Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

“Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…

October 24th, 2016 | No Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

When I get asked why I sit down to play, the short answer is normally ‘because I need two feet to operate all these pedals!’. But it’s a little more complex than that – as you’d expect, given how many people manage to play standing up while also having massive pedal boards…

The problem is not turning regular effects on and off. That you can easily do with one foot. It’s not even turning off more than one at a time – that can be done with a loop-switcher (pedal that allows you to have any number of pedals in a separate ‘loop’ that the sound can either go through or bypass), or by having them as a patch in a multi-FX unit (I do that a lot, obviously).

The issue for me is continuous control – wah, volume, delay feedback, pitch shift, parameters that fade in and out, and the interactions between them… That’s such a huge part of that constantly evolving feel that I aim for in my music – the feel that is absolutely at the heart of what I’ve been trying to develop as a solo artist since my very first album. Have a listen to ‘Drifting’ from my first album – in order to transition from one set of loopy-stuff to another, I had to fade the first loop down to nothing, quickly delete it and start looping again, all within the context of the music… [Read more →]

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New USB Stick Design Now Available – 33 albums for 30 Pounds!

September 26th, 2016 | No Comments | Categories: Uncategorized

Ever since Lobelia first bundled up her back catalogue on a USB Stick when we were on tour about 8 years ago, and I copied her, it’s become by far the most popular way for people to get hold of my music. When we first started, we were buying USB sticks out on the road, calling into Office Max or Fry’s to see what we could find (on one tour, I had a load of superhero figurines!), but a few years back I started custom designing them, in limited edition batches of 50. Once they were sold out, that was it, move on to a new design.

Today the latest design arrived – it’s actually very similar to a previous one, in that I’ve gone with the faux-mini-vinyl look again, only this time I’ve added a turntable arm to the image just for fun.

click here to buy the Steve Lawson Complete Works USB Stick - the image is a picture of the usb sticks which are circular and designed to look like mini vinyl

However, what’s inside is the thing that keeps growing, It’s now 33 albums for just £30 and the collection of music has got so big that the accompanying live concert video is now on the stick as a download link rather than the file itself. I’m going to have to go bigger than 4Gb next time!

So this includes all my publicly released work up til now – the only things that aren’t on here are the subscriber-only releases from the last two years. If you want those as well, the best value offer is to subscribe for £20, then use the subscriber only merch offer on the site to get the USB stick for £18 – so for £38, you get something insane like 50 albums (I really ought to count them 😉 )

…anyway, that’s a lot of music for precious little money, and it sustains the music that I make in ways that streaming services and YouTube royalties could never ever achieve. If you’re going to make niche music (and let’s face it, playing bass on your own is about as far outside the pop mainstream as you can get, regardless of how catchy some of the tunes are) there’s not yet been a version of the streaming economy that leads to a sustainable music making life.

But likewise, there’s also no reason why you should have to pay £10 for a CD every time I make some new music. I make a LOT of music, and I’ve already made a lot of music, so if I can bundle it up in useful ways, so much the better.

So, if you want to get on board, and get all the new stuff that’s coming out over the coming years, go and subscribe, then order the USB stick via the subscriber only link…


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The Beauty Of Complexity – Why I Can’t Play Anything Live Off My New Album

September 6th, 2016 | 3 Comments | Categories: Music News · Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

Right, before the main bit of this post, let’s get some niceness in your ears – my brand new album is here: Hit play while you read this:

…and if you’re in London or Birmingham, come see me play this week – Wednesday (tomorrow!) at the Bulls Head in Barnes, Sunday at Tower Of Song in Birmingham 😉

Now, on with the wordsmithery: 

I’m an improvisor. That much is known, right? But there’s a pretty broad range of approaches to improv and ways of understanding what it means:

  • People who play guitar solos on rock songs are often improvisors.
  • Jazz musicians who play the head then play a solo full of material they’ve culled from the rich recorded history of jazz are improvisors.
  • Classical musicians who can interpret figured bass and play baroque music authentically are improvisors.
  • Free players who actively avoid consonance, western-harmonically-define melodic structure and metric rhythmic combinations are improvisors.

