Transcend Your Influences -
Create Something New

by Moe Berg, Canadian Musician, November/December 1998

Why do we write? What makes a person want to create?

I saw Todd Rundgren speak at Canadian Music Week a couple years ago and he had two insights into the creative process. The first one was "the only reason anyone makes pop music is to get laid." That may have been a bit of an overstatement even considering that most people writing pop music are young men.

I think some people become songwriters simply because they're in a band. They've been inspired by the music they hear to pick up an instrument and then find like-minded souls to play with. After jamming to their heroes' songs for a while they'll come to the conclusion that the only way to get ahead is to start composing their own material. At first, writers in this position might tend to wear their influences on their sleeves. I recall a Western Canadian tour The Pursuit of Happiness did a few years ago where every local opening act was a sonic replica of Soundgarden.

Well, everyone has influences and though some may refuse to admit it, we've all been shaped by the music that excited us enough to try making it ourselves (without Dylan and The Byrds there would be no Tom Petty).

Whether or not you are a good songwriter will depend on what you personally bring to the table. It isn't enough to write pale versions of songs that already exist. If you are to be successful, you will have to transcend your influences to create something new and fresh.

I occasionally find myself on demo listening panels. These are events where aspiring artists bring tapes of their songs to be mercilessly critiqued by music industry "experts". The quality I look for in these tapes is originality. What is special about the song? Has the writer put him/herself into the song? Has his/her personality, sensibility, and talent marked the piece? This is especially important in traditional music genres like Blues, Folk or Celtic music. If someone plays me a blues song he has written I have to ask myself (and then him) why would someone put this record in their stereo and not just play their BB King or Robert Johnson records? Has the writer tinkered with the sound, form or spirit of blues, shaping it into his own design? The history of rock and roll is littered with artists who did just that. Start with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and continue through to Stevie Ray Vaughan; these artists and many in between took the blues to a new place and that's why they were successful.

The second great insight by Todd that day was his definition of art. He said that art is "a public act of self-examination." That seems fairly accurate to me. I think the origin of a serious writer is the desire to speak, to say something (either through music or lyrics) that is burning inside of them. After they've expressed themselves their next impulse is to show someone what they've done.

They will need to perform the song and record it, sing it on a street corner, to a bar full of drunks or on a concert stage in front of thousands of worshipping fans. This is what I call the "artist's neurosis." The compulsion to display oneself.

My friend Annette had a good theory about art. We were discussing why so many good artists are so inarticulate and she said, "If they could say it, they wouldn't need to create it." The idea is that the artist sees or feels something and his/her only way of communicating is to paint a picture, stage a play or write a song.

My feeling is that in an ideal situation a writer takes a personal journey both within himself and through the world around him. I think that this is the only way to write songs that are truly you own. You may find yourself alone on this voyage; the world may find you weird or boring or frivolous. Or you may pick up many fellow travelers that empathize with you, share your musical sensibilities and want to go wherever you take them. Either way it will be your journey and you won't just be walking down the same paths as the writers who came before you.

Copyright 1998, Canadian Musician, Norris-Whitney Communications, Inc.

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