The Lyrical Process. Part One.

It starts by not thinking. If I sat down and tried to think up a lyric, I’d look like a dog being shown a card trick. Blankest of blank expressions.

My approach to lyrics is just to capture enough stillness of mind that whatever words are there (and they’re always there) can come into focus. It’s an exercise in listening to your subconscious, and it starts with a quiet mind.

Around the age of 14 I discover R.E.M. and my ideas of songwriting were twisted around. This surreal language that Michael Stipe sang in, personal yet distant, felt like a puzzle of the heart. I wanted to unravel the stories, and I learned more of who I was as I did so. This is long before the internet was reliably a thing, but I did manage to find lyric sheets via the school’s library computer, and slowly complied a songbook of lyrics. I poured over them, and they informed my approach.

I read somewhere that Stipe saw sleep deprivation as a technique, so of course, I explored that. Not a healthy place to go when your dealing with a lot of mental health issues, but I went there and found the sweet spot. In that weird fog of tiredness, I could pour lyrics for days.

As I matured I realised that I didn’t need to push myself so far to the edges of my wellbeing. Quietening the noise of the conscious mind’s endless narrative was enough. I dabbled in Buddhist meditation on my spiritual cherry picking journeys (another post, another time) and I got a vague grasp of my mind.

I’ve let it slip many times, but when I’m writing lyrics, that’s the space I need to be in. Quiet enough, still enough. Then, I write. I don’t analyse anything. I don’t question it; whatever flows, flows. No, it’s not all good.

There’s normally a lot of it. There’s loads of clunky lines. Maybe I’ll come up with one interesting line in 50. Making a conscious decision to focus on a subject a little definitely yields more robust results. I have books and books of stuff that doesn’t read as if it’s about anything. Gentle direction is useful, the trick is not to steer it. I just listen.

I plucked one out of the archive to share here. I wrote this in the lat couple of weeks; subject matter is obvious enough. There’s a few nice images, maybe it’ll grow up to be a song. Maybe it won’t.

Shaping them into songs is a whole other process. I’ll follow up on that soon. Tl;DR – it’s slow work.

What excites me about this still is that imagination is always bubbling, always ready. There’s always something to be said. You just have to be quiet enough to hear it.

Techniques/Promises

I get colder every year,  
Cherry blossoms pass me by,  
Kawasaki-Shi,  
You’re wasted on me,  
I’m wasted in you,  
Shenmui
,  
Catch me,
I’m vending machine plastic,
I’m asleep on the belt,  
I’m raining down slowly,  
So alive in this city,  
Blood transfusion red,  
And still on my way,  
I promise I’ll come back.  

The Holotype: Log II – Entry 2

It’s a game of two halves. The scene is set when I bring into focus the right kind of electronic elements with the right kind of live elements. So what are the right elements?

As I mentioned recently, my refocusing of electronic sounds comes from revisiting the world of synth based music I grew up hearing. I can always get emotional about that stuff. And emotional it’s supposed to be. The problem with most of the music I’ve made that I haven’t released – of which there is a lot – is that it’s music of the head. It’s not moving me, it’s only intriguing me. But to commit to anything long enough to see it through, you have to love it.

One of the new songs is called A Generous Breath. I’ve been building the electronic sounds today. I’m not sure I’ve got anywhere, but shipping often means sharing it now. This feels like a digital skeleton that I’ll add muscular riffs to.

The aesthetic is coming into focus, and that’s the key thing. I think about how it “looks” in my mind; I’m applying my art college thinking here. Does it conjure up the images I want it to? As a matter of discipline, I’m trying to lean more heavily on my visual imagination to make sounds. To be continued.

Fair warning: it’s just a bag of ideas, and it will change dramatically I’m sure. Still, it feels good to share *something* nevertheless.

The Holotype: Log II – Entry 1

Patrons will know this one. I was making a collection of new songs (“album” doesn’t quite sound right), which there was a series of behind the scenes webisodes made for. I’ll add those here soon, but this is Chapter 2 of that making of.

I put the idea to bed for a bit, partly because I was busy with live stuff, partly because I’d lost connection with it. But, it would be a great thing to finish off, so I’m picking it up. Dusting it off. It sounds awkward, and a little ugly. It lacks focus. But the stories it tells are worth telling.