So where does my practice fit? Cos, let’s be honest, a lot of it doesn’t *sound* like improv, right? And the language we have to describe recordings is, quite understandably, about ‘songs’ and ‘compositions’ and ‘arrangements’. And once it’s recorded, it just *is*. The variation in the experience of the music is now all about context and the technology used to turn the digital file into sound… The [lossless] file itself is a fixed entity – if it gets changed, it’s a something else. It ceases to be the thing it was.

But the genesis of the music? That’s all improv. That’s not to say that none of the elements of the tracks on The Surrender Of Time have any precedent – that would be like expecting a conversationalist to invent new words every day to avoid being a script writer.

No, improv forms a distinct set of variables for me in music making, which I’ll attempt to list and explain here.

  1. Vocabulary, not repertoire: If you’re in a band, or planning to play in bands, your greatest asset is a repertoire of songs to call on, in a variety of styles that you’re comfortable with and respectful of. Being a great technician – beyond a fairly basic level of facility – is definitely secondary to your ears, understanding and experience. Your ability to play the songs is everything. The relationship between the songs and the spaces to add your own stuff in is variable depending on the setting, but first of all, you gotta know the songs.

    I know very few songs, comparative to how long I’ve been playing bass. I’m *really* good at learning sets when I need to (this is my job, after all!) but I don’t retain them, and I rarely practice songs between gigs. I don’t sit down and play along with records to practice, and I’ve done hardly any transcription in my life. I got good at it so I could do it when needed, but it ceased to be part of my own creative development when I started putting together the toolkit for making the music I cared about, based on the impact certain practices seemed to have on other players…

    Instead, I spent time – and still spend most of my time – building vocabulary. Working on variations on the building blocks that make up the sound that’s recognisable as me. Expanding the set of harmonic possibilities that follow any chord, building a set of sounds that take that music and give it meaning, working on myriad melodic ideas over all the harmonic areas that I’m finding interesting at the moment. When I hear music that moves me, instead of trying to recreate it, I intently focus on how it makes me feel, and then try to recreate that feeling with my own music. That’s one of the reasons why I can quite unashamedly love my own music – it’s not about an arrogant juxtaposition of what I do alongside what anyone else does, and I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my enjoyment of it, but if I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t exist.

    So when it comes to making the music, instead of me drawing on a massive catalogue of other people’s songs, or transcriptions of their solos, I’m searching through my own catalogue of sounds and ideas for the right thing to attach to whatever it is that I’m trying to say. It’s soundtracking, in a very unmetaphorical sense. But it also means that I never get to properly ‘re-play’ anything. I don’t do multiple takes of the same ‘piece’. I might spend a day exploring a particular area (similar to the process of working out what a book meant to you by talking to multiple people about it, and refining your own take on it…) but there’s never two ‘takes’ of the same piece. Sometimes multiple versions of that iterative process get released, because they’re always distinct enough to be treated as different works.

  2. Complexity vs Repeatability. So, because I’m not forward-projecting to a time when I need to be able to recreate this music, I can allow it to be WAY more complex that I could ever make a composition. Again, it’s not about relative levels of complexity with other musicians (there are people whose composed work would in many ways be way way harder to remember and recreate than mine…) it’s more about my process – I have very little headspace for spending months learning how to recreate existing work. I don’t operate in a commercial space where that matters… or rather, I’ve consciously constructed an alternate performance space, or slotted into the bits of existing ones where I fit, in ways that mean I don’t have to do that.

