Chasing Inspiration

What IS inspiration, and how do we get it? By definition, inspiration “is the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.” Yes, but where does it come from? How do we get “inspired?”

As you might guess, I have a few thoughts on that. These thoughts come from long years of wanting, needing to be inspired for the purpose of either writing music, or writing stories. Occasionally I could just sit and think, “What kind of song would be beautiful, different, and appeal to a lot of people? What does beautiful music sound like, to me?” And occasionally it would work. I have enough imagination to want to write a sad song, and sit there and actually think sad thoughts, think about what makes people sad, and get an idea simply from that.

Here’s one of my better attempts, the lyrics to “No To Love” from my first album, Snowblind

Intro: You know, I can see it in your eyes, a look not even love can hide
You know what I must say to you,

Verse 1: I know that you won’t believe what I must tell you now, so please
Know that it tears me apart, it comes from my mind, and not my heart
So help me, my love, to say, right or wrong, we can’t go on this way
Don’t think that I don’t care, but I have someone who’s waiting there
Who’s loved me oh so long…

Chorus: And I’ve got to say “no,” to love, I’ve got to say no, I’ve got to let go
Of something I’ve been dreaming of,
I’ve got to say “no, no no,” to love.

Verse 2: Looking into your eyes, I get lost in paradise
So it should come as no surprise
That, loving you as I do, you’ve made my every dream come true
Holding you close in the night, how could I know what’s wrong from right


Bridge: So don’t look away, ‘cause what I’m trying to say
Is that our dream could never come true
And you always knew, didn’t you?

Verse 3: So whisper me one goodbye,
And turn away, and help me not to cry
I know that this is the end, so don’t say you’ll always be my friend
You know we’ve come too far


And here is the track I recorded, in case you’re interested.

Those are two examples of how far inspiration can take me. Let’s see how far inspiration can take a few others, others far more talented, and more famous, than I. Oh sure, I could get the idea for a sad song by thinking, or even watching someone else… to see or feel the sadness in them, and interpret it musically. Over time I learned that the more I knew about the world’s sadness, the depth and breadth of it, the easier I could get an idea for a good sad song. Yeah, I know… a “good, sad song” is almost an oxymoron. But it’s true – here are the lyrics to a Carly Simon song you probably know, and it’s a damn good sad song –

“A grey day in February
Some flecks of white, but mostly brown
Purple surprises riding in on a nerve
Begins to excite you before it settles down
It’s after the knives and the sutures and needles
I’m left with an arrow that points at my heart
I call it the seat of my sentimental sorrow
Gone seems to be one of the sum of my parts

And the night is cold
As the coldest nights are
There’s a wise woman
She comes from an evening star
She says: Look for the signs
You won’t have to look far
Lead with your spirit and follow
Follow your scar

A man I knew once said he wanted to see me
I said I’d been sick but was on the mend
I told him a few of the overall details
He said: That’s too bad
And he’s never called me again

What a gift in disguise that poor little puppy
So scared of misfortune and always on guard
A big man will love you
Even more when you’re hurtin’
And a really big man
Loves a really good scar

‘Cause the dawn breaks
And it’s breaking your heart
There’s a wise woman
She sits in my heart
She says: Look for the signs
You won’t have to look far
Lead with your spirit and follow
Follow your scar”

Here is the  URL of the youtube performance, if you want to hear it –

Of course experience, and our own thoughts and emotions, are huge sources of inspiration. But there are other, equally powerful sources that I want to talk about. Those sources are other people, and their experiences, their artistic evaluation of life and times through their eyes. For we are all inspired, to one degree or another, by those greats who came before us, who showed us deeper depths, better techniques, different ways of communicating a thought or feeling. They became great, in large part, because they also learned from those who came before them!

Now I have to personalize all this a bit, as I do with everything I write here. My previous inspirations in music are Mozart, Mancini and Williams. You know, that Star Wars guy. The strength, beauty, integrity and depth of their music inspires me no end. No, I don’t try to copy them, hell, I can’t really copy them… it’s easily more than enough to get my music inspiration from their examples. Here is my best attempt at writing a 60-second piece of classical music for a commercial, thanks to Mozart and Beethoven.

