Why You Should Be Listening to Albums Instead of Playlists

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.

Why I Started Incorporating Deliberate Practice Into My Daily Routine

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.

Online Treasure Troves for Musicians

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.

My Hopes and Dreams for 2021

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

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


1. Take an online marketing course.


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


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


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


3. Release several singles throughout 2021.


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


4. Work on my guitar skills.


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


5. Learn German.


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



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Why Having Musician Friends Matters in this Shitstorm of a Time (and Where to Find Some)

Some of these days, I wake up energised, go for a run, sing in the shower, down three cups of coffee without having a nervous breakdown. But these are difficult times for everyone, and more often than not, I wake up with a groan, say something mean to my parents, who have been putting up with me on and off since March, and spend the rest of the day wondering what the hell I’m doing.

Like most musicians, I’m happiest at a sweaty bar show, dancing to music, shouting into a friend’s ear, while downing a pint of warm English beer (although that last one is up for debate). I’m happiest when I’m rushing from work to a gig, squeezing onto the tube with all the 9-5ers, with some 40-year-old dude in his running outfit and his work clothes in his tiny backpack elbowing me in the stomach on his way out. It’s a busy life, and it’s hard, and sure, I used to burst out crying after getting home at 2 A.M. knowing work started in five hours. But I had a purpose.

Now, that purpose seems to have disappeared. Musicians that have been making money with music for years are suddenly forced to look for new jobs. I spend my days strumming my guitar and writing lyrics about stuff that happened ages ago because I haven’t left the house in weeks. I’ve written a song about my mum’s cat.

The only thing that’s keeping me afloat these days is my musician friends. It’s the people that call to check in with me, send their demos, and compare notes on release strategies. It’s the friends that are as lost as me, but also friends that are doing far worse, having lost their biggest income streams.

In the last several months, I’ve grown more as a musician than I had done in years, and it’s mostly due to the other musicians I’ve let into my life. I’ve started listening to albums instead of playlists, I’ve started playing guitar more, and I’ve had so much feedback on my songs that I’ve become a better songwriter. I have people I can offload on that understand and share my concerns. Before COVID-19, the idea of a music community seemed like something intangible. But now, with our defenses down, it has become necessary.

Music communities come in different shapes and sizes. Mine is made up of chance encounters, travels, gigs and support slots, my university, workshops. Normally, meeting other musicians is easy – you just rock up at an open mic or a jam night. But if you don’t have a community, if you don’t know how to start, and if you’re feeling lonely, here are some ideas that can put you in touch with fellow musicians right now:


1. Reach out to musicians you’re already ~kinda~ friends with.


This one is so obvious, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. If you’re a musician that has ever played a gig, you will have befriended a musician on Facebook, followed someone on Instagram, or made that vague promise of writing together someday. All the musicians everywhere right now are feeling uprooted, slightly desperate, and probably lonely. No one will find it weird if you reach out to someone you haven’t talked to for a year. Now is the time you’re allowed to without looking like a creep. Just ask how someone is doing. Ask if they have any new music coming out. Start somewhere.


2. Join a Facebook group.


There are loads of Facebook groups for musicians depending on location. When I moved to Berlin, the first thing I did was post in the Berlin musicians’ group. I did the same when I lived in London. Some musicians might want to go for a socially distanced walk to talk about music, or do a co-write, or have a phone call. You can schedule some stuff for when you’re allowed to have fun again. Don’t just look at the location, there are groups for everything. Join a songwriting group and give each other feedback on songs. Join a group for musician mums (only if you’re a mum, though).


3. Take an online music course with others.


There are loads of courses out there you can take for free now, and some of them come with a platform or community where you can exchange feedback and get to know other musicians. I took this short course on Songwriting by Pat Pattison years ago. It’s free, there’s a platform where you can talk to other students, and it’s often followed by Facebook groups and Soundcloud link exchanges. You might even learn something. In a similar vein, you can attend a webinar, an online panel, etc, and get active in the comments.

Finally, reach out to me. I’m always happy to talk.



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How to Be Okay With Not Getting the Perfect Take

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.

How Free Writing Can Free Your Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Home Is Hard and That’s Fine Sometimes

Last week, I returned home. After two months of hungover walks in Treptower Park, drawn-out breakfasts with friends, and spaces filled with music, patchouli incense, and poetry, I came back to my childhood home to spend time with family, record new music, and self-isolate.

