On making an album, on trust and beginner's mind
This is a long post about a creative project I was lucky enough to have gifted to me.
Disclaimer for my Deaf and other friends. This project is largely about music and sound, but I think the lessons are universal, and the details below are largely about decisions and trust. ❤️ Additionally, I would be happy to write in detail a description of any track if it helps understanding.
On March 17, 2023, I did something I've always wanted to do, but never ever ever have: sit down to record a song.
If you've ever loved an art form, you know what a plunge it is to engage in it.
I've loved songs my entire 50+ years, but have never ever tried to make them, not even a little. They just seemed magic and best left to the experts, kind of like football or mountain climbing. I'm just glad people are out there doing it; I knew I'll never be one of them, and it's ok.
(I did start trying to learn the piano, via app, basically from ZERO, around September of last year.)
What happened seemed to be a confluence of factors that aren't that important, but I'll list them quickly:
- I heard an album last year that continues to devastate me and I ordered it on vinyl and really heard it for the first time (it's a picture of me hearing it for the first time, on my "album cover".)
- My energy for my piano app lessons, about 28 weeks into them (roughly 15 minutes a day for 175 days or so, seemed to be fading.
- My wife went out of town for two weeks.
- I was fed up with not being someone who makes music.
- I attended an online event that was really moving and for the rest of the day I couldn't sit still
So with that, I decided, Maybe I should just try that song thing that I've always been dreaming about.
I thought: What if I just made on today, in one day, what would happen?
I should also reiterate, I have no innate talent, a really lousy singing voice, no training except the piano app for half a year, and bad or little equipment.
But I'm very very curious and often playful and a little bit obsessive and went with it.
After around three or four hours, late in the evening because I was also solo parenting and doing SAW work, I was as done as I could be, I had a piece of music, that I called MONICA.
It featured the basic most amount of complexity I could manage to play, along with throwing in some other things. And because I was certain I had a terrible voice, I used an AI voice for the lyrics, which I wrote on the spot based on Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, which I was just finishing reading.
And I LIKED IT. And it came from NO INTENTION except "make a song."
And about mid-way through making it, it was so much fun, I thought, I'm going to make 10 of these, one a day, before my wife gets home(two weeks) !
And so I did.
Deadlines and constraints
Without getting into too many details the rules I had to adhere to every day were:
Do it in a day, and try something new every day.
All or most material should be generated or found that day. (ie, no planning beforehand.)
Don't criticize, just finish. Finishing and trying something new is far more important than how "GOOD" it is.
Also: ALL "MISTAKES" had to be leaned into and used. (Honor thy error as hidden intention - Brian Eno.)
Another guiding principle: You don't know anything and it's ok. Learn right now.
And so this project was me learning the most basic tiny first steps about this art form.
So, again each day I gave myself a different new rule too, usually something new to try and learn.
On day two, for instance I tried my own voice, and it was ok. I wasn't there to hate it, I was there to use it.
Day 3 I tried to sort of write something lyrically a little more elaborate, and also maybe try some sort of melody? It was kind of a mess, I wound up putting everything on top of itself to meet the deadline, it was weird and fun too.
Other rules: Once I used a metronome! (Your average "do it right" kind of person would have told me to START there, but I wasn't there to do it "right.")
Another rule was impromptu: one morning my daughter was sleeping near all the musical instruments so at 6 am I went to the dining table and wrote and recorded a song a cappella. (Track 7.)
Another impromptu one: One day when I got sidelined by parenting and social duties (ie, hanging out with friends), and I couldn't make music so I spent the afternoon playing with melody and writing lyrics. That was the first and only time I started with completed lyrics. Fun!
Things get ugly
But after a while a couple familiar things started to happen. While working on track 10, I uttered the first sort of mini-expletive while trying to get something right. That hadn't happened before. I WASN'T TRYING TO GET ANYTHING RIGHT BEFORE THAT.
And around track 13, I ran afoul of my own rules and intentions. The rule was, use the metronome one more time, and make it 39 beats per minute and record everything to the metronome. I started to get frustrated, doubting the value of the original rule. I made other choices I decided were "BAD" (percussion from cardboard and plates, for instance) and I got increasingly frustrated, for the first time, (but far more), since track 10. That's when I knew it was time to hang it up.
I finished track 13, and I still like it (I like them all!), but I decided there would be only one more track and the rule would be the opposite of the others. The rule would be: Wait for it.
I pulled a from Kim Krans' Animal Spirit deck. I pulled THE SWAN.
What is it with her cards? They are always perfect.
Here's what it says:
The final track, then, would be called The Swan, and it would come to me, not me chasing and forcing it out.
I put a call out to two friends and asked if they would help, and meanwhile, I would just gently noodle around when I had a chance and just let whatever wanted to slowly emerge, emerge.
Friend one came over yesterday and did a fantastic contribution. I couldn't be happier. I'm hoping friend two, 1000 miles away, has the time to send me something that I hope I asked for (a horn track) with the amount of humility her grace and talent deserves.
Anyway, someday on my blog I'll post more about all those decisions and rules, but the point is: giving myself the rule of FINISH, and the structure of TWO WEEKS, at the end, I had this marvelous, BIZARRE reflection of who I am: my interests, thoughts and feelings (and yes, technical abilities, but I already knew those...😊)
My goals, if I ever make a second album, and god knows I hope to, are to
re-find these qualities of TRUST I had...
- in finishing in a day,
- in being ok with my limitations,
- in believing making something small is better than making nothing at all
- in knowing the creating mind and the judging mind are different and the creative mind has far more fun. Let it have fun.
Two and a half weeks ago I wasn't a person who made music and now I am a person who has made an album. YOU CAN DO THIS!
Give yourself deadlines, and let yourself emerge from them.
Don't use other people's standards.
Don't use other people's language (unless you want!) You have a personal language that is yours to discover.
Don't do it right. Do it you.
Beginner mind is real. And it's hard to maintain. If you've got it, you are blessed! Enjoy it!
I want to put a plug in for #sawgust here. Susan Marks and Adrean Clark organized an amazing month of community to challenge yourselves in this exact way, and it's our intention to make it happen in 2023. Thank you Susan and Adrean for the inspiration!
And thanks to everyone here at SAW for being on your creative journey here.
I'd love to know what YOUR experiences with any of the above are!
Here's my album for what it's worth. Track 14 is yet to be finished.
My judging brain's favorites today: Tracks 1, 4, 9, 10 (yes, 10 after all), and 12.
(It's worth noting that 12 is probably my favorite-favorite. That's the one I would send to the Ignatz Awards 😜! But I never gotten there if I hadn't done tracks 1-11 first. )
Thanks for being here!