We’ve long been admirers of Drew Citron, the creative force propelling the Brooklyn-based band Beverly, ’cause she emits rays of unapologetic confidence wherever we’ve seen her (on stage, and being a person in the world). Recently, Drew asked us if she could write something for you Rooks about how to find your voice as a musician, to which we replied, “PLEASE DO!” The result is what you’re about to read. While Drew discusses making music, we believe she imparts lessons that are just as applicable to writing, speaking up in class, coding, making movies, collaging, hypothesizing, philosophizing, getting dressed in the morning, or whatever methods you’ve chosen to get your ideas across. The floor is all yours, Drew!
There are a couple people making music today who don’t care at all what anyone thinks. Probably five people. Maybe just one person, and it’s Björk. Most music is vulnerable to the cycle of social media; mosquito-sized attention spans, the insatiable desire for “content.” The hardest thing to remember as an artist is that “content” is not the goal. Making music that says something—about what you think, how you feel, where you’re at creatively, what’s true to you—that’s the goal. Your worth as an artist has nothing to do with likes and views. Unfortunately, it’s hard to remember that when the internet guzzles “content” like an SUV on a road trip.
So in this weird, soul-sucking time for music, how do you find your voice? How do you get behind your thoughts and ideas, and then bravely stick to them? How do you value creativity when others may define success as a popularity contest, or by financial returns? What would Björk do? I’ve been writing and performing music for a decade, and only recently crossed some invisible threshold, finding a creative voice that feels natural and personal. Here are steps I took that helped me get there, which hopefully will be useful to you, too:
Learn recording software.
Pro Tools is the software (developed by Avid) that I use for recording; you can use Pro Tools, Ableton, Logic, or any other program out there to record. “Learn recording software” may sound like a surprisingly, almost comically, concrete solution to an esoteric problem (having creative freedom), but this is the single most important thing I’ve done for my career as a musician. I used to go into a recording studio and be extremely frustrated that I couldn’t communicate about the sounds I wanted, or the editing that needed to happen, or even the feel of the song. More often than not, in these scenarios, the person behind the desk is a very confident, very fast-working, possibly tactless dude, and if you don’t stand your ground, you might end up with a finished product you have no interest in releasing. In other words: If you can’t speak the language, it’s hard to have a voice. Just buy a cheap audio interface (the Apogee One or M-Audio M-Track Plus are good starters) and take advantage of student discounts like the one offered by Avid (seriously, if you’re a student, take advantage of this NOW because you can get in on the ground floor and upgrade relatively inexpensively when new software is released). Make your own demos, experiment, have fun.
Try your hand at sound engineering.
If you know the basics of recording, you can start to record and mix your friends’ bands, too. I’ve been working as a live and studio sound engineer this past year, learning a ton, watching how other people do it, helping bands feel good about what they’re playing or recording. “Sounding right” is something I’m passionate about for Beverly—trying to get the guitars sounding thicker, and the vocal harmonies soaring even higher above them. It’s the best work I’ve ever done in my life to be able to help other people sound the way they want to onstage or on their recordings, too. There is a lack of women in the field of sound engineering, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s about creating a comfortable environment, and being fast and invisible, so that the musicians can do their thing. If you can listen, be kind, and multitask, you can be an engineer. In fact, just being a good listener makes you light years ahead of most of the other ones.
Make time for yourself.
For yourself, to be by yourself, to shut out the world and make stuff. I write best alone, when I have the time and patience to follow an idea, chord progression, or melody all the way to where it can go. One of my favorite books of all time is The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp—it’s an indispensable gift I received a long time ago, ironically, from a dispensable ex. As a choreographer, Tharp describes her blank canvas as an empty dance studio:
“To some people, this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: The task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something…some people find this moment—the moment before creativity begins—so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house…the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.”
Give yourself permission to have your own creative time, and on a regular basis.
I used to immediately assume a posture of deference and embarrassment in any scenario regarding my band. In emails with agents and promoters, in conversations with the staff at venues, even to the audience, onstage between songs. This is a BIG no-no. You deserve to be onstage: You made the music. If you’re feeling self-conscious, or a lack of confidence, it’s OK to refrain from saying anything. Sometimes inaction is the best course of action. This is something that applies to writing music, too—it’s OK to have space in the composition of a song. Just being there and existing is enough. You don’t have to say sorry for silence, awkwardness, mistakes—anything.
Play to your weaknesses.
If you can really examine your choices as an artist, and listen to old recordings, and watch videos of shows, you will learn from your mistakes and get better. Finding your voice is a process of trying, failing, loving and honoring your mistakes, and then doing it all over again. Every practice, every show, every recording session, is an opportunity to try something new; and the more things you try, the more paths you weed out, the more your voice will emerge over time.
Get the best people around you, who lift you up and make you work harder. It might be an unlikely person, or someone you’ve known all along. What do they bring to the table that makes you see things differently, and helps you cover all the bases? Do they constrain you or help you adapt? Once you find them, hold on tight and let them know how important they are. Treat them with respect and keep them on the team as long as you can.
Never read the comments.
Don’t do it. They have nothing to do with you! Your job as an artist is to keep the coast clear and the channels open, not to place yourself in the crosshairs of internet trolls with too much time on their hands.
So go forward and make stuff. If you’re like me, you won’t be happy if you don’t. Write it down, sketch it, play it. And keep going. ♦
Beverly’s new record, The Blue Swell, comes out May 6.