Think lyrics just happen? Don't be an ass

The earliest-documented song is widely considered the "Seikilos Epitaph," a Hellenistic-era set of lyrics and notation engraved on a tombstone that explores the ephemeral nature of life and the unflappable hand of time: "While you live, shine/Have no grief at all/Life exists only for a short while/And time demands its toll."

Some 2,000 years later, multiplatinum recording artists Big Sean and Nicki Minaj intoned, "Ass ass ass ass ass ass ass/Ass ass ass ass ass ass ass/Ass ass ass ass ass ass ass/Stop!"

Fortunately for the patrons of local music, Santa Fe's resident singer-songwriters' lyrics have more in common with the old school and are informed more by the, let's say, subtle and nonliteral elements of traditional songcraft and less by the anatomical musings of modern pop. (Although, I admit, I can't get the "Ass" song out of my head.)

It got me thinking, how do some of our resident songsmiths compose their music? Here are some highlights from said musicians, in their own words:

David Berkeley

“I keep a journal of words and phrases that I collect from books or conversations. Melodies often come first, as I’m sitting with a coffee and a guitar before anyone else is awake or as I’m pedaling back up Old Santa Fe Trail. I wrestle with lyrics, sometimes for months, trying to perfect the image world, trying to avoid the obvious rhymes.”

Joe West

“I have no idea of how to write a song. I’m just lucky enough to stumble upon one from time to time.”

Chris Abeyta

“A lot of times I write a poem, or I get a hook and I put that into a poem, then I just put it to music. Some songs come quickly, and others just sit there, or I have to work them out with a band. Other times, it might be a musical pattern that I just happen to be picking on my guitar.”

Sean Healen

“I pay attention and document my melodic and lyrical ideas so I have a stash for daily use. I like to paint with words and allow for abstraction, so the listener can draw their own conclusions. I’ll draw inspiration from strong coffee, a fire in the woodstove, sitting in my boxers—I pick up my guitar and the song begins.”

Jono Manson

“I don’t have any formula in particular, and I take song ideas however I can get them. The initial seed can be a melodic idea, a simple riff, a story or just a clever song title. Sometimes I write the end of the song first and work backwards from there! I also have numerous co-writing partnerships, and no two of these are alike. I never throw anything away.”

Stephanie Hatfield

“I love to write sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of a sunny room, early in the morning with a cup of coffee. My songs often start with lyrics that have either been written in a flurry of personal emotion or as an unloading of a particularly vivid dream. In my 20s and the first half of my 30s, I had more than my fair share of romance and drama, and therefore lyric material. As I have—ahem—matured, I rely more heavily on imagination, empathy and other people’s stories.”

Nacha Mendez

“I have a couple of ways I write a song. The first starts with an idea then a chord. I like to take my time. The basic chord structure comes together after many hours and many weeks of strumming. The vocal melody usually emerges in my car and after I’ve heard a recording of the basic idea a gazillion times.”

Miriam Kass

“Writing music is a flowing process for me. I generally start out by finding a chord progression that evokes emotion in my creative self. Then I start singing, and the melody and lyrics naturally form at the same time. It’s like I connect to a space beyond my body where my mind can’t control the flow of music.”

Maggie Johnson

“I like to pull inspiration from dreams that I’ve had. I love creating stories around certain images and using melodies to portray different emotions. I also daydream a lot. Moving my hands while I’m thinking helps me come up with different concepts and melodies. I don’t know why, but the movement seems to drive to my voice into places that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with if I was just sitting still.”

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