The Song Phenomenon
A late-night look at a songwriter's creative process.
What do I write about? I never know. — Nick Cave
It’s late. After midnight. I should go to bed so I can function tomorrow. But the guitar case is staring me down from the corner of the room and a restless feeling is pinging around inside my ribcage. I surrender and strum a few chords. No particular idea in mind. No words. No real thoughts. I’ll just play a few minutes then turn in for the night. A feeling brushes across my skin and tickles my voice into humming a piece of a melody. Silly sounding non-words escape my lips carried on a tune that is being given to me.
She’s here. Just let herself in the front door and plopped down in the chair across from me. She’s totally invisible but commands the room entirely. I call her a she. She could be a he. No one really knows. I imagine her in a long flowing fairy gown with a magic wand or maybe a tasseled flapper dress with flirty dark red lipstick painted on pouty lips. She’s always styled to the nines. I feel so under-dressed when the Muse is in the room.
She hands a word to me like it’s a cigarette or a martini.
Or a star. I place it on a note, imbed it in a chord, and play it back to her tentatively, eyebrows raised in a silent ask, “Like this? Is this okay?” She scoffs. Throws a hand to the ceiling and rolls her eyes.
She means business.
I have to step up. She’s not messing around. She frisbees four lines of the first verse across the room. I grab for it and catch it in my fingertips, barely, syncing it with the four chord to the five. Resolve the melody, build a little tension then plant the first chord of the chorus expecting her to toss me the hook.
She’s sitting in the chair, face turned towards the wall, totally ignoring me, filing her nails or reading a newspaper. I play her the verse again, “Well, what do you think?” She shrugs her shoulders without lifting her chin.
Damn. I’m crestfallen. I thought we were on a roll.
It’s 1 a.m. I need a drink. The guitar is propped on the chair I was occupying as I walk into the kitchen, rolling the words around in my head over and over. I put the tea kettle on the burner, light a match, and flick a blue flame to life. I’m saving the Jameson as the last resort.
The kettle whistle gives me an idea.
I spin the burner to “off,” run into the living room and plunk a string of notes creating a riff between the verse and chorus. The Muse looks up, still filing her nails, “um hmmm, I like it.” Excitement spins in my belly and a coy look crosses her face.
Without missing a beat she magically beams me the hook, straight off the riff and I feel euphoric. It lays inside the rhythm so perfectly, the words cadencing against the downbeats so naturally that the lines feel like they have been there forever. I’m halfway through the chorus and the melody keeps showing itself but the prose is reticent. I stop playing and look at her, “now what?”
“Why are you looking at me?”
She gets up and leaves the room. It’s 2 a.m. Shit. I forgot to pour my tea. I drag myself back into the kitchen, reheat tepid water and lean my body on the countertop. My mind runs through every possible rhyme and tangent. The whole point of it hinges here, on these final chorus lines.
Furrows appear on my brow creasing to find the words, the meaning, thinking through haystacks of cliches and barns full of stupid lines. Nothing. The tea kettle spits roiled up water from its spout, belching its opinion. I pour a cup of caffeine courage and carry it steaming back to my chair.
Thinking is the worse thing for writing a song. — Neil Young
I glare at the guitar feeling betrayed and contemplate going to bed.
She appears in the doorway shaking her head back and forth, twirling her hair around her finger. She’s not letting me off that easy. She whispers something to me from across the room. It sounds like static. Like driving across Nebraska at 3 a.m. twisting the nob through late-night radio America. I hear her, then I don’t.
She fades out and I catch a few words.
I sit still, frozen, and tuned-in. Then all of a sudden, loud and clear she spills the story. The crux, the second verse, the bridge. A river of clarity cascades through my fingers on the strings, through my voice on the notes and she’s dancing around the room with the moon in her eyes, giggling. It’s 4 a.m.
They say everything in this world is in motion.
Protons and neutrons gyrating reality to life. Maybe songs float around in the ether or in the air like pollen. Maybe they fall from the sky and some of us happen to be standing under them. Or maybe the Muse flits around the globe, barging in the doors of the restless ones tossing handfuls of rhythm and rhyme to those of us willing to tune into her late-night station.
Where does it come from? Who cares? Just keep it and go with it.
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Michelle McAfee is an Oregon based writer, photographer, musician, and creator of SONGBONES Podcast & Magazine. She was a staff songwriter for Bluewater Music, Song-Tree Maypop, and Warner Chappell Music, and is currently composing essays, blogs and a Memoir. You can find her on Instagram @michellemcafeemuse.