This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

Charles Maggio is not only a member of Rorschach, one of the most influential metal/hardcore bands ever, but he also runs one of the best indie labels to ever release music, Gern Blandsten. There's a great quote from him that's stuck with me for over a decade and a half. Someone asked him why he no longer sings for a band and he replied, "I'm healthy, my parents love me and have a great family, what do I have to write about?" While there are plenty of great writers that experience the same stability that still manage to make great art, he has a point. A great deal of the most emotionally resonant art is about a painful or passionate experience in the creator's life. One of the songs Charles is most known for is called "Bone Marrow Biopsy" after having to undergo the procedure twice during a battle with Hodgkin's disease during the early years of the band.

There's a reason Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin are some of the most emotionally resonant artists we've ever known. If you watched any of the recent documentaries about them, you could see that they felt more pain than the average person. It’s often said the greatest creators are more sensitive than others, and these sensitivities allow them to hone in on how to express this deep feeling. Their translation of their sensitivity to pain was so extreme that anyone could empathize, but not from feeling the same as them. Instead, their pain is so much greater than most that it spans a wide breadth of relatability. We're able to connect with them since when we've felt pain, it's often a grain of salt compared to the authentic emotional resonance they express. We return to their songs consistently because when we feel pain, theirs is so much more intense than ours, so it's easy to connect with their painful expression of vulnerability. They have so much emotional resonance; we can easily find ways to connect to the broad and powerful way they feel.

As Natalie Maines said of Rick Rubin, finding what's "emotionally potent" will be the best arrow for your emotional bow. The pain in our lives becomes what's forcing itself out of us when it comes time to express ourselves since it's constantly on our mind. Author Bret Easton Ellis says, “pain drives many of the great artists much more than joy.” When we feel passionate about a thought, we get flooded with the need to perspire, which is the clue that we should be letting this spill over into our music. The reason the most intense emotions we experience make for the most potent subjects for our music is because they're authentic experiences that motivate a passion that guides us to create. With that said, plenty of songwriters in healthy relationships can observe others’ troubles and feel passion towards them that turn it into emotionally resonant perspiration.

Being Brave Enough To Say Your Most Emotionally Potent Truth

If you want to hide how you feel yet still talk to an audience about it, there’s never been a greater way to disguise it than song lyrics. But this veiling in the name of covering how you feel doesn’t allow others to relate to you. Writing about what's comfortable or veiled in complexity so that you can be safe from critique isn’t relatable. The lack of authenticity when you hide what you really feel is the ultimate dilution of the potency of emotional resonance. Ambiguity can feel safe, but it hinders you from authentically expressing yourself to make a connection through music. If you want to express yourself, you need to do so without fear of judgment from your audience, friends, family or anyone else.

The evidence of having to write about what you feel most passionate about can be found throughout all genres of music in your record collection if you take the time to find it. James Alex of Beach Slang talks about this being the change he made in his music before starting the band. Seeing as he is the only example I know of a musician who appeals to teens on up to those in their forties, who found success with a new band at 38 years old, the example speaks volumes.

For those looking for a less niche example, take Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The emotionally potent subject in her life was Jay Z's infidelity. While it would be far easier to keep this grievance out of the public eye, she needed to voice what was most resonant within her by making Lemonade when life handed her lemons. Songwriter Bonnie McKee, who's co-written a number of Katy Perry's hits, tells it like this: "When we're writing with her, we sit down and talk to her and try to find out what's going on in her life and find out the kernel of truth. I want her to sing about something she cares about, so we talk about her life and what she's going through and try to weave it into something powerful and visual." Ne-Yo has said when he hears the right song for him to sing it has to be an emotion he's already been feeling.

Mark Ronson says when it came time to write "Rehab" for Amy Winehouse, "We were walking down the street, we had just started working, we were three days in and she was telling me a story about some stuff that had gone down in her life. She said, ‘Yeah my family came over and they tried to make me go to rehab and I was like, pffff! No, no, no.' And I thought, oh shit, that's quite hooky how you said that, if you're not opposed to it, we should go back to the studio and mess around with it." For many artists, talking about something so personal can be scary, but this is only one of countless examples of it paying off with a song that connected with millions of people.

What About Subjects That Aren’t Pain And Love?

“It’s good to start with something that’s true… If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks.”

― Paul Simon

Our own troubles commonly inspire the most resonant expression, yet there are also thousands of powerful songs written about subjects that aren’t pain or love. The first argument I hear about writing what’s resonant to you is, "what about all the rappers who only rap about money." At times the most emotionally resonant thought someone can express is their lust for money, since the struggle of being poor is all that’s on their minds – and if that's all you think about, you need to express it. Oneohtrix Point Never writes songs to envision a sci-fi film through music since that's what he’s most passionate about. Grimes says she imagines making a trailer for a fictitious movie. On White Lung’s Paradise, Mish Way said she had little to purge in the way of relationship struggles since she’s now happily married, so she adapted her obsession with serial killers by writing from their perspective. In 2017 it’s easy to find many people who are inspired by politics and bringing it into their music with great resonance. Plenty of songwriters adapt the stories that are told to them by others or read in books as they feel a resonance with them. As long as that’s what’s trying to get out of them, they can do it in a way that’s resonant to them and others.

Just as we discussed before, listeners can only identify with emotions they understand; love, loss and loneliness are the most intense emotions we feel and therefore easy to connect with. This doesn’t mean there aren’t important songs to be written about a variety of subjects since love has been expressed in so many shapes and forms. While more listeners can relate to unrequited love than serial killers, it's shocking what can resonate with a listener when it's authentically expressed. You can even be most passionate about partying. As vacuous as that sounds, that's some musician's truth. Morrissey was able to sustain half a dozen albums by writing passionately about "feeling nothing at all." You must not force your passion towards a subject that’s not what you authentically feel. What matters is the passion to pursue your ideas along with fearlessness of showing others how you feel and your authentic need to have something to say on the subject.

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.