intro from Max Jersak: What the hell can sentence structure tell us about our own emotions? Probably nothing to a sane person. But I think language loves to hide little truths up in its webs. It can tell us, for example, one reason why happiness feels different from inspiration. When an artist says "I feel happy," the artist just feels happy. Happiness is its own cozy endgame. It doesn't imply anything other than itself. On the other hand, when an artist says "I feel inspired", there's a silent implication: they feel inspired to actually do something. There's always an implied object of inspiration, some action that inspiration pushes us toward. Like magnet dipoles or sides of a coin, feeling inspiration and acting upon it are both necessary parts of the creation machine. AfroDJMac, a man with sunglasses for eyeballs, honors both sides of the inspiration equation. Read on as he shares how we can find more of that sweet, sweet inspiration juice and freeze it into tangible tangerine art-sicles.
On the Origin of Inspiration
We all know how precious inspiration is. It sneaks into our lives from out of nowhere. We can never really know what triggers it. Maybe it’s a song or words from a friend. But sometimes those songs or words do nothing to conjure up the spirit of inspiration. So, it also depends on when a trigger finds you. It’s a sort of alignment of the planets. Things come together just right and bam! Inspiration hits you.
Being inspired is like holding water in your hands. You can keep it there for a few moments, but if you wait too long, it slips through your fingers. That’s why you must act on it immediately. I read an interview with Neil Young in which he says that he drops everything when an idea comes to him. Some of his best-known songs arrived in a passing moment. It’s a sort of respect for the inspiration. You must honor it when it arrives, because it might not ever come back.
In my almost never-ending search for inspiration, I have a few go-to places that tend to yield good results. Taking a walk, listening to new music, being in nature, conversations with close friends, and exercise are all activities with a pretty strong inspiration-yielding track record. One of my favorite things to do is to read. Reading is nice because the words stay there; they don’t change. In order to read, you have to stop everything else. It’s an exercise in focusing and concentration. You must be in the moment. And those are important abilities a person needs to create music. Often when I read, the environment I am reading in becomes a part of the experience too. So I will often try to combine a good book with an inspiring environment.
This summer I read Origin of Inspiration by Samuel Adoquei. Most of my reading was done outside during a few hot afternoons. I picked this book because it came highly recommended from an artist whose work I admire: Julian Casablancas, the lead singer of The Strokes. And perhaps this leads us to the first lesson. Think of people that have inspired you in some way and find out what inspired them. Just as you might look at the musical influences of an artist that influences you, also look to their creative and philosophical influences. Casablancas wrote the foreword to Origin of Inspiration, so I knew that there was certainly something of value in the book.
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon
I really believe in the importance of having a plan. When I go to create music, I am faced with countless choices. There are probably 10,000 kick drum samples, 100 virtual instruments that each have hundreds of presets, unlimited tracks, a collection of hardware synths, guitars, drums, etc. I need to have a plan or else I wind up spending hours choosing between all of my options. Back in my early days, I had a guitar, microphone and tape recorder. I never lost much time deciding on gear, and as a result, I got a lot done. Today, it is easy to spend an entire afternoon looking for the perfect snare drum sample. So, making some decisions beforehand is pretty much essential. But what happens when things don’t go according to plan?
Adoquei writes about finding opportunity in the detours. Rather than harp on a problem when it arises, use it as a chance to try something new. After all, there’s no better way to end creativity than with frustration. So avoid frustration altogether. Change course and see where it takes you. I love this way of thinking because it allows a project to take on a life of its own. It has helped me learn to allow outside influences, situations, and problems to become part of the work instead of becoming hindrances. We can use this to learn to go with the flow and be flexible. Even tall skyscrapers and great oak trees bend and sway with the wind, otherwise they would collapse.
