Years ago I stumbled upon an article on the work of Leonard Cohen, in which he said, on the subject of his creative process, "if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often." I found this fascinating then and I still do, because it always seemed too good to be true, the idea that a master storyteller and poet like Cohen could have little say in how his ideas come to life. Over the years, I've learnt that this phenomenon isn't unique to Cohen and that other renowned creatives have similar experiences. And when, a few days ago, I came across a Paul McCartney interview where he said he doesn't know how he does what he does, it was the confirmation I needed that perhaps this might just be the norm rather than the exception.
The idea that some of the greatest and most revered creatives and designers and inventors have never been able to put a finger on their creative processes brings a certain comfort to me. I'm hardly a revered creative – at least not yet – but this is something I relate to personally, something I have first-hand experience with.
I've been asked about my songwriting process in at least a dozen interviews, and it's a question I also get from friends, family, and gig-goers. "Which comes first," they usually ask, "the music or the lyrics?" When I first started getting those questions, it was always a struggle to answer. In the early days, I would make things up and give a clear, definitive answer so as to come across as confident, and to seem like I knew what I was doing. Looking back, I realise I never had a clue, and I still don't. Now, I just take a candid approach to answering the question, and I admit that I don't know, that I can't be sure. The best answer I can give to that question is that there's no definitive process, there's no specific order in which the music and lyrics arrive, and there's no specific place I can go to summon them, all I can do is avail myself as a vessel, for the music and the words to find me in due course.
Saying this out loud, or rather typing it out and seeing it laid out on my screen, I can't help but feel there's a mysterious air to it, the cool, edgy, artsy kind. It may seem like a romantic idea, an idyllic picture of art, where the ideas always find the vessels they're destined for. But this isn't necessarily the case, because the flip side of this is that I (and other artists, including Paul McCartney) live in crippling fear that the songs and ideas will stop coming. McCartney even refuses to learn how to read sheet music in case it interferes with the mysterious process that enables him to do what he does.
As you might imagine, this is a source of anxiety. There's a voice in my head that tells me that one day I'll write my last song or essay or novel, that the mysterious process will break, causing me to never create again. Talk about writer's block to end all writer's block. I hear this voice every single day. I still don’t know how to deal with it, how to silence it, and so every time I write a new song or book or essay like the one you’re reading now, it is accompanied by a massive sigh of relief, and a journal entry expressing gratitude that the process isn't broken and the tap hasn’t been turned off just yet.
This is all to say that more often than not, I can’t put my finger on how my songs or essays or books begin. I just aim to turn up and let the proverbial muse take me where it pleases. But this isn’t the same thing as waiting for inspiration. On the contrary, it’s like knowing that you have a road trip to embark on, but you don’t know where you're going or how to get there. All you know is you need to get in your car and ignite the engine, and your GPS will give you the directions when you need them. You’re strictly on a need-to-know basis, you’ll be told when to turn left or right, or when to stay the course, but you only have the instructions you need for the next leg of the journey, and so on it goes until you arrive at the place you didn’t know you were trying to get to all along.
This is what the process is like for me, and I almost always get to that destination, as long as I get in the car and start the engine. Waiting for inspiration would be like sitting around in bed, refusing to get to the car until I know where I’m headed or how I'll get there. Each time, I need to have just enough faith to get in the car and start the engine, and just enough trust in the process to know that I won’t get lost along the way. That leap of faith in the beginning is the difference, I believe, between writing yet another song or essay or book, or not.
PS: Just a reminder that my latest single, Feels Like Rain is out now, everywhere. You can listen to it on several platforms. Please share it with a friend, share it with your social networks, and consider subscribing to the newsletter (below), my YouTube channel, or wherever else you listen to music.