    But even then, I do bang up against audience expectation that they’d love to hear a favourite tune…. That’s totally understandable, especially as I spent quite a few years doing just that – playing my own songs, doing a set list… Getting away from that has brought about the single biggest leap forward in my creative process since I first picked up the recorder aged 5. When I listen to my live versions of recorded tunes now, it’s only the deviations from the script that interest me. The start point feels like an unnecessary limiting factor, when that start point could just as easily be a sound as a fixed melody.

    So I stripped back the start point to be vocabulary and emotion based, not ‘skeleton composition’ based. It’s pretty heavily influenced by what Coltrane did in later years, when his compositions got looser and looser and were mostly a vehicle for what came after the bit that anyone was familiar. Or Miles’ 70s work, culled from hours of improvisation. Or Bill Frisell’s live solo excursions.

    The result for me is that I can put things together in a way where the serendipity of how they fall IS the composition.

    The unknown state of just how the loops are going to line up half way through the song, or how that loop is going to interact with the Kaoss Pad I’m going to send it through… it’s not ‘random’, in the way that nothing that’s been looped digitally is ever ‘random’ – as soon as it’s done, the result is inevitable, it’s just that no-one can ever know what that will be. The ratios of loop length, because I don’t sync them, are sufficiently complex as to be unknowable, unlearnable, and thus I get to interact with that complexity like a brilliantly unpredictable creative partner. If I was trying to do things that I could recreate, all that would be lost. And if I did it over fixed ideas that were ‘the song’ (in a more jazz like way) that would feel like an unnecessary limiting factor on just how great things can get when serendipity is your homeboy…

  3. Aesthetic constraint vs ‘industry’ expectation : With all of that process, all of the various inspirations (I’m a VORACIOUS music listener, and treat it like ear-food), I needed to find a way to keep focussed on the musical path that would get me to where I felt I needed to get creatively, not be distracted by the rather narrow expectations the come with the various typical western contexts for music – radio stations that play songs, venues that want to know what you’re playing, audiences who make requests, corporate situations that expect a set list, musician-collaborators who want to play standards, or a set of songs. I needed to break from that. Context-wise, house concerts were that, without a doubt. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of ‘your friend’s house’ as a venue gives me a whole lot of creative latitude to mess with all the other expectations, as well as plenty of time to talk about this stuff between songs without the venue getting annoyed that people aren’t dancing…

    But I also needed a way to do something with all the recordings. Because, the simple set of influences on the actual sound of my work mean that the recordings are experienced as ‘finished works’. I’ve built a live recording set up that is basically a studio. The studio IS my instrument (which Jazzwise VERY perceptively picked up on in their review of The Surrender Of Time) – my musical influences contain a LOT of singer/songwriters, because I’m drawn to storytelling over pyrotechnics, politics over self-aggrandisement, questioning music over music that sees itself as the answer… and singers tend to do that best. The music becomes subservient to what the music is trying to say, whether that’s a death metal band, or a rapper, Joni Mitchell or Cannibal Corpse, Divinity Roxx or The Blue Nile – the music is all about creating the context for the story. I just get to hide my stories a little deeper by leaving out the words 😉

So, the records sound ‘finished’. The language that makes most sense when talking about them is the language of songs, of arranging, or composing. They aren’t ‘jams’ or ‘little grooves I’ve been working on’ or however else people’s unfinished work on YouTube gets described, but they also aren’t things I’ve worked out, learned, done a couple of drop-ins on and chopped the end off to make them work for radio… They are conversation pieces that stem for a pretty highly developed philosophy of what improvising within the limitations of live performance with real-time looping makes possible. We have no real words for that, so I’m perfectly OK with you digging my songs 😉

My process is the result of 20 years of finding out how best to tell the stories I want to tell, to play the music that I hear in my head, and do it in a way that responds to the things I hear missing (for me) in other people’s music. When I hear music that doesn’t work for me, I don’t wish they changed it (telling someone else who hasn’t actually hired you as a teacher how they should play music is some tired lazy shit) I just use that as a nudge to work out what it was that was missing for me emotionally and adjust my musical process to work towards that thing that was missing… The gaps are mine to fill, not theirs. (as an aside, this is the exactly the same point of origin as my response to people who come and tell me what they think I should do, in a ‘you should do a funk record!’ or ‘you should totally do a whole ambient record’ or ‘I wish you’d do more of ****’ – my response is, ‘no, you should! It’s you that wants to hear that! This music is exactly what it’s meant to be – take the inspiration and go make your own music’.)

