You Don’t Have to Be First

Eddie Van Halen is famous for his tapping technique, but he wasn’t the first to do it.  In fact, hundreds of years before “Eruption,” Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) used a similar technique on his violin.  Jazz guitarists in the 50s and 60s did it, and Italian musician, Victorio Camadese, tapped extensively on his classical.  Van Halen changed the game by applying it to distorted, electric guitar.

Skrillex is often called the inventor of dubstep, but the genre originated in London in the 90s.   Although the style drastically changed later, the characteristic sounds of wobble bass, subs, syncopated rhythms, and drops all pre-date Skrillex.  Skrillex’s flavor of dubstep (sometimes refered to as brostep) favors mid-range frequencies and aggressive rhythms.  This was hugely popular in 2011 and Skrillex’s interpretation of dubstep soon became the standard.

YouTuber, Andrew Huang, is known for found sound sampling.  He records sounds from random objects, processes them in his computer, and uses them to compose music.  He’s made songs from pineapples, Legos, radiators, candy, and lights bulbs.  As you’ve probably guessed, he wasn’t the first to do this.* What made Andrew special was the sheer amount of sampling he did and the absurdity of challenges (my favorite is carrots).

Facebook came after Myspace, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, and Spotify wasn’t the first streaming service.  We get so hung up on the idea that we need to be innovators but the truth is that most of our ideas are not original, and that’s okay.  Working is 95% of it.  Don’t think you need to change the game to win at it.  Sometimes putting your own spin on a great idea is all that’s needed.

 

*I couldn’t find who originated the technique, but I remember seeing it on videos before Andrew Huang’s time.

Finish Your Songs

A few years back, I had a ton of musical ideas floating around my head.  I wanted to write it all: hip-hop, EDM, singer-songwriter, lo-fi, dubstep.  I wanted to release albums in every genre I loved, multiple albums.  I wanted to be as prolific as Andrew Huang and Steve Aoki.  Songs for days.

This, of course, takes a lot of work, and I used to be pretty ADHD when it came to writing.  I’d finish a singer-songwriter track one day and be working on a house song the next.  I’d think, “I’m so versatile!”  Before that next song was finished, I’d be messing around on another beat, and after that a third one.  Eventually, none of these got finished and I’d start something else.

It’s pretty easy to get side-tracked if you don’t have a focus.  I’ve found it helps to have a goal.  For instance, over the Summer I made “Lo-Fi July.”  During the month of July, I had to write three lo-fi songs.  Having this clear objective helped me focus my time and actually get it done.  For the next month, I had a new genre to write in.

Whenever I was writing and came up with something cool that wasn’t in the genre, I would shelf it for later.  It did wonders for my productivity.

It’s great to be prolific, to write a lot and make a lot.  Just don’t fall into the trap of being a kid in the candy store when it comes to writing.  There’s a lot of great sounds, ideas, and styles to pick from, but don’t jump around so much that nothing gets done.  Be disciplined enough to finish.  One completed song will teach you more than 10 unfinished beats.

Planting a Tree

My original plan was to release a singer-songwriter EP every year.  I succeeded in 2015 and 2016, but in 2017 I procrastinated.  I kept giving myself excuses and putting it off.  Other projects took priority and after missing my self imposed deadline, I lost motivation.  I’m just releasing it now in 2019, and although that makes me happy, I wish I had done it earlier.

I was trying to think of a better way to phrase this without using the old cliche, but better late than never.  This phrase applies to many things in my life: quitting a bad job, losing weight, going back to school, and learning piano.  These are all things I could have done a long time ago.  Once I finally took action, that was clear, but just because you didn’t start when you should have is no excuse not to start at all.

Take it from me.  If you sit around thinking about something you wish you had done, and every year is another year you wish you had already done it, do it.  Don’t give into the lie that there was a perfect time to do something and now it’s too late.  The only cure to the regret you feel is to do what you should have been doing all along.  As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I’ll leave you with the long-awaited EP.

