Conversations With The Creative Selves

I’m thinking about different definitions of the concept of transformation in a songwriting context, examples of elements coming together and transforming into a new musical expression: places, memories, shards of melody, visual images. The fabled mixture of inspiration and perspiration (said to be 1% to 99% for the genius) is, for me at least, aided by several ‘creative selves’ which have learned to tolerate and work with each other over the years.

It’s early February 2006. I’m at Shibuya train station, Tokyo, about to get on the bullet train for Osaka, where my groups The Pearlfishers and BMX Bandits are playing the first of four shows in Japan. The rain is sprinkling down gently on the plaza outside the station entrance, daytime neon lightly reflected in the puddles. Japanese businessmen and women are scurrying by, focussed straight ahead, sheltering under plastic umbrellas of blue, red and white. In Tokyo they sell umbrellas for pennies and people just discard them after the rain. We go into the station and get on a long escalator going upwards. At the top we look out and over the plaza, where seas of those brightly coloured umbrellas wait for a traffic signal before moving en masse across the street. It’s an intoxicating image, like something from a 1950s movie starring Doris Day, where the photographic process has rendered the colours unreal, bold, hyper-candied. It is so beautiful to stand here watching the umbrellas; I feel refreshed by the drizzly rain and excited about our coming trip past Mount Fuji at hundreds of miles an hour. And for some reason I feel a weight lift from my shoulders. I don’t know why that should be, what the weight is, but something is leaving me.

There are a few new things coming into my head now as the umbrellas move back and forth outside. I’m becoming aware of a melody I created a few years before. I call it Mythical Martyrs after the one lyric line I managed to write before discarding the whole thing.

Mythical martyrs who died at the stake

It’s easy to see why there was a difficulty following that line. In any case the melody is playing in my head now, from the sketch I recorded with brightly toned upright piano. It’s like a carousel tune, in waltz time with a meandering melody. The structure isn’t four square like a regular folk song or pop song; it feels giddy with little extra phrases cropping up here and there at the end of lines. For some reason I think to myself; ‘I was asleep but I’m waking up’. Duglas T Stewart is standing next to me and we start talking about The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the 1964 Catherine Deneuve movie in which every word is sung, set to music by Michel Legrand[1]. Suddenly

Mythical Martyrs is feeling like a Legrand tune[2]. The Umbrellas Of Shibuya might be a title for a song, I think. The feeling doesn’t leave me all day, although I spend some time on the train working on another song.[3]

Weeks later, back in Glasgow, I start crafting a song at the piano. I find I’m able to recall all the rich feelings from that morning in Shibuya, the soundtrack of Mythical Martyrs, the visual counterpoint of the rain, daytime neon, plastic umbrellas, the feeling of weight lifting, the line about being asleep then waking up, the conversation about Deneuve and Legrand. All these things come together, and transform into a new place, a new world called The Umbrellas Of Shibuya. There are transformations taking place in the creation of this song, but the song itself is about transformation, changing, evolving. In my new world, the umbrellas don’t just walk across the street, they are ‘spinning around’ in a carousel dance; the florists and chocolatiers who lined the station thoroughfare that day don’t sit there passively, they sing ‘oh please buy my wares for Valentine’s day’ as they might in that 1950’s Doris Day world[4]. My conversation with Duglas becomes an imagined speculation on how we might transform the Tokyo rain:

Duglas, just think!
If we could bottle each drop of this feathered rain
Package it up
And sell it on to the farmers of England
To grow neon roses on Salisbury Plain

As these surreal images emerge my mind keeps returning to the mantra ‘I was asleep but I’m waking up’, for me a clear enough metaphor for changing, or transforming.

However, the artisan on my shoulder is complaining loudly.

‘Davie’, it says, ‘what the hell are you talking about here? Nobody is going to have a clue what you’re on about!’

‘Don’t give me that’ I reply, ‘I’m an artist, this is a piece of expressive language, it doesn’t need to be about anything.’

‘Yeah, right’ says the artisan on the shoulder.

Eventually the artisan on the shoulder’s constant tutting and exasperated sighs drive me to distraction and I cynically rationalise a possible / passable clue to the background of the song, the meaning of ‘I was asleep but I’m waking up’, co-incidentally creating a new section for the song that provides a musically dynamic peak.

‘Are you happy now?” I ask the artisan on the shoulder, as I scribble these words:

I was lost; I’d reached the limit
Couldn’t find one happy day
If trouble came, brother I’d be in it
Couldn’t see a colour for grey
Then love lit me up
I was strong, I was gone, I belonged

As it trickles down the page I start to realise that it was a real weight that was lifting from my shoulders that Saturday morning in Tokyo, that perhaps the colours and smells and sounds, the time of day, memories, conversations and the troublesome artisan on the shoulder were coming together to pull tiny bits of truth to the surface.

