This post was co-written with my friend Duncan Sabien, a very prolific doer of things. He had the idea of writing the article in a sort of panel-style, so we could each share our personal experiences on the subject.
Malcolm: At the CFAR alumni reunion this August, my friend Alton remarked: “You’re really self-directed and goal-oriented. How do we make more people like you?”
It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer:
“I think we need to get people to go and do things that nobody’s expecting them to do.”
Duncan: When I was maybe nine years old, I had a pretty respectable LEGO collection dropped into my lap all at once. I remember that there was one small spaceship (about 75 or 80 pieces) that I brought along to summer camp, with predictable results.
I found myself trying to piece the thing back together again, and succeeded after a long and frustrating hour. Then, to be absolutely sure, I took it completely apart and reassembled it from scratch. I did this maybe forty or fifty times over the next few weeks, for reasons which I can’t quite put my finger on, and got to where I could practically put the thing together in the dark.
These days, I have an enormous LEGO collection, made up entirely of my own designs. My advice to pretty much everyone:
A month ago, a friend and I decided that we’d write a song each month with a preset title. This is kind of like Songfight, but I find that a month actually gives me time to flesh out a full idea rather than just scraping something together in a couple hours. This is my song for month one, “On Fire”.
My reflection above about hours versus months is interesting, because it reflects a recent (past year) shift in the way I write songs.
I’ve since… changed. Now it’s more like this:
The first song I wrote this way was General Disregard
, which is on my album. If you’re familiar with the rest of the album you might notice that General Disregard feels more casual and less structured than the other tunes.
I’ve been a poet for at least as long as I’ve been a songwriter, and I’ve long considered myself a poet first and musician second (this is related to the fact that I invariably do the words before the instrumentation). The poems I used to write were very structured: limericks, sonnets, or even just rhyming couplets with a strict meter. I haven’t totally ditched these but I’ve gotten more involved with slam poetry, which uses a lot more internal rhyme and stretching of beats, and I’ve also started casually freestyle rapping. Both of these have contributed to my new strategy for songwriting.
In fact, when I first started doing slam, I would create my poems like I used to write my songs. This is just simply the wrong medium. It’s like designing a painting using your sense of smell. Murmuring and writing are a really poor way of creating something that’s ultimately going to be performed. Similarly, I find I can work a lot faster and with way more nuance when I’m creating songs aloud and in my head versus on paper. It takes energy and intent to erase something from paper, while it takes effort to keep something in my head. This means that if a part is cumbersome or boring, it gets forgotten, and I have to replace it with something catchier.
I’ve learned a bit about the memory recently from reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (read my summary at actionablebooks.com) and one key point that emerged was that the memory regularly drops details and adds others every time the memory is accessed. For my songwriting, this means that every time I want to work on a song in-progress, I get to massage it on the way out, rather than just turning text into sound.
I’ve also realized that writing the songs in my head is a real mental exercise! In another song I’ve been working on I found I had to stop because my brain was getting worn out. This saturation is a good sign, because it means both that my unconscious brain will continue working on it even once I move on, and that my mental capacity for this will expand. Neuroplasticity!
After my album launch last fall, I unintentionally took an almost complete hiatus from songwriting for nearly 3 months. Then I decided in February I wanted to write more songs. Now I have 1¾ songs since then, and I’m really excited to start sharing them again. Much of this will probably be posted here, but if you want my really musical news you can also subscribe to the Maleidoscope newsletter at maleidoscope.com.
Nine months after I originally committed to record and release an album this year, I’m excited and proud to say that I have!
It’s been a long journey, and honestly if I had known in advance how much work it would be, I might not have done it. Naivety can be so useful! That said, having now done it, I am definitely going to do it again. I enjoyed the recording process immensely, and found it really rewarding to practice intently: guitar, piano, and even some saxophone for the first time.
Without further ado, the album:
I’ll be writing a post later this month about my experiences in creating this album, but until then I hope you enjoy the music. Thanks for taking the time to listen.
Anyway, 8 months later that album, titled The Mind I’m Lost Inside, is almost finished! It’s been a huge journey and I’m going to post more reflections on what I learned while working on this project all year, but for now I just want to share some demos with you.
My stage name (after more deliberation than you want to hear about) is Maleidoscope, so I’ve set myself up a pre-release page at maleidoscope.com
Sample music below. If you like it, you can sign up at my launch site to be notified when the album’s ready..
Update 18/11/2012: The album is finished now! Listen and download at maleidoscope.bandcamp.com