Category Archives: Motivation and inspiration

Songwriting inspiration from the most mundane of things

The story of My Life On A Shelf couldn’t be simpler. I was literally (in the old-fashioned, actual meaning of the word) looking at some books on a shelf in the spare room, considering their history.

I don’t have an accumulation of a lifetime of possessions. Over a decade ago I moved to Abu Dhabi with my family and we had to purge a lot of our possessions. Some we chose to keep, even though it was a costly proposition. But getting rid of stuff also has its costs.

As I perused my remaining books, I noticed old geology texts, my sci-fi collection from high-school and university and thought about why they had survived the purge and were still with me. It occurred to me that they were markers in my life. I began to look through the rest of the apartment taking stock of what was around and how each item was once a part of me, even if it wasn’t anymore. Every item had something to say about who I was.

This song came fairly easily, though I did spend some time exploring the Em vs. the A chord in several position, eventually using a combination.

The lesson to be learned from this song is how even the most mundane of subjects, thoughts, and activities can inspire, if you look deep enough. Ask yourself some questions and don’t shy away from your feelings.

I know this is a rather short post. It’s that time of year where marking looms large in an college instructor’s life. Plus, I’ve got another song that I’d like to release and don’t want to break the rhythm of song, lyrics, article. I’m happy to answer any of your questions about this song. Just ask.

Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

Do you have to be sad to write a sad song?

This question was asked at the end of the movie Almost Famous (one of my favourites), when William finally gets his interview with Russell. The answer is that for any song to feel authentic the writer has to be feeling those same feelings. You can write a sad song without being sad, the same way you can tell people you love a gift that you don’t. The lie gets told, but it’s not felt and believed.

I had a friend who once maintained that you had to be miserable to write good music. I don’t believe this. But I do believe that you have to have genuine empathy.

Does anyone really want to write a sad song? I think you do have to be sad to write a sad song, but you don’t have to be a sad person. If you have ever been sad in your life, you can recall those circumstances and those feelings and draw upon them in your writing. If you are good at putting yourself into someone else’s place, good enough that you can feel what you would feel in their situation, you can draw upon those feelings. If you respond viscerally to art, whether it’s poetry, paintings, movies, or music, you can draw upon those feelings. But you do have to go there and you do have to feel it. That’s what makes your song authentic. That’s what makes it true.

I started If I Had Never one morning when I was particularly missing my wife, but she was only away for the weekend. I was feeling lonely ­– feeling it physically, right between my stomach and my chest. Sometimes I like to be alone, but for some reason this weekend was different. I knew I was lonely, not just alone, and inspired by it. It caused me to pose the question in the very first line and that, in turn, caused me to go deeper.

Why do they say it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved before?

The originating sentiment is from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H.:

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Tennyson’s poem is so heart wrenching, I may not have written this song if I had gone back to read the poem at the time the first line of the song occurred to me. He really says it all. But it seems to me that despite the widely accepted, oft-quoted, time-honoured truth of those lines, at a time of great loss they may, and perhaps should, be questioned, if only for each person to find their own personal truth within them.

Tennyson’s lines are now most often invoked at the end of a romantic relationship, but the poem from which they were drawn was written upon the sudden death of a lifelong friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. If I Had Never, could likewise be interpreted as the end of romantic relationship, but the circumstances in mind during writing were the death of a loved one.

It was a hard subject to explore, but life is such that there are so many places to draw inspiration from—the more personal the better.

There was a scene in the movie Indian Summer, where the character played by Diane Lane shoves pictures of her late husband into a drawer as she leaves her home for a trip, only to return and replace one of them back where it belongs. I filed lots of letters and photographs away after the end of an engagement, which while significantly less tragic than a death does bear some similarity of feeling and ties in with the option for the listener to interpret and feel the song at that “death of a relationship” level.

There are friends and relatives who have tragically lost spouses, children, and siblings. Even the loss of a dear pet can be devastating. And there was the morbid exploration of what if…

In retrospect, I think the song hits most of the stages of loss and grief, which somewhat validates the final product. I don’t think that I could have just decided to write this song. And I don’t think researching the song from sites like the one linked above would have led to the same results. You’ve got to feel it, even if you get there through an exercise of thought.

Getting started: Setting perfection aside to achieve a blogging presence

Hi all. It’s been a long time coming, but finally it’s here. The Stephen Songtime blog is live after much procrastination (fear) disguised as perfectionism.

Whenever I got close it always seemed more important to rework pre-existing songs, write some news songs, build and polish a body of work that was ready to present in its best light.

I spent a lot of time looking through hundreds of WordPress themes for the perfect base to build on and then learning as much as I could about how to tweak it, and administer it. Had to make a logo, had to discard a logo and try another, had to build a banner, had to read up on the best way to integrate every new social platform (as they continued to multiply) along with my already existing and sadly neglected web presence.

Read a lot of Seth Godin and Bob Lefsetz, downloaded free eBooks, listened to podcasts, enrolled in courses at Coursera and And even while each source urged me to just begin, I’d find one more thing I wanted to tackle first.

It took time to wrestle with my insecurities and accept that my quest for perfectionism and my fear of not being good enough ran counter to the purpose of this blog. I want to share what I’m doing, hope the process might help others express themselves and, mostly, release my work out into the world so that I can continue to move forward.

So here it is.

I wish I could impart some advice that could help those of you with similar ambitions to just begin, but none of that worked for me. It starts now, because I chose to start it now. It was delayed because I chose to delay it.

In this blog I’ll be sharing my songwriting journey, releasing some of my creations into the universe and exposing a part of me that I’ve kept hidden for most of my life. It has begun.