manifest-visualise

I Probably Spend Too Much Time Visualising But Here’s Why

artist, creativity, self-love

I have a sweet morning routine going: I write my morning pages, do yoga, meditate, have a shower, and have breakfast. One of my best friends has been pressing me to add in visualisation. When I told her about all the other stuff I was already doing, she was uncompromising. “You need to do it. It keeps you motivated. It helps you work through your limiting beliefs.” In case you’re wondering who the best friend is, yes, she is the same person who had already coached me through my limiting beliefs once.

I had tried visualisation earlier. If you’re unfamiliar with it – you basically spend some time during the day imagining your perfect life to the tiniest detail, which is not very hard. Imagining nice things is – it turns out – pretty easy. But when I did it in December last year, it left me feeling anxious about everything I was doing. When you have a clear vision of where you want to be, you get really fucking stressed about ruining your chance at future happiness by doing something wrong.

“You can’t visualise your whole future every day,” one of my lecturers told me when I shared my dilemma with him. “You’ll burn yourself out.” Wait. Huh? “Sure, plan ahead. But remember to stay in the moment, too.” I love how a lot of self-help advice is contradictory. Live in the moment, but visualise your future. Dream big, but be happy with what you have.

I told my friend this, and she didn’t seem fazed. “Of course you need to stay in the moment. But you need to spend a few minutes every day remembering what you’re doing it all for. Visualisation is the framework that makes the small stuff fall into place. It gives you purpose.” Actually, I don’t know if she said that, but that’s what I took from that conversation. The key was only doing it for ten minutes every day, instead of spending every waking minute imagining how a decision might affect my visualised ideal life.

I found a guided visualisation on Insight Timer, a free meditation app that I was already using (if you don’t know it – it’s great and free and features talks by Elizabeth Gilbert, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield) and did it in the morning instead of an ordinary breathing exercise. I still think breathing exercises are valuable, but visualising what I actually want from life first thing in the morning – similarly to morning pages – set me up for the rest of the day. I was way more productive and in a much better mood than usual. So, I did again the day after. And the day after that.

For someone who always takes on too many projects, most of which are usually completely irrelevant to what I actually want to do, visualisation has proven extremely useful. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know what to work towards. If you don’t believe you can have something, you’ll never bother trying.

The other upside of this is the energy you put out. This is not just spiritual babble, it also just has clear psychological benefits. If you know what you want and believe you can have it, you’ll be more hard-working, focused, positive, and will bounce back from setbacks way more quickly. (I confidently proclaimed having no psychological training whatsoever.) Positive energy is key for artists who deal with rejection on a daily basis.


Visualisation Ideas:

  1. The classic letter exercise. Write a letter to yourself in five years. Then in two. Then next year. How are you going to get there?
  2. Write a list of the qualities you want your future partner to have. I was told to do this by my friend, who said: “It was insane when I did it. The guy I met after I wrote down what I wanted matched everything word-for-word. I only forgot to add mentally stable to the list.”
  3. Guided visualisation and manifestation exercises online.
  4. Sometimes, I just spend ten minutes or so in bed thinking about how I want my life to pan out, visualising everything in the smallest detail: how I will finally be able to afford organic vegetables, the soap containers I will buy to pretend the cheap soap I buy at ALDI is fancy, etc.
  5. Pinterest! It’s like… almost useful.

what-to-write-about-in-lockdown-songwriting

What I Write About When All There Is to Do This Year Is Stare Out of the Window

creativity, productivity, songwriting

A couple days ago, a meme of Bart Simpson staring out of the window at the grey sky outside started circulating on my Instagram. In Berlin winter, it was strikingly fitting, considering how that was exactly how my friends and I spent most of our days. Writing this, I’m looking at the sky and trying to remember what the sun looks like, but all I can see is a grey nuclear cloud enveloping the city. Even without corona, this would have been a depressing sight, but knowing that I can’t go to a bar or a club, or spend the night singing songs with my musician friends, makes this time even more unbearable.

But another problem is starting to affect artists. I was talking to a friend the other day, who remarked: “I have never had this much free time to write, but what the hell am I supposed to write about? All I do is sit at home and drink tea.” It was a good question. Songwriters often pull from their own experiences, writing about the people they meet or the places they see. If all there’s left is your apartment and the people you see on Netflix, what stories do you still have to tell?

A while ago, I talked about keeping an inspiration journal and how that prevents me from having creative blocks, but even an inspiration journal has its limitations. Poems, photos, quotes from films are all great sources of inspiration, but sometimes, what we crave is to write about something we care about and feel, more than what just sounds good. And with this pandemic, the main thing we care about is getting through it. Songs about love, connection, hope are harder to write because we feel less of those things.

Maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but I prefer writing songs about speed-walking to a concert while eating noodles, about frantically trying to rub off a curry stain off my new jeans on my way to a party, or about fumbling with someone’s leather belt in the dark. I feel like I’m close to exhausting the repertoire of “I went on a date and we greeted each other with an elbow bump” and “I had coffee with the only friend I see every day but she had come over the day before so we mainly just talked about how good it is that we at least have each other”. There’s only so much in real life that’s worth writing about at the moment.

