Name: Elaine Mai
Occupation: Producer, songwriter, remixer
Nationality: Irish
Current release: Elaine Mai's debut album Home is out via Maid. To listen to her latest single "Waiting to Breathe" visit her Soundcloud account.

If you enjoyed this interview with Elaine Mai and would like to find out more about her and her music, visit her official homepage. Or, for more recent updates, head over to her social media profiles on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.

Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

For me, it mostly comes out of the blue. I’ll hear a melody in my head, or get an idea and I’ll make a voice note of it so that I have it for when I’m writing next.

When I’m fleshing ideas like that out, I’ll think about how the piece is making me feel. What’s the story behind it, what do I want it to feel like, what do I want it to convey. Having a strong purpose and idea of what you want the song to evoke is really important for me. It helps to guide me and keep me on track as I write.

For you to get started, does there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I think it depends on what I’m working on.

If I’m writing without a clear purpose, just writing to see what will come of it then I just go with the direction I’m being pulled in. If it’s for a specific project, or if there’s a strong theme or idea, then I will think about how I’d like the finished piece to turn out.

There’s always a balance because for me the most fun part of writing is when you explore the route you’re being led down.

Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?

I can write any time and in most places. I’ve written in my car, on holidays, on apps etc. I don’t need to be set up in a certain way, but when I’m moving towards finalizing a project or track, I do find it much better to have a block of time in a specific location where everything is set up and ready so I can totally focus on it.

Finishing things is often the hardest part of a creative project, so I find it really helpful and important to have everything as organised as possible to minimise stress and hassle.

Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?

For me when it’s going well, I feel like I usually get a few good hours of flow, maybe 2-3 before I need to step away. Exercise is something I lean on to clear my head, it helps me to reset. I also find that a glass of wine can help me think about what I’m working on in a different way. If it’s later in the evening and I’m stuck, this can help me to get the project moving again.

What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?

I mostly start with the voice notes I’ve collected over time. Usually, there’ll be something to build from and I can go from there.

From scratch, I like to use keys to spark ideas. I think the physical act of playing and landing on something you enjoy and would like to explore is really satisfying.

When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?

Usually, when I’m writing lyrics they come as part of what I’m doing. I’ll have a line in my head and sing the words that work with it. I’ll usually have to tweak and re-write these early versions.

One of the reasons why I like collaborating is because it’s so interesting to see other people coming up with ideas you’d never have thought of.

What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?

Lyrics that connect with the listener. Lyrics that tell and story and draw the listener in. I have and will continue to write lyrics, but I really do love working with others in this regard. The ideas I have are usually so different from what collaborators come up with and I find that really exciting and interesting.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?

Through layers. I’ll add sounds to the initial piece and see what works. I find it funny that sometimes you’ll have just a few tracks and sometimes you’ll have a silly amount.

Knowing when to stop adding things and be happy with what’s there is a really important skill, but sometimes you do just need loads of stuff in there!

Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?

I definitely tend to follow where I’m led. That’s what inspiration feels like to me and I think writing works better and is more enjoyable when you follow the thread and see what happens.

Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?

For sure. I usually explore them and see where it takes me. If it’s not working, I’ll export the new pieces and use them for future writing sessions.

There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?

For me, when I’m in that pure flow of writing, there is nothing else. Time stands still and I get completely lost in what I’m doing. It’s one of the few things that makes me feel that way and I think that’s a huge part of why I enjoy it so much.

Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?

When I come back to a project after giving it some space, I listen to it all the way through, take notes about what I want to change/work on next, and then proceed to do that. This was a tip I got from a producer friend of mine (thanks Chris!) and it’s been super helpful.

There are only so many times you can do this before you know you’re reaching the end and it’s time to move on to the mix/master stages.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?

If it’s finished and post master then I’d never change anything unless there was a reason. I think you have to draw a line and let that be that. There will always be things you could have changed, or would change down the line, but tracks are timestamps of where you were in your life at a certain time, and there’s something beautiful about that. Even if years later you wish you’d done things differently.

After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?

Absolutely. There’s such a huge build-up to working on, finishing, and releasing something that it can feel like a huge loss once it’s out there.

I think taking some time and space after is what works for me. I usually don’t want to jump straight back into writing so I switch focus to live performance and building/updating sets for this.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane’ tasks?

I don’t think it is inherently different.

I take a lot of joy in ‘mundane’ tasks, mindfulness for me is most accessible through day-to-day things like cooking, cleaning and I can really enjoy those activities as it gives your brain a chance to switch off.

However, I do think that writing takes you to a different mental state when you’re in proper flow. I love losing my sense of time and forgetting absolutely everything. There’s no feeling like it.