On Freedom From Time

I find myself alive. Healthy and happy and hopeful. Living out my parents fantasies of throwing the family into a campervan and heading for the great unknown. As a child we holidayed across three continents: a blur of thousand year old skyscrapers, families who judge time not by year but by generation (the first son of the first son of the first son) and travel by the most inauspicious modes available (donkey, camel and a 1970s top-heavy troop carrier left over from the British occupation). The experiences blend together and as much as I try to separate Socotra from Uqban, the outsiders’ perspective on place is just a shadow of the local experience. The 90s blend into the 2000s and I happily teenaged my way through many experiences that would leave another me emotionally worn. But we’ve reached 2018 and I survive with most of my resilience intact.

A tent in Nitmiluk national park, somewhere south of Darwin, some 3500 km from home. We come here by way of one of my best friends’ 30th birthdays. A funny way to start a treatise on time. As the years wander by I find myself dwelling more intensely on units of time, measuring it out by hour and day, by week and month. 2017 the year I start a career as a singer-songwriter. April the month I launch my record. Last week I finish booking a three-month solo tour. One day in August it begins. But I digress.

Today has been a funny day. Rising at six to drive to a visitor centre where a cheery ferry driver takes us on a two minute cruise across the river. This is where time stops. Out of range of social media and emails and indeed mobile range at all I turn my phone off. I’m physically weighed down by 20 kgs worth of food and water, but emotionally weightless, cut free from the need to measure life by time.

We talk till lunch, we swim till tired. We pause to sunbathe and feeling empty we fill ourselves on tuna and crackers and a dessert course of two minute noodles.

If only life could be so simple everyday. Needs are filled as they arrive and no outside influence dictates how we fill our time. If we linger over breakfast, no phantom work-place mandated hours demand we pile a days worth of belongings into a car and battle the mundanity of peak hour talk-back to arrive and churn through eight hours of government-mandated chitchat. If the sun is too hot we read in the shade. When the book loses its interest we return to the water.

The only real routine here is the watching of the sunset, a once daily ritual with a bottle of Dodgeball (an affectionately terrible home-brew mix of Fireball and some Jack Daniels found in the back of the share-house cupboard) in hand. Clambering up the nearest peak we spend the hour gazing in awe as the sun completes its daily disappearance below the horizon. There is no habit here, we’ve surrendered the twice daily coffee addiction, the 7:47 bus timetable, the 11:10 lunch and the 3:50 home time bell. There is freedom from time and freedom from expectations and a certain freedom from me. The me who overloads himself with a daily to-do list. The me who plans each week some six months in advance. The me who prides himself on output and productivity and garners self-worth not by being but by doing.

This is freedom.

Simon and Garfunkel: Bookends

Time it was, and what a time it was
It was a time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

On finding inspiration

I have to admit that some ninety percent of everything I create is stolen.

I’ve heard it said that you are an amalgamation of your five closest friends. You borrow bits from those you meet and recreate yourself as life goes on. Whilst we aren’t born as a pure blank slate (for surely there’s something that exists from the spark of life itself, right?), personality is a learned trait, a series of wavering paths that criss-cross into the human other people see. There are strong influences: boulders in the stream that shift your focus and push you out of the way, but there are also a myriad of others, weak pebbles that slowly wear you down and ease you in new directions. Underneath, a wild cross-current of emotions tints everything with shades of positivity (or negativity, depending on my energy levels).

So if my behaviours are a learned trait, a fusion of mixed messages from the thirty years that underpins my time on earth, my creative output epitomizes this. I’m constantly falling in love with ideas, stealing them and turning phrases that others create into works that I sheepishly call my own. At the heart of it surely that’s all that art is. A reconstruction of ideas. Miles borrowed from classical music and Dylan borrowed from Guthrie and the blues has influenced seemingly everything since 1908. We take the things we love and learn how they work. In the process we dismember them, stringing them out to dry, their innards pulled apart to facilitate greater extrospection. Sometimes these things we love survive the inquisition and live to fight another day, but often the process is enough to kill them. We cultivate the dead corpses and hope that enough tender love and performance craft can birth them back into the world as new compositions. This is how new genres are born.