For most musicians, writing and performing are the only ways to stay sane at the best of times. Since performing was no longer an option, most musicians had turned to writing and recording their stuff. But a year into this pandemic, and several months into lockdown, even writing seems to be slowly sliding off the table.

I’m better off than most because I get to see friends outside, I still meet up with a select few, and Berlin isn’t as bad as some parts of the world at the moment. But even I have to read through my diaries, go on poetry rampages and listen to more new music than I thought I was capable of consuming to come up with relatively new ideas. Here are some of the things that still inspire me despite this shit show, but it’s Bart-Simpson-style staring out of the window most days for me, too. Also, check out this Instagram reel by Simeon Hammond Dallas about how to write songs during lockdown because if anything, it might at least crack you up.


1. I go through my old diaries and journals.


When I feel stuck, I go through old diaries in the hope that a story will turn up that I hadn’t told yet. I don’t always strike out, but it’s nice when I do. Sometimes, I also come across a line that sounds good enough to turn into a lyric.


2. I listen back to my old voice memos in the hope that I’ll find something secretly brilliant.


Most of the time, I don’t finish songs when I think they’re absolute crap. But I always record everything, so once in a while, I revisit old voice memos to see if maybe I’d missed something. When I’m in a shitty mood or too tired to write for more than ten minutes, I often abandon music ideas that could have turned into something good. Now that it’s harder to stay inspired and motivated, it can help not to have to start with a completely blank page.


3. I learn new chords, fingerpicking patterns, etc., and use them in my music.


It’s hard to write new songs when you’re working with old building blocks. I started learning a new cover every week, and now, I often end up lifting chords, strumming patterns, or fingerpicking styles from other songs and incorporating them into my own stuff.


4. I go on dating apps to remind myself that lockdown is probably a blessing in disguise.


When all else fails, I download Bumble or Tinder and spend an hour talking to strangers that remind me that this introspective lockdown thing is not the worst, and then jot down one or two lines I’d been texted to use in a lyric about why I hate dating.


5. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if I have nothing to say for a while.


I don’t have to be writing all the time, though. If I skip a couple days, or a week, and don’t come up with a new song – it doesn’t matter all that much.

why-limiting-beliefs-are-holding-you-back-from-committing-to-music

How Your Limiting Beliefs Are Keeping You From Committing to Music

artist, creativity, self-love

I was curled up in the chair by the window of my childhood bedroom, my head resting on my knees. It had been a week of decision-making, and there was nothing I hated more in my life than making decisions. My notebook was lying on the table on the other side of the room, with pro and con lists taking up the last five pages. I wondered if my parents had reached the point where they just wanted me to leave so I would stop talking about my inability to make a choice. I felt like everyone was tired of my indecision by now, including me.

The choice was this: going back to London or Berlin. With Brexit, if I didn’t go back, I wouldn’t be eligible for settlement status later down the line, effectively losing my chance to build a life in the UK. But if I didn’t go back to Berlin, I was losing another thing: the chance to focus on music and stop obsessing about making a living and surviving, the way that London forces people to. Berlin meant more freedom, more music and creativity in my life, and probably sanity. But it wasn’t as easy as choosing the fun thing. What if I wanted to stay in London? Or go back in the long run?

I messaged my best friend in London with the words: “I feel so fucking confused. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.” Two minutes later, she called back. Her voice sounded like an anchor pulling me back down to earth, from the hectic mental space I had been floating in that week. “Talk me through it,” she said. “Why are you afraid of going to Berlin?”

“It’s like that Sylvia Plath quote,” I said. “The one about the fig tree – she’s staring at the tree, trying to pick the ripest, best fig and while she’s staring at the figs, unable to make a choice, they all rot in front of her. That’s me. I’m Sylvia Plath, bar the head in the oven.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I don’t know what I want.”

“You do know.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I really don’t.”

“Stop convincing yourself that you don’t,” she said. “You’re starting to believe it, but it’s really just you that has convinced yourself of this. It’s a belief that you can’t make decisions, that you can’t trust yourself. But you can. You have that inner voice that already knows. What scares you the most? What will make you grow the most? That’s what you need to do.” I wondered when my friend had become a life guru.

“Maybe you’re right. I feel like I should go to Berlin, and do this creative thing…” I said, feeling stupid as I was saying it, so I added for good measure: “Though I don’t think it’s gonna work out. I should probably do a master’s instead.”

“What do you mean? Why would you do a master’s?”

“You know… To get a job.”

“Why do you think you won’t be able to get a job without a master’s?”

“As what? A musician?”

“Why not? That’s what you want to do, right?”

“Of course, in an ideal world!” I exclaimed. “But I also want a family and kids and a normal life. Maybe a house and a dog, that kind of stuff. Not now, but I want to at least have the option.”

“Who says you won’t have that as a musician?”

“Because that’s just not how it works. I’ll never make that kind of money as a musician if I make any kind of money as a musician.”

“But that’s a belief. That’s just what you’re telling yourself. Who says you can’t have it all? If you’re gonna believe that and not even try, then, yeah, you won’t. But ultimately, you can craft your own narrative. You can decide that you can have it all and work towards it. There is no set outcome attached to anything, but by believing certain myths about life, we start manifesting them.”

