Part 2

Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?

A piece can be fully formed immediately and feel finished within a few minutes. Others can take months. If something takes time it might be because I may have forgotten what I wanted to feel from it and lost my way or I don’t yet understand it or that it hasn’t revealed itself to me. Sometimes I know there’s a great song or piece of music in the dirt and I just have to figure it out. Like finding dinosaur bones and then the puzzle of what goes where begins. Somedays I will listen to one section (20 seconds) for hours and see what comes up. It’s easy to drop a ball or not see something obvious.

A simple or complex process, I never know what it’s going to be. I have no patience for about 10% of the time and for the other 90% I can just listen and wait. When the work does reveal itself it’s a bit of a race with it. This is where I just want to follow it. I’m not sure if I’m chasing it or if it’s chasing me. I don’t want to think much once the race begins, just follow my instinct.
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?

I usually don’t get too distracted by detours. They obviously happen when you’re working with other people and that can be an exciting part of the writing but I usually have my eye on the endgame. Maybe because I’m juggling so many disparate projects that my process is all detours. In my mind it’s not but perhaps detours are imbedded in my relationship to work.

I like to work on about three different projects in a day so when my attention is on one thing I’m very focused on that. If an alternative idea arises that feels good obviously I need to follow that. When I’m producing another artist I’m only in control if I’ve been given control. If the artist has an idea they’re excited about them I will just be the facilitator. It can be like the way a flock of birds organizes itself.

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?

Flow, flow, flow. I’m looking for an automatic acting moment where I lose track of time, where my mind is quietened and I’m just acting / reacting / doing. The cerebral part of creativity can be too analytical for flow.

In terms of spirituality that might be something … allowing the universe to use you as a tool but I don’t entertain that too much. Sitting in the place you’re supposed to be with tools that do the job is enough for me. I know there is a baton that’s been handed to me and I take it seriously.

Or another way of thinking is comparing creativity to the hunters of fire in the film “Quest for fire”. Go find the flame, guard it and bring it back. Don’t fucking let it go out. Fuck your ego, you’re just delivering a package.

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?

I know when the end of a project or a piece is near. There is a feeling that appears. It feels clear, and there are a lot less choices being made. I can listen and not feel that it needs more tinkering.

I re-did a song I wrote with Taylor Swift for her new version of the Red album. It was an interesting challenge: “Make it sound the same but better”. This was a new experience for me but very welcome as I didn’t feel I got it right the first time. The mix wasn’t good either. I’m not into the Kanye West idea of tweaking the work post-release, but this opportunity to put something right worked for me.

I prefer to draw a line under something and move forward to the next thing though. Looking backwards has little appeal to me. If you can dictate the ending yourself, try not to let time be the decider.
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 practice?

A few weeks is usually enough time to allow something to rest and be assessed. If I get the chance to have this happen I’m happier but also most times it doesn’t matter. The Gerhard Richter approach to this sometimes works for me. Especially if I am recontextuallizing a piece that didn’t work out for one project and migrating it to another. Then I can do some more sculpting.

With my productions if someone else is mixing them the time between multi-track delivery and the beginning of the mixing is ample time for us all to think about what’s needed. I don’t like too much faffing about with endless minor tweaks. This can lose the oddness of a piece of music by slowly eliminating the quirkiness which may have been the draw.

What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?

For the first 10 or so years of making and putting out music I didn’t get that involved in mixing and mastering. I didn’t feel I had the skill or expertise to be useful. I wasn’t listening properly or listening at all. I now understand the importance of these stages in production and regret not being more interested and engaged before. Records can be ruined or refreshed during mastering, never mind mixing.

Home recording with laptops and software has really helped break down the knowledge / equipment / technology barrier. You can make great sounding self-mastered finished records by yourself. You don’t have to technically know what’s going on with dynamic EQ and compression to play around and find a result that pleases you. It might not be perfect but it doesn’t matter.

I mix records but I’m not that comfortable doing it or discussing it. When I hear mixers online talking about their process it seems far more technical than mine. They seem to know what they're talking about and what everything does. I play around, getting it sounding the way I want it and I hope for the best. Perhaps because I’m older and have more experience I don’t care about the tech talk or a lot of the gear / process aspect to a lot of mixing and mastering. If it sounds the way I intended it to then I’m happy.

It’s not as clear cut as it used to be in the digital age. Cutting lathes and lacquers still requires specific skills but mixing and mastering … I don’t think so. I’ve paid a lot of money to some mastering engineers that have not understood the record at all. It can be similar to an army general with a new weapon; they need to use it. Some engineers need to use their gear when it might not be necessary.

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?

By the time my work is out I have moved on to something else. Projects overlap and so I never feel empty. I’m always keen to get to the next project as I find towards the end of a process energy and creativity become more specific and less open. It becomes about details and while that is rewarding at the time I miss the broad stroke feeling of the beginning of something. The overlapping projects help me keep an open state of mind because I might be in detail mode on one and the broad mode in another.

There can also be a year long gap between delivering a record and its ultimate release. That is a long time, and by the time it comes out I’m well away from it.

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?

My take on what I do is that I think of myself as an artisan or a craftsperson, the local baker. I like to do everything myself. I like the process. I like the work. Some producers / artists come at it as if they are like Apple. Designation of roles, delegating responsibilities, assistants, interns etc. I can’t work that way. I want to know exactly what is happening at every point. I like to make decisions and move on.

My choices are destructive, in that most times it’s difficult to go backwards. I print files with effects, destructive edits, bounces. It was this way at the beginning of my career and then I got ‘professional’ enough to leave a trail of breadcrumbs but now I’m trying to not do that. “I like that” … done. Move on.

It’s in the mundane that I find things I wouldn’t if I was just overseeing things. It’s not that I get stuck in the weeds. I don’t. Micro to macro and back. In / out / in / out. One singer I worked with saw that I was first in and last out of the studio because I was editing or comping or tuning his vocal. He said incredulously “you do that donkey work?”. I was a little embarrassed at the time but now recognize that it’s in this “donkey work” that the songs can reveal themselves to me. The Rokia Koné record was made in the “donkey work”. It would have been impossible without it.

I also wear a kind of lab coat or overcoat with my name on it. It reminds me of the engineers in the old days of Abbey Road studios. I am a craftsperson. I’m an artist too but it’s in the making of the work I get pleasure not in the reviews, applause etc. Coffee making has been ruined by anal coffee makers. The story of the coffee becomes too dominant rather than the taste. Measuring, weighing, thermostats etc. I want mistakes and anomalies. I don’t want it the same every time. That’s why I like Tayto crisps from Ireland. Each bag tastes different. Sometimes overcooked, sometimes over flavored. It’s exciting, not like Lays where it’s reliably consistent.

I don’t follow recipes when I cook, it’s way too stressful. I look at the picture, get an idea of what’s going on, read the ingredients and run at it. It can’t be that complicated right? I don’t bake or make cakes, and coffee snobs took the fun out of coffee.

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