Music As Inspiration


Those of you who are kind enough to grace The Kill Zone with your presence on a regular basis know that we often discuss inspiration, and what one can do to jump start the writing process. I use music as a backdrop when I’m writing, not only for enjoyment but also to tune up the cerebrum. Jazz works well with this — Miles Davis isn’t for everybody, but give “Spanish Key” a listen just one — but for some schooling as to how to use words to tell a story I listen to a gentleman named Robbie Fulks.

Fulks labors in the musical mine, digging a sub-vein which has come to be called “insurgent country.”  You will not hear ANY of his music on your local Country station — well maybe, if you listen to 650 AM WSM in Nashville — but he’s worth checking out on Spotify and proceeding accordingly. He can be blistering in lampooning contemporary country, and at one point released an album of Michael Jackson cover songs. But. When he gets serious, there is no one whose lyrics stay with you, in three to five minute movements, like Robbie Fulks.

I’ve had Fulks’ latest album, Gone Away Backward, on repeat in the office, in the car, even while raking my freaking yard leaves, and can’t get the songs out of my mind. “Where I Fell” captures in just a little over three minutes a story of contemporary hard luck: “Some guy in Bombay is runnin’ that press I used to hate/now I sling hash for what-all spills off the interstate/we sold the family store left the building standing/ you can see the outline/where I fell.” Love lost, and with regret? How about this: “When I left that Brooklyn girl, I never thought it through/she had silk brocade in her bedroom, and a job that paid for two” from “Long I Ride.” Love lost, in the seconds before it ends? Listen to “Guess I Got It Wrong.” “Why’s the feeling never strong as when/you can’t have her anymore?/Sad goodbyes, shattered dreams/ Darker skies, I don’t think I’ve seen/I thought love was one sweet song/I guess I got it wrong.” We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Oh, and in case you thought that  I mentioned Fulks in the context of  southern gothic…there’s a bit of that on Gone Away Backward, but if you would like your synapses crunched, listen to a song titled “Night Accident.” It’s on Fulks’ Let’s Kill Saturday Night release. I won’t give you any lyrics from that song, but it involves two friends involved in a single car accident who are trapped in their seats, hanging upside down, while a train approaches. One of them makes a deathbed confession, and…well you have to hear it. It’s a bit of a long song — six minutes and change — that feels like two. You can also go back a way in Fulks’ career to the South Mouth album and listen a song titled “South Richmond Girl.” You get love, birth, murder, justice, and heartbreak covering over twenty years in a little over four minutes, done sadly and well.
I don’t know if Elmore Leonard ever heard Robbie Fulks’ music, but if there was ever a songwriter who cut out everything that sounded like writing, it would be Fulks. Even if you can’t stand what you think of as country music, you should listen to a song or two. See if it sparks you.
One more thing, while we’re talking music and inspiration: if you haven’t seen the interactive video for “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan you can check it out here. If you share the house or your television with someone who channels flips to distraction send it to them; they’ll never get away from it. And with respect to inspiration…it’s just amazing. Set a timer before you try it out, however; it’s a real time bandit.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy listening, and Happy Thanksgiving!

19 thoughts on “Music As Inspiration

  1. It’s a good idea to listen to music of a nature to inspire you. I’m writing about Arizona, so Native American music might right for this story. My cruise ship mystery could have used a steel band rhythm. But I need total silence when I write or when I am plotting the story. My inspiration is the old adage, Silence is Golden.

    • Nancy, I totally agree. I hear soundtracks in my head for many novels as I read them: Lou Reed for Jason Starr, Swamp Pop for James Lee Burke…the list goes on and on. Thanks.

  2. Fulks is interesting…ended up spending an hour with him after reading this. Reminded me of my cousin Woody, who passed a few years back.

    When writing though, Pink Floyd, Techno, Ambient and Space music share my head with Classical, Lindsey Stirling, and a few other similar bits.

    And me singing David Bowie in the shower…can’t forget that.

    Put on your red shoes and dance the blues

    • Never would have figured you for a David Bowie guy, Basil…though the ambient music appreciation does intersect with him through Brian Eno. Are you familiar with “No Pussyfooting?” I’m not a huge ambient music fan but I still play that one, nigh on forty years.

    • Yeah, later Bowie though, not the Ziggy Stardust days, that was too weird.

