The backdrop can’t be the main attraction

Summer coming on and all my habits go out the window. Streaks are broken. And suddenly I find myself disoriented, having lost my compass. I seem unable to take the first step in finishing a song. I lack the heart and energy to do it.

I’ve been taught writer’s block is a myth. There are just days when work is harder to get started, as for any plumber. Well, yes. It might be a little more difficult when you’re working on your own.

This blog was started because I could. I never intended for it to be my main output, rather to have it as a kind of backdrop to my music and lyrics. Well, since the upload of my first song to Spotify it seems that knitting the backdrop has become my main activity. That’s not right. I need to change things up.

An idea could be to share the process of recording a new song from scratch. Sound design, recordings etc. Maybe this could put me back on the hook? Last night I started sampling percussive noises from a synth. I’ll see if I can share some sounds later tonight.

What if an upgrade is a downer?

In my home the microwave oven is a time saver. It’s a fast way to heat, reheat or defrost foods. Used right, it’s a smart tool with little need for bells and whistles. That’s my perspective. Engineers and marketing staff at microwave oven manufacturers think differently. They see a need to differentiate, to offer more features for a premium price.

At a company I worked for, there was a lunchroom built with 8-10 microwave ovens for the staff to heat their lunch. Naturally the ovens were new and fancy with digital displays and a control panel with many buttons. The ovens could probably do a lot. But the users were puzzled on how to set the basic parameters, time and effect level.Every time I went there all clocks on the microwaves were showing different times. Everyone of them wrong.

In the music studio there are tools that can be Swiss army knives, with lots of features. But whenever I read interviews with experienced pros it seems to me they use each tool for a specific purpose. They often have a lot of gear, but they use each piece for a specific task. It gets the job done and it’s a fast way to work.

In the last year I’ve seen a few famous boxes get significant updates, the Roland SP-404mkII sampler and the Teenage Engineering Op-1f. I wouldn’t say no to any of them. But it’s interesting that each box has become updated with ever more features to turn them into more capable digital audio workstations. That is, each box is a studio in itself.

And I wonder if that actually is a good thing. Despite an initial onset of gear-lust I feel pretty good with my old boxes. And they still have more features than I have CPU upstairs to remember.

Winging it

For Caribou’s latest album Suddenly, Dan Snaith created 900 different projects (livesets). That is, he more or less started the recording of a new song every day for three years. The figure can look impressive or unimpressive depending on your perspective.

I take some comfort in realizing that even an admired artist obviously hasn’t got a clear plan for what he is doing. He just shows up throwing spagetti on the walls to see what will stick.

I also realize I spend too much time looking for the right place to start, instead of just starting. Winging it, might be winning it.

Phantom pains

A family is a complex fabric of many interwoven threads. Love, trust, loyalties and responsibilities. Both within the core of the closest relatives but also other relations, friendships and acquaintances. History and memories with threads that go long back. Some thick, some thin.

A family can be torn apart in many ways due to different things. Sometimes the rift in the fabric is beyond repair. There’s nothing to patch up and sewing up a metaphor to explain it seems daft. But here goes.

Even though the torn up family isn’t mine and I’m just a thread among many I still feel frayed. We were many that met up to celebrate a graduation last night. There were joy, love as well as hidden feelings of uncertainty. Inside we were many loose ends experiencing the phantom pain of something amputated.

Chaos can be a great foundation.

If you step into a messy old barn, with centuries of old tools and discarded junk, but where each square foot has a story to tell and the atmosphere has a certain personality and mystique. It probably doesn’t take a lot to make it into a cool place for a party, or a summertime café. Just sweep the floors, get rid of the crappiest crap and hang up some lights.

To arrive in a neat and tidy hotel room and think I’m going to make this more homely by throwing your stuff around, tearing up the made bed and rehanging the art. Well, it doesn’t really work.

To turn chaos into something more orderly is the right way to go.

I’m writing about this to present an analogy for music production. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about workflows and how songs get produced.

It seems to me that it’s a lot more interesting to throw together some loops and chopped up grooves into something funky and uncontrollable – and to see what it inspires. You can always turn down the chaos, add some structure. If I instead start recording a perfectly written song with a few clean backing tracks, it’s a lot harder to add chaos and charm afterwards. It just feels as if I’m messing it up. Which I am, but the result is not what I intended. The charm needs to be built in, otherwise it just feels fake and impersonal. Like a hotel room.

The point of being on the edge

If you’re a freelance press photographer covering big events you have a choice. Either you hang with the other photographers and shoot what happens from more or less the same angle, or you go to the side to find a fresh perspective.

If you’re lucky this may lead to unique pictures from the event. On the other hand, there might be lower risk hanging with the competition.

Having an alternative perspective, a different point of view is often what makes us interesting. It can also be what makes uncomfortable, provoking and unwelcome. We might be the chafing friction. But friction creates heat and inside an oyster the grain of sand becomes the pearl.

