June 2018 marked the 45th anniversary of the release of the hit single “(Is There) Life on Mars?” so we thought it would be a good idea to talk to you about David Bowie for a minute. The late songwriter was not only one of the most influential to walk the face of the earth, he created music that is simply out of this world, even now.
Just ask tech guru Elon Musk, who, in early 2018, fitted a customized Tesla Roadster with a recording of Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” before sending it on its merry way towards the planet Mars via the launch of his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Now in orbit, the contraption, which also included a robotic driver called “Starman” (another Bowie song title), is expected to continuously play the song on a loop as it makes its way towards the red planet over the next billion years.
That’s just one of the many feats David Bowie has been able to achieve, both in life and in death. In fact, few musical legends can match up to the accomplishments of the late singer-songwriter. The British entertainer and global personality has left an indelible mark on the music scene from a career that spanned five decades.
A rock and roll superstar, actor, and businessman, David Bowie’s most enduring trait is perhaps his knack of writing powerful songs. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that he is widely regarded as a songwriting genius and has been understudied by many aspiring songwriters as a result. If you’re a songwriter, there are quite a number of lessons you can learn from David Bowie. Here are a few of them:
• Where to draw inspiration for songs
Obviously, Bowie loved to write songs about places he’d never been to, judging from his records about space, including the aforementioned “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars?” However, he also drew inspiration from the places he actually visited.
In interviews with Bill DeMain, Bowie revealed that places, where he visited or had stayed for a period of time, were huge influences in the creation of some of his songs. He pointed out that songs on his Reality album reflected the streets of New York, while the album Heathen contained songs which were influenced by the majestic heights of the mountains of Woodstock.
• The importance of mixing things up
It’s hard to get bored listening to a David Bowie CD or LP. His ability to infuse different sounds and ideas into his songs is just one of the reasons why Musk and millions of people around the world love his music. So, how does he keeps his sound fresh and timeless, an important skill all songwriters need to master in order to have any longevity in the music business? Keep mixing things up.
One way Bowie did this was to use the ‘cut-up’ technique, which was made popular by another writer, William S. Burroughs, in the late 1950s and 60s. It involves rearranging prewritten text to create new lyrics and Bowie notes that he had a computer program created in the 1990s to make it easier for him to do it. One of his albums, Outside, had songs which derived much of their lyrics from cutting up text.
Another way that Bowie mixed things up was by taking inspiration from different genres and smashing them together. In the same interview with Bill DeMain, he talked about pulling stuff from R&B artists and even used a riff from a James Brown song for “Fame.”
• Appeal to listeners’ emotions
From the happy-go-lucky vibe of "Let's Dance" to the thought-provoking aura of "Heroes," David Bowie had the ability to connect emotionally with listeners around the world on a variety of topics. This multi-dimensional aspect of his musicianship is something he alluded to a few times when asked about his creative process.
For instance, in an interview in the 1970s with William Burroughs, a writer, Bowie revealed that he saw songwriting, as an art, as a bit archaic. “Just writing a song is not good enough,” he said, before going on to explain that a song should have such an effect on listeners that it influences their very lifestyles. This notion ties in with another belief he shared about beginning with the end in mind when writing songs.
• Keep creating
David Bowie was, no doubt, larger than life during his time and he has left a huge legacy (and back catalog) to not only keep music lovers entertained but to serve as inspiration for aspiring songwriters. Perhaps one of the best lessons to take away from Bowie's life is to always be writing and creating music. There are many songwriters who either quit after a few tries or go dormant for long periods during their careers. Bowie never stopped making music until his last breath, as was demonstrated with Blackstar, an album that came out just two days prior to his passing.
Do you have a favorite David Bowie song? And what lessons, if any, have you learned from him? Share with us on Facebook.