Two weeks ago we heard from Jimmy Webb in this ongoing series on some of the best songwriters of the 20th century. Webb’s father was a Baptist minister for 20+ years, and Webb cites his time in church as formative to his musicianship. It’s for that reason, he says, that he likes flat keys–because the church organist, like most, preferred to play in flats as opposed to sharps. E-flat, A-flat, and B-flat are some of his favorite keys.
I was particularly impressed with Webb’s thoughts on allowing harmonic structure to dictate melody, as opposed to vice versa. We begin with one more thought on that concept:
[I’ve found that] interesting chords will compel interesting melodies. It’s very hard to write a boring melody to a really interesting chord sequence. The chord sequence will push the melody around in really unexpected, interesting ways.
Webb, like all writers, suffers from a lack of inspiration at times, to the extent that he assumes he’ll need to help prime the creative pump:
It always feels like it’s the first time for me–I have to get it going. It’s sort of like warming up for tennis or vocalizing before you sing. . . . Sometimes at the beginning it just seems like an impossible task . . . until you plant yourself, put your hands on the keys, and actually push one of them down. Make yourself push one of them down! Sometimes that’s really hard for me to do. I sit there and I go, “I don’t want to play a G. And I don’t want to play a B flat.” It all looks unpromising. And I just sit there, and I have to make myself play. I say, “Play. Play one note.” And that way I get myself going, very slowly sometimes. And then momentum builds and I really get into the joy of it. And I’m going, “Oh, look–there’s the piece I need right there!” You know, I’m like a kid with a jigsaw puzzle. A glittering magical jigsaw puzzle.
Others in this series have touted the value of setting aside the writing for other activity in the midst of the creative process. Here’s Webb’s take, with particular emphasis on eschewing the tendency to fall into familiar patterns:
I’m doing a lot of watercolors, and I’m thinking in a different matrix. I’m not thinking frequency and meter and words. I’m thinking about colors and it’s a different flowing state of mind. . . . And I like to totally submerge myself in something like that. Or I like to go fly. I like to fly airplanes. I do anything, really–build a model ship, play tennis, which I do every day–and get submerged in those things. Because it’s like a brain scrub. And it just washes out the old notes that are hanging around. And all the old prejudices that are hanging around. Any old chord pattern that is lurking back there wanting to be copied. I never want to be ambushed by something I’ve retained, suddenly rewriting something I’ve already written. That’s my worst nightmare. So the idea of a scrub,just blowing out the brain, and starting with a fresh brush, if you will, is important.
Finally, Webb extols the virtues of recording songwriting sessions for future posterity. Keep in mind this interview was conducted in the early 90’s, the technological tools available to songwriters today make this process even easier:
I have a tape machine that sits on top of my piano . . . and I tape everything I do. Most of the time I don’t refer to it at all but sometimes, forty-five minutes into a writing session, I’ll play a chord pattern completely by accident and I’ll know instantly that I’ll never be able to do it again. And immediately I go to the tape recorder and go back. And maybe, if I really like it, I jot it down. . . . That’s why it’s real[ly] important to have a tape machine running. Because if you’re playing along and all of a sudden you make a mistake, and it turns out to be one of those glorious God-given mistakes, chances are you’re not going to remember how you did it. If more than five or six seconds elapse before your find it again, you may not find it. It was a mistake, you see.
Been there, done that, where not writing down stuff in the moment when the inspiration happens is concerned. Never again!
Blessings, songwriters, for healthy brain scrubs and creativity as you write! The Lord be with you!