We look at nature and the world around us and we are constantly asking it questions, whether we are aware of it or not – who are we? how do we fit in? – comparing and turning ourselves and everyone else inside-out in an effort to understand them.
Today’s guest, Peter Kelly, is a very handsome Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist who turns these questions into music for a living. When he agreed to write a piece for my compassion theme, I was both elated and nervous. Elated because I believe music has the capability of inspiring compassion on a global scale; nervous because… it’s Peter Kelly.
Whether the song is about loss and heartbreak or joy and compassion Peter Kelly’s lyrics and sound are sure to connect to you on a very individual level. I believe we are all poets, asking questions and letting the world inspire us. Some of us are able to put words to the poetry we feel inside and then some of us, like Peter, can put that poetry to music.
To get to the core of our ability to have compassion we have to ask ourselves questions that will help us connect soul-deep with another person. Maybe they feel helpless and then you remember feeling helpless too. Maybe they feel alone and you remember you’ve felt alone too. Maybe they’ve lost a loved one and you remember you’ve lost a loved one too. These things resonate and we can draw on those feelings to guide how we treat others.
Putting emotions into a musical form can have healing and often times magical results for the person writing them, and most certainly for the people who find themselves listening.
Music is often the voice of change in the world and I am proud to present Peter Kelly as he shares with us how he turns the world inside out.
I am a songwriter and a musician. I may not have a wall covered with platinum albums, a showcase full of Grammys, or stadiums filled with adoring fans to convince everyone (yet!); but I that’s what I do.
Every artist has his or her own method of creating. After years of refining my creative process; my approach to making music – as well as the quality of my work – has evolved and improved. I would like to breakdown the steps of my creative process in this essay.
By organizing my process into phases, I feel I am able to be more productive and ultimately produce better material (in my opinion of course). No matter what you do with your creative energy, perhaps you may be able to extract something valuable from this outline.
Creative people feed on inspiration. Inspiration is the first step of the process that leads to creation. Everyone has felt the surge of a great idea as well as the misery and anxiety felt when the well of inspiration seems to have run dry. I don’t always like to wait for magical moments so instead I am actively pursuing inspiration all the time. I analyze conversations, situations, music, movies, the news, social media, people, myself, and just about anything I see or experience. I usually write music before lyrics so sometimes the music inspires the story. Sometimes it’s one lyric that inspires an entire composition. I wrote my song “Maybe” in about 20 minutes around this one lyric that was floating around my head,
Maybe she loves me,
maybe I’m loved for being me,
but if not for the man that I am,
than for who I tried to be.
I have learned that I cannot have a preconceived notion as to what a good idea looks like, how it will present itself, or when and how it will be used. As I have grown as a writer, I have developed the ability to recognize moments of inspiration that may become subjects or concepts I can use in a song. I have an internal storage facility of creative concepts that I have been filling all my life and I sometimes find myself looking backwards for something I can use.
A moment of inspiration that I am particularly fond of is the story behind a song called “Suicidal” from my new album (which should be out in March of this year). I was sitting in a club with my band before a show one night. Everyone had their drink and we were all dressed up in nice cloths in this festive setting with lights and dancing and music all around us. If you took a snap shot it would have looked like a glorious occasion, but it wasn’t.
As we sat around our table, we were all telling stories about how bad life was treating us at the time and how we just couldn’t take it anymore. Suddenly this song lyric came to me: “Glass full and dressed up to the nines, I’m having a great time, I fooled ya…”
I couldn’t do much with it in that moment, but I went to work on it the next day and wanted to write about the idea of people in a lively dance club setting who all secretly felt miserable. Along with the lyrics that described the situation, I wanted the accompanying music to also reflect the duality of the moment.
