New creative paths.

I’ve made 5 studio albums and I’m proud to say that each one of them is unique and different.

There are processes I repeat on a routine basis but there are other things I’ve moved away from, be it because my tastes have changed or what I did before was naive.

I’m working on my 6th album and I’m adopting new things I’ve never done before and it’s exciting. One thing I’m working with a lot more is synthesis and it’s uncomfortable because I’m working in an area where I’m not entirely sure what the creative outcome is. But that is part of the fun.

With each new project is an opportunity to try something different, follow a new path and evolve.

Judging creative productivity

There are several traps that cause creatives to feel anxiety.

One is writer’s block or more specifically a fear of bad writing. The other is getting the most out of a day and feeling that you have done a substantial amount of work.

There are four stages of creativity:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Verification

All four of these happen interchangeably and I know that I can spend ages on the fourth one where I am listening back to work I have done and trying to find ways to either develop it or affirm that it is finished. My first solo album took 6 months of post-production before I could say it was ready to release.

I remember hearing acclaimed singer songwriter Diane Warren talk about how she spent an entire day working on a couple of lyric lines because they were important.

That statement itself reveals the importance of revision, rewriting and giving time and effort to a small amount of quality material.

There is also some reassurance in that statement. Especially if you feel you aren’t producing enough. Giving time to intricate details can allow them to blossom with profoundly rewarding results.

The Ravel Affair

I am currently attempting to write my first string quartet. It is a significantly new creative path for me and very challenging but nevertheless rewarding.

Upon my research of different quartets, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major is one of my favourites. I consider it to be a beautiful piece with extraordinary passages and details typical of Ravel’s musical personality that would continue to evolve later on in his career.

What I find remarkable about the story of this piece is that it was his final submission to the conservatoire de Paris and Prix de Rome competitions to which both rejected the piece. Aside from having mixed reviews from the Parisian press, his teacher, Gabriel Faure, to whom the piece is dedicated to, dismissed the last movement as ‘stunted and in fact a failure’. Ravel himself believed that the quartet was an inadequate realisation.

Thankfully Debussy, whose own string quartet piece, which was written ten years previously and most likely had some influence on Ravel, wrote to him a letter with some words of encouragement and insisted he did not touch a single note of the piece he had written.

From what I’ve read, the truth appears that Ravel was an unconventional character with unconventional approaches to musical composition that was difficult for the conservatoire’s ultra conservative director to accept. He had enough resilience, or indifference to any other criticism than his own to keep going on his own path and it just so happens that the frustrations and failure he dealt with led him to propelling forward in his career and eventually being revered as one of the greatest French composers of all time.

Sometimes, art and the work created just so happens to be received in a time where the culture is not ready to accept its value. Some works find that appreciation is manifested at a later date, in some cases even beyond the life of the artist. Ravel’s String Quartet is now one of the most played chamber pieces.

The reason I like stories like this is that it reaffirms that steering your own creative path and focusing on what it is you want to achieve is better than changing what you do and who you are merely to fit in.

More often than not, innovation comes from the outside.

Thrashing through bad ideas

One of the interesting things about teaching composition is that it requires students to get used to exploring sounds, options and ultimately dealing with the fact that initially a lot of what they try isn’t going to work straight away.

There is a criteria you can set, you can work within parameters and music theory and other knowledge can certainly help in making choices that are suitable, but with that knowledge is also the willingness to take the rulebook and throw it away as that leads to innovation and originality.

Some students are so fearful of this, that it is requires a Herculean effort to put anything down. To create, we need to get used to putting down bad ideas and then thrashing through them.

Almost always, there is potential to find something worthwhile amidst the ideas that are laid down, that is where thrashing can happen. What is worth keeping? What can we develop here? Will this work better if we get rid of this part or save it for later? What if we try this or that approach? How can we make this better? A myriad of questions to ask and plenty of creative possibilities.

Being open to the creative possibility is key and it comes when we give ourselves an environment where we can thrash through what we have without any judgement from the outside world. Just you and the work, and maybe some trusted people to advise you along the way.

Any worthwhile path

Any worthwhile path will probably involve risk, discomfort, adversity, suffering and pain.