So anyway, call it a song, choose your favourites and play them over and over, transcribe them if that helps your own practice…just don’t ask me to play any of them at shows… :)

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Making A Meal Of It – Three Courses Of Musical Nutrition

August 3rd, 2016 | No Comments | Categories: Music News

2016 is a bumper year for solo recordings from me. By the end of the year, I’ll have released more solo work than in any other year. Shifting over to a Bandcamp subscription as my primary music outlet has meant that Soundcloud has taken a backseat, allowing me to focus more time and energy on putting out finished albums, not works-in-progress

Aside from a 3 track EP of stuff that subscribers got just so they could hear what my new bass sounded like, this year is already shaping up to be a full-on three course meal of solo work.

The starter was Referendum – a record that wasn’t planned, rather it was a document of my response to all of my emotions before and after the EU membership referendum vote here in the UK. That 6 track album is one I’m REALLY happy with – it feels very immediate, raw and unfiltered. It’s also got some killer tunes on it :)

The main course is The Surrender Of Time – that’s the ‘proper’ solo album, the follow up to A Crack Where The Light Gets In/The Way Home – it took months to record, mix and master, and the tracklist was chosen by Sue Edwards, from the 2.5 hours of music recorded. The main course comes with a side-order, the addition EP of Colony Collapse Disorder – that’s a single 22 minute track that will be part of the ‘deluxe digital edition’ of The Surrender Of Time, out on Sept 5th. But, in the spirit of favouritism, my Bandcamp subscribers already have Colony Collapse Disorder – they got it this week. If you’d like it, feel free to subscribe.

The dessert in this massive musical meal will be a subscriber only album called Towards A Better Question. The title track is already on YouTube. It contains a lot of my favourite music I’ve recorded this year. The process of picking the tunes for The Surrender Of Time was a narrative one, full of questions of continuity and story-telling. Sue did that brilliantly, and it leaves me room to release another hour of very special music for subscribers later in the year.

And we haven’t even touched on the very special live recording I made earlier this year that’ll be out in time for Christmas (again, probably, at this point, subscriber-only) or the various collaborations (the 2nd Ley Lines album with Phi Yaan-Zek and Andy Edwards will be out in the next month or so too, and also on the way is the live album with Gawain Hewitt from his Beneath The Waves gig in Birmingham).

So it’s a bumper time for subscribers, and I’m sure that a fair few of them will find themselves a little behind after a while on the new releases. But that’s where the beauty of the Bancamp subscription comes in – this music is theirs, for keeps. There’s no time limit, not danger of it being taken away, no point at which I get to cancel its existence, or cut off their access to it if they cancel the subscription. This isn’t some bogus rental model. For £20 a year, you get to keep everything I make in that year, for ever, downloaded at whatever resolution you desire (the FLAC version of all the new stuff is 88k/24bit) – and when you first sign up, you get 28 albums from my back catalogue included too. The idea is not to get hung up on the unit value of any one album – that’s the bit that Spotify have got right, it’s not about how much an album is ‘worth’ – but instead to invite people into the journey, to give them the music needed to catch up with the story so far, and then to stay with it as we go forward investigating the world through collaborations and solo recordings, video, discussions, concerts, meet-ups… There’s no way on earth I could make all of this music available if I was relying on CD pressing and shop sales with normal marketing lead times and mainstream press. As it is, I put out one solo thing a year as the main course, but the rest of it is a vital part of the Big Picture, and you too can join that journey.

