A Breath of Inspiration

1. Prepare to be inspired

I don't know where inspiration comes from.  In my experience, I have to listen for it.  And I have to prepare to listen for it, too.  Inspiration does not always come clomping into the house like a kid wearing Daddy's work boots.  But it's no good scurrying around looking for pen and paper or recording device while some great and luminous idea grows increasingly dim and shapeless in the imagination, like grey dishwater circling a drain.  I need to be ready for it. 

Once a great idea is neglected, other lesser ideas come muscling in, with louder and more populist voices, like importunate pan-handlers and those me-too guys you've probably run into at business meetings. Pretty soon, you find yourself pouring a drink (of something) and wishing the first idea would just come back and explain itself again, while you promise to listen more closely.  Please. 

2. Be Responsive

Great ideas are more like hummingbirds than vultures -- they visit quickly and they tend not to circle around my head waiting for me to die, or pay them some attention.  You may experience things differently.  

So, inspiration. Take a deep breath.  Try holding it. You can't help breathing out ... but responding to the idea is as undeniable as the need to breathe in or out.  Jot something down, so you don't totally forget. 

I always feel like a bit of a fraud to talk about an idea, when I don't really know where they come from.  It's like, if some total stranger walked up to you in the street and handed you a winning lottery ticket, would you take credit for it?  (Apart from cashing the ticket?) For me, since I tend to think of songs as a form of story, most ideas when they arrive in my head are born naked, waiting to be clothed in details, and motivation, and back story, and emotion. 

3. An example of the process 

I thought, as an example, that I would walk through the process for a song that arrived as a gift.  And finished that way, as I will explain. 

The genesis and growth of the idea:  to begin with, when I was a very small boy, my Dad got me a small wooden sailboat, with a real linen mainsail, and a stand to put it on, when it wasn't sailing. That toy sailboat currently stands on its rack, on a shelf in our kitchen, where I could see it from the dining room table.  On the warm summer evening when this song was born, I was sitting at the dining room table, pen and paper before me, and I noticed how a breeze had caused the linen sail to stir.  

And then I had a passing idea:  what if, I asked myself, you could talk about the breeze that was gathered up from the last breath of every dying sailor lost at sea?  Too complicated, I decided.  And then, I thought, I should be working with a character, make him ... ummm ... a condemned man, who is going to be hanged, and who simply wants the wind to not blow until he has breathed his last breath.  And it would be a period piece, set in the age of sail. I needed to think of it cinematically, to provide a visual perspective. 

But, I asked myself, why would a listener care about a protagonist who did something bad enough to be hanged for it?  The answer, I decided, was that he had to have done something sacrificial, like killing to defend a lady, that could lend some nobility to his situation.  And that became the story:  all he wants is for the wind not to blow and not to carry the young lady away, until he has breathed his last breath in her cause.  In almost no time, an hour or two at most, I had a lyric that told his sad tale. 

Enter, a melody -- please: The melodic question had yet to be solved. This was never going to be a country song, nor a pop tune, nor a blues, or a bluegrass. The question then urgently became, what was it?  Inspiration stopped there, for many weeks, while I struggled with several melodic approaches.  They definitely didn't work. 

And then one night, my wife and I were attending a music event at Hugh's Room in Toronto, and I happened to bump into David Leask.  David Leask is a fabulous (and award winning) singer-songwriter, of Scottish heritage, and I had the sudden conviction that David could be asked to lend his Celtic wizardry to the song.  I said as much -- and he said that he would "have a look", to see if anything inspired.  Three days later, David emailed me a beautiful, haunting melody that gave the song wings.  We talked about a few lyrical tweaks, and the song was done.  David produced a lovely acoustic-vocal demo, with a touch of cello added by Kevin Fox.

I still can't explain where the ideas come from, or when they'll arrive, but this is the history of how one idea got written, and then co-written;  you can hear David's demo on this website:  While I Still Breathe (Madole/Leask).  

Best regards
Bruce
 

Leave a comment

Add comment