It is the reason why people don’t write a novel.

And systems have made sure we avoid that pain, that we stay comfortable, avoid risk and stick to complying, showing up and doing what we are told and expected to do without finding our own path.

I see it happen all the time. I hear people say they won’t do something because they are setting themselves up for disappointment, I’ve seen children denied a pathway because they parents are scared stuff of the risks involved.

The pain is real and it’s only natural to avoid it.

But the things that that part of us dares to do, feels compared to create is hard to ignore when we dig deep and listen to our desires. And I think it’s worth leaning into the tension to pushing ourselves to do it. There are choices to be made.

And one choice we have is to build the skills necessary to achieve what we want. With that comes the acceptance that if we want to write something good, we are probably going to spend significantly more time writing stuff which is bad. It’s only through the ongoing process of attempting, failing, failing more, failing again that we find ways to make things better. It may take years or decades to achieve your best work, but it can happen if you’re willing to pay your dues.

I thoroughly dislike the way ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ are used. As if a scarce amount of people are blessed by external force. Nonsense. This kind of limelight success story is more a tangled web of exceptional hard work, a supportive environment, benefit of the doubt, luck, being in the right place at the right time and often privilege.

You have the potential to create and make something. You just need to decide whether taking the path with many dips is the right choice for you.

The edges is where it is at.

Now and then I check the Spotify top 50 charts and my gut reaction is a wince.

I approach the music without prejudice and will always be fascinated by what makes a hit a hit, but other than my musicological curiosity. The music more often than not, is not for me.

I’ve come to learn that there is are fundamental reasons why the chart music does not work for me.

One reason is that my musically trained ears usually require something with a bit more sophistication.

Another is maybe that the production is a bit run of mill. Super loud, super compressed and sound choices that are being used at the time simply because their fashionable.

The most important reason is that my values as to what music means to me is rarely aligned with what is in the charts.

As a result. If I mentioned my top favourite albums to anyone around me, it is unlikely they have heard it.

I choose music that speaks to me in a way that is more personal, weird and interesting.

That is okay.

We are an era where hits mean very little. TV especially seems to be going through an extraordinarily exciting period of creative development where shows are coming up that are unique and tailor made for an audience with a specific taste.

If you aim to target only 1% of the population of the U.K. with what you create, that’s still 660,000 people.

It’s good to have a space in your creative output where you maintain a full sense of integrity, stay true to what you want to achieve and work in your niche.

Everyone else is already taken.

P.S. If you might like the music I like, below is the playlist. There is no better marketing tool than word of mouth.

Paying attention vs. Getting attention

It’s a really good idea to clearly distinguish the two. Paying attention is certainly more rewarding and fulfilling than getting attention.

By paying attention, I mean focusing on your creative goals, getting into the zone where time becomes elastic. This has happened to me when I have been working on a track and all of a sudden it is 4am in the morning or when I have been in the studio space and managed to cram 14 hours of guitar tracking into a single day.

Getting attention is an inevitable desire. We have made something and we want to share it with the world. It is of course necessary to have a strategy in place to ship and distribute our work, but for the sake of our mental health, we need to avoid the pitfalls that the combination of social media and the human condition have set up.

Whether I have had something viewed ten or ten thousand times, for the part of the brain that these numbers feed, it will never be enough. The stats are informative but they can also be a race to the bottom. Are we hustlers or are we creators? We must not let the numbers define the value of the creative work we do, especially when the journey is so rewarding for us.

The evolution of ideas

When I think retrospectively about the music I have made, I feel that each individual track has it’s own particular story.

‘High Rise’ from the new Kinky Wizzards album originated from a riff I wrote when I was 14. It took over a decade for me to apply it to a finished composition. On the other hand, the occasional idea can be materialised and finalised in a single day. Some tracks to which I composed just music all of a sudden work with pre-existing lyrics that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

There is a wonderful fluidity about creativity. More often than not though, I am dancing with gut instinct, educated guesses and trial and error (with a lot of errors) before I can with true conviction, tell myself that I am getting somewhere.

