Name: Richard Norris
Occupation: Record producer, songwriter, sound engineer, musician, DJ, author
Current Release: Richard Norris and Martin Dubka have joined forces as Circle Sky. Their debut album under the moniker, Dream Colour, is out July 9th on Research & Development.
Book – This One Sky Day by Leone Ross.
In a year packed with great novels, this one has resonated the most for me. The author has created an entire world, somewhere vaguely in the Caribbean, a unique and particular place. Once you dive into this world,it draws you right in. Some people may be wary of what used to be called ‘magical realism’ in a novel, yet the tone here is so confident, the dialogue and the descriptive qualities so rich and poetic, that the vividly hallucinogenic aspects of this island life serve more as a backdrop to human stories of love, life and loss than are the main event. It is sexy, funny, wild, alluring. I’ve only got a few pages left and I don’t want to leave this place. A remarkable novel.
Book – The War Of Art by Stephen Pressberg.
As I'll mention in the interview, this creative manual has helped me focus enormously. It deals with how to be aware of, and overcome, what the author calls ‘resistance’ in your creative work. The things that are stopping you getting on with it, what’s stopping you finishing a piece, what’s stopping you putting it out into the world. Its main premise is to do the work regularly, don’t judge it, just do it, and to ‘get out of your own way’.
It also looks at what he terms amateur and pro approaches to creative work. It’s a short book, but a very resonant one. You could read it in an afternoon. I’ve found myself going back and re-reading it a lot, and always finding some new and useful idea. Highly recommended for anyone doing any kind of creative task.
If you enjoyed this interview with Richard Norris of Circle Sky and would like to find out more about his work, visit his website (not to be confused with that of another musician by the name of Richard Norris). He is also on Facebook, bandcamp, twitter and soundcloud.
Or check out the Circle Sky Facebook page.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started making music at 13 years old. I sang and played guitar in a post punk band called the Innocent Vicars. We were influenced by punk and the DIY ethos. Punk was where it all started for me – it opened up all kinds of possibilities - musical, political, cultural … without it, and the John Peel show on the radio, I wouldn’t be making music today.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
From those early days emulating Buzzcocks or the Undertones in the Innocent Vicars, I’ve always been interested in the sound of records, in the production and recording side. Technology has aided me greatly as I am not a virtuoso player, more of an enthusiast who can play okay but is more about ideas than solos.
I’ve often thought that this lack of training has shaped me, for better or worse. Not being excellent on the piano has been very frustrating over the years, but it’s led me to try different avenues, new noises, new production techniques. Brian Eno, another non piano player, had that idea of the studio as an instrument, which I’ve found very useful. His ideas, and those of John Cages, Daphne Oram, Pauline Oliveros’ and others have been very influential to my growth creatively. And I’m still trying to master the piano!
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
It would be challenging for your identity to not influence your creativity. Your creativity is part of your identity and is certainly influenced by it. I don’t think about it particularly when I am creating music – I find over thinking can be counter-productive when you are in the flow, in the process. However it’s certainly something I am aware of, and has shaped me and the kind of music I make.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Initially it was mainly practical stuff that any DIY band has to work out, like how to record, how to gig etc. How to work in a band.
Lately, over the past few years, I’ve mainly been working with quite abstract electronic music, and my work pattern has settled into a daily habit, which is becoming a daily ritual. It seems a bit more like craft than art lately. The challenge is mainly to show up and do the work.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first instrument was electric guitar, a small Marshall amp and a tiny, cheap fuzz box by Electro Harmonix that sounded incredible. Then over the years that changed towards synthesisers, computers and software.
My earliest sampler was a Casio FZ-1, which was gritty and cut through very well, plus a Akai S1000, Roland R-8 drum machine and a Space Echo. Plus a Alesis HR 16 drum machine and an MMT8 sequencer, which was the set up for the first two Grid albums. Computer wise my first set up was the original Mac, running Cubase. I later switched to Logic, which I still use as my main system. And there have been many synths, pedals and modules along the way.
Currently main motives for new pieces of gear are: is it easy to use, will I use it a lot, and can I already do that with something else I already have? This approach has led to a pairing down of equipment … slightly!