“Maybe I do want to be a musician.”

“Honestly, it’s clear to anyone but you, Erika. You’re being ridiculous.”

“And I do want to go to Berlin.”

“Yup,” she said in the least surprised tone I’ve ever heard in my life.

I’m in Berlin now, and I’m fine. The world didn’t come crumbling down when I didn’t go to London. I’m not in a financial pit of despair (yet). I have started writing music reviews for a music blog, and I’m gearing up for a song release in a month or so, and I’m looking into other ways of making money as a musician that hopefully won’t involve babysitting, but honestly, who cares if I get to make music. The point I was trying to make here is… If I hadn’t noticed how I was talking myself into believing I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have had the courage to come back here. And I would have started down a path that wasn’t meant for me at all. This is why it’s so important to identify the limiting beliefs you might hold, so that you know what you’re choosing to do and what you’re talking yourself into doing out of fear.

Apart from talking to wise, loving friends, there are other small tricks for identifying and battling limiting beliefs in decision-making that I’ve been using for the last few months. Here are some of them, and I hope they’ll help you, too:


1. List your reasons for doing something, and notice when fear is a driving factor


Lists aren’t the be-all and end-all in decision-making because I found that rationalising things often only complicates the process, getting in the way of that part of you that already knows the answer to what you really want. But seeing your reasons written down can help you understand whether you’re making a decision from a place of love, acceptance, and support, or if you’re making a decision from a place of fear. Fear and doubt are the worst motivators. If you recognise that they are the main driving factors behind a decision, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the beliefs that led you there.


2. You can’t “keep your options open”


I have trouble committing to decisions, to a certain life path, to a partner, to a place. Not because I don’t think that something or someone wouldn’t be good for me, but because I fear that there might be something somewhere that might be better. Or that down the line, I’ll realise that it hadn’t been the right decision all along, and I’ll want to try something else. Or that I’ll change and my priorities will shift. But that’s life. People do change, priorities do shift, but if you never commit to anything, and always go for the thing that gives you the most freedom to back out, you will never pursue anything wholeheartedly. And half-assing life is not something that anyone wants, really.


3. Decisions that you can go back on are not decisions


I’ve been living in limbo for a while now. I’ve never signed a lease on a flat without checking what the breaking clause in the contract is, and so far, I’ve always used it. I’ve walked away from jobs I didn’t like, I’ve broken a lot of promises to a lot of different people. I’ve made a lot of decisions that I then went back on, which means they weren’t decisions at all. I came to Berlin with the thought that if I hated it, I could still return to London. It left me just as stressed as if I hadn’t made a decision at all – I was constantly evaluating whether to go or to stay. I’ve decided I’m staying because there’s no satisfaction in making a decision that gives you an out. Sometimes, it actually is easier to commit.


4. Discussions and affirmations


When I started unpacking the reasons and beliefs that were keeping me from committing to what I really wanted to do, I started wondering how to battle them. According to Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, you have to dispute and energise. When you encounter a limiting belief, ask yourself what the effect of that belief will be on the rest of your life. Are the consequences of that thought destructive? Then explain to yourself why you’re catastrophising, and why your belief has no basis. Finally, energise by changing the limiting belief for one that motivates you. Here’s a short example of how I go about it:

Limiting belief: I can’t make decisions at all. I’m always going back and forth on stuff. I’m a flaky person.

Consequence: If I keep believing this, I will always distrust my gut, which will make decision-making even harder. Believing I’m flaky also makes it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, perpetuating the cycle of indecision.

Why it’s not true: I have actually made a lot of commitments in my life. I’m finishing my bachelor’s degree, I have spent three years living in London, I’ve stuck with a long-term relationship before, and I have worked through problems in friendships to keep the people I love in my life.

Affirmation: I can make hard decisions and commit to things that are important to me.


These are the little tricks that work for me, but I’m sure that different stuff works for different people. Let me know if you’re struggling with this, too, and what works for you. I’m still very much in the process of figuring this out, so I’d love to hear more tips!

learning-musician-online

Online Treasure Troves for Musicians

creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

2021 didn’t get off to the start we had all envisioned. Corona didn’t magically disappear at the stroke of midnight. We are still isolating and self-medicating with Netflix and junk food. Glorious times. I have done a fair share of wallowing in the last few weeks, but since my New Year’s resolutions included not watching Netflix, I have been wracking my brain about what to do with all the free time I now have. Turns out, there is a lot to learn online. For free!

If I can’t get out to perform and make music with friends, I can at least use this time to come out of it all as a better musician. So, I have done some research and ended up with these online treasure troves of information:


Websites that offer free music courses


1. The Musicians’ Union


The website is underrated, but it offers a plethora of information for musicians, including free Feldenkrais Method workshops and guided meditation for artists. Also worth mentioning is that the Musicians’ Union offers FEU Training for Freelance Musicians for free if you are a member and you can become a member for the first six months for only a pound! The training equips you with everything you need to know if you’re a self-employed musician.