Thoughts on Collaboration

Well, the semester is winding down and so is my final project.  My three song EP is due this week and I’m putting on the finishing touches.  I’m recording, mixing and arranging.  One of my tracks needed a solo, and my classmate stepped in.  Here is just the solo section, by Noah Battles.

You’re probably wondering why I would have someone else play a solo when I play guitar.  Most of the time, I do just that.  My philosophy used to be that if I could do something alone, I would.  I liked having control over every little thing.  Since then I’ve learned to appreciate the magic of letting others be involved.  They can take the song to places you wouldn’t expect, and try things you wouldn’t consider.  The results can be dope.  In the above example, I was originally writing a synthesizer melody, but that wasn’t cutting it.  Noah’s bluesy playing was much better.

In 2016, I was writing my EDM album.  For one of the songs I wrote a melody that was too high for me to sing.  I could’ve transposed it, but I liked the energy of the song the way it was.  I recruited my old college buddy, Jacoby Filand, to sing it.  I gave him the lyrics, a clip of me singing it (badly), and a demo of a synth playing the melody.

He changed a couple notes, had a more punk rock delivery, and overall improved the idea.  Listen for yourself.

Collaborating is awesome.  As much as we like to shape everything ourselves, letting others into the process can spark unique outcomes.

I’ll give one more example.  In 2014 I was working on my electronic side-project Lobster Boat.  It was mostly instrumental tracks and I was sending people demos for feedback.  One of those people, Phillip Emery, asked if he could take a crack at singing over one.  I was skeptical at first and only agreed on the condition that I could reject his vocals if I didn’t like what he did.  The result was pleasantly surprising and I kept them.

It’s easier said than done, but I’m a big fan of the idea that we shouldn’t be precious with our music.  Not only does it get in the way of actually writing music, but it can lessen the music we do finish.  In these situations, had I been precious, I would have missed out on some great input from other artists.  Don’t be afraid to let others get their hands on your canvas.  You might be surprised at what they do.

Creating When You’re Not Inspired

This is the perfect topic for today because right now I don’t feel like writing.  I’m in the school library sipping a La Croix, trying to get some work done, and no topic is calling out to me.  It’s not that I don’t want to write; it’s that I don’t have anything to say.  I’m uninspired.  This happens in music too.  I’ll be trying to write and nothing seems to flow, my progressions feel as bland and stale as every song I’ve ever heard.  It’s like I’m writing the same tune over again, repeating myself.  It’s all very deflating.

A common misconception is that creativity occurs only when you’re inspired.  If you’re not feeling it you have writer’s block or something and shouldn’t even try.  In his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”  There’s a lot of great quotes on the topic, but rather than just share what others have said, let me offer my own experience.

What we call “writer’s block” isn’t the failure to create; it’s the failure to create something you like.  Under that definition, you can always write.  There’s no reason not to.  You don’t need to share everything you try, and you don’t need to like everything you finish, but you always need to be trying.

If you’re in a rut listen to some great music, try something you’ve never done (new synth sound or chord progression), or approach the song in a new way (starting with melody instead of chords or vice versa).  There’s a lot of techniques you can do to shake things up, and pretty soon you’ll be inspiring yourself.

That being said, every song you finish isn’t going to be great.

Earlier this year, I was attempting to write three songs a month.  I put my best effort into them: writing, mixing, and mastering.  I wanted a solid product.  I was hoping to release an EP every month, focusing on different genres.  What I found is that for every three songs or so, I only really liked one.  You don’t realize that at the time, of course.  You don’t think, “Man, this song I’m writing sucks,” but looking back it’s easier to be critical.  What I’m getting at is you need to keep writing so you have songs to pick from.  Otherwise you release an EP of two songs you like and three others that are there just because it’s all you have.

I’m not advocating you write songs you don’t like.  Just write the best songs you can and when it comes time to share them, be picky.

KING, STEPHEN. ON WRITING. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2000.