The Soul of a Song
I had an interesting moment the other day that clued me into a phenomenon in songwriting that I hadn’t previously realized. I call this phenomenon the soul of a song. This may be true across the whole artistic/creative spectrum but as it relates to songwriting there is a point in creating a song where the soul is born and it is the most magical, sacred thing I have ever felt.
While people’s songwriting processes commonly vary, for me I’ll find a hook, a chord progression, or a musical idea that invigorates me and I play it over and over until the inspiration starts to flow. I rarely set out to write about some specific subject matter. This may sound hokey but I just let the music tell me what the song is about. I’m sure my subconscious manipulates the words more than anything but to me it feels external like I have honored the God of Music and he is now rewarding me with lyrics that are way beyond anything I could create on my own. There is work involved when it comes to meter, rhyming, story, and other poetic guidelines but it feels kind of like I’ve been given a vision of something grander than my own wants and desires and I must chase this butterfly of pure spirit. It’s delicate yet difficult. Inspired songwriting is like successfully trying to remember a good dream.
If I’m lucky, most of the time I write songs I get this moment of clarity that feels like I am in the right place, in the right moment, doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do and I tear up. Previous to the other day’s discovery, I thought I was just relating to the lyrics. Most of my songs are autobiographical so this made perfect sense. As I looked back on it though, these tear up moments came on all the best songs whether or not they were sad (though most of my songs are 🙂 ) so these tears had to mean something else.
I now know this is the birth of the song’s soul or life force. It becomes a living thing. This is why a lot of artists compare their work to having children. My revelation of this came the other day when I rewrote a song called “Hope and a Smile”. This song has a somewhat interesting history. I had the riff for this song for over a year before words came together and in that time I had worked through many melodies and lyrics, none of which spoke to me. I went through a bunch of rhythms as well, before I landed on this upbeat, bouncy finger-picking style that eventually became the foundation. I so wanted to honor this fun riff with a good melody and lyrics. After a long tiresome saga, I finally landed on an idea. I wrote it about the auction/meat market side of dating, especially dating in your 30’s. Women, in general, always say they want a nice guy that makes them laugh but reality has shown that if you don’t have the right look, a great job, and lots of money you will likely be leaving the auction house of life empty handed. Don’t worry, ladies, I completely agree that men are the same way if not worse. Needless to say, I loved the lyrics. Some of the truest words I have ever written, albeit with a slightly bitter aftertaste, but through and through honest. Despite this long journey, there was always something unfulfilled about it. I wasn’t a huge fan of the melody. It was a bit simple and repetitive but I didn’t hate it either. I’ve played the song out a few times, with the band even, but the audience always seemed to zone out. I couldn’t get over the fact that something was missing. I was playing around with the chords and the hook the other day and stumbled into a completely new rhythm. Not just new to the song but unlike any other song I have written. I kept working through the riff with the old lyrics and melody which only needed minor adjustments. The soul was born. All of the sudden, the lyrics were alive, the chorus was catchy, and it opened up the previously instrumental bridge for me to write a more lyrics that strongly support the message. In the middle of all the hustle and bustle the tears came and the knowledge of what they truly mean was revealed to me. All good songs have souls and understanding this fact will inform all my writing to come. It’s very exciting.
Lastly, I will leave you with an amazing quote, not only to share with you a slight insight to my soul but I like how it relates to everything above. The soul of a song is a part of “life’s nectar” that he’s talking about.
"Singers and Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. Every day, musicians and singers face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they’ll never work again. Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. With every role, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life - the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. Why? Because musicians and singers are willing to give their entire lives to a moment - to that line, that laugh, that gesture, or that interpretation that will stir the audience’s soul. Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes."
— David Ackert, LA Times