Finding your voice (and sticking with it)

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alex matson
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Finding your voice (and sticking with it)

Post by alex matson » Tue Apr 14, 2009 6:14 pm

My apologies in advance for what will undoubtedly be an angsty kind of post.
I should probably wait a couple more weeks to write this...but something is compelling me to say this now.

Tomorrow I'm going to take advantage of the first of five free counseling sessions that my job offers. I'm going to talk to a clinical psychologist about whatever it is that is stopping me from doing what is is that I've been saying I want to do for...well, my entire adult life. I don't know whether it's depression, ADHD, or simply having gotten off track at some point. All I know is that I don't spend enough time working on playing and writing. Permit me to elaborate.

I've been more in love with music than just about anything else since I was a kid. Whether it was because of the records that were around the house or just my basic nature, I gravitated towards what could be called the softer side of modern music. Neil Young, Yes, Steve Hackett, Bill Bruford and the Dixie Dregs were early favorites, as opposed to metal and punk. And right there you can see the range and therefore the problem. Neil eschews crazy time signatures and lots of ornamentation, and late 70's prog rock is all about it. To those you can add Elliott Smith, early REM, the Beatles, Wilco, Low, Zep and Floyd, Boards of Canada, Bon Iver, Built To Spill, Brad Mehldau, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Schumann, Vince Guaraldi, Tom Waits, Tom Petty, and Radiohead - and I'll just stop there. All this music runs the range from simple to complex, from sunny to dark, and from direct to enigmatic.

My live experience ranges from concert bands in high school to countless garage bands of every stripe to seven years in a rockabilly/ 50's and 60's boogie band to seven more in a pop/reggae/jam band. Sometimes it was a blast, sometimes it was a bore. But i can't imagine life without working towards the dream of being a part of something.

I'm rarely blown away at a concert anymore...or by a new record for that matter. When directed to someone's Myspace tunes if we start discussing getting together,
I'm almost always underwhelmed. I tell myself I'm going to just hole up in my studio, work on my playing and writing, and do my own music, consequences be damned - I'm making a living and have plenty of free time and practically every instrument I've ever wanted. But I fuck around, read, watch movies, surf the net, anything but just sit there and work with any kind of steadfastness. Last month I decided that what I needed was to take things back to basics - so i got an ear training course, a couple of basic fingerpicking lessons on dvd and some other stuff.
And what has happened is what has prompted me to seek a therapist. I found myself unable to just sit there and methodically practice a simple fingerpicking pattern without my mind turning towards a bunch of counterproductive thoughts.
I know one cannot simultaneously create and critique - but that doesn't stop me from doing it!

So, okay - I've got some challenges ahead of me. But I have been sitting here trying to jot down some personal goals for the therapist, and to me it seems to boil down to maintaining focus and deciding what it is I really want to do here. Which brings me to this forum. Surely most of you have a wide range of stuff you like - nothing unusual about that. But what do you do when your influences are so far apart? If a painter likes Dali and Pollock and Monet and Crumb...what does he or she do with that? It's easy to say, "Forget your influences and do something that's just you", but how is that done? To me there are two possible outcomes: either
there's a method to figuring this out, or it's an "if you have to ask.." kind of thing, and I simply lack a personal vision. When I've thought about it, I envision a band that can play something beautiful and simple, like this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUU7SKtcdVU

and then follow that up with something complex and...well, beautiful, like this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_zQkkbbaf4

Okay, sure, go and do it, Alex. But the more complex stuff I like has been written by people that usually went to school or otherwise studied their asses off, usually starting as teenagers. And the crux of my problem is my inability to keep thoughts like that out of my mind when all I'm trying to do is transcribe a tune or work on a scale or hand independence. The next thing you know, I'm thinking I already have all the skills I need to play in a band like, say, Wilco. Of course, for every Wilco, there are ten thousand bands that are working in that Americana/roots rock/folk genre...only they're not as good, or if they are, their songs don't grab me somehow.
Then I get impatient with that and want something more like the Pixies. You get my point? The goal keeps changing...three blocks east and three blocks west means you're right back where you started.

Last year I decided I needed a change and got back into video editing. Or tried to.
I bought a good camera and Final Cut Express (and the Apple Pro tutorial to get a handle on it), did a couple of projects, then advertised on Craigslist that I was looking for some demo-building projects and would work for free. Six months later, my only client has been using my services for free and this seems like a giant waste of resources.

This has gotten as lengthy as I suspected it would be. I'm excited to lay all this at the feet of someone trained to help...and being paid to help, for that matter. But you guys are my peers. Surely some of you have wrestled with these issues. I'll take help from anyone that has something to say, with deep appreciation.

