Fear 3 (Performer Anxiety)

Performer’s anxiety is the fear an artist feels when showing off their work.
Performer anxiety is the fear of talking to that artist after their show.

These fears all come together in a perfect storm of awkward social interaction immediately following a band’s set.

I always dread joining the queue of fans hovering at the stage, leaving me to mentally calculate where to place myself in the performer’s friendship hierarchy:

Well, I’m not going to congratulate him before his girlfriend does, but I’m sure I can get in there somewhere between his roommate and cousin’s work friend.

Sometimes it’s perfect – The performer and audience member thank each other for their complementary roles in the evening’s event and both leave feeling enriched by the interaction.

Sometimes it’s a disaster – I have vivid memories of a band laughing in my face like lunatics when I tried to talk to them after the show. I found out later they were all on mushrooms, but for some reason that information couldn’t wash out the memory.

If you’re an artist, know the performance doesn’t end after the last song. You should be present and engaging for at least the first 20 minutes after your set. In fact, that time is part of the performance and it’s one of life’s great opportunities to be charismatic!

It doesn’t matter if you thought you played like garbage – save those thoughts for later that night when you’re alone. There’s no sense in dwelling on the details of your show in a social scenario.

Self reflection requires isolation. You can’t reach any constructive resolutions when you’re surrounded by distractions, so every moment you spend replaying the errors of your show is a moment wasted. After the show is the time to present your best self and make people happy they came to see you.

If you’re unhappy, just pretend, (it’s pretty much the same thing anyway).

The modern lyrical landscape of North America is full of free verse poems about social anxiety. Thankfully, every once and a while, one of them is exceptional. Above is The Eels “Things The Grandchildren Should Know,” unpretentious and accessible.

Fear 2 (Looking Glass Self)

I had a dream last week featuring a machine that could show you how the world at large viewed your work. In reality, you can run your lyrics through different ideological lenses in search of perceived meaning, but you’re always just pretending to be the audience. Empathy has it’s limits and you can never truly know how someone will view your work. You also will have a tendency to downplay any objections that paint you in an unfavorable light. The dream’s machine addresses those issues to give you a clear picture of how you’re being judged.

According to this machine I am:

Pretentious
Insensitive
and…
Nonsensical.

I found that to be a fairly accurate description of my work. Or, at least an accurate picture of the fears present in my creative process, (the greatest fear, of course, is the fear of being boring – nothing is worse than that).

Doubt can be overwhelming for an artist and it’s easy to find justifications to leave your work as is to avoid the feeling. Still, you should play these internal objections out to the end, because it will result in better work. Fear is very valuable in the creative process and will assist your search for the exact right word to describe your feelings. Unfortunately, (and often ironically,) what you consider the perfect words are often the exact wrong words (le mots mauvais,) for someone else. 

This is beyond your control and you can only bend to the will of the looking glass self so much before your work becomes derivative. You know your own experience better than you could know anyone else’s, so insight into the self is typically more novel. Even if others find your work pretentious, insensitive and nonsensical, rest easy knowing it was exactly what you wanted it to be.

Above is the rainy day lullaby You by “Good Morning.” Let the soft, lo-fi tones and lazy guitar lull you to sleep, confident in the belief that you are fine and no one is secretly judging you. (If anything they’re just ignoring you).

 

 

Fear 1 (Sociophobia)

“it seemed as if the Internet was governed more by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”
― Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Art has some protection from societal criticism under freedom of expression, but, it’s not absolute. You’re always granted control over your artistic message, but people don’t have to like it. Many talented artists are vilified throughout their career – maybe you will be as well, that’s the risk you take when you put anything out into the world. Only time will tell which objections are valid and which are trivial.

It can be scary to deviate from the currently accepted social conversation. When an improper tweet can ruin your career, it’s terrifying to try to say anything that hasn’t been tested by previous artists. But, hopefully that fear doesn’t steal the edge from your work or push you into silence.

There will always be an ebb and flow for art criticism in society – sometimes puritans will have more power, and sometimes libertines will. If you plan to be an artist for your entire life you should decide how you feel about freedom of expression and be prepared to defend your stance. Or at the very least have a stance in your own mind and continually produce work that conforms to your true feelings.

Let go of the fear of societal condemnation, say what you want to say and take whatever praise or damnation critics have to throw at you. That fear is ruining your work and honestly, the world can only handle so many gossamer-thin creatives, all riding the same wave of whichever ideology is in vogue.

If you’re an unknown artist the stakes will be quite low anyways. Fearlessness will improve your work much faster than if you drench every artistic decision with anxiety.

