Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Idea Tree

I've always been interested in the different ways that people come up with ideas for songs, films, books, products, etc. Where does the inspiration come from? How does one idea sometimes develop into another? Children's musician Monty Harper has a blog and podcast about the process of writing his songs, so I thought I'd share a little about some of the different ways that ideas for my songs have come together.

First of all, I should say that I believe that ideas are available in abundance. I really don't believe in such a thing as "writer's block". I believe in writer's procrastination, writer's laziness, writer's excuses, writer's self-doubt, etc. But not writer's block. A writer can always write, they may just need to actually press the pen to the paper, or the finger to the keyboard, or the pick to the guitar. What comes out when we try to write may not always be something terrific, but we can always write something if we at least try. Sometimes we'll need to edit that "something" quite a bit; sometimes we'll need to crumple it up and throw it in a pile on the floor; and sometimes what we write initially will not come to fruition but will be the impetus that leads us to write a better "something".

I picture a big "idea tree", where there are millions of different ideas... Sometimes we'll get lucky and one will fall off and hit us on the head, even when we're not looking for one; sometimes we'll need to actually climb high up into the tree and reach hard for an idea that's on the far end of a branch; and oftentimes we have to walk around the tree holding a bushel and catch what falls in and see if we can make anything out of it. But the ideas are always there, we may just need to take action to get them, or at least be receptive to catching them.

# 1 - emotion + brick wall + unexpected twist = "The Elephant Song"
The first song I specifically wrote as a 'kids' music artist' was "The Elephant Song", which is still a favorite of many (I may spend the rest of my career trying to equal that!). But the original idea and intent for that song was completely different than what it turned out to be. My wife Roseann and I had watched a PBS documentary about two elephant friends who had been seperated at a young age to go work in circuses in different parts of the world. They were reunited many years later and instantly remembered each other and still had an incredible bond. It was more compelling and touching in the presentation than how I'm describing it, but it stirred an intense "reuniting, reconciliation, rebirth, resurrection" kind of emotion in me and made me want to write a song about that, more in a metaphorical sense than anything literally about elephants. Picking up a guitar at that moment the music flowed right out, and I quickly came up with a first verse of lyrics that went something like, "A long time/ I missed you so much/I finally got these chains off of me". And there was another line or two, but I can't remember any more than that. But much as I tried, I just could not get past that first verse of lyrics. Roseann, knowing the source of the inspiration for the music and hearing me trying over and over again to get past that point with the words, started jokingly singing along, "Elephants, I like elephants" when she'd hear me playing that. I sneered and said, "Very funny..." But the way she sang it was catchy and soon I was singing that to myself in the car one day, and for reasons that I can only call some bizarre kind of inspiration, I then added, "I like how they swing through trees." It didn't make any sense at all, of course, but suddenly I stopped and thought, wait a minute, that could actually work... And thus "The Elephant Song" was born.

- Watch the video for "The Elephant Song" -

Often songs are initially conceived from some kind of intense emotion, whether that is hurt, joy, desire or anger. Emotions are hard to express, and so we turn to art to make an attempt to do so. If it wasn't for the feeling I had from watching that show about elephants, I'd never have created that music which led to that song. But then I hit a big brick wall and couldn't get past a certain point with the lyrics. I think brick walls are significant when creating art because they mean something, but it's not always clear what. Perhaps you should try to find a way to get over or around or through the wall, or turn around and go another direction, or maybe you have to wait patiently by the wall until it is somehow removed, which happens sometimes. So the brick wall was a big part of this song for me, and then it took a bizarre joke and unexpected twist to find the way around the wall.

#2 - request + guilt + ad lib = "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous"
I was playing a gig near Seattle last year when between songs a cute little kid asked if I could please play a 'cowboy song'. I paused for a second, then realized, no, I can't. I didn't know any cowboy songs. I think I appeased him somewhat with a pirate song, but I still felt bad about that. So emotion was in play again, this time in the form of a strange sort of guilt that I had let him down in some small way by not playing a cowboy song. Right away after the gig, I was starting to think about what kind of cowboy song I might come up with. As it happens, at the same show I had done an ad lib during a song where I sing the kids' names, a la Ralph's World's "The Name Song". I was looking for someone with a really long name, so I jokingly asked, "Is there anyone here named Octavius?" Of course there wasn't, but when thinking about the cowboy song later I had an idea for a song about a cowboy who had a really terrible or unlikely 'cowboy name', like Cowboy Octavius. I quickly came up with a little musical hook that included that title and sang it for Roseann. She liked the idea, but thought that if we were going to do that, we should go completely over the top with it and cram as many syllables as possible into the same musical space. Thus, the legend of "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous" came to be. So it was the impetus of the cute kid making me feel bad and the timing of the Octavius ad lib that made the song come together the way it did.

- Listen to "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous" in the player below -

#3 - paying attention to sounds and phrases = "The Monkeys" and "In the Box"
Sometimes song ideas just roll off the tongue or come almost directly from another source, but I have to be paying attention to them and ready to develop them beyond the initial thought of "hey, that's interesting". My daughter Becca was watching a show on Animal Planet about monkeys one day while I was working on some music in the same room. I happened to hear one of the monkeys do a cool sounding rhythmic phrase "ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ah ah ah", and I started repeating that and added another little part to the phrase. That exact phrase became the chorus part of the song "The Monkeys" (perhaps I owe those monkeys some royalties?). We still needed an idea for the song, though, and in that case we decided to combine the idea of a group of singing monkeys with an homage to another famous group of singing Monkees. For "In the Box", Becca was playing with blocks and it was time for bed, so I pointed to the Lego box and said, "Can you put 'em in the box?" I didn't sing it or mean it in any kind of 'song' way, but the rhythm of that phrase rolled off my tongue in a fun way, so I repeated it and started singing a simple melody with it. Best of all, my singing of that phrase really encouraged Becca to pick up and put away the blocks!

