Songwriters value creativity. We want to write songs that sound fresh and exciting.
Through talking to musicians over the years, and reading interviews, I’ve been struck by how many act chafed when compared to other musicians, or even when you ask about their genre. These are creative people, and proud. They resist comparisons and labels. They’d rather be thought of as unique.
I can relate to that desire to be bold and original — but it’s dishonest to act like nobody and nothing ever influenced your songwriting.
While searching for my own style I’ve reflected on dozens of things: I’ve drawn inspiration from Johnny Cash’s plain-spoken bass voice; Gift of Gab’s lyrical complexity and rapid-fire delivery; Jeff Buckley’s ethereal presence and eclectic influences; Yusef Komunyaaka’s embrace of writing about “insignificant” things; Lewis Turco’s exhaustive collections of poetic forms and structures; Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal precision; David Bowie’s androgyny; the sensually-charged mystique that Sade radiates.
I love Jeff Buckley’s music, but I know he pieced it together over time by immersing himself in the work of others. You can hear Robert Plant in Buckley’s voice, you can hear Jimmy Page in his guitar. Yet Buckley doesn’t sound like a Zeppelin cover act, does he? That’s because Buckley also drew inspiration from chanteuses, Middle English hymns, the Smiths, Qawwali music, The Birthday Party, Edith Piaf. He owned copies of The Diary of Anais Nin; poetry by Federico Garcia Lorca; and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.
Your influences had their influences too.
Being creative and fresh doesn’t mean standing entirely alone. Instead, originality means taking in a variety of influences and piecing together lessons from all of them.
What a privilege it is to be part of a community of poets, songwriters, storytellers, bards, and trobaiaritz going back to the dawn of humanity! In case you were holding back for any reason, please consider this permission: Listen and read your daily fill. Learn all the theory you can. Drink it in. Embrace your influences; combine your influences.
If you’re serious about searching for your own voice as an artist, start by listening for it in the work of others. Every songwriter you study echoes thousands of other voices throughout history. You’re the latest echo.