The craft of writing the song then, might be seen as an iterative process, backwards and forwards from instinct, what we might call ‘inspiration’, and back again into the realms of craft. Even then we might go back to the world of instinct, like a Prince returns to the forest to seek his fortune, perhaps to mine for more unconscious gold before moving forward again with the tools of the songwriter’s trade.

The Maiden In The Trees is a work in progress. It springs from a vague idea to write a song in the style of folktales with recognisable metaphors for betrayal, redemption, victory and defeat. There’s every possibility that the title was inspired by the cover of a recent edition I bought of The Complete Brothers Grimm, which shows a young girl in silhouette. I’m thinking about that image now and here’s what I see in my mind’s eye: The figure is clearly naked and notably voluptuous. Her hands are poised as if holding an apple or expecting to catch a bird and her head is bowed in contentment. On one level it is the picture of youthfulness, health, happiness, fecundity. But the figure is completely in darkness. We can’t see her eyes, her mouth. Her head may actually be bent forward in despair, her hands held out in desperation. From the picture we can’t divine exactly who she is.[5]

Quite aside from that picture, the title The Maiden In The Trees has been hanging around my head for a while and I’ve been wondering who, what and where she might be. I’ve tried various pieces of music to see if they might take me there; one idea is a spangly, wintry harpsichord piece in minor colours which loops round in an 8 bar cycle and seems to conjure up some kind of mystery. The other is a major key guitar figure, somewhere between a slow Johnny Cash styled chick-a-boom and a simple hymn, swinging back and forth between two chords, D and A. In context of this guitar figure, the D chord sounds bright and upbeat, the A chord more regretful and solemn. The contrast between these two musical characters is interesting and sustaining, therefore it is this idea which is providing the musical background for early work on The Maiden In The Trees.

Because the song is to an extent based on a conceit rather than a direct experience or emotion it has seemed necessary to improvise and experiment with words to see where it might go. I have the notion that the woman in the song has chosen to withdraw from the world, that she is hiding herself from things she loves, making a sacrifice. I’m not sure why this might be the case, I’m still not even sure who she is. How can I find a narrative from this instinct? I choose to try something storybook, to set the scene as if in a Walt Disney movie. I can get rid of it later. It might be the key that locks that door. What about a door? I think about William Soutar’s Sang and crib the line ‘and gang through the open door in the wa at the world’s end’ thus:

Through a door in a wall at the world’s end
Which I follow with a very stock line:
Where the sky meets the land and the sea

…which takes the storybook feel a little further and actually leads on to the first line that feels like it came out of the back woods. Perhaps the cynical opening gambits of lines one and two have irritated the keeper of the secrets of imagination into offering a clue. ‘Davie, enough with cribbing Soutar and Disney’ it says, ‘this is poor, you’re not re-making Sleeping Beauty here’. ‘Well I will be if you don’t give me some help’ I reply, ‘You need to give me something here’. ‘Okay’, says the keeper of the secrets of imagination, ‘what about this’:

Once the ancients fell, now the children tell
Of a maiden in the trees.

This will suffice for now. So if I have to face a firing squad demanding I perform one fresh new verse of something, anything, I’ll live. In other words a mixture of instinct, trickery, cynicism and inspiration have provided me with a start.

The experience of writing songs sometimes involves much negotiation with the psyche. It’s arguable that one will force through to a state of meditative creativity to unlock original ideas before returning to a state of dispassionate observation in order to edit those instinctive gestures. The songwriter may employ a number of tricks in this regard, one such being the list. A few examples of the list song are Lennon / McCartney’s All You Need Is Love, Dylan’s Everything Is Broken and, er, Dana’s All Kinds Of Everything. I turn to the list idea for some of the next work on The Maiden In The Trees.

Our maiden has withdrawn from the world, therefore:

Neither snow, nor eclipse, nor thunder
Can ever reach her where she lays
The artisan on the shoulder is happy that another two lines are down in black and white, and makes another list suggestion:
With the fox and the deer her companions
The maiden in the trees

The keeper of the secrets of imagination is getting interested. There’s a location now and some visual counterpoint. Together, the artisan on the shoulder and the keeper of the secrets of imagination start speculating on other lists. What has the maiden done? From whom has she withdrawn? And what if the lyric viewpoint shifts to first person? I’m writing quickly now:

Once I had my own three babies
Once I walked with the clown and the king
Once I dined at the finest tables
Now I must turn from everything

‘Three babies’ sounds appropriate to the folk idiom – think of The Wife Of Ushers Well – while a king in folktales often refers to a person of means or status, so ‘the clown and the king’ might be seen as a description of both sides of society. I start to feel a distinctive atmosphere in the cracks of this song now and decide to continue with the list idea.

So it’s farewell to this world that I’ve wandered
And farewell to my babies three
Farewell to my Garden of Eden
And farewell my love to thee

At this point I’m going to stop. I’m experiencing the physical thrill I know so well from past trips into the psyche and I really should push on, but this maiden is promised to another. The title is one I’ve discussed with songwriter Amy Allison as one we can work on together so I must leave her some room for manoeuvre. We need some information to plug the gaps between verse 2 and verse 3 and we also need a chorus or B section of some kind. It will be interesting to hear where Amy goes. In the meantime, however I remain obsessed with the song and make a quick recording of what I have.

