poets-that-taught-me-to-write

How My Favourite Poets Taught Me to Write

creativity, songwriting

The first poem I liked was Bukowski‘s ‘An Almost Made Up Poem’, about a heartbreaking love for a woman that took her own life. I had read poetry before that – I had read and liked Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Kipling (not knowing the implications of that at the time), but they hadn’t grabbed me by the throat and turned me inside out. There was something about Bukowski’s writing that sounded like he was furiously scribbling away in his journal, and I felt like I was in his head, and there was no time for rhyme or for beautiful words except they sounded beautiful anyway because they were true.

I was fifteen when I read that poem and I’ve since met a lot of men who love Bukowski, especially the ones that are just starting as poets. He’s the Hemingway of poetry, he’s a lad’s lad, he’s cool enough to openly admit you like him (despite the numerous claims of him being a misogynist). I still like Bukowski and I have realised that my soft spot for embarrassing honesty comes from him, just like my disregard for rhyme. I have never cared for lyrics that sound pretty but don’t mean much, and I only like abstract imagery in moderation.

After Bukowski, I moved on to more broody things. I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. As a teenager, I related to ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, especially the line “I think I made you up inside my head”, and kept the poem as the screensaver on my phone for months. I remember classmates laughing at me for being pretentious (which I was), but that’s how I learnt the power of repetition, that love is supposed to tear you apart, and that exaggerating is acceptable even when you’re striving for honesty in your writing.

When I realised I actually liked poetry, I started taking out poetry collections at the library. I’d choose them at random – picking out two or three every other week in the English language section. That’s how I stumbled across Helen Farish, and her poem ‘Look at these’, a short poem where she writes: “Seeing you makes me want to lift up my top,/ breathe in and say Look! Look at these!” It’s a snapshot in time, vulnerability that’s confined to a very specific action. With its eight lines, the poem stunned me with everything it encompassed. It showed the universality of a brief moment. After that, I started writing about small things, too. Nothing was too small to be made into a song – blue sweaters worn by ex-boyfriends, catchphrases friends used, the scent of someone’s cologne.

In a poetry anthology of female poets, I found the poem ‘Bitch’ by Carolyn Kizer, where seeing an ex-lover provokes the dog in Kizer to first growl, then bark, and then, as the conversation about old days unfolds, to whimper and grovel. It’s a metaphor that sounds exactly right, the lines “Down, girl! Keep your distance/ Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain” describing my thoughts when I interact with my ex-boyfriends. It was funny, it was fitting, it was – again – relatable. I haven’t mastered the art of elegantly constructed metaphors yet, but she inspired me to try. She also inspired me not to be afraid to use self-deprecating humour.

When Maya Angelou came, so did life. ‘Caged Bird’ taught me that pain matters, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ taught me to believe. She didn’t teach me how to write, she taught me how to live. So many small wisdoms that she imparted I live by today. I was told yesterday that I’m too full of myself and need to learn to be humble. I don’t think that’s what my friend meant. I think he meant I need to be more modest, but Maya Angelou taught me there’s a difference between the two and what I need is humility, not modesty. She said this, and it’s ingrained in me forever and ever:


You see, I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals.  As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper. Whenever I’m around some who is modest, I think, ‘run like hell and all of fire’. You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.

Dr. Maya Angelou

Later, I became more interested in my roots and started reading Russian poets, like Yesenin, Akhmatova, Akhamadulina. Their melancholy, dark humour, detailed descriptions (like Akhmatova describing putting on the left mitten on the right hand in ‘A Song of the Final Meeting’) taught me to pay attention to the mundane, to romanticise, and to remember. Yesenin’s lilacs, Akhmadulina’s green dreams in winter – I remember visiting Russia when I was seventeen and going through my grandmother’s bookshelves, taking photos of these poems I didn’t want to forget. Two years later, I’d find a compilation of Russian poets in a second-hand store in Marylebone, remembering poems I heard when I was too young to understand them, underlining phrases that I wanted to mimick in my lyrics.

