on-losing-focus-picking-up-what-you-should-be-putting-down

On Losing Focus and Picking Up What You Should Be Putting Down

creativity, productivity, self-love

I’ve just had one of those weeks when you question everything, are too exhausted to do anything, and end up watching ‘Jane the Virgin’ and eating pizza instead of doing what you probably should be. I don’t know why I have these weeks, and they don’t come often. This time, I blame it on the fear of graduation, the shifts in my personal relationships, and the realisation that I’ve been in Berlin for a while, wondering if it’s time to move on.

I was feeling drained and unmotivated, trying to work at my boyfriend’s place. Suddenly, I noticed myself rearranging his bedroom in my head, imagining what it would look like if I brought one of my fleece blankets over or bought some flowers for his desk. “I’ll help you clean your bedroom when I’m done writing my thesis,” I said. He looked at me with a look of confusion and said: “Cool. You don’t have to do that, but yeah nice.” In the evening, he finally got into a workflow after a day of running around, and since I didn’t want to interrupt it, I went to the supermarket and made dinner for us instead. Then we watched Netflix and went to bed.

In the morning, I woke up angry. It was one of those weeks, remember. “What’s up? Are you mad at me or something?” my boyfriend asked, and I shook my head and packed my bag, getting my bike and half-shouting: “I just need to be alone. It’s not you.” It wasn’t him. Not at all. I just had a flashback. I had a flashback to the last time I felt lost and decided to find myself by building a life with someone else. I neglected university, lost the few friends I had made in London, realigned my goals to fit his. Again, it wasn’t his fault. But this is what I do: when I don’t know what to do, I project it by trying to help others. If I can’t be useful to myself, I might at least be useful to others.

I cycled home on that Friday afternoon and when I got home, I crashed in bed and slept until the evening. I never have naps because I find it hard to fall asleep in the middle of the day, but I just felt drained. I had no idea what I was doing – I was angry with myself for falling back into old patterns but I was used to running away from my head when being inside it became uncomfortable.

Somehow, a shift happened between that Friday and today. Well, not somehow, I know exactly how. Instead of falling headfirst into fixing other people, I took time off. I spent time by myself. On Saturday, I went for a walk and sat by the river while listening to Laura Marling. I read a book and watched a movie. On Sunday, I cleaned and cooked. On Monday, I lit some incense, meditated, and journalled. By Tuesday, I was back in my body.

This morning, I was listening to a podcast while running in the park. It was sunny, and that was probably the real reason I felt optimistic about life after several grey weeks in Berlin. But I was listening to Hattie Hill talk to Marie Forleo about how women tend to carry instead of to care – how we feel compelled to take on other people’s problems and fix them because that’s how we’ve been brought up. I loved the distinction she made between caring and carrying because it’s so accurate. However, I notice that I often choose to take on other people’s problems not only because that’s what’s expected of me – and very much how my mum operates too – but because it’s a way to escape my own ambitions.

Ultimately, it’s a form of self-sabotage. The thinking that drives this is: “If I don’t try well enough, I can’t fail. If I say that I couldn’t go for something 100% because my time was taken up by helping this other person, it won’t be my fault if I don’t succeed.” Not to say it’s bad to help other people or be there for others. But my boyfriend doesn’t need me to rearrange his room or make his dinner (unless it’s just a nice thing I want to do). And you can care about someone and be there for them without having to uproot your life to make theirs more bearable.

The thing is, sometimes I choose to lose focus. I lose focus because I’m afraid to fail. I lose focus because I think that what I want is stupid and unworthy of my undivided attention and commitment. I lose focus because I don’t want to miss out on all these other paths I could take if I spread myself thin. But it all comes down to fear, and we don’t ever want to base our decisions on emotions that ultimately hold us back. We want to make decisions we wholeheartedly believe in. I’ve already spent a year of my life losing focus before and I don’t want to go there again. If you’re going through one of those weeks where you’re desperately looking for something to distract you, here is what I try doing now instead:

1. Switch off.

I mean switch off from technology, work, and other people. Sometimes, we want to escape because we feel overwhelmed, but instead of slowing down and taking time for ourselves, we overload ourselves with social engagements and new projects instead. Turn off your phone, throw out your to-do list for a day. Go for a walk, journal, read a book. Be with your thoughts. If you’ve been running around for a while, it will feel incredibly relaxing to just be.