- Listen to "The Monkeys" in the player below -

- Listen to "In the Box" in the player below -

#4 - the right timing = "Steve the Superhero"
I suppose some aspect of timing and 'synchronicity' is involved in all of these examples, but sometimes an idea may pass by at one time but be ready at another. Kenn Nesbitt is a funny poetry author who I've worked with for a number of my kids' songs. Every so often, I go through his books and his website fishing for song ideas. I had read his poem called "Steve the Superhero" when he first posted it and thought it was really funny, but it didn't hit me initially as a song possibility. Months later, I was watching an episode of Futurama which was a spoof of superheroes, called The New Justice Team. They even had their own superhero theme song, very much in the style of Batman and Spiderman and things like that, and I thought it was hilarious. About a week later, I happened to be going through Kenn's poems again and came upon "Steve the Superhero" again. This time, it was like, heyyyyyyy... How fun would that be?!

- Listen to "Steve the Superhero" in the player below -

A friend of mine once told me that there are no ordinary moments... I thought, nah, there are a lot of times that are kind of dull or where nothing much is happening. But she explained that once in a while exciting things do happen or things come together in interesting and powerful ways, and if we look back we can see how a lot of different and seemingly insignificant things had to happen along the way to make those special things happen. (And when she said that, I had to write a song about that idea called "Extra Ordinary", which wasn't a kids' song but which I might adapt for a future kids' album.) It's kind of the 'butterfly wings causing hurricanes' effect. And that's how the timing thing works sometimes for creative ideas. Sometimes the stars align and that's the coolest time to be looking up in the sky, but it's also cool to be able to appreciate the different paths those stars took before they aligned.

Many ideas are pretty straightforward... ("I think I'd like to write a robot song.") and lot of times I find myself thinking pretty broadly about different subjects that I might write about, but lately I realize that sometimes there can be a wealth of ideas by thinking laterally within a more focused view. The universe is infinitesimally large but it also goes incredibly far down into the sub-atomic, with various layers to explore along the way. I wouldn't have thought that albums with songs all about fish or full of all new original Christmas related songs would really be too interesting, but Shel Silverstein's Underwater Land and Trout Fishing in America's Merry Fishes to All are both among my favorite kids' music albums. I'm thinking that a good songwriter could do an entertaining album of songs all about socks if so inclined. In fact, I'd like to see that: Justin Roberts releases The Sock Album. And creative perspective is so unique to each individual that I'm sure Justin's sock album would be quite different from Laurie Berkner's or Ralph's World's or Dan Zanes' or mine. (I'm predicting 2007 to be the year of the sock album!)

Of course, just because there are many ideas to find and develop, that doesn't mean they're all good ideas, but that's a very personal and subjective thing to determine. In my case, there have been some ideas that I wasn't sure about at all. But I've found that some ideas are worth trying just for the sake of trying, and if I trust my instinct and intuition then I'm probably okay. When we first wrote "The Elephant Song" we really didn't know if it would be received well by kids or if they'd just think I was a looney. Well, they sometimes think I'm a looney anyway, but thankfully they loved that song in a big way right from the start. For my Monkey Business album, we had an idea for a radio skit styled game show spoof called "The Math Game". It was fun to do, but being a six minute long comedy piece with a fair amount of adult level humor, we thought it would be appreciated by some parents but probably skipped over by kids. To our amazement, we've met many kids who have that album who know that track by heart and who request for me to perform it, and it is the second best selling download from that album on iTunes, after "The Monkeys". So at this point I'm more inclined to trust whatever ideas I find worth pursuing to be something that my fans will probably also like.

Kids are such a great audience for sharing creative ideas with, because they are so open to new ideas themselves. I read this quote in a book recently- kids enter school as question marks and leave as periods. What a shame that is. The book (A Whack on the Side of the Head, by Roger von Oech) also cited an example where an ink splotch on a piece of paper was shown to groups of high school students and kindergarteners. The high school kids described it mostly as "an ink splotch on a piece of paper". The kindergarteners had something like 50 different descriptions for that ink splotch; a monster, a fire, a spider, etc. Kids see the many creative ideas that are everywhere around them. So can we, if we just hang out near that Idea Tree with our bushels ready, and are willing to make the occasional climb if needed.


DevonT said...

Wow...very cool insight into the creative process. Thanks! Have you checked out the new Google Literacy project? It might be a good idea to add a few tags like "language learning" and "literacy" to "The Elephant Song" video because I think teachers looking for those things will really appreciate your video.

Kent said...

I've always loved the Elephant Song and had heard some of the story about how it came to be. Interesting how guilt played a role in the birthing of Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous. Wonder if he knows that...? ;)

Steve said...

Hey Eric, SO cool to be able to see where your frenzied mind gets all your great ideas for kids' songs. I really think you've come up with a fairly accurate description of the creative processes here. NOt only for music, but for other areas of art as well. It is nice to see that process in other people.

Eric Herman said...

Wow, I've had so many positive responses to this article, both publically and privately. Thanks so much for the feedback, everyone. At some point I'll probably post a "part 2" of this. There were some other 'song idea stories' and songwriting processes that I had ready for this article, but I thought, ah, it's way too long as it is! But as long as this subject is something of interest, I'll add a few more comments about "The Idea Tree" sometime later.

If anyone has any thoughts about their own songwriting methods they'd like to share, send me an e-mail and maybe I'll include them in "part 2". For example, Steve, I love (and often use) your "slot machine" description, so I'll definitely mention that.


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