Sound Advice: 9 D.C. Musicians Talk About Breaking a Creative Rut
Interview by Jordan Snowden
We’ve all been there: days, or even weeks, can go by where you feel like you’re just stuck in a creative funk. When that happens, how do you become ‘unstuck’?
We asked nine D.C. (and former D.C.) musicians on their best practices for overcoming these blocks. While our main focus was music, many of these tips can also apply to general instances where you need some clear headspace.
It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve found the best way to get creative when you’re not feeling it is to just do something else for awhile. Like trying to remember a name, when you stop trying that’s when it generally comes to you. This will get your mind relaxed and unstressed about the creative process.
Writer’s block is generally a form of inner fear—fear of doing something subpar or of not meeting expectations. If you’re a perfectionist, it can be doubly difficult to brush aside creative block because one’s brain tends to jump to the end of a project, and judging a creative piece while it’s undergoing construction is deadly to the creative process.
It’s best to not focus on creating a perfect end product. Otherwise, at every step along the way your creative work will face an inner Gordon Ramsay screaming humiliations at just-forming ideas. If it’s not working, go for a run. Watch TV vape; whatever it is that you do. Don’t veg out totally because you’ll want to stay aware of your inner dialog. Eventually, you’ll start dreaming up music ideas subconsciously and those are the best kind. Those come straight from the inner muse. They’re raw and emotional. When you get one of those ideas, go at it and start noodling around. Keep it informal and don’t stress if nothing “good” comes out of it.
Once you get back in a groove and stop thinking about how much time has passed during your creative sessions, and you can’t wait to get back to it when you do have to break away, that’s when you’re getting flow. Over time, you’ll find a way to tap into that flow by being aware of the times of day and moods that typically spark the best work for you. Then you can begin to steer the creative process more and more, and push your limits.
Clifford John Usher (GEMS)
When we are deep into making an album, we’ll kind of seal ourselves off from the outside world. But right now we’re in a different stage (having just put out an album) and we’re kind of feeling out the direction we want the next album to take. It’s been helpful for me to stay up on learning new technology–got some new synths, new software–that often helps spur some new creative moments. Sometimes playing a different instrument than you normally play is a good way to start too. Lindsay’s main instrument is the keyboard but often she’ll start writing a new song on guitar just to switch things up.
Another good way to get inspired is to dig into other forms of art. I just went to the library and checked out a ton of books: art books, poetry books, mythology, fiction, non fiction… I like to surround myself with lots of inspiring material I can feed off of if I need it. Going to a museum can be a good break from staring at a blank page or screen.
Finally, there’s tons of inspiring new music being put out every day. Just dig around on SoundCloud or Bandcamp. Anyone who hasn’t been really inspired by some new music lately just isn’t digging hard enough! There’s so much good shit out there it’s overwhelming! But also inspiring.
Or, you could take Neil Young’s advice. Can’t remember where I read this but he said something like, “if nothing’s coming out, do something else; go mow the lawn.”
Louis Weeks (Producer/composer)
The first and most important part of understanding writer’s block is understanding that it’s a trap: you can’t write your way out of it and you can’t force your way through it–you have to acknowledge it. Writer’s block is an indicator that something in your process isn’t working for you anymore, and as a result, your work no longer excites you. When I start getting writer’s block it’s a warning sign that I’ve lapsed on a crucial part of my work: I’ve stopped listening.
One of the things that nobody told me when I started out in music was that listening to music can be really hard and tiring. And even if they had told me that, I wouldn’t have believed them because music is and always was fun to listen to. But when you make music your life, you find that your ears can get fatigued, and listening to music that challenges you is an emotionally, intellectually and physically-exhausting endeavor.
I’m prone to letting this part of my process lapse. I get complacent and stop listening to music with discipline. After a few months of only listening to the same type of music, in the same type of way, I get writer’s block like clockwork. So, if you’re like me and get writer’s block: don’t just listen more, listen better. Listen like it’s your job–do it with discipline, and with intention, and at a manageable and sustainable pace. When you change the way you listen, you find that there’s a lot of new music in you; music that will delight you, and surprise you, and show you a part of yourself that you never knew before.
Misun Wojcik (Misun)
I really try to evaluate what it is I’m trying to do. I ask myself, “am I listening to one kind of sound too much? Am I trying to sound like something else? What is this song actually asking for? What is the music saying? What is this song really saying to me? What mood am I in?”