2. Have a ritual.

I’m not talking about routine here. I’m saying that sometimes, you need to reset yourself. If you’re feeling low and you feel like there’s no point to anything anymore, you need some symbolic new start to breathe new life into your aspirations. For me, that was a full moon ritual on Monday – I saged my room, journalled about what I wanted to release and what I wanted to welcome, and burnt the pages over the kitchen sink. On Tuesday, I felt like I was starting fresh. New starts are important, so think of one for yourself and how you can mark it – maybe you can journal or meditate, or start a new resolution. Examples of new starts are Mondays, birthdays, new moons, full moons, new months.

3. Meditate, manifest, write.

Once you’ve taken time out for yourself and you feel well-rested, it might be time to reclaim your focus again. Meditate on what you want and ask for guidance, write down your vision, make a mood board. Remember why your focus matters, think about where you’re going. Instead of trying to flee your fears, work through them – write down your limiting beliefs, think about the real reasons you’re feeling lost. Is it because you don’t know what you want? Or is it because you’re afraid?

single-by-single-release-culture

Should We Fight the Single-by-Single Release Culture?

artist, creativity, music, productivity

In October 2020, I planned my release calendar for 2021. I was going to release four singles throughout the year – nothing more, nothing less. “The release cycle of a song is three months,” my tutor said at uni, and that served as my guiding principle. The only flaw in my plan was that the four songs sounded much better together than they did as singles. They were written more or less at the same time, talked about similar emotions of heartbreak, growth, and learning. They were just about good enough to be singles, but they would have been a much better EP.

I know a lot of artists who struggle with this. The other day, one of my musician friends complained about how he felt he had to release all of the songs from his EP as singles, which made me wonder why he bothered to release them as an EP at all. By the time the EP comes out, everyone will have already heard the songs out of context.

I started asking myself that question after recording the demo album I mentioned last week. The songs all talked about one period in my life and went together well, but as standalone songs, they didn’t sound quite right. The album told a story. Besides, the recordings were as lo-fi as they go, and getting into the vibe of the sound would take some time, and if the listener would be jerked out of it after one song, it just wouldn’t have the same effect.

Then I heard another friend talk about how this single-by-single release culture affects our artistic output. We’re expected to release a single every few months at the most, or we’re dead to the world. We’re expected to produce content but we’re not content creators, we’re artists, right? But taking time to ruminate over our work, to experiment, fail, and grow without it being documented by social media and Spotify isn’t a part of our culture anymore.

Art takes time. It takes time to get an idea, get excited about it, work hard, hit a roadblock, start working again, throw it away because it was shit after all, start again. Ideas form over time through experimentation, failure, stagnation. If we’re pressed to produce stuff all the time, we’re excluding vital parts of the process. And that opens up a whole other can of worms: the fear and guilt that come with the idea that we have to be working and creating ALL the time. Who can ever live up to that?

First of all, no office employee ever works the whole time they’re paid for. I grew up with a dad with a 9-5 job. He used to read the paper on the toilet until another employee would come to look for him. My ex-boyfriend hid in the toilet to watch the final episode of GoT during his working hours. My current flatmate comes into my room at least five times a day to chat while she’s technically on shift. I read books behind the reception desk of the hostel I worked at. All this to say that no job ever involves constant effort. There are always breaks, downtimes, coffee chats. But somehow, people are outraged when artists take time off to live.

When I have free time and I don’t use it to work on my music, I feel guilty. Not to say that I work on my music all the time because I don’t. But that doesn’t take away the fact that I feel horrible whenever I turn on Netflix or read a book instead. But to create art, artists need to live first. If I’m not learning or experiencing anything, I have nothing to write about, no matter how hard I’m working on my music.

