Mama, Where Do Songs Come From?

April 6th, 2019

I just wrote a chorus, there, a few days ago.

I have a gig at the Serendipity Cafe this coming Wednesday, and the song prompt is “maybe tomorrow”, and I decided to write a song about – no, not gonna tell you, you’ll just have to come by and hear it. But the point is, I actually wrote the song, and I have no idea where it came from.

I’ve been writing songs since I was fifteen years old, which, at this point, is, oh, three or four centuries. The early songs were crap, mostly; and then I got a writing partner for a while, and then I was in a band, and then I was in a songwriting group, and the average quality gradually increased to the point where I am now the genius you see before you. And I used to worry, every time I wrote a good song, that it was the last good song that I was ever going to write; but over time, I learned that, in the same way that putting one step in front of the other leads to walking, there are steps I can take that will lead to a song coming out the other end. But it’s still a mystery to me – a mystery I have faith in, but a mystery.

I think the thing that freaks me out the most is the lack of control, and the best analogy I can come up with is gardening, which is unfortunate, because I have a coal-black thumb and if I wrote songs like I grow plants, they’d all be seven seconds long and consist entirely of monosyllables and then they’d be eaten by bugs. You (and I do mean you, because as I said, I have a coal-black thumb) prepare the soil, plant the seeds, water them, fertilize them, and through some miracle, eventually you have daffodils or zucchini or, heaven help us, kale.

My particular parlor trick is free writing, to the extent that I can free it. The idea is, if you haven’t tried it, to write down whatever comes into your head, and let it lead you where it leads. It’s mostly crap and gibberish, after you review it; those folks who preserve their most profound thoughts when they’re stoned will know exactly what I’m talking about. The difference, in this case, is that I’m not stoned, and eventually a miracle occurs – and the key word here is “eventually”, because “eventually” can mean “the heat death of the universe” with some songs, and I can’t wait that long.

But when the time frame is short enough, I’ll find gold in there, as if I were panning for it. Suddenly, three lines from three different apparently abortive writing sessions will form a perfect chorus, or a couplet will leap out at me like I’m being mugged. With this song for Serendipity Cafe, I scribbled for a week, and one morning I went back to my notes, and the song was sitting there, just waiting for me to finish it. Cue the obligatory giggling with delight and dancing around the room and playing it incessantly, which I’m sure is the absolute favorite part of the process for my wife, She Who Must Be Taunted, who’s a novelist and chooses not to read me her most brilliant lines, over and over and over and over and over again.

And this happens, somehow, most of the time, as long as I prepare the soil, plant the seeds. I don’t know how. I may never. And someday, I might lose my faith in the process, gradually, just the way I found it. But let’s hope that’s a few years away.

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