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Creativity is subjective, nebulous, and altogether difficult to articulate. Where does it come from? What are the ingredients? How can it be captured on a consistent basis? And where does process fit into it all?
These are questions that most artists, musical or otherwise, ask themselves, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Even though creativity is deeply personal, it’s worth studying. Below, we’ve selected six contemporary artists, some well-established, others new to the game, who have recently spoken on creativity and process. Each come from a different genre, and have much to offer others searching for a creative process that works for them.
If any artist threw down the gauntlet for sonic variety in electronic music, it was Indiana-based Jlin, whose album Black Origami is a sample-based exploration of multiple genres, from IDM to footwork and world music. Alongside Holly Herndon, Jlin recently spoke to Ableton about her creative process that led to such kaleidoscopic tracks as “Nyakinyua Rise.”
“[Music] starts off as this pure, blank piece of paper then it begins to bend and fold and it starts to take shape,” she says, comparing it to chemistry. “I’m going through my sounds trying to figure out do I like this do I not? Not really ‘auditioning sounds as much as trying to get a… I’m trying to feel it.”
Interestingly, given the morphing sounds on Black Origami, Jlin doesn’t see herself as a technical producer. Instead, she feels that she is more of an intuitive one.
“It’s a matter of feel for me, and I have to go through and figure out what that is, because if it doesn’t make the hair on my arms stand up, 9 times out of 10 I can’t do it,” Jlin says. “[T]he advantage to being a woman in general is I think we are a very detailed species. So I think there’s an advantage in that because when I’m listening to music I’m listening for what’s not there, not what is. The spaces that have not been filled.”
Try it out: At the risk of taking Jlin too literally, it’s important to think about negative space in music, as in all arts. This could mean stripping tracks from certain sections of a song, or maybe filling in spaces with smaller details instead of influsing songs with too much sound.
Listening to Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, talk about electronic music is always an interesting experience. The man clearly has incredible compositional and sound design skills, but he can’t read music (not that it’s necessary to make music), and he thinks more like an engineer, designing his own instruments or asking others to make them for him, as when he asked Colin Fraser, creator of the Sequentix Cirklon sequencer, to clone a Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer.
While Aphex Twin’s methods and equipment have evolved over the years, moving from analogue to digital and then back again, his creative approach seems relatively unchanged: finding new ways to explore electronic music. As Philip Sherbourne wrote in Strange Visitor, a Pitchfork interview with James, the artist’s approach is pretty singular.
“It's all about frequencies and what they do to you. That's the real core,” James says in the interview. “Forget all the equipment, forget the music, it's just literally frequencies and the effects on your brain. That's what everyone's essentially after.”
James goes on to say that he likes making music where one doesn’t know where the notes are, and instead figures them out intuitively. For him, it’s essentially a new language with new rules. And when the rules are changed, James thinks the physiology of the brain is altered. Hearing a song like “PAPAT4  (pineal mix)” is a good example of Aphex Twin’s desire to create mind-altering effects with music, from the references to the third eye (pineal mix) to the shifting rhythms and micro-tunings.
“[If] you hear a chord that you've never heard before, you're like, ‘huh’ and your brain has to change shape to accept it,” he says. “And once it's changed shape, then you have changed as a person, in a tiny way. And if you have a whole combination of all these different frequencies, you're basically reconfiguring your brain. And then you've changed as a person, and you can go and do something else.”
“It's a constant change,” he adds. “It could sound pretty cosmic and hippie, but that is exactly what's going on.”
Try it out: If you’re looking to come at a song from left field like Aphex Twin, spend some time just searching for strange chords or, as he also does, micro-tunings that shift quickly and often oddly. Once you’ve found some interesting chords, then start working them into the form of a song. Or take an existing song that you’ve shelved and rework it with new and uncommon chords.
The London-based electronic and R&B artist is, much like Bjork, a multifaceted artist. Not ceding control over her music to producers, music video makers and artistic directors, FKA Twigs serves as essentially her own multimedia producer.
Before becoming a dynamic pop artist, FKA Twigs trained as a dancer from the age of eight, learning ballet, tap, and modern along the way. She also worked as a backup dancer for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Ed Sheeran and others. Starting in 2012 with her first official release, EP1, and the music video for “Water Me,” FKA Twigs began constructing the musical and visual persona that is now familiar to audiences.
“I have such left-field ideas, I feel quite precious about giving them away to somebody, because how they would interpret it wouldn’t be how I see it in my head, necessarily,” she told MTV News. “So then I said, ‘Well, I might as well do it myself,’ and that started working out for me.”
“My mum just let me do whatever I wanted to do, in terms of being creative when I was a child,” she added. “If I wanted to be a cat for the weekend, I could just be a cat, and that was cool."
Try it out: One can certainly see how this creative freedom in early childhood carried over to FKA’s professional career. Like Bowie, she’s able to morph in and out of visual and sonic profiles with ease. It might then be helpful to think about the visual presentation of your music, because apart from simply communicating a more complete artistic vision, the visuals may also have a circular effect on how the music ultimately sounds.
For instance, if you want to explore a dark visual aesthetic, like The Knife or Arca, this may in turn take the music to some interesting dark and moody vistas. And if you have a psychedelic music style, then you could start thinking about live visuals, from projections to props (think: The Flaming Lips); or even music videos, which you could do yourself instead of farming out to a director (also The Flaming Lips).
Bjork, Fever Ray, FKA Twigs, and Grimes get a lot of attention (and deservedly so) for being some of the most experimental artists out there. But the dark horse of avant-garde pop is perhaps Holly Herndon, known for her deep explorations of vocal processing and artistic collaborations.