The single-by-single release culture has affected artists in various ways, but most of them don’t stand out to me as beneficial. Of course, there are reasons why artists choose to release single tracks instead of EPs or albums. I have too, so I’ll explain my reasoning here. First, it’s cheaper to have to pay for the recording and production of one song as opposed to a whole collection of them. Another is that it allows you to reassess and tweak your strategy for the following releases. The last one I can think of is that you might not have enough songs for an EP or an album, but in that case, it’s probably too early for you to release any music at all. But ultimately, most of us are releasing singles because we’ve gotten it into our heads that it’s what we’re supposed to do. And it’s just not.

songwriting-habits-acquired-over-the-years

Songwriting Habits I’ve Developed Over the Years

artist, music, productivity, songwriting

My dad was one of the first people to start a blog. I think he started it in the early noughties, and it was called ‘Me and My Lada’ because we lived in Russia, and he owned a Lada. He wrote in it regularly, posting once or twice a week, but sometime after our move to Belgium, he stopped. I remember scouring through his blog a few years ago, and stumbling upon an article he wrote about how to write a song. It was the most popular article he had ever written, even though he’s not strictly a songwriter.

He disconnected the page a while ago, mostly because the number of comments on the post was overwhelming. Most of them seemed to be written by people who were disappointed that songs didn’t write themselves. That’s why I’m wary of writing articles like that, because no guide can guarantee you’ll get a song out of it, let alone a good song, but also because songwriting is highly personal. So, instead, I thought I’d just share some of the habits I’ve acquired over the years, and how I write songs. I don’t think I’m sharing anything particularly useful, but it might be interesting nonetheless.

1. I write about everything

My friends write very differently from how I write. I spill out onto the page – anything goes, no thought is too embarrassing and no confession too private to be made into a song. I process things quickly. After what turned out to be a traumatising date experience a few weeks ago, I woke up in the morning to pen down lyrics in bed, getting down a melody before brushing my teeth. That means that everything I write is constantly being worked into songs – things my friends say become notes on my phone when I go to the bathroom, if I have a melody, I’ll hum it into voice memos on my way home. I never sit on a lyric for more than a day or two. I don’t attach myself to my songs because I’m writing all the time. A lot of what I produce is utter shit because there’s so much of it. But I don’t take any of it personally, and none of my songs are special, even though all of them are

Other musicians can take weeks to write a song. One of my friends has a list taped to the wall above his bed with songs he has yet to finish, and some of them have been up there for months. He changes lyrics around, plays the songs until they jump off his fingertips. He never writes about things right after they happen – he gives his music breathing space so that the songs can come to life without being stifled by sentimentality.

2. I write regularly to fight writer’s block

I write regularly, aiming at one song per week. I have a friend who writes a song a day, although that sounds like complete insanity, and most of my friends write only when they feel they have something to say. I always feel like I have something to say, which I guess is the joy of being 22. But when I don’t write for a few weeks, coming back to an empty page feels much more daunting, like there’s a lot more at stake. This is why I sit myself down a few times a week, and this is why I write about everything – not enough earth-shattering stuff happens to me to write profound songs every week. I write regularly to keep my fear of failure at bay and to prevent writer’s block. The more I write, the surer I am I’ll still be able to write the day after.

3. It doesn’t matter whether I write lyrics or melody first… but I write lyrics first

Another question I often get as a songwriter is whether I write melody or lyrics first. This has changed several times throughout the years for me, and I think it’s nice to experiment with these things. I started writing songs when I was twelve and my English was pretty poor, but since I wanted to make it big and become world-famous, I refused to write in Dutch. At that time, nailing a good melody was much more important to me than having lyrics that made sense (and more often than not, they didn’t). Now, I know that writing is one of my strengths, and so is my urge to overshare, so lyrics have become increasingly more important, and I often write them first. When I’m having an emotional breakdown and want to process something in real-time, though, I grab a guitar and hum lyrics over a melody, doing both at the same time. In other words, the order in which I write is irrelevant. I have, however, been told that I should stop cramming so many words into my songs, and that good lyrics don’t make up for shitty melodies, which gave me some food for thought regarding this.

