Jim Byrne Edinburgh Folk Club
Photo by Sabine Kocem Jim Byrne Edinburgh Folk Club

Staying motivated as a songwriter and finding inspiration

This might sound like I’m blowing smoke up my behind, but it’s true nonetheless; I’ve never had a problem coming up with musical ideas. There’s a constant stream. However, that does not imply quality and it doesn’t imply great songs will flow from those ideas. I could easily write rubbish songs from now until I keel over. The challenge for me – and for every songwriting who has been writing for decades – is to stay creative, and stay motivated. The aim is to be coming up with ideas that lead to great songs, not just come up with ideas. In this short article I outline two strategies I use to help make that happen.

My first strategy is to change my musical focus every few years and the second is to try to ensure that I continue to listen to, and learn from, music that is new to me.

1. To stay motivated change your musical focus

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You don’t need to be Einstein to understand that a new project tends to bring with it energy, excitement and, if you are lucky, a batch of new songs. A new project could be starting a band, collaborating with new people or going in a different musical direction. It could be anything. My point in stating this is to tell you that you need to deliberately engineer those changes.

It’s up to you to get a new project up and running, up to you to head off in a new musical direction and up to you to ensure there’s a new musical challenge to sink your metaphorical teeth into. Don’t just drift along hoping that something will appear to wake you up. The more you get stuck in a rut the deeper that rut becomes and the harder it is to get out of it. When things are ‘not happening’ take action.

If you have been playing the same things on your instrument for years, that’s not good. Saying that that is just your style, doesn’t cut it. You need to be listening to something different, playing something different, writing something different. Your new songs will always have your DNA in them and will be influenced by what you have played and learned in the past. Don’t worry about losing your identity. You don’t have the same haircut you had when you were 13, and you shouldn’t be listening to and playing the same music either.

Challenge yourself, get excited, be inpirated to create something new

Challenge yourself. Every few years I make a deliberate decision to change the style of the music I’m writing (admittedly I’m not going from acoustic troubadour to Math Rock – but that doesn’t mean I’m not changing). All musical phases have a natural life-span. They can only keep my interest for so long. If I’m no longer excited about the music I’m making – it’s guaranteed – I won’t be writing great songs. if you are not finding excitement in the music you are creating – that’s a sign you need to do something different.

2. listen to and learn from music that is new to you

There’s a musical space that sits beyond, ‘comforting old fogey music’ and just behind, ‘music I can’t stand’ (because the truth is, I have prejudices). Luckily between those two extremes, there is a universe of music I’ve never heard and I know I will love if only I can find it. So my default listening experience is to be always looking for new artists and new music. I hate the idea that someone might think my favourite music was the stuff I was listening to when I was a teenager. I really, really, really hate that!

My identity is bound up in the notion that I’m open to new sounds, that includes music from the past that I’ve never heard or explored. As a songwriter – I feel it’s essential to ‘fill the well’ (so to speak) with not just new life experiences but also new musical ones. To that end, I listen to a lot of music on Youtube, social media, TV, and on Apple Music. On my playlists I actively ‘love’ tracks for artists I like but are new to me – while avoiding playing anything that Apple’s algorithms has chosen for me due to my age or demographic. The result is that I am introduced to a stream of new artists every week.

I’m amazed that there are so many great artists that I’ve never heard of, all with fresh ideas and approaches to their craft. Amazed and often inspired.

Take action to ensure your best songs are ahead of you

Those two strategies are not groundbreakingly original, but they are things you can easily try yourself. So if you are treading water with your songwriting, now’s the time to take action. Get some fresh energy and get motivated to write your best songs.

Like everyone, I go through phases of thinking my best songs are behind me or I’ll never write another good song – but I fight back. I fight back because I want to do everything I can to ensure that my best songs are still ahead of me. Your best songs are ahead of you. Go for it.

If you have any thoughts in relation to this article, I’d love to hear them. Please add your comments below.

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