A few years back, Herndon spoke at Ableton’s Loop summit about her creative process. Many artists can be quite opaque about how they arrived at their process, but Herndon eagerly shared with Loop and online audiences how she does what she does in glitchy, abstract pop tracks like “An Exit” and “Chorus.”
“I was at Mills [College in Oakland] and figuring out for the first time really the music I wanted to make,” she says. “I was doing a lot of vocal processing and starting to work with Max[/MSP] for the first time… I was really trying to come to terms with what live laptop music meant.’”
Herndon recalls how at school she wasn’t able to “make music with a pulse,” and when she played techno clubs, she was looked down upon for using a laptop. But she quickly decided that she would make music exactly how she wanted it, and with whatever equipment she felt was necessary and inspiring.
“Around this time is when I came up with the idea that the laptop is the most intimate instrument we’ve ever seen because it’s mediating all of our daily experiences, from Skype calls to emails to all these things, so I was trying to come to terms with what that meant as an instrument,” she says in the talk. “And so a lot of the work that was happening around this time that went into my first album, Movement, was actually a really intimate relationship that I had with the machine.”
For Herndon, even though the sounds were abstracted, she found them to be intimate and soulful. Movement became a “weird collection” of experimental and dance songs. Though this amalgam scared Herndon and she caught some grief for being conceptual, her approach eventually prevailed.
“I think that music should be able to stand on its own legs and immediately touch people, but I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive,” Herndon says. “I think that you can have ideas about your music and you can have something that is visceral and immediately impactful as well, and for me that’s kind of like the holy grail.”
Try it out: Does this mean that there should be an impetus to approach music as conceptual art? Not exactly. But it’s definitely helpful to think about why you are making the music, and what you hope to achieve with it, whether that’s in the studio or live settings. Understanding what you want your music to do will help you better communicate that vision to an audience.
Maybe you want a really immersive sound for your live shows. In that case, you could investigate software and hardware that will allow you to create an atmosphere that will be as if the audience is cocooned inside it. A few years ago, Max Cooper did something like this with his 4D sound system, which he researched and then implemented with the help of others.
Rapper Lil Uzi Vert shot to fame with a guest spot on Migos track “Bad and Boujee,” which was culturally ubiquitous in 2017. Even among a hip-hop trio known for distinct emceeing, Lil Uzi Vert’s flow stood out as much as his visual flair, unfurling lines like “She talk to me like she knew me, go to sleep in a jacuzzi, waking up right up a two-piece, counting that paper like loose leaf, getting that chicken with bleu cheese…” Lil Uzi Vert further developed his lyrical and visual style in “XO Tour Llif3.”
Last summer, Lil Uzi Vert spoke with Apple Beats 1’s radio host Zane Lowe, where he talked in depth about creativity. In particular, he talked about getting into the right mode or state of effortlessness. This comes at a point in the interview when Lowe asks the rapper what he’s thinking about right at that very moment. Lil Uzi Vert, playing with a lighter, responds literally but also seemingly metaphorically, “I’m trying to grab this fire.”
“I don't know. It's more of a reflex. I'm not thinking right now. There's nothing to really think about,” he says. “Everything right now is all about being effortless. I'm in a mode right now. Let's do it. Whatever happens, happens.”
That there is something that a musician, producer or any other artist can learn from.
Try it out: One way to interpret Lil Uzi Vert’s call to “do it” and “whatever happens, happens” is to simply create. Don’t get hung up on the equipment, the sounds, or the necessity of achieving perfection. If you’ve got the free time, make a decision to create music right then and there, and see where it takes you.
You could start with whatever single element you like, but let’s say you begin with a beat. After getting it into a satisfying state, start playing around with a melody. Maybe the sonic texture of the synth or guitar you’re playing it on isn’t what you want, so you start processing, which alters the direction of the melody and chord progression. Now you’re rolling. When you do this and it is good, you will have achieved the “effortlessness” of which Lil Uzi Vert speaks.
South London recording artist Archey Marshall, aka King Krule, is something of an enigma. And this gets transmuted into a sound that is fluid and amorphous—one minute indie, the next ambient, but always interesting. Marshall’s songs are dark and nocturnal but socially awake, and so they share something with the literate punk stylings of The Clash, but with a more shambolic edge.
“It’s about creating a universe for yourself,” Marshall said in a New York Times interview in the fall of 2017, right after the release of his new multi-genre album, The Ooz. And Marshall is even creative outside of his music career, collaborating with his brother on an art book and short film. For him, it’s all about plumbing his subconscious for material.
“It’s all about the shit you do subconsciously,” Marshall told Pitchfork in an interview in September of last year. “Like the snot, the earwax, your spit...your piss…your beard, your nails—all of that shit. You don’t ever think, Wow, I’m actually pushing all this stuff constantly—my brain’s creating all this gunk, this forcefield.
Try it out: As King King crules notes, the subconscious is fertile ground for material, so plumb it. An obvious outlet for the subconscious is lyrics, but don’t let that stop you from thinking about how it can affect the music. Tunes, whatever the genre, are about atmospheres and vibes. They can convey darkness, fun, dream-like mystery, and many other things. Your subconscious is full of this material, so try to port it over into your music and lyrics.
For instance, I was recently thinking a lot about the desert because I was reading this novel that is a hallucinogenic trip through the Sahara. It was sort of the background hum to a full week or two of my life. I started writing a song, and it had a spareness to it, a minimalism to the instrumentation that seemed desert-like. And when I made a music video for it out of found footage, I suddenly found that I’d subconsciously drifted to old documentary footage that included several panning shots of a desert illuminated in a strange way.