In a television program recorded in the 1960’s, Jacques Brel, describing himself as an ordinary guy, spoke about his method for hatching songs. He revealed that he worked as we know he lived, standing up!* Le Grand Jacques even showed us the desk at which he wrote his songs—giving us a glimpse of his small apartment.
Actually, Brel said most of the work for his songs happens away from his desk. The idea of a song “walks around in one’s head for 4, 5 or 6 months”. That’s “incubation” in cognitive psychology lingo. “When, one day, it is very ripe, like a fruit one picks it. And then one writes it.” All very matter of fact.
This reminds me of how David Francey described his own song-writing when I interviewed him for a podcast last July. David Francey told me
You’ve got the idea, you run out of steam on it, and somewhere in the back of your brain there’s something working on that song, because the next time you approach that song, you get back to it. You get all these ideas from god knows where. You’ve got lines coming out… I really do believe it’s a percolation process. […] it just takes time to assimilate ideas. And the idea is not to get into panic mode, to just let the song come when it’s ready. And I’ll wait forever.
Both artists referred to song writing as a long, somewhat opaque process. There’s no hurrying a good song.
In the television show, Brel even demonstrated a song he was working on at the time: Les Singes. Its essence was there. But clearly Brel put a lot of work on the song after this demonstration. It’s fascinating to think of Brel perfecting what became another timeless piece. To share this work in progress was another upright act of humility.
If you’re interested in Brel’s creativity and you understand French (or have a companion who will translate for you), I highly recommend watching Jacques Brel, Comme Quand on Était Beau. The scene I referred to is about 32 minutes into the last DVD of this 3-DVD set, which was released by Barclay in 2008. The recording demonstrates that Brel produced some of the first music videos.
But none of this more than scratches the surface of how Brel wrote. To understand how he wrote one must appreciate the stringent requirements that he set for himself and his work, including the ideas that he strove to express through the compact unison of verse and music, singing and acting. That is, in itself, a challenge.
Speaking of Brel, CogZest is brewing a project called “The Zest of Brel”. In that context, I recently wrote ACT in Three Acts which included Arnold Johnston’s translations of four Brel songs (Voir un ami pleurer, Orly, Marieke and Mathilde). It was performed at Beacon Unitarian Church in January as a service, with Sue Sparlin (vocalist) and David Hamilton (on the piano). David also played Brel’s Fils de. The work interweaves Arnold/Brel’s songs, a couple of short stories, and my presentation on emotion as perturbance and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Laura Redmond drew a beautiful cover for the document. (Perturbance and ACT are now discussed in Cognitive Productivity). More on ACT in Three Acts and The Zest of Brel later.
- Brel wrote a song called “Vivre Debout” (To Live Upright).