For many musicians, writing a song is like writing a journal: facing an obstacle course of old memories, emotions, dreams, bereavements, or long lost loves. Some artists hibernate for months, writing an album that is so introspective and personal that once it’s released, they have to step away from music for some time, exhausted by the conversation they’ve had with themselves. What does it take to show the world what you’ve written? Alex Kahl speaks to three artists who each use their music as a way to alleviate their busy minds, and who each have their own fears about releasing their music into the dark and scary void of the internet.
Artwork by Yoshi Sodeoka.
Nothing could give quite as good an insight into the intricate life of a late, great musician as a posthumously released album of previously unheard music. After Mac Miller’s death shook the music world, his producer and collaborator Jon Brion was left with a folder packed with unfinished songs, which later became the 2020 album Circles. More honest and confessional than anything Mac had written before, the songs give an intimate insight into a man who had so much more to say. But why do some artists never let certain songs see the light of day? Is it perfectionism? Are they uncertain about the quality of the music? Or is it that these songs say things about themselves that they just don’t necessarily want the world to know?
Writing music is often a form of therapy not only for professional musicians with record deals, but also for anyone who writes songs in their spare time. Like a journal, songs are a way of alleviating our minds and unpacking the thoughts in our heads, both good and bad.
Writing songs rarely involves simply writing about the exact moment at the time. It’s more often about digging deep, unpacking memories that had been subdued, pushed down deep under the surface, and reigniting them. Things that seem strange to talk about in casual conversation can flow so easily from the pen when writing lyrics. There’s a vast number of independently-made rap beats and instrumentals available on Youtube, some ready to be purchased and used in albums, others listed as “free”. Though a lot of artists purchase them and use them professionally, the comment sections of these videos are filled with faceless users sharing their song lyrics, written as they sat at home about whatever it is that’s on their mind.
Given how personal so much of this writing can be, the thought of releasing music into the deep, dark ocean of the internet can be a daunting one. Like giving the entire world the opportunity to read your diary. Will people enjoy it? Will letting this music be heard and showing it to others turn it from a cathartic outlet to a source of anxiety and stress?
This idea of music as therapy is familiar for solo singer Erin Morton. Erin is inspired by neo soul and R&B music, but hasn’t quite figured out what her own sound is. “Writing my own songs is what I do to completely let go and experience whatever it is I am feeling. It makes me feel the most connected to myself, to life,” she says.
Erin has uploaded covers of well-known songs to Youtube, sung and produced music for others but can’t bring herself to put out music she’s written herself. “Because my lyrics are so personal, and because my music is something I have held close to my chest for most of my life, the feeling of being exposed and open in that way makes me feel extremely anxious,” she says.
Even getting to the point where she felt comfortable to post the covers online was a difficult journey for Erin. Prior to uploading them, only her mum and sister had ever heard her sing, and her dad had never even heard her voice. Erin finds that posting covers is a far less vulnerable experience to showing the world her own words. Putting your own spin on a track that came from the soul of someone else isn’t quite the same as singing about your own personal experiences and emotions. “I’m reserved, and anxious by nature,” she says. “I pretty much think about every single outcome before I have even started what it is I need to start, and I just become paralysed with anxiety and unable to act.”
Of course, the level of anxiety around releasing music varies depending on the content of the music. Lerryn Whitfield started a band in her early twenties, and they gigged every month together for years. She always felt comfortable playing music at shows, as the audience was often packed with her friends, who were happy to just drink and listen to their playful punk music. After she had a child though, she began to make music on her own for the sake of convenience, and found that the songs she wrote were very different to what her punk band would play. “I realised that the songs I wrote were a fraction of the depth of what I’m doing now,” she says. She now explores topics like her feelings about family. “I just didn’t have that emotional intelligence or maturity to put myself on the line like that. I knew that I could gig and my mates would come and watch and get pissed. But I wasn’t shaking like a leaf before I went on stage and sang about my marriage!” she says.
In the past when Lerryn began to write a song, she knew that once it was finished it would be performed at a gig to that half-cut crowd she’d become so used to. As she wrote these more recent songs, though, and she saw how much more personal they were, she realized that she had no idea where they might belong in the world. When her friend Georgia started having a serious confidence crisis in her own music, the two decided to do something about it. They started inviting women who they knew made music to come and meet in a group, once a month, to play each other things they’d been working on. “Different women started coming along and saying they felt exactly the same sense of disconnect from the music they were making,” she says. They would meet in Lerryn’s husband’s restaurant after hours, and play for each other.
As Lerryn’s music became more personal and self-reflective, she realized it was harder to show it to others. The positive impact of the group she started, though, is testament to how music doesn’t necessarily have to be released or performed at a show to have that cathartic effect. Regardless of whether the music is released, it’s valuable just to make it. As Erin says, “to create something of my own allows me to feel free and to understand an emotion or an experience. It means an awful lot to me – without it I would be lost.”
