Journeyman?

This is a post I actually wrote a couple of months ago and held off on posting: for some reason it didn’t feel like the right time. It’s still a tiny bit rambling and probably needs some editing, but I’ve come around on it. Since writing this, I’m in a much better place re: some of the things I discuss, I’ve wrapped up my latest project (more on that soon) and I have a better idea of what I want to do next. It was worth writing as a way of collecting my thoughts and maybe worth posting!

I’ve found myself in a reflective mood lately and I wanted to jot down some stray thoughts I’ve had about creativity. I enjoy making things and I’m getting used to the idea of putting them in front of people. But although I have lots of ideas for creative projects I’m in a slightly odd place at the moment when I try to think of myself as a creator.

Blank Spaces

When I was little, adults would say I was “creative”, and I never knew for sure that they meant by that. I mean, I had an imagination, I played make-believe games with my friends, and I loved writing, drawing, and playing violin as a kid. I’d make little “books” on the computer, and I’d even clumsily try to write tunes on my violin. I got better and did more of those things as I grew up – especially with music. But if creativity is about actually creating things and seeing them through, well, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt great at that at any point in my life. Imagination only gets you so far if you can’t organise and structure your thoughts until you can sculpt the thing you want to make, and I’m not particularly practiced or accomplished at that bit. I’ve got a hundred things that I’ve started and never finished. Maybe it’s my dyslexia, but most of my ideas, even my best ones, tend to be very wibbly-wobbly and ill-defined on closer inspection. There may be mileage in an idea, but there are a lot of gaps, a lot of blank spaces that need addressing.

That was a really brilliant thing about being part of The Mechanisms. We worked on the stories, the characters, and the music (original or arranged) together. Some days one of us with an existing idea would take the lead, some days it would be someone else, but we all pitched in. If we had a narrative idea or a guitar hook or a chord sequence but there was some missing element, we’d be there to fill in the blanks in each other’s ideas. Planning sessions were like a big game of Yes And you might see at an improv group. But that group’s not there anymore and for the last year or so, I’ve been navigating what it means to be a creator who works alone, and reckoning with my blank spaces.

It’s much harder, and without the social side of group work, it can be pretty lonely work as well (although a big chunk of that so far is because of the pandemic). But here’s the big advantage, at least in theory: when you work alone, the things you create are the exact things you aimed to create, or as close as your own limitations will allow. And the end product, again in theory, once you’ve sorted out all your blank spaces, is all you.

All You?

But is it? That’s something I think about a lot.

When I was in sixth form (I guess that would be senior high if you’re in the US) studying music, I had a teacher who was a world-class performer, and had worked with some seriously impressive musicians in some very famous ensembles. He was incredibly knowledgeable about compositional theory: he could look at an orchestral score and tell you exactly how the composer approached the piece and how they achieved the intended effect – and then communicate it all in a way we’d readily understand. But he didn’t compose much himself – or at least, he said he didn’t. He once told us that he knew enough about Mozart to write something in his style, enough about Bach to write a Bach-like piece etc – but he didn’t know enough about his own style to write something that would feel authentic to him.

I’m not sure I believed him about that last part. For everything he’d achieved, he was actually very modest, and I’m not sure he was telling the whole truth. Anyway, I ended up composing for my final examination because I enjoyed it more than fine-tuning a recorded performance. And for that composition, I ended up imitating the style of another composer – I wrote a John Barry-esque theme for a made-up Bond movie. Apart from the lyrics, which were very edgy and teenage, I think it was pretty good. I wish I still had it. I remember enough of it that I could probably make it again if I needed to. But it was definitely me imitating the work of a creator I enjoyed. I was 17. There was plenty of time for me to develop my own style.

But here’s the thing – I still do that when I make things. I thought of that teacher again last summer when I nervously played my partner a demo version of Lob Lie-by-the-Fire. She listened carefully, nodded her head to the beat, a growing smile on her face. Then she turned to me and said, “So you wrote a Steeleye Span song.” She loves the song, but she wasn’t wrong. When I approached that track, I had been trying to write the sort of song I’d enjoy if I heard Steeleye Span play it. Mission accomplished, right? Right?

I like to think that I wear my influences on my sleeve at least. All the original songs I’ve had a hand in writing (Mechs or otherwise) have been influenced by something and I could point to the songs or artists that inspired them. Minuet is me trying to write a Nickel Creek instrumental with much less skill on the mandolin; The Lovers is inspired by the score from Once Upon a Time in the West; the first part of Sounds of the Winter is trying to recreate the atmosphere of the Ralph Vaughan Williams songs I used to sing growing up. Thor is smushing together Jethro Tull and Guns ‘n’ Roses. And so on…and I love to talk about the music I love, because music ought to be shared.