2. BerkleeX


Berklee Online offers an interesting selection of online courses ranging from music business to vocal recording technology. They’re free unless you want a credited certificate. I took one in Songwriting and in Music Theory when I was just starting out, but there are also more adventurous courses on offer, like Music for Wellness that includes circle singing exercises and music techniques for awakening.


3. Alison


One of the biggest learning platforms, Alison offers a range of free music courses that go in-depth into topics like film scoring and making electronic music.


Youtube channels


1. Swiftlessons


Swiftlessons is my go-to channel to improve my guitar skills. Rob Swift makes great cover tutorials, explains basic and more advanced licks, talks about music theory, and makes genre-specific videos ranging from Gypsy Jazz to Classic Rock. The man has 40 videos with The Beatles lessons.


2. Pat Martino’s The Nature of Guitar


When I fancy myself a better guitarist than I really am, I watch these videos. Pat Martino has an incredible feel for composition, rhythm, and theory and – being one of the greatest guitarists in the world – has incredible nuggets of wisdom to share. Sometimes, he just makes me feel stupid, though, but then I just read the comment section and that lifts me out of my funk.


3. Rick Beato


Rick Beato is an absolute music theory genius. He has guitar videos, too, but that’s not why I visit his channel. It’s for his sassy commentary and humour (he has a playlist called ‘Rick’s Rants’), the clarity with which he explains complex concepts, and his ear training videos.


Music podcasts


1. Switched on Pop


This is by far my favourite music podcast. Musicologist Nick Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding talk about the making of popular music, put it in a context, and explain why we love it. They delve deep into songwriting techniques, influences, production, and artist personas. My favourite one was on Fiona Apple’s ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’, which was named the album of the year by Pitchfork.


2. Song Exploder


This is a classic one, but it’s good. On the podcast, artists break down one of their tracks, explaining how they wrote and produced them, and talk about what inspired the song. I loooved this one by Laura Marling. And, while on the subject of Laura Marling, she also recorded some guitar tutorials of her songs for Instagram.


3. Broken Record


I was recently pointed towards Broken Record by a friend and was shocked that I hadn’t heard of it before. Rick Rubin, Michael Gladwell, and Bruce Headlam interview every songwriter from Bruce Springsteen to FKA Twigs. They talk about songwriting, personal reflections, life. Jeff Tweedy even gives a songwriting masterclass.

how-free-writing-can-free-your-mind

How Free Writing Can Free Your Mind

creativity, self-love, songwriting

My dad is an avid journaler, who has a stack of red, hardcover notebooks that date back to when we lived in Russia, and, though my parents never taught me the importance of journaling or introspection, I have always seen them practice it. To this day, my dad sits down every night to write at least one page in his journal. My mum writes like she lives – sporadically, in great bursts of enthusiasm.

My journaling practice started early on but wasn’t consistent. It had more to do with my obsession with pretty notebooks – I had stacks upon stacks of spiral notebooks, sketchbooks, diaries with locks that I kept losing the keys for. I usually started the notebooks with a lengthy introduction of who I was – my favourite colour (purple), my favourite book (‘The Secret Garden’), my favourite film (‘Spirit’ or ‘Home Alone’), and then promptly forgot they existed. I still have all those notebooks in a box in my bedroom. I’m a hoarder at heart, I guess.

What started as a hobby that I wasn’t all that committed to, became a lifeline when I was a teenager. I remember anxious nights before school, anticipating eating my lunch in the girls’ toilets or spending breaks hiding in the library. I remember the comments the teachers made about how my uniform was not the right shade of green, and how respectful they were to my mother when they thought her accent was German, and how swiftly their faces changed when she told them it was Russian. Filled with frustration, anxiety, and loneliness, I spent nights journaling.

Somewhere down the line, those midnight journals turned into morning pages and bullet journals, but the purpose is the same – purge whatever’s holding me back and stressing me out, write down my thoughts to understand them, own up to other thoughts I didn’t even know I had. It’s a practice that has always sustained me, but I have made another discovery recently, which has changed my life and my writing: free writing.

I was reading ‘Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women‘ by Mirabai Starr, a book given to me by one of my spiritual friends. Mirabai writes about female mystics and how we should implement their wisdom in our daily lives, offering writing prompts at the end of most chapters. Her writing prompts follow the rules of free writing by Natalie Goldberg, which you can find here. The main idea is: time yourself while writing and write as fast as your hand can move and your mind can think. Don’t edit yourself. Not on the page, not in your head.

I was reading ‘Wild Mercy’ after coming home, feeling uprooted and out of whack. I spent a week feeling at a complete loss, and the only thing that helped was talking to friends. Even the morning pages weren’t cutting it – I felt I wasn’t being honest with myself anymore, I could feel I was suppressing something but I wasn’t sure what. In short, I felt stuck.

But then I sat down with one of the writing prompts Mirabai Starr suggested: “What do you want from the Holy One? Write a letter to your Beloved, stating your demands.” I’m often sceptical about anything that has to do with God, after having been to a humanistic school and grown up in a mostly atheistic family (apart from when my mum lit candles to help my brother or me pass an exam). But for this exercise, I let go of judgement. I just wrote. And it all spilled out.

