What Kind of Person Does It Take?

artist, music, self-love, Songwriting Musings

I went to law school. For one day. Two lectures! But only one day. I enrolled because I wanted to do something good in the world, to do something meaningful that would also pay for my parents’ retirement. I also enrolled because I had just spent four months living in a hostel in London and everyone kept telling me that it was just a phase. Eventually, I’d have to get a proper education, a 9-5 job, and a house. I could still travel during summer and I would have time for music on the weekends, of course. But after one day of law school, I realised something. It wasn’t a phase – I was a musician, and travelling and making music are a part of my life.

I go through phases, as I think everyone does. Some mornings, I wake up and wish I had studied something that would’ve given me a fast pass to a job, like accounting. I have to specify here: a job that pays. It’s demotivating working towards something that you’re not sure will ever work out. Devoting hours to practice, to writing, to networking and performing, only to have to work as a nanny to pay rent. Music doesn’t always pay. Neither does writing. Both are still hard work.

Sometimes, I get to go home to visit family – who are so supportive it’s as if the sun shines out of my ass. But then I also see childhood friends, and sometimes, they ask: “So, what’s the plan? You’re not gonna keep working as a nanny, are you?” The truth is, I don’t have a clue. The whole project hinges on hope, despair, and Plan B, C, Y, and Z. I have a million backup ideas in my head in case the music thing doesn’t work out. I can do a master’s. I can start an internship in marketing. I can keep working as a nanny until I drop dead.

In Berlin, I’m surrounded by a surrogate family of people who all believe in the cause. They’re all musicians, most of whom are making money solely from music. I don’t but I haven’t tried hard enough. I haven’t gone busking or taught music, I haven’t even booked a tour yet. For all the years I’ve been playing, it feels like I’m perennially just starting out. I’m always halfway out the door. I’m only ever half trying to be a musician.

I have trouble committing to things. I don’t know why but I can’t commit to people properly – whenever something becomes serious, I look for a way out. I can’t commit to career paths – I’ve started five different degrees and only finished the one because I had already racked up student debt. I can’t even commit to dreams – wanting to be a musician one day, a writer the other, but then deciding that maybe a 9-5 is the way to go. I’m flaky, and most of my friends know this about me.

Maybe that’s why this music thing is not working out the way it should. Maybe that’s why I’m working as a nanny and exploring other options. Because I don’t actually believe I can do it, and if I never try, I’ll never find out. I’m not talking fame or fortune. I just want enough money to cover rent and groceries. And another part of it is that I never know who I want to be – do I want to be the soccer mum or the hippie traveller? Do I want a family, a house, a job, or a whole lot of uncertainty? But the truth is – I do know what I want because I’ve been tentativily choosing it this whole time.

I chose to live in a hostel for two years and collect stories. I chose to move cities twice to sustain my music. I chose to study Songwriting and to perform and to stand in line for open mic signup in rainy London in December. For all my flakiness, I have never given up on being a singer-songwriter and a bit of a nomad.

So what kind of a person does it take to be a musician? Probably someone with a little more faith and a little more stamina. Someone who has no other options. One of my closest friends struggled through lockdown, trying to figure out whether he should consider doing something other than music. But through all of it, he said: “I don’t know what else I would do, though.” And maybe that’s the kind of person it takes to be a musician. The person who has no other plan, the kind of person who’s all in.

I’ve weighed my options. All of them. And being a musician and a writer is terrifying and hard, but it is the only option that brings me joy, that makes me feel alive, and that makes me proud of what I do. I have just spent two months veering every which way trying to figure out what to do if not music. But it didn’t work. It never does. So, this time, I’m in. I’m all in.

How Independent Are DIY Musicians Really?

artist, music, Songwriting Musings

When I was a teenager, my dad sent me a Youtube video where Patti Smith gave advice to aspiring musicians. She said:

“Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned about doing good work and protect your work.”

