Here is the song in its entirety:
Well, you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think of
how you got started
sitting in your little room!
A perfect 50 seconds. I’ve never heard it put more succinctly.
Here’s Meg and Jack doing the song on Letterman with “Fell in Love with a Girl”:
It’s autobiographical, obviously: The first two White Stripes records were recorded in Jack White’s living room in Detroit. For White Blood Cells, they traveled to Memphis to record in an actual studio. (A bigger room.)
In this brilliant clip from the 2010 documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, Jack White talks about the “secret” of the White Stripes: Constraints.
One part of my brain says I’m tired of trying to come up with things in this box, but I force myself to do it, because I know something good can come out of it, if I really work inside it…. Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want — that just kills creativity.
(You might recognize that quote from chapter 10 of Steal Like An Artist.)
Related reading: “Suckcess.”
Here is one of the collages from Serrah Russell’s book tears tears. It’s made with what I call “the simplest cut,” but I especially like the title, which I’ve stolen for this blog post: “I’ve been trying to hold onto last night’s dream.”
I did not sleep well last night, which is funny, because I started a book called Why We Sleep before falling asleep. (For me, it’s the season of going to bed at 9AM and loving it.)
I’ve noticed this bizarre thing about my brain: After a bad night’s sleep or a hangover I feel like I’m actually better at making art. It’s unhealthy and unsustainable, of course, but as bad as I feel, I enjoy the results: I’m slower and dreamier and a lot of ideas come to visit. All I have to do is keep the notebook handy.
When I was trying to fall back asleep last night, I put on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. It’s an album I’ve listened to over and over this year, mostly on plane rides during book tour. Richard D. James claims he made 70 percent of the album while experimenting with sleep deprivation and lucid dreaming. (A lucid dream is a dream in which the dreamer is aware she is awake and can control some of what happens in the dream.)
That’s what James told David Toop, anyways, who notes that James speaks “in a way which indicates either a serious person who has never been taken seriously or a practical joker who has been taken too seriously for too long.”
From Toop’s book, Ocean of Sound:
“About a year and a half ago… I badly wanted to make dream tracks. Like imagine I’m in the in the studio and write a track in my sleep, wake up and then write it in the real world with real instruments. I couldn’t do it at first. The main problem was just remembering it. Melodies were easy to remember. I’d go to sleep in my studio. I’d go to sleep for ten minutes and write three tracks — only small segments, not 100 percent finished tracks. I’d wake up and I’d only been asleep for ten minutes. That’s quite mental. I vary the way I do it, dreaming either I’m in my studio, entirely the way it is, or all kinds of variations. The hardest thing is getting the sounds the same. It’s never the same. It doesn’t really come close to it.
In his book on the album, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, Marc Weidenbaum recalled an interview in which James told him why it’s so important that he work in his bedroom:
To me, it’s essential… I mean, I didn’t realize it when I was growing up, until I moved my studio like out of my bedroom into another room—when I came to London I thought that was a really good idea: you know, studio in one room and bedroom in another—got really excited. And I just, for ages, I just wasn’t as happy and I couldn’t work it out, just ’cause I wasn’t sleeping in the same room as my stuff. There’s something magical about having all your equipment in the same room as your bed, and you just get out of bed and like do a track and go back to sleep and then get up and do some more and do tracks in your pants and stuff.
In Keep Going, I wrote about that dream-like state and how much I love napping, and quoted William Gibson: “Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.”
An artist could use it as a mission statement: “I’ve been trying to hold onto last night’s dream…”
Yesterday I was on the phone with a music producer I know. He’s starting an interview series with other producers and wanted to know if I had ideas for good kinds of questions to ask them.
I thought this was an interesting question itself: Is there a set of questions for creative people that are always interesting?
Much depends, I think, on the audience, and whenever I interview someone, I try to find some Venn diagram of what I’m interested in that the interviewee would be interested in that the audience would also be interested in.
Some things I came up with:
2. Storage and retrieval: How do they capture and keep track of ideas? Do they keep a notebook? Voice memos? (I recently read that Phoebe Waller-Bridge writes ideas down in a big draft email on her phone.)
