Having written an album while traversing Europe, the singer-songwriter shares tips on leaving your comfort zone and finding your songs
Songwriting is like panning for gold and the very process is very alchemical. You need the right ingredients. Moving and travelling, the momentum of new perceptions married with the settling of this can create the perfect storm for that gold of a song.
Always go away for as long as you are able as everything always takes longer than you think. The act of actually moving, the momentum of a journey, just seeing different things out of the window can easily spark ideas. Getting away from your normal routine travel is good, the further the better, so you make sure you don’t just pop home any time!
Looking out of the window in a car or train or walking gives you something else to focus on other than your inner mental thoughts so the ‘gold’ can float to the surface. It gives the ‘poetry brain’ time to breathe.
Make sure you have everything you need. Packing your tools – computer, microphone, audio interface (I use a Focusrite), guitar/keyboard etc. whatever you need to create. Pack well and carefully, always bring a spare lead and even a spare microphone if you can. Try and pack as many breakables into what hand luggage cabin bag allowance you have if you‘re flying.
GET IN THE ZONE, GET STILL
Buy food for a week so you don’t have to keep going out and about. Lots of lemons are handy to keep well and in tip-top voice to last the duration of singing solidly/ daily for weeks.
Get somewhere that has space. This usually means it needs to be a little isolated, as confidence is better when you can sing in solitude and work ideas. This was the reason I had to move into the forest glade as the house I had written in before now had neighbours next door and meant they could hear me if I played inside the house.
Move your phone away, even better turn it off – distractions are death to creation!
Going to an isolated place with no distractions for as long as you can is perfect. Focus on your surroundings. Get a good view. The view is all about openers and opening up so make sure yours is a good one if you can.
Nature can really help the creative process, the stillness and being at one with the environment gave a sense of peace that helped the right mood for writing and creating. I stared at trees and meditated on their leaves to get me in the zone.
Sounds crazy but I’d read about a Zen technique that by staring you get empathy with the trees and you start to see their personalities. So I did this for a bit daily. After some time, you become very much one with the environment then ideas seem to flow easily.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t create or work on a song every day. Guilt is a blocker. Sitting with whatever you feel and moving through it will get you to the gold. Songwriting is very much about the in-between times when ideas settle, trust that the creativity will come and it always does, it’s when you panic that the muse runs away. Rest days are just as valid.
Moving into a forest glade where I was surrounded by birds, squirrels, even rats, meant I could get into the feel of the surroundings properly. By becoming one with nature felt like suddenly you are at one with yourself, so it’s much easier to be clear and focused and get in touch with the font of ideas the universe has. It’s like having a tap into a channel.
FINDING THE GOLD: IDEAS IDEAS
Write a journal every day. Always write whatever comes into your head, however weird or mundane. Take a folder/file of all your words with you, you never know when something you wrote a while ago will jog your mind for a new idea or can be used amongst other lines.
Also, before you go make sure you print off poems or anything that you have electronically so it’s easy to see everything on the printed page, then you can put ideas together easily.
Write lists of what you want to achieve and tick them off i.e. which songs you want to work on. Or if writing totally from scratch brainstorm ideas every day and keep a record. Sometimes putting more than one song idea together can work for added sections/chorus’ etc.
Always bring lots of paper, notebooks and pens and also something to draw with as some days you might not want to write but drawing can help keep the creative process flowing. Having lyrics written on paper means you can always cut the words up and do William Burroughs cut-ups to create lines of songs.
From the stillness and dialling everything else right down you can really tune into your feelings and impressions that can spark a song. You let imagination flow. Interesting listening to David Lynch talking about transcendental meditation and the creative process.
SOLIDIFYING THE GOLD: PRACTISE, PRACTISE
The demos you make are really helpful. I always record everything properly when I return but use the demos as tools for practice and to see
what arrangements work. Voice memos are also good if you don’t have any other equipment. Marc Bolan said to play through a song 12 times before it settles so I always try to do that.
Get a daily routine. Be disciplined, have a boring practice to get you in the mood. I did pranayama, breathing and singing exercises in the morning to set myself up in my head and make sure my voice was strong if I was recording demos of the ideas too. Bring a chord book to learn some new chords and try different configurations.
Make sure you have a capo for different keys/voicings. If you have a melody or a riff, chord progression, always record it as you never know when it might come in handy.
Everything was recorded afterwards at the studio just like it was practised out in nature and then the other instruments recorded around it, even the drums. You get a sense of the drums on the backbeat, a little behind which gives it its lazy pastoral feel that was perfect for Sweet Way Around.