Archives for category: Writing

I haven’t written anything in this blog for months. I haven’t made very much music, either (some, but not much). And something I just read makes me aware of how much I’ve been missing both.

My friend Allan just sent me this piece of writing about doing what you love. If you have ten minutes, I strongly recommend reading it. Especially if you’re young.

It’s a good (if difficult) reminder that we can all try and work on things that we genuinely want to. And work doesn’t need to be – and in fact shouldn’t be – the opposite of fun. These are old ideas, but Paul Graham, the author of the piece, makes them feel new and immediate.

I want to produce good things, and do work that I love and that fulfills me. But it’s hard to know how sometimes. And it’s hard to stay on track when so many things demand your attention and your energy.

I think in order to remain aware of the path we’re on, and whether it’s the right one, we need to ask ourselves some questions on a regular basis, and answer them honestly, so we know where we stand.

Here are a few questions I’m going to try to ask myself at least once a day:

Did you make something today that you’re proud of?

Did you connect with someone you care about?

Did you remember a moment from your life that mattered to you?

Did you get lost in a work of art?

Are you okay? 

Sometimes we need help remembering what we’re here for, and what we love. Here is one thing that I love. It’s a picture of a place that has enormous significance to me – a balcony in Vienna which featured in the movie ‘Before Sunrise’.

Image

I want to remember everything about that place: the first time I saw it, on a screen in my parent’s basement on a sunny afternoon when I was eighteen years old; the moment I visited it last year with my beautiful wife; the ways its meaning has changed for me in the many years since I first encountered it.

And I want to keep things like this place, and this moment, and this photograph, closer to the surface of my life. It’s too easy to forget ourselves and fall into a drowsy pattern of work and food and sleep. I want to live with intention. And I want to be awake.

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Wow – I read over the post I put up last night, and then, just out of interest, looked at the one before it. And what do you know? They’re exactly the same.

A little disturbing, that. The previous post – which was written long before – uses the phrase “I’ve been away.” It talks about the fact that I think about this project every day. It announces that I’m going to try to work on it more often. All of those things are in the newer post. They’re the same.

Now lots happened between one and the next – I went to Europe for two weeks, for one thing. I’ve had more time at my job. I’ve been alive and experiencing things. And yet when I finally came back to comment on it all, I was at the same place.

I guess as far as FiveFourEleven’s concerned I’ve been in a mental holding pattern, circling an airport and waiting for a landing spot to open up. Obviously in that metaphor I crashed weeks ago after running out of fuel, but that’s how things go.

Well, I hope this is the beginning of the end of that holding pattern. I want to make this site a living thing again. I want to try my damnedest to get at least one more album together before the year is out. And I don’t plan on failing to produce all five records at some point before my plane goes down for good.

And for those of you who read last night’s post and listened to the song: thank you so much for still being out there. It’s good to know the lights are still on. You’re awesome.

Not just a shoe slogan, that. I was talking with some of my new coworkers last night about the state of creativity and success, and we agreed that the way to get your voice heard these days is simply to start speaking. Into the Internet.

It’s amazing how much we can now accomplish as individuals or with friends. People make feature films on no budget with digital technology. You can shoot a pretty passable movie with your phone at this point. Music creation and distribution can be accomplished, if you so choose, with a single computer and some hard work.

That was the impetus for this project. From the outset, I wanted to push myself to do the things I always dreamt about doing: make an album (or five). Put it out into the world. See if anyone likes what I like, or is at least willing to tolerate it.

We also discussed Donald Glover, who is a huge inspiration. He’s an actor, writer, rapper, Gap model, and self-made success. And how did he do it, and how does he continue to do it? By creating things he likes and sharing them with the world.

So that’s the lesson I’ve learned, and will need to keep learning: if you want to make something, nowadays more than ever, you have no excuses. You either make it or you don’t; you either offer it up or it doesn’t exist. Ideas are great, but execution is what counts. And the wonderful thing about going ahead and doing what you’ve been imagining and considering for years is that it feels great.

Even though the execution rarely lives up to what you had in your head, it’s amazing to know that you didn’t let fear of failure or embarrassment stop you from trying. And although I’ve lengthened the odds against myself considerably, I’m not going to stop trying.

