In college, I took a 200-level English class on American literature and popular culture that focused on the intersection of music and literature. We studied Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s rock-and-roll play “Cowboy Mouth.” I remember writing a term paper that dissected the lyrics of 10,000 Maniacs. Ever since, I’ve found inspiration in beautifully crafted songwriting.
A couple of months ago, we saw Rickie Lee Jones in concert, and about halfway through, I started to cry, totally blown away by hearing music live that has been the soundtrack to some of my favorite moments in life. Rob is something of a music junkie, the master of the playlist, and we have music playing all the time: while I’m working, while we’re having a cocktail outside on our porch, late into the night when that cocktail has segued into dinner and a bottle of wine.
Hearing Rickie Lee live reminded me of how magical great songwriting can be, how transportive and transformative.
While inspiration often finds me in a great book — my god, have you read All the Light We Cannot See????? — it regularly creeps in through the speakers or headphones. My musical taste steers toward singer-songwriter types, from the 1970s Laurel Canyon artists that dominated the radio waves during my Indianapolis childhood to the likes of R.E.M. and The Bodeans during my college years to current artists like Dawes, Lake Street Dive, Jill Andrews, Sturgill Simpson. I love songs that capture a time and place, that transport you into situations and relationships, that depict characters so vividly you’ll swear they’re standing in front of you.
It’s so important for creative pros not just to seek inspiration — but also to seek it outside their own medium or genre. Looking beyond your milieu opens your eyes to new influences. It frees you from the self-criticism inherent in comparing your stuff to other artists’ work. It gets you out of the weeds and into the wider world.
Skimming through my iTunes library recently, I sparked to these snippets of lyric poetry:
Eddie’s got one crazy eye
That turns him into a cartoon
When a pretty girl comes by
And there’s nothin’ here to do anymore
He sits on the stoop all day
Like there’s something he’s waiting for
— Rickie Lee Jones “Living it Up”
You have found me on the other side of a loser’s winning streak
Where my thoughts all wander further than they should
Let me sing to you my solitude, let me pay for your next drink
Let me defend these hearts which are so rarely understood
— Dawes “From the Right Angle”
I met him once way after midnight
he lit a smoke and I just stared
He seemed to me like such a sore sight
Bobby Tanqueray with his gorgeous face and hair
— Lake Street Dive “Bobby Tanqueray”
Pour some sugar on me
Ooh in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me
— Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar on Me”
What’s in your inspiration queue?