For the first session, they had to blindfold each other as they played because there was so much nervous energy in the room. By the second or third meeting, the blindfolds were taken off and the room began to feel like a genuine safe space. “We sort of accepted that we were all in it together,” Lerryn says. In a session, each woman will introduce their song, sometimes with a personal story of why they wrote it, and then play it for the group. “Some women come every month. Some women come once, sing their song and it’s like therapy for them, and then they go home,” she says.
For Lerryn, that’s the whole reason the group exists, because that act of showing your work to others is such a vulnerable position to be in. “When you’re younger you think you have to be a star and perform at big shows, but you can actually just make music and play it to a group of women once a month and you’re a musician,” she says. “Everyone makes themselves look like they’re succeeding on social media, even if they’re not. It’s quite easy to think that everyone around you is succeeding at something. But it’s comforting to just get face to face in a room, and to see that everyone who’s making things feels pretty much the same."
Here Lerryn touches on the imposter syndrome that’s rife in the social media age. As we see so many people around us who seem to be excelling, posting photos from studio sessions or announcing new releases, we start to question what makes us stand out, what makes us “enough” to succeed. Groups such as the one she started, though, offer a friendly reminder that very few people feel entirely comfortable with what they’re creating, or with their definition of success.
She tells the story of one visitor to the session who acts on television in her day job, and who is generally seen as the most vibrant and confident person in any room. She’d been writing music for 10 years, and had never shown anyone at all. She had never once opened her eyes while singing, even when alone. “So she had her eyes closed while singing to us, and it really was like her whole body language changed afterwards,” Lerryn says. “It was like 10 years of bottled up emotions coming out at once.”
Lerryn says that around half of the women end up releasing the music they share with the group. For those who do, it’s good for them to use the sessions as a safe space to get feedback before they go ahead with it.
London-based musician Beau Blaise is currently going through the motions of releasing music for the very first time, and is seeing the stress that comes along with that. Just before Christmas, he phoned his friend in a state of panic. With just a few months until he released the first music for his two bands No Logo and Kids, anxiety was starting to set in. “I’d put years into this thing,” he says. “I was finally sending out feelers to blogs and websites, and was hearing nothing back. I was just thinking, what have I done? What if nobody ever hears this thing I’ve put so much into?”
No Logo, a production duo that works with a different vocal artist on each track, takes its influence from the last 15 years of UK electronic music, from big beat and break beat to post-dubstep and Grime instrumentals, and they pull these influences together and take them into the pop spectrum. Kids, meanwhile, is a five piece band led by Beau and Alex Harvey which takes a unique approach to British “guitar band” music. All of their songs sound distinctly British, and are written by the pair, as they touch on their experiences growing up in inner city London.
Straight out of university, Beau worked as an engineer and producer at Wales’ Monnow Valley, the rehearsal facility of the famous Rockfield Studios, where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody, and where hundreds of other world-renowned acts have retreated to record seminal work. Now, with less hours dedicated to that relentless life, he’s left with more time to think about his own music, as he prepares to release it out into the world for the first time. He’s always loved helping other people make music, helping them craft their musical world, and of course as that process begins there’s some of his influence in their songs. The more the artist takes it forward, though, the more separated he becomes from the tracks. “I am connecting with their words, because I’m relating them to my own experiences. But as the process goes on, and they’re shooting a video for it, doing interviews about it, it’s less my world,” he says.
In terms of emotion and connection, all of his other production work was nothing compared to this music he’s preparing to release. “When you make your own music, you’re putting so much of your soul into it,” he says. “I care about everything I make to a certain degree. It’s not like I don’t care about the artists’ music I produce for, but when it’s yours it has your own stamp. It’s like cutting out a bit of your own flesh. That’s why it matters more. I never really realised that until that moment before Christmas,” he says.
Lots of artists, both musical and not, will be able to relate to the way Beau is feeling. When you create, you end up pouring in so many of your own stories and experiences, your own feelings and emotions, that the art becomes almost an extension of yourself. It’s an act of pure catharsis, but it’s something that can very quickly become filled with anxiety when faced with the prospect of showing that work to the world. To strangers. “You can test things. You can show them to your friends,” Beau says. “But it’s that uncertainty: what will the world think? It’s that fear. And I am afraid.”
In Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, one character is asked whether he plans to exhibit a portrait they’ve spent a huge amount of time creating. “I really can’t exhibit it,” they respond. “I have put too much of myself into it.” The artists I have spoken to are all writing about their own very personal experiences, but the feelings of fear and vulnerability they’re going through are all similar. Whether, like Beau and Erin, artists plan to release their music and are terrified at the prospect, or like many of the women who attend Lerryn’s group, they are satisfied with using their music as a chance to relieve the pressure on their own minds, these are feelings artists have been getting to grips with for centuries. Whether you’re worried about your music being imperfect or you’re nervous about how honest it is, perhaps there’s some comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one.