Then the age of Instagram poets dawned, and I discovered Rupi Kaur and Charly Cox. Rupi Kaur’s ‘milk and honey’ was the first poetry collection I bought, and I brought it with me on my trips around Europe. She helped me through my first breakup in high school and taught me that my feelings were valid enough to write about. Charly Cox came much later when I stumbled upon ‘She Must Be Mad’ at the library in Ghent, while visiting my parents over Christmas over a year ago. She was speaking about her experiences, but it was like reading my own diary. I had been moving in that direction all along – confessional storytelling and embarrassing truth are what I live for. But here was someone almost my age, doing it at the same time as me, and I felt seen. It gave me hope, like good poetry always did.

what-to-write-about-in-lockdown-songwriting

What I Write About When All There Is to Do This Year Is Stare Out of the Window

creativity, productivity, songwriting

A couple days ago, a meme of Bart Simpson staring out of the window at the grey sky outside started circulating on my Instagram. In Berlin winter, it was strikingly fitting, considering how that was exactly how my friends and I spent most of our days. Writing this, I’m looking at the sky and trying to remember what the sun looks like, but all I can see is a grey nuclear cloud enveloping the city. Even without corona, this would have been a depressing sight, but knowing that I can’t go to a bar or a club, or spend the night singing songs with my musician friends, makes this time even more unbearable.

But another problem is starting to affect artists. I was talking to a friend the other day, who remarked: “I have never had this much free time to write, but what the hell am I supposed to write about? All I do is sit at home and drink tea.” It was a good question. Songwriters often pull from their own experiences, writing about the people they meet or the places they see. If all there’s left is your apartment and the people you see on Netflix, what stories do you still have to tell?

A while ago, I talked about keeping an inspiration journal and how that prevents me from having creative blocks, but even an inspiration journal has its limitations. Poems, photos, quotes from films are all great sources of inspiration, but sometimes, what we crave is to write about something we care about and feel, more than what just sounds good. And with this pandemic, the main thing we care about is getting through it. Songs about love, connection, hope are harder to write because we feel less of those things.

Maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but I prefer writing songs about speed-walking to a concert while eating noodles, about frantically trying to rub off a curry stain off my new jeans on my way to a party, or about fumbling with someone’s leather belt in the dark. I feel like I’m close to exhausting the repertoire of “I went on a date and we greeted each other with an elbow bump” and “I had coffee with the only friend I see every day but she had come over the day before so we mainly just talked about how good it is that we at least have each other”. There’s only so much in real life that’s worth writing about at the moment.

For most musicians, writing and performing are the only ways to stay sane at the best of times. Since performing was no longer an option, most musicians had turned to writing and recording their stuff. But a year into this pandemic, and several months into lockdown, even writing seems to be slowly sliding off the table.

I’m better off than most because I get to see friends outside, I still meet up with a select few, and Berlin isn’t as bad as some parts of the world at the moment. But even I have to read through my diaries, go on poetry rampages and listen to more new music than I thought I was capable of consuming to come up with relatively new ideas. Here are some of the things that still inspire me despite this shit show, but it’s Bart-Simpson-style staring out of the window most days for me, too. Also, check out this Instagram reel by Simeon Hammond Dallas about how to write songs during lockdown because if anything, it might at least crack you up.


1. I go through my old diaries and journals.


When I feel stuck, I go through old diaries in the hope that a story will turn up that I hadn’t told yet. I don’t always strike out, but it’s nice when I do. Sometimes, I also come across a line that sounds good enough to turn into a lyric.


2. I listen back to my old voice memos in the hope that I’ll find something secretly brilliant.


Most of the time, I don’t finish songs when I think they’re absolute crap. But I always record everything, so once in a while, I revisit old voice memos to see if maybe I’d missed something. When I’m in a shitty mood or too tired to write for more than ten minutes, I often abandon music ideas that could have turned into something good. Now that it’s harder to stay inspired and motivated, it can help not to have to start with a completely blank page.


3. I learn new chords, fingerpicking patterns, etc., and use them in my music.


It’s hard to write new songs when you’re working with old building blocks. I started learning a new cover every week, and now, I often end up lifting chords, strumming patterns, or fingerpicking styles from other songs and incorporating them into my own stuff.


