Are your songs starting to sound the same? Do you find yourself covering similar ground, reinforcing old tactics in your creative process? We’re habitual creatures. It feels safe to tread on familiar ground. I’ve often thought of going to the same vacation spot every year. Although repeat visits could deepen my understanding of this place, I wonder if it would all become too familiar. How long before the sense of adventure and mystery is lost? If you’d like to develop your creative work, it helps to get to a place of excitement and danger again. One way to do this is to oppose, modify, or destroy previous habits or strategies, or as I like to call it, become an anti-artist.
Whatever You Did Then, Don’t Do That Now
The drummer Bill Bruford, tells an interesting anecdote in his autobiography, Bill Bruford — The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More. As a member of Robert Fripp’s new version of King Crimson, Bruford was told (by Fripp) something to the effect (I’m paraphrasing): “Whatever you did in the previous band you played in, don’t do that here.” That sounds worse than it is. Especially since Bruford was coming from the prog-rock band, Yes (he left the band just as they were becoming famous in the United States). I am going to rephrase the above so that it’s a bit softer: “You now have the opportunity to do things that you were not able to do in that other band and I’d like to see you exercise your new freedoms here in this new band.”
I don’t mean for you to throw away all of your hard-earned skills, techniques, or style. We just need a jolt; something to shake us up. One way to accomplish this is to try things that we’ve often dismissed or excluded from our projects, or, conversely, remove things that appear to be getting in the way. Start by moving in a different direction, the opposite direction.
For example, if your songs consistently follow the same structure, as a lot of great tunes do, modify your tired and old architecture. You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t mess with the form.” You have my permission to throw that phrase in the trash bin. Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman does not follow the conventional songwriters pattern at all. In other words, he did not build the tune upon this standard format: verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, verse, chorus. Given the unusual way Pretty Woman is put together, he draws a straight line through the tune so that we don’t even realize we’re not listening to a standard form. The song is compelling and yet it does not follow a preset or established pattern.
You’ve Been Chopped
If your songs are consistently long, experiment with shorter durations. Chopping those marathon-length songs is a good way to practice your editing skills to get rid of the “fat”. In general, I like the luxury of writing a song and then putting it away for a few weeks. I’ll return to it and refine it. I still have songs on the shelf that I know I will get back to. That’s great, if you don’t have a deadline. Also, taking a long time to write may create the conditions for writer’s block to emerge. Set a goal and put a time limit on the duration of the song. Decide when you actually want it to be finished by keeping a work schedule. Imposing limitations on yourself will force you to make decisions in unexpected ways. In an uncomfortable place, you’ll invent new solutions.
Become a Sound Hunter
Another aspect that you can look at in your music, is the overall sound that you are producing. You might be in a band that has a very straightforward lineup: guitar(s), bass, drums, and a vocalist. Perhaps most of the personnel in the band also play other instruments. That’s not an uncommon scenario. You could, for example, produce a thinner sound by losing the bass on a tune. The bass player can pick up another guitar. This limitation will force you to get creative in how you are going to support the low end for that tune. You might also consider bringing in a keyboard, organ, or sampled sounds.
With that said, some bands have a very distinctive sound; it’s a sound that they use to define themselves, especially if this sound has brought about success in one form or another. That’s fine; keep your sound. There’s still a lot of room for variation in this scenario and one way to do it is to look for other sounds that you may not have considered and bring them into the mix. On the opposite end, you could try removing one aspect of your signature sound. Doing that will give you a sense of its value (or lack of value).
Change Your Point of View
As part of their working process, mixing engineers listen to a track on many different platforms: studio speakers, crappy speakers, mono, earbuds, good headphones, and car speakers. You can mix for any one of these options. But that’s not the goal, in that the engineer is trying to get the best overall sound. Then, you might specialize with other types of mixes for a track (the car radio version, for example). By shifting your position, you hear the song differently. You can do this as a songwriter. If you mostly write songs about yourself, take a stab at stepping into another person’s shoes and write from there. For your amusement, write a commercial jingle. You might be surprised at the outcome and it could inform your approach in your more “serious” songs.
“I like when people tell me, ‘that doesn’t sound like you.’” — Philip Glass
Extend Your Fans’ Expectations
Like critics, fans can be very picky and opinionated. One driver that keeps us from experimenting in our music is expectations. Your fans demand good music and they expect it to sound like you. With that, it’s very easy to continue following a formula. If the formula works for you, stay with it and find new ways to expand and contract the moves you make within that framework. You are trying to get your fans to extend what they thought you were about. You can do this by adding complexity into your work. Use new techniques or sounds to stir the pot. You will generate unexpected results and many of these will be unusual or hard to swallow. Be gentle and maintain a concentrated effort when working. You decide what works and what does not work. As you develop, your fans will grow with you.
Rein it in
Being an anti-artist, you employ innovative thinking by stepping off a well-worn path. You venture out into another direction. It can become really exciting to do this while losing sight of your goals. When things go too far (and only you will know when that’s happened), go back a few steps and find your balance again. Being an anti-artist means you are in control and you are comfortable, calm, and cool-headed when things get out of control. You can push and pull all of the variables in your project to create unexpected tensions. Don’t shy away from awkward moments or unruly obstacles. There’s a wealth of creative sauce to uncover when you push yourself beyond your perceived limitations.