What have I been stealing from recently? The main influences underpin everything. Nick Drake and Laura Marling and The Tallest Man on Earth are constants. Recently Ali Farka Toure makes an appearance. Van Morrison and Paul Kelly are mainstays, but I struggle to believe anyone would pick it in my music. Mostly though I’ve been borrowing from concepts. I’m struggling through writing a song called the Heat Death of the Universe, a folk expose on man’s need to dwell on the minutiae of life whilst ignoring the larger issues. I’m attempting to write a song for my friends and the scenes they belong in, or wish to belong in, or have been unhappily placed in by wider societal norms. I constantly write songs inspired by students: the drama of the five year old mind is cannon fodder for a three hour set of folk lyricism.

I’m collating ideas and concepts and lines and melodies and songs and free-form late night thoughts into a folder I’m affectionately calling “A Little Wilder”. It’ll be just like “We Were Wild”, but one step farther down the track. I’m planning a solo tour for the second half of the year, and the romantic streak in me has left a blank space of four days up near Dorrigo National Park. I’ve got a little tape recorder and a collection of semi-vintage mics and there’s a chance that I might have enough material ready to put it together into recorded format in the back of a van with the possums and gumtrees for company. Will it be good? Will I enjoy it? Is it something to look forward to? Who knows.

On Touring

I decant my feelings to the page. A cheery Sydney morning, the King St Cafes pulling a roaring trade from the milling crowds of early shoppers and kid-toting, lycra-wearing café hoppers. I’m camped out in a two star hostel, but where these two stars have come from and who awarded them is suspect.

The sheets are clean and the room smells moderately fresh, but that’s where the stars end. Both beds sag in a desperate attempt to allow gravity to return themselves to the earth and the materials they were moulded from. The fridge hums softly in time with the fluorescent light’s incessant flickering and after ten minutes of idly attempting to focus I rise from bed to unplug the fridge and switch off the light.

I’ll work in relative darkness, the laptop glow providing most of the room’s otherworldly light. One would expect the window to furnish some illumination, but a combination of accumulated dust and what appears to be a life-time supply of bamboo poles stacked against the side of the building distil the light into one single beam that shoots across the room and highlights Tom’s empty bed.

We played last night. An hour set of gin and soda inspired blues ramblings. Its always tough to work a crowd, and this crowd was in the particularly tough camp, their attention split between two screens displaying alternate games of rugby league and a pokies station with greyhounds achieving some form of life purpose by running in circles for human enjoyment. We start in middling territory. Boogie blues with a strong beat. No chord changes. None of that twelve bar crap. We sit on a chord and thump out quarter notes. If we can maintain this long enough, people will start to pay attention.

Over the ten minutes of the first song, the games end. The lights dim. The bar staff turn off the screens, the greyhounds end their race, and the attention turns to us. The audience slowly realize we know what we’re doing. Competency bred from experience. We’ve done this before and we’ll do this again, a thousand blues riffs repeated a hundred gigs a year. Over the course of the year we probably play in front of a collective three thousand audience members, and while it would be nice to have that entire audience at one gig, we’ll take what we can get, and winning over a crowd of thirty people is where its at tonight.

Two people start the dance floor, and then another two stumble in from the beer garden to join in. There’s a vague sense of appreciation from a drunk couple air-drumming on the side of stage. Whistles punctuate the end of songs and toe-tapping turns into hip-shaking and a crowd of thirty swells to fifty. A girl steps on to stage mid-song and staggers over to me to ask if she can stage-dive. I shake my head, an emphatic no. She takes this as tacit approval and shoulders Tom out of the way to jump face-first into the crowd. She takes the mic stand with her, one foot idly kicking it off stage as she flounders on the hands of the crowd. Not large enough to support any real attempt at stage-diving, the crowd drop her to the floor and I next see her getting piggy-backed around the venue, wildly cheering to herself.