Subscribe by clicking here –  – and help make music’s beautiful sustainable future a reality. xx

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New Album Progress Update…

July 21st, 2016 | No Comments | Categories: Music News

So, the follow up to last year’s A Crack Where The Light Gets In and The Way Home is well underway. I *think* all the music that might end up on it is recorded… I’ve got about two and a half hours of music recorded, and there’s none of it that feels disposable at this point. So the process of picking an ‘album’s worth’ of music from it is the next step. For that, I’ve again enlisted the help of Sue Edwards.

Sue is an artist and event manager who has a LONG history with my music. We first met when she booked Theo Travis and I to play the commuter jazz series at the Royal Festival Hall in about 2004/5. She became a great friend and advisor on what I was up to musically, having demonstrated time and time again that she REALLY knew what it was I was trying to do with my music (as opposed to those whose commentary is entirely based on their own taste and a deep misunderstanding of the music’s purpose…) Sue co-produced Behind Every Word (which was pretty much the last time I did multiple takes of the tracks on it as pre-composed work – I was sending her the various recordings and responding to her feedback) and she chose the track order for A Crack Where The Light Gets In last year – an album that was a very long way from what I thought the album would be, but now can’t imagine it any other way…

So, she’s got all the music, we’re sorting out what of it will make for a complete thematic work. The rest will be available for subscribers soon!

Speaking of subscribers, they’ve been getting regular glimpses of the work as it emerges – a fair few of the tracks have appeared for them as videos in the subscriber feed, and the discussion there has informed the work so far beautifully. They’re also the economic basis for being able to commit this amount of time to making an album. A lot of my work happens in a fairly quick way – day-long collaborations with other musicians, or recordings of live shows. But once a year I get to dedicate 6-8 weeks to a more focussed process. The music itself happens in the same way – it’s all recorded live in one take, with minimal or no edits – but the space to record a LOT of it, to work on sounds and ideas, to reflect on themes and inspiration over a longer time makes for a distinct project and process. A few weeks back, I released Referendum – a pretty instinctive response to the politics and social climate around the EU referendum here in the UK. I love being able to do those kinds of projects, and the subscription model is what makes that possible…

Anyway, here are the tracks that are publicly available that are in the pool for the new album – please subscribe for access to the rest of them. You’ll also get my entire solo back catalogue the moment you sign up, and all the other subscriber exclusives that have been released over the last two years. 28 albums in total!! All for just £20…

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Improvisation For A Better World – Making Sense Of Things With A Bass In My Hands

June 29th, 2016 | 2 Comments | Categories: Music News · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc.

For years – perhaps decades – I’ve said that ‘instrumental music is what happens when I run out of words’. I love words, I love what language makes possible, and my default position is always ‘talk more, listen more, don’t give up on dialogue’.

But I hit a point on Monday when the barrage of shrill voices on social media (NONE of it targeted at me, I hasten to add) – people with plans, schemes, ways of interpreting what’s going on, insider knowledge, spiteful interpretations, thoughts to counter the spite, arguments with, from and between politicians… it just became a cloud of shouting. Like a montage from a David Lynch movie meant to represent the dreams of an insane person. Or the set up for a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis song. Talking loud, saying nothing. The intentions were mostly good, but were also mostly desperate, reactive, non-reflective, and lacking in care.

At this point, I thank God that I am, at heart, an improviser. That I’ve built a music practice around responding to now with sound, around being able to step into that instinctive, mystical space – not having to sit and painstakingly compose music that reflects how I feel and then play the music I’ve written…(there are people who do that brilliantly, and I’m grateful for their art and the guidance I’ve received from it through the years).

My need is to sort through ideas, emotions, reactions… sadness, anger, confusion, hope, clarity, absurdity, more anger…and music is where I go to do that.

