I’m a big proponent of starting songs from distinct “seeds”—fragments of lyric, melody, rhythm, or just strong ideas for songs. This approach is pretty much the unspoken “go to” technique pro writers use to jumpstart their writing process on a regular, even daily basis. I describe a more intentional and disciplined approach to the practice in the first chapter of my new book, Songwriting Strategies: A 360º Approach.
One of the best sources I know for lyric seeds in particular is reading. One nice perk in catching seeds from reading: You flake out on the couch all afternoon reading your latest young adult, SF or mystery guilty pleasure. When you find a good phrase on page 237, you can say to yourself, in virtuous, only slightly defensive tones: “Well, actually I’ve been working all afternoon. This is research!” (Your spouse may not buy the argument.)
Recently I was reading a cool new book— The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White—that combines a bit of time travel (my favorite) with a bit of Dan Brown-ish secret society thriller, along with quite a droll tone. In one bit of dialogue, a main character says something like, “I was never good at good, I always believed in better…” That was my seed.
One of my guidelines for song seed catching is: when you catch a seed, you lift it out of its original context, and may wind up framing it in an entirely different way. In this case, though, the seed resonated with something I loved about the book as a whole: the notion that a secret society of semi-immortals might do their work with small, minor tweaks rather than big interventions. It’s kind of dour and optimistic at the same time—often the mood I’m in when I write my more reflective songs. Anyway, I found myself trying to capture a bit of that spirit and outlook in the lyric. You can certainly appreciate the song without the back story that it’s being sung by a semi-immortal living in Las Vegas. In fact you might say being a good songwriter is all about being an incrementalist: – not settling for good, believing in better, and trusting that small delicate interventions can have large and global effects. Now here’s the lyric!
The Incrementalist ©2014 Mark Simos/Devachan Music (BMI) (inspired by the novel The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White)
http://incrementalistsbook.com/ V1 – 15 June 2014
I was never good at good
I always believed in better
I somehow understood
The spirit lives in the letter
If there are devils in the details
There are angels dancing too
There in the tiny circle
Of the work that is given us to do
Oh I dread each morning’s news
Of our latest stupid cock-up
Sometimes this unholy world
Seems but a prototype or mockup
Yet the deepest of my blues
In their bitter azure measure
Hold some seed of mercy furled
Never rendered unto Caesar
Grand solutions I suspect I
‘m a cautious incrementalist
Reciter of Confucian analect
And if I could just invent a list
Of all the tragic endingsI would change
Pursuing sources and not side-effects
You know, it’s funny—funny strange—
But I’m not quite sure what I’d do next
And so I take things day by day
Asking only—is it better thus?
And thereby I avoid the ricochet
Of hope’s more ambitious blunderbuss
For it’s when we reach too far
And let the drama get the best of us
That we lose where and who we are
Still the stars have not yet seen the last of us
In good “networked creative” fashion I’ve sent the lyric to one of the authors, Steven Brust, who was kind enough to post it on his own blog: http://dreamcafe.com/. Go check it out, and check out the book!
Now, since I have what I call a “dry lyric” — I think my next step will be working the Songwriting Compass “pathways” to complete the song. Stay tuned for the time-lapse, stop-action photography video!
Your Challenge: The next “lounging on the couch” book you’re reading, when you’re definitely “off duty”’—stay alert for a song seed. Catch it. Write it into a song. You don’t need to invoke the overall context of the source book, as my lyric does here. Almost better if it doesn’t.
This song turns out to be a good example of a genre of “songs inspired by literature.” In fact, an organization called Artists For Literacy initiated a project called “Songs Inspired By Literature,” where songwriters contribute proceeds from songs inspired by literary sources to support literacy programs. A worthy cause: http://www.artistsforliteracy.org/index.php/projects/sibl.html