Our set swells and sways. Old classics separated by TK originals. None of it is familiar to the crowd, but its interesting music and played with feeling. If you have enough energy you can sell anything, Tony Robbins providing the perfect example of high-class BS shadowed in a cloak of ‘you-can-do-it’ mentality. But our music isn’t a self-help manual, and this isn’t an exploration of spirituality for aspirational Millenials. We finish on a high, back pats all around and I return to the hostel, dropping Tom off at a late night venue to continue the celebrations.

It’s midday the next day and Tom hasn’t returned home… Should I be worried?

On Self Promotion

I sleep better the day after my album launch. It’s funny that a human generally unfazed by the day to day of life can be so emotionally swept up into a little sixty minute event. In the grand scheme of things, this launch represents an infinitesimal part of my life thus far, one twenty-fourth of a day that represents one seventh of a week tied into fifty-two weeks over some thirty years.

The human psyche is a wild thing. The actual peformance aspect of performing isn’t the deterent. Organizing gigs or rehearsing band members or emailing press contacts isn’t an issue. Building a music career, whilst tough, feels like merely stacking a series of little tasks together into interminably larger projects. A tour is fifteen shows broken down into a series of contacts, each with an assignable name and an email address. Contact the right people and it falls together.

But promoting myself is the stumbling block, the thing that grows my sense of unease. Having to sell to friends and family and the wider unknown public (internet and otherwise) is tough, and you never quite feel like you’re doing it correctly. I tie my self-worth into seeing people at shows, and I understand it isn’t healthy.

I examine the next step. I’m falling in love with performance from a singer-songwriter’s perspective. The songs begin to develop, the playing starts to take care of itself, the stories get polished. I’m slowly developing as a musician, and while I acknowledge I still have years and years to go before I’m completely comfortable with myself as a performer (perhaps reaching that plateau could spell the end of this iteration of my musical life), an enjoyment of the process is apparent. Enjoyment of the process is the crucial part. It allows me to dive into ideas, to spread myself thin between a million different artists and songs and lyrics. Anything that tickles my interest can be a kick-off point for an hour or day or lifetime of study.

So how do I clash these two things together? I’m invested in myself as a musician. I’m interested in seeing myself develop. I’m excited to see what happens over the next couple of years, and I enjoy nearly every aspect of what I do. The only thing that troubles me is self-promotion.

As always, I come back to Paul Kelly.

‘Stumbling Block’

I can’t get around it and I can’t get through it
I can’t go over it and I can’t go under it
I’m scared of what I might find if I ever get behind it
Stumbling block, stumbling block, stumbling block

If I wait a while it just might go away
I suppose I should just get down on my knees and pray
I’m sure if I could get just one good night’s sleep it’ll look better in the day
Stumbling block, stumbling block, stumbling block

Maybe I should pay someone to come here and remove it
Or I could just chip away at it bit by little bit
I guess I could build me a bomb and blow it up in one big hit
Stumbling block, stumbling block, stumbling block

Some of my friends say I should call in the mystics
Or find me a philosopher to come here and tell me it don’t exist
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is
Stumbling block, stumbling block, stumbling block

If I ever get done with this I’m gonna make a brand new start
I gotta get my thinking straight and put the horse before the cart
If I had the balls I’d wrap this thing up in plastic and call it art!
Stumbling block, stumbling block, stumbling block

I’m gonna call up every TV station
And the museum of science, maybe they’re looking for a special donation
I could sell tickets and take it on tour all around the whole goddamn nation
Stumbling block, stumbling block, stumbling block

It’s in your mind, she says, it’s within you
She likes saying stuff like that, I got a problem if it’s true
If you can’t get rid of what’s inside you it’s bound to destroy you!
Stumbling block, stumbling, block, stumbling block

On finding purpose

I used to say that my purpose was to make people dance. A hilariously condensed version of an on-going life goal, but at the heart of it, a pure and achievable purpose. Every day I could evaluate myself: ‘did I make people dance today’? If not, why not? In a nutshell, a great reason to exist, but possibly not multi-faceted enough to make the daily trudge of life worth pursuing.

