“My father said, `The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point,
and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”
Finding the truth about songwriting is like the bramble patch. There’s no one answer. But there is a whole lot of wisdom about it in the aggregate of thoughts on songwriting and the creative process from which we can draw.
Today’s Bramble Patch includes the words of songwriters Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joe Henry, John Lennon, Peter Case, Paul Simon, Billie Joe Armstrong and Tom Waits; also the wisdom of two non-songwriters whose words about art are right on point, the legendary director David Lynch and Psychologist/Professor/Author Jordan Peterson.
DAVID LYNCH: Everything comes from this unified field within. Ideas are floating like fish. Desire for an idea is like a bait on a hook. If you desire an idea, it pulls and it makes a kind of a bait. Ideas will come swimming up. And you don’t know them until they enter the conscious mind. And then bingo! There it is! You know it instantly. And then more come in. If you go fishing for ideas, a lot of ideas will just pop in. And one of them will make you fall in love.
BOB DYLAN: You’ve got to use some bait. Otherwise you sit around and expect songs to come to you. Forcing it is using bait. You’ve got to use some bait. Otherwise you sit around and expect songs to come to you. Forcing it is using bait. Throwing yourself into a situation that would demand a response is like using bait. People who write about stuff that hasn’t really happened to them are inclined to do that.
PAUL SIMON: I’m more interested in what I discover than what I invent.
DAVID LYNCH: The discovery is in ideas, whether it’s ideas for a song, a film, a painting. Ideas are hiding in there, in the Big Within. Lots of ideas come, but once in a while one comes and you fall in love. It can be a big idea or a small idea, but you focus on it, and it becomes magically attractive and it brings other ideas in to join with it.
PAUL SIMON: You just have no idea that that’s a thought that you had; it surprises you; it can make me laugh or make me emotional. When it happens and I’m the audience and I react, I have faith in that because I’m already reacting. I don’t have to question it. I’ve already been the audience. But if I make it up, knowing where it’s going, it’s not as much fun. It may be just as good. But it’s more fun to discover it.
JORDAN PETERSON: The artist shouldn’t be able exactly to say what he or she is doing. If you can say what you’re doing, you’re not producing art. Art bears the same relation to culture that the dream does to mental stability. Your dream doesn’t say what it’s about, it just is. The dream is something that extends you beyond where you already are.
JOHN LENNON: I write lyrics that you don’t realize what they mean till after. It’s just that when you have to think about it to write it, it just means that you labored at it. But when you just say it, man, you know you’re saying it, it’s a continuous flow.
BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG (Green Day): I try to go for inspired moments. But if I want to write a song that sounds like it has a pop kind of edge to it, I really want to be able to say something. I have to say something – it’s vital for me. I can’t just write something that would be sugar-coated, and have a pop song with nice lyrics that go along with what everyone is doing on the radio these days. It’s very important for me to have a message that goes along with the writing.
What comes to mind for me is a song like “The Ballad of John & Yoko,” where [Lennon] had this really nice sounding song. But the lyrics penetrate like a knife. “They’re gonna crucify me…” That’s kind of a nice way — nice, I mean, in an oxymoronic sense – to put forward something you want to attack.
JOE HENRY: I don’t think I’ve ever approached a song and thought, “Oh, I’d like to write a song about this particular thing.” I just start writing, and I discover as I’m writing. It just sort of gets revealed. And I work really hard to keep myself off-balance that way. I think it’s a really particular and important balance, as writers, to marry our hearts and mind– your intellect and your instinct– but we can’t let one ever overtake the other.
PETER CASE: You’ve got to keep [writing] until you get to some place where it’s surprising you. See, I like to have a song that surprises me, and tells me something I don’t know. I don’t want it just to be what I think already, because I already know that.
JOE HENRY: I just start [writing a song] and then say, “Okay, now I have to make sense out of what I’ve just begun, and when I get to the other side of this, I’ll know whether it’s of any use to me.” As opposed to saying, “Here’s an idea that I already have—how do I put it in a very clever way in four verses that rhyme, four lines that rhyme, so that people can carry it away easily?” That’s just not how it works for me.
TOM WAITS: You don’t have to wait for the words if you have music, and sometimes you don’t have to wait for the music if you have the words. I don’t know who said this, but they said all things aspire to the condition of music at its best. Everyone is looking for that in many things.
DAVID LYNCH: Ideas are what take me to one thing or another. If you get ideas that you fall in love with about furniture, then you’ll wake up and go to the wood shop. They direct you where to go.
TOM WAITS: The thing is, words are music. If you have words, you have sound, and the sounds have a shape to them. And in that sense, in the broader sense, music is organized noise. Monk said there are no wrong notes, it all has to do with how they are resolved. That’s how jump-rope songs are.
BEN HARPER: Words can be melodic, and sounds have lyrics to them…. Nothing I’ve ever said makes more sense to me. That’s how I’ve always lived, but it’s the inner sanctum only who really know what I mean by that. That’s songwriters’ shorthand.
JOE HENRY: We engage a song in process, and we know that something there is beckoning us forward. We know that there’s a living thing there in the midst, in a way. And you walk toward it with a bit of good faith and courage. But I think it’s really important not to be too sure about what you think the outcome should be, to stay out of the results business as much as possible.
TOM WAITS: You don’t always know when a song is finished and I’m not sure if a song is ever finished, to be honest with you. You know, they’re constantly evolving. It’s like jump-rope songs, you know. When are they done? They are never done, you know, people are always changing them, changing the tempo, adding new verses, getting rid of old verses.
DAVID LYNCH: Ideas are like women. You can go down the street and many, many women are going by. But one day you’re going down the street and you see one of them, and you can hardly stand. You need to sit down or you’ll fall down. And you’re in love. And when you’re in love, that’s a great, great, great feeling.
JOE HENRY: I think it’s a really interesting thing as a songwriter to keep yourself as off-balance, in some ways, as possible. I will get a song going and sort of know that there’s something alive on the line there, and I will just begin the next verse in the most random way that I might. It’s an image that strikes me; it’s a tonality; it’s a particular rhythm that feels good to me but is not necessarily, in a linear way, connected by thought to what’s just come before it. So I tend to just write a line, and then I employ my intellect to try to find my way through that dark room that I’ve just opened the door to. [Laughs]
JOHN LENNON: You sing a bit sadly to yourself… I’d started thinking about my own emotions. I don’t know exactly when it started… Instead of projecting myself into a [fictional] situation, I would try to express what I felt about myself, which I’d done in my books. I think it was Dylan that helped me realize that – not by any discussion or anything, but by hearing his work.
BOB DYLAN: It’s a very fine line you have to walk to stay in touch with something once you’ve created it. Either it holds up for you or it doesn’t. A lot of artists say, “I can’t sing those old songs anymore,” and I can understand it because you’re no longer the same person who wrote those songs.
However, you really are still that person some place deep down. You don’t really get that out of your system. So, you can still sing them if you can get in touch with the person you were when you wrote the songs. I don’t think I can sit down now and write “It’s Alright Ma” again. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But I can still sing it. And I’m glad I’ve written it.
TOM WAITS: So when you are ready to record, there is a certain finality to it. It’s time to… cut the head off the fish. That’s not really the right analogy for that. It’s more like a lot of people say, that you really captured something on that. There’s something alive in a song, and the trick to recording them is to capture something and have it taken alive.
BOB DYLAN: There’s no rhyme or reason to [writing songs]. There’s no rule. That’s what makes it so attractive. There isn’t any rule. You can still have your wits about you and do something that gets you off in a multitude of ways. As you very well know, or else you yourself wouldn’t be doing it.