Sharing it is how I throw a line out to anyone else who connects with it. It’s a pretty exposed thing to do, as there’s pretty much no way to counter a response of ‘you’re just playing any old shit and saying it’s about whatever you want…’ – but that’s also a discussion that’s so utterly pointless I wouldn’t enter it anyway…

What is true right now is that I’ve pretty much run out of words, and I’ve exhausted, to a large degree, my need for other people’s words to try and make sense of what’s going on. We’re in a massive downward spiral, and there are many ways of seeing a bright future in a crystal ball, or predicting the collapse of civilization as we know it. I don’t need that kind of guesswork, I need to stay in touch with the emotional/spiritual side of this, and then harness that to actually DO things to help the people whose lives are changed by this. Because, as well as being my refuge and place to ‘heal my hurts’, as Faithless put it, music is a constant challenge to me that music isn’t enough. To take that inspiration, that comfort, and go do something for those who are really messed up by this. Because as a white dude born here, with an accent rooted in the UK, I’m not at risk. Our financial position, in the longer term, is pretty precarious, but that’s not even close to the fear that all the amazing people who have chosen to make the UK their home and are now facing a rapid increase in racist abuse are feeling.

So, make music, then use the inspiration of the music to change the world around you. It’s as simple as that, and as complicated as that.

So how does this play out? A lot less time on social media, for sure. I need to train myself not to get on Twitter of Facebook expecting the sum of the shared ideas to bring clarity. It won’t. I need to spend time every day making music that reflects how I feel about what’s going on. This weekend, I released ‘Referendum’ – 6 tracks directly reflecting on what’s been going on. 4 from before the vote, 2 from after.

The Pre-Order Plan:

I’m currently working on the follow up to last years A Crack Where The Light Gets In and The Way Home, but it felt important to get these works out now. You can listen to that, and buy it if you want. If you want to ‘pre-order’ the new album, please Subscribe via Bandcamp – it’s £20 a year, you’ll get about 23 albums and 4 singles immediately (everything solo I’ve ever released, and a collection of subscriber-only collaborations from the last 2 years), and everything I release in the next year. Which will include a series of subscriber-only video previews of the new music as it happens. The first of those videos went up today.

I’m not doing any other kind of crowd-funding campaign for the new album, there are no ‘tiers’, no attempt to get you to increase your contribution, or sell you stuff you don’t want or need. There’s just music, lots of it, and you can pay £20 or as much over that as you want… It’s entirely your choice. The subscription model fits my music-making so well, and the response from the subscribers so far has been amazing.

I’m so grateful for their support, and the feedback that happens on the Subscriber feed on Bandcamp. Please sign up and join in.

This is the future of sustainability for niche music. Be a part of it.

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Saving the EU with Solo Bass…

June 6th, 2016 | No Comments | Categories: Music News

…Well, probably not, but these tunes do form two halves of an instrumental reflection/meditation on the impending EU Referendum in the UK (where we get to vote on whether we want to be in or out of the EU) – it’s pretty clear to me that staying in makes by far the most sense – the ‘risks’ of leaving offer nothing of substance in the way of counter-balance, and the kind of utter pond-life that are the politicians fronting the Leave campaign would be enough to make me turn my back on a long-held ideology. It’s a full list of venal, grasping, compassionless careerists.

I’ve been discussing it and sharing articles relating to it on Facebook a LOT over the last few weeks, but today I decided to put some music in the mix. I don’t write word-based music, instead I write a soundtrack to thoughts, ideas, feelings, and conversations. So here, in two parts, is my contribution to that. Which is sure to sway enough voters to clinch this for the Remain vote, right? :)


and part 2:

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First Look: Illuminated Loops project with Poppy Porter

May 16th, 2016 | 1 Comment | Categories: Music News

A few of you will already be familiar with my project with artist Poppy Porter. Poppy is a jeweller and painter who takes inspiration from her synaesthesia to create work that brings to the rest of us the vivid and beautiful visuals she sees in response to sound.

