Every Canvas is Black: Reflections on Songwriting

I have been writing songs for over 15 years now. During that time I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to write a good piece – but it’s such an elusive task. And while I have written a lot of songs, I’ve never sat down to assimilate my thoughts on the subject. So, here are a few of my reflections on songwriting:

1) Express Something Meaningful
I’ve never wanted to write a song about nothing. After all, the basic impulse towards writing music is an urge to express something. Many times in my life I have sat down to write for the sake of writing only to realize I have nothing to say. Music is an indelible force suspended in space, created by God Himself to help us interact with the world on a more profound level. It’s like nothing else in the universe. The reason for writing is paramount; the best of which is to express something you couldn’t otherwise.

“The city is built / to music, and therefore never built at all / and therefore built forever” – Alfred Tennyson

“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” – Paul Cezanne

2) Every Canvas Worth Painting Is Blank
Every piece of art originates as a series of movements on a blank canvas. In reality, none of us actually start with a blank canvas; all of us are shaped by our context. Every artist has a few prominent influences. With that being said, at some point you have to break away from those things and become your own artist. Art is a unique type of expression because no two pieces can be the same and great artists embrace that truth. This enables them to be focused purely on their unique expression – unconcerned with how it relates to everyone else’s. If you don’t write the song in your head then no one will.

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original” – C.S. Lewis

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation”; “Art only begins where imitation ends” – Oscar Wilde

Allow Your Ideas to Age
Inspiration is a strange thing; song ideas come to me at the most random moments. However, until I inject those bones with life by putting some meat on them, I just have a messy piece of inspiration. It’s sometimes beautiful to me because it’s raw and soulful, but the aging of an idea helps me internalize it on a deeper level which helps me communicate it more effectively. Masterpieces have never been thrown together; they are intelligently and elaborately designed. Give yourself some creative space to sit in the inspiration so you can give it a chance to become something more beautiful than you first imagined.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” – Mark Twain

“The idea comes to me from outside of me - and is like a gift. I then take the idea and make it my own - that is where the skill lies.” – Johannes Brahms

4) The Urgency is Beginning
One of my mentors told me the above phrase. When I think about writing I always tell myself, “You can write anything but first you must write something.” You never know what lies ahead. As Robert Frost once said, “the afternoon knows what the morning never suspected”. Feeling an urgency to write a great song is pointless (unless of course you are contracted with a label and have execs breathing down your neck). In most situations, I’ve found that type of urgency to be self-defeating. The only urgency you should allow yourself to feel is to begin.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence; write the truest sentence that you know” – Ernest Hemingway

“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” – Lewis Carroll

I’ll end with one last thought. Leonardo Da Vinci once said, ““A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” Let us continue to use art to shine light upon those things which are dark.


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