unconscious in the first instance.
To a future stranger, who asks, I may well shrug and say that I can’t remember: I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid and that’s a long time ago. It’s a habit – no more; no less.
What does all that mean for a budding songwriter who may be struggling to find the blue touch paper in order cause a spark to fall upon it? Simply consider that songs are all around waiting to be divined – discovered. My proposal is that writing songs are a constant soundtrack to a life rather than an activity done at prescribed times of the day, or days of the week. Keep noodling on your instrument. Keep writing ideas down. Keep a look out for your songs as your read your newspaper and watch your television. They are waiting for you.