I wrote about why I felt like the ground was disappearing underneath my feet, I wrote about what I wanted the Universe to take away from me, like my anxiety, stress, the want to be liked and loved by people I don’t even care about. And it was stuff I’d been holding back in my other writing, but setting a timer for ten minutes and not stopping until I finished, stopped that inner censor from creeping up. I’d been talking about our inner censors for a long time now, so I was surprised to find out I still hadn’t banished mine. I’ve been keeping up that free writing practice for over a week now, and it’s made its way into my morning pages, my lyrics, my academic writing. I’ve been writing more easily and honestly.

If you want to try free writing, here are some writing prompts to get you started:

  • What are my values? What would my life look like if I lived it accordingly?
  • What do I believe to be true about myself? Which of these beliefs are limiting? How will they affect my life if I act as if they’re true? Why are they not true?
  • What does living with intention mean to me?
  • What emotion am I trying to avoid in my life? What do I think will happen if I allow myself to feel it?
co-writing

On Co-Writing

artist, creativity, music, songwriting

Last weekend, I was walking around Treptower Park with a musician friend, and he was talking about a song he had co-written with someone else. He seemed under the impression that co-writing is a bit of a cop-out, like something you do when you can’t write a song by yourself. Maybe that was partly the reason why he later rewrote the lyrics to the song that was originally at least somewhat of a collaborative effort (it turned out to be a damn good song nonetheless).

I’ve definitely met other musicians who share this opinion – for whom writing is a strictly personal business and whose songs seem too private to share with anyone else. And I get it. My songs are personal, I spill my whole life onto the page in vivid detail. But that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally enjoy letting others into my writing process. I think that some of the best songs I’ve written have been written with other people, and I don’t believe it makes me any less of a good songwriter. Quite the opposite.

I’ve written with both good and bad songwriters, and I’ve always come out of the session a better version of myself. You learn to communicate your ideas and be vulnerable, you see new songwriting techniques or guitar riffs, you get to work with someone in a profession that can feel extremely self-involved, you learn to be more efficient. On top of that, you might come up with a great song. If this all sounds good, here are some tips on co-writing that will hopefully kick your ass into gear enough to want to try it:


1. Choose a co-writer wisely.


If you’re at a songwriting workshop, you probably won’t even get to choose who to write with. But on average, you have three options when choosing someone to write with. You can choose someone you know well and click with, someone you respect but don’t really know, or someone you want to write with purely because it might open some doors. Some people are overly focused on the aspect of networking and end up writing with people they dislike just to get more followers or to break into a new part of the industry. If that’s what you want – fine, but be honest with yourself about your intentions. For first co-writes, it’s better to go with someone you know and trust.


2. Don’t plunge into the writing session straight away.


Even if you’re writing with someone you know well, writing a song together can feel a little awkward at first. Don’t rush it. Make sure that when you schedule a writing session, you cut out at least three hours for it, so you can spend the first one faffing about, catching up on news, and talking shit. There’s a big chance a songwriting idea will flow out of that conversation naturally, propelling you into writing your song. Give each other time. Give your ideas space to breathe.


3. Come in with some ready ideas.


If this is your first co-writing session, you’ll probably be nervous as all hell. That’s okay and it will get better, but the best way to handle it, for now, is to come prepared. Coming in with a fully formed song defeats the purpose of a co-writing session, but it will help you to have something written down. Think lyric ideas, a chord progression, writing prompts on specific topics you want to write about (don’t say you want to write a love song, but saying you want to write about how your ex loved his boat more than you would be a good starting point). Have a quick brainstorm before the writing session.

Besides, there are no rules about what you should be writing in a co-writing session. No one said you should write a song from scratch. Maybe you need help finishing an old song, or you want someone to help you write a hook or to co-write the lyrics. Just be clear about this with your co-writer before you walk into the session.


4. Don’t be afraid of voicing your ideas and hearing they’re bad. Don’t be afraid of telling others when you think they’re full of shit, either.


Co-writing can be brutal. I’ve had my ideas shot down by others a fair few times. I have a friend that I have written with several times, who absolutely HATES it when I’m being too obvious in my lyrics. “Curry stains on your jeans? Do we have to put that in?” he’ll ask, and I’ll nod enthusiastically. And he loves metaphors, which I’m not too fond of. “No one will know what this means,” I’ll say about a lyric about a figurative roundabout. In the end, we make our songs better because we balance each other out. He makes me more poetic, and I bring him down to earth (I think).

But if we always accepted each other’s ideas blindly, we’d end up with half-assed songs that are neither here nor there. We need to be honest with each other, and it’s not as scary as you might think if you do it respectfully. And feedback can open your eyes to what makes you you. I didn’t realise that being direct was my thing until several songwriters chuckled at the openness in my lyrics. Some songwriters believe that writing with others will somehow diminish their songwriting voice, but it will only amplify it because it’s through dialogue that you’ll discover who you are as a songwriter.


5. Embrace new things.


If you go into a co-writing session wanting to write a song like all your other songs, you’ll fail. If you go into the session with a preconceived idea of what you want to come out with, or thinking you have nothing to learn from the person you’re writing with, you’ll fail. But if you walk into the room with an open mind, an open heart, and the willingness not to be perfect, beautiful things might unfold.

