Songwriting in a Pandemic
Up until 2018, I had never written a song. There were, however, several attempts. Promising melodies I would blow on my trumpet, or catchy riffs I would strum over and over on my guitar until they were muscle memory. In high school, my neighbor and I would take turns freestyling to Odd Future instrumentals in his Ford sedan. Even though we would be parked in his driveway, it felt like we were a world away. Two budding MCs discovering their "genius" through an AUX cord and endless lines of vulgar, over-the-top wordplay. Though the dream of writing and recording a song was always there, none of my ideas ever materialized past voice memos or videos buried in the depths of my cell phone.
My first taste of playing original music wasn't until halfway through college. I joined a pop-punk jam band and ended up having the time of my life. Even though I wasn't a songwriter, the band's focus on improvisation made it an outlet for creativity. Playing a melody on trumpet to compliment a bass line or a solo over the top of a succulent groove felt like being a sous chef to the other members of the band. Adding just the right amount of spice to make the main dish pop. I never wrote a song for that group, but my bandmates had a foundational impact on my aspirations as a musician.
About a year after my college band went on hiatus, I finished my first original song. I had wanted to compose songs earlier, but I never knew where to start writing a song, let alone finish one. Even if I'd have an idea, I'd never know what to do with it, like a dog that's finally caught its own tail. I kept trying and failing to finish a song until one day a BGSU student asked me to make a song for a class project. I happily accepted, and now that I had an obligation, sat down and wrote the song with few hiccups. It wasn't great by any means, but to finally have a finished song meant the world to me.
After creating that first song, I knew I wanted to make more. It wasn't long before I wrote a second song and confidently declared I was going to release an EP. I even made a release date and scheduled performances before I finished writing all the tracks. My self-imposed deadline made writing the EP a bit frantic, but it helped keep me on task. Chugging through recording sessions, and writing instrumentals on the fly. Long story short, I wrote and recorded the tracks and got them to my mixing engineer in time to meet my release date. My songs were received better than I could have imagined and encouraged me to play dozens more performances. Those shows in turn encouraged me to write even more. To work consistently on my craft.
A few months into the pandemic, I started having trouble being creative. It felt like the whole world was on pause with no indication of when life could continue on as usual. The music industry has arguably taken the biggest hit as the first industry to close and probably the last to reopen. As a performing musician and a venue security worker a huge part of my life disappeared. Shows were my lifeforce. A way to stay inspired and fueled with excitement by seeing others perform their work, or getting to share my own. Without them I struggled to be productive for a long time. However, through some recent changes of perspective and some new habits, I've finally gotten back into a groove of writing new material and I'm getting together a new release.
We can't call creativity into our souls on a whim. But what we can do is put ourselves in situations where we are more likely to stumble upon it. For any struggling artists, writers, or musicians out there, here's what worked for me.
Inspiration quests can be anything that you enjoy. Going for a run or a walk, reading a good book, or watching a favorite show or movie are just a few options. The goal is to relieve stress and put your mind in a place that's positive and open to creativity. Some of my favorite inspiration quests before the pandemic were going to shows. With no live music I’ve shifted to reading books and watching YouTube videos. Interviews with musicians, music videos, and Ableton tutorials have been some of my go-tos.
Yes, I want you to bore yourself. Cut yourself off from distractions, and force yourself to sit alone with your thoughts until something comes to you. I know it sounds kinda crazy and….boring ha! But I’ve recently come up with some great song ideas using this method, it really works. Sometimes I just sit at my desk with Ableton open doing nothing until I get an idea. Usually, after 30-60 minutes something will come to me. The idea might suck, but the process of getting there could lead to another idea or maybe even a song. I’m not the only one who is drawn to this process. George Lucas claims to have sat at a desk he built 6 hours a day every single day when he was writing star wars. Sometimes after the whole day, he would have nothing. Must have sucked. Must have been boring. But at the end of it all, he came out of it with fucking Star Wars. Give it a try.
Have Friends Hold You Accountable
A few months ago, a fellow musician and I started having weekly accountability phone calls. We would talk about our musical goals for the coming week, and discuss how we felt the past week went. I’ve also shared my demos with a couple of other friends, and it has really helped keep me on task. I really value the input, and while it isn’t the same as performing a show, it does help to share what I’ve been working on. A fellow musician might be the most helpful for this suggestion, but it will work with anyone you trust.