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.

books-that-motivated-me-through-lockdown

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

productivity, self-love

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

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

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


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

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

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


‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth

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


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

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

‘Linchpin’ by Seth Godin

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

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


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

Seth Godin, “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”

‘Business for Bohemians’ by Tom Hodgkinson

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


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

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

‘Authentic Happiness’ by Martin Seligman

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


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

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

‘When’ by Daniel H. Pink

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

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


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

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

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

what-to-write-about-in-lockdown-songwriting

What I Write About When All There Is to Do This Year Is Stare Out of the Window

creativity, productivity, songwriting

A couple days ago, a meme of Bart Simpson staring out of the window at the grey sky outside started circulating on my Instagram. In Berlin winter, it was strikingly fitting, considering how that was exactly how my friends and I spent most of our days. Writing this, I’m looking at the sky and trying to remember what the sun looks like, but all I can see is a grey nuclear cloud enveloping the city. Even without corona, this would have been a depressing sight, but knowing that I can’t go to a bar or a club, or spend the night singing songs with my musician friends, makes this time even more unbearable.

But another problem is starting to affect artists. I was talking to a friend the other day, who remarked: “I have never had this much free time to write, but what the hell am I supposed to write about? All I do is sit at home and drink tea.” It was a good question. Songwriters often pull from their own experiences, writing about the people they meet or the places they see. If all there’s left is your apartment and the people you see on Netflix, what stories do you still have to tell?

A while ago, I talked about keeping an inspiration journal and how that prevents me from having creative blocks, but even an inspiration journal has its limitations. Poems, photos, quotes from films are all great sources of inspiration, but sometimes, what we crave is to write about something we care about and feel, more than what just sounds good. And with this pandemic, the main thing we care about is getting through it. Songs about love, connection, hope are harder to write because we feel less of those things.

Maybe I’m only speaking for myself here, but I prefer writing songs about speed-walking to a concert while eating noodles, about frantically trying to rub off a curry stain off my new jeans on my way to a party, or about fumbling with someone’s leather belt in the dark. I feel like I’m close to exhausting the repertoire of “I went on a date and we greeted each other with an elbow bump” and “I had coffee with the only friend I see every day but she had come over the day before so we mainly just talked about how good it is that we at least have each other”. There’s only so much in real life that’s worth writing about at the moment.

For most musicians, writing and performing are the only ways to stay sane at the best of times. Since performing was no longer an option, most musicians had turned to writing and recording their stuff. But a year into this pandemic, and several months into lockdown, even writing seems to be slowly sliding off the table.

I’m better off than most because I get to see friends outside, I still meet up with a select few, and Berlin isn’t as bad as some parts of the world at the moment. But even I have to read through my diaries, go on poetry rampages and listen to more new music than I thought I was capable of consuming to come up with relatively new ideas. Here are some of the things that still inspire me despite this shit show, but it’s Bart-Simpson-style staring out of the window most days for me, too. Also, check out this Instagram reel by Simeon Hammond Dallas about how to write songs during lockdown because if anything, it might at least crack you up.


1. I go through my old diaries and journals.


When I feel stuck, I go through old diaries in the hope that a story will turn up that I hadn’t told yet. I don’t always strike out, but it’s nice when I do. Sometimes, I also come across a line that sounds good enough to turn into a lyric.


2. I listen back to my old voice memos in the hope that I’ll find something secretly brilliant.


Most of the time, I don’t finish songs when I think they’re absolute crap. But I always record everything, so once in a while, I revisit old voice memos to see if maybe I’d missed something. When I’m in a shitty mood or too tired to write for more than ten minutes, I often abandon music ideas that could have turned into something good. Now that it’s harder to stay inspired and motivated, it can help not to have to start with a completely blank page.


3. I learn new chords, fingerpicking patterns, etc., and use them in my music.


It’s hard to write new songs when you’re working with old building blocks. I started learning a new cover every week, and now, I often end up lifting chords, strumming patterns, or fingerpicking styles from other songs and incorporating them into my own stuff.


4. I go on dating apps to remind myself that lockdown is probably a blessing in disguise.


When all else fails, I download Bumble or Tinder and spend an hour talking to strangers that remind me that this introspective lockdown thing is not the worst, and then jot down one or two lines I’d been texted to use in a lyric about why I hate dating.


5. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if I have nothing to say for a while.


I don’t have to be writing all the time, though. If I skip a couple days, or a week, and don’t come up with a new song – it doesn’t matter all that much.

inspiration-journal-songwriting

Why I Have an Inspiration Journal

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

In Belgium, I had a mystery drawer with Post-its with ideas and words that I like. On my bookshelves, I had dozens of dog-eared books with index cards between the pages, writings in the margins, and underlined sentences. I had cutouts of articles I’ve read, poems on my walls, photos of places and friends, and postcards with my favourite paintings. My childhood bedroom was a shrine to creativity. Maybe also a hoarder’s paradise.