Patti Smith Interview: Advice to the Young

Those words always stuck with me. Whatever I was doing, I heard Patti Smith say in the back of my mind: “Your principles are all you have.”

Last month, my musician account was disabled on Instagram because of suspicious activity, leaving me unable to access any of my content or reach out to any of my followers. With an upcoming release on 11 June, it was also the worst timing. I panicked. I cried. I called my friends, outraged about the injustice. Then, I heard Patti Smith in my head say: “Are you actually crying about Instagram?” I remembered her words about protecting my work and staying true to my principles, and something clicked.

As someone who values slow living, mindfulness, and real connection, I was very quick to jump on the bandwagon of promoting everything on social media. However, the return on investment of Instagram – at least for me – has been pretty low. All the hours put in only resulted in reactions from people I already knew engaged with my music. And just like that, they were all gone. So, in reality, I had spent hours promoting Instagram instead of my music.

After my account was shut down, I spent weeks trying to recover it, only to get messages back saying that no one could help with my issue. As I was getting increasingly more frustrated, I also started realising how dependent DIY musicians are on social media. Where do we promote our music if not on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.? Maybe we aren’t dependent on labels anymore, but we are still not independent. And again, I wondered: why did I bother with social media? Did it make me happy? Was I being creative through it, getting any sort of fulfillment, fostering real connection? No. But I was compromising my integrity as a musician by spending valuable time obsessing about social media.

Instagram made me show people a highlight reel of my life and made me jealous of the people I admired. It stressed me out in a way that wasn’t healthy and pushed me to do a form of marketing that felt unnatural to me. So, last week, I made a U-turn. I decided to stop promoting my music on social media. We keep thinking it’s the only option, thus making it the only option. Musicians become increasingly dependent on networks they don’t control, spending valuable time producing content no one pays for, and paying Facebook to get posts seen by at least their own followers. For some musicians, the return is high – they go viral or keep a dedicated following interested in their work. But am I wrong in thinking that for most musicians it really isn’t?

Besides, if everyone is on social media to promote their music, how effective is it? I started brainstorming on other marketing tactics that resonated with me more and fostered a sense of connection I wanted to create with my music – zines, free online workshops, blogging, building my mailing list… The possibilities are endless. Sure, I might not reach thousands of people a day, but let’s be honest… I wasn’t anyway.


Instead of posting on Instagram, I am now gonna run a blog about my music life on this website, so keep an eye out. You can also subscribe to my mailing list and follow me on Bandcamp. My next song ‘Strongest Woman’ is coming out this Friday and all the proceeds will go to Good Night Out, a UK non-profit that’s creating safer nightlife by training up spaces, event organisers, and communities to respond to and prevent sexual violence.

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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.

do-i-trust-my-own-artistic-judgement

Do I Trust My Own Artistic Judgement Now? When Did That Happen?

artist, creativity, music, songwriting

I was walking down the street in late autumn and sobbing on the phone. “I don’t understand why my dad hates my new songs,” I said. “I thought they were the best songs I’d ever written.”

The day before, I had enthusiastically sent my parents demos of some new stuff, songs that I thought would blow their minds with their brilliance. When my dad called the day after, he said he wasn’t overly impressed. For other people, the moment when they stop caring about what their parents think probably comes when they’re teenagers. For me, however, that moment never came. And my parents rarely told me they didn’t like what I was doing, so I grew to need their validation. Whenever my dad told me he didn’t like my songs, I started questioning everything about them, often abandoning songs because I started believing he was right.

“Erika, this is ridiculous,” my friend said. “Of course, you want validation and approval. But you also know what’s good and what’s not for yourself. Music is inherently subjective. So what if he didn’t like it? Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it just means you’re growing. Maybe this is the Universe telling you that it’s time to start trusting yourself.” Of course, it was the fucking Universe.

I spent a week forcing all of my musician friends to listen to those songs, none of whom told me they hated them. I started thinking that maybe sometimes, what my dad said was an opinion rather than the absolute truth. I was playing one of those songs in my childhood bedroom when I went home for Christmas. My dad came into the room and listened, and when I finished, he said: “This is a great song. When did you write it?”

