The new Jenny Lewis album has me absolutely apoplectic. It’s SO GOOD, embarrassingly simple, and she seems to be able fire this kind of stuff off with regularity. Plus, she seems to be getting better at it, as I have not cringed once due to the lyrics on this most recent album. People like this (see also: Ryan Adams, Robert Pollard, Deerhoof, etc) who are consistently able to operate with such prolificacy and quality (okay, maybe not always Robert Pollard) sometimes get me to feeling like I just don’t have the tools. When one is trying to be constantly productive there are always fallow periods, and although those times have always faded away before I even realize it, it’s still difficult to shake the idea that I might not ever come up with something good any time in the near future. I realize that this is not a unique experience, but when your sense of accomplishment is derived from your ability to produce quality material when you want to, it can be damaging to the ol’ sense of inspiration.
I’m starting to understand how my friends in grad school would be so preoccupied with work that it would prevent them from fully engaging even on a cursory social level. How do you keep from falling into the same patterns of working and creating without repeating yourself? A familiar answer to the question is experimentation via a new instrument or some new piece of software that might give you the compositional insight you would not have normally had, but then there is always the idea that you SHOULD be able to distill all that down to just yourself and an instrument. Does a song need to be able to stand on its simplest elements (for some reason this is always something I strive for yet rarely achieve) or is it okay to rely on more than that? Do harmonies always improve a vocal melody? Is that extra chord or beat really necessary? My hands always default to the same positions on any instrument, my brain defaults to the same chord progressions and the same melodic tendencies.
It has been said that the best way to generate ideas for composition is to learn the inner workings of the music of others, either by learning how to play them, as I always used to do when studying piano in college, or studying song structure and chord relationships, etc etc. Or do I just not sweat it and wait for “inspiration” to strike? Listening to other music nearly always inspires, except exactly what it inspires me to do (other than thinly-veiled imitation) gets kind of unclear sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just my internal filter that’s working too hard. If the best part of creating something is when you’re not judging and just going with that elusive flow, how do you ensure that you’re producing quality material? Should you wait to edit later, and what happens when you get stuck in that process? What do YOU do when this happens?