When I go back there, reevaluate, and really try not to try, that is usually what helps me try to get out of that headspace.
You can essentially go anywhere with a song and I think sometimes that’s hard for a writer. Sometimes if it’s not working you need to just move away from it. I have definitely skipped songs even though I’ve thought, “wow these have so much potential, why am I not working harder on it?” But if it doesn’t come naturally I just say, “screw it, if it’s meant to be, I’ll come back to it.” Sometimes it’s the song and it’s not necessarily even you.
CaSh Jane: I have definitely been in a creative rut before because it’s like, how many different rhythms can you create? How many different sounds can you make? Although the potential is endless, often times you get stuck because you’re constantly in movement, constantly in motion. As an independent artist, you don’t always have a chance to create. On the fly you find yourself doing certain things that are constant.
To defeat that, what I often like to do is go back to things I’ve worked on before. I like to go back and listen to sounds and things that have moved me in the past, or snippets of things I have done in the past and start from those points.
Earle B. Lloyd: It depends on how ‘thick’ the block is. If it’s a thin block, you can go back to the beginning and ask, why am I writing this song?
If you’re in one of those blocks where it’s like, “man I can’t get anything at all,” and nothing is happening and you can’t get a word out, that’s when you go back and ask, “why am I doing this? Why am I an artist?” You need to go back that deep to break that thicker block.
As an artist, I’m often stuck in the artist’s paradox of being inspired through personal hardship. The catch-22 of happiness often for artists means long periods of “creative blocks” because for so many of us the inspiration and creativity comes from the first-hand experiences that make us want, and need, to tell someone else.
For people like me, when hearing they’ve not written in a while, it honestly makes me partially happy for them because it’s likely that they’re happy. Well, happy at least in their personal lives. Unfortunately for humanity there’s no shortage of things to be inspired by. Fortunately for artists, all one needs to do is be willing to wait.
Wow, that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever written. A much simpler more positive answer would be go see lots of concerts and play a lot of music with your friends. I’m often inspired by being around others and hearing what they’re doing.
Sam McCormally (Fellow Creatures)
I’d say the biggest thing I try to remind myself when I’m in creative ruts is that making music is work. If I don’t show up to work, nothing is gonna get done.
But maybe that seems like terrible advice, because what do you do once you show up? As far as that, the only thing I can really say is: try everything. It’s very hard to know at the outset if an idea is good or bad until it’s developed, and it’s hard to know if a method is good or bad until you’ve used it.
Record every little lyrical idea or melody on your phone, but then never listen to them. Write the simplest song you can, and then write the most complicated. Do what feels comfortable, until you feel bored, and then do what feels uncomfortable. Write a song that only your mom would like. Write a song your mom would hate. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom in the middle of a party or of your shift at work and sing softly into your phone from the stall. Build up a song around a stolen percussion sample, and then delete the sample. Record yourself singing whatever lyrics you have as placeholders, and then transcribe them, and then keep anything that can be tortured into making sense.
Go to the show of a band you dislike and then go home and write a song just to prove to yourself that you’re better than them. Go to the show of a band you love and go home and write a song to prove you’re not worse. Schedule a show of all new songs before you’ve written any. Finish things that seem unfinishable.
I also find that in order to change the kind of songs I write I have to change the way I write. I think it’s good to pick a new way of working and try to complete a song using that method. Like, do you usually start with lyrics? Try starting with the melody. Do you usually write on the guitar? Try writing a song on the piano. But keep changing, keep trying new things, keep yourself entertained.
Also, I think it’s very important to listen to a lot of different music, to expand your sense of what’s possible. But, when you’re really in the middle of writing a lot, I think it can be useful to stop listening to music altogether. Otherwise I end up in this loop of, “well, this song is not as good as X.” Or, “I think Y is the greatest band in the world, and my song sounds nothing like Y.” I think a song has to work according to its own internal logic, and comparing it to other songs while you’re writing will only lead you astray.
Jimmy Rhodes (Black Clouds)
When it comes to getting out of a creative block I tend to try and not think about music at all and just go out and party with friends; however, I still find myself listening to Nine Inch Nails’ “The Fragile” or The Downward Spiral almost every time at 2 a.m. and all of a sudden I realize I’m overthinking a drum part and just play simpler.