After having been sent off by three of the most radiant, loving people I’d ever met after a massive breakfast together and a loud Uber ride full of hugs and I will miss you’s, I arrived at a train station in Aachen to find my dad waiting for me with a coke and a banana. It was a bit of an anticlimactic welcome when he sprayed my hands with alcohol before hugging me. “You sure you don’t have corona?” he asked. “Not at all,” I replied.

I had this vision of what being home would be like – a little like ‘Walden’. In Belgium, where lockdown is still in full force, I imagined I’d fill my life with contemplation, long walks, and writing. Even though I was gutted I had to say goodbye to my friends and a city that had taught me so much, I was also looking forward to all the deep insights I would have in my hometown.

Instead, I had massive FOMO. All I could do on that first day was imagining the excitement I was missing in lockdown Berlin. To ground me, I wrote down a list of challenges for my stay in Belgium. What was I gonna do to make my time here worth it? I wrote down so many goals it ended up stressing me out more. I tried meditating in the morning to ease my anxiety and ended up crying for an hour before leaving the bedroom. All the while, I was terrified of picking up the phone and calling my friends to offload. All these thoughts are first world problems after all.

It was a weird shift being back home with my parents. Everything I did – from how strong I drank my coffee to the weird itch behind my left ear – seemed scrutinised and analysed. “Why do you wanna go back to Berlin?” my mum asked. And when I told her, she replied: “We’ll see about that,” as if I hadn’t moved out of the house almost three years ago and was waiting for her seal of approval. Which I was! Every small comment set me on edge, and in just one week, my journal went from talking about how happy and centred I felt to how small and unsure of my choices I had become. The walls I had carefully constructed around myself in Berlin had started crumbling, and I was letting everything in again – the doubt, the anxiety, the stress.

I wanted to come to everything from a place of love, but, increasingly, I had started to come to everything from a place of fear and insecurity, including my music. My practice sessions became regimented and timed, and if I didn’t accomplish what I’d set out to do, I considered the day a failure. Even though I had more time than I did in Berlin, where I was working, studying, making music, and spending time with friends, my days here seemed busier and I collapsed in bed at eleven after a full day of to-do lists. I hadn’t really laughed in a week. I snapped at my parents. But I did make a kickass apple cake last Tuesday, which was ace.

But yesterday, a friend called me and she had that warm, radiant voice that made me light up. She was watching the sunset at Tempelhof and thinking of me. And she said that coming home to her parents made her dislike who she was with them, and I exclaimed: “Yes, me too!” It’s like a fight you can’t win. You’re always going back to that person you’re trying to escape. And it’s not your mum or your dad, it’s you and that unfortunate picture where you look like a 12-year-old boy that your mum has hung on the wall in the hall.

Maybe being here is not going to be the contemplative practice I’d imagined, but it is a spiritual practice nonetheless. It is not going to be the glorified, romantic spiritual journey of walking in the woods (what woods?) and writing in solitude. It is going to be a tug of war with my parents about my every decision, I am going to question my ideas and to doubt myself many, many times over the next month. But maybe that will make me stronger than a solitary retreat ever could.

I came here feeling rooted in love and community, with the idea that I had found what I had been looking for as an artist, as a friend, and as a woman. Now, that feeling of rootedness feels like a distant memory. I guess it’s because we can’t run from ourselves. And coming home means coming face-to-face with yourself in the most confrontational way.

Usually, this knowledge makes me feel overwhelmed. But this time, I’m going to take the time to acknowledge this feeling. I want to take it in, think about it, wallow for a little, and maybe write some songs about my parents and my teenage years. Then I’m gonna let it go. All because the good feeling I talked about, that light that exists inside of all of us… I want it to shine here too. And that’s why I can’t run back to Berlin just yet. Because I’m home. And I’m dealing with it.

On Co-Writing

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

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

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


1. Choose a co-writer wisely.


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


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


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


3. Come in with some ready ideas.


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

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


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


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

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


5. Embrace new things.


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

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


6. It’s not just about the song.


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


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


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


8. Be clear on the splits from the outset.


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

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

The Music Albums that Made Me a Better Singer-Songwriter

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

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

Tom Waits

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

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


Dory Previn – ‘Mythical Kings and Iguanas’


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

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


Joni Mitchell – ‘Clouds’


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


Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’


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


Jeff Buckley – ‘Grace’


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


Nina Simone – ”Nuff Said’


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


Tom Waits – ‘Closing Time’


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


Lou Reed – ‘Berlin’


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


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


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


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


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


Carole King – ‘Tapestry’


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


PJ Harvey – ‘Uh Huh Her’


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


Alice Coltrane – ‘Journey In Satchidananda’


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