Find your own voice, then exaggerate it says Jerry Saltz. It’s our idiosyncrasy that makes us interesting argues Seth Godin. I know all this. So I better not sand off any edges, especially when I’m not sure that I’m edgy enough. Being too nice is the worry of the gentle kind.

Confidence holes.

Today I went to the studio after work. And that’s about all that happened. I played through some songs on the guitar. I fooled around with a small synth. But there was no spark. No joy, just doubt, indecision and lack of direction.

I had seen the dip coming, like dark clouds on the horizon. I didn’t have a plan for my session, I hadn’t got a clue and most of all I didn’t have any confidence in my ability. I thought everything sounded bad.

This wasn’t the first time it happened, and it won’t be the last. It’s not a situation I fear, or yes, it probably is. Because it makes me feel worthless. But I also know that neither my least confident nor my most confident selves are to be trusted when judging my work.

There’s a Brian Eno quote that reads “When in doubt tidy up”. I used to think that this related to a recording session with lots of tracks and that the doubt would be in regards to what’s the next step. But I can see that it holds true for self-doubt too. Cleaning up your life of litter, stress and things you worry about will be time well spent when you feel hopelessly unproductive.

With a clean workspace, a mind free of clutter the odds for work getting done are most likely better. Does anybody have the number to Ms Kondo?

The muscle of generosity

Last week I listened to Jon Hopkins on the podcast Tape Notes, and over the weekend I listened to another episode featuring the UK techno-duo Bicep.

I listened quite a lot to Bicep’s music a few years ago and spent some time thinking about their techniques, how they had achieved certain sounds. I didn’t go as far as to reverse-engineer and recreate. But now I can to a certain degree. Because in the episode Bicep very generously shared their tricks using gates and filters on synth-pads triggered by 909-hats. Which is how they achieve their rhythmic and choppy riffs which feature in songs such as Glue, Apricots and Opal.

It’s a technique they use a lot. All their most played hits on Spotify seems to use them. And still, they didn’t keep it to themselves like some Coca-Cola recipe.

I’d like to view this as both generous and confident. They know that their talent, taste and skill is more than that particular trick. So they give it away. Not that experienced synth-producers couldn’t have figured it out their own, I more or less already did. But still, listening to the episode I got a lot more ideas on how to improve my craft and grow my skills. So, thank you Bicep! I thought it was awesome.

Here’s a short test of the techniques taught by Bicep. A four-bar loop of synthpad chords that is chopped up by a sidechained gate and later also by a sidechained filter. I vary some settings as it runs.

A symbol looking for a meaning

It’s fine to love your country. There’s just little need to turn it into a cult. History has shown us many times that patriotism and nationalism taken to the extreme can lead to catastrophic consequences.

Today, June 6, is Sweden’s national day. It’s been a national holiday all way back since … 2005. Why? Don’t ask a Swede, hardly anybody knows what we’re celebrating. Or rather, very few celebrate at all. Nobody knows why, how or what?

The simple truth is that we’re having a national day because Norway has one, and of course France and the USA. The French and the Americans celebrate the freedom and independence of the people, their respective revolutions. Norway – well, they’re celebrating that they became free of the Swedes.

We’re also celebrating a national day to shut-up the voices on the far right demanding we have one. Now we do. The most honorable thing we could do as citizens is therefore to head to each municipality’s welcoming ceremony for new citizens, refugees and immigrants that have found a new home in Sweden.

I just checked Wikipedia to see what we’re celebrating. And sure, it’s the crowning of king Gustav Vasa 1523. That’s a long time ago. Apparently they also signed some kind of government declaration in 1809, depriving the monarch of his power. It’s funny that we first celebrate the crowning of a king and the impotence of another.

So, today I didn’t go to work. I didn’t go to the welcoming ceremony because no one in the family wanted to join me. So, I went for a walk. I got bitten by a tick. Not much of a celebration and no meaning whatsoever.

Not a P.I.T.A. at all

I baked pita-bread for the first time today. I hadn’t done it before, so it was a step outside my comfort zone. Not a big step, but I had to read a recipe. Which I didn’t exactly follow. It worked out just fine, but I’m confident that next time I’ll be able to do it even better.

Baking pita-bread was a small achievement, but not an unimportant joy when I’m summing up the day. And the best thing is I think life is full of those small joys waiting. Achievements not like conquering Mount Everest, but just taking one small step outside of our comfort zone. Growing our skill and experience, and well yes, I suppose the comfort zone grows as well. I could bake pita-bread tomorrow. The threshold is super-low.

With every new experience our comfort zone and capability grows. It also means that every step we progress we diminish the distance to the next. Just imagine how much we could grow and learn if we decided to make something for the first time every week.