4. I always write songs down on paper

I never write lyrics on my phone, although I know that a lot of musicians these days do (although I’ve never met a folk musician who did). There’s something about writing on paper that I love, and I like that you can’t erase lyrics that don’t fit or move words around quite so easily. When I start singing the song, I always end up using some of the lyrics I had previously discarded. I also like seeing the process on the page, the struggle of my thoughts fighting their way out. I write down the chords I play, and if I don’t know the names of the chords, I’ll sketch the fretboard and write tabs. When I don’t do this, I can spend hours trying to remember what tuning I wrote something in, or what weird chord I used where.

5. I finish songs once I start them, even the ones I think are bad

I always finish songs once I start them. Some of my best songs I thought were average or even crap when I first wrote them. Had I decided they were worthless after writing the first verse, I never would have finished them, so I try to hold off judgement on my songs until I’ve sat on them for a week or two. I don’t know any musician who disagrees with me on this – we have all walked away from a songwriting session thinking we’ve written a hit to then listen back to the song and hate it. The opposite has also been true. I just know that when I don’t finish a song in one sitting (or at least its skeleton), I usually abandon it altogether.

6. I always record the songs I write on my phone

Once I’m finished, I record the song into voice memos on my phone. I didn’t always do that. I used to think that I wouldn’t forget the melodies to good songs. How wrong I was. Some melodies are good but not catchy, sometimes another song will worm its way into my ear, making me forget everything I’ve ever written, sometimes, the intricacies of a melody will be lost because I was too lazy to press record. So, now, I record it all. The bad and the good because you don’t know what’s bad or good until time’s passed. Some of my friends record a video of the song once they’re finished because it can also be used as song promo on Instagram later when you’re looking back to where a song originated.


These are just some of my songwriting habits, but everyone has their own way of doing it, and I’m sure you do too. Let me know if you have any questions, or if I’ve skirted over some important part of the process. I’d be happy to chat about this.

morning-routine

I Can’t Function Without My Morning Routine

artist, creativity, productivity

When COVID-19 hit, it was the first time in months that I didn’t have to jump out of bed in the morning, and didn’t have any structure imposed on me by the outside world. At first, I revelled in the freedom. I slept in, spent up to an hour in the morning scrolling through Instagram, washed my hair twice a week instead of every day. But after a while, I noticed my productivity plummet and my motivation wane. I spent hours reading books and watching Netflix, but little time creating. Then I stumbled upon the miracle morning routine.

Hal Elrod, the writer of ‘The Miracle Morning‘ – a popular productivity book – sets out these six steps to set you up in the morning: silence, affirmations, visualisation, exercise, reading, and scribing. If you do these things when you wake up (early in the morning!), he promised I’d feel happier and more energised throughout the day. Lacking any form of structure and being a big believer in the power of routine, I started building up my own.

Having a morning routine became a challenge, and I was set on keeping it fun. Whereas Hal Elrod’s system definitely works for most people, I adapted it to suit my own needs, and came up with a few extra ideas. If you’re getting sick and tired of this lockdown bullshit, you might get some ideas on how to spice up your life.


1. I set a challenge for myself



Firstly, don’t call it a ‘goal’. Calling it a ‘challenge’ tricks your mind into thinking you’re doing something fun and it reminds you you’re pushing your boundaries. Set a clear challenge for yourself of something you want to achieve, that you will steadily work on every morning for about twenty minutes. For me, it was writing 45,000 words. It has to be something that excites you and gets you out of bed. After writing for half an hour in the morning, I already started my day having done something productive, having worked towards a higher goal.


2. I write morning pages


Every morning, I need to do a brain dump and write down whatever pops into my head. Once I set all my concerns to paper, they stop taking up space in my head. It also helps to write down what I have to do throughout the day, set my intentions, and check in with myself.