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Sure. The sampler, the tape recorder, certain sequencers, drum machines and computer programmes have changed the way I make music. The latest would be all the new synths and toys coming out for i-pad. There’s endless possibilities to be had there, particularly with instruments that don’t use a traditional keyboard.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I like to be in the room with someone when we collaborate. As this hasn’t been possible for the last year, I am experimenting with various live real time recording tech over the internet. It’s working well.
Each collaboration is different. It depends on the person. Sometimes you want to bounce many ideas back and forth, and others you just want to give the artist enough space and support to do what they do to the best of their ability. I find that a lot with vocalists, although each one is different. Knowing when to be silent can be just as important as knowing when to speak up.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Over the last couple of years I have built up a regular habit, ritual, and practice for my work. This seems to have helped me become much more productive and focused. Before starting, the first thing I do is make my daughters breakfast and lunch and pack her off to school. Then breakfast for me and my wife. Then at about 9am I am in the studio, which is in my house. I try to meditate for 20 mins first, but if I’m excited about whatever I’m working on, sometimes I just dive right in.
From 9 until about 1pm I work on creative projects, with a few short breaks in between. If I’m lucky, this includes no phones or internet, although I’m not that strict about it. In general, this is a my daily practice. Except on Mondays when I do admin … and Fridays when I chose whether or not to work.
In the afternoons, between 2pm and 4pm, my creativity pretty much disappears, and then starts to wake up after that time. Sometimes I’ll work late but not often. It’s a very short working week, but I find that getting in the flow using electronics and technology has diminishing returns after six hours or so. And you can do a lot in those six hours.
I’m in favour of the methods in Steven Pressman’s The War of Art, a great book about how to do creative work, which has helped shape my day immensely. I’m continually buying copies of this book to give to other people. The general premise is that you show up every day and do the work, which becomes a habit that turns into a ritual that becomes a practice. It works well for me – short bursts of getting in the flow, with little distraction, at the same time every day. You don’t wait for the muse to show up, you just get on with it and see what comes out. I’m not sure that works for everyone, but it’s really helped me.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Floatation by the Grid was pretty special. It was influenced by John Barry, floatation tanks, and Ibiza Sunsets at the Café Del Mar. It was a special time for music and you can hear the magic in there. It wasn’t our biggest record but it was quite an influential one. It has a blissed out quality that suited the time. It is very much a soundtrack to a certain feeling that was in the air when it was recorded.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The idea of a flow state is appealing. I get it while drumming, I could imagine people get it while surfing, or any activity that you are engaging in, in the present, rather than thinking about. Obviously you are thinking when you are doing this - your brain is engaging, but the awareness of that thinking falls away.
A lot of the records I’ve made lately are made in that state, so much so that when I hear them later I can’t recall making them.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music can certainly heal. I released 12 weekly 20 minute Music For Healing pieces during the first lockdown, and this year have released a new Music For Healing piece every month. People have written in to say that the music has had a positive effect on them. It’s helped calm people, and has reduced anxiety and stress.
There’s certain ways to make music that encourage this, which I have been exploring as part of my daily practice for a couple of years now. Some of them are being trialled on the NHS. A musical prescription!
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Music, in it’s worldwide folk (or people) based forms, is based on sharing and copying. Most bands or musical artists start by copying their favourites before finding their own style. There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with learning from your influences. It’s healthy and useful.
Cultural appropriation is different, and I do have some issues with that, particularly in electronic music with certain forms of sampling. I really don’t like it when someone puts their artist name on a piece of music that is basically an edit of someone else’s work, with a few tweaks. I have been known to do that myself in the past, but don’t do it now.
I’m not against sampling in general – there can be very creative and innovative uses of it, it can be an artform – but calling an edit your own piece of music is sometimes a bit much. That would be my limit.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Sometimes when I see something I hear a noise in my head that goes with it. It’s like exaggerated sound effects, or tones, sometimes musical, sometimes not. That’s quite inspirational. I also love the feeling of bass through a good sound system, where your whole body is vibrating with the sound. I guess all senses are connected, and music is a great way of joining them up.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My approach is that it is a daily practice and it is my life. And that all art is political.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Something more fundamental, perhaps. We hear and respond to sound, tone, pitch, harmony etc before learning language, even before we are born … so it’s in there from birth throughout life.