4. I go on dating apps to remind myself that lockdown is probably a blessing in disguise.


When all else fails, I download Bumble or Tinder and spend an hour talking to strangers that remind me that this introspective lockdown thing is not the worst, and then jot down one or two lines I’d been texted to use in a lyric about why I hate dating.


5. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if I have nothing to say for a while.


I don’t have to be writing all the time, though. If I skip a couple days, or a week, and don’t come up with a new song – it doesn’t matter all that much.

best-books-for-songwriters

My Favourite Books for Songwriters

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

For those of you who don’t know me – I LOVE reading. Not just love. LOVE. For someone who hasn’t lived in the same place for longer than four months in the last three years, I have a lot of books. And since I’m a songwriter, a lot of them are inevitably about writing and music. So, I thought I’d share my thoughts on my favourite ones with you.


On inspiration and creativity

‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

big-magic-elizabeth-gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert is the woman that brought us ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, inspiring people all over the world. ‘Big Magic’ has a different purpose. It doesn’t talk about how to become a bestselling author or how to embrace your wild, creative dreams. Instead, it focuses on small victories, on how to live a creative life without harbouring unrealistic expectations. Gilbert writes about her own life, her process, and how creating in itself should be the goal. It’s the book to read when you’re feeling stuck, or when you don’t know why you’re doing it anymore.

‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg

This is the best book on writing and inspiration I have ever read. Natalie Goldberg gets down to the joy of writing, incorporating Zen practice and meditation into her teaching. The love she has for writing and creativity is so contagious it will make you want to throw aside the book and start writing. Which is exactly what books like these are supposed to do anyway.




On lyrics

‘Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting’ by Jimmy Webb

tunesmith-jimmy-webb

This is probably the most thorough book on songwriting I’ve ever read. It’s written by one of the greatest songwriters of our time (think ‘Wichita Lineman‘ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix‘) and gives amazing insights into how professional songwriters work. Webb dedicates a whole chapter to his writing process, describing in detail how he starts and finishes a song. It’s a book for more advanced songwriters, as it deals with some theoretical concepts and frameworks beginners might not be familiar with, although Webb briefly explains all the terms he uses. He also delves deep into melody and harmony, which a lot of books on songwriting fail to do.

‘The Songwriter’s Idea Book’ by Sheila Davis

songwriters-idea-book-sheila-davis

Sheila Davis has several books to her name that have become required reading in music courses. In this book, she talks about how personality types influence the way we write and think about our work, and offers 40 strategies for writing a song. She talks about everything from rhetoric devices and figurative language to plot strategies and the importance of a good title, but the main emphasis of the book is on ‘whole-brain writing’ and how our personality influences our productivity.


On music business

‘How to Make It in the New Music Business’ by Ari Herstand

This book is the Bible of the music business for independent musicians. Ari Herstand – a DIY artist himself – talks about everything you might want to know. Although parts of the book focus specifically on the US, most of it is geared towards musicians everywhere. He gives practical tips and provides strategies, timelines for releases, and templates for emails. It’s the most hands-on book on music business I’ve read so far.

‘The Art of Asking’ by Amanda Palmer

Although technically it’s not about the music business, it taught me more about how to handle my career than most other books that are. Amanda Palmer – a DIY legend – writes about how she started out, the innovative (read: crazy) strategies she used to build a fanbase, the work that went into her Kickstarter campaign, and the mental toll of it. It’s not a step-by-step guide by any means, but the creativity with which Amanda Palmer built her music career from the ground up is so inspiring, it will spark interesting marketing ideas in any songwriter who reads it.


On recording

‘The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook’ by Bobby Owsinski

If you’re like me and don’t have the money to record in a studio and pay a mixing engineer, this book is a great guide to start your research with. There are a lot of good Youtube videos out there to help you with whatever DAW you’re using, recording techniques, etc., but it can be hard to find good videos on mixing. This book, however, has everything. Owsinski talks about dynamics, effects, dimension, frequency. The book also includes interviews with producers/mixing engineers like Bob Brockman, Dave Pensado (who also has a great podcast on music production called ‘Pensado’s Place‘), and Ed Stasium.


If you have any other recommendations I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments!