Songwriting a walk in the park? Helen thinks so, and suggests some other creative spaces that’ll get the juices flowing
fter entering music as a punk rocker, Helen started the bands The Chefs and Helen & The Horns, both of whom recorded sessions for the late John Peel. Seven years touring and a recording deal with RCA followed, after which she started to develop songwriting courses on Southwark estates before creating and running the successful Songbook module at the University Of Westminster. Now at UEL, where she lectures in songwriting and production, she also runs songwriting courses at The Premises Studios in Hackney, and residential courses in Dumfriesshire with songwriter Martin Stephenson of The Daintees.
Here Helen suggests some places that can feed inspiration, help assuage the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ and get a disheartened songwriter back on the creative path…
1. Walk it off
Walking is a fantastic stimulus to the brain: it encourages you to breathe and depending on where you choose to walk, you will hear/see all kinds of inspirational things that can act as metaphors in your lyrics. An urban walk can throw up odd juxtapositions: poppies on a building site, a kestrel rising on the thermals above a tower block. You are surrounded by ambient sound. Try foregrounding each sound in turn and listening to its timbre and melody; birdsong is full of rhythm and has inspired musicians for centuries. It’s the original hook! Try to write a verse/chorus melody during a walk to use as a starting point for a song. You can use visual cues from your surroundings to brainstorm lyrical ideas.
2. Visit a gallery
A more cultured place to find inspiration is an art gallery. I used to take trips to the National Portrait Gallery in London and write songs inspired by the subjects of the paintings, and sometimes by the style of painting. Just as in the visual arts, songs have textures and different levels of detail. Take notes, remember visual snapshots and start writing as soon as you get home. Some galleries get crowded in the daytime so go early in the morning or late in the afternoon for a quieter and more reflective experience. Visiting a gallery or a museum can be a fantastic way to shift a mental block. You may not know the stories behind the pictures, but what is to stop you from dreaming them up yourself?
3. Go to market
Street markets are perfect places to pick up on the contemporary vernacular. There, you hear catchphrases and word rhythms that are designed to attract your attention. The current catchphrases used on the streets make your songwriting contemporary, and although you’re not going to be writing songs about fruit and vegetables, stallholders’ cries are often very musical and memorable. Listen to the people around you and the way they speak as they tell anecdotes and respond to each other. People develop shorthand, and use catchphrases from TV as well as their own slang. Rappers hear speech as music, and even pop songwriter Pete Waterman famously took the phrase “je ne sais pas pourquoi” from one of his secretaries who was having a conversation with a French friend on the phone.
4. Get a studio tan
Whether a rehearsal studio or a recording studio, sometimes the ‘time is money’ focus encourages you to finish and refine your songs either to be rehearsed with your band or recorded; it can also stimulate you to be creative in the moment. Once when I was running a course at The Premises Studio in East London, one of the songwriters was stuck for inspiration until she saw everyone else start recording. At that point, she realised exactly why she was there, and a complete song flowed out of her, melody, lyrics, rhythm and music. Everyone was astonished –and so was she! For many people, the studio allows them that feeling of professional space and a sense of being part of a musical community, the best place to develop their own unique voice as a songwriter.
Helen Reddington has just finished supporting The Daintees on their UK tour (as her alter-ego Helen McCookerybook), playing songs from her new album Anarchy Skiffle, and has just released retrospective albums of both The Chefs and Helen & The Horns. Helen plays solo gigs regularly across the UK and is also an academic writer, blogger and illustrator. Take a look at her blog here: www.mccookerybook.blogspot.com