I am often asked where I get my inspiration for a song. Frequently the question is accompanied by the comment (as it was after a recent song writing workshop at the National Festival in Canberra) ….”I’ve got a melody, or most of it, but can’t seem to put lyrics to it….?”
Song writers, or writers in any discipline, be they novelists, play writers or journalists are observers. They have an almost in-built curiosity about the world they inhabit and use what they see to write. But they don’t just record events. They interpret them. They want to understand.
I was sitting in the departure lounge at Melbourne Airport one Sunday night a few months ago waiting for my flight to take me home to Sydney after a weekend concert. My plane was en route from Hobart and there was a small crowd waiting at the lounge to meet those arriving. I glanced at them and noticed a very attractive woman standing on her own at the back of the group. She was really quite beautiful. Elegantly, but casually dressed she may have been 40, could have been older, it was hard to tell.
As the passengers filed through the door I began to try and guess who she might have been waiting for. I sized up each person as they appeared – ‘umm probably not, ah maybe? ..no, definitely not him, no not her…’ and then glanced back to her to see if she had reacted.
As the last few passengers emerged and the crew began to appear I thought, ‘It’ll probably be the Captain.’ But it wasn’t. Whomever she was waiting for wasn’t on the plane. Crest fallen and silent she reached into her bag and pulled out her mobile, making a call as she walked away.
In that moment I began to write a song. I wondered who it was that she had been expecting (secretly thinking as she walked away how I would have liked to have had her waiting for me at the end of my journey) and wondering why he, or she, hadn’t arrived.
My title – which is where a lot of good songs start – was simple “I Wonder Who You’re Waiting For?” That would be my hook line. Sitting on the plane that night I wrote the chorus, lyrics and music (I had the melody in my head), and most of the verse lyrics. The melody for the verses would come later, as would the bridge.
I knew before I had even started writing that I would need to leave the revelation that whomever she was waiting for didn’t arrive until near the end of the song. I also knew that I wanted to do in the song exactly what I had done as I watched her in the airport lounge – size up the passengers as they came through the door and eliminate them one by one. In other words I had mapped out the plot, I knew where the song was going to go before I started. I had also concluded that it was probably going to be in the bridge where I would reveal her disappointment. A good bridge almost always changes the direction of the song both melodically and lyrically.
During the next few days I worked on the song, completing the lyrics and most of the melody. The bridge melody took me longer to get right and even now, some months after finishing the song and beginning to perform it, I’m not entirely sure that it’s the best melodic solution that I could come up with. I might change it before recording it – but, then again, I might not. Most writers I know are never convinced that what they have come up with couldn’t be better – it’s what keeps us working at it.
The lesson in all of this is simple – inspiration comes from what is around you. Sometimes that inspiration might be translated into a song almost literally, as I have done with this one. More often than not the things you observe become the starting point for a song which then takes on a life of its own as you write and might end up being quite removed from the original inspiration. The worth of a good song is what you do with the initial inspiration, what fresh insights you bring to it, what meaning you are able to find that illuminates the subject matter for the listener. That’s the craft of good writing, finding just the right words to express your thoughts succinctly and with clarity, painting pictures that engage your audience, encouraging them to seek understanding in what you have written. And for all but the very gifted that’s just plain hard work.