      Brian Eno has been one of my favourites for a long, long time. Although my wife finds it too weird, so it’s headphones only. But that works for when I’m writing, focuses me.

  3. I find I can’t write as well with songs (i.e., lyrics) as with pure music. These days I put on for ambient diner noise, iTunes playlists depending on the mood I’m after (usually soundtracks) and Scrivener’s full screen mode where I have an interior photo of my favorite LA deli, Langer’s. That way, it feels like I’m writing in Langer’s with the morning bustle and some music, and not taking up a poor waitress’s table for four hours straight.

  4. I listen to different types of music to set the mood for a scene. I once wanted to write a bar scene in a rough part of town so I picked Get Low by Lil Jon and the East Side Boys.

    • Lil Jon’s music is a good way to get the atmosphere correct, Diane. Just throw a couple of bottles against the wall and you can have the full experience of a night in an after hours club without leaving your home! I’ll have to remember that one.

  5. Joe– I envy you. It can’t be a good sign when something I once relied on to rev myself up and keep me going while writing–jazz–has become too distracting. When I was younger, the likes of Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson served as high-end white noise. Not now. It may have to do with a more developed appreciation of what I’m hearing–I have to listen. Strangely, though, what back then drove me crazy–people talking, dogs barking, leaf blowers, lawn mowers–none of it any longer bothers me.
    I will have to talk to a geriatrician about this. If I remember to.

  6. Barry, I think that as we age we get used to some things and develop irritation toward others. My wife at one point lived next to a fine fellow who raced cars on the weekends. He’d pull in at 11:00 PM or so and rev his engine for about ten minutes. It never bothered her. Now she gets irritated by the sound of a leaf blower in the afternoon. Unless I’m operating it, of course.

  7. During NASCAR season, the droning of motors wafting from the living room where hubby sat provided good ambient background noise for me. Depending on how focused I am on the writing, music choices range from new age instrumentals to world beats. I do prefer no lyrics because I’m easily distracted.
    And, thanks to James Scott Bell’s recommendation, I am now a fan of Coffitivity. Who knew?

    • One of the most interesting ambient noise projects I’ve heard recently, Jeannie, is the theme music for American Horror Story. I’ve even set it as a ring tone. I’ll have to listen to the NASCAR races from another room. Anyway to do it without the commentators? I can see where the near constant drone of engines and tires would create an atmosphere of speed…pulse racing…interesting! Thanks!

      Re: Coffitivity…who knew? Jim Bell knew. I am constantly amazed at what he comes up with.

  8. Oh man! I gotta jump on this one. Miles, of course, is always superb, especially Blue Miles. However, more recently I find writing to – – – hang on now – – – Joe Satriani, Jeff Beck and Joe Bonomasa quite inspirational. A recent new find is Beth Hart, for some low down blues. Now that’s what works for me…along with Hendrix and Zep and Gary Moore shredding away. I mean, this stuff is forever, and it’s guaranteed to keep you awake, too.

  9. Oh, yeah. They’re on there, too. All the old stuff from SF Daze. Remember when Santana first came on the scene? He opened for somebody at the Filmore. It could have been the Airplane or The Band. I don’t really recall. Thing was, when the main act came on stage they just said something like, “Whoa! Who in the world is that. We might as well pack or s*it and go home.” This was when only a few people had heard his music on the radio. And he was “just” another Mission band. Well, that night, Santana broke out! Whew!

  10. Yeah, there was an earlier incarnation of the Santana band as well — The Santana Blues Band or something — that played a few gigs at the Avalon in 1967. Santana was working as a dishwasher during the day while that was going on. To go from that to playing at Woodstock in two years…wow. Thanks for stirring up the memories, Jim.

  11. The Avalon! I remember it, but never went there. I was “out of the country” and incognito in most of ’67. However, I do remember going to Sausalito one night in 1967, to the Lion’s Share to hear Van Morrison. Just as we left Market and Castro, Light My Fire came on the radio. It was the looong version. So it “seemed” to take forever to get across The City and The Bridge and there was a police roadblock (Panic Attack!) that turned out to be some construction (Whew!). And all this time, LMF was still playing. The things one remembers, eh?

    BTW: I have a cut of Salvadore Santana playing some nice jazz fusion. Then he started doing hip-hop. Now he might be more into jazz.

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