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Keith Richards explains the creative process

By February 15, 2015March 7th, 2015Book Recommendations

Keith Richard’s autobiography Life provides fascinating insight into the life of a celebrity living through the 1960’s and 70’s.

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But it’s the parts where he describes the process that led him, and Mick Jagger, to create their now-famous songs that I found most intriguing.

Here are some of passages related to creativity (the summary headings, some paragraph breaks, and the bold emphasis, were added by me and aren’t part of the book)

Learning to write songs; starting with the first song “As Tears Go By.”
“We sat there in the kitchen and I started to pick away at these chords… “It is the evening of the day.” I might have written that. “I sit and watch the children play,” I certainly wouldn’t have come up with that.

We had two lines and an interesting chord sequence, and then something else took over somewhere in this process. I don’t want to say mystical, but you can’t put your finger on it.

Once you’ve got that idea the rest of it will come. It’s like you’ve planted a seed, then you water it a bit and suddenly it sticks up out of the ground goes, “hey, look at me.” The mood is made somewhere in the song. Regret, lost love. Maybe one of us had just busted up with a girlfriend.

If you can find the trigger, that kicks off the idea, the rest of it is easy. It’s just hitting the first spark. Where that comes from, God knows.

Mick and I knew by now that really our job was to write songs for the Stones.…

Andrew [Oldham] created an amazing thing in my life. I had never thought about songwriting. He made me learn the craft, and at the same time I realized, yes, I am good at it.

And slowly this whole other world opens up, because now you’re not just the player, or trying to play like somebody else.

It isn’t just other people’s expression. I can start to express myself, I can write my own music. It’s almost like a bolt of lightning.

Becoming a special kind of observer
And because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other.

You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song.

And no matter what the hell’s going on. You might be getting shot at, and you’d still be “oh! That’s the bridge!”

And there’s nothing you can do; you don’t realize it’s happening. It’s totally subconscious, unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, “I just can’t stand you anymore”…That’s a song. It just flows in.

And also the other thing about being a songwriter, when you realize you are one, is that to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You’re constantly on the alert.

That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people, how they react to one another. Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You really shouldn’t be doing it. It’s a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter.

You start looking around, and everything is a subject for a song. The banal phrase, which is the one that makes it. And you say, I can’t believe nobody hooked up on that one before! Luckily, there are more phrases than songwriters, just about.

Just filling the gaps
Songs are strange things. Little notes like that. If they stick, they stick. With most of the songs I’ve ever written, quite honestly, I’ve felt that there’s an enormous gap here, waiting to be filled; this song should have been written hundreds of years ago. How did nobody pick up on that little space?

Half the time you’re looking for gaps that other people haven’t done. And you say, I don’t believe they’ve missed that fucking hole! It’s so obvious. It was there staring you in the face! I pick out the holes.

We’re not building flying machines
I realize now that Exile [on Main Street] was made under very very chaotic circumstances and with innovative ways of recording, but those seemed to be the least of the problems.

The most pressing problem was, do we have songs and do we get the sound? Anything else that went on was peripheral.

You can hear a load of my outtakes ending, “Oh well, run out. That’s the story so far.” But you’d be surprised when you’re put right on the ball and you’ve got to do something everyday and everybody’s looking at you, going, OK, what’s going to happen?

You put yourself out there on the firing line — give me about the blindfold and the last cigarette and let’s go. And you’d be surprised at how much comes out of you before you die.

Especially when you’re fooling the rest of the band, who think you know exactly what you’re going to do, and you know you’re blind as a bat and have no idea.

But you’re going you’re just going to trust yourself. Something’s going to come. You come out with one line, throw in a guitar line and then another line’s got to come out. This is where supposedly your talent lies. It’s not in trying to meticulously work out how to build a Spitfire.

What are we coming up with today?
It’s always that feeling when these guys are expecting material as if it comes from the gods, whereas the reality is it comes from Mick or me.

When you see the documentary on Exile, it gives an impression of jamming away spontaneously for a few hours in the bunker until we got something, until we’re ready to go for a take, as if we’re trusting something coming from the ether.

That’s the way it’s been portrayed, and some of it might’ve happened that way, but ask Mick. He and I would look at each other, what do we get them today? What am I to be put in today, baby? Because we know everybody’s going to go along with this as long as there’s a song, or something to play.

We might have occasionally lapsed and decided to overdub something we did yesterday. But basically Mick and I both felt it was our duty to come up with a new song, a new riff, a new idea, or two, preferably.

You just need a little sparkle…
Once you’re on a roll with the first few chords, the first idea of the rhythm, you can figure out other things, like does it need a bridge in the middle, later.

It was living on a knife edge as far as that’s concerned. There was no preparation. But that’s not the point; that’s rock ‘n roll.

The idea is to make the bare bones of a riff, snap in the drums in and see what happens. And it was the immediacy of it that, in retrospect, made it even more interesting. There was no time for too much reflection, for plowing the field twice. It was “it goes like this” and see what comes out.

And this is when you realize that, with a good band, you only really need a little sparkle of an idea, and before the evening’s over it will be a beautiful thing.”

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