It starts with a metronome; common time, seventy beats per. I just turn it on and let it play: tick-tock-tock-tock tick-tock-tock-tock.
I pick up my guitar, an older electric with mismatched pickups. It never seems to stay in tune for more than ten minutes at a time. I’ve just learned to live with it.
Start simple. Em. Then G. Back to Em. G again. I learned this nearly thirty five years ago; the basic of basics.
Just start somewhere. It’ll show itself eventually.
Em. G. Em. G.
I try adding in other basics; the variations of A minors and F sharps. Maybe even a C. They’re all bland. Everyone has heard them before.
Pause. I sip my beer.
Em with G again, but a slight mistake makes it G add9. Without thinking about it I bend the A up slightly. For a just breath, it becomes a G ♭3.
There it is.
tick-tock-tock … I stop the metronome. Play it through a few times; Em, G add 9, bend to G ♭3 for a 16th of a beat then bend back down to G add 9.
I hit record in the DAW, let the click run for an 8 count then play the new bit for about two minutes just so I have it.
Stop recording. Listen back. Smile.
“Yeah, there it is.”
Dramatic, isn’t it? I mean, it is the truth, but come on.
There is this idea that the birth of anything creative is either an almost religious burst of inspiration where the final piece is completely formed, or the result of being some dark, tortured soul who drinks, drugs, and tortures the piece into existence.
Reality is much different. While there are artists out there who are tortured and/or religious, I’ve found that musical compositions come forth one of two ways:
- The all at once basic idea: You’re farting around with your instrument when a good amount of the music and lyrics appear out of nowhere and you’d damn well better record it/write it down so you don’t forget it (unless you’re one of those people who can remember everything the next day, in which case I envy you).
- You come up with a simple piece and grind at it seemingly forever until you make it work or trash it and move on.
It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the first in that list. Pretty sure I was in my early twenties the last time a near finished song showed it’s face to me. I hear a lot of people complaining that it takes too long for older, established artists to release new material. Truth is, the older older you get, the more you have to coax ideas to come out of hiding.
The second item has become the norm.
What I described at the start of this post was the beginning of When Something Appears. I literally made a mistake, it sounded cool, and there was the base. What followed was a long, boring slog of piecing together a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus-outro, not being overly happy with it, reworking it, still not being happy, reworking it more – over and over and over again.
A year later the main bit I started with only audibly shows up during the quiet intro and I’d recorded, mixed, mastered, and uploaded something I was proud of.
All of that wasn’t even the hard part. The real difficultly is knowing when to stop. You’re never really done; nothing is every completed. You start layering more parts on. More guitars. More keys. More percussion. More plugins. More tweaks of the EQ. More, more, more.
It’s very easy to muddy your recording. Every time I record I manage to wind up with something that is so many layers of over produced crap. This is the time I step away to clear my head; usually three or four days where I don’t open the project at all. When I come back, I load up the basic tracks; guitar, drums, bass, and mute everything else. As I’m listening, I’ll un-mute the other tracks one by one until everything starts sounding muddy. This is where I start pulling back. Once everything is clear, I work on just those tracks.
Remember: Serve the song at all times. And at all times, serve the song.
Eventually “finished” song will show itself. Stop right there. Save it. Render it. Send it out to the world.
Circling back, all of this explains why I dislike the question: “Where do you get your ideas from?”
They come from wherever they come from and take as much time as they need. There is no magic1. It just is.
1: Yes, of course there are exceptions.