It was the summer between high school graduation and my freshman year of college. I was getting ready to move into a dorm at Tennessee Technological University, where I attended my freshman year of college. I eventually transferred to, and graduated from, Middle Tennessee State University. It was a feeling of wanting to move on from one chapter in my life and dive into the next, while still filled with trepidation about the future.
The song was about getting in one’s own way in a search for happiness. I wasn’t breaking any ground there. That’s a core concept explored by blues musicians for more than 100 years. It’s still fun to write and sing about.
Since then, I’ve found that the most important element in my songwriting is inspiration. Sure, technical abilities with a musical instrument or my own vocal chords are essential. But those are refined simply to play music. There are plenty of talented musicians who are content to just play music and not write or compose.
Lyric-writing and creating melodies and rhythms are certainly skills, but they’re subjective.
I once saw a quote from Keith Richards in which he said he doesn’t think he creates music; the music already exists, he just has to pull the notes out of the air and assemble it.
For me, I interpret that feeling as inspiration. I can pick up my instrument 100 times and not feel the spark, and then the next time I pick it up, I get moved to write for hours. It feels like the song is destiny, I just had to be in the right frame of mind to find it.
When I lived in East Tennessee, just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I found that taking a short hike through the park in winter, when tourism traffic was at a minimum yet the mountains were still beautiful, could spark inspiration like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
For years, I spent every day playing the guitar, trying to get the right inspiration, and more often than not, it eluded me. Likewise, I’ve had spells where I go weeks without touching the instrument, but just living life and unwittingly picking up all sorts of inspiration for the next time I play music.
I recently went through a spell of not playing much music. Before a few weeks ago, I rarely played music during the past few months.
A writing session with my younger brother, Alex, brought out a bunch of inspiration recently. We wrote a couple of complete songs and several more melodies and riffs that will be stored away for future use.
One of my favorite bands, and a band Alex is passionate about, is Fleet Foxes. Their music features harmonized vocals and beautiful acoustic (and occasionally electric) guitar melodies.
On Friday, Fleet Foxes will release “Crack-Up,” their first album since 2011. In the six years between records, front man Robin Pecknold went through an existential journey. He walked away from a promising music career and enrolled in undergrad studies. He also became obsessed with physical fitness and came to grips with life without playing in his band.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Pecknold described the hiatus as a great source of inspiration and appreciation for what it means to be a songwriter. He came back a different man and wanted much more inclusion from the rest of his band in writing music for the new album.
Hopefully when I get my hands on the album, his music can serve to further inspire me in my own songwriting endeavors.
Jake Old is a staff writer for The Democrat. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @wilsonnewsroom.