Is it a problem that my influences are so pervasive? If it is, it’s a big problem: they’re everywhere. I wrote a guitar riff earlier in the week that’s gorgeous, but then I remembered what it reminded me of and had to go listen to the whole Fleet Foxes discography to check that I didn’t accidentally steal it (happy to say I didn’t). I’ve been taking on some commissions lately because there isn’t much space in my life this year for a new album. Hopefully, you’ll be able to hear some of them soon. But the other day I realised the last two times I pitched ideas for a piece of music I wanted to write, both times to sympathetic clients who most likely would have trusted my judgement at least as far as the draft, I was explaining it in terms of “You know [xyz composer’s] work on [xyz media]? I want to create that mood.” Is that necessary? What does it mean that I characterise my work in that way?

It goes further than music. I used to do a bit of acting and I’ve dipped my toes back into the water recently. Doing that, I’ve realised that while I’m a good actor, many of the choices I make are along the lines of, “How would [xyz performer I admire] deliver this line? What would they do with their face/voice/body?” Or, admittedly earlier on, “I’ve seen this part performed by [xyz actor] and it was great. How close can I get my performance to that?”  That works to a point, but it doesn’t really build a coherent identity. And I’m starting to wonder whether it’s one of the things that separates a good creator from a great creator, an artist from a journeyman.

I feel weird about that statement because it goes against the grain for me. I don’t know whether I believe it to be true. I don’t want to. We’re none of us free from our influences (creative, personal or cultural) and I’d argue quite forcefully that not every creator has to be ground-breaking – to redefine the genre they work in – for their work to be considered of merit.

Originality, reinvention and evolution

I don’t think I’m alone there. To the extent that cultures can actually form a consensus about art and media, originality is often welcomed as a breath of fresh air, but it certainly isn’t prized above all other things at all costs. If it were – if it were the dominant criterion when it comes to consuming content – than the cultural landscape would look vastly different and probably pretty confusing. My tastes have evolved over time as I’ve sought out new things based on what I’ve already enjoyed, and that might be harder to do. But on the other hand, we’d avoid the current situation which I’d say often financially penalises and discourages artistic experimentation. There’d be no cookie-cutter “detective with one other (poorly researched) thing going on” shows. And we probably wouldn’t have the endless stream of light-hearted PG-13 action blockbusters that are more-or-less fine but arguably getting a little stale at this point.

But that’s just the thing – commercial viability aside, I don’t think anybody really wants to be a cookie-cutter creator even if they have no real desire or need – or maybe talent – to turn a genre on its head. I’d rather imagine we all want to find some way we can innovate and add to the conversation, even if those innovations are comparatively small. Some really iconic art is made that way.

Here’s an example. It’s maybe an unpopular opinion for me to hold, but I don’t think Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns – some of my favourite movies – actually redefined the western genre the way critics and film historians love to write about. What I think it really did was to repackage it brilliantly, with a little grit, a lot of relevant tropes taken straight from Akira Kurosawa, and the added flourish that we’re invited to question the protagonist’s morality, which was fairly uncommon in the previous generation of western movies.

There’s no comparison here because Leone’s films are utterly iconic, but that kind of interesting evolution is what I’d say we were aiming for with The Mechanisms. Existing narrative and musical genres, recognisable mythology, often traditional music, but in fresh combinations and configurations – one of which happened to be very Sergio Leone-inspired.

So those innovations – the little places where you make your mark, find your style. Why do I want to find opportunities for those innovation when I write music? Well, it’s artistically satisfying – or at least it was with the band. And apart from that, I really like making music, and, I’ve discovered, writing songs alone. I want to do much, much more of it. I keep accidentally writing new songs while I’m trying to focus on the songs I’m currently writing, so I’m stuck with more song ideas than I have space or time to work on.

That’s a good problem, as problems go. Of course, the dream would be to be able to spend much more of my time making music – without starving because of that. But on a practical level, in order to maybe get there one day – which I have to concede may never happen – I have to be doing something new, even if that’s a small thing, because there has to be some kind of unique selling point to my work that makes me stand out. If I can’t sell, and grow my listener base, and keep doing both those things by continuing to make new and interesting music, then it’s going to be much harder to make the music I want to make, in the volume I want to make it.

Some questions

And that’s a concern for another day! – But the real point right now is this: if as a creator, I ought to have a distinct style, am I currently developing my own style, or am I just doing a pale imitation of the type of content I love and want more of? A couple of people have told me I have a songwriting style, which to me is a huge compliment (maybe bigger than they realise)! But at the same time, I have to admit that I don’t see or hear the style they’re referring to. What and where is it? How would I even recognise if I’ve “found my voice”? How would I know that I’m developing it?

