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.

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

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.

albums-versus-playlists

Why You Should Be Listening to Albums Instead of Playlists

artist, music, songwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

deliberate-practice-matters

Why I Started Incorporating Deliberate Practice Into My Daily Routine

artist, music, productivity, songwriting

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Talks


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | Angela Duckworth

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

Music Lesson – How and What to Practice on Your Instrument

Rick Beato talking about how to structure your practice routine.

I practiced 10,000 Hours in 6 Months

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


Guitar Resources


Scales

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

Fingerstyle guitar lessons for intermediate guitarists

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

Laura Marling tutorials

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


Ear Training and Music Theory


Ear training exercises with Rick Beato

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

Teoria

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

learning-musician-online

Online Treasure Troves for Musicians

creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

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

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


Websites that offer free music courses


1. The Musicians’ Union


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


2. BerkleeX


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


3. Alison


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


Youtube channels


1. Swiftlessons


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


2. Pat Martino’s The Nature of Guitar


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


3. Rick Beato


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


Music podcasts


1. Switched on Pop


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


2. Song Exploder


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


3. Broken Record


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

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

How to Be Okay With Not Getting the Perfect Take

artist, music, productivity, self-love, songwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


2. Have someone else in the room.


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


3. Go for a walk.


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


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


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


5. Write down what went well.


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