by James Stefanuk

The Scene Unseen | June 27, 2016 | The Reach

Inspiration. Sometimes it looks like a big scary monster, but it just wants to be your friend. Where does it come from? How do we keep it going? Well I have some ideas; some you may not like, some you may love, some you may toss in the garbage like a used baby diaper. But more importantly, so do my friends and peers.

I asked some of the most inspiring musicians I know in Toronto what motivates them, and where their ideas come from. Some answers surprised, some resonated deeply with me. None of them disappointed.

Ginger St. James:

“Everyday life. Experiences are key. Inspiration is found everywhere if you keep your eyes open.”

Nathan Da Silva of “Slyde”:

“Hard to say what the inspiration is. Writing and playing music has always been something that just feels natural to do. I can’t see myself doing anything else in my life. Sarah and I have conversations about this every now and then…we always conclude that it’s kind of the only thing we know how to do… and enjoy doing.”

Ted Sevdalis of “Bathurst Station”:

“Two things really: life and other music. Our album actually follows a story line of two people breaking up and it’s loosely based on real life experience but then ends up taking on a life of its own and includes universal feels on the topic. Also other music. A great example is when we were just in the U.K.; I got my ass handed to me buy a few Brit Pop bands that I just stumbled across. All I wanted to do was get home and get writing as everything seemed fresh again. On that same note I have spoken to a few older musicians regarding what was in the water in the ‘70s that made it such a prolific time and the answer is often that everyone was feeding off each other, Sabbath listened to Deep Purple, Purple listened to Zep, etc. . . and that energy led to some great music.”

Kirk Reed of “The Reed Effect”:

“Situations in life, different experiences to write about; for me there has to be some kind of tension I can feed off of. If everything is going smoothly, I don’t have really anything to write about.”

Pipe O’Neal from “My Mysterious Friend”:

“The need to express myself and to understand how I feel. There is a lot of good music out there but your own is yourself; and sometimes your own feelings are your only way of [finding] satisfaction.”

Erin McCallum:

“What inspires me most is the prospect of moving others with a message that listeners can relate to. Maybe I’m telling someone else’s story through my songs (especially the lyrics). Letting people know that no matter what it is they are going through or how they may feel, we really are all on common ground for the most part. Tapping into emotion and knowing it hits home with another human being is the only inspiration I need to continue writing. When it comes to keeping the creative juices flowing…I love hearing what people think about things, and how those things make them feel. Having another perspective on topics helps me think of another way I can approach a song. Listening to and learning to play new instruments also helps me be creative. Having new tools in the musical tool belt, so to speak, allows me to think in new ways and keeps me from getting stuck in a ‘writing rut.’ It also helps bridge the gap between ideas and the final product too.”

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Ryan Abramowitz – Drummer from “The Unchained”:

“I find that the music I listen to inspires the music I help create. During writing sessions, I recall ways my influences solve similar musical problems, and then experiment with the ideas to find the best fit. For example; a section calls for a transition where an alternative ‘riff’ (or chord structure) needs to be played for a single bar (or X times). If Aerosmith had written the core riff, what would they think of doing? What about Periphery? Dream Theater? A Perfect Circle? Tool? Do they change time signatures? Push the rhythm? Syncopate the rhythm section? Alter the mood? Drop the drums? Change the dynamics? Trying different ideas keeps my creative ‘juices’ flowing and my musical imagination active – and allows for some really cool musical ideas to surface.”

Bryan Fontez of “Last Bullet”:

“Absolutely anything and everything. Life itself, politics, social issues, emotions, experiences, self-reflection, philosophy, history, religion, spirituality. Strong emotions or opinions work best for me. But most of all, listening to music inspires me to write my own more than anything else. When a song that I love can elicit a powerful feeling or emotion, that inspires and motivates me to create something using my own words and experiences. Riffs, lyrics, melodies, any of it can get me on my feet and scrambling for a pen and paper or an instrument.

What keeps your creativity flowing? This is going to sound counter intuitive to most non-musicians, but staying away from music allows me to draw from a larger well of experience, thought and emotion whenever I decide to come back to it. As musicians we tend to write music from memories; memories are created by living life. So spending time with friends, family, traveling, going through hardships, peaks and valleys, struggle and happiness, it’s all essential to fueling creativity. Experience and creativity are like two sides to a coin. What’s your inspiration? My inspiration for making music is to elicit emotion. I don’t care what kind of feeling you get when you listen to my music, I just want you to feel SOMETHING. I think that music should be as dynamic as the individual writing it. If I can connect with someone through my music, make them dance, smile, laugh, [feel] excited or even sad, then I’ve succeeded. Art is emotion taking physical form, whether it’s on a canvas, in sound waves, in food, interpreted through dance, theatre, etc.”

Jack de Keyzer:

“To me the study of music is a vast, unlimited, boundless puzzle that I still really love to do. Add to that lyrics, which offer the same boundless unlimited combinations and ideas. Now to combine the two and hammer them into a song which is simple enough to appeal to people yet complex enough to hold their interest. A lyric and melody and groove which can hopefully stir the soul, the mind, the body and shake a little booty… well… How could I ever stop? I’m in love with this.”

What inspires me is colour. I am so grateful to be able to perceive it in its many fashions. I needed help from my friends to do this topic justice; after all it’s really about all of us, you and I. I drew the lines, and the many talented people I am lucky enough to know coloured it all in for me.

Since I was a child, songs come to me from somewhere that feels quite external to my own mind. I have always felt really lucky for this, and just a little haunted. There are songs I have co-written, or worked out from a jam with my band. Often working out the details is like flogging a dead horse. All of my best pieces of music come to me 90 per cent done. I start singing the song in my head, then out loud, and often it takes some time before I realize that it’s something new that hasn’t already been recorded or conceived of by anyone. Then I need to try and get all the parts recorded as fast as possible before the memory fades. It’s a blessing and a curse, and one I would not trade for anything. Thank God for smartphones.

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But there’s much more to my creative life than just forcing my bandmates to play a score the way I envisioned it. They add the colour. They inspire me to stay open by throwing their own unique take and adding in some licks and edits and arguments that me and the old Godhead/Ego couldn’t think of on our own.

The struggle for inspiration is illusionary. I had no idea what to write about for this month’s column, until I sat down at my keyboard and realized I could reach out. It’s exciting, inspiring even, to think that I can reach my hand into the scene to help me understand more about what makes us all tick. I suppose inspiration changes, minute-by-minute, so this could have turned out completely differently had I started writing it 30 seconds earlier.

Let’s get back on topic here though: The scene here inspires the hell out of me. The more I look at it, the deeper I get, the more I become witness to acts of greatness. When I see a great band, I want to be more engaging. When I meet a great person, I want to be more outgoing. When my band pulls off a killer set, I want to find a new song, something that reverberates so deeply into the city’s consciousness that it just cannot be ignored.

What’s important is to live in the moment, seize the day. Carpe diem. Euphemisms don’t last 2,039 years if they’re tripe. Amongst the pale shadows of our fears and self-doubts, inspiration is smiling, waving and doing fucking jumping jacks to try and get our attention. You’ve got to feed the monster. When something makes you smile, laugh, cheer or cry, do something about it. Then you become the inspiration.

– James Stefanuk

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