Writing a song, in many respects, is one of the most honest, raw and inspiring mediums of human expression. Rarely would you find another situation wherein something you create has the potential to not only engage complete strangers, but to affect them on an emotional and psychological level in so many different ways.
The ability to create music is a unique and incredible skill. The ability however, to step back and scrutinize your own artistic expression is something that is lost on many musicians, especially those in the early stages of developing their unique sonic and musical identity. And so we discuss…
One of the most common pitfalls of emerging composers and songwriters is this: Trying to maintain objectivity within what is often a one man / woman structure. In an effort to channel emotion into a song in the best way possible, objective perspective is often put on hold. The result is that an artist becomes too close to their baby, and loses sight of the bigger picture. In situations like this, many practitioners might say, “OK, now is the time to find a producer, and to allow their influence and perspective to bring your music to the next level.” While I agree with this completely, it is also important for an artist to first develop their ability to self reflect before getting into production. This not only makes their own writing and production process more efficient, but it will help the artist recognize objectively the benefits of produced tracks that have experienced the ears of an educated third party.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when establishing your musical persona:
Why Am I doing this?
A great place to begin is to step back and ask yourself why you are actually creating music. While “because I love music!” is a completely valid response, try to take things a step further and decide what it is that you are trying to accomplish as a musician/writer. Removing financial need and the desire to be secure, musically, what reasons behind the aesthetic you trying to establish? Are you trying to redefine acoustic folk rock? Do you want to experiment and blend two opposing genres into a totally new genre? Is the reason you do music a therapeutic one? Do you find yourself simply addicted to creating? Asking yourself questions like this are important, because challenging the expected or the presumed drivers for creating is a great way to enlighten your sense of purpose as a songwriter or musician.
Another thing establish is that are you doing music for yourself, or to work with others? Do you find your socially affinity influences the type of music you pursue? If interaction is a big part of what you are, then perhaps you are a producer in the making yourself? Establishing this is the first real step on the road to focus and certainty in the work you do.
Who am I writing for?
Once you have established the reasons for your approach to music and your aesthetic, it is important to again reflect on the audience you are intending your music to go to. While some might see this as the beginning of the commercial ’manufacturing’ process, I couldn’t disagree any more. Establishing the end user and the profile of people you want your music to appeal to is an undeniably good mechanism for focusing your writing skills. I am a firm believer that music shouldn’t exist in isolation, and that it is bad practice and somewhat selfish to create music that nobody can identify with on some level. Regardless of genre, if you are the only one who understands what you are doing, then it is a sure sign that you need to bring some perspective and objectivity into the mix.
The main thing to remember is that we are all born essentially knowing nothing and that the entire human existence is a learning process. There is no shame, even as a professional, in looking for an objective critique of your work from someone knowledgeable in that area. Establishing broadly the parameters of where you want your music to go is an excellent way to create a personal working brief for the music you create. There is talent in writing good songs, but writing good songs that people can share and identify with without compromising musical integrity is the true and greater skill.
Am I improving?
As we write, produce, mix and master more and more material, an important question to ask is whether or not the work we are doing is moving in an upward trend of quality and integrity. As practitioners, it is important to constantly re-establish what we consider to be the acceptable bar for excellence. If you look back at your works a year later, and you don’t find a single problem or something you wish you could have or would have liked to do differently, then you may be in jeopardy of flat lining with the creativity of your music / productions.
I am not saying that you need to go searching for problems in the work you did, or that the work you did is somehow wrong. Productions are products of their place in time as much as anything else, but it is always important to objectively ask yourself “Where can I go from here?” Be it evolution or revolution, change and improvement is always welcome in the art of music creation and it makes us better at what we do.
Which hat should I wear?
A commonly heard phrase in the music industry, wearing different hats refers to the different points in the process of production. Be it the composer hat or the producer hat, it essentially refers to the state of mind of the practitioner as they work through a project from start to finish.
It is important to become self-aware when writing / producing as to where you stand in the timeline of the whole process. With experience, the process eventually melds into one single workflow, but for those who are less experienced in the area of production, try to separate the two processes, as they are very different in some ways. While writing is based on the ability to write melody, lyric, rhythm and harmony, production is largely hinged on the ability to make quick, objective and confident musical decisions and technical knowledge of mixing and DAWs etc.
My advice would be this. Don’t cross the two roles, but occupy them in sequence. Don’t allow “commercial” sensibilities to hinder your ability to create a composition or song. Allow your creative juices to flow, and record and document absolutely everything. Then, and only then, when you have enough material to potentially make something coherent, switch hats and ask yourself all the questions previously listed. If you are working in isolation, and you begin cutting apart your music before you have even written anything, then you are lining yourself up to become deflated, de-motivated and disinterested in an idea that actually has the potential to become a great piece of music.
In the end, we need to understand that critique and analysis are not negative processes. The ability to objectively assess the material you have created is what makes you not only more competent, but also of value to others who cannot so readily identify the distinction between ‘ok’ and ‘has the potential to be great’.
Denis Kilty is an Irish music producer, composer and mixing engineer based in Dublin. – www.deniskilty.com