There is the kind writer’s block that everyone knows about, and there is the other. The kind where you’ve got an idea for a song that's so good that you’re intimidated by it, or scared to write it because you don’t wanna write it wrong. Or you start thinking that it it’s such a brilliant idea that maybe it could never be written. Not by you at least.
I have such an idea. When it came to me I stopped in my tracks on a bitter cold and rainy night on some Williamsburg block, already late for a show, to sing the piece in my head into my phone. A simple chorus melody and a phrase. I’ve thought and thought about it, and played and played around with it, but nothing I do is good enough. The piece is still all I have. The voice memo is dated 8/15/12.
Perhaps Jasper Lewis can help me out. If you’ve heard Jasper’s music you know, like I do, that he is a serious-ly good songwriter. But his writing and performing also have an enviable playfulness to them. I have had the thought while listening to Jasper play that he writes great songs because he somehow allows himself to write great songs; like he invites the great idea to dinner, and then instead of having an intense staring contest with it until it either relents or storms out of your house (which I am prone to doing), he serves the idea some jello and tells it a dirty joke. He seems to truly entertain an idea. Here, in Jasper’s words, is some insight into how he pulls it off:
Keeping it real
One of the most challenging things for a songwriter is knowing what to do with a really good idea. I don’t mean a pretty good idea, like, “hey that lady in the coffeeshop used a funny colloquialism let’s write a song about it,” or “I’m sure mad at my girlfriend today.” I mean a really good idea like “this is the one, my hallelujah, my like a rolling stone, my rolling in the deep.” That kind of idea.
Now, the problem with these ideas is that they are just that, ideas, they aren’t things. A really good idea is not a really good thing. It’s just not. When faced with a really, truly great idea it’s easy to lose perspective and get jammed up. No matter how hard you try, and how many re-writes you perform, the thing will never be as good as the idea, or as Socrates once put it, “I’ll be back in five minutes bro, don’t rufie my hemlock.”
Ideas don’t exist though, and these sorts of really good ideas are a special kind of disruptive annoyance once you allow them to take hold. When faced with a really good idea the best thing to do is to turn it into a pretty good thing as quickly as possible. Get it over with. Here’s a few things to try next time you’re stumped by a really good idea.
a) Shoot yourself in the foot. Do you play guitar? Great. Write this one on the piano, or the kazoo, or without accompaniment. Write it without words. Distract from the goodness of your idea with the badness of your playing. A little rough will make the diamond shine all the brighter.
b) Be obvious. Stop trying to be poetical and just say what you mean. Blatantly and awkwardly, if necessary. A great example of this is the song You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told) by the White Stripes. Now that’s a really good idea. You can almost feel Jack White’s impatience as he waits and waits to get to the point.
c) Give yourself a deadline. The sooner the better. Have a great idea at work and finish writing it before you get home.
d) Embrace your flaws. The details and mistakes that keep your thing from being as perfect as your idea are the details and mistakes that make you human. More than your great idea, they are the things that your audience will relate to. Don’t try to cover them up or you will just confuse people.
Until it’s finished, you won’t be able to think of anything better.
Jasper Lewis is based in New York, and sometimes New Jersey. He’s just released a great new record, The King of Ideas and the Weirdo Kid, which you can sample and purchase here.
(Photo: Roy Lewis)