In my writing, my inspirations are many, with Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins and Robert Service being at the top of my list. They show me, and therefor give me, their essence of style and depth that inspires me to pick better subjects and add my personal spin, hopefully with a dash of integrity and insight, into my writing. It doesn’t always work, I know… but without them I might not have ever even tried to put words on a page.

Ida Lupino

There is a cool example of all this I want to share with you. You remember the actress, Ida Lupino, yes? Well, if you’re over 50, then maybe. Anyway, “Lupino was a British actress, director, writer, and producer. Throughout her 48-year career, she appeared in 59 films and directed eight, working primarily in the United States, where she became a citizen in 1948. She is widely regarded as the most prominent female filmmaker working in the 1950s during the Hollywood studio system. Dubbed “the English Jean Harlow”, she was discovered by Paramount in the 1933 film Money for Speed, playing a good girl/bad girl dual role.”

She was diagnosed with Polio in 1934, and recovered from it. She was married 3 times and, as far as I can tell, had two children. Why all this about Ida Lupino? Well, aside from the fact that she was an incredible woman on many levels, she also became the inspiration for a song written by Carla Bley. I know, I know… who the hell is Carla Bley? Ha, glad you asked. She was an inspiration in her own right, and died very recently.


Carla Bley

“Carla Bley (born Lovella May Borg; May 11, 1936 – October 17, 2023) was an American jazz composer, pianist, organist, and bandleader. An important figure in the free jazz movement of the 1960s, she was perhaps best known for her jazz opera Escalator over the Hill (released as a triple LP set), as well as a book of compositions that have been performed by many other artists, including Gary Burton, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell, Art Farmer, Robert Wyatt, John Scofield, and her ex-husband Paul Bley. She was a pioneer in the development of independent artist-owned record labels, and recorded over two dozen albums between 1966 and 2019.

The same kind of woman Ida Lupino was, right? Artistic, courageous, independent… a ground-breaking woman in a man’s world… so why wouldn’t Carla Bley at least know about Ida Lupino, and probably respect her and relate to her on several levels.. so much so that she was inspired to write a song about her.

But please, Hulse, where is all this going, and why do I care? Well, we’ve been talking about inspiration, right, and where it comes from. This is my example of when and how it comes from others. Because, you see, Bley’s inspiration from Ida didn’t stop with her song for Lupino. No. My dear friend and favorite drummer, the now-departed Craig Herndon, knew about Carla Bley and once asked me to play one of her tunes, called, naturally, Ida Lupino.

I looked into it, sadly, after Craig had departed. It was a strange tune, not easy for me to play by ear. I had to send for a simple version of the sheet music for it, and learned it that way… which was most unusual for me, not being a sight reader at all. But I got familiar with it and grew to understand why Bley wrote it, and what it meant to her. In a nutshell, her song honored Ida Lupino, and showed her sympathy for Lupino’s artistic complexities, and the difficulties of her journey through life. I’m sure Bley related to all of it, and decided to express it in a song.

I learned it, and maybe a month or so later decided to record it, as a parting gift to my old and dear friend Craig. I tried to imagine what Bley was feeling when she wrote the song, and why it appealed to Craig. My interpretation of Bley’s song is this – a 16-bar song, with the two 8-bar phrases being almost identical. Mood of it is tentative, probably to illustrate Lupino’s and Bley’s place in life…. two women struggling with bringing their immense artistic talents into fruition in a man’s world. The tentative chords and delicate melody suggests that Bley sees Lupino forging ahead with her dreams, courageous but still unsure of any positive result. Bley knew too well what it felt like to be a female artist, bravely moving forward with her art through the fog of uncertainty. I hope she knew that we all have to suck it up with our art and keep working forward, through the fog of uncertainty.

At any rate, after learning the song, dissecting it and trying to understand the emotions that it was painting, I hit the record button and played my version of it… in one take. Here it is-

So you see, it turns out that much of our general inspiration comes from those around us, those who came before us. And hopefully, what we set out to create might one day inspire another younger artist. And if not, what the hell… we have little to no control over all that, anyway. We create it and we put it out there into the universe, with the hope that it might be good enough to be noticed, maybe appreciated or even (gasp) inspiring!  From there, it’s out of our hands… but never out of our hearts.

Steve Hulse

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