Music and purpose

One of the mental barriers I’ve been wrestling with is what to do with my songs once they’re written? I have plenty to say, and I enjoy the writing process. But there is a big part of me that finds it hard to get motivated unless I have a clear “point” in doing it. That was the crux of my previous post—how to break free of that mentality, and find motivation and momentum…

I’ve commented a few times to friends recently that I’ve been “re-learning” how to do a whole bunch of things that used to come naturally. Things like just wandering into my studio space and picking up a guitar to work on a new song for a few minutes, or just play an old one like I did in my apartment in Neutral Bay, or when I was working (briefly) in the UK. Sitting down at my music workstation and just messing around with a new soft-synth like I did when I got the “Logic Big Box” software when I was living in Parramatta. Being aware of and writing down a lyric idea while at a cafe or on the train like I did when I was first starting to write with Glance. Watching or reading something on a recording technique, and doing some rough-and-ready experiments to see how it works, like Ashley and I used to do after school.

These were things that I’d managed to “un-learn” somehow… that I’d built up so many internal barriers around. No, if I was putting time in, I had to do something that was “purposeful.” Working towards a show, or an EP release. It had to be polished and professional.

And as you up the ante, that requires more and more time. Time that I “couldn’t afford” (read: didn’t allow myself.) And also a difference in headspace: to sit down for a few hours and do something that might, or is likely, to be thrown away. Just to learn, to experience, to “play,” and experiment. To make mistakes.

I definitely credit my partner, Juliette, in helping me to rediscover, unlock, and feel more comfortable doing these sorts of things. But while I’m feeling a greater sense of freedom in allowing myself to just experiment and try things and do little bits here and there—and I’ve experienced much progress in these small acts—I still find having a project or a “target” is an important thing for me. With Glance or Fuzu (my previous bands), it was regular weekly rehearsals, up-coming gigs, and/or working towards an EP release. At this juncture, where I’m at, where I live, where the music industry is heading (and my perspective and relationship to it,) my budget… those sorts of motivators just aren’t there.

So, I started thinking about what does it mean to be a singer-songwriter nowadays? I watched the YouTube videos of new artists that were catching my attention and providing me inspiration, now with a different perspective—not only watching as an audience member, but also analysing how people are using video and what they’re recording and releasing.

The first thing I noticed is I needed to rethink what a “release” meant. And to not focus as much on getting a super-polished, perfect “product.” My thoughts started to coalesce around how I might get out there more, sharing stuff that less “polished” but more regularly. Thus the Soundcloud profile.

But it’s also critical to have something visual, and it doesn’t have to start out being a full “video clip.” Recordings of live performances, be it on stage, in a studio, or even a bedroom performances, are pretty common. So, I’ve been working out how I might do some solo performances to camera as a way of sharing material earlier and more regularly. But also thinking about “lo fi” video clip ideas, that I could pull off myself (or with help from a few friends.)

The other night I watched this video from Damien Keyes and it was a real “aha!” moment for me, just pulling together these disparate threads that were jostling for space in my head:

I will be trying to do more of this—it makes sense. Another thing that Damien says, (though I can’t recall in which video) is that you need to do what you love. That’s job number 1. Without that, nothing else flows.

So I started to think: what is it about music that I really LOVE doing? What brings out my passion for music? If I’m not satiating that need, I’m not going to put the effort into all the other stuff around it, especially if I only have a limited time each week to do so.

It didn’t take long to come up with this short list:

  1. writing—music is a form of expression for me, that connects emotional and intellectual worlds. Intellectual in the content of the lyrics, emotion in connecting those lyrics to a musical base that makes you feel something.
  2. performing—sharing those songs live, in a room, with other people. Before a performance I have a small affirmation that I say to myself—if sharing my music connects with one person in the room, makes them think, makes them nod their head either to the music or because they connect with a lyric, helps them feel like they’re not alone, prompts them to look at something differently, I’ve fulfilled my purpose; and
  3. recording—to take a song from an early sketch to a point where the arrangement and recording presents it the way I hear it in my head. Sharing the “end product” with other people is also a joy—for the same reasons I outline in point 2. But there is an inherent joy for me in the recording process itself. The experimentation. The process of layering up parts, arranging, mixing.

Looping back to my opening statement in this post: I find point 1 hard if neither point 2 and/or 3 are happening. If there’s no “outlet.”

Performing live is becoming harder and harder. Venues are becoming rarer and rarer, especially for my style of music in my local area (if only I was into folk or roots & blues!) Trying to get a band together is proving harder and harder with life commitments getting in the way. Organising gigs is a big time sink that relies on other people and is very “hit and miss,” requires building a following online, getting numbers to shows etc. etc. A huge amount of extra work.

In the digital realm, the idea of performing is also changing shape. Increasingly a “performance” is done in front of a camera. No direct connection to the audience, in a room with other people. And, again, a whole bunch of extra work to make that worthwhile—building an online following through comments and hanging in forums etc., something that doesn’t really bring me joy (especially given my day job involves tech.)

But point 3—recording. Firstly, that’s something that’s entirely in my court. I have the gear—I’ve been building up a small, but solid, recording setup over recent years. I have the skills—I’m a multi-instrumentalist (singer, guitarist, bassist, and I can program drums and synths)—and I have the basic engineering chops to record (after 4 EPs and having “tinkered” for years, as well as having studied music technology at uni.) I don’t have to rely on venue bookers, building an online following, aligning busy calendars for rehearsals, etc. I can sit down late at night, or on a Saturday afternoon, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

And there’s multiple benefits to having more “polished” releases (Damien includes these in his description—doing smaller releases more regularly, in amongst the big ones.) Having a polished release is a calling card. It’s something to promote and share. Nowadays it’s (almost) essential to have a visual component to a release too—i.e. a video of some description. The polished recording becomes the audio behind the video (i.e. unless you’re doing live vids.) This is a point that Mary Spender makes in this great video that also shook up how I looked at things in a YouTube and streaming age:

But more importantly, this—the idea of recording—motivates me. It taps into what inspires me, what I want to put my time into, what I am prepared to spend my money on (knowing that I’ll be very lucky to get a “return” on it.)

And right now, that motivation, that momentum, is critical to breaking the drought and re-engaging with my music. And that, to me, is worth its weight in gold…