On Creative Process

Today I spend thirty minutes wandering the backyard with a microphone. I’ve attached three mic leads together to the recording interface in my shed and cables crisscross the lawn in streams, knotting and twirling through the grass we haven’t mowed since summer.

I’m meant to be putting the finishing touches on my new single. It’s been a protracted effort: four months of recording and deleting and recording and deleting, because I’m remarkably self critical of my own voice. Not in a constructive way, I’m not constantly striving for a better performance, instead I’m a destructive critic, listening back and deleting everything I hate. And I hate everything I’ve made. So this single that should have been finished back in April has wandered unfinished into the start of August and now sits in a pile of its own filth, dreaming of the past and wondering why it wasn’t released in the press release for the tour I started last week.

This is why I find myself wandering the backyard with a clump of cables and a condenser mic. I realised early on in the process that it’d be impossible to cut all outside noise out of my recording. The traffic rumbles under everything I sing, shaking the walls of the asbestos shed I call my studio. For a brief period I recorded at night to eliminate car noise, but a family of possums tap and squeak in the roof and thumping on the wall only served to make them scratch louder and leave little droplets of poo that fall through a widening crack in the ceiling when my drum practice shakes the shed.

Meanwhile our neighbour sneezes absurdly loudly in the backyard and a tree full of birds chatter throughout. My recordings are a literal snapshot of this period of my life, background noises individual to today inscribe themselves into the background of my recordings. Rather than fight it I embrace it with open arms, recording the birds as a background soundscape to frame my songs.

This current song is ‘Sparrow Song’, a Tallest Man on Earth inspired ode to nature, and it seems pertinent that I adorn the edges of the song with bird sound. I did a class at university on semiotics, the signifier and the signified. There were days spent on Wagner’s leitmotifs and the augmented 6th chord and I have a jumbled mess of notebooks from that term where I scribbled business ideas and venue phone numbers around the edges of pages filled with nonsense copied verbatim from the slides our lecturer Tavis (no R, thanks parents) read from. It seems when the learning gets hard my mind wanders, and when my mind wanders it’s the business aspect that takes hold. I’ve always loved the planning side of everything, but now I wish I’d spent a little more time engaging in 17th century semiotics to make this whole thought pattern a little more circular.

The artists I love take these extra-musical ideas and make them commonplace. So obvious and so included that they don’t pull in your attention until you listen again and again and again and wonder at man’s ability to dwell in tiny details. Robin Pecknold does this well, tying lyric and melody and harmony and linear motion into a web that hides the millions of instruments tucked away behind the machinery (listen to his Song Exploder podcast for a great example).

I used to think that the creative process was this hidden spark mechanism that clicked in to gear occasionally and created something amazing. But the more I delve into others work, the more it seems that its just a lot of hard work to make something magnificent. Paul Simon talks about his creative process and how there was a period in his early 20s were the songs just flowed, and then the next 50 years were a deliberate process where he sat down and worked and worked and worked to make it good. Interesting to note that his arguably most celebrated work Graceland involved a recording process where he recorded all the instrumental parts in South Africa, took them back to New York and spent a year writing songs to suit their vibe. Then he had to cut the original recordings into parts, pasting them back together in a new arrangement to suit the songs he’d written. All in all a remarkably laborious process, but the results speak for themselves.

So who am I subvert the creative process, hoping to twist it into a seamless system where ideas spark up regularly to create intriguing masterpieces to shift the social psyche and bring joy to the masses? Instead I’ll spend the afternoon wandering the backyard with a microphone and a head full of ideas, hoping that what I make resonates with people.

As an aside… I will be releasing this song this month, if you’re interested in hearing it when it comes out, please sign up here!

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