One of my closest friends criticises my music incessantly. “That lyric really jars with the rest of the song,” he’ll say. Or: “It doesn’t rhyme at all.” Or, my favourite: “It just needs some work.” But hearing his feedback at the same time that my parents decided that the direction my music was taking was not sitting well with them has helped me to let go of wanting to please anyone. I couldn’t please the people closest to me, so what did it even matter? I just started doing my own thing.

A few weeks ago, I recorded a demo album and sent it to my parents for feedback. I don’t care, but it doesn’t mean I’m not curious. My mum called me and said: “I liked it better when your voice sounded pretty.” My dad said: “You sound too angry.” I knew I was growing as a person when those comments didn’t make me burst into tears. Maybe I am a massive wimp, but I was extremely proud of myself when I shrugged at their words and carried on with life after our phone call.

Today, I talked to my Songwriting Tutor at uni. I showed her the arrangements I had in mind for some new songs, and she said: “Well, if you trust your artistic judgement, that’s the only thing that matters.” And when I got off the Zoom call, I thought to myself: “I do trust my artistic judgement, don’t I? When the hell did that happen?”

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.

poets-that-taught-me-to-write

How My Favourite Poets Taught Me to Write

creativity, songwriting

The first poem I liked was Bukowski‘s ‘An Almost Made Up Poem’, about a heartbreaking love for a woman that took her own life. I had read poetry before that – I had read and liked Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Kipling (not knowing the implications of that at the time), but they hadn’t grabbed me by the throat and turned me inside out. There was something about Bukowski’s writing that sounded like he was furiously scribbling away in his journal, and I felt like I was in his head, and there was no time for rhyme or for beautiful words except they sounded beautiful anyway because they were true.

I was fifteen when I read that poem and I’ve since met a lot of men who love Bukowski, especially the ones that are just starting as poets. He’s the Hemingway of poetry, he’s a lad’s lad, he’s cool enough to openly admit you like him (despite the numerous claims of him being a misogynist). I still like Bukowski and I have realised that my soft spot for embarrassing honesty comes from him, just like my disregard for rhyme. I have never cared for lyrics that sound pretty but don’t mean much, and I only like abstract imagery in moderation.

After Bukowski, I moved on to more broody things. I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. As a teenager, I related to ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’, especially the line “I think I made you up inside my head”, and kept the poem as the screensaver on my phone for months. I remember classmates laughing at me for being pretentious (which I was), but that’s how I learnt the power of repetition, that love is supposed to tear you apart, and that exaggerating is acceptable even when you’re striving for honesty in your writing.

When I realised I actually liked poetry, I started taking out poetry collections at the library. I’d choose them at random – picking out two or three every other week in the English language section. That’s how I stumbled across Helen Farish, and her poem ‘Look at these’, a short poem where she writes: “Seeing you makes me want to lift up my top,/ breathe in and say Look! Look at these!” It’s a snapshot in time, vulnerability that’s confined to a very specific action. With its eight lines, the poem stunned me with everything it encompassed. It showed the universality of a brief moment. After that, I started writing about small things, too. Nothing was too small to be made into a song – blue sweaters worn by ex-boyfriends, catchphrases friends used, the scent of someone’s cologne.

In a poetry anthology of female poets, I found the poem ‘Bitch’ by Carolyn Kizer, where seeing an ex-lover provokes the dog in Kizer to first growl, then bark, and then, as the conversation about old days unfolds, to whimper and grovel. It’s a metaphor that sounds exactly right, the lines “Down, girl! Keep your distance/ Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain” describing my thoughts when I interact with my ex-boyfriends. It was funny, it was fitting, it was – again – relatable. I haven’t mastered the art of elegantly constructed metaphors yet, but she inspired me to try. She also inspired me not to be afraid to use self-deprecating humour.

