Brent Walsh, a multi-instrumentalist from the San Francisco Bay Area, knows how the songwriting process works. To write and create music requires the same amount of effort as any other job. To become a successful songwriter, Brent Walsh understands the importance of inspiration.
What Is Inspiring To You?
Inspiration is different for everyone. What creates passion and curiosity in one person may seem boring to another. Finding inspiration when writing a song can be especially difficult if the emotion isn’t strong enough.
Most musicians write from a place of empathy. By caring deeply about other people, audience members are more likely to connect to the song in addition to the musician. Personal ideas and relationships are often the first to be written down.
Regardless of the situation, most people find they burn out from writing about themselves. Instead of reflecting on their own life, looking to others for inspiration is natural.
The Songwriting Process
There is no right or wrong way to write a song. That being said, there are a few styles for those who need guidance.
1. Developing the melody
The melody of a song is what most people will automatically remember. In simple terms, the melody is the tune or main chorus. This can be found by humming or playing chords on a guitar, piano, or another instrument. Some people can hear specific notes in their heads with perfect pitch. This method can also be used when finding the main tune.
Once you’ve figured out the main chorus, the rest of the song can be built around it. This method is ideal for those who do not know what to write. By designing the melody first, adding words that fit the syllables often become more important than the story behind them.
For Brent Walsh, the process often starts with music rather than lyrics. Whether that means noodling around on a guitar, a piano, or playing around with samples, beats, production elements, or synth sounds. Once he has a progression or “vibe”, Brent will let that depict the direction of the lyrics
2. Focus on the lyrics
The lyrics can be written in numerous ways. For some people, writing a story is central to the entire song. For others, the main theme is just as good.
If you cannot think of a cohesive personal experience that feels right, many people think of an emotion that occurred at some point in time. Focusing on an embarrassing moment, a sad experience or ambivalence can all trigger the words you didn’t know you had.
In some cases, Brent finds that the vocal melody and lyrics usually come from looping the music and “riffing” over the top until certain words, phrases, or melodies cement themselves. After that it’s basically putting it all together. Fine tuning the song’s message, trying to be mindful that the most important aspects of the song have their opportunity to shine, while also adding layers and small details that fill out the song and make it feel complete.
3. Ask for feedback
Once the song is written but not finished, asking for feedback can help. Because the piece is not finished at this point, there is less at stake. During this process, feedback also allows songwriters to collaborate and try out new ideas.
The creative process can become all-consuming if regular breaks aren’t taken along the way. To stretch out the creative process while saving energy, a song can take anywhere from one day to several weeks to finish. Asking others for help or finding inspiration outside of yourself is one way to generate ideas.
Accepting feedback is a positive activity that helps understand other points of view. When songwriters listen to a variety of suggestions, a combination of methods usually works best. Many people find themselves in a rut after spending a lot of time on one song. This is one path to creating flexibility in your work.
Where To Find Inspiration
Writer’s block can seem daunting without some formula. Even if the melody is discovered, words may not come easily. Finding inspiration is a daily job, and it requires paying attention.
Inspiration is often found through trying new things and forming relationships. Friends, romantic partners, even the person who sells you coffee every morning can all create some emotion. By paying attention and staying curious, even regularly, situations can bring something new to the table every day.
Beyonce, a long-time musician with over ten Grammy nominations, says she loves to be around great writers. “I love classics, and I want to make sure years from now the song is still something that’s relevant.”
By choosing to write songs about universal subjects and feelings, Beyonce can find inspiration in multiple areas. Often it is the same stories that are being told in different ways. How they are told, rather than what they are saying, can provoke an emotional masterpiece.
Inspiration can be found through a variety of art forms. Visiting an art gallery, seeing a play, or reading a book are ways to tap into the imagination. If it doesn’t happen right away, that’s fine. Inspiration is something that artists usually have to work at over a long period of time. By overcoming discouragement, eventually, the creative process will begin to churn.
Brent also finds avenues of inspiration and expression through his Song Shop. When writing for other people, he gets an amazing opportunity to get an intimate look into someone else’s life (or lives if it’s a couple’s story). This makes Brent feel fortunate to have that opportunity because as someone who has an overwhelming well of empathy, it gives him an outlet for emotional expression through music that would otherwise be bottled up.
It’s a unique experience which Brent sheds some light upon when he mentions that “obviously you want to be able to put yourself into these other people’s shoes and write from their perspective, but to answer the question as to “how” that’s done, I’m not exactly sure. I simply place myself there, in whatever they describe, and imagine it as my own experience. Sometimes I can draw from my own similar experiences in order to feel it in a more genuine way, but I feel like most of the time I’m able to tap into their emotional state without the extra psychological crutch. I know I’ve found something fitting when I make myself cry during the writing process. It’s something that is typically a goal of mine for the many song shops I make regarding two people’s love for one another. I know if I can affect myself in that way, it will carry a similar weight for the listener.”
Not every song will be a favorite. By accepting the process as progress instead of perfection, this can help generate new material. There are several methods to writing a hit song. A combination of techniques can usually produce new sounds and ideas.
Empathy In Songwriting
Martha Wainwright, a famous folk-rock singer, says this about writing songs: “I don’t have rules. I’m pretty disorganized. In fact. I often have to guilt-trip myself into sitting down to write.”
Songwriting can be a difficult process for most people. Sometimes the words come freely, and a song can be finished within the hour. Other times writer’s block can affect creativity for weeks. Finding inspiration is usually accomplished through new experiences or empathizing with others.
Brent Walsh strongly identifies with the emotions of both men and women. By truly understanding what makes someone happy or frightened, these emotions can be felt from afar. Intense feelings do not have to come from personal experience, but they must be felt. Brent believes a good song makes you FEEL something. Whether that’s angry, sad, sentimental, excited… A good song makes you FEEL.
Oftentimes it’s our level of empathy that allows us to connect with music, films and art in ways that can truly affect us. There are a number of songs Brent can’t listen to without putting himself in the shoes of the songwriter. In “I Can Feel a Hot One” by Manchester Orchestra, Brent notes that you can hear Andy Hull’s voice crack when he sings a line about his daughter. It is songwriting and emotional expression like that which causes Brent to feel a tear well up when he hears it.
It is that empathy Brent feels for his life experience in turn, created this strong connection he associates with that song and that band in general. When writing his own music, Brent often tries to draw on life experiences (or even other people’s life experiences) that left a real impression. He then seeks ways to express that impression and how it affected him. There are a million ways to accomplish this, but the goal is the same. The more you’re able to tap into that raw emotive state, the easier you will find it to emote.