“Where do your songs come from, Daddy?”... my son asks casually while we walk the dog. I thought I was ready for this awkward question, yet I still find myself waffling like a Belgian chef at a bake-off when I should have some profound response at the ready.
“From the depths of my subconscious mind, son. The true answer is, therefore, unknowable.”
My imagined retort belies a deeper truth about the mystery of creativity. Ask any artist and they will offer a variation on the theme of a dissociative experience. A sense that one might just be channeling some other force seems to be universal.
For some the experience is literal. The religiously inclined usually credit their deity. Bach was a great one for the “it wasn’t me...” defence. Julia Cameron, in her influential work The Artist's Way, talks euphemistically about the Great Creator (though we know who she’s really talking about).
I favour a more psychological explanation, but that makes it no less mysterious to me. The experience of creating something, but not knowing quite where it came from, can be anything from uplifting to downright spooky.
The subconscious can be hard to control. It's a law unto itself, doing what it wants, when it wants. Inspiration hides itself when you need it most, and springs from the closet, demanding attention, when you don’t.
Different artists cope in different ways. Tom Waits talks about politely asking songs to "come back later" if they arrive while he is stuck in traffic. Some carry pen and paper - many a great song was first scribbled on the back of a napkin or beer coaster. My handwriting is so lousy I just hum or sing ideas into my phone, which can be awkward in public and challenging in the shower.
Creativity can flow more freely during sleep when the frontal lobes let down their guard. Paul McCartney famously rolled out of bed and wrote Yesterday after it came to him in a dream. My own song, Like a Runaway Train came to me this way and it remains the song that I find hardest to recognise as mine.
To conjure up creativity many artists have a predilection for… lets call them imagination-enhancing substances. Most of the music in the 60’s was fueled by dope and acid - the term Psychedelic Rock is not coincidental. By the 70’s and 80’s the drugs got harder and so did the music.
This isn't just a modern phenomenon. Samuel Coleridge was busy writing Kubla Khan under the influence of opium when someone interrupted him, and Absinthe has been favoured, as a creative lubricant, by artists from Wilde to Hemingway.
If the subconscious is the seat of creativity, how does it sit in relationship to the conscious mind? Jung referred to the subconscious as the "shadow" which, if not embodied in conscious life, becomes "darker and denser’".
Our left-brain dominated society favours logic over creativity. Work can easily be converted to food and shelter. Art, not so much.
My own career in business required me to park my artistic side for a couple of decades. When the opportunity arose, and I actively decided to shine a light into the shadow, it took a whole year for anything to emerge. My left brain resisted giving up ground to my right, and it took supreme effort to balance things out.
So back to that question... “Where do songs come from?”
You know, on reflection, I'm not sure that I really want to think it through too much. That would, after all, be giving in to my left brain. I would rather leave some mystery, for where there is mystery there can be magic.
Radio interviewers, I am learning, will always ask a version of this question so I will have to work up something coherent. However, I'm hoping that my son soon develops an interest in sex so that we can move on to a less awkward line of questioning.