You don’t have to agree with every idea, and like I’ve mentioned above, it’s important to let the other person know when you don’t like something. But ask yourself why. Try it out before you shoot it down. You might like that jazzy chord progression even if you thought it wouldn’t fit your style, you might want an egg shaker on your recording, or some lyrics in Portuguese. Why the hell not.


6. It’s not just about the song.


A co-writing session is never just about the song you write, so don’t discard the session as a failure if a great hit doesn’t come out of it. Sometimes, co-writing is about learning from each other, exchanging ideas, or just making a connection. Sometimes, it’s about getting a tarot reading first and writing some lyrics second. And not every session will be successful, and that might just be because one of you is having an off day. Don’t pressure yourself and trust the process. What needs to come will come.


7. Follow up if you haven’t finished the song and you think it’s good.


It’s easy to reach the end of the session and promise each other you’ll get together soon and finish it. You won’t. It’s like running into that friend you keep cancelling on and saying: “Yes, let’s totally meet up for coffee next week!” Co-writes have the tendency to fade from your memory, you never quite get around to calling that person you almost finished the song with. Or when you do get together, it’s invariably to do something other than writing. So, if you end up writing something you like, but you run out of time before you finish it, follow up that same week. Do it while the song is fresh and you’re still excited about it.


8. Be clear on the splits from the outset.


Something all songwriters ignore until it’s too late: copyright. Traditionally, if there are two of you in the session, the split will be 50/50. But if you want to be absolutely clear, you might want to discuss this before you start writing or at least before you’ve recorded the song, and you want to put it in writing. Here’s the Song Share Agreement drawn up by the Musicians’ Union. And that thing people say about how if the person’s in the room, they get a part of the split? Yeah, not a myth.

If you have any questions about co-writing, or you want to tell me about your own experience, let me know in the comments! Also, while I’m at it, there is one week left of the November Songwriting Month – sign up if you want emails with songwriting prompts, tips, and learning resources in your inbox. Or just sign up to my mailing list for some half-finished lyrics, music news, and more songwriting musings.

albums-that-made-me-a-better-songwriter

The Music Albums that Made Me a Better Singer-Songwriter

creativity, music, songwriting

It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup of my favourite things, and if there’s anything that can make you a better musician, it’s listening to other musicians. Tom Waits said:

“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”

Tom Waits

That sounds weird coming from me because I do go to a songwriting school, but while there are things to be learned at school, the best music education is undoubtedly listening to other people’s albums and learning covers. (For a long time, I rebelled against the idea of learning other people’s songs instead of writing my own, but there is much to be said in favour of it.)

So, here are some of the records that I’ve listened to over and over again until my ears bled:


Dory Previn – ‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas’


Dory Previn is a recent discovery of mine. She is honest and direct, though she sometimes masks pain with irony that makes you want to listen twice. She wrote lines such as “You can read the early paper/ And I can watch you while you shave/ Oh God, the mirror’s cracked/ When you leave/ Will you come back?/ You don’t have to answer that at all/ The bathroom door is just across the hall” in ‘The Lady with the Braid’.

She had a tragic life – a childhood with an abusive, mentally unstable father (which culminated in him keeping the whole family hostage for several months) and a failed marriage that ended with Dory being hospitalised. She wrote through it all, and she wrote fearlessly.


Joni Mitchell – ‘Clouds’


This album gave us ‘The Gallery’, one of my favourite Joni songs which happens to be about Leonard Cohen, and other gems like ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’.


Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’


There are lots of reasons to love this album. Lyrics is probably not one of them because most of it is gibberish that sounds good without meaning much. But the feeling in the songs is unmatched, and the story behind the album is one of the best since Thoreau’s ‘Walden’. Bon Iver hid out in a cabin in the woods to write this album after a heartbreak and recorded all of the songs with a shabby SM58. The production, the intimate feel of it, the idea of authenticity imbuing the album…a dream of songwriters everywhere.


Jeff Buckley – ‘Grace’


This album is on every musician’s list, for sure. For me, there is one song that stands out the most, and it’s an interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. Not only the vocal technique is out of this world, but the feeling in the song washes over me and brings me to tears every time. Jeff Buckley didn’t agree about this, but I think he’s one of the best vocalists that has ever lived.


Nina Simone – ”Nuff Said’


No one grabs me by the throat as Nina Simone does. She internalises the world’s pain and makes grief universal in songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Sunday in Savannah’. Knowing everything she risked with these songs takes my respect for her to a whole new level, and we’re not even talking about what a legendary pianist she is and how arresting her voice is. On this album, there are also some live recordings, and hearing her talk in between and during her songs is a gift.


Tom Waits – ‘Closing Time’


Tom Waits transports me to another world with his songs – to some version of a gritty America where feelings are more intense, beer is more bitter, lonely men sit in diners and women always leave. It’s a testament to the great songwriter he is that he can create a whole world out of a couple chords and some poetry. Listen to the whole damn thing, you owe it to Tom Waits and yourself.


