It was an amazing two weeks that I spent in Colorado as the Artist in Residence at the Rocky Mountain National Park. For the most part I split my time evenly between working on the songs I have been commissioned to write for RMNP, and exploring that fantastic park -from the craggy sculpted natural pillars of the Alpine Tundra to the trails that lead to lakes, glaciers and even a ghost of a ghost town in the Kawuneechee valley. At every turn, I hoped to see wildlife-and I did- Elk, moose, bear, badger, deer, marten, turkey, rabbit, hare, magpie, coyote, bighorned sheep and hummingbirds that hovered so close to my face that their rapidly fluttering wings actually made my bangs move! Hopefully the songs I write will reflect the splendid experience that I had.
My task was (and still is) to write three songs for the park. One about the wildlife that I viewed. The second commemorating the life of William Allen White (a Pulitzer prize winning author and famed journalist who bequeathed his cabin to the park so that it could host an artist in residence program). The third reflecting the overall experience of the park and incorporating some of its history in order to celebrate the upcoming centennial in 2015.
Some say that spending time in the great outdoors can provide inspiration. Indeed this is one of the great reasons for AIR programs at National Parks. To me it provided both inspiration and clarity. Working on the songs so intensely, and having the luxury for two weeks of being nothing but a songwriter day in and day out allowed me to analyze my writing process, which has evolved so steadily and incrementally since my punk rock days that I scarcely knew I had a process at all. People from time to time do ask me if I have a system or specific writing technique, and finally I have answers.
Although each song is unique and there is no set in stone way that I do things, there are undoubtedly patterns that I follow. Lyrics almost always come first-the only instance in which they do not come first is when they appear magically with an attached melody. Most of the time, however, I begin by writing the lyrics, hoping that the melody will form around a line that I’m especially happy with. It always does, sometimes it just takes a while. At this point I will figure out the chords that accompany the melody/lyrics and play them over and over again, pausing to note new words as they arrive. This is a simple and rather obvious routine that addresses the academic side of the craft. As for what inspires the words and melodies themselves-I would list things such as old books, abandoned buildings, current events, gardens, friends, animals, and magnificent landscapes such as those I saw at RMNP.
I have a year to finish the songs that I am writing for the park. One is finished, another nearly finished, and the third off to a good start. Wish me luck, and remember I’ll always have time to write a song for YOU should you need one.