releasing-music-is-an-act-of-bravery

Releasing Music Is Terrifying

artist, music, self-love

I haven’t been very good at announcing this so far, but I have a single coming out on 5 March, called ‘River Water’. It’s about getting over a breakup, having casual sex, falling in love, and wondering if love and sex are mutually exclusive. With the way artists are expected to promote themselves: posting five stories a day on Instagram, following the adagio of ‘a consumer has to see something seven times before they take action’, bombarding followers with self-promotion, some non-musicians start thinking that releasing music is an ego trip.

Gearing up for my release, I talked to a tutor at my university, who said: “How come you haven’t started promoting anything yet? Where is your pre-save link? Why are you not posting on Instagram?” I made up some lame excuse about how I didn’t realise it was already time to start the promotion, but really, it’s because I hate it. I hate self-promoting because it makes me feel uncomfortable, imposing, egotistical. “We’ve talked about this, Erika,” my tutor said. “The release cycle is three months. You’ve got to really get in gear.”

Few artists are comfortable with sharing the pre-save links to their songs three times a day. Few artists think their music will blow your mind. But we’re still expected to do it and do it regularly because in those early stages, if we don’t do it, no one will. And it’s a thin line between doing enough and doing too much, pushing friends to unfollow you on Instagram because you’ve posted the same ten seconds of your music video ten times in your stories. But it’s also a learning curve and something that’s a part of being a musician.

There are other sides to releasing music that require you to have thick skin. I got on SubmitHub a week ago to start sending out my single to blogs and radio stations. When I went to my account, I saw all the rejections I ever got for previous releases collected in my feed. It was disheartening reading all the feedback I ever got, although none of it was particularly harsh, and I’ve heard from friends that SubmitHub can be outright brutal (so maybe I’m even lucky?). I submitted the song to a few blogs and then watched the rejections stream in over the 48 hours the portal sets as the deadline, without a single affirmative. When I joined Musosoup, the offers I got were paid, and I wondered if it was now a standard thing for musicians to pay for reviews and how ethical was this, really? (Thoughts?)

As the week progressed, I started feeling increasingly more incompetent, uncomfortable, and overwhelmed, wondering if my shaky relationship with social media was a reflection of whether I was a good musician, and if those SubmitHub bloggers had a point, calling my melodies anonymous. Then it was my birthday (I turned 22), and one of my friends said: “Billie Eilish was 16 when she became famous.”

“Releasing music should be fun. You should be excited!” my university tutor said, and I wondered when releasing music had ever been fun. Sharing music was fun – playing it live and seeing people’s reactions, feeling a part of a community, and playing a part in creating one. But releasing music digitally – the promotion, the endless emails, and the following rejections – had never quite carried the same appeal. So, why do we even bother?

I release music so I don’t feel like a fraud when I call myself a musician. I also hope some people will recognise themselves in my lyrics and feel less alone. I release music because maybe someone will care enough to let me know they want me to keep going. There are a lot of small reasons for why I keep doing it, and big ones, like wanting music to be a full-time career. And they make all the other stuff that scares the shit out of me worth it. But for everyone else who’s struggling with their music releases now: releasing music is not an ego trip. If anything, it destroys your self-esteem. But it is an act of bravery, and if it doesn’t go the way you want it to go… Well, at least you tried and you created something. And that’s what we live for, isn’t it?




For those of you who are interested in the new song, you can pre-save it here. I appreciate it so, so, so, so much.

albums-versus-playlists

Why You Should Be Listening to Albums Instead of Playlists

artist, music, songwriting

When my friends used to ask me to put music on over dinner, I always defaulted to a Spotify playlist. In the mornings, while taking a shower, I would often put on a singalong playlist, or the road trip one when I was in the car with my dad. I make my own playlists, too – songs to dance to, folky tunes that make you cry your heart out, new discoveries. I love playlists. But this hasn’t always been the case. I only got a Spotify account two years ago, but before that, I only ever listened to albums, apart from the occasional music video on Youtube.

