I don’t think it’s much of a secret anymore that all artists steal. Not because we’re not creative or original enough, but just because it’s inevitable. We’re building on hundreds of years of craft and creativity. This morning, I was listening to a meditation that described it perfectly: we’re like the wave that’s being pushed forward by the whole ocean of our ancestors.
One of my friends and I often end up arguing about the throwaway comments I make. I say stuff like: “I hate Bob Dylan. He has a whiny voice.” First of all, I don’t hate Bob Dylan. I just don’t love him. And I recognise his contributions to folk and singer-songwriter music. But I also think he’s not that great of a singer and his guitar could use some work (although that’s rich coming from me). Anyway, my friend always gets incredibly worked up about me saying this, and I asked him why the other day. He said that you can’t deny that everything you do is based on what came before you and that, as musicians, we ought to recognise that. I couldn’t argue with that, although I don’t want to encourage any Bob Dylan idolatry here.
However, we are a part of a tradition. I came across this video of Paul Simon talking about how he wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. He describes how a part of the song slipped in from a Bach chorale, and how listening to the gospel group The Swan Silvertones led him to use gospel changes after he got stuck. Then Simon describes listening to an up-tempo song with the lyric: “I’ll be a bridge over deepwater if you trust in my name”, and pauses briefly before saying: “Well, I guess I stole it, actually.”
If this is how one of the greatest songs ever came about… well, I guess there’s a good reason to try doing it yourself. Here are some ideas on how to harness the greatness of the incredible songwriters of yore:
In her book ‘The Creative Habit’, Twyla Tharp wrote about dancing:
That’s the power of muscle memory. It gives you a path toward genuine creation through simple recreation.Twyla Tharp, ‘The Creative Habit’
The same goes for music. I spent years trying to write songs only knowing a few chords and two different strums. Limitations are healthy and can become fertile soil for creativity, but not when those limitations stem from laziness. Deliberate practice tends to be effortful and exhausting, but there’s a bigger chance you’ll persevere with your practice and learning if you start by learning songs by an artist you love. I had a pretty extensive Joni Mitchell period. Some musicians never get out of it and spend most of their careers sounding like an artist that already exists, but most artists spend at least some time imitating someone they admire. With time, you’ll start adjusting the guitar licks you’d learnt, adding your own lilt to the accent you’d been mimicking, you’ll start whispering where you used to belt. Someone else’s style will slowly grow into your own. But you need to start somewhere.
2. Write down everything that sounds good.
I underline sentences in books and write them in the back of my songbook. Whenever I’m stuck with a lyric, I leaf through my notebook and look at how I can spin the lines I liked in a way that will fit my own song. Sometimes, a line in a poem or a story will spark a song. I was reading ‘She Must Be Mad’ by Charly Cox, and these words struck me: “I got a fork stuck in a dishwasher/ And now I can’t stop crying/ Whoever said depression was glamorous/ Has clearly never considered dying” from ‘all I wanted was some toast’. That sparked the song ‘Tomato Stains’ that begins with the line: “I can’t get the tomato stains out of my new faded jeans/ And I can’t stop crying”. It ultimately goes into different thematic territory, but it would’ve never been written without Charly Cox. But a lot of the time, the origin of a lyrical idea is wildly different from what makes it into the song in the end.
3. Listen to artists that sound different.
I’m currently listening to Jon Batiste’s new album ‘WE ARE’ that combines gospel, funk, and R&B with hip-hop, jazz, and classical music influences. It features Zadie Smith, how cool is that? But I only heard of it because there was an interview with him in The Cut. It’s a stellar album, and I’m glad I came across it, but it’s also so different from the stuff I often listen to that a lot of the elements that will seem obvious to regular listeners of Jon Batiste’s jump out to me as exciting and new. It immediately inspires me to learn more about jazz and to experiment with sampling voices. Imitating one person makes you a copy, but combine that with another influence, and you have an idea.