That Escalated Quickly…

So. I posted this video on social media a couple of days ago. It’s about the awkwardness that surrounds being a wheelchair user who can stand and walk (a bit). It’s gained quite a bit of traction for me; over 100 views within a few hours of being posted, which is a lot for me – I have songs that haven’t got close to that in years.

I’ve had some great feedback, but more importantly I’ve seen comments from people who were shocked at themselves; they hadn’t considered this sort of thing, and maybe thought people like me were “faking” in some way. I don’t want to berate people; if I can change one person’s mind…

Clearly I have a lot to say on disability, and although I was unsure about talking about it on YouTube, it seems to be a good thing. So I’ll do more of it. So please, share this if you find it useful, and like and subscribe to stay up to date with the next ones. There’s plenty more on the subject, that’s for sure. x

Don’t Ignore The Day Job.

This. So much this. See the thread, Steve always has great stuff to say on this sort of thing (read: having a sustainable music career). My take on it is a little long for a tweet, so here it is.

I’m in a very privileged position, I know that. Making my music is very much the day job, in the sense that it’s where most of my income comes from, and I get to prioritise it over anything else. I have to be quite business-like about it; I’ve had success framing my music making in a way that has allowed me to pursue funding. There’s enough interest, enough newness, in what I do to keep doing it. That has meant I’ve paid the bills with my music for several years now, and I’ve enjoyed the post tour bubbles of not having to do anything for a little while.

And yet, that’s not the only thing I do. I still find myself in much more job-like settings, at least compared to touring and creating music with MiMu Gloves. Some of these jobs include:

  • Teaching music one-on-one.
  • Teaching music in SEN/D schools (usually with Drake Music).
  • Delivering training on Disability Equality & The Social Model Of Disability to workforces.
  • Writing and speaking about my experiences as a disabled person.

I don’t necessarily need to do these things, no. And on the occasions where I find myself in a school at 9:30am after a 2-hour drive, I may wonder why. Sometimes I have to say no to them, especially before a run of gigs. So if it’s not a pressing financial necessity at the moment, why do it? Because there are many more ways to measure value than in monetary terms.

Just to be clear, I’m not raking it in on tour or anything. Our household cost of living is fairly low, for various boring reasons. I didn’t really want these extra jobs when they started coming my way, but pretty soon the lightbulb came on.

These settings, this stepping out of my art and facilitating something, it felt important. It felt useful. I started to see the streak of triviality in my own ambitions to get famous and sell records. Yes, my music matters to me, but if all that comes of what I have to offer the world is my own success, that seems a bit… irrelevant. There’s already enough music, right? I’m not curing cancer.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit flippant. There’s a baked in diversity issue with anything I do. The music industry is an ableist mess, so my presence in it, however small, will always be more than just another singer/songwriter having a go. That’s not a good thing though, is it? My being disabled matters a lot to people, because disabled people are so poorly represented in music.

I’m digressing.

My point! Work outside of your own art – day jobs, side hustles, whatever you call them – they don’t have to be a compromise, and they don’t need to contradict your art. Quite the opposite. They can enrich it massively. Working with young people, especially young disabled people, is making me a better musician. It feels useful and worthwhile, but I can also be completely selfish about it; it makes my music measurably better.

So don’t give up the day-job/side hustle, and if you don’t have one, I can highly recommend finding one. For me, there’s been so much more value to it than money.

+1 For Demos.

I started writing songs in an era dominated by cassette tapes. My little Sanyo tape recorder had a built in microphone, and my earliest songs were committed to tape (real tape) that way. It looked something like this:

Sanyo tape recorder. Image via Google.

That worked perfectly well to get the ideas out of my head; chords, melodies, lyrics. But to imagine something more like a record, that would require multitrack recording. Fortunately, I had access to one of these:

And with that, I could make that most hallowed of things when you’re 14 in 1996; a Demo Tape.