Later, I play the extract on guitar for my wife and tell her the story so far. ‘Well’, she says, ‘It’s obviously about your father’. I won’t list the oblique and not so oblique references to my father, who passed away in February 2009, suffice it to say they are significant in the last two verses. So the identity of the central figure, like the identity and personality of the figure on the Grimm volume is dualistic, questionable and the negotiation between my conscious and unconscious mind has produced something unexpectedly truthful.

The word trance derives from the Latin transire, to go across. Transform is to change something. Both have resonance for the songwriter. I’ve described the process of bringing together disparate elements to create a new musical and lyrical space and also the process of going across, or pushing into the trance state to mine for truth.

© David Scott 2009


[1] Les Parapluies De Cherbourg (1964) dir Jacques Demy.

[2] In fact Mythical Martyrs / The Umbrellas Of Shibuya is dissimilar in melodic style to the works of Michel Legrand. It is more likely I was imagining a lush instrumental setting for my emerging melody similar to some Legrand arrangements.

[3] Up With The Larks; the line ‘love and the storm still walk together over the rocks and snow’ originally ended ‘over mount fuji snow’.

[4] Valentine’s Day in Japan is for males only. Women are expected to buy their partners ‘giri-choco’ or ‘obligation chocolate’. Many shopping arcades offer lavishly packaged confectionary for the duration of the season.

[5] In fact, after revisiting the image I note that the figure’s hands are downturned and she is seen in profile, therefore the mouth is partially visible.

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4 comments

  1. anthony

    I LOVE these in depth descriptions of tracks. especially yours as yours seem far more complex lyrically and musically than your adverage writer.this song, umbrellas of shibuya is one of my alltime favorite songs.
    this song and so many of your others remind me of a broadway play in that they have a sense of “scenes” that change musically and lyrically in the course of the song.it feels like there is a sort of first, second and third act within the roughly 4 minutes if that makes any sense.

    it could start off gentle and detached lyrically…..and then get full of wonder and then get emotional such as the (what am I to do,where am I to go if I ever lose it). this makes your tracks sound epic somehow.
    the other reason I love these background descriptions of tracks is there are somethings we the listener would never get on our own without you telling us such as the “duglas just think” line. I wondered about that. now I know.

    I love…..that this song is a waltz.with banjo!
    I know your wife said this new song maiden in the trees could be about your father, but one wonders if you find it too painful to write directly about him,so it subconciously comes out in sort of allegory and it takes someone else to see it. I would like to see what your take would be song wise on the death of someone so big in ones life as a father. I dread that day when it happens to my father.everyone can relate. they say a father to the children is like a wall that seperates them from death and when the parent dies, that wall is gone and theres no protection anymore subconciously.

    someday… I would love to hear some background regarding “snow lamb”. that song is trippy.
    musically the track is like…. nothing….I’ve ever heard. something about harpsichord, it just makes a song sound surreal in a good way. and add to it lyrics that are bizarre yet almost…religious sounding.

    anyways I hope work on the new pearlfishers CD is coming along good! and dont feel shy about releasing anymore quirky EP’s either!

  2. Anthony – thanks for this. The worry is that by unpicking the meaning of songs you also unpick any magic they might happen to have or spoil it for people who have attributed their own meanings and magic…
    My research is about the practice of songwriting so I’m trying to investigate the songs themselves and the creative processes. I find it really liberating and inspiring to do that, in fact it is proving to be a very strong dynamo for the creation of new work. You are absolutely right about The Maiden In The Trees; I think most writers use writing as a way to process experience and, yes, deal with tough issues. That song is now released on Turn Like The World Does, the album Amy and I were making when I wrote the piece above. It is download only for the moment – iTunes also has a nice PDF booklet.
    Now, as it happens, I do have a little piece on The Snow Lamb – I’ll post it later. You are spot on about some of those references.

  3. george

    David, my 14 year old daughter just came back from a 10 day class trip to Japan and she told me sha had purchased one of these cheap umbrellas in Tokyo which instantly made me think of The Umbrellas of Shibuya. I told her she should have brought it home so I could have an “umbrella of Shibuya” but she looked at me as if I had 2 heads. I am glad you highlighted the line about “bottling each drop of this feathered rain…” as it’s one of the more beautiful lines I have ever heard. The song makes me feel sad, although I am not sure why! Anxiously awaiting new David Scott material, you are one of a kind, Sir.

    • George
      Thank you for your kind words. That means a lot. The Umbrellas Of Shibuya is one that seems to have touched people. Definitely an important one to me and symbolic of new happiness in my life but also with that little edge of sadness. Into each life a little rain must fall…
      Working on new Pearlfishers recordings now – slowly and surely.

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