You know the spiel. Write that novel! Make that album! Learn that language!
Like many people, I expect, I wanted to believe that I was going to make the best of this time. But it’s going stale. Becoming toxic. The idea that all this extra time is an opportunity feels horribly flawed.
This isn’t normal. These aren’t the conditions to be creative. There aren’t any right conditions of course, but when there’s so much BIG stuff hanging over us, it can feel incredibly futile, trying to make something. Uncertainty is everywhere. From a distance, with the right amount of equanimity, that can be inspiring. When it’s hanging over you, less so.
But of course, so many people are making interesting work, which only makes the lack of inspiration worse. People are getting on with it. Why can’t we all?
So, no, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything of note with this time. And I’m wondering if I will. And I’m wondering if I should even worry about it.
The alternative narrative is emerging. In articles, in memes, in tweets. It’s okay if you’re not doing your best work now. We still have to survive this thing.
I’ve got songs all over the place. Ideas for videos/blogs/whatever. But I don’t have the mindset to make sense of it. I’ve also got three kids at home, and we’re trying to homeschool those. We’re struggling to buy food. I don’t know where the next pay cheque is coming from. And I’m going to make my best music in all this?
I’m looking for the threads to pull, the right ones. To find something exciting and inspiring. And manageable.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
Reviewing sessions away from the DAW or even a screen is so useful. I document every meaningful bit of progress, as well as trying to capture my thoughts on how I feel about the work. It’s where the real work happens now; the recording session is the factory floor. That’s not really where the ideas happen now, that’s where I execute them.
And it almost goes without saying, but this is my favourite bit. More on this in Patron Exclusive – I’ll post about my review process in detail there shortly, but to summarise – give yourself time to think. Don’t rush. Make room for inspiration. It’s there.
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?
Today I submitted my second application to Arts Council England’s Developing Your Creative Practice programme. It’s really great opportunity for artists to develop work without a lot of the pressures that traditional project grants involve. Crucially, there is no Match Funding needed, and no Audience. An Arts Council grant requires both of those things: you have to raise some of the money (minimum 10%) from another source, and you have to have realistic figures for audience repack (i.e. how many people you expect to see your work).
That’s how my first tour was funded; I had money from another organisation (maybe 20%) and I had (hilariously underestimated) attendance projections. I’ll do Project Grant’s again in the future, but for my latest live show, I wasn’t quite ready. I needed to develop a new approach first, which is why I applied to the DYCP programme late last year. That was a success, and I was able to develop a new live show, which opened in Birmingham in April this year. More on why I needed a new process another time.
This time, I’m digging a bit deeper into the process. I’m not going to give too much away about why I’ve applied a second time, but the proposal takes my work with the gloves in a new direction, and one I get asked about a lot. More on that soon. Feel free to guess in the comments.
But anyway. Writing funding bids is a difficult but necessary part of making art sustainable for a lot of people and organisations. I have a few strategies to share over a number of posts. But for now I wanted to give you my thoughts on the writing process itself.
I wouldn’t go as far as to call this a tip, and it’s certainly not a plug, but I find iA Writer really useful for this stuff. A couple of things:
Focus mode. I can keep the line of text I’m writing in the centre of the screen. It’s a really distraction free way to write
Dark Appearance. This is not for everyone, but I find typing white on black background much easier on the eyes and I can type way longer. Some people find it horribly distracting, YMMV.
The killer feature: always visible stats. Especially character stats. The Arts Council Developing Your Creative Practice application portal has a maximum character count – not word count. iA Writer allows you to keep that stat visible at all times. Really useful when you have to hit a really succinct few points in very few characters.
There are other free apps that do all of the above and more, but after a lot of time trying different things, this is the workflow for me. I’m finding it really useful for all writing too, so I’m gradually moving blogging and lyric writing (when not done in a trusty Moleskine) to here.
So that’s how I write a funding bid. Oh, and I use the Pomodoro Technique, and this one is nearly up. So I’ll save the rest of this thread for another time..!
Alt text: a handwritten note, which I have not yet been able to transcribe. Looking into a way of converting these hand written notes. Irony overload: handwritten blog posts are more accessible for me, not accessible at all for some of my readers… I’m working on a solution xx
It’s kind of a cliche to talk about creativity as an elusive thing. Terms like “Writer’s Block” validate our perception that inspiration can escape the gravity of our ambitions at any time. I’m less and less convinced that this is true.
It doesn’t follow that I am therefore inspired all of the time, sadly. Imagine! If I’d found the “cure” to writer’s block! And look at you; finding this blog post. Together, we’ve turned the key, and unlocked endless creativity. Sigh. It’s a nice thought. I’ve done almost nothing, except noticed a side door we can maybe squeeze through.
The sense, the essence, the flavour of creativity is a mindset. You know what focus feels like. In NLP, we might refer to it as a state. The internal “weather” of our emotional inner landscape is incredibly vivid when we feel creative. It may appear elusive, like it comes from nowhere, but we can kinda game it.
If you pay enough attention, you notice the things that get you in that kind of flow. Listening to really great music will reliable fire up my ego with enough “I wanna make something THIS good” enthusiasm. Finding quality work to inspire is easier than ever.
Of greater threat is distraction, which is (surprise surprise) easier than ever to find. Social media is gravitating further towards toxicity in many of our lives, and I’ve personally been slow to respond. Tellingly, I’ve noticed more and more great minds I admire are stepping away from the noise. Between Brexit, Trump, Inspo, and the endless chatter of not-much-at-all, there’s never been more information thrown at us more indiscriminately. It’s just noise. It seemed comedicly unrealistic when Marty McFly Jr sat down to watch 12 channels at once, but that’s literally the future we live in. As a minimum, we should be honest with ourselves about how bizarre and unhealthy our social media habits are.
My life is a little disjointed now. Kids bring endless joy, but seemingly endless responsibility. Three school runs chainsaw straight through my day, and any hope of working for hours and hours uninterrupted is long gone. But that’s just life. Most of us have reassuringly normal responsibilities, few of us can live the retreat life of the fictional artist. So that’s why it’s vital to keep that headspace intact. Keeping our creative internal weather conditions stable. I get yanked around by my schedule, but if I can stay in the right state, I can always pick up where I left off.
So I’m focusing on nurturing that space. Be ready. Be open. You don’t actually have to do anything. Thoughts think themselves. The clever bit, the real skill, is turning the volume down enough to hear them.