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Columns | Fall 2017

Pro Song

Passionate People Inspire Extraordinary Songs,
Part I

About ten years ago I began to explore science as a topic in my songwriting for kids. My goal was not to impart facts and knowledge, but to express a passion for the subject. I tried writing a few songs inspired by articles or books I read. These felt awkward and flat; I abandoned them, feeling I was missing some crucial element.

My ambition to write extraordinary science songs eventually led me to create a program at my local library called Born to Do Science. I interviewed a different scientist about their day-to-day research for each event. The passion these scientists felt for their work never failed to inspire. The songs I wrote in response contained emotional power, that crucial element my earlier attempts had been missing.

With that in mind, I offer this two-part column on nonfiction songwriting. In Part I, we’ll discuss how to interview passionate people for songwriting inspiration. In Part II, we’ll look into the nuts and bolts of turning those interviews into extraordinary songs.

Let’s take a moment to understand how conducting an interview might enhance your writing. Suppose you need a song on the general topic of microbes (or germs). What specific concept might you focus on? Before you read ahead, write down the first few ideas that come to mind.

Okay, here’s a list to compare with. This represents my own thinking, before I conducted any interviews:

Germs can make us sick.
Germs are super small—you can’t see them.
Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
Wash your hands often.
Microbes in our bodies outnumber human cells.
Many microbes are good for us.
Microbes can live in the most extreme environments.

Did you write down anything not covered in the list above? I’m guessing most of us would come up with similar short lists on any given topic. When drawing from general knowledge, great minds think alike.

In comparison, here are three songs I actually wrote about microbes, each inspired by interviewing a different microbiologist:

In “My Molecular Eye” a microbe boasts about how a single mighty molecule gives it the sight it needs to always move toward sunlight.

In “Microbe Hunter” a scientist goes adventuring around the world to discover and identify brand-new life forms.

In “Super Scientist” a scientist uses her powers of dedication, perseverance, and patience to uncover the secret code used by her nemesis, a (sometimes) deadly bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Have I expanded your sense of possibility for this topic? Never in a million years could I have written such vibrant and unique songs based on my own knowledge, nor could I have gotten there by reading alone. I credit all the creative spark in these songs to the face-to-face interviews I conducted with scientists about their work. 

Do you feel inspired to set up an interview and write a song you never knew you could? Good!

Your first task: identify a likely interview subject. If biology is not your thing, or if speaking with a scientist intimidates you (it did me at first!), no worries. The key ingredient here is not science, but passion. A passionate person will help you discover the “awesome” in the topic at hand, whatever that is. 

If you’re open to any topic, seek out a person who truly fascinates you. If you need a song to fit a particular theme, look for someone who embodies that theme. Tap Facebook or other social networks for recommendations. Teachers, activists, business owners, athletes, performers, farmers, coin collectors, cosplay enthusiasts—any of these could inspire a great children’s song. Even a passionate lawyer, architect, or insurance agent could inspire your writing, if they’ve sparked your interest. Part of your job is to discover the source of your subject’s passion, and translate that for kids.

Once you’ve identified a likely target, send an e-mail, tweet, Facebook message, etc., to make the initial connection. Ask to speak to them on the phone about setting up an interview. Let them know who you are, why you wish to interview them in particular, what their overall time commitment will be, and what you plan to do with the song you write. (They may want to skip straight to the interview, which is fine, but the smaller ask for a short phone conversation is more likely to get a response.)

Before your phone conversation, make sure you’ve done your research. Find out everything you can about your target. Read their online profiles. They may discount their own work as uninteresting or too complex for kids to understand, as some of my scientists did. If so, demonstrate that you know what they do, that you chose them for a reason. This will reassure them their time will be well spent. Set up a time and place for your interview. You can meet face to face or via video chat. Be sure to specify the duration of your meeting; one hour is generally plenty of time, assuming you’re well prepared.

Now it’s time to learn as much as you can online about the topic at hand. If you’re interviewing a coin collector, learn the basics of coin collecting. Don’t waste precious interview time asking for background information you could have looked up on your own. By this point you may begin to imagine the shape your song will take. Let this inform your line of questioning, but don’t hold too tightly to any one idea. Leave room for the interview itself to inspire new possibilities.

Just as in teaching a music class or giving a performance, you’ll want to walk in with a game plan, but also be ready to improvise in the face of the unexpected. Write down the questions you want to ask. Keep in mind that you’ll be searching for a unique point of view, an emotional core, and a great kid hook for your song. Beyond asking about the important facts and details of a scientist’s latest research project, I typically also ask:

What fuels your curiosity?
What makes your research difficult?
Why is this work important?
What do you want to pursue next?

These kinds of questions help me understand each subject’s passion for their work. This insight invariably reveals the motor that will drive each song. (We’ll talk more about that next time.)

Arrive at your interview on time and bring a recording device (be sure to ask permission), a camera, and a clipboard with your questions written down. (Yes, all three of these may be embodied in the same device.) Recording the conversation will free you from having to take written notes; you’re better off staying present and focused, listening carefully. If you’re meeting at your subject’s work site, ask to see the things they’re talking about and take photos. Use the clipboard to jot down new questions that come up while your subject is speaking. Also write down key words, themes, and potential song titles.

Keep an ear out for passion. If your subject suddenly becomes energized, forget the questions on your list and find out more about what’s lighting them up. More than once I’ve changed the focus of an interview from a topic the scientist thought I’d be interested in to a topic the scientist themself clearly found more exciting.

On a related note, watch out for well-intentioned dumbing down of content. Since you’re writing for kids, your subject may feel the need to present information as if they’re speaking to kids. But it’s your job, not theirs, to boil the topic down to its essentials, and you won’t be able to do it well if you never gain a full understanding to begin with. Ask your interviewee to speak to you as a peer. Here’s where your preliminary research can help: if you demonstrate a basic understanding of the topic, your subject will feel more comfortable sharing the gritty details that unlock their passion.

Keep an ear out for jargon. Any professional or hobbyist will use words or expressions that carry meaning only among their peers. (Or worse yet, familiar words that mean one thing to us civilians and something entirely different to the initiated.) Do not hesitate to ask the meaning of a jargon-y word. Not only will this boost your understanding, you’ll also end up collecting a treasure trove of cool words and concepts with which to color your song.

Type up your notes as soon as you can after the interview. Write down general impressions, overall themes, and possible song angles or outlines. Then listen to the recording and add any further details that may be relevant. Also write down any sensory information—sights, smells, textures, tastes—or emotional reactions the recording brings to mind. Finally, note the context and significance of any photos you took.

Now you’ve gathered plenty of raw material from which to craft an extraordinary song. We’ll tackle that process next time.