3. I do yoga


I don’t always meditate in the morning, but doing yoga most days brings my focus back to the breath, gives me a break from my thoughts, and gets me moving. It’s also perfect for those who are working in a home office all day, so you get your stretches in before you sit down in front of a computer. Same for musicians who practice with the same posture all the time. While I wait for group classes to resume, I use Leslie Fightmaster‘s Youtube channel. It’s slightly more energetic than Yoga with Adriene, although she’s also class.


4. I visualise


For ten minutes every day, I visualise my perfect life while listening to a guided meditation. It helps me to stay motivated and focused, knowing what to focus my energy on, and what to-do’s don’t align with the bigger picture. It’s also a great way to start your day if you believe in manifestation.


5. I take a shower


Taking a shower is my quiet time. It’s time I use to reflect and prepare for the day ahead. In a time where many of us lack the motivation to go outside or put on pants, it helps to feel clean when you start the day and serves as motivation to change out of my pyjamas.


6. I eat breakfast and catch up on messages


After my shower, I make porridge or eat some yoghurt, while catching up on Facebook and Instagram messages. With most people communicating through social media during the pandemic, it helps to get this out of the way before I start work because otherwise, I spend hours obsessing about whether I forgot to reply to an important message. I never even get important messages, but it’s the FOMO that distracts me from getting anything worthwhile done.

why-i-procrastinate

Why I Procrastinate

artist, productivity, self-love

I just spent all morning scrolling through Instagram, and my only achievements of the day thus far include: an Insta Story, commenting on a friend’s post, sharing a new song I’ve listened to. I also had breakfast.

Mornings like this make me feel guilty and useless, and I often end up overcompensating on other days, crashing late at night with a headache and back pain after sitting in front of a computer a whole day. Wouldn’t it be nicer if I could plan my days to be structured, if I went for walks in the middle of the day after having a productive morning, instead of wasting it all away on social media or staring into space? Yes, it would. And I know it would. Yet I still do this without fail, procrastinating into oblivion.

We all know why we procrastinate: to put off something that stresses us out (like emailing blogs about my upcoming single out of fear for rejection), to put off something that’s plain boring (like starting an essay about the Lydian Chromatic Concept that’s due in April), or because deep inside, we’re convinced that what we’re doing won’t lead to anything anyway, which means that procrastination will lead to the abandonment of the project altogether.

I’m a fairly organised person – I love my morning routine, I have a bullet journal with daily, weekly, and monthly to-do lists. I clean my room at least once a week. But I’m also addicted to my phone, I wallow in self-doubt at every given opportunity, and I have no curtains in my bedroom, which means that I often wake up sleep-deprived if I’ve had a late night. All these form a perfect breeding ground for procrastination, and I’m currently on a journey to learning my triggers.

There are other reasons for people to procrastinate, though. My dad called me last weekend to tell me he started learning shorthand. Why he’d ever need shorthand is beyond me, but he has talked about writing a book his whole life. More so, he’s been writing every day for the last month, actually coming close to achieving his goal. And all of a sudden, he starts learning shorthand. When I pointed that out, he waved me off, saying he has a right to enjoy his life occasionally, which is true, only I don’t buy it.

Humans tend to self-sabotage. I know I do, anyway. Procrastination is the main weapon in our battle against ourselves. When we don’t believe we deserve something, or we don’t think we’re up to the task, or any other reason we’ve convinced ourselves something is not worth trying, we procrastinate. So, next time you watch Netflix instead of working on your new song, ask yourself: what are you afraid of?

I noticed that I procrastinate when 1) there’s an external reason for why I don’t feel capable of doing my best work, or 2) I am scared shitless of failing at something. These days, when I notice I’m procrastinating, I ask myself why first. Identifying the cause quickly leads to solutions. Here is my little list of things that I do that help me keep procrastination at least somewhat in check.


When it’s an external thing


1. I go to bed early


When I’m sleep-deprived, I can’t get anything done. At all. Sending an email will take me hours. Now that I know that, I don’t spend the night with other people before a big day, I value my routine even more and try to go to bed at regular hours, I go outside every day so I can fall asleep more easily. When you’re procrastinating because you’re tired, there’s nothing you can do until you take a nap, sleep it off, and recharge.