When Maya Angelou came, so did life. ‘Caged Bird’ taught me that pain matters, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ taught me to believe. She didn’t teach me how to write, she taught me how to live. So many small wisdoms that she imparted I live by today. I was told yesterday that I’m too full of myself and need to learn to be humble. I don’t think that’s what my friend meant. I think he meant I need to be more modest, but Maya Angelou taught me there’s a difference between the two and what I need is humility, not modesty. She said this, and it’s ingrained in me forever and ever:


You see, I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals.  As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper. Whenever I’m around some who is modest, I think, ‘run like hell and all of fire’. You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.

Dr. Maya Angelou

Later, I became more interested in my roots and started reading Russian poets, like Yesenin, Akhmatova, Akhamadulina. Their melancholy, dark humour, detailed descriptions (like Akhmatova describing putting on the left mitten on the right hand in ‘A Song of the Final Meeting’) taught me to pay attention to the mundane, to romanticise, and to remember. Yesenin’s lilacs, Akhmadulina’s green dreams in winter – I remember visiting Russia when I was seventeen and going through my grandmother’s bookshelves, taking photos of these poems I didn’t want to forget. Two years later, I’d find a compilation of Russian poets in a second-hand store in Marylebone, remembering poems I heard when I was too young to understand them, underlining phrases that I wanted to mimick in my lyrics.

Then the age of Instagram poets dawned, and I discovered Rupi Kaur and Charly Cox. Rupi Kaur’s ‘milk and honey’ was the first poetry collection I bought, and I brought it with me on my trips around Europe. She helped me through my first breakup in high school and taught me that my feelings were valid enough to write about. Charly Cox came much later when I stumbled upon ‘She Must Be Mad’ at the library in Ghent, while visiting my parents over Christmas over a year ago. She was speaking about her experiences, but it was like reading my own diary. I had been moving in that direction all along – confessional storytelling and embarrassing truth are what I live for. But here was someone almost my age, doing it at the same time as me, and I felt seen. It gave me hope, like good poetry always did.

how-i-steal-from-other-artists

Here’s How I Steal from Other Artists – and Why Everyone Should

artist, creativity, music, songwriting

I don’t think it’s much of a secret anymore that all artists steal. Not because we’re not creative or original enough, but just because it’s inevitable. We’re building on hundreds of years of craft and creativity. This morning, I was listening to a meditation that described it perfectly: we’re like the wave that’s being pushed forward by the whole ocean of our ancestors.

One of my friends and I often end up arguing about the throwaway comments I make. I say stuff like: “I hate Bob Dylan. He has a whiny voice.” First of all, I don’t hate Bob Dylan. I just don’t love him. And I recognise his contributions to folk and singer-songwriter music. But I also think he’s not that great of a singer and his guitar could use some work (although that’s rich coming from me). Anyway, my friend always gets incredibly worked up about me saying this, and I asked him why the other day. He said that you can’t deny that everything you do is based on what came before you and that, as musicians, we ought to recognise that. I couldn’t argue with that, although I don’t want to encourage any Bob Dylan idolatry here.

However, we are a part of a tradition. I came across this video of Paul Simon talking about how he wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. He describes how a part of the song slipped in from a Bach chorale, and how listening to the gospel group The Swan Silvertones led him to use gospel changes after he got stuck. Then Simon describes listening to an up-tempo song with the lyric: “I’ll be a bridge over deepwater if you trust in my name”, and pauses briefly before saying: “Well, I guess I stole it, actually.”

If this is how one of the greatest songs ever came about… well, I guess there’s a good reason to try doing it yourself. Here are some ideas on how to harness the greatness of the incredible songwriters of yore:


1. Recreate.


In her book ‘The Creative Habit’, Twyla Tharp wrote about dancing:

That’s the power of muscle memory. It gives you a path toward genuine creation through simple recreation.

