If you’ve been a regular reader of this column, then you know we’ve covered a lot of territory together. Frankly, it’s hard to remember how this all started and what the first (or third or fifth) column was about, because there has been just so much written about so many subjects that it becomes hard to remember anything.
Then again, it is not as if you are supposed to read and retain everything, from column to column, in preparation for a final exam. And there actually is a good reason for having forgotten what was in column number six – the fact that you did what the column suggested, put the advice into action, and moved on to do the same in column seven. There are many good reasons for reviewing study material, whatever the subject, and when it involves something so intimately connected with your identity — that is, your art, in this case, your music — it rises from the “suggested” to the “essential” category.
No, I’m not going to use valuable time recapping what was said in the previous columns. What I will do is throw a spotlight on the process of professional and artistic maturation, even as I prod you to
• think once again about your repertoire, goals, milestones, and plan;
• consider, right now, what’s up with your tunes;
• rekindle your passions and inject some originality, another dose of “you,” into your music, whether you’re recording or performing; and
• exercise your creative muscles.
Be honest with yourself now; you don’t do yourself any favors by avoiding reality. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Whether you’re in a band or you work as a solo singer/songwriter, is it working? Are you fulfilled doing it? Is it always “just work” or do you still get the goosebumps? You need to consider making some dramatic changes if you are not getting your artistic “fix” through what you are currently doing.
If you’re in a rock band doing cover tunes and you are constantly writing original folk songs, perhaps you should consider a side gig or two, to see if that is what really floats your boat. If you are a square peg with a bunch of round holes for bandmates (perhaps you call them another kind of “hole,” too), then take an honest look at how that will get you where you want to go. Bottom line on this point: You do know where you want to go, right?
So, you’re the songwriter for the band, or you collaborate, or you just left a band to work solo because you want to do originals. Well, how’s your art, and how’s your craft — and you do realize those are separate things, right? The “art” of music, ethereally speaking, is in the sound and its effect on you and the listener; the “craft” is the musical technique and performing and/or recording processes that help you bridge the gap between the inspiration and the finished work. So, it is vital to check yourself on a regular basis for your Art and Craft Quotients.
Inspiration comes from many places, and no place in particular, so the Greeks imagined the Muses just so they could thank someone for the poetry, songs, and art that came pouring forth during their Golden Age. Today some folks attribute their songs to God, but I’ve had to question some of those claims because God just has to be a better songwriter than that. But wherever it comes from for you, if you’re like the rest of your composer/songwriter colleagues, you sure know when it’s not getting through.
It is a truism of artists that their best work springs from strong emotions — not necessarily negative ones, although anger and jealousy and rage have given the world some great symphonies, classic literature, and masterly paintings through the ages. You also may be on one of those “plateaus” all artists get stuck on, and quite often the best way to jumpstart the creative process is to challenge yourself on your instrument; that is, learn some new chords or scales or modes, listen to music by virtuosos playing in styles you don’t normally listen to, or, if you’re a lyricist, read some T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound instead of Rod McKuen or whatever you usually read. Break out of the box.
These ways of exercising creative muscles have an infinite number of variations. The main thing you want to do is get a fresh idea or notion or insight into your head and heart, and put it through the emotional vegematic of your life, the life of daily earthbound reality as well as the life of spirited imagination — until, perhaps, a new melody or chord progression or rhyming couplet issues forth.
I’m not trying to be poetic here, but we are dealing with a poetic subject. If you can learn to invoke a state of mind with wild and curious associations of thoughts and sensations and sounds, then that just might work as an invitation to the Muses. By all means, let them in when you hear them knock!
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.