2. I put my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’


I’m horrible with my phone. I check it all the time even when I know I have no messages, and when I do, I often don’t reply to them anyway. It’s a tic – I just want to hold the phone in my hand. So, now, I’ve started putting it on airplane mode not to give myself an excuse to look at it. I have specific time blocks when I check my phone – after breakfast, after lunch, but not during the hours I’m supposed to be getting something done. I say that. I don’t always do that. (But I should.)


3. I take breaks and dance around my bedroom


Sometimes, I start procrastinating just because I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for hours. Everybody needs breaks, and it’s recommended to have a break every hour. With the weather now, my hands freeze after an hour of typing anyway. So, every once in a while, I turn on Frank Zappa and dance around the room, hoping the school kids outside my window won’t look. It gets my blood pumping and my energy levels up, so I can sit back down at the desk feeling motivated.


4. I try to avoid sugar during the day


When I start my day with a croissant or a doughnut, I feel energised, for sure, but it’s scattered energy that doesn’t allow me to focus. Despite what some people assume, sugar slows down our cognitive function. It doesn’t help us get into gear, it holds us back. So, I try to be a healthy, mature grownup and have porridge for breakfast or yoghurt with fresh fruit. Whenever I do that, I feel much more productive during the day and it’s easier for me to stay on task. Of course, I’m not perfect. I make up for it by binge-eating chocolate before bed.


When it’s an internal thing


This is much harder. When it’s not a physical factor holding you back, but a mental block, you need to identify it first. Recognising it is the first step, though.


1. Affirmations


I often find myself watching too much Netflix, waking up late, and shirking all my responsibilities exactly when I need to get a lot done. I find it much easier to show up when I’m sure I can handle everything that’s coming my way. When I’m filled with self-doubt and anxiety, I just want to run in the opposite direction. Writing down affirmations and saying them out loud throughout the day helps me to stay motivated and battle the fear of failure that often keeps me from doing what I need to do.


2. I protect my time and energy from the people who don’t respect it


It may sound harsh, but I’ve started spending less time with the people who leave me feeling drained. Sometimes, our limiting beliefs come from internalised comments from friends and family, and I have enough of my own insecurities not to add other people’s to that list. When I set out to do something and feel like a friend might disapprove or think I’m dreaming too big or being too reckless, I tend to make a mental note of that. Difficult discussions are part of every relationship, and I always want my friends to be honest with me. At the same time, friends and family are supposed to be a support network, and when that’s not what it feels like, I feel justified taking a break from them.


3. I journal it out


Again, I’m a massive fan of morning pages. They hold you accountable. I can’t lie to myself every morning, that would just cost too much energy. Even if you don’t do this every day, journalling once in a while will help to know when you’ve picked up a new hobby just to avoid working on a project that really matters.


4. Visualise and remember why you’re doing it


It’s hard to stay brave, or motivated or focused when you don’t know why you’re doing something or what you’re working towards. A quick visualisation exercise, or making a Pinterest mood board (which I guess is also a form of procrastination) is what usually gives me the motivation to get going again.


These are the things that work for me, but different stuff will work for different people. There are also two great talks about fear of failure and procrastination for those who want to dig deeper into this.

Also, my new single ‘River Water’ came out today! Listen to it here.

books-that-motivated-me-through-lockdown

Books that Have Motivated and Inspired Me to Keep Going Through Lockdown

productivity, self-love

Before 2020, I never read anything that could be classed as ‘self-help’. I’m not sure why exactly, but I didn’t consider self-development books to be literature, at least not the Susan Sontag/Joan Didion type. I thought some people spent more time reading books about how to improve something than actually improving it. And I’m still weary of self-help books as a form of procrastination – none of this advice matters unless you practice it.