3. Daily practice: What their day-to-day routine is like, any rituals they have, favorite tools, etc. (See: Daily Rituals.)
4. Troubleshooting: Overcoming block, what people do when things aren’t working. Weird tricks and constraints they come up with. (Example: Oblique Strategies.)
5. Hobbies: What people are interested in outside of work, how they recharge, how they spend their time away from the studio.
6. Personal life: What their parents did, how they grew up, did they go to school, did they like it, what they wanted to be when they were younger, etc.
7. Collaboration: I’m not much of a collaborator, honestly, so I’m interested in how people warm up to each other, the balance between making things comfortable and getting people “out of their comfort zone,” how much of your own aesthetic and ideas you inject into a project.
This last item was particularly funny in hindsight because this morning my son, Owen, who’s a budding music producer at the age of seven, asked if he could listen to a piano track he asked me to add to one of my songs.
“Yes, but I’m not sure if it’s any good,” I said.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he said. “If it’s not good, I’ll make it good.”
Here is a sweet mini-portrait of growing up in a small, loving house in a great city and being given the time, space, and materials to do your work:
Finneas O’Connell, a 22-year-old singer and songwriter, also co-writes and records the music of his younger sister, the 17-year-old phenomenon Billy Eilish. They grew up in a 2-bedroom in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and were homeschooled by their actor parents, resulting in a musical partnership that thrives on their friendship and trust.
Their parents’ decision to homeschool was partially inspired by the fact that Finneas was born the year of “MMMBop” when the Hanson Brothers broke big. As their dad put it, “I was completely swept away by these kids. They were religious Oklahoma home-schooled, but nonetheless. Clearly what had happened was they’d been allowed to pursue the things that they were interested in.”
It’s interesting to me that homeschooling isn’t just part of their story, it’s central to their story. Finneas summarizes the results:
Being born when I was born, and just being able to afford a computer and Logic Pro, just being afforded the opportunities I was afforded, living in LA, making music, being homeschooled, having time in the day to make that music, it was this gift I was given of time and resources.
He talks about the importance of their home as a space:
“There’s a crazy intimacy to what we’re doing…. There’s such a private feeling. It’s our house. It’s where we’ve experienced everything. That allows us to make some kind of music that feels wholeheartedly exposed, as far as who we really are as people.”
I was in the songwriting class my mom taught, and the little assignment was that you had to watch a movie or a TV show and then write down all the parts that you thought were good hooks or good lyrics. So, I watched The Walking Dead — like, why not — and then I wrote down all this stuff. People don’t even know that that’s what it’s about, because it sounds more like a longing heartbreak song. But nope, it’s about zombies.
Elsewhere, she talked more about their homeschooled childhood:
“When I see movies set in summertime, that’s what my life was like all the time, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t learn,” Billie explains. “My mom would cook and she’d be like, ‘How much goes into this?’ And that’s how we learned.”
Homeschooling was crucial partly because Billie deals with auditory processing disorder—it’s hard for her to listen and absorb meaning in standard ways—but it had the happy side effect of sharpening her sense of self. “I never went to school, so popular was never a thing for me. I don’t understand peer pressure,” she says.
Filed under: unschooling
PS. Just for fun, here’s Finneas vs. Owen in his studio:
After posting our studio rules, several people reminded me of Kanye West’s rules in the studio while recording My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. (I first remember seeing these on Matt Thomas’s blog in 2013.)
Pusha T said of the experience:
“Once we hit the studio, it was just all focus on the music. All focus was one hundred percent on the music. There were rules: no Twittering, no e-mailing, no blog-watching – no stupid questions. All of this stuff is posted all over the walls. A wall of questions, for inspirations. ‘What would Mobb Deep do?’ All types of stuff.”
I started to gather that this wasn’t going to be my typical guest verse. The first thing I noticed were all these signs Kanye had put up on the walls.
