First things first, why should you care what I have to say on the subject? It’s a fair question, one I’m asking myself right now…
Some backstory: In 2014, before I began my current project Granfalloon, I challenged myself to write a song-a-week every week of that year. It was exciting and it was maddening, it was frustrating and also deeply gratifying. I learned a lot about myself and my creative process. And, on New Year’s Eve 2014 I finished my 52nd song and I was definitely a better writer at the end of it than I was at the start.
This version of the challenge, The Positive Songs Project, arose from a conversation between myself and PSP’s co-founder Lobelia Lawson, when we were speculating the amount of anxious or sad songs about isolation we might end up writing during the Coronavirus Lockdown this year (2020 for anyone reading in the future… how are ya? Are you enjoying earning money and being able to hug another human being? You lucky thing you!) and in response we suggested attempting a song-a-week challenge with a spin: To write a positive song every week.
So as we’re starting this wonderful and insane journey once again I thought I might jot down some thoughts about what I remember from 2014, and some lessons I learned the hard way, to share with anyone embarking on this Odyssey for the first time.
1. The page doesn’t need to be empty when you start – I’m no purist about writing a new song every week. For me, the page doesn’t need to begin blank. If you have a chord progression that you’ve enjoyed playing for 4 years, or a single lyric that you love but just cannot find a song to put it in, this project is PERFECT for it. If you have a subject matter you’ve been telling yourself you’d write about for ages, that’s a great starting point for a ‘fresh’ piece of work.
2. The creative muscle is just that, a muscle, and you’re exercising it to strengthen it, not to create something perfect straight away. So pencils down when the bell rings! The deadline nature of the project is to strip away the unenjoyable aspects of the creative process (the overthinking, the perfectionism). Imperfection is the best we can aim for in a week. No over-mixing, no worrying if that line is good enough… when the week is done step away from the song. And that Submission Box offers you a wonderful closure so that you can begin the next song. But that’s not to say you can NEVER return to it. Just before Lockdown I was, in fact, engaged in recording my favourite songs from 2014’s set of 52. This of course entailed rewrites, arrangements, orchestration, rehearsals with other musicians, all after 5 years away from those songs. But the reason I was able to build that body of work to pick from, is because when the time was up, I moved on straight away. You’re working on the big picture and coming back for the details later.
3. The only failure is not sitting down to try. I did attempt another song-a-week challenge in 2017. This time I asked a bunch of artists from different mediums to join me (I remember two other musicians, and a stand-up comedian… I might have forgotten someone). From the beginning as each deadline rolled around, excuses would appear rather than music (or jokes…) “I didn’t have time to do it”… “What I came up with wasn’t good enough…” “I didn’t finish it…” Suffice to say this version of the challenge only lasted a few weeks before petering out. I became disheartened with the others’ approach and in the end gave up myself.
But it taught me two things.
Firstly that I shouldn’t have worried what the others were doing, and secondly (and it’s probably my inability to have properly communicated this to them that was the root cause of my frustration), that this isn’t something that you have to come up with excuses for. This challenge is the tool that you’re using to give yourself time and permission to sit down and work your creative muscles. If you sat down and tried to write for 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes that week, you have succeeded! And whatever happened in that time is something you can submit that week!
4. Anything can constitute a piece of music, anything can be a song. Over 2014, I submitted 52 pieces of music. Some of those were conventional songs, some were grand studio productions, some were co-writes with others, one was a joke song written on my birthday about my housemate nearly cutting her finger off, one was a 29 second instrumental, one was a techno remix of the previous week’s song, one was a prospective soundtrack piece to an unwritten film, one was a scary story delivered as a monologue by an actor. The scope of this can be a wonderfully freeing thing. I got to try out a lot of different styles and techniques as a result.
5. Rules are only there to give you permission to get over yourself. I love working to a brief. When you can create ANYTHING, you can become frozen by choice paralysis and end up creating nothing. I became fascinated with the Oulipo during 2014. They were a group of French poets who used constrained writing techniques. For example, Perec’s La disparition is a 300-page book which totally avoids using the letter ‘E’ even once! What I enjoy about these rules is the freedom they give me from my own judgement. For example, if I pick up a guitar to write a song and the chord I play is a G major, my kneejerk response is usually one of disgust or self doubt, “A G, Richard? Really? How original…” However, if the rule has been imposed externally, all of sudden I have freedom from that judgement of myself. I can enjoy that G major and blissfully move on to the next chord, thus removing a roadblock to creativity.
6. And finally, the disclaimer… the negation of all which came before… Creativity is and should be, the rule to overrule all other rules! – I think creativity is the Prime Directive of a song-a-week challenge. I undertake this challenge in order to create. The rules of it are self-imposed and only to offer structure when I feel like I’m falling. So whatever rules you are working within for this, disregard them (and this) the minute they get in your way.
Hopefully you found something helpful in these scribblings. Best of luck to you with your song this week!
So it goes…
Richard Lomax (AKA Granfalloon)