Zanshin: Making Peace With My Body.

Me + choreographer Ayaka Takai. Our collaboration begins very soon.

I’m always looking toward the next thing. A new way to do things. A new place to play in. Thanks to my recent Developing Your Creative Practice award from Arts Council England (Yay!) I’m about to start my next big creative adventure. No time to sit still.

Under the working title Zanshin, this new work explores a few ideas, mostly through threads that have been asking me to tug them for a while. One of the most common questions I get asked is about composition; what is it like to compose music with the gloves? Quite honestly, I’m still learning. The amount of gigs I’ve played in the last 3 years has meant largely being a slave to my back cat – there’s been little time to compose. So that I knew had to be explored.

I’ve also become increasingly aware of the physicality of my work. It’s super-ironic; I’ve been held back most of my life by my impaired movement. I never did sports. I couldn’t run around as a kid. And here I am, making a living making a kind of music where my body is very much part of the instrument. Glove shows are very physical, and I want to dig deeper into that. And the way to ‌do that, I figured, is through discipline in the physical movement. Specifically, choreography.

So that’s in the budget too. The choreography is where I saw a neat opportunity to tie this project into my interests in Japan.

As I think most people who know me know, I recently worked in Japan with Drake Music. It was a trip of a lifetime, with years worth of inspiration. Over lunch in Kawasaki I was discussing my ambitions to work with a choreographer with our friends British Council Japan. We chatted about Japanese dance, particularly the influence of traditional Japanese dance on J-Pop. It was a real light bulb moment, and the conversation turned to the idea of me working with a choreographer in Japan. The delicateness, the discipline; the more I learned about Japanese dance the more it made sense.

Back home, reflected on this, I reached out to a Japanese choreographer friend-of-friends, Ayaka Takai. Ayaka is based in Tokyo; although we didn’t meet in Japan, our mutual friends brought her to my attention. Ayaka studied in London, and as well as being a successful contemporary dancer, she also worked in the space between dance and disability. I introduced myself; she’d already seen me in action thanks to the British Council. She totally got it. We talked a lot. We had ideas exploding from all angles. We hatched a plan, and wrote a funding bid. We’d like to once again thank Arts Council England.

But the working title. Maybe the title. What is it?

Zanshin is one of many Japanese ideas I’ve fallen in love with of late. Along with Koi No Yokan and Ikagi, it’s one of those Japanese that occupies a subtle space that is difficult to translate into Western language.
Zanshin can be described as a state of relaxed awareness, a focused alertness. The term originates from Japanese martial arts, and naturally appeals to my Buddhist sensibilities. In particular, the idea relates to a “combative awareness” of the body.
This is a good word to describe the state I’ve been trying to achieve whilst performing. I’m trying to bring a relaxed awareness to my presence in my body on stage when performing with the gloves. My earliest performances were very much of the head; internally trying to remember the next movement. That state was complex and stressful.

Practicing mindfulness taught me how to be present in my body, and I soon learned that my body knew better than my head where the next movement was to. I came to realise that performance was way less about trying to remember what to do, and much more about being in a state of focus where the performance can unfold itself.
So this idea has become really central to working in this new space. I want it to start with this awareness, this presence, in the body. I want to inform composition ideas – and ultimately songwriting – in the sense of my body. In that sense that I’m here, alive.

This might sound strange, but I have a weird relationship with my body. It doesn’t work well, and it’s kind of been my nemesis. The clue is in the language there; it’s not me. I’m up here, in my head; the wonky bag of meat and bones is just the thing that carries my brain to where I need it to be.

That’s not a very healthy way to see yourself, is it?

So, goal number one: maybe this project, through the movement and music connecting, maybe it will help me build a better relationship with my body. Myself, even. Whatever else, that would make it a pretty life changing piece of art.

The BuJo.

A green notebook with a pink pen resting on it.

It didn’t sound like my kind of thing at all, but at the start of this year I thought I’d give the Bullet Journal thing a try. It’s *really* revolutionised my life and work. I couldn’t imagine a notebook and pen replacing apps like OmniFocus and OneNote, but the analogue process is why it works. Music making in the digital requires so much screen time, it’s really important for me to reflect and collect my ideas away from a computer. There’s apps for that, but I now think organising your life on a device that is designed to distract you is a contradiction. Putting the smartphone down and picking up a pen and paper *really* focuses and refines your ideas. Two caveats: it takes practice – I spent 6 months refining my process. And that’s the other thing; you have to make it yours. But that’s the genius of the system; it’s enough of a framework to build your own system on top. This is my second BuJo; I’m so glad I hopped on the BuJo bandwagon. It’s making me a better musician, a better human even.

Recording, Capturing, Moving.

I’m still making things. Things you listen to. Things you listen to that are made in a computer.

It makes less and less sense.

Making music with computers can be – for me, at least – incredibly frustrating. I don’t particularly enjoy using electronic devices screens with screens. In fact I find it really annoying after about an hour, and I lose momentum. I’m thinking more and more about how to navigate that. I get nostalgic for screenless workflows like tape – I started out with a Tascam Portastudio. But, alas, that seems contrived at this point. Heading back to tape doesn’t exactly serve the song.

But recording itself doesn’t always feel like it serves my art anymore. There’s so much physicality to what I do; my live performances are where it’s at, so to speak. It’s not performance art exactly, but it feels like if I call it that it’s closer than saying I’m a Recording Artist. Hmmm. You can’t get all that movement into Pro Tools. But I’m a songwriter and a singer first and foremost, so those are things that are served well by recording. Maybe I’m just feeling the growing pains of adjusting to a career that is no longer one thing – recording songs is now only part of the puzzle; but it used to be the only piece.

I don’t share these internal processes for any other reason than they might be useful. Maybe reading about how I navigate a sticky creative problem will help you solve one of your own. That’s what I’m really interested in, I’m coming to realise. I would love to think that my process is useful, that untangling knotty problems on a blog – not just in my head – might be useful to someone besides me.

And, yeah; that does have a ring to it – it’s a multisided thing nowadays. There’s lots of different aspects to my work that can’t be captured audibly. See? I just needed to get it out of my head and into yours to see it differently…

What creative problems do you face regularly? How do you untie them?