NO HIPSTER HATS
ALL LAPTOPS ON MUTE
JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP SOMETIMES
NO TWEETING PLEASE THANK YOU
NO NEGATIVE BLOG VIEWING
DON’T TELL ANYONE ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING WE’RE DOING!
NO RACKING FOCUS WHILE MUSIC IS BEING PLAYED OR MUSIC IS BEING MADE
TOTAL FOCUS ON THIS PROJECT IN ALL STUDIOS
NO ACOUSTIC GUITAR IN THE STUDIO
I wasn’t sure what tweeting was but I did know that something different was taking place here.
Kanye is also against waking up with your phone:
The show’s most frequent listener these days might in fact be Ray himself. He said he still listens to the show “all the time,” mostly to hear his brother’s voice and remind himself about times they had together. To remind himself of the jokes they shared. To remind himself of the good times.
“I love to hear his laugh, and I love to hear his take on things,” Ray said. “It’s a rare opportunity that I’ve had to still communicate with my brother that most people don’t get.”
A few years ago at I heard Cord Jefferson tell a story at Pop Up Magazine about a voicemail his mother left him a month before she died of cancer, and about “the power of the human voice and what we lose when a voice goes away.” (At one point he cites a study that concluded a Mother’s phone call is as comforting as a hug.) “It seems increasingly worth considering what we’re missing out on when we neglect the voices of the people we love.”
My wife and I used to make homemade audiobooks with our phones and play them for the boys in the stroller. Now the boys can read on their own, and I wonder whether those recordings will survive, whether anyone will ever listen to them again.
My mom has an old tape of me at age 5, singing Christmas songs for her. A few years ago, I archived it onto a CD so she could play it on her boombox whenever she wants.
My first grader has recorded songs for several years now, and he’s so obsessed with recording everything around him that he asks me at least once a day to record something on my phone. Until this moment, I haven’t realized what a favor he’s been doing me. I can listen to his little voice wherever I am, whenever I want, as long as my hard drives last.
My six-year-old stutters. It doesn’t stop him. Not yet. Hopefully not ever.
Yesterday, I was in the kitchen trying to read Philip Larkin. Owen was doing his best to terrorize the rest of us. He rarely stutters when he reads or sings, and he has a weakness for recording, so I handed him Collected Poems, turned to “Next, Please.”
“Why don’t you read that for voice memos?”
I hit RECORD and he read the whole freaking poem, start to finish, stumbling only on four words. (“Expectancy,” “armada,” “wretched,” and, yes, “tits.”) I couldn’t believe it.
“Why don’t you set it to music?” I said. He agreed, and I sat him down with my laptop.
We re-recorded the four mistakes, then I transferred the voice memos to the computer and we spliced them into the first take with Audacity. We cut a couple of slight stutters out of the waveform, too. Then I dumped it into Garageband and let him go to town.
I love the juxtaposition of Owen’s sweet voice, with the ominous synth lines underneath.
In Knotted Tongues: Stuttering in History and a the Quest for a Cure, Benson Bobrick notes that Philip Larkin began to stutter at the age of 4 and it didn’t really let up until the age of 35.
Larkin’s terror of situations in which speaking could be avoided found its way sub rosa into one of his most somber poems, “Next, Please.” Although obviously about disappointed hopes and the inevitability of death and extinction, the poem’s title phrase was one he had dreaded hearing as a child, for it signaled his imminent obligation to speak once he reached the head of a line.
In fact, even in his thirties, Larkin had trouble with postal clerks and getting tickets at the railroad station. (He used to hand slips of paper over with his desired train.)
Larkin isn’t the only one of my favorite writers who stuttered.
Another is Joe Brainard, who said, “Writing, for me, is a way of ‘talking’ the way I wish I could talk.” He recalls his stuttering in his masterpiece, I Remember:
I remember how much I used to stutter.
I remember one day in gym class when my name was called out I just couldn’t say “here.” I stuttered so badly that sometimes words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth at all. I had to run around the field many times.
I remember trying to memorize Shakespeare so that words that began with sounds I stuttered on (s, b, etc.) would not begin with a new breath.
