This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.
Just as you'll only be as healthy as what you eat and your exercise regimen, your creative output is dependent on the inspiration you take in and how regularly you perspire (just as you perspire during your workout). Since inspiration is akin to nutrition in this analogy, your music will be the product of what you listen to the most. If it's what everyone else is listening to, you're more likely to make music that doesn't find new resonances. If you're taking in new inspiration from uncommon places in music, it'll bring on inspired work.
Right about now you’re probably thinking “but what if I only like rock or pop that's on the radio?" Well, that may be resonant to you, but to make music that has new heights of resonance you'll need to dig deeper. To find new ways to express the emotions in you, you need to find new ways to explain how you feel. The palette of only understanding what's currently popular won’t allow you to discover the most resonant expression of your emotions. Most musicians who only enjoy what's on the radio are that way because they’ve yet to do the research to find more tools that could be emotionally resonant to them. Instead, they settle on what's easiest to consume by flicking on their car stereo rather than taking the time to get to know the many other influences their favorite artists have consumed.
I'm not saying to make good Afro-beat music you should superfluously listen to classical music and EDM on a regular basis. This research doesn't need to be diverse in genres, but if you're going to stick to one or two genres, make sure you know those genres exhaustively. This can take effort for some and isn't always easy. Simply turning to the classics or what's popular won't be enough. You need to search until you find influences that are resonant to you and explore them to become fluent with all the tools at your disposal to express yourself with.
There's a balance to strike between being authentic and doing this superfluously. Forcing repeated listens to Mahavishnu Orchestra to get better musical ideas can be good for some musicians, but forcing that influence into your music when it has no resonance with you leads to making inauthentic drivel. Being weird for weird's sake or "inspired" for inspired’s sake won’t lead to resonant music. We won’t love everything we ingest, but we need to continually find what we can take from what we find resonant. It’s healthy to try new inspirations in an exploration to find who we are, but forcing yourself to get inspired by music you think will give your music a great depth doesn't make it emotionally resonant.
Making Sure Your Inspiration Is Properly Nourished
There's a famous saying that gets tossed around stating that you're the product of the five friends you hang out with the most. In finance, there's a similar adage that you're as rich as the five people you talk to the most. This also goes for musical influence. What you listen to the most largely shapes the songs you write. With years of music listening, this can be diminished down to what you listened to over the course of your life, but for beginners, this is especially crucial since you don't have years of accumulating influence, standards and palette to draw from.
After establishing that inspiration is research, we need to recognize that you should be conscious of the inspiration you're taking in as if it were a diet. When I'm trying to get inspired for a record, I try to consider my inspiration diet to nurture myself so I'm sufficiently ready to perspire. This is what I consider so I'm on the best possible diet for a project:
Favorites vs. Fresh - It's easy to get lost in your favorite records since getting to know them is some of the most important listening you can do to figure out what you love about them. Plus, it feels great to listen to them. But you also need to be taking in new records to gain fresh ideas. Even if these records weren't recorded in recent years, you need to continue to get inspired by new source material. The inverse can be true by focusing on new records versus exploring your favorites to figure out what makes them tick. If I give a concentrated listen to many of my favorite records, even after listening to them for decades, I can still find new details from them to get inspired by – but there's nothing like fresh, new ideas to get you inspired.
The Greats vs. The Local Trash - For every one of your favorite local groups doing amazing music that the world may never hear, there are ten other bands in the scene who aren't that special but get listened to far too much. I've seen many musicians get lost in listening to their friend's music that's just poorly done versions of great bands. This particular affliction goes especially for bands who only listen to the other bands they tour with. It drives their standards down, which makes them think subpar ideas are great, instead of getting used to the high standards, they need to achieve what the best musicians have.
Bells and Whistles vs. Solid Songs - On some records, an artist can be filled with inspiration for song structures and hooks but lacking in how to do the moody soundscapes they hope to explore. I'll often go on an inspiration diet depending on what a band needs from me. If a band needs help coming up with soundscapes, I may end up listening to Mars Volta, Clinic, The Talking Heads and Chrome to get ideas of what we could do. If they need help with song structures, I’ll listen to artists with inventive structures. If the band has a mind for those bells and whistles, I may try to get into the mind of their favorite songwriters to make sure we stay focused on solid songs. Consider where you feel deficient inspiration-wise and consciously take in inspiration that'll help nurture what you need on a project.
Intentionally Take In Inspiration
“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, short stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines and music, you’ll automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I’ve never had a dry period in my life because I feed myself well.” ― Ray Bradbury
If you’re feeling drastically uninspired, it’s time to go down the inspiration family tree of reading interviews with your favorite creators to see what inspired them. Perhaps click on the Related Artists section of your favorite group’s Spotify or see who MetaCritic says they’re similar to. Observe this family tree to see who your favorite acts are influenced by, check out who they’re compared to on review sites or research the acts they wear shirts from. Make a playlist and give each song a few listens to try to find their merits.
Fasting To Get Inspired
“Removing all stimulation around you is a really positive thing in terms of stimulating your creativity.” ― Grimes
Just as we talked about inspiration being a diet that requires nutrition, you can also do a cleanse or a fast to get creative results. While you need inspirational nutrition to get inspired, there can also be a time in the process where you need to abstain from inspiration so you're not influenced by others. Many songwriters become thoroughly inspired and then isolate themselves in an intense famine when they start writing. By keeping a distance from their influences, nothing comes out that's too derivative. This regularly occurs after an inspiration period during the early shaping of their songs and ends when they need to get inspired on how to complete a few final details.
This famine can even go for expressing yourself as well. Robert Smith told me during the making of The Cure’s classic record Disintegration that he wouldn't speak to anyone all day. He could ask someone to pass the salt, but he wouldn't fulfill his need to get feedback from other humans on his emotions. Without his ability to communicate, when he wrote his lyrics, he'd have an extreme thirst to communicate how he felt. This technique was also applied when he did his vocals for the record. It would leave him dying to express himself by the time he hit the mic each day to sing. It goes without saying that the desperation to connect resonates through the recording of an album known for being one of the saddest records ever made.
For all three books I've written, I've written down as many thoughts I can think of on the subject as I can get out before I start my research to not have the established books in the genre cloud my judgment and own unique voice. I then begin to read other books on the subject to get new inspiration and figure out how to reconsider what I’ve come up with after the main form is shaped.
I also employ this famine when I mix records for artists where I wasn't involved in the recording process. I'll mix the song the way I hear it and then listen to the rough mix the band had as well as the reference mixes they give me of other artists after I try out my natural instinct. If the rough mix or references make me think my mix can get better, I bring in all those elements. I trust my gut along the way to decide what influences I should take in but don't allow my objectivity to get influenced by others, so I can form what’s emotionally resonant to myself first. This allows me to give a fresh perspective to the project but then blend it with whatever other influences they may have had to get the best of both worlds.