Clef Notes: On Golden Beetles

by David Egan

So you want to be a songwriter? Sit at my knee and I will opine. So you want to be a songwriter? Sit at my knee and I will opine.

Younger and aspiring writers have so frequently asked for advice about songwriting that some of my major points have practically become mantras. So for the sake of writers who are open to advice or anyone with an interest in what goes on in a self-possessed songwriter's brain as he or she obliviously walks by, as if deep in a conversation with no one here are the points of advice I most often give.

Be a good listener. I heard an interview with Sam Cooke in which he gave the same advice. You don't have to be the life of the party. Let the other guy talk and make his point. You need not suffer fools, but give decent folks the courtesy of your attention. They will appreciate it and consider you a friend. Moreover, they will often drop pearls of profundity, irony, rhetoric and wisdom that they'll never know they dropped. Maybe a fragment of what they said, turned sideways, will make a great song idea.

It can be frustrating when someone does all the talking and just can't sit still to listen. Maybe you could've told them something, pertaining to the topic at hand, that would've blown their mind. But they couldn't listen. So they missed out, not you.

In Carl Jung's book Synchronicity, he beautifully tells how he opened a window to catch a golden beetle that was tapping against the pane - at the very moment that a difficult patient was telling him of a dream in which she was given a broach that resembled a golden beetle. This incident shook the patient out of her cynical, overly analytical views, enabling her to open her mind to unexplainable possibilities and better work through her problems. Figuratively speaking, I believe those beetles are often tapping at the windows of our perception, allowing fleeting opportunities for us to take notice, open up the windows, let them in and take them in hand.

Source material comes from everywhere - books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, racing forms (one of my favorites), conversations, dreams or something you saw your mother do when you were 3 years old. For songwriters, these are all forms of beetles tapping at the window. Pay attention. Listen for the beetles. (I dig a pony.)

Keep the channels open. In her celebrated book, The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron discusses the importance of writing "morning pages." The idea is to hand-write three notebook pages in a swift, uncensored, un-edited fashion. They're not for anyone to see. They can be garbage that even you wouldn't want to revisit. But they clear out the mind's channels, like unstopping a garden hose, allowing for the fresh spring water of good inspiration to come through.

For years, I wouldn't write a 12-bar blues, thinking that I needed to expand upon the blues genre and innovate fresher and newer forms of blues. This was no slight to the great, classic blues artists who never cease to inspire. But I was chasing those big cuts and felt that the only way to secure them was to innovate. A few years ago, I allowed myself to exhale and wrote a half-dozen 12-bar blues in "rabid" succession. They were fun to write, full of ribald humor and double entendres - good for a laugh but nothing that would change the world. Strangely, on the heels of those songs came some of my best - songs I would call breakthroughs. These breakthroughs were blue as blue could get, but not the typical 12-bar blues. They were honest to what I was feeling as opposed to made-up monkey business. They had a fresh template, fresh form and fresh approach - what songwriting can really be all about.

I believe those breakthroughs never would have happened had I not indulged myself in the pleasure of writing those 12-bar ditties. The channels had to be cleared in order for that to happen. This brings us to the next point.

Excuse yourself for not inventing the wheel. As Chuck Berry quoteth the Bible, "There is nothing new under the sun." Otis Redding mastered the soul ballad, along with Percy Sledge, Dan Penn and a few others. That's no reason to not write one. Jimmy Reed followed his shuffle muse to the ends of his universe. Chuck Berry rocked. William Shakespeare wrote wonderful sonnets and drunken Irishmen championed dirty limericks. That's no reason not to write a sonnet, a limerick, a rocker, a shuffle or a 12-bar blues. The object is to put your own spin, your own "voice," to your creation, even if you're tipping your hat to the all-time greats. The all-time greats did plenty hat-tipping of their own.

Dig a little deeper and find what can make that shuffle uniquely your own. Go inward, Grasshopper, and discover how you can say, "I love you" or "I'm not going to take it anymore" in a way that no one has. This is where the points begin to intertwine.

Find your own voice. This has been said already, but putting it into a slightly different context, there comes a time when an artist has to stop being a fan and stand on his/her own two feet. Stop listening so much to everyone else. Forget about your heroes for a while. Be quiet and still for stretches of time. Don't worry about having your dance card completely filled. Be quiet, listen for your muses and write the songs that come. Listen for your own voice. This is the simple thing that confounds some of the most talented people I know. They can't turn off the jukebox and listen for their own voice, so they're constantly doing the jukebox. Even when they manage to write something, they're really just doing the jukebox. As stated, we must excuse ourselves for not inventing the wheel, but we still must find our own true creative voice to spin that wheel in our own way.

The process is the prize. The process of brainstorming and song conjuring is the purpose. If you're compelled to keep your head full of rhymes and rhythms and constantly try to make sense of them all, then you know that it is its own reward. You just do it, like others paint pictures or do crossword puzzles. You have to do it, money or no money. Most likely, you should stay in school or keep the day job. But enjoy the process of your artistic pursuits and see where it takes you.

Study an instrument. Even if you're primarily a lyricist, musical knowledge will help you to sense the difference between lyrics and poetry.
A parting note: Write it down. Or sing it into your smart phone. Keep a note pad by your bedside. Keep an old cassette player under your car seat. Call your own voice mail and sing to it. Don't trust your memory. Guard and value your heaps of notebooks. You will have such brilliant ideas that you'll think you could never forget. Think again. A great song idea is a terrible thing to lose. Get it down quickly. I have literally felt ideas leaving my psyche as if a vital organ were being extracted against my will. Avoid such pain. Get it down. Grab the golden beetle while you can.