I hadn’t noticed how much my listening pattern had changed until I was having coffee with a friend and he put on some music in the background. As I was listening to it, I realised it was all the same artist, and I thought to myself: “How boring.” Only an hour later, as I was walking down the street and listening to my ‘Bad Bitch Playlist’ (obviously), I realised what had occurred.

What was the point of musicians making albums anymore if other listeners reacted the way I did? Did they? Or was I an anomaly? But talking to other friends, I realised most of us didn’t listen to albums anymore, apart from, maybe, some albums we had grown up with and didn’t know how to listen to differently.

I went back to that friend for another coffee, and, while putting on another album, he said: “I never listen to albums on shuffle. It had taken me weeks to figure out what order to put the songs in on my own album. They’re meant to be in a certain sequence.” It’s true. Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage would sound ridiculous on shuffle. The transitions between the songs on Kate Tempest’s The Book of Traps and Lessons wouldn’t sound nearly as smooth. For any musician I listened to, there was a thought process behind the tracklist.

That hadn’t answered my question, though. Why did we still bother making albums? And what was the benefit of listening to an album over a playlist?

I had always been the type of person who would become obsessed with a certain album and listen to it until it made me sick. I got to know the artist behind it, their inner world, by spending time with them and only them for the duration of the ten, twelve, sixteen tracks on their LP. Now, I was the person who listened to a mishmash of different songs, forgot artists’ names, and only vaguely knew what a certain lyric meant in whichever song. I wasn’t diving deep into music anymore, it felt more like window shopping. I wanted to learn to listen to albums again.

I started with Josephine Foster’s I’m a Dreamer. Listening to an album again felt like watching an arthouse film after binge-watching a Netflix show. My attention span was not trained for such a sustained effort. I hated it and told my friend as much. But a week later, over breakfast and coffee, I listened to it again. Maybe the combination of a mellow Sunday morning and Josephine’s voice was a good combination because I couldn’t stop listening. I felt like I was on a journey.

Now, I can’t listen to playlists anymore. It feels like a job half-done. I don’t get to know an artist by only hearing one song. I listen to playlists to find new artists I want to hear more of, but that’s different from never stopping to find out more about specific musicians at all. That’s why albums remain important. A single doesn’t tell the story of an artist. It’s the elevator pitch, the business card. To get to know an artist, to know what they’re worth, what message they’re trying to convey, what they sound like when they’re not trying to get on the radio, you need to listen to the album.

Since I started listening to albums again, I started remembering the names of the musicians I listen to. Not only that, I started listening to more music. Knowing more about the people I listened to, I started feeling more in control, and less like I was being spoonfed songs by Spotify. I became more curious and adventurous in my listening instead of relying solely on the Discover Weekly playlist. Do yourself a favour and listen to an album today. And if you catch yourself thinking how boring it is, keep listening.

deliberate-practice-matters

Why I Started Incorporating Deliberate Practice Into My Daily Routine

artist, music, productivity, songwriting

This is me putting on a circus show for my parents. I spent weeks (or maybe really just a week) learning how to juggle, teaching my cat tricks, and mastering the magic of the disappearing thumb. Then I dressed up and made my parents watch me and applaud my endeavours. My dad sent me this photo this morning, and it made me chuckle and think about how much I’ve changed. He replied: “Actually, you haven’t changed at all.”

It’s true. I still get a kick out of people watching me perform. I would probably still rock a synthetic purple glitter blouse. It made me think of other ways I’ve stayed the same. A couple days ago, I showed a friend a video of the first song I’d learnt on guitar. My mum diligently videoed all my performances until I moved away from Belgium. After that one video, I started scrolling down and looking at the rest: me at twelve, at thirteen, at fifteen… But what struck me was how small the difference was between me at fifteen and me now.