When I started moving around, it became hard to acquire stuff – index cards got lost, books were too heavy to cart around, and I didn’t have walls to decorate with paraphernalia anymore. My bedroom was never as over-the-top as Florence Welch’s house, but looking around always filled me with inspiration. If I was feeling stuck, or couldn’t get past the terror of the blank page in my songbook, I could always start from a picture on the wall or a word in someone else’s poem.

I came up with a new system when I moved to a hostel in London, though calling it a system is probably overselling it. I started writing down phrases from books I liked, copying poems, and drying flowers in between the pages of a journal. After a while, I started taking leaflets from galleries and cutting out drawings to paste into my notebook. And in between the art I admired, I wrote my own songs, that had started from a line in a poem or an idea I got from a quote. I called it my inspiration journal.

A blank page is always daunting, but having an inspiration journal, or an inspiration nook where you keep some poetry books and lists of interesting rhymes on hand, can give you a starting point to write from. It can also encourage you to read more, go to museums once in a while, and watch more films. It can make you a better listener and reader, as well as a better songwriter. Here are some ideas on how to fill your journal and what you can do with it:


1. Fill it with poetry and interesting sentences.


Read poetry, listen closely to lyrics, study fiction. As songwriters, we are always on the lookout for beautiful turns of phrase, and unique metaphors. I find autobiographical essays a great source of inspiration, too – some of my favourite writers are Joan Didion, Deborah Levy, and Olivia Laing. But don’t just write down stuff that sounds good. Write down the words that spark your imagination. For different songwriters, that will mean different things. I’ve written down quotes about lightbulbs that didn’t work and turmeric in the kitchen because I wanted to use similar details in my own lyrics.


2. Make lists of words.

As a folk songwriter, I like telling stories in my songs. But to make them come to life, I need descriptive, meaningful words. Most of us can make do with the words in our current vocabulary, but as writers, we need to do better than that. We want to be in a place where we can choose from a pool of words that might mean the same thing, but roll of our tongues in different ways, leave a new taste in our mouths. Jimmy Webb even goes as far as to suggest we read a dictionary back-to-back.


Few of us are naturally inclined to sit and read an entire dictionary (like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate for example, at fourteen hundred pages) but I will advance the argument that a writer who attempts to write prose, poetry, song lyrics or automobile advertising without a vocabulary of suitable depth is entering a tournament of wits unarmed. I will go one step further and say that if there is any intrinsic merit in curiosity then we should read at least one dictionary from aardvark to Zwolle (a city in the Netherlands).

Jimmy Webb, “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting”

I have not attempted this yet, although I intend to read a dictionary someday. I do keep lists of interesting words I come across and original rhymes I see or think of in my notebook, though. I use them for writing lyrics, for moving the story plot along, finding unpredictable rhymes, etc.


3. Cut out paintings, paste in photographs, let a friend draw in your journal.


Writing from an image is a valuable exercise for songwriters in a rut. It can provide a change in your current songwriting process, bring imagery into stale lyrics, or evoke emotions that will make you think of a brilliant melody. I don’t often use this method because I’m not much of a visual person, but I have friends who swear by it. I recommend cutting out photos of paintings from museum or gallery leaflets, pasting in photographs, and even letting friends draw in your notebook. I have let friends do that before who weren’t good at drawing at all – it doesn’t always have to be serious, sometimes a good bit of fun is what you need.


4. Keep newspaper articles that hit a nerve.


I struggle with writing songs that are not about me, and for most people, songwriting can be a narcissistic endeavour. To challenge myself, I sometimes write about events on the outside that affect me in some way – climate change, racism, sexism, there’s enough out there to pull from. My songs about big issues often sound like pretentious crap and don’t see the light of day, but it’s the exercise that counts. I’ve found that referring to newspaper articles helps, especially the ones with personal stories that bring humanity into these grand narratives. Not long ago, I started stuffing them in my inspiration journal to use details from them in my songs. I’ll keep you updated on how well it works.


5. Write down your ideas. Obviously.


Inspiration doesn’t always come from outside. Sometimes we get our own great ideas. The thing with our brain is that we forget them. I often write something down believing the idea is so good that I will remember it forever, to read it back a week later and see it for the first time. So, keep your inspiration journal at hand and write down the great lyric or the original song idea when it comes to you. Or keep index cards in your bag that you then paste into your journal. Whatever works.


This works for me, but I know that all creatives have their rituals, so please let me know if you have any other ideas!