But in March 2020, when shit officially hit the fan, I found myself listless and disappointed, spending most days in bed in my childhood bedroom, messaging friends and curling up at night with memories of a life that had crumbled when I left London. London was life in fifth gear, and I had been going pretty hard for two years, without stopping to see where I was going. Somehow, I always found the motivation to get up in the morning and go to work, go to uni, go to gigs in the evening, and do it all over again the day after. I rarely crashed. But in March in Belgium, I couldn’t even get myself to go for a run. There didn’t seem to be much to work for.

I’ve always been an avid reader, though. So, while I wasn’t doing anything overly productive, I was still reading a lot. And one day, I stumbled upon Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’, and this beautiful passage:


“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”

While everything in the world was a big unknown, and everybody felt a little lost, this quote reminded me that all we need to do is take it day by day. And that gave me motivation to start a new project and another one, and to keep going. This was one of the books that gave me a nudge during lockdown and inspired me to keep creating and working towards something. But there were a few of them. Here are some other ones, in case you’re feeling stuck and need a little pick-me-up.


‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth

This book is all about how perseverance and hard work matter more than talent. Angela Duckworth was researching success, and what made people get up after they fell down, when she stumbled upon the concept of grit. The premise of the book is that it’s not the people that are the most talented or have the most potential that turn out to be the most successful. It’s the ones that keep going despite all odds. It was an encouraging read because it makes you believe that if you work hard enough, success will follow sooner or later. Through the book, she emphasises the importance of deliberate practice and honing your craft even when you don’t want to. She also talks about the importance of having a calling and how that affects your motivation and grittiness. Duckworth also does a great TED-talk about her research.


“Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. “I have a feeling tomorrow will be better” is different from “I resolve to make tomorrow better.”

Angela Duckworth, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”

‘Linchpin’ by Seth Godin

This is not the best-written book I’ve ever read by far. In fact, it has so much repetition sometimes it’s painful to read. But Seth Godin makes some valid points in his book, points that got me into gear during a week when I was feeling particularly low and highly unproductive. Godin talks about ‘the resistance’, how we’ve been taught to tow the line and follow rules that don’t make sense in today’s economy. The dream of clocking in and out and getting paid for simply being in a certain place at a certain time is dead.

Instead, Seth Godin urges us to become indispensable by throwing out the map, by carving out our own way of life. He stresses the importance of emotional labour – being there for other people, giving without any expectations, creating positive change – and being an artist who delivers. A big chunk of the book talks about our lizard brain, too, and how fear of failure and the unknown can hold us back. It’s a good read because it exposes the ways in which we rationalise our unhappiness and takes away the excuses we’ve been making for ourselves.


“When you set down the path to create art, whatever sort of art it is, understand that the path is neither short not easy. That means you must determine if the route is worth the effort. If it’s not, dream bigger.”

Seth Godin, “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”

‘Business for Bohemians’ by Tom Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson is cool. He’s who I want to be when I grow up. He writes, runs The Idler, a magazine about how to be free in today’s society, and is the founder of an online school that teaches philosophy, calligraphy, ukulele, and a lot of other skills that no one would consider essential. As is to be expected, his book won’t teach you how to make money or run a business, not really. But by letting a reader into his life – in a farmhouse in Devon, or struggling to keep open a bookshop/coffeehouse in London, he shows that other ways of living are possible and we’re not confined to the lifepath we’ve been presented with since birth. And he doesn’t do that in a naive, idealistic way. He hit me with a couple of hard truths a few times. Like this one:


“If you’re not very careful, your creative business, the very thing which you hoped would lead to liberty and riches, will instead trap you in a hell of hard-working poverty.”

Tom Hodgkinson, “Business for Bohemians: Live Well, Make Money”

‘Authentic Happiness’ by Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman is the founding father of positive psychology, and this book encompasses most of his findings. It talks about simple lifestyle changes which will make you live a more fulfilling life, such as gratitude practice, meditation, and more time with loved ones. But what interested me more was the part where he talked about what doesn’t lead to more happiness, such as money (once you have enough, you really don’t need more) and professional success. Those make you feel happy only for a brief period of time, but are not enough to give you lasting happiness. Purpose is. Love is. Family and friends. The book is also chockfull with tests about your key strengths, your loving pattern, how optimistic you are, etc. It’s like Buzzfeed quizzes on steroids.