A final thought - I was watching a Bruce Springsteen interview where he said "the artist's job is to make people care about your obsessions, and see them as their own." If I have an obsession that can be defined, it is that good music comes from many different places, and I want to share that with people. I just need to learn how to stop thinking about it and start doing it consistently. And for me that's been a whole lot easier said than done.

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Post by RefD » Tue Apr 14, 2009 7:08 pm

i think what Springsteen meant by obsessions was the subject matters of the songs, not the processes of creating them.

as for the melding influences thing: i assume you've spent a fair amount of time, as many of us have, both learning to copy your influences and then learning from the copying of them. i forget who said it, but the parts that are you are the bits between where your influences meet.

i'm sure you know that not all of your music has to be strictly this or that, and never expect any band you're in to have the same agenda or influences as you.

if you must stick to your own vision then get used to going it alone with some allies to come in now and again to assist you, but don't expect them to have the same enthusiasm or willingness to sacrifice for the music as you do.

i can totally relate to the getting side-tracked thing and the inability to focus, i wasted LOADS of free time in 2003-2004 where i could have finished off versions of every song i had sitting on the shelf completed but instead allowed myself to just vegetate or aimlessly meander in unrelated pursuits...and then i got back into the workplace and realised what i had done and got more recording accomplished in 2005-2006 than i had since the early 90s!

maybe the answer to that particular issue is adding deadlines and time pressure?

but i am getting the impression from your post, rightly or not, that you quickly lose interest in people and situations that don't fall neatly inside your set of influences and musical aspirations.

the video editing thing sounds like a pointless detour, btw.
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Post by cgarges » Tue Apr 14, 2009 8:05 pm

How about setting goals? I mean, clearly, you've set some, but if you haven't accomplished anything you're happy with, then you haven't achieved any of them in the way you originally had in mind.

It can certainly be tough relying on other people for stuff. I TOTALLY understand that. But at the same time, if you have any sort of self-sufficient anything, you should start by doing what you can with it. Come up with a plan to write a bunch of tunes in a certain style. Then record them all. Or write twenty songs in a certain style, start recording 15 of them, overdub on 12 of them, mix 10, etc. You can set up whatever parameters you think will work to begin with, like "I'm going to try to finish this whole thing in one month" or "I'm going to do this to the best of my ability with no compromises." But find something to do and just stick with it 'til it's done. Just see if you can do that before you move on to something else.

I don't think having a variety of influences is an excuse for anything. I've met absolutely BRILLIANT musicians who have the most absurd range of influences and I've met BRILLIANT musicians who have spent their entire lives cultivating one thing. For me, having a variety of influences and being able to apply them all well is worthy of extra respect, but I say that with no intention of demeaning the aforementioned focused individuals.

There are a few ways to work on drawing from your influences. The most obvious paths would be to develop your own thing in whatever manner those influences have affected you or to spend time developing proficiency in each area in which your influences dwell. Like, you could write songs that you hope will turn out like the ultimate cross between Sun Ra and the Jonas Brothers or you could spend some time getting comfortable with trying to write as many Joni Mitchell-type songs as possible before moving on to trying to write as many System Of A Down-type songs as possible. Same thing goes for playing proficiency on any given instrument.

Chris Garges
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Post by ;ivlunsdystf » Tue Apr 14, 2009 8:39 pm

I think you are burned out and it's time to forget about music for a month or two and read some great old novels and watch some badass films from the early 1970s and generally forget about what you "should" be doing with music altogether. Don't just read books about music, though, because they'll just lead to more music-related neurosis. Branch out altogether.

We've all been in your situation or we'll be there someday, whether we admit it or not. Good luck, keep us posted.

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Post by RefD » Tue Apr 14, 2009 9:24 pm

if i missed the point of the OP, i'm sorry.
?What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.? -- Seneca

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Post by roygbiv » Tue Apr 14, 2009 11:25 pm

RefD wrote:maybe the answer to that particular issue is adding deadlines and time pressure?
Along with Chris' advice about setting defined goals, and the advice to take a break, I think the suggestion about setting deadlines is spot on - (I'm speaking as a pretty ADD guy myself, which I didn't figure it out until a few years ago).

For me, deadlines are a must.

(Short, self-indulgent digression with hopefully an ultimate point): I'm a research scientist in my real life. I know, science is not music or art, but there are parallels. Science is a creative, abstract endeavor, full of fear and loathing. We get to drink coffee and bullshit about cool ideas or experiments. But, to stay employed, we must test said ideas (>95% of which fail), write up the results, and publish them. Failure to execute the latter results in no job, as publications are our product, and we must constantly produce product to attract venture capital (grants).

