It’s one of those questions that any writer gets regularly: where do you find inspiration? It appears that writing is one thing, but finding what to write about, that’s the real challenge. Songwriting is no different. Some people can write about anything – Nora Ephron’s mother famously taught her: “everything is copy”. I’m not quite the same, but I do find inspiration in unexpected places. Here is what inspires me the most.
I’d say a good 75% of my songs concern historical people and events. I wrote my first serious song about Mary Boleyn, a 16th century noble woman with a tumultuous love life. I also have (partially) written songs about Eleanor of Aquitaine, Boudicca, Catherine of Aragon, Juana of Castile and Anne Boleyn. Their dramatic lives make for far more interesting songs than my mundane little life. Don’t think I just cut and paste their biographies into songs though – I like to use my imagination to explore how they might have felt. Even an intimidating woman like Eleanor of Aquitaine must have had fears and dreams.
What’s great about finding songwriting inspiration in history is that there is often some very good imagery just lying around, waiting to be used. Historical letters, chronicles and other such documents are excellent sources for a nice turn of phrase. Eleanor of Aquitaine was associated with a prophecy about an eagle, while Mary Boleyn was called a “great and infamous whore”. That’s great stuff to work with!
Writing songs inspired by fiction has pretty much all the same advantages as getting inspired by history. Reading novels and watching movies and television shows provide an almost limitless source of inspiration, and there are plenty of quotes to pilfer (providing the source material is out of copyright). Shakespeare especially is excellent at providing inspiration.
Like with history, I like to use songwriting to go a little beyond what is known in the source material. How did this minor character feel about the plot, or what was life like for this main character after she was written out of the show? For example, I’ve written a song about Lydia Bennet (the sister of Pride & Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennet) and her marriage to the dastardly Mr Wickham.
When I was a kid, I thought there was really only one proper subject for a pop song: relationships. Preferably from the songwriter’s personal experience. I wrote many a misguided love song in my teens. But now that I’m older and more experienced, I know I don’t need to look at my personal life to find inspiration for songwriting. In fact, I’d rather not. For one, I am happily married, and happy lives make boring songs. And second, if that were to change, I would feel pretty uncomfortable letting the world peek into any problems between my husband and me.
Although there is one exception…
Yes, you read that right. Frustration. I don’t like to use my personal life for songs, but songwriting can be a great went to vent some frustration. Especially when you do things like work in retail. I’ve got many a snarky song in progress dealing with this.
So those are my sources for songwriting inspiration. Do you write songs, and if so, what inspires you? Or what do you like to hear songs about?