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Neil Sedaka – On Staying Creative

Continued from our feature on Neil Sedaka…

Your output is astonishing and, drawing on your classical training, you’ve even composed a piano concerto, ‘Manhattan Intermezzo’. What advice do you have for singers to develop creativity every week?

It’s not easy. But you have to try to top yourself, even reinvent yourself. It would be boring if you did the same chord schemes and harmonic patterns all the time. I sit down at piano at several points during the year – and it is scary to stare at a blank piece of paper.

Are you saying that after 55 years and 500 songs, it’s still scary?

Yes. It is very scary to have that piece of paper in front of you. I always have a love-hate relationship with writing. You do have to use a part of the brain that you do not normally access in other areas of your life. The more you use it, the better you become. If you stop for a long time, then you have to start from scratch again. It is also scary when one is considered a great writer – you have to live up to that reputation.

Can you take us more deeply into the songwriting process?

I think that songs can emerge from three different places – the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. Emotional creations arise when you are going through a drama in yourself and you want to get it out on paper as a catharsis – you cry it out. Intellectual writing is when you have a tune in your mind and you work to get it written down in the best form. Spiritual writing is when you just feel as if you’ve been chosen by something higher than yourself – these songs write themselves.

How do you do the work of songwriting – is there a process to it – or is it all a mystery?

I listen to other singers – I’m inspired by listening to specific voices. I think to myself, ‘I can write something for that voice.’ Or maybe even, ‘I can write something even better than that in their style.’ After all, creative people always bounce ideas off of others. I can write any time of the day but I usually declare to myself that I will be writing at a certain time, say 10am. I turn it all off at the end of the day because you can get yourself confused if you stay at it too long.

Is it just as much work to come up with lyrics as it is to come up with music?

Lyrics are like puzzle pieces to me; I have a theory that there is only one word that is the proper word to go with a musical note. I go through all the combinations to find that word.

Your album, “Real Neil”, has won much critical acclaim.

I’m very proud of “Real Neil” – I had never really done an acoustic album. Early in the process I wondered if I would have liked Adele, Coldplay, Maroon 5 or others to cover these songs, but in the end I decided I wanted my fans to hear the songs the way they were conceived, just piano and voice.

And you’ve written a piano concerto, featured on this album…

I started as a concert pianist; in fact, my son Mark Sedaka pushed me back to my classical roots. After all these years of writing pop I was afraid to venture back there. Yet I persevered and I am really proud of the result. In Manhattan Intermezzo I wanted to express musically the melting pot of NYC. I wanted to bring in the spirit of New York to life, the Latin, Asian, Russian, Broadway and the New York of today and yesterday.

I take it that this project has kept you on the creative edge?

You have more creative freedom when writing a serious piece more harmonic and rhythmic complexities – you can go outside the patterns. I have been so damn melodic in my career, yet I was educated at Julliard and have played Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. I said to myself, let me try to do this – but it will be my own creation, very American and “Sedaka-esque”. After all, George Gershwin wrote pop and went back to serious music – there are others too – Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser.

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