How do you create?

Last night Buttered Bourbon, the band my friend Jared and I play in, had a landmark concert. We played an hour-long set of original music -- no cover songs -- at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta.

It's hard to write music, and even harder to write songs that you feel good enough about to play for an audience. But we found a good process that makes it easier for us. Jared and I have written music for ourselves and other bands for years, so we each brought a few songs, some half-baked and some completed, to the table for us to work on.

Now, I wouldn't say I'm an accomplished songwriter, but I'm always interested in learning more about other people's creative processes, so I'll share mine with you. These are some of the methods I use to write songs:

It all starts with a tiny idea about what kind of song I want to write or what topic I want it to be about. Sometimes I find the idea through painful deliberation, and sometimes the idea comes to me in the clouds. For example, yesterday I decided to write a song about a town called "Soddy Daisy" just because I liked the name and it painted a story in my mind. It's not complete yet, but the words and tune came to mind quickly; they just seemed to flow. The song is always easier and more fun to write if I'm "in the zone" or "kissed by a muse." But I also force myself to write songs from time to time, just to practice.

If I'm forcing myself to write a song, here are some things that I'll challenge myself to do:

  • Pick a hit song or a song you like. Write the emotional and topical opposite of that.
  • Pick a poem you love. Compose a tune and rewrite it as song lyrics.
  • What are you feeling write now? Put it to music.
  • What song do you wish someone would write for you to sing? Write that.
  • Pick a random phrase from the internet and write a song around that.

These challenges are like the worst exam questions ever, but they get me out of a creative rut.

You may notice that I'm talking a lot about writing lyrics, but not as much about writing melodies. I'm a lyrics-focused musicians. Some musicians write the music for entire songs first and then add lyrics as an afterthought, but I almost always start writing lyrics first. Usually the lyrics suggest the tune of the song -- I often speak the words out loud and the tune and rhythm flows from where you might naturally pause or raise or lower your voice. But sometimes the tune and the lyrics come to my head simultaneously. If I'm having trouble with the tune, I'll just keep singing it over and over again until I land on something that sounds right.

Making original tunes and lyrics is difficult. Someone else's song will sometimes get stuck in your head and you can't silence it. Sometimes you think you're creating something original, but you're just parroting someone else's work that is stuck deep in your subconscious. If that happens to me, I try two different routes: either keep repeating your own thoughts and songs out loud over and over again until you force the other one out, or take a break and come back to it later after the other song has faded from your conscious mind.

When I write the tune, I hear arrangements, chords, percussion, and other instruments in my head. But I'm not very good at getting what's in my head to come out, since I'm not a great guitar player and don't have access to a piano. So I usually depend on people like Jared to help me flesh out the rest of the song. Fortunately, Jared is very good at doing this and I'm very open to other interpretations and ideas for the music, so we always eventually land something that sounds right to me.

So, that's a bit about how I do things. How do you write music, poetry, or other creative works?