I detest the pressure and deadlines. But without them, I would never finish or publish anything.

Deadlines make you deal with the reality of submitting something for public consumption. This is painful, because once submitted, you are banished from the delicious fantasy world of "how great "X" is going to be, you know, when it is finished".

Upon submission, "X" is "finished". And the public can judge for themselves. And perhaps snicker. But I say screw them - let them snicker - at least you have become a producer of something, and not just a consumer.

Anyway, sorry for my rambling. I felt compelled to write, as I feel your pain and struggle with similar issues myself. Achievable goals (baby steps?) and deadlines might really help your situation.

A final aside - I saw a very interesting Biographer on Charlie Rose recently (Robert Caro, he apparently did "the" autobiography on Lyndon Johnson). Charlie asked him about his work methods, since apparently Caro spends 7-8 years on each of his books.

Apparently, Caro tricks himself with "devices". For example, apparently every morning, he gets up, puts on a coat and tie, and goes to an office to do his writing.

"Why put on a coat and tie to write - why not stay at home?" Charlie Rose asked him.

Caro's response - "so that I don't fool myself into thinking that I'm working harder than I am, and to remind myself that I have a job to do"

Here's a link to the interview -the discussion of his work methods are at ~ 4 min in:
http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10215
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Post by floid » Wed Apr 15, 2009 1:20 am

Caro tricks himself with "devices". For example, apparently every morning, he gets up, puts on a coat and tie, and goes to an office to do his writing.
if i remember right that's also how Woody Guthrie wrote Bound for Glory.
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Post by kayagum » Wed Apr 15, 2009 8:09 am

Save yourself the copay with your therapist.

Get the classic, if somewhat hokey, book to solve for blocked artists. I have seen it work for a lot of people, and it has helped me as well.

Artists' Way by Julia Cameron

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Post by Artifex » Wed Apr 15, 2009 8:18 am

You could also try getting other people involved in your writing process. With the right kind of people, this can help alot.

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Post by mjau » Wed Apr 15, 2009 9:09 am

I can sort of relate, and I think we all can to some degree.

When I had no recording gear, I was always coming up with ideas. I surrounded myself with gear, got lost in the process of turning knobs, and forgot how to be creative. It's taken me a few years to get back to the point where I can pull myself away from the technical side of things and really work at creating. And it is work, no doubt about it. Really rewarding work, though.

For me, a few things had to happen to get me back to being a creative person. I had to find other creative people to be around, which can be a humbling and encouraging experience at the same time. I continually have to pursue things that are not music-related but still motivate me to be creative - learning about birds, evolutionary theory, and reading history help toward that. Probably the most important thing - I have to continually take myself seriously as a musician, while reminding myself that I may be the worst musician in the room at any given moment. It's that odd place where narcissism and humility come back around to meet.

The songs will come. You've just gotta find a way to relax and let them. Easier said than done.

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Post by Bro Shark » Wed Apr 15, 2009 10:05 am

Try Eno's oblique strategies.

You need to let yourself create without being judgmental.

Just write 200 songs. Who cares if they're "good" or "bad" or what you think you want to hear. Just write one, then another, then another. Save them and move on. You can review them later.

This will get your body and mind into a mode of being productive and creative. You will learn so much in doing so.

As Bro said on the other forum, Finished is always better than Perfect.

Stop thinking. Do.

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Post by capnreverb » Wed Apr 15, 2009 3:21 pm

cgarges wrote: .....you could write songs that you hope will turn out like the ultimate cross between Sun Ra and the Jonas Brothers
Thats what I wish everyone would aspire to in music!

As for your post on the great search and the struggle with assimilation of influences, Google

GURDJIEFF

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Post by Snarl 12/8 » Wed Apr 15, 2009 5:29 pm

You should try the book: "The War of Art". That book will kick your ass, with love.
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Post by ;ivlunsdystf » Wed Apr 15, 2009 5:44 pm

capnreverb wrote:
cgarges wrote: .....you could write songs that you hope will turn out like the ultimate cross between Sun Ra and the Jonas Brothers
Thats what I wish everyone would aspire to in music!
Dirty Projectors?

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Post by RefD » Wed Apr 15, 2009 7:11 pm

;ivlunsdystf wrote:
capnreverb wrote:
cgarges wrote: .....you could write songs that you hope will turn out like the ultimate cross between Sun Ra and the Jonas Brothers
Thats what I wish everyone would aspire to in music!
Dirty Projectors?
System Of A Joni
?What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.? -- Seneca

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