Still, even as an artist you don’t need to be a staunch defender of artistic freedom. The idea is quite loose. An open market for creativity is beautiful, but you don’t have to defend artists that you find reprehensible just because you value freedom of expression.

If someone is making bad art you can tell them it’s bad. You don’t have to passively support bad art just because you believe in free speech. Reasonable dissension does not make you tyrannical and it doesn’t betray your belief in artistic freedom. The freedom to critique is just as valid as the freedom to create.

Be sure to criticize in good faith, and make sure that your criticism is thoughtfully written. If your critique is lazy or insincere then it’s going to come off as noise. It’s more beneficial to respond to bad art with good art, and fresh, honest prose is much more valuable than a regurgitated wall of text. The former will greatly improve your own work and will be a pleasurable experience for those who read it. Sadly, no one is going to read the latter, because no one really cares what you have to say unless you say it in an interesting way; (one of the unfortunate side effects of information overload).

Above is a rare demo of the stadium anthem My Generation by “The Who” – originally banned by BBC on the grounds that Townsend’s signature affectation may be offensive to people who stutter. Thankfully, the ban was not permanent.

Chorus Pedals

The 80’s were a difficult time for music. Digital recording was taking over causing guitar tones to sound thin and underwhelming. One strategy to battle wispy guitar tones was the heavy use of chorus – If your guitar signal left you feeling underwhelmed you could always add chorus to mimic multiple guitars in hopes of fattening up your tone.

The only problem was that chorus pedals sounded awful, (and they still do).

The correct way to use a chorus pedal is to place it at the end of your pedal board, after your overdrive pedals, adding a short delay to your entire signal chain creating the impression of multiple instruments.

However, if you place your chorus pedal at the beginning of your pedal board, before overdrive, the multiple guitar effect will meet the distortion and create one cohesive tone. The space created by the chorus’ short delay is filled in by the fat tone of the overdrive to the point where the delay is less pronounced. The downside is your signal can become muddy very quickly so this only works with a gentle chorus into a subtle overdrive.

I certainly prefer it, but then again I was barely alive in the 80’s – Maybe chorus was cool back then?

Listen above to hear Jamie Cook of Arctic Monkeys run his EHX Memory Man “Chorus/Delay” into an MXR “Classic Overdrive” for a modern chorus sound. (Chorus kicks in at 1:00)

Note: Don’t put your chorus before a fuzz pedal, it’s too much.

How Was I Supposed To Know How To Use A Tube Amp?

Most musicians know that tube technology is superior to solid state/transistor, but very few, (myself included,) know exactly why.

You can check these reddit ELI5’s for some basic info on how it works:

But honestly, it doesn’t really matter.  You don’t need to know how it works – All you need to know is how the different amplification styles will affect your playing.

If you have a distinctive way of playing the guitar, (or would like to develop one,) tube technology is preferable. Analog amplification can pick up dynamic picking patterns, which means the speed an strength of each strum will be more pronounced.

The downside is if you’re not actively choosing the strength of each strum, but just trying to get through the song, it will be evident in your sound output and your music will sound choppy and amateurish.

Tube amps can be frightening, I know – the audience will be hearing what you are actually playing, amplified with 50 watts of power behind it.

Maybe you’re terrible, who cares? I’d still prefer to hear what you really sound like.

Tube amplification offers much more customization in tone as well. Different tube combinations can offer endless subtle variation. As well, your master volume vs. channel volume becomes infinitely more complex than simply how loud you want the guitar to be.

The master vs. channel question exists in solid state amps as well, but, let’s be honest, it’s just not same – the stakes are not as high! With a tube amp one millimetre of volume adjustment can be life or death for your tone!

Solid state is safe, which always means boring.

Tube amps also handle distortion much better than solid state – especially when you distort your signal before the amplification stage, (run your pedals directly into the amp input, rather than the effects loop).

Tubes create distorted sound, Transistors create distorted noise. A Fuzz pedal will sound decidedly more musical through the right amp. This is because solid state amps go into distortion at a sharp knee, where as tube amps become distorted in a gradual curve. It sounds more natural and is more pleasing to the ear.

That being said, there’s no wrong way to play the guitar. Use whatever amp you want.

Creating music requires constant decision making. How do you want to sound and why? You should try to have an answer for every question and when you feel you’ve answered them all, it’s time to ask more.

Music is tension. Build and release. You are responsible for how your playing makes the audience feel and you should take the responsibility seriously.

Or don’t, (as long as that’s a decision you’ve made as an artist).

Above is a sweeping opus by Car Seat Headrest where singer, Will Toledo muses on, among darker themes, the difficulty in learning to use a tube amp.

Lo-Fi?