There was never any illusions of finish with a demo tape. It was a demonstration of the song. I remember a cassette, given away free with the NME, doing the rounds at school. It included the demo of Oasis’ Live Forever. It was like hearing a sacred artefact. The difference between the demo and the hit, it revealed so much of the process. I knew I couldn’t make a record on 4 track, but I could get my vision across 4 whole tracks. 4 tracks! You don’t know you’re born etc etc.

Fast forward to this digital age of software instruments and final master quality sounds within a laptop, and the concept of a demonstration recording seems to have fallen away. In this part of the timeline, many of us just make the track. With so many great sounds available, why not? Even heavy guitars, traditionally a challenge to record well, can be direct injected straight into a laptop and into incredibly realistic amp simulations. It’s all possible; even the most ambitious ideas can be created this way, and it’s possible to start work with as through vision to a final master.

So why demo? Well, I think there’s a few things that get lost for me in the digital age. Art needs restriction to thrive, and the endlessness of opening a blank DAW session and working right through to a release lacks a certain boundary. Demos were restricted by all sorts of factors; time, format, resources. And in amongst those limitations is the excitement that feeds a song in it’s early stages.

I say this after testing the theory. Earlier this week, while working with one of my regular studio collaborators, I found myself needing to turn something around fast. We were working on a cover version, and the arrangement we had wasn’t landing for me. I had exactly 1 hour to fight my case and come up with something better. No time to A/B amp sims, no time to program drums in detail, I just had to throw stuff at the wall. I haven’t worked that way in a long time, and it was a revelation. Using Logic Pro X’s Drummer track, smashing the nearest guitar down via the first amp sim patch that was vaguely appropriate, we pulled a track together in an hour. It’s not the final thing, but it had a ton of energy.

Repeating the exercise the next day, I sat down and demoed one of my new songs. I gave myself the afternoon; if I didn’t have something reasonably listenable by the end of the day, the song was to be binned. No time to tweak, no time to even go to the studio. I sat in my living room and threw things down. Now at the end of the week, I’m listening to 4 demos. All too rough for public consumption, but full of energy and quick thinking. The first song had some structural issues that I just couldn’t find the inspiration to fix. I solved the problem in the final 20 minutes of my demo session, and the changes are some of my favourite things about the song now. Fresh music.

So I’m making demos again, and listening back to them in the evening, like I’m 15 again. Some simple ground rules guide this approach:

  • Limited time. An afternoon is enough.
  • A very “light” set-up: guitars DI’d, a dynamic mic to track vocals.
  • Use loops and/or MIDI packs to quickly sketch drums.
  • Feel the pressure! Solving problems is easier under pressure.

It’s important that these are not “good” recordings. There’s lots of holes, holes to be filled with imagination. There’s a greater sense of continuity across multiple songs too. For me, finishing one song, moving on to the next, it lacks consistency. Having rough demos to listen to side-by-side reveals narrative clues about how songs sit together. One song at a time in isolation, I lose that perspective.

As with anything, it’s a bespoke solution. This may be dreadful for you. Seeing a master recording through from a blank session may be the joy you get from the process. But for me, quick and rough snapshots, especially when dealing with a pile of songs, really helps. It feels familiar, and that’s part of it’s charm. Maybe that’s more the clue; tapping into the enthusiasm of my early, limited attempts at recording. Certainly, there was a magic to staying late after school to work on a Portastudio with one microphone that doesn’t come from opening Logic on my MacBook.

What about you? What parts of your early process could be worth tapping into? Let me know!

Sorting Through The Noise.

There’s a lot of online stuff that goes into a career these days. Facebook. Instagram. YouTube. Just making music isn’t close to enough to keep your head above water nowadays. Or so it seems.

I’m less convinced. We’re always being told how vital social media is. Most artists I know and like play a huge game to keep up. I’m not enjoying it, or connecting with it.

