I’m just about finished with a new Strange Land album and I’ve been reflecting on the process. It’s always the same, every album. Maybe most artists are stuck with this, it’s just how being creative works. Not that everyone goes through the same things, but that there’s a pattern each time. For me it’s like going through the same bad relationship over and over, never realizing it’s me, or seeing the patterns for what they are.
At the beginning everything is fresh. The ideas are tantalizing, the possibilities wide open. Ideas flow and take shape. Songs begin to become entities of their own, and the big picture of the album comes into focus. Themes appear if they weren’t already established to guide the creative process.
Then the yeoman’s work of tracking begins. Where the writing is like philosophical or scientific thought experiments, the tracking is a craft akin to blacksmithing or throwing pottery. Hard work, sometimes blunt, sometime technical, but still creative and satisfying. During this phase I often challenge myself to play my best and even improve, having written things I can’t immediately play.
Then comes the editing, mixing, and mastering. It can be grunt work, it can be creative. It’s also where you gather the trees you’ve already planted and see if the forest makes sense. All phases of recording can be like a mad scientist tinkering away in his lab, and that’s probably why I like writing and recording more than performing. It suits my introversion.
That doesn’t sound so bad when you put it that way, but now here’s some inner psychology of my process. Beginning at the end, when I finish and release an album I get some sort of postpartum depression. I hesitate to use that term, it’s not as serious as the real thing, but it’s an apt description. I go into a funk (not the groovy Bootsy Collins kind) after sending my musical child out into the world, sometimes for a few months. I think it’s part mental exhaustion and a need to recharge. Part fear (what if no one like it? What if I never write again?). Part self doubt like so many artists have, wondering if there’s any point to all of this.
Gradually this fades and work can begin anew. And it does have to fade, I’ve never been able to force myself out of this phase. I hardly ever have to wait for inspiration though. I usually have 4-5 projects I’d like to tackle at any given time. But which one? After the depression fades I have to go through what I call the angry beehive phase. As I think of the general shape of the next project and start to consider some of the details my head gets like an angry, buzzing beehive. The ideas become so numerous and swirl around so much that I can sleep. I have to try to pry some of this crap loose and set it down on paper or digital bits so my head doesn’t burst. But at this phase things are also so nebulous and vague that I can’t pull them out. It’s like someone mixed all my paint into a grey-brown blob, and I have to somehow separate the blue from the yellow from the burnt umber before I can get back to painting.
It really has been maddening at times, and I’ve thought it’s partly because I have a tendency to procrastinate. I try to tell myself “do something, anything, just keep working consistently,” but that’s just not how it works. My creativity has always come in large uncontrolled lumpy bursts. When I was a kid I’d dump all my legos on the floor all at once and spend hours combing though the pieces to build things. My desk is usually a mess but if I put things away I forget about them. I’m just not wired any other way, though I think life would be less stressful if I were.
Once the creative dam bursts and I start tracking things go pretty smoothly for a while. There are many small details to focus on. At this point I really can just pick something, anything to work on. Out of a dozen songs, literally any work moves things forward. And I should say that I don’t have all the writing done before I track, usually just the skeletons of the songs. So while tracking I’m also writing. Guitar parts inspire drum parts and vice versa, layers build, I sprinkle keyboards here, write a bass part over there.
But something happens about 75% of the way through. The details get smaller and smaller and I feel like I’m not making any progress. I get frustrated, depressed, unmotivated to work on the album. And the kicker is at this point I feel like I’m less than halfway done, that there is still this huge mountain to climb. Over and over I’ve been through this, and when I finally push through I realize I’m almost done. This is extremely frustrating, that I’ve done this album after album and I can’t break this habit of feeling defeated so close to a finish line I just can’t see, even though it’s a lot closer than I realize. More and more I have been able to accept this as part of the process, but it also seems so avoidable. I’m not sure I could change the post-album depression or the angry beehive, but this? It should be as simple as telling myself that just when I feel like I’ll never finish is exactly when I’m almost finished. It’s darkest before the dawn? Whatever.
At the final phase, mixing and mastering, things are rolling along. The big picture is fully formed, I have artwork and packaging going. It’s a big part of my self identity to finish projects. I don’t have children and I don’t have much of a legacy to leave other than my artistic work. So the more I can get done the better. At the end I’m usually a combination of exited to have the finished product and worn out, like a parent who just can’t wait for their adult child to finally more out of the house. Sure, I’m sad to see you go, but you’re an adult now, so buh-bye. I need to turn your room into a man cave.
At the very least I can say that as I’ve gotten older I’ve become better at accepting all of this because it is my process, and my creative process is at the core of who I am.
Someone on LinkedIn recently put out a call for help with a project and I volunteered. The project was a question asking for advice to young musicians. This is what I wrote:
Don't be afraid to take chances when you're young. When you're 20 and have the energy and support at home is the time to load up your car and tour on the cheap playing everywhere you can, or travel the world, or go to college far from home (but take care of your health). By the time you're 40 life has a way of making huge changes more difficult, less likely, but maybe not impossible. I certainly can't stay up until 5am like I used to.
Be excellent in your craft. Practice with intent. Practice the hard stuff. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you'll treat every problem like a nail. If you're a rock guitarist, study some jazz. If you're a singer, learn an instrument. If your'e a trumpet player, learn some drums. Never stop learning.
Get a good job so you can can afford to pursue your own music. Yes, not the dreamy answer many want to hear, but honest. Only a small fraction of musicians get rich and famous with their original music, and it's always been that way. Having lived through the rise of the internet and the disruption of Napster, it's harder than ever to 'make a living' at music. It is, however, easier than ever, to make music. Do it because you love it, because your muse demands it. Be you and make no compromise, but be prepared for rejection, not everyone will like what you are doing. If unleashing your own creativity is important enough to you, you will weather the rejection and will know that you are the only person who can make your music.
Sometimes I think it's part of the human condition that we cannot take the advice about life we should when we are young. All that stuff your parents and grandparents told you, yeah, it's mostly true. But you won't listen when you're 20. It would be good if you did, but there's just something about us that insists we live through it before we understand it.