Weathering a Creative Drought

By Clive Young. Anyone who enters a creative profession, whether he’s a filmmaker, painter, architect, audio engineer or whathaveyou, typically enters it having been inspired by someone else’s work. Something comes along that blows your mind and leaves you thinking, “Wow, that’s great; how did they do that?” It’s a giddy question that drives all creative people at some point or another--but does learning the answer become the first step to creative drought?
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By Clive Young.

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Anyone who enters a creative profession, whether he’s a filmmaker, painter, architect, audio engineer or whathaveyou, typically enters it having been inspired by someone else’s work. Something comes along that blows your mind and leaves you thinking, “Wow, that’s great; how did they do that?” It’s a giddy question that drives all creative people at some point or another--but does learning the answer become the first step to creative drought?

That’s one of the themes in Song Man, a comic, autobiographical book by Will Hodgkinson. A UK music journalist by trade, Hodgkinson decides that he wants to learn how to be a songwriter, despite having played guitar—poorly--for less than a year. While some folks might turn to a book or an instructional DVD, Hodgkinson decides to learn from the best, so as he interviews Keith Richards, Ray Davies, Arthur Lee and others for his day job, he begins to pester them with questions about the construction work of songwriting.

All of this eventually lands him on the doorstep of Andy Partridge, the songwriter behind the quirky-yet-crafted tunes of pop traditionalists XTC. In the book, Partridge proves to be quite the instructor, whimsically explaining song structure to the writer, but when talk turns to Partridge’s own songwriting, things darken as Hodgkinson discovers his tutor has writer’s block in part thanks to too much technical know-how about the engineering side of things:

Part of his current problem was that his now near-total knowledge of how pop was made was killing his love for it. He talked about the first time he heard The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and how he could not imagine how such a sound was created. Now he knew exactly where the backwards tape sounds or the mellotron or the slowed-down drum patterns came in and the mystery had gone entirely. This knowledge was having a bad effect on his own output, because his professionalism was rejecting every bit of creative splurge that he emitted. He even had less respect for his masters now. He had discovered that they were just mangling their influences too.

“The ‘editor of your mind’ is the bastard,” he said, with a trace of bitterness as he slumped into his chair. “You spew out all this creative stuff and then the editor in your head comes along and says, ‘I don’t like that bit, I don’t like that bit, yes, I like that bit, so I want three more of those.’ You have the creative and then the editor, but now with me, the editor is creeping up and becoming the first in the chain and he’s stopping all the creativity from coming out at all. I have to get him back in the queue, in his place.”

It’s a common problem in any creative field; too much creative material without structure becomes useless effluence, but excessive editing will leave you with crumbs that have all the proper ingredients yet ultimately don’t satisfy.

Throughout Song Man, Hodgkinson mainly talks with songwriters of the Classic Rock era, whose roles in the creation of their hits were pretty clearly defined—something along the lines of “I’m the musician, you’re the engineer, the guy in the suit is the producer.” By the time he was interviewed for the book, however, Partridge had his own studio and was clearly thinking in terms that combined musical and technical pursuits.

With today’s DAW-built music, however, the lines between songwriter, engineer and producer are even further blurred, sometimes beyond recognition. The result is a new breed of musical people who have more knowledge in a variety of creative roles than any of their forbearers like Partridge--and who thus face a greater risk of winding up at a creative standstill due to all that varied experience.

So here’s the question: Have you ever been creatively roadblocked in your audio engineering or musical experiences, and if so, what have you done to break through it? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.