There is this amazing seen in the movie ‘A Bronx Tale‘ where a bar fight breaks out between the mobsters and some bikers. At the beginning of the scene, the song “Come Together” by the Beatles is playing which creates a tense ominous feeling. Suddenly, someone is thrown into the juke box and some light hearted love song starts playing while the fight carry’s on. I was much younger when I first saw this movie, but the contrast of the light music against a brutal scene was brilliant to me and made a lasting impression. When it came to writing “Suicidal,” I wanted to capture that same kind of contrast. For my verses, I used a dark minor key vibe that transitions into a bright sing-along type of chorus with dark lyrics:
Sometimes we hide like lyrics in a song
The drumbeat reads us wrong just like our smile
We turn it up but really it’s for show
We don’t want them to know we’re Suicidal
Sometimes inspiration comes easy and other times it’s hard to find. It’s important to remember that just about anything can spark an artistic idea. Develop your ability to recognize inspiration anywhere and anytime it presents itself. Look for unique ways to translate moments that inspire you into your artistic venture. A depressing evening and a scene from a mob movie helped me create one of my favorite songs from my new album – I am very proud of that song and how it came into being.
The next step in my process is the labor and development phase. You are feeling inspired, you have some great ideas and concepts, but now you have to turn it all into something.
My primary genre is a pop/rock/singer-songwriter type of sound . There is definite form and structure in this music that I believe to be important. Often, I find artists to have the attitude that their art shouldn’t be compromised by rules. Their belief is that the product of their moment of inspiration is their artistic statement. I do believe that there are geniuses with genius moments, but I do not believe I am one. I need time to mold and shape my ideas and I think that having a solid understanding of form, structure, and the history of my genre is very important.
I studied at Berklee College of Music and was exposed to both schools of thinking. For the type of music I wanted to make, I needed to understand what worked and why. Understanding the fundamentals of lyric writing, the relationship of melody and harmony, and the concept of tension and release within a particular format are keys to writing great songs. Ideas come to me all the time but they are usually incomplete and require development to create purpose and direction.
I have a new song called “Inside Out,” which is a love song I wrote for my girlfriend, that I think works well musically because of the way the melodies in each section were constructed. I had a very basic four chord progression that I was playing on my guitar and I wanted it to stay consistent throughout so it did not distract from what was happening melodically in the lead vocal. This was tricky because I could not rely on changes in the harmony to shape the dynamics of the song. I wrote three different melodic ideas that worked differently against my four chord progression to produce three different feels. In the verses, the melody loosely wanders around in a lower register to capture the feel of me just sitting around trying to write something while I sing:
at a loss for words,
and this melody won’t go nowhere…
but you’ll be home soon,
so this will have to do,
all I want to say is ‘I Love You’.
For the next section (Pre Chorus), I needed more desperation and drama so I jumped to a higher register and wrote a melody that was more static but included a repetitive descending phrase.
Music, like poetry, is often made up of patterns and doing things in two’s and four’s creates balance and flow. I decided to take my descending phrase and repeat it three times to create some unbalance. When I combined the rhyme scheme in the lyrics with this odd number pattern, it seemed to create more tension which emphasized the words and set up the chorus nicely.
Your’ all I’m thinking about…who I’m talking about…when I sing my heart out…
and your mine
This song you pulled from my chest…it may not be my best…but I just couldn’t rest…
Till I turned Inside Out
In popular music, the chorus is the most import part of the song. It’s the part we all wait for to sing along with and to feel the big release from the tension created by the preceding sections. In “Inside Out” I took the line: “I turn myself inside out for you” (which is not terribly original in any way) and made it sync up with the accents of the guitar part which stayed the same through all three sections. When the parts lined up, it created a natural release that lifted the song dynamically.
The point I am trying to make with all of this is that though many of these ideas came to me like flashes of inspiration, it took thought and planning to make them work together to create the contours of the song. There are conscious decisions to be made after a lot of trial and error and analysis of your work. These ideas I am talking about are related specifically to writing music, but the concepts can be applied anywhere. It’s important to nurture the spark of inspiration to create fire. Relying on inspiration alone without applying some craftsmanship can be a disservice to your work.