For a brief period before this I studied jazz, mainly interested in bettering myself as a drummer. This was possibly the most self-indulgent part of my life thus far, spent indolently enjoying the process of exploring myself by listening to music and playing drums.

For an even briefer period before this I worked in fast food, creating sandwiches for people’s lunch. At the heart of this is creation, but not many would see it as a purpose, and even fewer as a reason to exist. Still, it was an honest way to make a living and instilled several positive qualities within me (mainly an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to never work fast food again).

I stumble upon a copy of Seneca’s ‘On The Shortness of Life’, an essay written some two thousand years ago. This particular copy is covered in highlighter, notes scribbled around the margins, from when a twenty-five year old me discovered Stoicism and endeavoured to re-structure my life around it.

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away. “

Seneca continues on to perfectly encapsulate and criticise me at the same time:

“What about those who are absorbed in composing, listening to, and learning songs? The voice, whose best and simplest flow is naturally straightforward, they twist into sinuous turns of the most feeble crooning. Their fingers are always snapping in time to some song that they carry in their head, and when they’ve been asked to attend to serious and often even sorrowful matters, you can overhear them quietly humming a tune. Theirs isn’t leisure but idle occupation.”

Recently I find a greater joy in writing words. I find joy in playing guitar. And indeed I still find joy in playing drums (a blessing because I still earn most of my living playing drums). But there’s also joy in teaching, and joy in relationships. There’s joy in learning, and joy in building a small business. There’s joy in running, and a definite joy in leaving everything behind to dive into the waves on a warm summers’ day. But is this purpose? Could it be that a life lived between various pursuits is enough to bring a sense of purpose? While I’d love to dedicate myself to one thing, becoming a true master, I think my spirit has been endowed with a sort of wanderlust, a need to continue to grow and develop in numerous different directions.

I leave you with the great American poet Mary Oliver and her poem The Journey:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Ten Minute Musings

I’ve been working through the idea of daily writing. I’ve experimented with it for the last three years, long periods of inaction broken by short frantic periods where I write daily for three weeks and then subside just before the repetitive action becomes a habit.

My daily writing generally takes the form of a ten minute free-thought exercise. Timer goes on for ten minutes, laptop or notebook is opened and I begin. Nothing pre-planned, nothing structured, just a quick mind dump of ideas. When the timer goes off I stop, save my work and move on with my day. Sometimes this is good. I get my ideas out, my mind quiets for a minute and I gain a sense of stable clarity.

Most days though, the pure act of stopping frustrates the hell out of me. Pausing in the middle of an idea and closing my laptop leaves my mind spinning in a certain free-fall. Ideas come quick and fast and I grasp them, fidget with them for a second and discard them as new ideas rise to the surface. It’s amazing how the act of recording the thoughts my mind conceives can cause my mind to create new thoughts. Sort of like digging in a scrap heap I guess. As you unearth ideas you begin to see the edges of new ideas buried deep below. Ten minutes later and you’re deep in a hole of your own choosing, attempting to dig upwards.

I was introduced to the ten minute ‘Morning Pages’ concept by a writer named Julia Cameron, but many others affirm its value. Lately I’ve been developing the concept in a new way. I still begin my day with a ten minute mind-dump, a meditative ritual to get the mind started, but as I wander through the day, if particular problems or ideas or thoughts come to mind that either worry or excite me, I use them as a fire-starter for a ten minute free-writing session. Same rules apply: timer on, notebook open, I begin. It’s wildly interesting to see how the physical act of expressing your thoughts in a digital/physical medium changes the way your mind toys with ideas. I find this act clarifies ideas, soothing my mind and also sparking my creativity.

The pure act of distilling my mind’s ramblings into cogent thought stops them trundling around the back of my mind, interfering with my day.