They want to know all sorts of things:
-- which comes first, music or words?
-- if you're composing new music for a liturgical text, how do you choose the texts? Is it inspiration, commission or what?
-- how difficult is it to write about your own life?
-- how do you write about your own life while at the same time making the song universal so others can relate to the story?
These are all good questions. I'll try to answer some of them here.
First, I started out by writing music first. Music always came more easily to me in the beginning. I'd noodle around on my guitar, like something I came up with and then play it over and over again until it stuck in my head and hands. Then I'd put it aside for awhile. Sometimes words would come to me that seemed to fit the music; other times I'd actually try to find words that fit. Lately I have had some success with writing lyrics first and seeing what music came from the feelings evoked by the lyrics. It works both ways.
As for settings of liturgical [Hebrew] texts, I've often written these because I am burned out on the existing settings in use in a given community, or an existing setting doesn't fit a particular service or group or whatever. (I admit that, as much as I love, honor and respect Debbie Friedman's contribution to the Jewish musical canon, I am ready to take an occasional vacation from her setting of Mi Shebeirach. That helped, in part, to inspire me to come up with my own musical setting of a healing prayer, the "R'faeynu" you'll hear on "Ten Miles".) Burnout on -- or, admittedly, lack of exposure to -- existing material (in the Jewish music realm) has inspired a lot of the children's music I've written, especially for preschoolers. The setting of "Adonai S'fatai" on my album "Ten Miles" was composed one evening, about five minutes before the start of a middle- and high-school T'filah (prayer service). I made it up, wrote it down and grabbed the assistant rabbi to teach her the "echo" part so I'd have a "ringer" in the room. Then we just sort of did it when the time came. The kids caught on quickly and liked it, and we've used it several times since. (With that one, I was lucky. They don't all work out so well.)
It can be both difficult and extremely liberating to write from my own life experience. There are several songs on "Ten Miles" that draw directly from my personal history or that of my family. Tackling sensitive subjects like assimilation, loss or the chasms between adult children and their parents is not something I've taken on lightly. In one case, I wrote a song and put it away in whole, in its finished form, for ten years before I dared to play it for anyone (including my spouse). The topic was simply too loaded for me to sing out loud once I'd written it. It took a decade -- of struggle, honesty and just the passage of time -- before I finally felt safe enough to play it in front of anyone. When I finally did perform the song, I didn't change one thing about the way I'd written it -- not one note or word. I don't know what that means but it seems worth mentioning here.
The personal is often universal. We've all experienced fear, loss, abandonment and grief of one kind or another in our lives. That helps me to figure out ways to say what's in my heart without being so specific that the song becomes either too personal or too inappropriate for anyone else to relate to. I'm not always successful at this; when I'm writing something that threatens to be too personal and direct, I stop, put it away and let time ferment and mellow it a little.
One thing I learned to do early on is to save everything I write, words and music both. The chorus for the song "Ten Miles" came from words I'd written down on an Amtrak brochure while taking the train home from my failed attempt at graduate school in February 2002. I liked the words and, even though I didn't know what to do with them, I stuck them in a file and forgot about them. In very late 2011, I came across the brochure, found the words I'd written and they became the germ that grew into the song you hear today. So I save everything. I never know when I'll find a use for it. Kinda like lots of things in life, I guess.