We had our first public outing for the project a few weeks ago, in Guildford. For a project that on a good night would require a 2 hour sound check and set up, it was a bit of a push to get things happening with less than 10 minutes to set up, but we did it, and this little bit of video came out of it. The event was a council showcase of science-y innovation-y stuff in the foyer of a theatre, which made for a really interesting first audience for us, and I responded somewhat cautiously with the music (I kept it pretty mellow and poppy (no pun intended) and used it as a vehicle for some sounds that might trigger interesting images) but you get a little glimpse into what we’re up to…

Next time round, we’ll get to do the proper set-up, do the full chat about what we’re up to, and get weird with the music and see what it inspires. Til then, this may pique your interest :)

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It’s 2016 And We’re Looking For Magic In All The Wrong Places

April 25th, 2016 | 8 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

“All of the magic in the world is leaving”

– this is a quote from a friend’s blog about the death of Prince. He was quoting what another friend said to him, but it echoes a VERY widely held sentiment that the number of stars/legends/genuises dying is leaving us bereft of talent, of magic.

To which I say ‘bullshit’.

Statistically incomprensible, culturally myopic, yet completely understandable bullshit.

I know why it feels like that. I get it. I succumb to that in the moments after the announcement of the death of a Bowie or a Prince or a Papa Wemba… ‘not another one??’

Another what? Another dead human, another dead musician, another lost piece of the consensus around what made the late 20th Century so special for mass consumer art. That last bit is key. Musicians die all the time, musicians who changed people’s lives, musicians who made music that meant so much to people. Just *not enough people* for it to register on the global radar. Whether or not another 100 million people liked someone isn’t a measure of how important they were to me. The global population is somewhere north of 7.1Billion – that many, many of those will be making music that could change your life is a statistical certainty. That you haven’t found them yet is the product of a whole shit-ton of overlapping choices, cultural phenomena, the outworkings of a capitalist media and a level of inertia that happens to most people in the west when their music consumption switches from being primarily about discovery to being primarily about nostalgia when they are in their early 20s. Life gets busy, and the messaging in music journalism for grown-ups is almost entirely about the importance of the music we loved when we were teenagers. [Read more →]

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Musicology – A Few Thoughts On Prince

April 22nd, 2016 | 5 Comments | Categories: obituaries

Often when a musician dies, the platitudes that are heaped on them feel like too little too late. Imagine if Terence Trent D’Arby died, and suddenly the whole world rediscovered what a work of god-like genius Introduce The Hardline… was? Or any number of amazing MCs who changed the course of rap but whose work has been ignored for years…

Despite the heartbreaking knowledge that he had DECADES of vital music-making ahead of him, Prince, at least, had the opportunity to read and hear on pretty much a daily basis that the world recognised him as one of the greatest artists of the recorded music age. There’s nothing remotely controversial about stating that Prince was ‘our Mozart’ – perhaps the most hyperbolic of all musical accolades. We’re all pretty much OK with that comparison. Like Mozart, he had a complete mastery of the form that he placed himself in, throughout his life he expanded on every parameter of what ‘pop’ could be numerous times in ways that everyone else then followed, and he had a keen ear for how things were developing and was able to absorb them (just look at what he did with hip-hop and RnB in the 90s).

Having been listening to him since (the single) 1999, on the radio, the first Prince thing I actually bought was the single of Glam Slam – not often talked about in the pantheon of great Prince songs, I was just taken in by the guitar tone at the beginning. SO much about Prince frustrated teenage me. I was wholly wedded to preconceived idiomatic constraints – I couldn’t deal with people inventing their own creative paradigms. I wanted Prince to make ‘rock’ records or ‘funk’ records, things that I could label. That he had this obvious and outrageous instrumental virtuosity but made it completely subservient to The Music – or indeed, on stage, to The Show – drove me nuts. It took me a few more years to embrace and learn from that laissez faire approach to other people’s labels. Lots has been written about him doing that with fashion and gender norms, but for me it was the musical transgression that was most fascinating. Maybe Batman was the first time that I properly understood what that way of thinking made possible…

