“Living life, seeking experiences outside of music, doing my best to be observant, and embracing my feelings allows me to find inspiration and collect ideas for my solo music.”
Hannah Winkler is a Brooklyn-based songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist and side woman for artists such as Ingrid Michaelson and Elizabeth and the Catapult. Her versatility and talent enables her to express her creativity in a variety of projects. She writes and performs her solo rock/folk/pop music under her own name and is one half of the super fun dance/pop band Human Natural. She is also one fourth of the synth pop/folk band The Weird Years (along with Bess Rogers) and even writes and performs music for children and families under the moniker The Buttons. She is one busy lady! We are so happy she took the time to share some insights into her creative process.
10 Questions: Hannah Winkler on Creativity & Songwriting
1. When you sit down to write a song, which elements tend to come first (melody, concept, title, lyrics, chords, beat, etc.)?
A brief chord progression often comes first, followed by a melodic idea overtop of it. I’ll usually start mumbling some gibberish, but a word or two of that will spark the idea for the full lyric concept (which is usually related to something I’m experiencing or processing). Occasionally, I’ll start a song by singing a lyric phrase with a melody while walking down the street or something, and I’ll imagine the chords that would go underneath and figure them out when I get home.
2. How often do you write? Do you have a regular routine, or do you do it only when you’re feeling inspired?
In regards to my solo music, I only write when I’m feeling inspired, and that’s a pretty random experience for me. I also don’t often complete an idea and write the song in totality in one sitting. That only seems to happen when I’m feeling really emotional about something. Otherwise, I’m coming up with little nuggets of songs all the time, putting them in voice memos, and forgetting about them! I’m trying to get better about sitting down and following through on some of those. I enjoy writing sessions for Human Natural, The Weird Years, and other projects I’ve been involved in because they sort of force you to get in the zone and stay in the zone. You’ve set that period of hours aside and there are other people working with you and holding you accountable just by being there. They also make it possible to bounce ideas off of each other and have a conversation about what you’re writing about, and that gets the creative juices flowing. I find it difficult to create that feeling and those circumstances for myself in my own home. I need to do some Thinking Outside the Blocks courses!
3. Do you have any practices that help you find inspiration and collect ideas?
Just living life, seeking experiences outside of music, doing my best to be observant, and embracing my feelings allows me to find inspiration and collect ideas for my solo music. I’m a pretty emotionally communicative person, and those conversations have allowed me to tap into complexities in human relationships that I then write about. The writing process in each project is unique, though. Brian and I write songs that seem to relate to both of us and also speak in a stylistic voice that is our collective voice as a duo, The Weird Years derives a lot of inspiration from current events, and The Buttons has always tried to address issues we think are relevant to the lives of little kids and their families (and I’ve worked with children my whole life in some capacity, so I’ve observed a lot of that).
4. Have you ever felt creatively blocked and what did/do you do to overcome it?
Yes, I have—to be honest though, I’ll usually say “F— it” and allow myself to do something else (if I’m alone, not if I’m in a writing session with others!). I don’t like to force myself to produce. That sort of takes the joy out of it for me. I try to have grace for my waves of creativity (maybe they’re more like bursts than waves) and know that if I watch a movie instead, or go for a walk, or have a call with a friend, or cook something, the creativity will come again another day and it’ll probably be inspired by those alternative activities I chose! That being said, sometimes I really need to give myself a kick in the butt to stick with a song and complete it, so sometimes I’ll do stupid things like not let myself have dinner or get up to pee until I complete a section (I know, not healthy, I don’t recommend). But forcing yourself to just get through a first draft, even if it’s rough, can be so rewarding and can set you up for success the next time you sit down to finish it.
5. Do you like to collaborate with other artists and in what capacity does collaboration work best for you?
I do really enjoy collaborating with other artists. Collaborations have brought me so much joy in my life, and they’ve broadened and enhanced my musicality. Adding on to my answer above, writing sessions with collaborators hold me accountable and don’t let me give up when I hit a wall in my creative process. It’s much harder to say, “I can’t come up with this line, I’m going to go get a coffee . . . and probably give up on this for today” when there’s another person trying to reach that finish line with you. Also, if I hit some sort of creative block, the other person will often have a great idea to fill the next hole in the song, or at least AN idea that keeps the brainstorming going. Everybody brings different ideas and strengths to the table, and I find that really inspiring—whether it’s the way they play an instrument, or come up with chord progressions, or the way they write lyrics. I sometimes get bored with my own skill set, you know what I mean? I also love singing harmonies, so any collaborations in which that takes place really inspire me!
6. Are there any non-musical things you do that affect your art?
Watching theatre and movies, having relationships with people.
7. How do you know when a song is done?
When I sing it to myself and feel moved, and when no lyrics jump out at me and make me wince. Hah!
8. What do you think your strengths are as a songwriter and how do you play to those strengths?
I think I create interesting, ear-grabbing melodies and the chordal harmony underneath them. I am often pushing myself to make something sound surprising or “weirder,” and I think that gets me to beautiful, original territory.
9. What do you think your weaknesses are as a songwriter and how have you worked around them or worked to improve them?
My strength can also be my weakness. Sometimes a song calls for the simple answer that’s right in front of your face, and I can definitely overthink things and make them unnecessarily complicated. Collaborations have helped me realize that and have helped me shape things in a simpler, more effective way. I also think lyric writing is a challenge for me because I don’t practice it enough. I used to write a lot as a kid—I was always carrying a notebook and writing poetry and journal entries, and I’d like to get back to that or a practice close to that.
10. What is one important lesson you have learned through your experiences as a songwriter?
Can I say a few? 1) Know when to push yourself and know when to give yourself a break. 2) Don’t get too attached to your initial ideas and the way you thought things would turn out at first. You have to be open to hearing other people’s ideas and accepting that they might be better and create a better end result.
11. BONUS Question: How are you finding your creativity in the time of COVID-19?
Pretty similar to how it usually is: unpredictable. I can get pretty down on myself about that, but I’m trying to remember not to put too much pressure on myself. This is a turbulent time, and it’s okay if I process it through cooking, reading, and taking walks. It’s often easier for me to tackle other work and home-life tasks that don’t require my direct creativity. I finished one song that I’m proud of because 1) a friend challenged me to write a song (Hah!) 2) I was feeling very sad about a friend moving away. So maybe I need some more challenges in my life! I’ve also felt inspired to work on some new kids songs after reading some lovely children’s books recently.
Favorite song to dance to: “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn (I am a cliché.)
Favorite song to make out to: I don’t like to make out to music! Whoops! I find it distracting.
Favorite song to cry to: “Inconsolable” by Jonatha Brooke AND “Smoke Signals” by Phoebe Bridgers
Favorite song to work out to: “Sorry Not Sorry” by Demi Lovato
Favorite song to drive to: “Surfin’ U.S.A.” by The Beach Boys
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