New monthly columnist Lisa Redford is a British singer-songwriter based in NYC. This month, she looks at tackling writer’s block
n 1973 Dolly Parton apparently wrote two of her most famous songs, I Will Always Love You and Jolene, on the same afternoon. “It was a good day!” she quipped and I’m sure as songwriters we all dream of a productive day like that. But do you recognise this? You happen to have some free time to sit down and write a new song. You sit with your instrument, pen and paper at the ready, eager for inspiration to take hold… and nothing happens. You end up getting distracted, checking your e-mails, making endless cups of tea and ideas elude you.
This certainly happens to me and at some point, most of us will feel stuck. It’s such a rewarding feeling when you’re in that ‘zone’ where the ideas and melodies are flowing, and you’re totally absorbed in your writing and the great new song you’re creating. Sometimes, unfortunately, that’s harder to come by and as an independent songwriter there’s also always something else to do which is not usually conducive to writing and being creative.
The first thing I would say is, don’t panic! Don’t force it if it’s not happening that day or pressure yourself. You’re not going to create amazing songs all the time and some days it’s just about enjoying the creative process and writing a little, not a complete song. The key thing is to keep writing, jot down whatever comes to mind and be open. I’m always searching for ways to be inspired and here I’ll share with you some things I do to find my musical muse again.
A big thing I do is to listen to music: turn on the radio or delve into my music collection to play great songs old and new. Hearing one of my favourite songs definitely inspires me. The internet (and particularly social media) can be a major distraction but checking out SoundCloud, YouTube or Spotify can lead you on a musical journey where you listen to your favourite artists and discover new ones. Lately I’ve been enjoying the performances on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.
It’s also definitely good to go out, take a break and get some fresh air, observe all that’s going on around you. I often go to the local park or to a cafe. With the steady pace of walking I find ideas come into my head and it enables me to rid my mind of worries and distractions. Physical activity is hugely beneficial in many ways, some people find meditation and yoga really helps them clear their minds, for me it’s tennis and cycling.
Guitar is my main instrument to write on but if it’s not providing any inspiration, I switch to playing the ukulele or piano and it leads me into writing in a slightly different style. It’s good to step out of your comfort zone and try experimenting with a different instrument. As well as my acoustic style, I have written and sung on dance tracks. I love new musical challenges and have also written the music score for a short film in NYC which involved composing instrumentals and putting music to the director’s lyrics. I also learn and play covers of songs I love from different genres. It’s often when I’m just enjoying playing music and not intentionally setting out to write a song that invariably some new melody or idea transpires.
As I said before, the key thing is to keep writing, keep a diary for your thoughts and a notebook to write down anything even if it’s just the odd line or phrase. Two of my songs, Makes Your Heart Sing and Never Was A Yesterday, originated from conversations I overheard and once I had a phrase and a theme they seemed to write themselves. Lately I’ve been writing in the morning just as my mind wakes, but I also keep a notebook by the bed in case inspiration strikes – you never know when a great seed of an idea will come. I’m convinced I’ve missed some potential ‘hits’ by being too tired to write an idea down!
“Keep a diary… keep a notebook by the bed”
I’m a voracious reader and love getting lost in a good book. As well as novels, I enjoy music biographies to discover where an artist came from and their musical journey. One of my favourite songwriters, Kate Bush, effectively uses books to create her unique music. Wuthering Heights and Cloudbusting are just two examples and she’s also written about historical figures like Houdini and Delius. What an amazing imagination she possesses!
Going to gigs and seeing great live music is another excellent way I get inspired, whether it’s seeing the huge variety of live music on offer in New York or the UK, it definitely makes me want to pick up my guitar when I get home. Travelling also expands your horizons. A train journey particularly helps my mind wander, seeing little details and hearing random conversations as the scenery rolls by. My song Summer On The L came about from riding the L Train on the New York subway, Dragonfly from a long car ride going through Goa.
Do you set a routine for your songwriting? Nick Cave and Richard Thompson are among those respected songwriters that do. Thompson says “I’ll write everyday for a month, from 7am to noon, and longer if it’s going well. That’s really productive. The more days you can string together, the better things start flowing’. Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham famously encouraged Mick and Keith to work hard to write their own songs so there’s definitely something in applying a certain type of discipline and focusing the mind.
I’d love to hear what you all do to help you deal with writer’s block. Be patient and find inspiration all around!
Songwriting is delighted to welcome new contributor Lisa Redford, who has been described by BBC Radio 2′s Bob Harris as “one of our finest singer/songwriters.” She has earned acclaim for her heartfelt acoustic music with gorgeous melodies, stunning pure and soulful vocals. Lisa recently released an EP called Reminders, recorded in New York City where she is also based. It was recorded with musician and producer Jeff Hill who has worked with Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. It has received glowing reviews and BBC radio airplay.