I like to work (i.e. paint, write, do my day job) with music playing (except when I am writing songs, when I need to listen to my own music). I find that music helps me organize and clarify my thoughts before I commit them to the page. I’m much more productive, especially as a writer, when music is playing. It inspires and uplifts me.
As a song writer, musician and music producer, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a mode of producing music that sounds like the most popular music of the day. After all, this is what the media exposes us to. It’s almost unavoidable. However, if we wind up being little reproducers of the sound du jour, that’s anathema to originality.
Originality needs an element of surprise, not a perfect reproduction of the latest “happening sound”. No matter how good and original the music was when it first appeared, making more of it is almost always a mistake and a recipe for boring your audience, however sincere and well crafted your homage is. Boring your audience is a sin, but so many artists and record companies make this very mistake. I know I have done that too. We probably all have, at one time or another.
For that reason, I don’t draw much inspiration from dance music. Sure, I like the rhythms, the production tricks and the way that sounds and synths are handled, but if I wind up producing music like this, I’ll be just another bedroom producer, cranking out undifferentiated music that isn’t quite as good, to the ears of any audience, as the music the already established artists make (it’s their territory and they have staked it out).
Surprisingly, I’ve found another source of inspiration. My car has lots of different CDs in it. I have stuff from the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, the nineties and the noughties. Lately, though I’ve been adding even older music. There is some Nat King Cole, some Les Paul and Mary Ford, some Frank Sinatra and also artists that drew from the past to make their music (e.g. Manhattan Transfer). What’s that stuff doing in my listening schedule? I wasn’t even alive when these artists were popular.
Every now and then, I will be listening to an artist and will pause for thought to realise that the artist I am listening to, communing with their emotional output, separated by space and time, is actually dead. I am listening to their mortal sonic remains. The person whose music I am enjoying and being affected by is a ghost; dead and gone. That’s a magical, yet sombre moment. Evidence of their style, musical intelligence, wit, humour, love, passion, artistry, mastery and taste is still pouring out of my speakers. It’s just as fresh as the day it was made. Perpetual, immortal youth.
This is where the originality your own music needs can be sourced, I think. As a song writer and music producer, or even as a vocalist and instrumentalist, going back and listening to these musical ghosts can be very instructive and inspirational. You can weave unique elements of their music into your own work, updated with new production techniques and sound treatments, if you like, but borrowing from the content, the expression, the melodic phrasing, the vibrato or the inflections.
I think injecting a surprise or two like this into your own work has two functions. One is that it takes you out of the current musical fashion’s constraints, providing a novel twist to your music that doesn’t appear in works by other contemporary artists. The other is that this extinct music is written into our musical subconscious. It has been passed down from artist to artist, in the DNA of popular music production. Adding a nostalgic element or two like this into your own work can lead an audience to believe they have heard your song before, even if they haven’t in fact. Because this music is part of our cultural inheritance, it means that any new work that quotes it or takes elements from it immediately sounds familiar and likeable, to an audience that shares the same cultural references.
You don’t have to lift entire melodies, though it has to be said that there are some long forgotten musical motifs out there that are well worth borrowing. You just have to play the fugue game with them and mess around with them, until they morph into something new. However, the intervallic movements can be absolutely golden, no doubt about it.
Instead, you can lift nostalgic elements like slap-back echo on voice or drums, soaking wet reverb, bone dry drums or swooshing, swirling phase shifting. Each of these production treatments is evocative of a distinct period of time when they showed up a lot in popular music. Alternatively, the way you arrange a vocal harmony can be equally evocative of earlier styles. So can particular rhythms, grooves or phrasings. The choice of instruments can also take you right back to an earlier era.
As long as you take inspiration from past artists, maybe long dead, in a respectful and loving way, I don’t see any problem with enlivening your own work with these elements of nostalgia. You also bring the long forgotten melody and hence artist briefly back to life, albeit in memoriam. It can also infuse your own work with fondness and a little gentle humour and wit. We’re so fortunate to have a rich history of recorded music available to us, in archives. Part of your musical education should always include a look back at what worked, way back when.
So next time you are stuck in a musical rut, lacking inspiration or feeling like everything you play or write sounds the same, go back a few decades into the recorded music catalogue and start mining for gems. There are riches to be discovered.