Whether you’re a beginner or a well-seasoned pro, when it comes to songwriting, we all face occasional creative resistance — better known as writer’s block — when our muse goes on holiday. Often this comes at the top of a year when we’re just recovering from our own holiday festivities: shopping, airports, meals, parties. Perhaps our muse gets jealous and wants some time off too.
I’ve been writing songs for many years and there are still times when, as Natalie Cole sang in her playful 1987 hit “Jump Start My Heart,” I need to jump-start my creativity. If you feel that way too, I’d like to share some suggestions that have helped me reignite my muse once I’ve disassembled my Christmas tree.
All these recommendations embrace a new element of some kind. That’s because when we keep doing things the same old way, our muse gets bored. And so do we. Let’s do all we can to lure it back into the room!
A new partner may bring out a style in your writing that no one ever tapped into before, just like red next to blue has a different tone than red next to orange. Colors change each other. People do too. But making that call can be scary. What if the person you’ve reached out to doesn’t respond? So what. Move on. There are many songwriters in the sea.
Come up with a random four-chord cycle you’ve never used before and see how it affects your orientation. Unfamiliarity can have you conjuring up a melody that might not have ever married to that safe chord progression you default to all too often.
Instead of employing the typical verse/chorus/bridge/then rinse-and-repeat formula, experiment with an alternative format like verse/verse/bridge/verse and see if you can work the title into the first or last line of every verse (like “Over The Rainbow” or Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.”) It may be a challenge to find your footing with a new template, but I promise you it’s worth it. This structure has yielded many an evergreen copyright.
Pick an object. List its attributes and try to incorporate how they relate to a relationship you’re in, a situation, a feeling, your life — much like Rihanna did when she sang about how she’d protect a loved one with an “Umbrella,” or the way Demi Lovato compared a “Skyscraper” to how tall and powerful she felt.
Get out of your head by taking a drive to a place you’ve never been to before — a hiking trail, a beach, a vista. Look out onto an unexpected landscape, a mountain range, a body of water. Breathe in the unusual smell of the air, foreign vegetation, rain!
Hunker down with an old diary or journal. Let yourself remember that old flame. How have your feelings changed since you last saw each other? Did you find closure? Is your heart still aching? Let vulnerability be your catnip.
Getting back in touch with an old friend can trigger emotional memories. Does it get you fuming about unfinished business or joyfully wanting to reunite because it feels so good? There should be considerable material here!
… then partner it with something in the sky that is not actually that color. A fuchsia moon. A cobalt sun. Purple stars. Play with the combination. See what celestial rhymes emerge. Take license. After all, this is art.
Listen to your favorite album by your favorite band and allow yourself to be guided by its unique atmosphere. For me, it might be The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in which case I’d challenge myself to write a song that captures the trippy, the psychedelic, the fantastical, the diamonds in the sky.
In his book How To Write One Song, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco describes a lyric-play exercise in which he pairs 10 objects within his line of vision with random verbs and then creates a poem from the pairings. He’s always surprised at the odd beauty this yields and professes that some of the unlikely snippets have made their way into his favorite songs. Definitely worth trying!
Think of these suggestions as tools in a toolbox. They’re here to help. Maybe one of them will jump-start your craft as another year commences. Maybe you’ll find all of them useful all year round. Most importantly, don’t fret. Your muse will be back before you know it. Can you think of a time it didn’t return?
Here’s to a super-creative 2023!
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