Lou Reed – ‘Berlin’


I have always loved Lou Reed’s lyrics, and this album is him at his best. When it was released after his successful ‘Transformer’ album, it was dismissed as a commercial flop (not the first one that turned around for Lou Reed). Maybe it was just Lou Reed being ahead of his time because the album is considered a masterpiece now. It follows the story of two lovers – Caroline and Jim, and is filled with drugs, abuse, and general desperation, but it also has some of the best lyrics and imagery thought up by Lou Reed.


Eddie Vedder – ‘Into the Wild (Music for the Motion Picture)’


This is one of my favourite albums, but that might have a lot to do with the fact that I loved the film for which it was the soundtrack. There is a sense of freedom in the songs. Maybe it’s the careless strumming, the crack in Eddie Vedder’s voice, the lyrics. The album has pulled me through a lot of difficult times with the sense of hope and space it conveys.


Django Reinhardt – ‘Djangology (feat. Stéphane Grappelli)’


Django is one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve ever heard of. After a terrible fire in the caravan he shared with his wife, the Romani-French guitarist suffered severe burns and lost the use of two fingers on his left hand. While doctors didn’t think he’d be able to play again, he persevered, developed his own technique, and became one of the best jazz guitarists of our time.


Carole King – ‘Tapestry’


There shouldn’t be any discussion about this: Carole King is one of the best songwriters in history. And ‘Tapestry’ brought us ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ (check out Aretha Franklin singing it while Carole King watches!!), ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’, and ‘It’s Too Late’.


PJ Harvey – ‘Uh Huh Her’


I love albums that feel complete to me, and ‘Uh Huh Her’ feels like a beautiful whole, with seagull sounds, soft songs, hard songs, instrumental bits. It’s also undeniably PJ Harvey. For a songwriter, it’s a lesson in continuity, comprehension, and lyrics such as “When I was younger/ I spent my days/ Wondering to whom/ I was supposed to pray/ It’s you” in ‘It’s You’.


Alice Coltrane – ‘Journey In Satchidananda’


Everybody knows John Coltrane because… well, he’s a genius. But so was his wife. I was introduced to this album by a nerdy musician friend, and I was sold. Where should I start? First of all, she’s a jazz harpist. But she is also a swamini, an ascetic, and this album is heavily influenced by traditional Vedic chants. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and if you’re interested to find out more about her, I recommend you read this piece about her in ‘The New Yorker’.

nanowrimo-songwriting-november

NOVEMBER SONGWRITING MONTH ANNOUNCEMENT

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

Hi everyone!

I have always been a massive fan of NaNoWriMo, where writers commit to writing a novel in a month, but it recently occurred to me that there was no such thing for songwriters… This is why I spent the last couple weeks putting together emails with songwriting prompts, writing inspiration, and interesting links. The idea is that if you sign up for the November Songwriting Month mailing list, you’ll receive a dose of daily inspiration to help you achieve your songwriting goals for the month. And if you’re in dire need of a songwriting community now that this pandemic has scattered us all over the world, there is also a Facebook group where you can share your stuff and give others feedback.

Happy writing!

Erika x

inspiration-journal-songwriting

Why I Have an Inspiration Journal

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

In Belgium, I had a mystery drawer with Post-its with ideas and words that I like. On my bookshelves, I had dozens of dog-eared books with index cards between the pages, writings in the margins, and underlined sentences. I had cutouts of articles I’ve read, poems on my walls, photos of places and friends, and postcards with my favourite paintings. My childhood bedroom was a shrine to creativity. Maybe also a hoarder’s paradise.

When I started moving around, it became hard to acquire stuff – index cards got lost, books were too heavy to cart around, and I didn’t have walls to decorate with paraphernalia anymore. My bedroom was never as over-the-top as Florence Welch’s house, but looking around always filled me with inspiration. If I was feeling stuck, or couldn’t get past the terror of the blank page in my songbook, I could always start from a picture on the wall or a word in someone else’s poem.

I came up with a new system when I moved to a hostel in London, though calling it a system is probably overselling it. I started writing down phrases from books I liked, copying poems, and drying flowers in between the pages of a journal. After a while, I started taking leaflets from galleries and cutting out drawings to paste into my notebook. And in between the art I admired, I wrote my own songs, that had started from a line in a poem or an idea I got from a quote. I called it my inspiration journal.

A blank page is always daunting, but having an inspiration journal, or an inspiration nook where you keep some poetry books and lists of interesting rhymes on hand, can give you a starting point to write from. It can also encourage you to read more, go to museums once in a while, and watch more films. It can make you a better listener and reader, as well as a better songwriter. Here are some ideas on how to fill your journal and what you can do with it:


1. Fill it with poetry and interesting sentences.


Read poetry, listen closely to lyrics, study fiction. As songwriters, we are always on the lookout for beautiful turns of phrase, and unique metaphors. I find autobiographical essays a great source of inspiration, too – some of my favourite writers are Joan Didion, Deborah Levy, and Olivia Laing. But don’t just write down stuff that sounds good. Write down the words that spark your imagination. For different songwriters, that will mean different things. I’ve written down quotes about lightbulbs that didn’t work and turmeric in the kitchen because I wanted to use similar details in my own lyrics.


