October 17, 2019

Legal & Inspiring Thievery 101

I got this question from Loretta Ruiz of Tempe, Arizona and it got me thinking about how far we need to go to stretch our imaginations and fire up our thought processes.

“Peter, I consider myself a pretty accomplished songwriter except for one big problem. I find it extremely difficult to zero in on new things to write about. I find myself going over the same themes again and again. Lately everything I do is starting to sound like one big amorphous love song.”

Loretta, I’m so glad you’ve written and since I feel like I’ve been in similar straits many times, I’ve got a few tricks that might be helpful in getting you out of this rut.

I once read something about the legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis that stuck with me. Understand, his entire career as a jazz player is based on his ability to improvise, that is, to create new musical passages on the spot. Under the pressure of a live performance he’ll play spontaneous created melodies over complicated chord changes, all of them coming at break-neck speed. The wonder of it all is that he makes up these original melodic phrases in such a seemingly effortless manner. But when asked by an interviewer how many times he actually created -totally new- improvisations he thought for a moment and said:

“Maybe three or four times in my entire career.”


If Marsalis wasn’t creating these new pieces then what the hell was he doing – because it sure looks to the world like it’s new? He was drawing upon the vast canon of material in his musical arsenal, his library of stored ideas. These consist of phrases of music he’s heard or written or somehow absorbed over the course of his life. The astounding brilliance with which he puts them together (especially under the pressure of staggering speeds and live audiences) is awesome to me but it was his honest admission that the number of times he actually spontaneously created music (which is by the way, axiomatic to jazz) happened only three or four times just floored me.

Three or four times.

What was it about those moments that made them so rare? That they were inspired, gifted, let loose from heaven and dropped into his brain I suppose. But it’s impossible to will that kind of inspiration. Fruitless to practice for it, wait for it. And yet those three moments are etched in his memory.

My guess is that you’ve also had some deeply inspired moments and that you’ve tried for too long to recreate them; going over those same themes in the hope that you’ll be able to generate a similar inspiration. I suggest that at least for a while, you forget about inspiration altogether. You also need to forget about what you can’t control and start implementing some ideas that you can control.

This business of creativity is messy and it’s cruel. Loretta, you need to get your hands dirty, you need to spill some blood. Let me introduce you to Legal & Inspiring Thievery 101.

Just as an example, I’m going to take out today’s New York Times and give you an idea of what I mean.

I’m sure you remember the story about how John Lennon got the title to Happiness Is A Warm Gun. If you don’t, here it is: he got it from an ad in the newspaper. Yeah, he really did and that’s what creative and fearless people do. They borrow from anywhere and everywhere. That’s where Branford Marsalis got many of the licks in his musical library. He borrowed them, he aggregated them or he just plain stole them; it doesn’t really matter.

Ok, page one. I’ll read some headlines and pull out some interesting titles and ideas for songs.

Here’s the first headline I see:

Qatar Wields Outsize Influence In Arab Politics.

How much do you want to bet that we can cull a powerful song title from this?

Here’s one: Outsize Influence

Another headline:

Major Changes In Health Care Likely To Last

And the song title is…

Likely To Last

Here’s one more:

Justices To Hear Health Care Case As Race Heats Up

And the title is…

The Race Heats Up

I didn’t even get to the body of these stories where there are hundreds of good titles and thought provoking ideas buried away. This little exercise is just a microcosmic example of what I’m talking about. Open up a magazine, the Bible, your favorite novel and drink in the thoughts and inspirations of other writers. Look at a book of photographs from the Civil War, go to an art museum and look at one or two works that move you (I find I can only see a few paintings at a time before I just about fall asleep from over-stimulation.) Use bits and pieces of what other artists have done to get your own work refreshed. Get away from your own voice and your own rhythm for a time. You’ve inadvertently carved some deep furrows by trying to recapture those moments of your own inspiration. Now it’s time to let a new rain come and erase them.

Looking for inspiration to fall on you assures you of only this: you will wait forever.

The genius of Branford Marsalis and people like him isn’t that he’s constantly unearthing these nuggets of inspired soul-gems, it’s that he does the work of assimilating, storing, and then spitting back the tens of thousands of things he’s heard, felt, or seen, that have left him inspired.

By the way, Big Amorphous Love Song is a great title!