“You’ve definitely learnt how to strum better,” my friend said. Which, by the way, I don’t think is true. He just hasn’t heard me strum yet. But everything else was pretty much the same. I was always slightly embarrassed about my fingerpicking style (I learnt one pattern when I was fifteen and decided that was enough) and spent years justifying my laziness by finding examples of successful musicians who weren’t great guitarists. What I didn’t realise was that by doing that, I was standing still.

I have always been proud of having started performing early – my first gig was when I was twelve and I’ve gigged regularly since. But I haven’t spent much time over these ten years practising – most of it was spent writing songs, singing songs I could play already, and doing everything other than playing the guitar. A while ago, though, I read ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth, where she wrote that hours spent doing something didn’t always translate to mastering a skill better. And then she wrote this:


Without effort, your skill is nothing more but what you could have done but didn’t.

‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, Angela Duckworth

I realised that if I didn’t put the effort in, becoming a musician would also be something I could have done but didn’t. That effort was called deliberate practice.

Two months ago, I started practising every day for two hours. I want to say without fail, but of course the holidays became a two-week Netflix binge. I’m back on track now, though. I started playing scales, learnt Travis picking (fucking finally), learnt one or two covers a week (and this time, didn’t skip the solos and the intros), started reading more about music theory, and doing ear training exercises. For the first time in ten years, I also started doing vocal warmups.

I’m still getting the hang of deliberate practice, but I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s not always fun. It’s supposed to be hard and make you sweat just enough so you still have the courage to come back the day after. And it’s worth it – I’ve grown more as a musician in these last two months than I had in all the years of gigging combined.

Of course, when I wanted to show off my great new skills to my friend who had encouraged me to practice more in the first place, I choked and fucked up. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not getting better. It just means I have to keep practising.

Here are some resources I use in my deliberate practice sessions and some talks that have inspired me to keep going:


Talks


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | Angela Duckworth

The famous TED talk by Angela Duckworth about work ethic, effort, and consistency.

Music Lesson – How and What to Practice on Your Instrument

Rick Beato talking about how to structure your practice routine.

I practiced 10,000 Hours in 6 Months

Again, Rick Beato, bragging about how much he used to practice in his twenties. Whatever.


Guitar Resources


Scales

The ten essential scales you need to know. This website is generally good for guitarists who want to improve and includes tips on practice, books to read, exercises, etc.

Fingerstyle guitar lessons for intermediate guitarists

LicknRiff is a Youtube channel with guitar lessons for intermediate and advanced lessons on fingerpicking. It’s geared towards those who play a nylon string. The guy who teaches it offers tabs for free as well, and his videos always feature his two dogs, which is almost an unnecessary bonus, really.

Laura Marling tutorials

I’ve been going on about these for ages. But it’s Laura Marling. Herself. Teaching her own songs.


Ear Training and Music Theory


Ear training exercises with Rick Beato

Some general explanations on how to improve and a series of seven ear training exercises you can do daily. Rick Beato’s channel in general is great for music theory explanations, so have a look around. I’m kind of obsessed, but maybe that’s also because I have a minor crush on the man.

Teoria

A great website on music theory with ear training and theory exercises you can do. You can also select how advanced you want to go.

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-to-be-okay-with-not-getting-the-perfect-take

How to Be Okay With Not Getting the Perfect Take

artist, music, productivity, self-love, songwriting

I’ve been struggling with that one myself for a while. My experience with recording has always been rocky. I did my first recordings in the attic with my dad, using a badminton bat with a nylon sock as a pop filter. I’ve taken recording very seriously and not seriously at all. I’ve released songs that I knew I’d done a half-assed job on and I’ve been proud of others. I never listen to my recordings once they’re out. Recording is a big part of who musicians are and having fits of anxiety over getting the perfect take is just not an option if I don’t want to die of a heart attack at 35.

