This is one of the most intimate and personal journal articles I’m likely to write.
It begins with a difficult truth.
For more than a decade, I’ve been running away from myself.
When I was a teenager, my relationship with music was like a passionate love affair, an obsession even.
I played hours and hours of guitar every single day. Not just in the mornings and evenings, but in the precious minutes I wringed out of the hours in between, like in between lessons, when I’d rush to wherever I’d stored my battered guitar to learn a new chord.
Writing lyrics was even more pervasive – it happened during those lessons, or at breakfast, or in the middle of the night, or when I was walking home from school across the fields of the South Downs.
And when I wasn’t playing or writing, I was listening to music, devouring metal, pop rock, classical.
I inherited my sister’s Discman and burned myself a stream of compilation albums crammed each one with as many minutes as possible of Metallica or Radiohead or whatever new track I’d just discovered on Kerrang. Then when I got my first mp3 player, I could carry a lot more with me, but there was still a limit of maybe one or two gigabytes … each song was something to be treasured, as I agonised over which albums to bring on long train journeys.
In those years, not a single day went past without me playing music and writing a new song. A girl I asked out rejected me with the reason that ‘I was too into my music and wouldn’t pay her enough attention’. Or maybe she was just being polite.
The Rise And Fall Of Adulthood
But then something happened when I turned eighteen.
I was still writing songs and playing concerts, but my musical obsession began to erode. Over the course of my early adulthood, my love of music, something pure and primal, was replaced something more practical, rational, formulaic…
The first cracks appeared when I started thinking of music as a ‘business’. Rather than focusing my energy on getting better and better at my craft, I began to plot my career ‘goals’ and set targets. Rather than writing songs for the sake of it, I needed a rationale for writing each song – tapping into a new market, getting played on the radio or feature on a playlist – to get closer to ‘success’.
I obsessed instead about this success, and streaming numbers, and ticket sales, and songwriting income, and the music industry and how to penetrate its imposing fortress walls..
And now I look back to my teenage years, and the hours spent playing and singing on my bed long into the night without any awareness of time, and I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself.
It’s hard to swallow, but I no longer feel like an ‘artist’. I now feel like someone who’s just trying to ‘make a career in music’.
The Harder You Look, The Further It Seems
There’s a Terry Jones fairy tale I used to read as a child, called The Faraway Castle.
A traveller is trying to reach a beautiful castle on a distant hill – but as he walks towards it, cutting his way through thick undergrowth, he looks up to the castle, only for it to seem further than it was before. This continues over the following days, but he resolutely refuses to give up, until the dawn of the third day when his spirit finally breaks and he surrenders to failure, whereupon he walks around the corner and the castle is right there.
I never really understood what moral this story is supposed to be teaching.
At best, it seemed to suggest we let go of our obsessions as the things that hold us captive, rather than our challenges. But to me it always seemed to be railing against perseverance, something I always thought of as a virtue…
But now I think I get it.
By obsessing over your destination, you make it harder to reach.
Focus on your journey, the process, and you’ll reach it faster than you can imagine.
As I grew older, I cast off my love of music, something pure and magical, and replaced it with a desire for something practical – ‘success’, defined by other people’s standards.
I needed to forget about my ‘goal’ and focus on appreciating every moment of the journey. That way, I could improve organically, for all the right reasons. My music would improve, as it had done through my teenage years and into university, but without carving off large chunks of attention into ‘breaking into the music industry’.
So here I am. But is it late to reconnect with my inner artist?
And if not, how?
I’ve travelled back in time to my teenage years, to observe myself and noted 3 patterns in behaviour that seemed to propagate musical inspiration:
A balanced musical diet of old and new
Musical influence involves a mixture of the old – music you already know and cherish – and the new – undiscovered music that takes you out of your comfort zone.
Throughout my teenage years I maintained a balanced diet of the two. This was almost impossible to avoid, as my musical awareness was so limited I couldn’t help but explore.
But as with many things in life, as you get older, you discover your tastes and start to settle into your comfort zones, always coming back to the same things.
I could very easily fall into the habit of listening to the same artists, albums, playlists repeatedly, trying to stay connected with music I’ve always loved as a constant reminder of why I write songs in the first place.
However, now more than ever I need to find this balanced musical diet.
Yes, there are some songs that will always inspire me to write music myself: Perth by Bon Iver, Twice by Little Dragon, The Suburbs by Arcade Fire all come to mind.
But I also want to listen to those less travelled genres – Latin jazz, Chinese classical, and so on – in which I can still unearth totally new gems.
So every lunchtime I’m listening to a full album – alternating between something I already know and love (yesterday it was Elbow’s Mercury Prize winning The Seldom Seen Kid) and unknown treasures (today it was a collection of Duke Ellington’s jazz studies).
Playing the guitar outside the house
One of the main activities I did as a teenager was to take my guitar, sit somewhere outside (often somewhere locally that I’d never been) and just play. Whether I was singing a Muse cover or working on a new song, I got used to my instrument in different contexts.
Now, it’s very unusual that I play anywhere other than my flat, unless I have a concert and even those are now mostly living room confined.
Apart from a little guitar playing in Norway in the summer, I can’t remember the last time I played music outside my house, other than for a gig. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of the self-consciousness that comes with being an adult, or just laziness. Either way, it’s extremely worrying and something I need to fix.
At least once a week, I’ll take my guitar and a notebook and find somewhere peaceful out in nature I can sit and play. If I don’t feel like writing, I should just sing through some old covers.
Limiting the hours I spend on ‘marketing’ my music
Some non-creative music tasks are necessary. Things like replying to messages and comments, scheduling social media posts, sending emails to blogs, etc.
But following a basic 80-20 rule, I need to spend at least 80% of my musical time on creating music, and not let this other ‘music marketing’ stuff take over my week.
This applies even to those tasks that I don’t mind, or actually enjoy, doing.
So I have reserved two hours each afternoon, straight after lunch when I’m not already in a creative mood, for music marketing work. Each day I have specific tasks, which means I know I’ll get all the necessary work done:
Monday 2-4pm: updating website with new article (& replying to messages/comments)
Tuesday 2-4pm: scripting/editing YouTube videos (& replying to messages/comments)
Wednesday 2-4pm: music industry emails (& replying to messages/comments)
Thursday 2-4pm: scheduling social media content (& replying to messages/comments)
Friday 2-4pm: online courses plus any catch up work (& replying to messages/comments)
Outside of these times, I can’t do any music marketing work. The idea is to protect the rest of my time from procrastination, through doing stuff that feels like work but is actually a distraction.
After all, sending emails and posting on Instagram doesn’t make me an ‘artist’ – writing songs does.
Thanks for reading this super personal insight into my creative struggles!
If you haven’t already heard my new single, please have a listen/watch here, and don’t forget to leave a comment below: