blank canvas

Avoiding Common Pitfalls in Writing Sessions

“There is nothing scarier to an artist than a blank canvas with not even a dab of paint. Maybe an author’s horrid nightmare is a page in a book with no words. Whether it be a bland blank canvas or a monotonous novel with no words there is also nothing more inspiring, more full of possibility, than something bare and lifeless…there must be nothing particularly interesting before true creativity is born.”

While I personally know creative geniuses whose ideas flow out of them like water out of a faucet, the quote above couldn’t be more true for me.

Even though I have yet to write and produce a number 1 hit in America, I have been fortunate enough to have many successes as a writer in other countries.  My experiences have led me to believe that hard work, smart work, some level of giftedness, and talent can lead you wherever you want to go.  There are many factors to success in the music business, but one thing is for certain: if you want to make it as a writer, you must attend writing sessions.  A SHITLOAD of them.  There was a five year period in my writing career where I was booked for two writing sessions a day, six days a week.  THEN, after I was backed up with songs, I had to finish productions on them.  It was a rigorous crucible that helped form me into who I am today.  Many of these LA pop writing sessions were what us writers like call “first dates,” where we are literally thrown into a room by management or publishers and are told: “here, go write, come up with something great!  Here’s the ‘who’s looking list,’ give me a hit.”  With fast paced LA studio work, we knew we had only a handful of hours or, if we were lucky a couple days to get to know each other, vibe, catch a spark, and hone it into something great.  NO PRESSURE.

For me, usually after some small talk and discussing how we’re feeling creatively and what/who we want to write for, I’m faced with the inevitability of loading up my blank Pro Tools template, and sitting at the keyboard or guitar to birth an idea.  See, inspiration for me is a wily one.  Sometimes, on my more “touched” days, an idea just comes to me.  It’s great, it’s awesome, I have no idea where it came from and then as a group we work through the song effortlessly almost as if it’s writing itself (OR, there’s an indescribable divine force sending us inspiration).  Other days it’s more forced, more strategic, and requires more effort, but this can also be ok, because our experience and expertise can help us craft something killer.  Then, on my most feared days, there’s emptiness.  Just BLANK.  I can noodle, I can play chords, but its all for naught, because it’s lackluster.  See, in writing situations, I’m considered a music guy.  Even though on my better days I can come up with a decent top line (vocal melody, lyrics, and concept), my specialty is writing the music, crafting a track or musical bed, and then producing the song to completion.  I’m also one of those producers who can engineer (really well) and mix, so I put myself into the category as more of a production technician.  An innovator.  A crafter.  Lord Jeebus give me a spark and I can give you Sodom and Gomorrah!!!  But again, for me, that spark is elusive.  Ideas come to me in the weirdest places, during workouts (always), while driving, while at the bowling alley, ANYWHERE, but when faced with that empty Pro Tools session and a writer staring at the back of my head waiting for that genius idea to birth, fear, doubt, and ego can creep in.  That’s a dangerous, vulnerable place.  It’s this place where some of the biggest creative follies can take place, and I’m guilty of all of them:

Don’t Rush.  We’re all under the impression that if we don’t come up with something great and fast, that we’re not going to impress the people we’re working with, or ourselves for that matter.  Put the ego aside.  Don’t settle for a recycled idea.  Don’t settle for something that just “works” so that the session can move forward.  Take a breath, and try go for something better.  Try to let it come from your heart, not your brain and hands.

Don’t judge.  Don’t judge yourself or others during this process.  Allow everyone in the room to stretch out and relax.  Let it flow, BECAUSE….

You don’t NEED to finish something every time.  I don’t know why us writers need to complete something in order to feel validated.  Can’t we feel accomplishment for just putting forth an honest effort?  There’s something to be said about completing many works, especially when we’re learning and growing, but not in mastery.  It’s not worth it to spend our valuable creative energy on something like finishing lyrics to a mediocre song when we could be spending it on searching for that genius idea.  I finished waaaaay too many of those mediocre songs, and while it helped sharpen certain skills, it didn’t help me achieve the ultimate goal which was to create something fantastically unique and of high quality.  As soon as we release ourselves from this false obligation we obliterate the invisible confines of a creative deadline, which in itself kills creativity.

Don’t put yourself into a creative box.  This is especially hard because we think we need to be a perfect fit for radio or for whatever someone’s looking for in a song, but most of the greatest songs weren’t birthed from a contrived place, they came from an honest one.  Also there’s this quote that I love – “No one knows what they’re looking for until they hear it.”  “They” may describe to you what “they” THINK “they” want, but those people are either musically retarded, unable to communicate properly to the seasoned musician, or they want to look like they have vision.  What they really want to be is blown away.  Usually what it takes is something different, and it’s up to us to give it to them.

Trust yourself.  Learn to trust your instincts and your past.  Know that all of your previous work and inclinations will guide you in the right direction.  I.E. I never have to worry about my drums hitting hard enough or my choruses being sonically big enough because my tastes bring the music there anyway.

Don’t be miserable in the process.  This should be a joyful event, and even if you’re exercising demons, it should still be fun and gratifying.  If you’re jaded and unhappy while creating, both you and you’re work will suffer.  Believe me, BECAUSE….

Burnout is real.  Very, very real.  It creeps in and takes place in all of us.  Taking breaks for sanity and life is key.  Balance is key.  It’s one thing to get fed up with every day struggles, but as soon as you experience disdain for yourself and music in the abstract, it’s time to take a break.  Recharge.  Be kind to yourself.

Remamber to embrace your strengths.  While its always fun to experiment and grow, don’t try to be something your not.  When dub step, EDM, and music which required a certain level of programming genius became the forefront of mainstream music, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn new styles and sounds.  After a lot of research, practicing, and execution, I felt that my final product wasn’t matching up to industry standards.  I also realized that I didn’t quite enjoy the process or the the genre itself.  Once I realized that I had a knack for groove, vibe, parts, and sonic clarity, I decided to let go of those other stylistic standards.  As soon as I could tell myself and others “Nah, I don’t really do that, it’s not my thing,” it let me focus on my strengths and it let me let the music do what it’s meant to do, and that was to not be a poseur.

Finally, just have fun.  Embrace the fear, embrace the unknown.  Remember that it’s only music.  We may feel like our lives are on the line, but we’re not in surgery.  Nothing major is at stake except ego, and we gotta just let that shit go.  Everything I just wrote about was because I experienced it all today, in a new session with a new artist that I’ve never worked with before.  Even after all this time, once I was faced with the blank session and a lack of ideas, I let the fear set in.  I let my ego take over.  “We need a vibe, and fast.  We need to come up with something, ANYTHING so that they can start writing.  What will they think if I can’t deliver? Will they think less of me?  Has it already started?”  It’s like a bad Hunter S. Thompson LSD momentum, and in retrospect it all sounds just so, SILLY.  It didn’t take long for me to just step back, shut up, and have some fun.  And then it became fun.  The music came out great, and the world kept turning.