Have you ever heard of a “lipogram”? It’s a word game. A writing constraint. You try to write without certain letters.
A few books have been written as long lipograms. In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby without the letter “e.” Georges Perec, a member of Oulipo, wrote his own book without “e”: A Void. (In French, it was originally La Disparition, or “The Disappearance.”)
This kind of constrained writing, or avoidance, is the kind of mental gymnastics many stutterers do in their heads all the time.
The novelist David Mitchell (author of, among others, Black Swan Green, a novel about a teenager with a stammer) wrote a terrific essay about his stammering, “Lost for Words.” Every stutterer, he writes, collects “a box of tricks”:
By the age of 15 I was a zit-spattered thesaurus of synonyms and an expert on lexical registers. At my rural comprehensive, substituting the word “pointless” with “futile” would get you beaten up for being a snob because the register’s too high—it’s a teacher’s word—so I’d deploy “useless.”
The Paris Review asked him if his stammering made him a writer:
On one hand, yes: it makes sense that a kid who can’t express himself verbally would be driven to express himself on the page instead. On the other hand, no: most writers aren’t stammerers and most stammerers aren’t writers. Perhaps the best answer is that the writer that I am has been shaped by the stammering kid that I was, and that although my stammer didn’t make me write, it did, in part, inform and influence the writer I became.
In the The New York Times: “What feels like a curse when you’re younger can prove to be a long-term ally.”
Here’s author Darcey Steinke in her recent essay, “My Stutter Made Me a Better Writer”:
The central irony of my life remains that my stutter, which at times caused so much suffering, is also responsible for my obsession with language. Without it I would not have been driven to write, to create rhythmic sentences easier to speak and to read. A fascination with words thrust me into a vocation that has kept me aflame with a desire to communicate. As a little girl, I hoped my stutter would let me into the secret world of animals. As an adult, given a kind listener, I am privy to something just as elusive: a direct pathway to the human heart.
Having a disability can uncover weaknesses in our mainstream clichés. Not even a week after Steinke published her essay, Jake Wolff published “A Stutterer’s Guide to Writing Fiction,” in which he takes on the creative writing commandments to “find your voice” and “read your work out loud.” The trouble is laid out in the subtitle: “How do you find ‘voice’ in your writing when your own voice sometimes betrays you?”
[L]ost in this discussion of voice and flow is always disability: the way, for some of us, speech and sight and sound often stutter or simply don’t work at all.
This is not a call to arms against voice, which communicates something important about writing and point of view. But I am, maybe, calling for a greater understanding of the ways in which voice is not always “findable”—it is not a sunken treasure that, once recovered from the sea, allows you to become a Real Writer.
I am not sure yet if Owen’s stutter will make him a better writer, but I think it might just make me a better writer. It forces me to be patient while listening, yes, but it’s given me a research interest. Something new to read and think about. Another lens to look at the world through. (I feel so grateful for having read Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, as both those books gave me a way of thinking about difference and disability as things that can enrich our lives.)
More connections to make between the things I love.
Related reading: “The Hard Way.”
My mom brought me boxes of my old cassette tapes. The tapes range from 1996-2003, recorded from the ages 13-20. An archive from another lifetime, when I wanted to be a famous musician. My six-year-old has been sticking random tapes into the four-track, listening for drums and other stuff he could sample for his own songs.
I doubt he finds anything worthy.
I used to look at all those tapes and see a waste of time — what good was all that to a writer! — but now I see years spent dedicated to a creative task, learning what it’s like to practice and study and steal and share and try to express yourself and bring something new into the world. That time is never lost.
Plus, it was something to do.
Meanwhile, my stack of diaries fell over yesterday, like a cheap metaphor:
3 stories about the fates of musical archives posted in the past 2 days:
1) The 2008 Universal fire turned out to be “the biggest disaster of the music business,” destroying masters by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, John Coltrane, and on and on and on.