Twyla Tharp, ‘The Creative Habit’

The same goes for music. I spent years trying to write songs only knowing a few chords and two different strums. Limitations are healthy and can become fertile soil for creativity, but not when those limitations stem from laziness. Deliberate practice tends to be effortful and exhausting, but there’s a bigger chance you’ll persevere with your practice and learning if you start by learning songs by an artist you love. I had a pretty extensive Joni Mitchell period. Some musicians never get out of it and spend most of their careers sounding like an artist that already exists, but most artists spend at least some time imitating someone they admire. With time, you’ll start adjusting the guitar licks you’d learnt, adding your own lilt to the accent you’d been mimicking, you’ll start whispering where you used to belt. Someone else’s style will slowly grow into your own. But you need to start somewhere.


2. Write down everything that sounds good.


I underline sentences in books and write them in the back of my songbook. Whenever I’m stuck with a lyric, I leaf through my notebook and look at how I can spin the lines I liked in a way that will fit my own song. Sometimes, a line in a poem or a story will spark a song. I was reading ‘She Must Be Mad’ by Charly Cox, and these words struck me: “I got a fork stuck in a dishwasher/ And now I can’t stop crying/ Whoever said depression was glamorous/ Has clearly never considered dying” from ‘all I wanted was some toast’. That sparked the song ‘Tomato Stains’ that begins with the line: “I can’t get the tomato stains out of my new faded jeans/ And I can’t stop crying”. It ultimately goes into different thematic territory, but it would’ve never been written without Charly Cox. But a lot of the time, the origin of a lyrical idea is wildly different from what makes it into the song in the end.


3. Listen to artists that sound different.


I’m currently listening to Jon Batiste’s new album ‘WE ARE’ that combines gospel, funk, and R&B with hip-hop, jazz, and classical music influences. It features Zadie Smith, how cool is that? But I only heard of it because there was an interview with him in The Cut. It’s a stellar album, and I’m glad I came across it, but it’s also so different from the stuff I often listen to that a lot of the elements that will seem obvious to regular listeners of Jon Batiste’s jump out to me as exciting and new. It immediately inspires me to learn more about jazz and to experiment with sampling voices. Imitating one person makes you a copy, but combine that with another influence, and you have an idea.

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.

female-non-binary-songwriters

10 of My Favourite Female & Non-Binary Singer-Songwriters

artist, music, songwriting

The day after International Women’s Day on Monday, Pitchfork published the results of a study highlighting that women are still underrepresented in music. Women make up less than 23 percent of artists, less than 2 percent of producers, and less than 13 percent of songwriters. There’s progress, and some women are taking the music industry by storm (Billie Eilish, for example), but we’re still far off from a gender balance.

Instead of stating the obvious this week and talking about how we must do better, I thought I’d just remind you of some great female singer-songwriters without whom this world would have been a much bleaker, sadder place (they’re mostly folk artists because that’s what I listen to most of the time, but feel free to make your own suggestions). Just a disclaimer: I have left out the super obvious ones, like Joni Mitchell and Carole King because everybody knows them (or should) and loves them without me preaching about how marvellous they are.


1. Gillian Welch


“I wanna do right but not right now” is a line that I have copied into my diary. I was listening to ‘Look at Miss Ohio’ over dinner with my best friend the other day, and we both laughed at how relatable it is. There’s something about Gillian Welch’s voice that sounds like she just gets you, like it’s an older version of you singing specifically to you. I remember showering at an ex-boyfriend’s house while ‘The Way the Whole Thing Ends’ played through my phone speaker and feeling the acceptance in her voice wash over me. She’s essential listening.

Recommended album: ‘The Harrow & The Harvest’


2. Cat Power


‘Lived In Bars’ is my favourite song ever, it makes me feel melancholic and grateful to be alive whenever I hear it. I’d listened to it many times while walking around Regent’s Park in London, trying to figure out where the hell I was going to live if I ever managed to get out of the hostel I was staying at. But it was when I heard her album ‘Wanderer’ for the first time that I spent the whole day writing lyrics trying to imitate her style. I’d never wanted to be someone else before, but Cat Power seemed so adventurous, wild, yet exuding the confidence of someone who knew exactly what she was doing.

