How I Write Songs
Giving Co-Writer Credit Where Credit is Due
I like to write songs. My heyday of music discovery was in the 70s (yes I’m old) when the pop charts were filled with introspectively poetic singer-songwriters that groomed my taste for well written lyrics accompanied by the guitar. Joni Mitchell was everything to me then and still is to this day. Her songs set a high bar. In my mind, and the mind of many others, she is one for the ages.
In the attempt to do as Joni did, I began songwriting not long after I was able to seamlessly strum a few chords on the guitar. Those songs were cringeworthy at best but I kept at it. As in all things, it took time and effort to be able to write something that didn’t make me cringe.
The greatest creative adventure I have ever had in the creation of anything is when I wrote a song I called ’Losing Altitude’.
At the time I worked for a company that made a product that‘s installed on private and commercial airplanes. It was a moving map/entertainment system that you’ve probably seen while traveling on a plane. A map comes up on your screen to show you how far you are from your destination along with other interesting factoids like altitude, wind speed, outside air temperature, etc.
On yet another day on the job, apropos of nothing, the words ‘losing altitude’ popped into my head. It wasn’t attached to any safety briefing I was editing but just that stand alone phrase. I wrote it down on a piece of paper. It seemed significant for some reason. And it sounded sad.
It lay dormant in the back of my mind until one morning after dropping the kids off at school, I pulled over by a park to kill some time since it was still too early to head off to work. I noticed a woman who was parked beside me staring at the trees lost in her own thoughts. I imagined, for some reason, that she was sad from how things were going in her life, maybe the breaking down of a relationship. She needed to be alone to allow herself to feel the sadness. Her relationship was losing altitude, I thought. And that was how the song began.
Once I was home and sitting with my guitar, I tried to feel what that woman was feeling as she sat alone in her car. The song started with her thoughts, “Here I am again. All the trees are crying.” The second phrase came from something I wrote in a journal around the time my relationship was ending with my first boyfriend. The trees are crying.
Like something rolling down a hill, the song began to build momentum. I could hear what her thoughts were and attempted to put them into words. Scribbling down lyrics is the easy part. The difficult part is that they have to fit whatever melody line you’ve created for them. Like writing poetry every word has to hold its weight. Much of what is initially written has to be cut and only what is essential should remain. This can be a painful process. But you learn nothing is precious and editing with a fine tooth comb is crucial.
Several other lines in the song came from other places. One was the title of a novel I had read. I didn’t really like the novel but really liked the title. Another was something I had written down about the promised land. Bits and bobs. Unconsciously stored up for this moment where one by one they would float up as if to say “what about this?”
If you give an idea some time it will percolate and lead you to where the guard rails and constraints of rational thought are sidelined. The mind is able to move about uncontained and can wander far afield to where no holds are barred, all stops are pulled out, and anything is possible.
In the writing of a song, like in the writing of anything, I don’t feel alone in the endeavor. Constant surprises (as Little Dragon sings) and serendipity accompany each task. My little box of a mind is infused by something extra. It is joyous. The breath of life filling in all the lifeless spaces.
Here I am again
all the trees are crying
and the birds are losing altitude
Is it me? Is it you?
Can we make a way to get through
to a place we thought we knew
when we first held each other
that this much was true?
Thanking my lucky star
for guiding us to get this far
but I don’t know exactly where we are
because we’re losing altitude.
Look at me. I’ll look at you.
Is there anything we see there
that’s safe passage through?
Past the dark,
delivering us to
a merciful returning to what we always knew.
You and I . . . we were meant to be there for each other.
You and I . . . we were born to be together.
Take my hand.
Let’s try again
for the promised land.