I wrote my first song when I was 14 years old. Over the years, I’ve composed hundreds of songs. It was that interest — music — that led me to take a year off from pursuing a doctorate and led me down the circuitous path that has been the rest of my life.
I don’t write songs nowadays, more focused on screenplays and writing about writing. But I can’t help but think at least some of who I am as a writer derives from all that time studying and composing songs.
Which is why I say that one of my favorite ‘screenwriting’ books is “Songwriters on Songwriting,” a collection of interviews by Paul Zollo with some of the great songwriters of our time, from Mose Allison to Frank Zappa. For what are songs but stories?
Each day this week at this time, I will post insights from a songwriter about their craft in the hope their words may inspire us as writers.
Today: David Byrne.
Are you a writer who will work on songs on a daily basis, regardless of whether you’re feeling inspired?
Yes. I still think you have to wait for the inspiration, but unless you’re there, waiting at the bus stop, you ain’t gonna get on the bus. If you’re doing other things all day, a song ain’t gonna get on the bus. If you’re doing other things all day, a song ain’t gonna tap you on the shoulder and go, Pull the car over. I’ve got a song for you right now. That can happen but I think it’s pretty rare.
I find that you have to get into the mode and hope that something comes. It doesn’t always.
How do you get in the mode?
Lately, I get in a room by myself. No telephone, no TV, not much to look at. It usually start by writing down random phrases. Maybe I’ll start writing about a certain subject and there’s a phrase that strikes me, so I’ll spin off from that.
Sometimes I turn on the drum machine and program a groove that I like and play guitar along with it. I play chord changes and sing along with that, gibberish or maybe some words. Sometimes I’ll record that onto a little 4-track cassette thing and try to improvise a melody onto that. It’s usually pretty basic stuff. It’s pretty low-tech, in other words.
- Unless you’re there, waiting at the bus stop, you ain’t gonna get on the bus. That’s an interesting metaphor for the writing process, essentially that working on the craft every day, actually writing songs — or pounding out script pages for a screenwriter — is the equivalent of making our way from our house to the bus stop, and the bus ride is when the inspiration comes. So while inspiration sometimes may “tap you on the shoulder” out of the blue, most often, Byrne suggests, we have to do the work on a daily basis to create a situation whereby inspiration is more likely to arrive… and take us for a ride.
- Lately, I get in a room by myself. No telephone, no TV. And for writers perhaps the biggest modern day distraction: The Internet. The goal is to engage the story in as deeply an immersive fashion as possible and it’s virtually impossible to do that unless you have sequestered yourself from potential diversions. [This does not pertain to those writers who thrive on the stimulation of a coffee shop to write, something I personally cannot even begin to fathom.]
- I play chord changes and sing along… gibberish or maybe some words. This reminds me of some advice from screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Nuts, The Amazing Spider-Man):
You must write everyday. Free yourself. Free association. An hour alone a day. Blind writing. Write in the dark. Don’t think about what it is you’re writing. Just put a piece of paper in the typewriter, take your clothes off and go! No destination… pay it no attention… it’s pure unconscious exercise. Pages of it. Keep it up until embarrassment disappears. Eliminate resistance. Look at it in the morning. Amazing sometimes. Most of it won’t make any sense. But there’ll always be a small kernel of truth that relates to what you’re working on at the time. You won’t even know you created it. It will appear, and it is yours. Pure gold, a product of that pure part of you that does not know how to resist.
My take on what Byrne and Sargent are suggesting is do what you can to access your subconscious mind, go beyond rationality and logic, and look for a direct download from your instincts and impulses. Sometimes you come up with seemingly inane lines like “There’s water at the bottom of the ocean.” But in the context of an entire song or story, it just works, as with the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”.
If you’re a fan of David Byrne and Talking Heads, or you have anything to add to what Byrne has to say here, click on Reply and I’ll see you in comments.
For the rest of the Songwriters on Songwriting series, go here.