I’m dying this to be brutally honest. So you know what you’re buying into when you follow my music. I don’t like all this noise. I don’t like being on social media. I don’t like being on YouTube, in front of a camera. I didn’t come here for any of that. The very thing that we’re told to do to amplify our work feels like the noise that drowns it out.

I like writing here. It’s my corner of the internet. But the other stuff, I’m having a crisis of confidence over. Why am I on twitter? Why do I make blogs? Why the hell do I still use Facebook?

I’ve heard all the arguments why social media is important, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I just don’t like it. Maybe there’s a better way to make it more me, or maybe it really is just not for me. I’ve been an early adopter of most things, I was posting music online before even MySpace was a thing (Overplay anyone?). The conversation was fun, but it’s turned into something else now.

The internet doesn’t feel right anymore. It’s not a place I feel good about spending time in/on nowadays. It’s angry, contrived and trivial all at once. I have no idea what that has to do with making music now. Yes, I know; you have to be online nowadays. But I don’t want to.

Tic Tac No: Vector in Red.

These probably all look the same to most people, but there’s a few subtle moves in this one that I’m particularly proud of. Created in Adobe Illustrator as a vector for ease of printing/expanding – more on why soon.

Curiosity around this image continues to amaze may. It has a life of it’s own way beyond my music. I’ve had a few questions about the specific gameplay and my choices of the positions of the “plays” – I’ll create an infographic soon to explain exactly how this particular game is played, and the significance of each stage, but for now, enjoy version no. 2638…

A naughts and crosses board with a correct answer of three Xs in a row, which goes unacknowledged while an incorrect answer is marked as correct.
Categorized as Visual.

Lazy Guitar Jams (and Hand Issues).

I love this guitar. I’ve been playing a few different things lately, and forgot how spankingly clean and crisp this ageing shred machine can be. I was going for that Yvette Young clean crunch vibe. This video is also useful to see how Cerebral Palsy affects my picking hand. This type of playing definitely is easier to manage than the fingerpicking that caused me so much hand weirdness. It’s also a lot cooler sounding too, right?

For some context, this is what I was trying to do before the gloves. Ouch.

All that finger picking was really tough on my hand. Worst of all, I can’t stand the sound of it now. I fucked my hands up for that? Yeesh.

Zanshin: Exploring Movement

Japanese and English writing in a notebook.
Ayaka’s bilingual notes.

There’s much going on, but yesterday I was able to put in some more time with Ayaka Takai on Zanshin, the choreography/MiMu Gloves exploration we’re working on at the moment. Big thanks Arts Council England.

It’s really exciting work. It continues to surprise me from all directions. One of the biggest things to get snagged around is just how little I understand my body and how to move it. Everything takes a degree of concentration, even standing and walking, so following choreographed steps? Wow. That’s some brain bandwidth.

I notice things about my body I’ve never noticed before. In one movement, I bring my hands together in a prayer position, and then raise my elbows. The tightness in my wrist and shoulder on my right side is a new experience. But yes, it does feel like I’m getting fractionally better at moving as a result.

Ayaka and I are still at the visual design stage; creating movements and an aesthetic. I knew I wanted this to be informed by Japanese dance, with that sense of delicate precision, and of course Ayaka is able to bring that. I also understand it. I’m not just trying it on for size; it looks how I feel, or at least how I imagine myself. The reality is different I know. Clunky, wobbly, jerky; but inside I’m graceful.

Songs as Containers.

I’ve always imagined songs as little boxes that I put feelings into. Once I’d written a song about something, I felt like it couldn’t hurt me anymore.

I’m currently researching for my modest academic ambitions (a story for another time) and was really excited to learn that my theory about songs stands up to credible scrutiny.

This comes from a paper on Songs In Psychotherapy by Kenneth E. Bruscia. I’ve just started reading it, but it’s already giving me so much to think about. If that sounds like your thing too, here it is.

Does that work for you? How does music serve you in your life?