I had two ways of accepting that fact – the first was to pretend I didn’t care about getting a perfect recording because no one was going to listen to it anyway. I’d probably forget it was coming out at all (and I did forget it when my first EP came out). The second option was to obsess about the recording because if people were gonna listen, the song needed to be fucking perfect. I’m an all-or-nothing type of girl.

Last week, I figured, there must be a third way. I came home from Berlin to get my dad’s sage advice on my songs and for him to press record and sit in the room while I played. Usually, those recording sessions are quite boring and stressful, made somewhat bearable by my dad’s jokes. But I had become spiritual in Berlin and I started to believe in detachment, visualisation, and the Universe. So, this time was going to be different.

I lit cedarwood incense and scented candles, said a quick prayer to my creative genius, and started playing. And God, it was a fucking struggle. I could hear my dad sighing from the other end of the room as I wrestled my way through the first song. I recorded songs in full takes, so after every mistake, I had to start from the beginning. Two hours later, we’d only got halfway decent takes of two songs. My dad called a break and we went to the kitchen for hot toddies.

We spent the whole day recording, and despite the incense and the candles and the prayers to the gods, I felt paralysed. It was the old second way all over again – if it wasn’t perfect, it was because I was shit. I went to bed feeling dreadful. The morning after, my hands shook as I listened back to the recordings. “Feels like a struggle,” I wrote in my notes about one of the songs.

I was confused. What was it that I was supposed to do to make recording fun? I’d tried the spiritual stuff, and that didn’t work one bit. So, I kept experimenting. And here is what worked:


1. If you can’t get a technically perfect take, get a heartfelt one.


I called one of my friends when I was at a recording low point last weekend. “You sound so depressed I’m legit worried,” she said. I felt stupid because even though I felt like shit, I am also lucky and grateful to be making music and I am aware of that. But what I said was: “Yeah, I think I’m a terrible musician.” My friend was quiet while I told her about my recording struggles. Then she said: “Well, who cares if it’s a perfect take? There’s always gonna be something you wish you would’ve done better. But if you put real emotion in the song, you give the recording something more valuable than technical brilliance.”


2. Have someone else in the room.


My whole phone conversation with her was full of useful gems. She also said that it’s really hard to do anything alone. And sure, I had the one recording session with my dad, but I spent hours afterwards recording by myself. “You need someone who tells you when it’s time to move on, and when you’ve done a good enough job. We’re always much harder on ourselves than we need to be.” I stand by recording on my own because it allows me to sit with my emotions and feel less self-conscious, but after 10 takes of the same song, it might be worth sending a couple takes to your friends to get their opinion. And more often than not, that weird lisp you keep hearing is just in your head.


3. Go for a walk.


Sometimes, you just need to step away. When I keep missing the same note time and time again, it’s more often than not because I need a break. Get out of the house. Stretch. Have some green tea. Laugh. Call a friend. I noticed that good recordings only come when your mindset is right. If you’re in a downward spiral of self-hatred, get out of the house. Reset.


4. Ask yourself if you’re self-sabotaging.


I spent three days telling myself I sucked. But then I stopped for a minute and asked myself why I was saying that at all. Did I even believe that? I know I’m a good musician, I know I love writing. I know that, for better or for worse, I’m true to myself and my music. But I was afraid to fail, so I was making excuses for not having to try. Yes, I might put out songs that no one will listen to. Yes, other people might not like them. But does that mean I should give up before even starting? Figure out the reason for your negative self-talk. You need to understand your fears before you can conquer them.


5. Write down what went well.


And if none of that helped, and your recording session still sucked, and you’re going to bed with a heavy heart and a deep feeling of incompetence, get your journal out. I keep talking about cultivating a gratitude practice, and how it puts things into perspective. And after any kind of bad day, that can help. But after a day of self-deprecation, it especially helps to remind yourself of what you‘ve done well. Write down three things. Don’t tell me you haven’t done three things well that day because I know you have. And you should know too.

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?