2. Make lists of words.

As a folk songwriter, I like telling stories in my songs. But to make them come to life, I need descriptive, meaningful words. Most of us can make do with the words in our current vocabulary, but as writers, we need to do better than that. We want to be in a place where we can choose from a pool of words that might mean the same thing, but roll of our tongues in different ways, leave a new taste in our mouths. Jimmy Webb even goes as far as to suggest we read a dictionary back-to-back.


Few of us are naturally inclined to sit and read an entire dictionary (like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate for example, at fourteen hundred pages) but I will advance the argument that a writer who attempts to write prose, poetry, song lyrics or automobile advertising without a vocabulary of suitable depth is entering a tournament of wits unarmed. I will go one step further and say that if there is any intrinsic merit in curiosity then we should read at least one dictionary from aardvark to Zwolle (a city in the Netherlands).

Jimmy Webb, “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting”

I have not attempted this yet, although I intend to read a dictionary someday. I do keep lists of interesting words I come across and original rhymes I see or think of in my notebook, though. I use them for writing lyrics, for moving the story plot along, finding unpredictable rhymes, etc.


3. Cut out paintings, paste in photographs, let a friend draw in your journal.


Writing from an image is a valuable exercise for songwriters in a rut. It can provide a change in your current songwriting process, bring imagery into stale lyrics, or evoke emotions that will make you think of a brilliant melody. I don’t often use this method because I’m not much of a visual person, but I have friends who swear by it. I recommend cutting out photos of paintings from museum or gallery leaflets, pasting in photographs, and even letting friends draw in your notebook. I have let friends do that before who weren’t good at drawing at all – it doesn’t always have to be serious, sometimes a good bit of fun is what you need.


4. Keep newspaper articles that hit a nerve.


I struggle with writing songs that are not about me, and for most people, songwriting can be a narcissistic endeavour. To challenge myself, I sometimes write about events on the outside that affect me in some way – climate change, racism, sexism, there’s enough out there to pull from. My songs about big issues often sound like pretentious crap and don’t see the light of day, but it’s the exercise that counts. I’ve found that referring to newspaper articles helps, especially the ones with personal stories that bring humanity into these grand narratives. Not long ago, I started stuffing them in my inspiration journal to use details from them in my songs. I’ll keep you updated on how well it works.


5. Write down your ideas. Obviously.


Inspiration doesn’t always come from outside. Sometimes we get our own great ideas. The thing with our brain is that we forget them. I often write something down believing the idea is so good that I will remember it forever, to read it back a week later and see it for the first time. So, keep your inspiration journal at hand and write down the great lyric or the original song idea when it comes to you. Or keep index cards in your bag that you then paste into your journal. Whatever works.


This works for me, but I know that all creatives have their rituals, so please let me know if you have any other ideas!

why-music-matters-retrain

My Rant About Why Music Matters

artist, creativity, music, self-love

All my important memories are tied to music. My first big love, my first breakup, all the other loves, and all the other breakups. Summer trips, my high school graduation, birthdays, Christmases. I remember being seventeen after my first boyfriend broke up with me, sitting on the couch in our living room, scrolling through Youtube. I remember finding Lesley Gore and hearing ‘You Don’t Own Me‘. How empowering that felt, and how that song catapulted me out of the couch and onto the street for the first time in days.

One of my most cherished memories is mouthing the lyrics to ‘Ignition’ by R. Kelly to my ex-boyfriend from across the room (and yes, I am ashamed of the memory being tied to this specific song). I still can’t listen to it without thinking of him. I have other friends who have had similar experiences – I have a friend who can’t hear ‘Psycho Killer‘ without thinking of his ex-girlfriend, though they’d been broken up for years (it is an unfortunate title for a song that reminds you of your ex).

I remember the weekend of the Philosophy Olympiad when all the finalists were staying in the same hotel, and someone kept playing ‘Pumped Up Kicks‘ in our room. And when one of my classmates sang ‘7 Years‘ by Lukas Graham at our high school graduation and we all cried (okay, maybe not all of us). I remember dancing in a club to ‘Valerie‘ when I first moved to London. And what would Christmas be without my dad playing free jazz in the background? Or studying for exams without ABBA or the Disney soundtrack? What fun is cleaning the house without singing along to Taylor Swift?

Yes, maybe on a practical level, musicians don’t matter as much as doctors or engineers. But can you imagine a world without music? Without dance? Or art? Would you want to live in it? I wouldn’t. This has been uttered by so many creatives before me, but how would we have survived lockdown if we didn’t have music, films, and books? Yet still, people seem to doubt the importance of the arts.

Most artists were already juggling jobs before the virus and scraping by on dismal paychecks while honing their craft because they believed that their work mattered enough to endure the questions about when they were going to get ‘real jobs’. It was already hard before COVID. But it has become harder – now that the UK government is telling people to rethink, reskill, and reboot. Now that the professions we have been training for our whole lives are being degraded and disregarded.

But imagine… Imagine if we listened. If all the artists that had ever been told to quit and do something else actually stopped and did something else. How many musicians and dancers would be left? How many writers? Or actors and filmmakers? Because no matter how talented they are, every artist has heard those words before. Yes, even Beyoncé. So I ask again… Would you want to live in that world?