This blog post is about sources of inspiration outside of music, and was requested by the awesome Daniel Clay. It is posted on both surfaceofthesunmusic.com and devoneggers.com, and addresses music from both projects.
Throughout the years many things have inspired my music. There have been movies, personal events and struggles, societal issues, humorous fictitious ideas, etc., but I’ve never used these things as the start to a musical idea. They help me take it beyond the skeleton of an already formed song and along to completion. My musical ideas begin with emotion.
So, explaining how emotion plays into things seems like a good place to start.
As some of you have probably heard or read before, most of the music I create comes during improvisation. It’s simply me just sitting with my guitar (usually my acoustic) and playing random shit until something cool happens. That improvisation is guided by my emotions. Whether I am happy or sad at that moment impacts what I play. I’ve had a few people over the years ask where my creativity comes from, which is a very difficult question to answer. I think the easiest answer is that it’s not something I seek out or try to make happen. Instead, it’s something that I allow to happen. It’s something that is a part of me that I let escape by allowing myself to be in the right state of mind. Finding that state of being is easy for me after all these years of creating, but I know when I’m not there, and I won’t fight it if I’m not.
Being in that state of creativity and letting my emotions guide me is where the first seemingly random source of inspiration starts. And once established by the first few riffs, I let it guide the rest of the writing process until the music is complete. When I come up with a primary riff, or a supporting piano piece, for example, my decision on whether I use it is based on if it feels right or not. In many cases saying something “sounds good” or “feels right” is probably the same thing to many people, but to me there is enough difference that it’s worth separating the two. Something that sounds good might not feel right in one song, but may in another.
A piece of feedback I’ve heard regularly over the years, and worth mentioning here, is that many think my songs would work well in movies; that they have a cinematic feel. I think this is a result of how I let emotion guide my writing. Because not only do I follow that on a riff-by-riff or section-by-section basis, I also focus heavily on it for the song as a whole. My first goal is always to try and write the song so that as an instrumental it carries enough emotional weight and interesting parts to be enjoyable as is. Lyrics and their concept are almost always the last part I create, and they are fed by the emotion of the composition.
Movies have often been a source of inspiration. I frequently use my movie collection for names and ideas. Even my old dogs were named Vincent and Jewels (instead of Jules) after John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. One of the biggest influences musically was one of my favorite sci-fi movies, Sunshine, which inspired the stage-name Surface of the Sun. The song Oblivion was named such as a random working title from another of my favorite sci-fi movies with Tom Cruise, Oblivion. It stuck, however, and led to what the song is now about (though it has nothing to do with the movie).
When it comes time to write lyrics I usually never know what the song will be about. I improvise vocally as I search for melodies, then eventually a word or phrase, or something that sounds like a word or phrase, will come out. This improvisation, and ultimately the word or phrase that sticks, is driven by emotion. That experimentation guides me to what topic feels right for the song, based usually on what I’m feeling or dealing with at that point in time. This means I rarely write lyrics about something from the distant past.
While writing lyrics for A Dying Star I was inspired by the movie Avatar (one of my all-time favorite films), which was released around the time I started focusing on lyrics. That movie resonated with me for a variety of reasons and led to the lyrical content and naming of three songs on the album (Oceans of the Universe, 6 Years, and Pulsing and Alive). Again, these are not about the movie, though they are about personal matters linked to the idea of it in some ways.
The lyrical idea for Dragon came about in an interesting way. I’d just finished binge watching Game of Thrones and read a book called Dragons of Nibiru, so I had dragons on my mind. The only preplanned ideas I had for Dragon at the time was to attempt to write something specifically for radio, and to lyrically make it as a follow-up to Oblivion. After the success Oblivion had on the radio it had been mentioned to me by a few individuals that I should make a follow-up to it. This was meant to mean that I should create another song to submit to radio to keep the momentum going. I, however, took following-up one step further, and used it for lyrical inspiration as well. That, combined with the significant work and studying I’ve done surrounding leadership and organizational culture, inspired me to tie Vanguard into the mix as well. This resulted in the three songs creating a sort of trilogy story about overcoming self-doubt, achieving one’s goals, and then becoming someone who can lead and inspire others to do the same. In addition, the global pandemic placed me in a mindset to create something with a positive message.