I was hoping to continue my roll and work on more music tonight, but it didn’t happen. Still, it feels great to be back on the path to making music. I still have a monstrous distance to travel before the Expensive record is done, but it no longer feels like something impossible – just difficult, and everything’s kind of difficult, so that’s not too bad.

The thing is, I have a list of names that I want to turn into songs, but I also have a whole bunch of beats that I kind of want to use, and the two things don’t fit together very well. There’s one track I must have made two years ago now, and I’ve been wanting to turn it into something since then. But on what subject?

One thing I’ve definitely discovered with rap is: you can’t do it if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Granted, a lot of rappers are talking about themselves, and how much money they have, and how large their genitals are, and the horribly, horribly degrading things they’re doing to your girlfriend. But that’s still a pretty clear (and very vivid) subject.

Part of the reason I wanted to make a hip hop record is because I’m inspired by the brilliant writing I’ve heard on some rap albums. The best rappers do what all great writers do – they take what’s in their head and put it into yours. It’s often very visual, as well. You see what they’re describing, and you feel it.

But because it’s poetry, not prose, it’s usually more than just a story playing out in your head. The words and the way they fit together does something, and the lyrics transcend their meaning.

Again, this is only possible if you know what you’re on about. The track I put up yesterday was definitively about September 11th, and the suicidal dickhead who flew one of the planes that day. So very clear. And awful. Today I wanted to make something a little less…awful. Something upbeat and positive. Because I swear, once in a while, for a moment, I actually have fun.

For now, I’m going to give up on music for the night and work my way toward bed. I hope you’re all doing well, and enjoying whatever music creates a new world in your head.

Hello again – I’ve gone and done it. I’ve actually finished something. I’ve turned the track I shared with you yesterday (a flipped sample of myself – meta-hop) into a completed song. With a named name attached. Although I do not in fact name the name on the track, since I don’t believe he deserves too much recognition.

I am referring to Mohamed Atta, the man who hijacked the plane which hit the North Tower on September 11th, leading to the immediate deaths of thousands of Americans, and the eventual deaths of more than 250,000 people on the other side of the world.

The 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks is fast approaching. It’s still a difficult subject to talk about and understand. I wrote this song not from a place of understanding, but bewilderment.

What happened? How did it happen? Who could have done it? And how is it that, a decade on, wars are still being perpetrated against people who for the most part, I suspect, had nothing to do with the planning or execution of that horrible massacre?

It’s a sombre topic, but one that I think about an unhealthy amount. And here is what I wrote about it:

Expensive – Mohamed Atta

I’m trying to get back at it. I really am. I’ve spent most of today working on music. And I’ve actually really enjoyed it. But I’ve failed to produce anything finished. Still, it feels great to be back in the lab. And to have a day’s worth of breathing space to do it.

One idea I had ages ago but wasn’t foolhardy enough to try was writing and recording a classic R’n’B-style song and then chopping it up and flipping it into a hip hop track. I say foolhardy for a number of reasons. One is that I’m not a very soulful dude. I’m polite, and prompt, but when you listen to a good old-fashioned R’n’B tune, neither of those adjectives tends to leap to mind.

Anyway, for some reason, even though I’m crazy, crazy behind schedule, I thought I would maybe try that experiment today. So here are the two songs. The first was inspired by Charles Bradley, who is an unbelievable singer. The second is a surprisingly ominous little number created out of the pieces of the first. I have no idea who I’m going to rap about on it, but I’d love to hurry up and figure it out.

I’m not dead yet. I’m trying to get back on the horse, and although I keep falling out of the saddle, it’s progress that I’m even attempting to get back on at all.

Expensive – Charles Bradley

Expensive – CB (Working Demo)

It’s 11:51. I’ve just finished working (I had a joyful break today for a dentist appointment, so I had to make up for lost time), and I feel not that I’ve gotten ahead of anything, but that I’m almost where I should be. Which is better than nothing.

The thing about me is I’m a sucker for punishment (hey, remember that time I agreed to make five albums in one year? For no reason? Yeah, me neither). I like working hard, I like taking on too much, I like finding a way to surmount the insurmountable.

At the same time, I hate it. This makes for an annoying combination: on the one hand, I’m all, “yeah, of course I can do all that,” and then on the other I’m saying, “oh god, I can’t handle THAT!?!” So which is it?