This concept is taken one step further in Origin of Inspiration. Adoquei advocates taking what he calls “intentional detours.” If we never take detours in life, we will never expose ourselves to new stimuli. That’s a perfect recipe for becoming stale, boring, and predictable. Purposely go out of your way to do something different, especially when confronted with a lack of inspiration. When we are in familiar situations, we tend to filter out much of what we see and hear. How often have you taken the same route to work and never noticed a particular shop on the side of the road? Yet when we take a new way, we are more likely to observe our surroundings. I find that when I return to my normal routine, it often looks different. I see things I never noticed before. In this way, taking one intentional detour actually pays off twice: first with our new experiences, and then again when we return to our original experiences with new eyes.
When you are low on inspiration, do something different. Even try doing your work in a different place. It’s amazing what can happen even if you decide to move from your normal workspace to bringing a portable rig outside on a sunny day, for example. Perhaps those chirping birds, which would normally be considered noise and problematic, will become an interesting element to the acoustic guitar track you are recording.
"No One Else But You"
Much to the chagrin of the fantasy world I often live in, no progress will ever be made without putting in the hard work. Learn this now and never forget it. You’ll need to work hard and you’ll need to do it consistently. Whether you feel like it or not, you’ve got to show up and put in the work. This is easy when inspiration is high, but extremely difficult when it is low. The creative arts have this almost mystical air surrounding it, as if it happens by magic. And it’s this myth that allows artists to feel justified in not working when they feel uninspired.
Wipe this from your mind. Creative work gets done through hard work. And creative work might be the most difficult work there is. There’s no step-by-step manual. You just have to do the work. And that brings us to the last lesson I’d like to discuss from Origin of Inspiration, The NOEBY or “No One Else But You” attitude.
We all have challenges and problems. We all have difficult lives. Of course, this is relative. Some of us may objectively have it worse than others, but our own personal problems are serious and real to us as an individual. What we have to learn to do is navigate through them ourselves. Adoquei speaks about the “No one else but you” attitude. He writes “Who will provide continuous motivation for meeting your responsibilities and focusing on the important things?...Who will regularly check your tank so your engine does not run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere?... When your ego, pride and ambition are being harassed, who will remind you to stay calm and focus on the bigger picture?” to which he answers “no one else but you” (123).
Excuses are easy to find and playing the victim feels justifiable. But by accepting that no one else but you has the power to overcome your challenges is incredibly empowering. Perhaps you may need the help of others, but it is up to you to seek it out.
I’ve found the NOEBY attitude to be essential in my work. When I convince myself something is out of my power, I tend to shut down. The worst part is that I feel justified in doing so. But the NOEBY attitude helps me feel capable of getting past problems. And that capability fills me with inspiration. It has taught me to become creative in my problem solving. Remember that it is up to you and only you to create your path in life. If you really want it, you will find a way. If you don’t really want it, you will find an excuse.
There’s much more to gain from Origin of Inspiration, I certainly recommend it. To summarize, here are three important lessons I’ve taken from the book.
- Look to the people who inspire you and find out who or what inspired them.
- Embrace the detours in life and seek them out intentionally when inspiration is low.
- Follow the “No One Else But You” attitude.
Of course it is difficult to follow these ideas all the time, but do your best. Beating yourself up about any failures is not going to improve your situation. Pick yourself up and reflect on what went wrong, and think of ways to keep on track. As much as I try to look for ways to stay inspired and motivated, I more often than I’d like to admit find myself struggling with it. That’s where discipline comes in. Keep pushing, keep fighting. The inspiration might not be there when you begin, but it will often show up once you get working.
Best of luck to you!
AfroDJMac is a project of Brian Funk, a New York-based musician, producer, songwriter, and Ableton Certified Trainer. He began writing his music production blog in 2011 & has since become a staple of the Ableton community. He currently teaches the Advanced Music Production with Ableton Live course for Berklee College of Music.
You can check out all of Brian's work at his website, http://www.afrodjmac.com, a goldmine of Ableton Live packs & production tips. You'll definitely want to follow his Twitter where he updates on everything happening in the Ableton & electronic music community.