Where do songs come from?
In this exclusive extract from her new book, one of Canada’s most celebrated songwriters Kat Goldman tackles that all-important question
Where does a song come from? How do you begin to answer a question that enigmatic? It’s almost like asking, where does a baby come from? I mean, we know where a baby comes from (at least, I think I know), but we don’t know why it happened in the first place. In other words, from where does life originate? Which reminds me of another question: Where do we go when we die? Is there an afterlife? Will there be hammocks?
LIKE A RABBIT FROM A HAT
Some songwriters have claimed their songs literally fly into their heads out of nowhere. Some dream their songs or wake up with a melody in their head. How does that happen? Do elves whisper to them in their sleep? Are they making contact with other planets? Can you pull out a song like a rabbit from a hat? How can it be that George Harrison wrote While My Guitar Gently Weeps by opening the pages of a book to the words “gently weeps?” What about when a song gets written in 15 minutes? How do you explain that? Does it just roll off your tongue into your fingers and onto your page? Does it write itself? Is there really such a thing as a muse and, if so, can she please send me a hit for Stevie Nicks to cover?
How do you explain those long dry periods where you can’t write a thing? You’ll be thinking you’re all washed up, you’re ready to throw in the towel, your whole life has amounted to nothing, and you’re ready to flip burgers at Dairy Queen. Then one day the spell breaks. Just like that, the wheels start turning and out comes another song.
Let’s return to the original question. Where does a song come from? You might as well ask: Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did I get a little sister when I wanted a little brother? Why did Rachel Nussbaum punch me in the stomach at recess in grade four? If I drink ayahuasca tea, will I meet my true self? And, finally, what is a true self?
The answer is, I’m not sure. There are legitimate techniques for writing lyrics and melodies but some songs are simply inspired. You’ll be driving home and see a billboard that gives you a first line, or a title. I get ideas when I’m scrubbing my bathroom floor. Maybe you’ll be listening to your favourite music when a new melody gets sparked.
Songs come from a mysterious place. You just have to be there to catch them. And when those words come galloping through and you marry them to a melody, any songwriter knows it’s one of the great feelings of being alive.
WHICH CAME FIRST?
People often ask me: Which comes first, the melody or the lyrics? The answer is: Neither, or either. In my classroom, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Take your melodies and words as they come. Not too long ago, on one of those chilly November days in Toronto with the last brown leaves of autumn blowing in circles in the air, I was standing in the yard with my dog when these words came into my head: “The winds of change are blowin’ in / The winds of change have come.” And they were accompanied by a melody. Words and music, both at the same time. And it was a beautiful melody. “This is going to be big,” I told myself. “This is going to be off the charts.”
For the past year, the melody has kept flying around my head without landing anywhere. I haven’t wanted to force it because the music feels special. Also, I haven’t been able to finish the lyrics. I don’t yet know what the song wants to say. But someday, I’m convinced, it will be huge.
Finding a melody is often the greatest challenge for the beginning songwriter. A melody is something ethereal. I don’t think it’s something you can force. It has to come from a feeling inside you. It should come from your heart and soul, and it should be intuitive. I could say I’m going to teach you how to write a melody but I don’t think melody is teachable. I believe that a melody has to come to you from your own imagination. I usually just hear melodies in my head. I’ll wake up one morning and a melody will be there to greet me. It can happen anytime. At a bus stop or while you’re brushing your dog’s teeth. Whatever you’re doing, be willing to receive it. Grasp it, write it down, never let it go. It just might be a hit.
The Beatles were some of the best melody makers I can think of but I also love Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Carole King, James Taylor, Joan Armatrading, Cat Stevens – just about any of those great songwriters who came out of the 60s and 70s. Christmas songs have some of the most beautiful melodies. My favourite is O Holy Night. It’s so moving, the way it lifts up at the end of the song. It gives me the shivers.
WINDS OF CHANGE
I guess my best tip would be to surround yourself with music that moves you. The more attention you pay to what other songwriters have done, the more adept you become at hearing and receiving melodies in your own head. You could also pray for a melody. I do this for parking spaces and it often works.
Sometime after I heard my Winds Of Change melody, I was at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. I made the mistake of going by myself. Never do that. They make you feel so bad about it! You walk into the dining room and the hostess asks, “Just one person?”
“Yes,” you say. And then your waiter comes over and asks the same question, “Just one person?”
“Yes. Si,” you say, trying your Spanish.
“Only one?” he asks again.
“Uh-huh,” you repeat. And then he makes a show of taking away the napkin, wineglass, and place setting of the person who is never going to be sitting in front of you. Then some woman from the resort comes over and gives you a questionnaire to fill out because, obviously, you have nothing better to do.
The worst is when you’re sitting there at dinner and the mariachi band comes over to your table-for-one and starts playing La Cucaracha. Every single time the trumpet player is flat, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Anyway, I was in the middle of my dinner-for-one, the mariachi band was finished, and they were playing Mexican pop music over the loudspeaker. Wouldn’t you know it, a song came on that sounded exactly like my Winds Of Change! I couldn’t believe it! The exact same melody! “Now what?” I said.
I had to think about it. Was anybody in Canada ever going to hear this Spanish song with the same melody as mine? It would probably never translate from one country to another. I was hoping that would get me off the hook. The other thing I thought about was that some Mexican songwriter was on the exact same wavelength as me. Uncanny! Maybe we’re kindred spirits.
Maybe songwriters are connected on spectrums off-limits to others. I take this to be a good thing.
I’ve decided I’m still going to write my Winds Of Change song. And if one day I meet the Mexican songwriter who got hold of the melody before me, we will knock back a couple of tequilas, embrace each other, and run down the beach singing La Cucaracha.
From Off The Charts: What I Learned From My Almost Fabulous Life In Music by Kat Goldman. Copyright © 2021 by Kat Goldman. Reprinted by permission of Sutherland House Books.