Like all great music genres Lo-Fi started with musicians making due with incorrect equipment. But, what does Lo-Fi actually mean? Shitty on purpose?? Yes, no, well maybe.

It’s easiest to define lo-fi by what it is not than by what it is.

In short: Hi-Fi recordings strive to capture music as it actually sounds.
Lo-Fi, whether intentional or not, sound different.

Here are a few relevant constructs defined for the purpose of this article:

High Fidelity Music: Recorded instruments and vocals sound more or less like they sound in reality. The soundscape has a large total frequency range, sound engineers use the proper microphones for each instrument, (mics that capture the correct frequencies,)  and equalization is used to cut unwanted frequencies.

Low Fidelity Music: Recorded instruments do not sound how they sound in reality. The total frequency range of the soundscape is typically lower, (often called a closet mix,) and sound engineers use non-traditional microphones for each instrument. Equalization is used to create new and unexpected sounds.

Frequency Range (simplified): We use the word sound to describe the speed at which different materials vibrate. The human ear can hear between 20Hertz and 20,000Hertz. The lower the Hertz the lower the perceived tone, and vice versa.

Lo-Fi has two large advantages over conventional recording methods:
(We’ll ignore financial constraints, because that’s a terrible reason to do anything)

  1. Sound is beautiful
  2. Genuine emotion is also beautiful

As it turns out all of the hiss, buzz and hum that producers spend hours trying to minimize are actually fucking gorgeous. White noise is to music is what melted cheese is to nachos.

As well, the chances that an artist actually experiences anything that resembles a genuine emotion in a studio setting are very low. So, home recordings, voice memos, strange recording spaces and ad-hoc microphones are a must.

Even with these advantages, there’s nothing overtly special about Lo-Fi music. There’s a lot of terrible Lo-Fi out there, just as there’s a lot of terrible Hi-Fi. It’s just another artistic choice among thousands of artistic choices – a raindrop in an ocean.

The point is that music can only be good or bad, not right or wrong.

Above is a rare track by the band that made the ‘closet mix’ a thing.

The Creative Process Continuum

The creative process continuum (CPC) is the journey from a song’s inception to it’s final display as a recorded piece of music.

It begins as a spark, (just a feeling,)
then becomes a memo (an attempt to express that feeling,)
then lingers as a live performance, (constantly changing with each show,)
before finally settling as a full studio recording, (a finished product).

However, there is no requirement to push your songs all the way across the track and turn them into a full studio recordings. The decision of where to record your song along the CPC comes down to which emotion you’d like to highlight. Below are four tracks that stop at interesting intervals on the journey.

1. Spark

I stumbled across gnomekid while searching the Calgary portion of bandcamp. These tracks won’t make it onto anyone’s top 100 playlist anytime soon, but they do a nice job capturing the the search for creativity in an overloaded  mind. They exemplify a unique songwriting practice – staring at the wall, passively making noise with an instrument until a musical hook appears. It’s a style, (I use the term style loosely in this case,) I find myself playing often, but I had never considered to record anything so close to the initial creative spark.

2. Memo

Slightly further a down the CPC is the memo. Unfinished lyrics and one-take vocals, often whispered into a low-quality phone microphone after 1 am. This is a song embryo, it hasn’t become anything just yet, but it gets one excited about all the possible routes the track could take. I chose to highlight this portion of the creative process, because it requires the most audience interaction / imagination. The songs are pleasant enough to listen through passively, but it’s when you start to imagine what they could become that they become more interesting and begin to merit repeated listens.

3. Performance

“Car Seat Headrest” was a sad-indie band for many years choosing to record very early along the CPC. However, after a move to Seattle and a measure of punk rock energy, their recording moved from memo to live performance with Teens of Denial. These songs play like they are jammed out in a garage and put on display shortly after. With lo-fi guitar tones, muffled lyrics and limited studio magic, CSH is a band that makes you excited to write and play music. Just power through the 70 minute album then call up some friends and start a band.

4. Studio

The full band, studio recording marks the end of the CPC. These songs are full to the brim with multiple overlays and rich saturation. The audience can’t use their imagination to make the songs any bigger so all the musical decisions rest in the hands of the artist. I hesitate to call it the benchmark of a true recording artist, but these albums tend to come out at the height of a band’s popularity and are judged accordingly. Studio tracks are generally enjoyed as a cohesive piece, however listeners can still pick apart the song layer by layer and search for the illusive moment that it becomes greater than the sum of it’s parts. Above is “The Districts” A Flourish and A Spoil – an album, unique in it’s ability to  maintain the band’s energetic, live performance energy along the journey towards a bright studio sound.