Like how the pandemic influenced the Dragon release, I also draw from current events, or more accurately, cultural and societal norms and/or issues that I find concerning or resonate with me. This is true for songs on A Dying Star, Panacea, and Take. Writing about these things acts as an outlet for me. It allows me to release some frustrations and thoughts, and hopefully initiate some analysis in those who listen. I don’t set out to change people’s minds on matters, but if it prompts some questioning or pause for consideration, even if nothing changes, I view it as a success.
For anything to improve the current state needs to be questioned. Without that, change towards something better can’t happen. If we can’t ask ourselves or others, “is this right, best, good, ethical, etc.?”, and be able to answer it honestly, subjectively, and unbiased, then how can we expect things to improve? This is not to say that my view or opinion is the correct/best one. And perhaps the answer to the question of, “is this best, or right...?” in a specific situation or circumstance at a specific time, is “yes”. If it is, great! But we won’t know if we don’t ask. I believe people should question things more. I don’t mean this in an anarchist type way. I mean it in the way of seeking to understand. I see so many things that are done a certain way, or beliefs that continue being passed on from one generation to another, simply because “that’s the way it has always been done”, or it’s “tradition”. Or, one generation passes beliefs and habits on to their offspring simply because they were raised one way and never thought to question it. I think it’s a fair argument to say that many of the matters we struggle with in society today along the lines of racism, sexism, religion, sexual orientation, the environment, etc., are examples of issues not adequately challenged on an individual level, and are taught, encouraged, or forced upon by those with power to those without. It comes back to the quality of leadership, whether within a household, an organization, or a society. This is of course not a clear-cut matter; there are a myriad of variables and grey areas that make it not as simple as I attempt to describe here. Regardless, we all have the ability to grow and change ourselves and the world around us for the better if we can find the self-awareness and courage to question and challenge our beliefs and values and seek to understand why we have them to begin with, if they actually make sense for us and others, and if there is legitimate evidence to support them.
Like many other artists I also draw from personal experiences. I’ve had my fair share of struggles, and like the examples above, writing about them is therapeutic in a way. Every musical release I’ve had except for You’ll Never Take Me Away contains lyrics inspired by personal matters, including some of the worst things I’ve had to endure in my life.
And now, the lighter side of things.
I frequently like to add elements of positivity to my work. Even if it mostly seems to be the opposite. I do this both for myself and others. It’s a bit of an approach like, yes, this shit sucks, but it can get better. Sometimes I need a pick-me-up. Sometimes I see others that could do with one. My first venture into this area was with the We Can Save Ourselves release, which was in part based more on a message I wanted to share than on anything specific. The emotion of the guitar parts led me down that path. Oblivion was inspired by someone I once knew who struggled with personal challenges. And, of course, Dragon and Vanguard are a continuation of that positive component I added to the lyrics. Even my most recent song, Take, includes a similar message and approach. I do this because I believe that no matter how tough shit gets I will find a way through and come out the other side stronger. I think many have that ability, too, even if they don’t always see or feel it.
Humour is a big part of my life. I joke around a lot, and have wonderful people in my life that are the source of many laughs and match with my twisted humour. Humour is the lesser of the emotions I bring into music, but it is there, even if purposefully hidden a bit. The You’ll Never Take Me Away release was my first adventure into this territory. Both songs are connected and sequential. I’m honestly not even sure what inspired the lyrics, but my best guess is it had to do with some video games I played at the time (the Mass Effect trilogy). Very few people know what those songs are about (only because I told them), and none have communicated that they think they do, and that fact still makes me laugh.
Gettin’ It On is the most recent example of using a little humour. Because of the country music influence I wanted it to be about a relationship, but I didn’t want it to be based on a real-life experience, or anything typical to country music. So, getting a bit dirtier seemed better. Also, far more fun. The phrase “gettin’ it on” popped into my head one day for a reason I still don’t know. Maybe I was daydreaming about bewbs. Hard to say.
I guess in summary it’s easiest to say that I allow my inspiration to come from wherever it may by being comfortable with and understanding how I feel, and who I am, and then allowing whatever to come out. Then once something comes out I consider why it did, and what it means to me, then follow the crazy path that will come. I also know that much of what I create will be discarded. Creating things that don't work or are not that good are simply part of the process, and nothing worth dwelling on. I know I'll get there eventually.
Thanks for reading. And thanks again to Daniel Clay for requesting the topic for this blog post.