“The negative was lost,” says a source close to the Dylan Camp. “Which [was] really horrifying. Part of the problem with corporations the days is all the consolidation. And in the consolidation of our storage system, somehow the numbering system fell off. There was just no way to find the negative — and we looked. Man, did we look. Now everything is in Iron Mountain. We went there and just couldn’t find it. It’s really sad. My worst fear is it’ll turn up tomorrow. For all we know, its sitting in some collector’s basement.”
3) Thom Yorke’s minidisc archive from the OK Computer era (1995-1998) was hacked, so instead of paying the hacker’s ransom, Radiohead released 18 hours of the recordings on Bandcamp.
It pleases me to look at Yorke’s minidiscs, and then look at my cassettes, and think how one archive contains treasure and the other trash. (“it’s not v interesting / there’s a lot of it,” wrote Yorke. “Yeah, right,” thought I.)
But, despite their wildly different results, both archives were made with essentially the same effort: We hit RECORD and tried to make a noise that pleased us.
Now my six-year-old presses RECORD and tries the same.
Another archive begins.
Garageband turned 15 yesterday. It was introduced at Macworld by Steve Jobs in January 2004. It’s so accessible and ubiquitous now, it’s easy to take for granted just how amazing a piece of software it really is.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the program — when I lived in England in 2004, I bought a USB MIDI controller so I could record tracks in my tiny little apartment on my new 12 inch Powerbook. I could then export them and put them on my new iPod, which seemed insanely futuristic and cool.
One afternoon a few years ago when we were bored, I showed my son Owen (now 6) how to make simple tracks on his little iPad mini, and ever since then, he’s been completely obsessed with the program. He spends, on average, at least an hour a day in Garageband. (He would spend way more if we didn’t limit his screen time, and we have to, because if we don’t he gets that weird zombie recording glaze in his eyes. [Musicians will know what I’m talking about.])
He has recorded 100s of songs. He started out, like most songwriters, covering songs by bands he likes. First, it was Kraftwerk. He came in one day after quiet time with this totally cool and insane version of “Autobahn.” Then he moved into parody. At my suggestion, he recorded Christmas versions of Kraftwerk songs. (“Christmasbahn,” “Trans Polar Express,” etc.) That was around the time he learned how to sample while looking for sleigh bells.
Eventually, I built us a little plug-and-play studio so we could record together with my good microphones and instruments.
Grandma gave the 5-year-old my old Ghostbusters shirt so I played him the theme song for the first time in the car and he came home and recorded a cover in Garageband ??? pic.twitter.com/suAFqiIAzY
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) August 3, 2018
He now records original tracks. Here is a song he recorded for his mom on Mother’s Day last year:
Recording music in Garageband is a gateway to all kinds of other activities. He loves, for example, coming up with album titles and band names and album art. (I’m convinced that this is part of the reason he can write and read so well for his age.) Here’s a hilarious screenshot I took of him spending a couple days in the studio with me, using Garageband on my old iMac:
Oh, he also likes to type out lyrics?
He saw the “Podcasts” preset and started recording his own podcasts. (I haven’t even gotten to tell him Marc Maron recorded Obama in in his garage… with Garageband.)
Garageband does a bunch of crazy stuff I didn’t even know it could do. For example, it will import MIDI files you download from the internet and show you the musical scores. One time Owen wanted to learn to play some of Bach’s cello suites on the keyboard, so I downloaded a midi file, opened it in Garageband, transposed it to the easy C key, and printed it out.
I’m constantly thinking about all the musical education possibilities with the program. Remember when Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails released their tracks as Garageband files and allowed fans to remix them? Imagine if you could download more classic tracks as Garageband projects. (It’d be amazing if the Song Exploder brand branched out into something like this.) Kids could see how recorded music is put together… with their own fingers.
I’m going on book tour this spring, and I’m worried about being away from the kids for two months. One of the things we have planned is that Owen and I will email Garageband tracks back and forth — I’ll start something on the plane and he can finish it during his iPad time (and vice versa.)
Like most parents, I angst about giving the kids too much screen time, but Garageband has taught me: Not all screen time is created equal. The right piece of software matched with a child’s natural proclivities and talents and passion can yield complete gold.