After I have worked my ideas into the first draft of a song, I go into an editing phase. I always expect to spend lots of time editing my work (for example this essay you are reading which is already way longer than I originally anticipated).
Many musicians and writers I have come across don’t like to edit themselves or be edited by others. Even for me it took many years of making music to realize that nothing I write is perfect and that there is always room for improvement. Before anyone hears anything I am working on, I have already gotten it to the editing phase. I constantly play through my songs over and over listening for ways to improve the flow, dynamics, transition between sections, lyrical content, etc…
My song “Fear of Landing” went through lots of changes. To begin with, the title was taken from a song I wrote in college about not wanting to give up my career aspirations. It was an okay song but was just going to sit on a shelf and collect dust. I stole the title from myself as I felt it was a poetic way of describing my experiences with addicts and their fear of coming down from being high.
The main guitar part consists of three chords that I repositioned a dozen times before I finally settled on the one I thought worked best. I rewrote the lyrics at least seven times and struggled with the bridge for about three weeks. Once I had the song, I wanted to take it to my producer John Campos. John and I have developed a strong working relationship and I trust his instincts when he is critiquing my music.
It’s not easy to allow others to influence your work and learning to except constructive criticism requires a certain level maturity. I believe John and I have a totally egoless partnership so I never question his motives when he doesn’t like something I bring him or when he insists on making changes. There are also times when I decide to go with my initial instincts and I never feel uncomfortable disagreeing with his suggestions.
In the case of “Fear of Landing,” John loved it from the first listen and didn’t want to change a thing (which is usually not the case). I was fine with that and thought we were off to a great start. Our problems developed when we didn’t know what to do in terms or recording and producing the song for the album. We recorded the acoustic guitar part and main vocal the way I presented it to him and then we hit a wall. He imagined it as a very stripped-down, raw production and I wanted something more grandiose. I even went as far as to hire an arranger to assist us. He and I arranged an entire string section around the song and John hated it. We scrapped the entire thing and started over again and again until we found the direction that worked best for us and the song.
Artists can’t be afraid to take chances and they also can’t be afraid to trash something that they spent two months working on. There cannot be any ego when it comes to your art. Allow yourself the freedom to edit and improve your work and find people you can trust to offer suggestions and to point you in new directions if necessary.
The final step of my process is feedback.
Once I have a finished song and it goes out into the world, I get feedback from fans, friends, family, critics, industry people, and even from myself. Artists create for different reasons. Some say they do it for themselves, others do it for an audience.
I believe that art is a form of communication and the response to my statement from an audience is the final step of my creative process. I had an idea, I worked on it, I edited it, I considered suggestions from trusted companions, it’s on record, so now I want to know what the world thinks. Did I get it right? Do they understand my message? Is there something that they get from my work that I never realized existed? Is there some way I could have made it better?
Getting feedback from your audience is a good way to answer these questions and the answers are lessons to me. I don’t agree with everything I hear, but I believe that listening to feedback makes me a better writer by introducing new perspectives and creating new goals to strive for.
Well there you have it, my creative process outlined. When I was at Berklee College of Music, I felt that when something artistic is turned into something academic, it can feel stale and inauthentic. My intent was only to try to organize one persons method and share it as a way to inspire. I would like to sign off by saying that I was honored to be asked to contribute to Hastywords and that I hope to hear some feedback from anyone who took the time to read this.
Continue to create and make this world a more interesting place. Inspiration is everywhere. Grab it, hold on to it, and turn it into something beautiful. In my own words from my song “Tailwind (It’s a Beautiful Day):”
Catch a blast of Tailwind pushing me faster
Forward with the force of a natural disaster
Sometimes you just wake up this way
It’s a Beautiful Day
Peter Kelly just released his new single INSIDE OUT which premiered on Groundsounds.com yesterday.
You can find out more about Peter Kelly by visiting http://www.peterkellymusic.com
You can find his music on iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora
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Daily Prompt : (Your Thing) for Dummies
Special thanks to Lizzi for being my second set of eyes on this before posting. 🙂