Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A songwriting insight from Nick Hornby

When I first began songwriting seriously, I averaged a song per month. I struggled to wrap my mind around my topics. I struggled to piece the puzzles together. I emerged victorious.

Now it takes me three to four times longer to finish a song. One reason is obvious: I'm much busier these days. But that's not all.

A couple months ago, I put my finger on part of it. My earliest songs -- the autobiographical ones, anyway -- dealt with the past. Even though those past experiences still hit a nerve, I could analyze and make sense of them more easily than if they were consuming me right at that moment. Now my more personal songs tend to focus on situations of the moment, and they're more raw.

I had an aha moment about a related reason late last night, courtesy of novelist Nick Hornby.

Hornby is an excellent writer who also happens to be a big music enthusiast. His latest book, Juliet Naked, is (very broadly) about the strange relationships that fans have with artists, and vice versa.

The aha moment came with this passage, about a retired musician who's had writer's block for over two decades:
The truth about autobiographical songs, he realized, was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it. You had to put it in a glass case and look at it and think about it until it gave up its meaning ...

God, yes. That's it.

If an experience is already over, it will stand still while you examine it. Pose for you. If you're still waiting to discover how it will all turn out, you have to guess.

And that's fine. It's just harder.

I suspect this knowledge won't make me a better or faster songwriter. But maybe I can forgive myself if it takes a while to pin down whatever it is I'm trying to say.


Pris said...

The process you describe is much like I've experienced writing poetry.

IreneJ said...

I'm not sure I agree...first of all, you want to capture the immediacy of a feeling or event, and that means keeping it present. Secondly, a lot of songwriters complain that they're sometimes "too happy" to write. I usually suggest that they pull up a past emotional event and feel it again in order to get some of that "rawness" back and draw from it. My guess is that you are getting older, just like me :-), and all of the things that used to be SO IMPORTANT when you were younger, don't anymore.

Jannie Funster said...

Yesterday I was quite certain I had written something brilliant. Today I think it may well be crap.


But you know what they say about crap -- great fertilizer.

Maybe I need to make the present become the future!!

Or not.

Tomorrow's a new adventure.

cinderkeys said...

Pris: I'm glad it's not just me (and fictional characters).

IJ: I've always felt like your first point should be true. What better time to write a song than when you can most fully access the raw emotions, right? I know some songwriters like to write that way.

It's not universally untrue for me ... I can think offhand of at least one song I wrote that tapped very recent events and feelings. A lot of the time, though, that level of intensity doesn't make me articulate. Not much rhymes with snarling noises.

As for the second point, yeah, kinda. The topic I fixated on ten years ago has pretty much resolved itself by now, for which I am eternally grateful. That doesn't mean different things haven't taken their place in the SO IMPORTANT pantheon, though. :)

Jannie: So? Now that you've had another day or two to reflect, is it crap or not? Don't keep us in suspense.

"Maybe I need to make the present become the future" sounds like it could be shaped into a good lyric, though. You could do something with that. :)

Fireblossom said...

I enjoyed both the post and IJ's comment. Thanks for pointing me this way.