How to overcome writer’s block: 10 top songwriting tips
Wise words on tackling writer’s block from songwriters Kelly Jones, Ali Tamposi, Sananda Maitreya, Joe Jackson, Helen Reddington and more
In 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, 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.
Well, rest assured the professionals have days like that too, but they also have some handy tactics to help dig them out of a creative slump. We’ve trawled back through our vault of interviews to find 10 useful tips for overcoming writer’s block, and here they are in the words of the songwriters themselves…
Writer’s block: a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.
“Stop” — Kelly Jones
“I was kind of done with touring, hotels and buses after 22 years. I was living in my head a bit too much, and I became very mindful that a lot of time had been wasted waiting for something to happen. I still loved [performing live] and still found it challenging, with our massive catalogue of music to play with every night, but the way I was treating myself and my wife, and the lifestyle was taking its toll. I was kind of at full capacity and I needed to stop. It didn’t feel writer’s block, it felt like a bit of a ‘life block’ – it wasn’t that I couldn’t write a song, I didn’t try to write a song!
“But when I did stop for a few months, I found that when these little ideas did start to come, they were kind of informing me how I was feeling. They were pages and pages of words, there were no corrections, they were very final and complete. I guess they were telling me that I wanted to change something and accept and be less resistant to the challenges I was going through in my life.”
“Accept it as a break” — Sananda Maitreya
“There is a fail-proof method for writer’s block. The first rule is to accept it as a break and a new incubation period – a necessary part of the process. The spirit needs time to consider other matters that consume life for new ideas and direction. And when ready to resume work, just start working. Work produces work, which produces more work. Once the impulse is initiated, the work will come.”
“Push through” — Isaac Hanson
“There are two ways [to overcome writer’s block]: the first way is that you really try to push through and listen to lots of other music as a coping mechanism of sorts and you force the process. But the thing that is more effective is going and doing things that are completely different to writing songs. ‘Oh, I can’t write a song.’ Well, then go for a run or go hang out with your friends, go do something that is not going to require the same level of psychological or emotional energy, something that is going to fill you with ideas and inspiration.
“Don’t keep labouring over something. That’s also the challenge; writing songs is as much about pushing through the hard part as it is getting inspiration. I find that the hardest part is completing the song, coming up with the complete picture. The hardest thing to write is the second verse.”
“Don’t worry about it” — Joe Jackson
“I have [suffered with writer’s block] once or twice, yeah. Advice? Well, it’s something that’s easy to say and very hard to do, but don’t worry about it. The more you obsess about it and worry about it, the worse it becomes. Do something else for a little while – enjoy being alive! There is life beyond music.”
“Keep playing” — J R Harbidge
“I used to struggle with writer’s block and I used to beat myself up a lot if I couldn’t finish a song, which happened quite a lot up until very recently. I took some advice from Ryan Adams on this subject. He said, ‘Writer’s block doesn’t exist. If you get stuck you should keep playing and if you keep playing you will finish the song. You are a songwriter so write songs. The more you play the more you write.’
“That really struck a chord with me (pun intended) and since then I just keep going until the song is finished and if it gets to a point where I am at a loss as to what to do next in a song, I don’t worry or stress about it, I know it will get finished eventually and I will put the song aside and start a new one and revisit the song maybe a week later with fresh ears. I have to say, though, I have only been stuck on one song in the last five years.”
“Listen to music” — Lisa Redford
“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…
“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.”
“Inspiration comes at different times” — Jacob Bunton
“I’ve never had writer’s block in the sense that you just can’t write a song. I’ve had moments where everything that I’ve written feels like it’s just not very good! But I’m constantly writing. And then there are other times I’ll get inspired and really happy with something. But inspiration comes at different times. Sometimes I’ll literally be asleep and dream of a melody and I’ll wake up and I’ll write down the melody line. Other times maybe you’re watching a movie and somebody says or does something that’ll trigger something that you’ll elaborate on and write a song about it.
“A lot of the stuff that really inspires me is everyday life experiences I see people going through, or myself as well. A lot of songs I’ve written about friends and scenarios they’ve gone through. Inspiration can hit at any moment. However, I feel most creative either super-late at night – around midnight, 1 am or 2 am, or first thing in the morning.”
“I suppose it’s important not to worry too much about what people think because then you’d never write. I do get periods of writer’s block and that can be so annoying when you go through six months of having problems just writing.” — The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan
“[Visit] a gallery or a museum” — Helen Reddington
“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.
“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?”
“Let things change” — Andy Burrows
“I never feel like it’s much of a problem because I’m a drummer and I feel that’s my day job, so if I ever get writers’ block then I’m quite lucky that I can go back to the band and just play. So that never really bothers me, but I do still feel like I’m relatively new to this. I obviously did write a few songs with Razorlight but I’m only two or three albums into being a songwriter. I feel like I’m learning about myself.
“So I think I get writer’s block, but whenever I feel like I’m drying up I go drumming or I’ll try to write in a different style. Even with writer’s block, I’ll try and use it as a positive. I don’t try and force it. I’ll just let things change.”
“Hope for the best” — Ali Tamposi
“It doesn’t always line up. Unfortunately, there’s no way to harness creativity – I’ve tried in every way possible. I’ve tried outsourcing, I’ve tried drinking to maintain the flow, even with the regime that I’m on now, you never really know how the day is going to turn out and that’s the challenge we always face. You can always just hope for the best and hope that everyone’s energy is in the right place to maintain the rhythm but there’s always this underlying anxiety that I can’t shake before going into the studio, and that is ‘Will the creative gods be lined up with me today, will I be able to execute to the best of my ability?’
“Sometimes it doesn’t work. Shaking off a bad session is one of the biggest challenges I face in my everyday life. If I feel challenged I have these internal battles with myself. I have imposter syndrome and I feel like a fraud and all of the above, but for the most part the past couple of years have been really good and I have different techniques for handling writer’s block now.”