Songwriting & Inspiration
Posted on August 9, 2011 by Paul | 0 Comments | Jump to Comments Box Below
The moment of inspiration can happen anywhere at anytime. Like almost everything in God’s kingdom songs start out as seeds. They begin small with a spark of inspiration. What happens next of course, is up to us. When I first began writing songs at about age 10, the moments of inspiration tended to come from Duran Duran videos or school discos.
Finding inspiration for ‘God songs’ eight years later proved to be a difficult task for me. So difficult that I only managed to breakthrough the dry spell with prayer and fasting. It seemed though that once the drought was over the songs just kept arriving.
Rest and play
Although crafting orthodox congregational songs requires a lot of left brain thinking, when it comes to the moment of inspiration it’s right brain thinking that’s going to get you started. Moments of inspiration can happen anywhere at anytime. The obvious places for these are times of congregational and personal worship – sermons, prayer and the study of scripture. But there are other places where God’s presence can inspire us. Because the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it! there are very few places where’s God’s spirit cannot move us. However, for me the key is not really the physical space I’m in – it’s the mental space. In the words of the great Winnie the Pooh, ‘you don’t find “hums”, hums find you’. You just have to make sure you’re somewhere they can find you.
One of Jesus’ most well-known lessons on the Kingdom of God is about seeds. As I’m sure you know the seeds in the famous parable represent the word of God. Jesus points out the different kinds of things that threaten the growth of the kingdom in our lives – riches, temptation, the devil and the pleasures of life. But one of the threats to God’s word Jesus’ also warns of is one that I find particularly pertinent for our generation – and particularly helpful for me as a writer. This is the threat Jesus’ refers to as ‘the cares of this world’ (Luke 8 and 21). Nothing chokes the process of songwriting for me more than this particular weed. So anything that can get my head out of ‘the cares of this world’ state of mind is helpful not only for my spirituality but also for my creativity.
For me the most obvious way to shake off the cares of this world is rest. That means ‘not working’. For some reason this is a concept i find hard to grasp! The idea of sitting in a room staring out the window ‘resting’ fills me with dread and sadness! I have to plan rest times. I guess by this stage you’ve probably figured out that I’m an A-type personality. You know, the kind of person who is constantly asking ‘is what I’m doing going to get me there faster and more efficiently’. So I’ve worked out – with the help of my girl – that I need to trick myself into rest. Here are a few of my tricks. To ‘get fit’ I go surfing. This activity of waiting in the ocean for waves seems to slow my brain down, allowing me to rest and let go for a little bit. To ‘learn something’ I read. After a few hours of this I can feel the stress leaving me and the yawns beginning. To ‘improve our home’ I do some carpentry and building work around the house. Doing something practical for me is like taking a holiday from the world of ideas I normally inhabit. You get the picture. For all you A-types out there: resting is productive!! The summer I realized this was the summer I took up wake-boarding. I had so much fun that summer, hanging with my friends and enjoying God’s creation. But at the end of it I realized that I’d written more songs over that 2 month summer (it’s only 2 months in England) than the rest of the year combined. Resting and playing helps the hums find you. Creativity requires a certain playfulness. A willingness to try something knowing that it may not work out. Learning how to play again as an adult increases our threshold for risk which in turn allows us to develop and try ideas we wouldn’t normally try. Rest leads to play and play leads to songs.
Looking for Novelty
Novelty doesn’t get great press generally. But actually it’s one of God’s hallmarks. Newness is an adjective that tends to follow God’s actions. Behold I’m doing a new thing. Sing a new song. But in Christ: new creation! And there will be a new heaven and a new earth. As a creative I’m pretty pleased by this. I love new things. In particular I love new sounds, new songs, new grooves, new chord shapes, new rhymes, new ways of worshiping God. And I am constantly on the look-out for musical ‘new-ness’. Every time I hear something new on the radio or watch something new on music tv I’m amped. And what follows normally involves me picking up a guitar and working out what it is that is making that song sound new… is it the interval they’re using in the melody line. Is it a chord sequence we haven’t heard for a while. Is it the groove of the drums and bass that make it sound different? I’m interested in this stuff because it excites me. In fact, if i stumble across a great album i haven’t heard before typically i will get at least one new song from it. The song may sound nothing like the album but it seems exposure to great creativity somehow releases creativity in me. I’m not sure how it works but that’s what happens…
Although emotions are notoriously bad fuel for seeing anything through – especially songs – they are nevertheless a gift from God and a fantastic place for a song to start. In fact most of my songs begin at this point. I may feel ecstatic or sad or resolved or enraged or simply moved and the next thing i know a melody and part of a lyric is leaving my mouth. If you ask my wife she’ll tell you that I am hopeless in movies – especially at altitude. All my disbelief will be suspended and I will be feeling everything the director wants me to feel – laughing hysterically or weeping like a small child. Although emotions have a short shelf-life they are explosive and a great way to get a song started. It’s happened to me so many times now that I will often enter a cinema consecrating the movie to God, asking him to show me a truth about himself through the story. After all, stories seem to be one of God’s favourite ways of revealing himself to us. Even ‘bad’ emotions like ‘anger’ or frustration can be tremendous fuel for prayer – which really is what congregational worship songs are. They are prayers offered to God. They may be prayers of thankfulness and joy. But they can also be prayers of petition and calls for assistance. Either way emotions help get those prayers started.
Anything can inspire us if we’re in the right “head space”. The important thing to realize is that a moment of strong emotion can be the start of something new. Typically there is a long and awkward section of perspiration that follows in order for a song to reach some stage of completion – something we will examine over the next few editions. But if we live our lives willing to let what moves us, become something that moves us closer to God, then new songs are there for the taking every day.
Try this: write down one activity that relaxes you and makes you more child like, and practice it this week.