“Authentic happiness derives from raising the bar for yourself, not rating yourself against others.”

Martin Seligman, “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment”

‘When’ by Daniel H. Pink

This book is interesting because it focuses solely on timing. When is the best time to exercise, the best timeslot for an audition, the best time for a break? The most important insight for me was that everyone, no matter if you’re a night owl or an early bird, suffers a dip in productivity about eight hours after they wake up, and it’s more productive to take a one-hour break than to power through it. Pink also suggests to structure your day around your productivity, and – unsurprisingly – your most productive moment is in the morning if you’re an early bird, and in the afternoon/evening if you’re a night owl. That’s the time for analytical tasks.

This book is more than a time management manual, though. It also has some insights about life – about why we remember an event based on the ending (which is why beautiful endings matter!), why poignancy makes happiness more authentic, why synchronicity boosts happiness (hence why we should all join a choir). This is also the reason I’m mentioning this book instead of ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen, another classic that I read this year. It’s worth a read, too, but really does mainly talk about time management and organisation hacks.


“The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead, they produce something richer—a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we need.”

Daniel H. Pink, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”

For those of you who are interested – I’m releasing a new song on 5 March. You can pre-save it here. I appreciate it so, so, so, so much.

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.

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.

new-years-resolutions-2021

My Hopes and Dreams for 2021

artist, productivity

I remember getting on the doubledecker bus in Battersea with a LIDL shopping bag with Captain Morgan’s, a bottle of coke, and a bag of Doritos. I was wearing a new pair of jeans and was still sweaty from the 8-hour bus ride from Belgium earlier that day, but that didn’t matter because we were ringing in a new year: 2020, and I had great things lined up. I had a placement at ‘The Guardian’ in summer, I was selected for a promoter support scheme by PRS, and I had started gigging with a new cellist. It was all finally falling in place after two years of living in a hostel and practising in the basement next to some empty kegs.

Of course, none of that happened when 2020 hit. I’m grateful every day that I’m healthy, my family members are safe, and I don’t have to worry about where my food will come from tomorrow. Even though my plans got messed up, I’m one of the lucky ones. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not hoping that 2021 will be a better year, and I have been dreaming and scheming like everyone else, so I thought I’d share my plans for 2021 if only to hold myself accountable (and maybe offer some inspiration for everyone out there to set their plans and ideas to paper).


1. Take an online marketing course.


I’m gonna take an online marketing course, purely because musicians need marketing skills almost as much as they need to be good musicians. I’m shit at self-promotion, but I’ve found some free courses offered by Google and Hubspot that might help. Both offer certifications, so if I complete them, I will use them for part-time work outside of music, too.


2. Stop watching Netflix and use that time to read and write.


I wonder how many people have ‘stop watching Netflix’ on their list of resolutions. But honestly. I’ve watched ‘Gilmore Girls’ three times already. This madness has to stop.


3. Release several singles throughout 2021.


I haven’t been sitting on my ass all of 2020. Some of it, I spent writing and recording stuff. So, if everything goes to plan, I will be releasing several singles over the course of 2021, and I have written up a release strategy for how I would release the songs in my ideal world. I will try and follow it for once.


4. Work on my guitar skills.


When I started performing eight years ago, I started stressing out about not being a good enough guitarist. For some reason, though, I decided it would be easier to obsess about being shit instead of working on getting better. This December, I started playing guitar for an hour or so almost every day, and I noticed that I finally didn’t suck. So, I’m gonna try and maintain that habit into 2021.


5. Learn German.


I am moving to Berlin (or London? Or Berlin? Fuck, I don’t even know anymore myself), so I have to learn German at some point. I promise I will actually try in 2021. The alternative is to tolerate angry stares in supermarkets while I try to explain what I need for another year.



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