And at the heart of all of his musical world was his status as one of the greatest – if not THE greatest – multi-instrumentalists of all time. For most people, ‘multi-instrumentalist’ means ‘plays guitar AND keyboards, and can play drums too!’ – there are handful of people I can think of who are genuinely world class on two different instruments (Gary Husband, Mike Keneally etc…) but Prince’s well-documented mastery of SO many instruments, and his invention of a whole new genre application for all of them, was on a unparalleled level. That all of that skill – all of the time it must’ve taken to get THAT good on guitar, bass, piano, synth, drums etc. etc. – was at the service of some completely other-worldly musical vision, making music that was both familiar and completely alien, where the reference points were all in place, but the sum total of them was only ever accurately labellable as ‘Prince music’ – that thing that frustrated small-minded teenage me – THAT was the thing that I looked at when I was at college and went ‘nope, I’m going to put all my energies into one instrument.’

You see, at music college, everyone had to do piano lessons, everyone had to sing. And Prince presented me with a choice – did I want to go that route, and have whatever music my brain came up with channeled through a polymath aesthetic, where I learned to play everything I needed, or was I going to put my energies into doing it all on one instrument? Prince made that decision easy. He made the creation of your own musical world into A Thing. He did it, conspicuously, proudly and without apology. I wanted that, but knew I’d NEVER get there by learning loads of instruments. In the same way that hearing Michael Manring steered me away from trying to play bass as an unprocessed, unlooped solo instrument, Prince shifted my understanding of what multi-instrumentalism meant, and gave a whole lot of clarity to my own path – my passion, my energy, my vision and my sense of where I needed to end up years later was in exploring just how far I could do with this one instrument. Prince’s multi-instrumental virtuosity and mastery gave me vertigo. I knew not to go there.

It was years later that I got to read extensively about his prodigious work ethic, that I got to know a number of musicians who worked with him, and understood what was actually going on behind the media creation. A bloke utterly driven by music making, willing to play two sometimes three shows a night in order to make more music. Who would then go back home and straight into the studio, sometimes with a band, sometimes just with an engineer to record yet more music. God only knows what’s in that vault. It’s highly likely that my favourite music ever is languishing in there somewhere never to be heard. That he released some music that doesn’t connect with me is itself inspiring. He wasn’t beholden to anyone else’s mythology. He made the records HE wanted to make, and was clearly devoid of fucks to be given for how we felt about them…

So what do we, as musicians, do with this? I don’t know about you, but I accept the challenge – the challenge is to make deliberate, purposeful music, to do A LOT OF WORK, to keep making music, to keep challenging the received wisdom about what music is and what its for (Prince’s infamous struggles with the Internet are instructive for a whole number of reasons, some really great observations and moves, and other ridiculous ones (he thought iTunes should give him an advance, and once claimed to prefer CDs to digital music… errr) ) – but to never let up on the need to make music happen, to build a life in which we get to do the thing that matters to us, and only to us – being wilfully obscure is as stifling as trying to write hits. Just make the music that matters… I have no interest in stadium shows and all night jam sessions in clubs. I don’t make music for that, it’s not a context where the music I need to make can exist – but Prince built that world because that’s what he cared about.

So don’t copy what Prince did, copy why he did it. Build the life that allows you to do the thing that matters. Make the best music you can, then make more of it, make it based on the demands of the music itself, not some bullshit industrial process that’s beholden to release dates and touring schedules. Built a vault of unreleased work if that’s what needs to happen, then find a way to get it out to the public, if that’s what needs to happen. Listen, absorb, synthesise, invent, create, experiment, fail, succeed. But do it deliberately. DO IT.

JFDI – Just Fucking Do It.

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