Without acceptance of the fact that we will make mistakes and things may or may not work, we would not be anywhere near as creative.

Primary school children are the best at doing this. As the late Sir Ken Robinson said, they are willing to give things a shot without ego getting in the way. As we get older, we are conditioned into avoiding mistakes and ultimately, I think that this is the biggest mistake we can make.

The enhancements of walking daily

For the best part of three months from March to May 2020, I, along with many residents, spent most of my time in my apartment in Dubai in isolation.

To pass the time, I kept fit doing mat exercises, I read, I wrote music, learnt new recipes and thankfully had a job that kept me busy. I also rewatched all of ‘Breaking Bad’.

Looking back at how challenging it was to be alone in that situation, I am glad that I found the resilience to respond well enough and cope with the situation.

Nevertheless, since the easing of restrictions and moving back to the U.K. I have gone for a walk almost every single day and cherish it more than I ever have done.

There has always been a cathartic quality to taking a walk and my curiosity led to me find out more about the benefits of walking. It is of no surprise that many great composers and entrepreneurs had walking in their daily routines. Steve Jobs was known to have ‘walking meetings’.

Besides the physical benefits of walking, there has also been developments in research that show that walking in fact enhances our cognitive capabilities and makes us more creative as well. (Here is a very detailed study on it https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xlm-a0036577.pdf)

I can vouch for this, I find myself thinking with more clarity when I go walking and some of my most lucid creative ideas can occur amidst the temporal movement of putting one front in front of the other.

So for those of you reading this, I challenge you to get a daily walk into your routine, even if it as short as ten minutes. You may be surprised of the possibilities that come from it.

Creative Inconveniences

The more I lead this utterly crazy life of creating music, the more I realise that for the most part, your best ideas will come at completely inconvenient times and that you have just got to deal with it.

I cycle across the west coast of Wales, between Cardigan and Abaraeron. A musical phrase enters my head, syncopated and an odd time feel, my head continuously runs through the idea as my legs keep pedalling. I have another 400 miles and five days of cycling before I can lay my hands onto a guitar to process that idea. Besides the delirium of burning 9000 calories a day and cycling almost the entire perimeter of Wales, this idea ceases to leave my head.

I queue up for a coffee in my student town, an opening of a song comes in my head, and I frantically write it into the notes of my phone before I order a cappuccino, to which the caffeine adds to more frantic stream of ideas that are trying to pass through somewhere other than my neurological system.

A three-hour train journey, and yet another musical phrase sets itself in my brain and is wishing to be unleashed. Fortunately, I was savvy enough to take manuscript with me on my venture but alas, a baby persistently cries within the carriage and I must persist through the piercing sound frequencies that imperatively grasps the attention from a child’s parents and forge my own frequencies that are trying to express something entirely different.

And finally I have the time to sit down and pursue these ideas in my studio space when all of a sudden a light bulb sparks itself in my head and says ‘Hello there! I am a bright new idea…I’m all sparkly and stuff’ and I retort by saying ‘Go away, I’m busy, could you have just waited a week or two?’ (I could do with a cup of tea; shall I opt for the smokiness of Lapsang Souchong or the lemon zestiness of Earl grey??? Oh, that reminds me, I haven’t eaten for nearly 24 hours as I have been too busy mixing!)

As I venture through this creative wonderland, excited yet perturbed, happy yet miserable (***The Tortured artist may well be NOT a myth, we are indeed pitiful souls…read all about it http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-zara/tortured-artists_b_1605509.html). I shall eventually create such a bizarre catalogue of music that most ordinary people will deem it the product of a crazed loony toon, and suitably conclude that it will fit in none other vicinity than Willy Wonka’s Chocalate Factory, only kept alive by loyal audience members that somehow see them isolated and estranged selves within this bohemian mirror.

Maybe one day, it will all subside and the endless lament of writer’s block shall instead vex me, and I shall disappear for five years (maybe grow a vineyard, or venture into carpentry, or buy a yacht). Then one day, inspiration will once strike me again, and I shall scheme a remarkable return to which I will alienate everyone by releasing my equivalent of Radiohead’s Tree Fingers.

Would I have it any other way though?

Nope.