All too often, the creative process is confused with the creation itself. Everything that’s written, drawn, composed, or stumbled upon doesn’t necessarily have to end up in a final product; in fact, one of the best ways to really let your creative beast play is to stop worrying about the final product completely.
That can be hard to do when we take pride in our work, but one way to let go is to try tools you’ve never used before. No one should expect to be an expert at something instantly, so painting with a new brush or cutting with a new type of shears frees us to give up our expectations of ourselves. We might make something far short of a masterpiece, but we’re learning new ways to let our creative energies flow.
When I was semi-serious about becoming a singer-songwriter a decade ago, this was my only instrument:
I had my reasons. I wanted to always be able to play my songs live with a minimum of fuss. Being shy and awkward, I didn’t want to join or form a band. And despite the fact that music I listened to tended to stray quite far from solo acoustic ditties, I told myself that any truly good song could be reduced to simple voice and guitar accompaniment anyway.
It’s not necessarily a bad way to go. I recorded a whole album, Stars or Streetlamps, with just me and a guitar, and if I may say so myself, I think it holds up pretty well.
About two years after Stars or Streetlamps, I gave up on the singer-songwriter dream. It just wasn’t happening and playing gigs wasn’t making me happy. I still fiddled with the guitar every now and then, but making a living and being a grownup relegated it to a minor hobby.
Then I started to get the itch again – the need to create stuff. I wanted to do more than acoustic songs, but every time I experimented with MIDI sequencing or software synthesizers I got frustrated. The user interfaces weren’t obvious; the number of options was dizzying; the purpose of many controls was opaque.
Who saved the day? Nintendo. They released a “game” called Korg DS-10 that consisted of a virtualized synthesizer and dead simple sequencer. Within days of opening the box I was creating songs.
Hardly Chopin, but that’s kind of the point. After years of not writing or recording much of anything, I was back on the horse. Soon after, I tackled an old song of mine called “Chinatown” with virtual synths and MIDI inside Cakewalk’s Sonar Home Studio 7 XL. Unlike previous attempts with the software, when I insisted on using the traditional, but clunky, musical staff interface, I embraced the piano roll, which was very similar to the Nintendo interface.
I purposely chose “Chinatown” because I didn’t think it was that great in just guitar and voice; in fact, I didn’t think it was that great, period. Fumble with a second-rate song as practice, I figured, and then use what I learned in better music. But once there were extra tracks added, with both computer-generated instruments and a bit of Korg Monotron, it became one of my favorites. I posted the full version of “Chinatown” on my web site one year ago today.
Shortly thereafter, I dug up four other songs from the same general time period. One I left acoustic, but the others received the same virtual instrument treatment as “Chinatown.” I posted them as an EP titled The Women! last December, and for all its faults, I’m very proud of it as a collection.
I’m still not an expert in computer-based music, and I’m nowhere near rich from music sales; these days I give it away for free. But I enjoy it, and I’m learning.