Recommended album: ‘Wanderer’


3. Ani DiFranco


Ani DiFranco is a feminist icon we all need in our lives. She’s also a lyrical genius. I have spent hours pouring over her lyrics that read like the finest poetry, with its puns, wordplay, and clever rhymes. She’s also kind of terrifying. When one of my friends was cooking me dinner, and I put her on in the background, we both jumped up as she strummed her guitar violently in ‘Dilate’. There’s something incredibly powerful in her songwriting, and listening to her I feel her energy reverberate in my bones.

Recommended album: ‘Dilate’


4. Kae Tempest


I’m always amazed when people don’t know who Kae Tempest is. Their narration is captivating, pulling you in with vivid and unsettling images of London life, guiding you through the lives of different characters that often sound familiar. I listened to their album about Brexit ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ on the double-decker bus on my way to work, with the rain beating down on the windows, and with the sound of their voice, my desperation usually ebbed away.

Recommended album: ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’


5. Courtney Marie Andrews


Courtney Marie Andrews was the one who helped me through the second lockdown. Most of December, I fell asleep humming along to ‘Rough Around the Edges’. She transcends country, making music that speaks to the soul and makes you (read: me) wail at the sound of her voice. There’s something very simple and honest about her lyrics that translates into the avalanche of feeling in the arrangement of the songs.

Recommended album: ‘May Your Kindness Remain’


6. Lianne La Havas


I saw Lianne live when I was seventeen and then spent a week volunteering at a jazz festival so I could see her again for free two weeks later. She was funny, playful, clever, confident. She was the young woman everyone dreams to grow up to be. My friends and I sang along to her jazzy songs during that second show, having already learnt the lyrics to all of them by heart. Listening to her voice is like being coated in honey.

Recommended album: ‘Blood’


7. Mary Gauthier


Before I heard Mary Gauthier, I heard a cover of her ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’. Pulled into the story in the lyrics, I looked her up right away. I was stunned by the pain, honesty, and fear in her songwriting. Her confessional songwriting was different from anything I’d heard before – she wasn’t singing about stuff she was comfortable sharing, she was singing about topics that needed to be shared. In ‘I Drink’, she sings about dealing with alcohol addiction, in ‘Slip Of The Tongue’, she sings about fear of commitment. Her album ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’ is so raw it always grabs me by the throat. It also inspires me not to be afraid of the truth in my songwriting.

Recommended album: ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’


8. Adrianne Lenker


Adrianne Lenker really has the DIY aesthetic down. The hiss in her last recordings, the homemade video for ‘Zombie Girl’ – all of it exudes such warmth and authenticity. She ultimately sings about vulnerability, the kind that soothes with its honesty while it secretly breaks your heart.

Recommended album: ‘songs’


9. Valerie June


‘Workin’ Woman Blues’ is a song that inspires me every time I hear it. Not to do anything in particular, it just inspires to feel. I was walking down the street last night, it was dark and empty and terrifying because I’m a woman. But Valerie June was singing in my headphones, and I couldn’t help but be grateful for her voice cutting through the silence, as if she had my back wherever I went.

Recommended album: ‘Pushin’ Against a Stone’


10. Laura Marling


Something fell into place when I heard Laura Marling’s last album ‘Song For Our Daughter’. The album is one of those perfect song compilations that sounds complete. Nothing sounds out of place, the songs float through the air with the grace and elegance of their songwriter. I’ve listened to Laura Marling in many different places – on trains and at bus stations, in bed, and while walking around Ghent, London, and Berlin. The first time I heard of her I was twelve, and ten years later, she’s still as relevant to me as she was then. I will carry her around with me always.

Recommended album: ‘Song For Our Daughter’

Other singer-songwriters that are worth checking out: Bedouine, Josephine Foster, Lotta St Joan, Lael Neale, Julia Jacklin, Mone