Do You Believe In Magic? Do Certain Places and Instruments Have Special Songwriting Powers?

On the way to work today, I was listening to an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast, featuring Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. It was a great talk about the creative process and the work of being an artist. During the conversation they got to talking about Muscle Shoals Recording Studio and all of the important and groundbreaking recordings done there. Rogan went on to speak about the Comedy Store and all the legendary comics that have taken the stage there.

Aretha Franklin at Muscle Shoals

They spoke of an aura about those places, almost a sense of magic. Like the places themselves have memory and hold onto the special talents and genius that have occupied them. People that visit those places can feel this power and tap into it in their own work. Read about the Rolling Stones at Muscle Shoals.

This summer I traveled to Stonehenge and there too was this strange and powerful vibe. Sometimes even cemeteries have it.  And it got me thinking… Are there certain places that are, well, magic? Not to get all woo-woo on everyone, but have you ever been in a place or used an instrument that just inspired you? And could there be some kind of actual force there, or is it just in our heads? And if it is only in our heads, does it matter?

Being serious about #stonehenge #throwbackwednesday

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There are certain places that I go to play music, that just seem to make it easier.  Certain venues or a friend’s house maybe. My basement studio has this effect. I’ve been playing music, in many different incarnations, down there for over a decade.  It’s probably conditioning, like I am used to putting myself in a creative zone when I am there. But when I get down there, it’s like the rest of the world melts away. I find inspiration in chords and melodies that went unnoticed elsewhere. Is it the place itself? Friends have commented about this phenomenon, it feels special. But is it just the environment I’ve created or something more? Does the basement echo the memory of creativity that has been cultivated down there?

The basement. Where the magic is.

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I get a similar feeling with my acoustic guitar. It’s a 1960s Gibson given to me by my grandfather when I was first learning to play. I can’t pick up that guitar without a memory of discovering music for the first time, of writing my first songs, and of my grandfather. It doesn’t hurt that the guitar itself is an incredible instrument.  It’s got a sound unlike any acoustic I’ve ever played, and is as smooth as any electric guitar I know. But is there something deeper? Are the memories and experiences ingrained into the wood?

Although it may go against my better judgment or scientific reasoning, I like to believe that it is something more than just conditioning. I don’t know if I’ll go as far as to say it’s magic, but I like the idea of living in a world that might contain forces beyond our understanding. It sort of takes some of the responsibility off of me. If there are places I can go to tap into some kind of power, then that’s pretty cool! Certain places have interesting acoustics that make our instruments sound extra special. These qualities in themselves can be inspiring. Think of how many people enjoy singing in the shower thanks to the natural reverb they often find in there.

I’ve always thought of songwriting to be a little bit like fishing or sculpting. The song sort of already exists; I just need to find it. It’s kind of like songs are floating in the air around us and we need to swing a net through the air and capture it.  It’s a bit of an uncovering process. I play an instrument for a while and suddenly there’s a little bite on the line and I get pulled into a direction. If there’s any truth to that, is it possible that certain places, people and instruments are better bait? I think it’s kind of fun to think that way.

When you start looking, you might find something...

When you start looking, you might find something...

In a similar way, I also like to reject the idea of these sorts of higher powers and magic, and, ironically, for the same reason I sometimes like to embrace them. When responsibility is taken from you, so is power. With this line of thinking, I’m not quite as important in the song writing process. I’m more of a catalyst or a lightning rod. I’m not actually inventing it; I’m just channeling it.  But as cool as that might sound, I could use this thinking to convince myself that I’ll never be able to find inspiration in certain places or with certain instruments or people. In that way, I’m powerless and not responsible for my own output as a musician. From there I can walk away from making music because I think something is not right.  Meanwhile the real problem might just be that I’m lazy or not playing well that day. Believing in magic or some kind of divine inspiration actually strips me of the ability to create in this way.

I guess the point isn’t to decide if there’s any truth to this or not. Rather it’s to make the truth flexible to fit your situation. If believing a place or instrument is special helps you make better music, go for it. But if you’re feeling like something outside of yourself is going wrong, perhaps modify your beliefs a little for the sake of getting some work done. As discussed in one of my favorite books of all time, The War of Art, sitting around waiting for inspiration is fine for the hobbyist and amateur, but professionals don’t wait, they get to work.

Free Ableton Live Packs Made With My Gibson Acoustic Guitar

If you want an idea of what makes my Gibson acoustic guitar so special, check out these two Ableton Live Instruments I made using samples of it. One uses samples of the open strings to create an organic earthy pad instrument, and the other was made by sampling it with an E-Bow (this was the second Live Pack I ever released!). They don’t really sound like actually acoustic guitars, but they do capture something special. Enjoy!

Free Ableton Live Pack #2: Gibson E-Bow
Free Ableton Live Pack #32: Gibson Pad