“The Squirrel” – Part One
The Creative Side: On Songwriting
There are a few stock questions we’ve all heard asked of songwriters far more famous than I. The two that spring to mind first are:
What comes first, the lyrics or the music?
Where do you get your ideas for songs?
In Indie Rock 101, I cover a few key aspects of the songwriting process, including basic song structure, along with less conventionally discussed aspects such as band interpretation of the material; impressionism and storytelling in lyrics; what to avoid in general and elements of what makes a great song, to name a few. But I realize the one thing I didn’t cover is that elusive preliminary element of divine inspiration that marks the necessary beginning of every song.
Speaking for myself and amalgamating what I’ve read in interviews with some of my favorite songwriters, the truth is that there is no single answer to these questions; they are as unique and individual as the songwriter, their circumstances and source of inspiration themselves. A lot of the songs I’ve written that I like the most literally come to me in the form of a nugget of chords and a melody of a certain mood or tone. It just needs to be a few bars. Lyrics never pop into my head but I might hear the vague, muffled syllables and syntax of what I refine later as I’m sitting down with pad, paper and guitar.
One song I wrote years ago, “Falling,” was built on a melody that popped into my head after several years of musical inactivity that I had to write and record—along with nine other songs that followed. The chorus and refrain of another, “Working for the Man,” popped into my head as I was, naturally, biking to work on a Monday. More recently, I recorded and mixed a song called “The Squirrel,” which you can listen to for free-download here at the website for my book, Indie Rock 101.
Unlike these previous examples, this song hadn’t germinated in my mind before its inspiration upon hearing an otherwise reasonable couple express their hatred for and attempts to exterminate the squirrels “infesting” their yard.
The inspiration for songs, in itself, is a mysterious and awe-inspiring thing. As an artist, I am compelled and feel a duty to answer the call of the songs that visit me when I least expect it. I think the harder work—which requires a certain baseline knowledge of craft, one’s instrument, and the discipline and fortitude it takes to fully realize any idea—is in the sometimes painful and frustrating songwriting process itself: sitting there with pen, paper and instrument, trying different things, working it out.
Whether it’s songwriting, writing fiction, or Indie Rock 101 itself, I like to compare the creative process to solving a riddle or a puzzle. At first, you’re given a few clues in the form of inspiration, but it’s your job as the artist to chase it down, tease it out of yourself and ultimately realize your vision. The work is in finding and creating more pieces—a lyric here, a guitar part there, a bridge—and editing, refining and combining the pieces until it all fits. Most times I start writing a new song, and working on a new mix especially, I think, “This sounds terrible. It’s not going to work.” But of course the hard work is in making sure it does. And to me, one of the most satisfying parts of the songwriting process is finishing the mix, cranking it up and hearing how the puzzle pieces all come together.
Stay tuned for “The Squirrel” Part II, The Technical Side: On Mixing and Combining Sounds.
San Franciso-based indie musician/producer Richard Turgeon is the author of Indie Rock 101: Running, Recording and Promoting Your Band, published by Focal Press. You can keep up with his latest projects at his website and blog at www.indierock101.com.