Neither. Both. I like feeling this way. I hate feeling this way. I look forward, for certain, to a time when things are marginally less insane than this. The trouble is, I’m pretty sure that time will be in early June, 2012. Until then, you’re welcome to watch my continuing breakdown.

No music this weekend. None. Plenty of fun, lots of work, but just no room to sit down and write or record. And I’m not sure when I’ll have time again, although I’ll need to find it.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing two jobs, which will be the case for the next couple. Then I transition into a new job (the second one I’m already doing) full time, and it gets crazy busy.

All of this is incredibly exciting, and I’m feeling very lucky indeed to get this opportunity. Change, however, has a habit of making me temporarily insane. I don’t always roll with the punches so much as point my body at them and try and absorb them all. Which I can do, for a while, because anyone can. But then you end up feeling very bruised and very stupid.

Which is why I’m blathering on about nothing. Here’s what I did manage to do this weekend: I’ve written out a tentative final tracklist for the Expensive record. It’s fourteen tracks (!) which is ambitious or stupid or both. But I feel like I have, at the very least, a good idea about what each one of them will be, as well as music for a lot of them. Now I need time to write lyrics and record them.

And I will make that time. Hopefully soon, somehow. Meantime, thanks for putting up with this meandering time in my life, and I’ll try to be more interesting again soon.

This morning I woke up and walked to the Portuguese corner store (which my wife and I have nicknamed “Heaven,” on account of the jazz music that’s always on the speakers, the smell of fresh-brewed espresso, the hand-sliced deli meats, and the sense that it’s pretty much always Sunday morning in there). As I slouched through the new-bursting sun, smelling the smells of a city waking up on the weekend, I reflected that I hadn’t really looked at the world for several weeks.

Instead, I’ve been entirely focused on my work. It’s been a busy and exciting time. But it’s also led me into a pit of despair and self-doubt, something that bears examination. When things go right for me (more often than I deserve), I’m happy in a way, but also feel the need to undercut that happiness with self-flagellating neuroses. And yes, I make mistakes that lead to minor problems – a lot of people do.

So I haven’t had time to make music, which makes me feel guilty. And I haven’t been doing as smooth a job as I usually do at work because I’m doing two jobs at the moment, which makes me feel clumsy. And I haven’t been paying attention to the rest of my life, which makes me feel foolish.

But those feelings aren’t such a big deal when you stand back from them. In fact, they’re just a momentary distraction from the important things in life: my beautiful wife, my wonderful family and friends, my luck in being alive at all, and alive in this incredible country at this odd but inspiring moment in history.

Work and art and endeavour should always be undertaken in support of life. My life is the important thing; what I do is a big part of it, but it will never be a good part unless I remember what really matters.

Sorry for the soul-searching self-help-y post. I just needed to get some things off my chest. And I know I haven’t been posting as regularly of late – I intend to get back to it. For now, I’m just trying to refocus myself on what’s important. Life.

The last few days I’ve realized (or remembered) how often I tend to absorb whatever I’m listening to at any given time. So for instance, if two of the biggest names in hip-hop release a highly anticipated record, and I listen to it for days on end, I start to think I should make music like that.

I don’t see this as a general problem – I sincerely believe that imitation and even assimilation are a big part of art, and certainly of the art I love most. But listening back to the song I recorded yesterday, I recognize that it doesn’t work, and I think I recognize why: I am neither a former crack dealer from New York nor a fashion-obsessed iconoclast from Chicago.

Which means that, although I’ve absorbed a desire to make music like Jay-Z and Kanye make it, I haven’t absorbed the ability to do so honestly. And that’s a matter of voice, both in terms of the literal timbre of mine and in the more esoteric sense of a “personal voice.” I haven’t shared a single experience that is like their experience, short of being born, and knowing that eventually I’ll die.

The real power of hip-hop, I think, comes from the rendering of personal experience into something larger than life. Most rappers simply take their own personality and history and blow it up. They explore, they telegraph the parts they want people to focus on, they play around with it, and they make it into something you can dance to, or think to, or drink to, or smoke to.

But it always stems from some kernel of honest experience, or emotion (although that’s not the word that often springs to mind when listening to rap). So, while I don’t regret being a sponge that absorbs other people’s styles, I’ve got to get back to my own voice, my own experience, and figure out what I’m actually thinking, not just what I’m listening to. Until then, I’ll be listening to Watch the Throne. On repeat.