photo by Sarah Valliancourt
The other day I met a musician who asked me if I liked music. It seemed like a funny question, but I knew what he meant. Someone can write and perform music (even compulsively and passionately) and not necessarily be into listening to it all that much. I do like music. But I don’t listen to that much of it. I am easily overwhelmed by noise. I have to listen in small doses. And, usually, I prefer silence when I have the choice.
There is definitely a certain kind of person who listens to music all the time. I know because I live with that kind of person. Left to his own devices, my partner Shawn listens to music without any interruption; in the car, at the gym, during down-time… literally all the time. I can’t handle that much noise. I have to ask him to turn it down all the time. I am sensitive to sounds. To overstimulation. Even though I don’t listen to music very often, music is very important to me.
There are artists and songs that I come back to over and over again. Instead of enjoying a wide variety of artists and songs, I often choose one song and listen to it over and over again (like a psychopath). When I’m in a creative headspace, and working on a project, the repetition helps me stay focused and maintain my flow zone. I’ve recently discovered that this is something a lot of people do when they’re doing something creative. In college I wrote a really long essay about the novel ‘Ethan Frome’ while listening to ‘Dynamite’ by Taio Cruz. I listened to that song probably 300 times. To this day I can’t listen to that song without thinking of Ethan Frome.
I write songs while listening to music sometimes, but once the song I was listening to attached its melody like a barnacle to the lyrics I was writing and I couldn’t separate the two no matter how hard I tried. In the end I had to scrap the song because I just couldn’t separate my lyrics from the other melody. they were fused together hopelessly, fundamentally intertwined.
More often, I use the vibe of a song I already know as inspiration for a brand new song. It’s almost like a synesthetic process. Songs that I hear activate certain ‘lights’ in my brain. The lights exist in space, in a formation that I can recognize. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘I want to recapture this thing that I’m feeling in my body right now’ and I remember it to tap into it later while I’m writing. If I want to pull from some kind of ‘activating’ quality of a song, I trigger that response in my body and meditate on it until I can ‘see’ it. Then I can channel it into something new.
For this kind of channeling process, it’s usually a ‘bright’ element that I’m trying to call upon. Something that makes my brain ‘glow’ when I hear it.
I think my taste is pretty eclectic. I don’t have a certain genre that I like more than others – I know that I like something when I hear it. Two artists that I come back to a lot are Abba (probably my favorite band of all time), and Grimes (I even wrote a song about her), but I mostly like various specific songs. And they range from Swedish techno (Tatu or Basshunter) to Loudon Wainwright to Idina Menzel.
The new artists and songs that have been slipping into my rotation include ‘Motion Sickness’ By Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Stranger’s Kiss’ by Alex Camerona and Angel Olsen, ‘Twentytwo’ by Sunflower Bean, and a lot of Maria Taylor. I also like almost everything written by Billy Steinberg. That man is a powerhouse. Seriously, look him up. You won’t believe all of the amazing, seemingly-unrelated bangers he’s written.
The radio is my favorite. It suits my manic nature. I gravitate toward pop country (‘Tequila’ by Dan + Shay), and straight pop (‘Shallow,’ ‘Delicate’, ‘Sunflower’ etc.). Like everyone else right now, I’m intrigued by Billie Eilish (her face as much as her music).
Music very often inspires me. But silence is of utmost importance. I like silence quite a lot. When my world is silent, I have space to think. To remember. To pause. And, most importantly, to write my own songs.