I know people who follow my blog might end up reading this – I’m genuinely not looking for reassurance or compliments by writing this, I just want to ask myself the question so that I can think about it as I continue to write. I’m confident that I have something to offer, I just wish I had a better understanding of what exactly that is, and I think that’s only really going to come from me. I don’t have answers to any of these questions, and I’m uncomfortable with that. But I’m not uncomfortable that I’m uncomfortable. Sometimes having a good question with no good answer is all you need to make a start. So, here’s how I’m going to try and think about creativity as I get back to work on my current commission and start thinking about the next project, and the next:

Places to start

  1. I have to acknowledge that for now I’m in an uncomfortable place and have to be patient. Not so long ago I didn’t really feel confident enough to develop and put out my own music at all – which is why I recorded Shrove Tuesday and then zilch for four years. That’s a fair way to come and I overlook that very easily, because I’m not generally given to feeling satisfied. This is still early days. Is it even reasonable to expect myself to have fully developed my own style at this point? Sure, I have some things I want to achieve and that makes me impatient – but there’s a lot of hard graft to do, and it’s going to take time and luck as well as effort.
  2. I need to hold on to the knowledge that people around me and out in the wild support me and want to listen to what I make. I had so much encouragement from the people in my life and online and it kept me going last year. When I started The Wassailant I honestly didn’t have huge expectations about the number of people who’d end up listening or buying the album and you proved me so, so, wrong. If I haven’t found my voice, it hasn’t stopped you listening. Thank you! Having a community of fans, even a small one, especially a small one, hear and enjoy something I made is a huge deal to me. Getting paid any amount of money for making music (which has never happened prior to last year) is a huge deal to me. I really appreciate it, and you, because that experience makes me feel a sense of possibility at a time where, like a lot of people, I’ve been feeling pretty stuck.
  3. Whenever I approach a new song or arrangement of a traditional tune, I want to start making purposeful choices wherever I can. Why have I picked this song or style for this context? What does it add? What emotional effect am I going for and how am I going to get there? Does this element of the mix actually support that aim or is it extraneous? Is this the best way to arrange this song or is there another approach that may be better? This isn’t so I can start second-guessing myself at every turn because that won’t be productive. But if I can better understand the decisions I make as I build a song, I may be less likely to fall back on the crutch of blindly emulating styles that I’ve heard work. At the very least, it should give me a better understanding of why they work, even if I can’t break free of them entirely.
  4. I’m working in the right genre for someone who’s finding this part of creating challenging. A massive chunk of the output of the folk and folk-rock bands I love is arrangements of very old songs. It’s still a huge part of the folk scene in the UK at least. Part of the joy of being a folk fan is being able to watch an act you’ve never seen before perform and still be able to sing along. I’ve felt that joy and I’ve seen it in other people’s faces during Mechanisms shows. The skill is to be able to cover those songs and make your own interpretation stick in people’s minds – nobody performs Roll the Woodpile Down like Bellowhead, for example. And somehow, that feels less imposing. Because (guess what?) I’ve been doing that, with my friends, for years now. I’m arranging Katy Cruel to record sometime in the future, and I’ve been doing my best to avoid going the same route as others I’ve heard. Not changing the game, but just taking a different path, choosing how I’m going to voice the chords on guitar, how I’m going to sing the chorus. If I can get a feel for my own performance style when approaching traditional folk songs, I’ll eventually be able to bring it to bear with original music too.
  5. Not being 100% unique isn’t necessarily a barrier to success if you can produce something that people want to consume, and you do it well. With secure foundations, it’s also not a barrier to eventually developing and refining your creative voice into something special. One band I really like that’s got a lot of buzz around them is Greta van Fleet. They are hugely talented, but a lot of the initial attention they got came down to the fact that their first album really, really sounded like Led Zeppelin. That’s not hyperbole, I think you could actually play a casual listener that record and convince them that they’re hearing Zeppelin rarities. The thing is, they did it really, really well. If it had been a genuine Led Zeppelin album, it would have been one of their better ones. They deserved to do really well for themselves, and so they did! But their second album shows growth – their own sound starting to evolve from that solid foundation – and their newest release is even further removed. Maybe working within and around other people’s styles can be a path to finding a more distinct voice if you approach it with care.
  6. When all is said and done, I may in fact be that journeyman I mentioned earlier. This may in fact be my limit. I don’t want that to be the case, I don’t think that’s the case, but I know I have limitations and I’m not ruling it out. But even if that’s true, I’m not sure it would make me a hack, or somehow uncreative. As I said, my old music teacher was no journeyman even if he really did feel he never found his voice as a composer – he was as talented as anyone I’ve ever met. He may have taught me theory and composition, but he also taught me that making music – no matter your level of talent – is all about fun, just like listening to it. So, let’s say for the sake of argument that I never develop further as a player or songwriter. If I have enjoy making what I want to make, it’s still a successful creative exercise, whether I achieve everything I want to or not. I’m doing something that feels good and luckily for me I’m getting to entertain a few people while I do it. There may be a million more things that I want, but ultimately I’d rather be a journeyman than not do any of this at all. And that’s all.

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