So this is the Captain’s Log. Written word this time around. I’m not sure how useful all that footage of me sitting in a room is. Log II is this, me picking it back up. Log I as it’s now referred to is the series of videos in the Patreon. I will try and ship often, as the modern way. Snapshots of audio, images. It’s an open, unfinished book.

Trent Reznor on Synth History.

This is fascinating. TR didn’t get to be synth guru through happenstance; he had a really unique position to witness the development of synths in the late 70s and 80s.

It’s really interesting to hear him poke at the popularity of the DX7; it’s influenced my use of software synths a lot with my use of Native Instruments FM8. It’s interesting to hear that that ubiquitous 80s has very different connotations at the time…

Nine Oh Nine!

I love love LOVE 909s. I don’t own one obviously, but I’ve used so many hardware and software replications over the years. Something about that snare – punchy AND snappy – that gets me every time.

Here’s a cool video by Doctor Mix showing some famous 909 patterns. Most are obvious, but at 1:23 – boom – one of my favourite songs. Hunter by Bjork; how she uses the 909 is beautiful. I’ve heard that beat hundreds of times; hadn’t worked out how it was done.

Of course, Bjork is the master at repurposing EDM tropes. Her chopping up of the classic Amen Break on the outro of Crystalline? Beyond beautiful.

Writing Funding Bids (The Writing bit).

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
iA Writer.

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..!

Hold Your Kiss – Demo May 2019

So obviously, I’ve been super busy performing live. For 3 years. I haven’t recorded anything meaningful in years. Kinda fell out of love with it. So I’m breaking the silence in about the most low key way: with a demo. This is super rough, guide vocal, not mixed, just a microphone and a laptop. It’s the antidote to all the big studio stuff I tried to do before. The finished thing will be more of a… thing, but for those of you who find the process interesting, here’s me without my make up on… 

Glimpses At Retro Future.

There’s a lot to say on the subject of recording. I haven’t released any in a long time, have I? The irony is amazing to me; I thought I could only realistically progress as a Recording Artist; live music was so inaccessible. Now, my life has been about playing live for so long, I can barely remember what recording is like.

The process has, for me, got wrapped up in a lot of nonsense. I’m a songwriter. Wrestling with which brand of compressor to buy won’t make me a better songwriter, but I’ve put a lot of time into that anyway. That’s a subtle, sneaky kind of procrastination. Tools are shiny. It’s very tempting to think you always need the shiniest. I’m learning to know my space; shiny toys are best left to technical types that can find joy in that. I actually don’t, but I have a lazy procrastinating streak that thinks the job is all about the tools.

The clue here isn’t to avoid/minimise technology. Technology can be emotive, and emotive is where we must head. You have to be truly in love with something to do it well.

And through a vortex of musical discovery with my Better Half, we find ourselves listening to the synthesizer.

Synths interest me, but I don’t *love* them. But through my Better Half’s love of Synthwave, the genre of EDM that time travels itself to the mid-80s, I’m reminded that I *did* love them dearly. As a kid, I listened to Vangelis a lot, thanks to my dad giving me a cassette of the album China. I loved the big, spooky noises, the dramatic chord changes, the delicate melodies.

Being a child in the 80s was all about movies. Of course it was. And movies had soundtracks. Perhaps alarmingly, may brother and I were allowed to watch Terminator at a *really* young age. Brad Fiedel’s synth score was forever uploaded to memory.

And from there, it’s easy to get emotionally invested in technology. It’s super emotive to me, Synthwave makes me feel like a kid again. And of course, that’s it’s purpose for a certain age group. The defaultness of this is fascinating to me. It’s simply to do with age; I’d get a similar feeling from different music if I’d born in a different decade, surely?

But there is an emotional playground. It doesn’t make me crave a nostalgia fix in my work, though. I’m still looking to the future. I used to pride myself on always trying to push forward, oblivious to the necessity of looking back for clues. I can’t reinvent music. To quote Steve Via: I’m not original, and nor is anyone else. Except The Shaggs.

But still, in this old sounds, I hear the future. I hear what I imagined my life would be like now. And yes, my lack of hoverboard is so painfully obvious. And cars still have wheels. I feel cheated.

Childhood is imagination. Mine wasn’t good. It was painful. It was hard. My body didn’t work. My imagination was my escape. But at some point, recording music stopped being my imagination, and started being my career choice. It stopped being something I needed, and became something I had to do to play some game imagined by the music industry I felt alienated from anyway…

Yawn. How unimaginative.