My creative/compositional/procrastinative process or ‘Well it works for me, kind of’

I’ve recently started ‘working on’ songs again, and thought it might be interesting for those readers who have similar vices if I outline what I do.

The startoff point for a song is usually when I’m walking along the street or driving. One reason my output has plummeted since I started working at home is very simply the disappearance of the walk to and from the office. I’ll quite often be mentally or vocally crooning some favourite song when a feeling will prompt me to start singing something new. The feeling is one of trust, that something will come out. Sometimes it has some link to what I was singing before, often it doesn’t. Sometimes I visualise myself at a gig, in front of an audience. I just open my mouth and sing. This tends not to work if it’s just mental – I have to actually mouth something, however quietly. A melody and some lyrical ideas will emerge. Often they sound new and interesting, sometimes not. Emotionally I feel a sense of gratitude (to whom? to what? but I do).

The next stage, when something feels worth keeping, is to try to imprint it. I’ll try to keep it going until I get home, when I will either hum it into a phone or mp3 recorder, or write something down. If I could write music it would be so much easier.

The process so far all happens within a day; often it’s lost by the next day. But if it isn’t, the next stage begins. This involves refining, adding, arranging, and is almost entirely mental. I do it in relaxed moments, travelling time, before going to sleep. The only physical activity at this stage is sometimes to force myself to write some lyrics, developing the original idea. This can mean changing the melody, structure or adding and removing arrangement and instrumentation ideas. This stage can take years, literally.  I’m working now on a song for which stage 1 was three years ago (I found the original ‘remember this’ note). I’ve quite a clear idea of what a finished recording would sound like, but I’ve never sung it with an instrument, never worked out the chords, don’t even know what key I’d sing it in.

At this stage and the next, procrastination can set in, when I don’t have any idea what to do with it; also it’s liable to get ‘bumped’ off the agenda by other incoming ideas or songs that I’ve taken to the next stage.

The next stage is a fork in the road – either I’ll take it to live performance, where putting it in front of an audience somehow shows me what the song is – I don’t know any other way to express that, but it’s a quantum leap. Or I’ll take it to the computer and start working on an arrangement in Cubase or FL Studio.  It’s usually one or the other. Some songs feel like live songs, others feel more like arrangement songs. An idea I’m considering for a next CD is to take three or four down both tracks simultaneously and put both versions on the CD – I imagine the two versions will come out quite differently.

There we are. I understand it a bit better myself having written it down. Now I know why it takes me years to produce something!

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Free to download - Stories My Killer Told Me: Five surreal story-songs from my Edinburgh Fringe show.



  • I Am Not The One For You
  • The Ever Open Door
  • New Eyes
  • A Forest Trail in Autumn
  • The Portobello Slam

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3 thoughts on “My creative/compositional/procrastinative process or ‘Well it works for me, kind of’

  1. Hey – that was interesting, Norman. Nice one. Of course with me, it’s usually something along the lines of somebody at work saying. ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if David Bowie sang ‘Breaking Wind’ instead of ‘Breaking Glass.’ Ho hum.

  2. Hi Norman
    I’ve noticed over the last 25 years that major life events are a huge catalyst – not in the obvious way but in the disruption they cause to your well-ordered sense of self and life. Within the shambles that follows you can start to do a lot more sense-making instead of sensation-seeking. So to save waiting for the next major life moment, look to disrupt routines and upset your tidy little world and then piece things back together again.
    Walking is remarkable, though, for its ability to set up a rhythm and an inner voice and a tune and a single idea that just roars into your head. I like to keep it there for a while before I get to the writing down stage, at least in the mornings. Later in the day I sometimes sing it into my phone before it goes (especially if it’s the 2 mile walk back from the pub because I missed the last bus). People with conditions linked to dyslexia and dyspraxia have evolved a range of techniques for capturing ideas before they go out of short term memory and maybe songwriters can draw from those.
    But inspiration is really only the 1% and the other 99% for me works reasonably well as follows:
    1) sit with an instrument for about an hour playing the idea inside out and upside down stretching it like a pizza base from a doughball
    2) set up my instant recording studio a Zoom H2 which can within 15s of switching on capture a CD resolution, condenser-miked stereo recording that I do several takes of. Or also I have used a harddisk video camera which is even faster to start up. (ok both inevitably need power supplies at the crucial moment!!)
    3) Usually that’s enough for one day and a few days later I try to recapture that spirit/trance by listening to the recording(s) and then refining and working to get rid of accidental plagiarism, build structure and suspense, find a fifth gear that takes the idea even further, and refine and reduce the hook(s) to the simplest possible. less is more….
    4) then it’s about trying to either get cubase or my keyboard/recorder to work as an adequate recording studio and I’m still learning all that. 5) But it doesn’t matter – the songwriting bit is almost done – except the first five times you play a song live it’s like a new born’s fontanelle – you need to protect it but also dress it up suitable for the rough world out there.
    so many mixed metaphors in one lunchbreak!
    see you soon
    Tom

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