Pablo Picasso said: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something.”
What the master was saying, I believe, is that there is no such thing as ‘no idea’ – you always have something in mind, even just “I’m going to write a sad song.” Deep in your consciousness, there is a spark of recognition that this fledgling idea will eventually transform into a chart topper, a dance floor anthem, a stadium rocker, a festival sing-along, etc.
Steven King, in his book On Writing, describes the moment of discovery as akin to archaeology – you come across a bone buried in the soil and have no idea if it’s the skeleton of a little compsognathus, barely larger than a chicken, or a mighty brachiosaurus, 23m long and 12m in height. How good are your archaeological skills at recovering this fossil from its primordial entombment? Can you delicately fashion the entire structure from the rocks and soil? If you’re poor, half the prize may remain uncovered forever.
So when approaching a music writing session, have some sense of the idea you intend to reveal – a melody, a riff, a chord progression, a baseline, a drum groove/beat, or even a title or genre. Set your direction and pursue it with determination. As previously mentioned, collect and aggregate these ideas beforehand. But then be incredibly selective, only working on the most promising and inspiring of all.
Be methodical, incrementally building your song line by line and bar by bar. When using music software (Protools, Logic, Cubase, Reason, etc.) put the track into a looping pattern and slowly build it up by adding individual tracks. Experiment – be willing to go on an adventure and be prepared to make mistakes. Become an explorer, a discoverer; be the scientist and the technician.
Keep a dictionary and a thesaurus handy when writing lyrics. Search for inspirational words and avoid repetition or clichés.
If you hit a blockage or a sticking point, put the entire piece aside for a day or two and come back to it fresh. You will see it in a different light and understand more clearly the problem that needs solving. Finally, be able to abandon ideas if they really are not working. But remain conscious that a chrysalis that appears to be lifeless can suddenly blossom into a glorious creation.