Janelle Monáe To Kelsea Ballerini: 7 Songwriters Reveal How They Navigate Writer's Block
Depending on creativity to make a living can become an issue when working up against a block. Sometimes artists get into the zone and crank out an entire album in a week, while other times it can take years. The same can go for producers who are helping to piece together a project or a composer working on a movie score. But, while some people have the luxury of stretching their sessions out with an indefinite deadline, the majority of industry professionals have to deal with time constraints. Films have release dates, record labels want an album’s track listing turned around by a certain day, and it can be costly to rent studio spaces for long periods of time. An artist, however, will be the first to tell you that forcing creativity isn’t always easy.
So what do the greats do when they hit a wall? GRAMMY.com surveyed a slew of up-and-comers and established professionals to gain insight into their creativity-inducing tricks.
Eric Paslay, whose track “She Don’t Love You” rocked the country charts in 2015, looks to his idols to pull him out of a songwriting funk. “Whenever I feel like I’m in a slump or musically uninspired, I turn on the music that inspired me to pick up a guitar. Those favorite records remind me that it is possible to chase and sometimes even catch an intangible three-minute miracle,” he explains.
Yotuel Romero, of the Latin GRAMMY-winning group Orishas, says the secret to getting through his hard creative times is to change the channel. “For me, creativity is like Wi-Fi; when it’s gone you better try another connection. If we get writer’s block I usually suggest that we move into another song. I never try to push it,” he says. His singer/songwriter significant other, Beatriz Luengo, who often collaborates with him, adds that the duo uses their studio to record but never to write. “The studio generates the pressure that hit songs have to come up faster because you are paying for the time in the studio or you have a microphone that unconsciously generates the pressure that you need to leave the studio with an idea or something recorded,” she explains. “We prefer exteriors, light, the air on the street, the living room and we always use a recording app in our phone so we don’t miss any ideas. When we finish writing the song, our next phase is to go to the studio where we make a demo of it.”
GRAMMY-winning engineer and mixer Tony Maserati, who has worked with the likes of Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Jason Mraz, James Brown, and Mariah Carey, has definitely faced his share of creative slumps. “Believe it or not, this happens all the time,” he tells GRAMMY Pro. “Life can be challenging. Hell just the drive into work can set you off into the wrong mindset.” To combat these bad days, Maserati does his best to change things up, whether that means taking a day off or playing around with a different piece of equipment. “I’ll ask my seconds what plug-ins or instruments they’re excited about. I’ll visit my friends and colleagues for a different perspective,” he says, of some of his tactics. “The biggest thing is to keep going and do your best to find a way around it and move on,” he notes.
Jazz performer Candice Hoyes looks to nature to help her clear her head. "I live in New York City, but no matter how cold it is outside, going to the ocean inspires me and recharges my creativity. Last November, I went out to Coney Island for a day and it was freezing ... but I got it done!” she exclaims. Another trick that works for Hoyes is to talk with colleagues to work out the problem and to look to other mediums of art as a source of inspiration. "I enjoy watching films or viewing art from the same era as the music I am singing,” she adds.
Rising country hitmaker Kelsea Ballerini doesn’t let a dip in creativity get her down. Instead, she tries to see the situation as a challenge and does her best to use a rut as motivation. “Slumps are definitely part of being a creative person. For me personally, it's either feast of famine. The days where three or four songs happen out of thin air are definitely my favorite, but slumps challenge me to discover ways to kick start ideas,” she explains. Some of her favorite ways to spur creativity are “listening to records outside of what I normally listen to, reading through quotes, or even going to lunch with a friend and listening more carefully than normal to their stories.” She adds that “song ideas can come from anything, so it's about being extra aware and alert for the breakthrough idea to appear!”
Jeff Zacharski, producer/songwriter and partner at JENGA Productions, looks outside of his wheelhouse for that spark. “It really helps to pay attention to my surroundings and sometimes switch it up. I write and produce across different genres and sometimes it’s working within the ones I’m least familiar with that inspires my creative shift,” he explains. “Collaboration is also a great tool for eliminating creative blocks.”
And lastly, GRAMMY nominee Janelle Monáe finds her inspiration by running new ideas by her favorite peers. For instance, Erykah Badu — her musical idol and with whom she collaborated on the song “Q.U.E.E.N” from her most recent release, The Electric Lady —is one of her most trusted advisors. “She’s a great friend to me; she’s like a big sister,” Monae says of her Badu, who she credits for often helping her generate new ideas for songs and working through the days when creative juices aren’t flowing naturally.
(Nicole Pajer is a freelance writer and reporter based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Billboard, the Hollywood Reporter, and more and she covers Hollywood red carpet happenings for outlets including Us Weekly, VH1 and GRAMMY.com. In addition to writing, Pajer also serves as an on-camera correspondent for MTV News, interviewing the likes of George Clooney, Madonna, and Ringo Starr.)