A few people have asked me about my songwriting process and at the end of this blog post I invite you warmly to share yours (or your creative process in general), if you like. It is interesting to explore the differences and similarities in how we create.
1. The most standard way I write songs is when I sit at the piano and improvise. I never even do this in the first place unless I am feeling that a song is lurking and needs to exist, so to say - I never force myself to sit at the piano to compose - it calls me.
Back to improvising: I start playing chords and singing without words. Let’s assume in this case that I am onto something and a nice musical gesture begins to form…usually then at least one word joins up in the improvisation, if not more, and I notate everything worthy of notation as I go in a sort of chicken scratch, very short-hand notation, most comparable to jazz notation. I also notate any text I happen to be singing.
I will continue to work through the song like this, looking for natural changes in the harmonies to create form and variation in the song. In most cases the song is, after this first session, 30-50 percent done, at least in terms of the idea for the form and chords. Sometimes funny things happen and the whole song appears - that is nice and it does happen sometimes.
The random words or phrases that come to my mind while I am improvising I try to leave in, or at least a rhyme or variation of the word because I want to respect the improvisation. But I don’t always keep them if they really don’t work or are too cliché. As for the rest of the text, I work on that at this point both away from the piano and then at the piano to make it work as best as I possibly can.
2. The second way in which I compose is when the songs start "knocking" to exist but I have no time because, say, it is Christmastime and I can’t leisurely play and sing nonsense with a bunch of family around. Then they might really know how crazy I am. And besides, the process is personal and I have to be alone.
So in this scenario I get an idea - a musical gesture in my head or a line of text and I just sing it quickly into the low-quality microphone in my phone to preserve it until the moment that I can develop it. When I wrote “The Mountainside” I was making a stack of pancakes in the kitchen nearly as high as the ceiling and the ideas for that song arrived in a pushy way. I sang them into my phone, a bit panicked about burning a pancake, but more panicked that I would lose the musical idea, and I could retrieve them several days later to develop them further.
3. The third situation is a different type of composing. This is when I have time but no instruments and no musical ideas in my head, say on holiday. In these moments I write poems and then a few weeks later back at the piano, after having improvised something with potential, I check whether any of the poems will work with the new song. If so, I have just saved myself time, which is of great importance to me because time for music is not something I have a lot of. That doesn’t worry me or bother me - it just causes me to optimize my life more and better.
So, please feel free to share your thoughts or your creative processes below - I would be very interested to hear them!