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In my last post about the audio sketchbook I talked about establishing a methodology…

I have found over the last ten years or so that I’m a methodology sort of artist. I make rules for myself, decide what is important about what I’m trying to say, then try to fix a way of saying that, and explore the new language that arises. It doesn’t seem to matter if I’m working with textiles and garments and stitching; recording, songwriting and performing; or most recently these drawings. The exploration and play force new associations.

The frustration over the lack of a studio led to me not looking back at what I’d drawn before. I’d do a few drawings, then put them into a folder, then do a few more. This resulted in definite development of certain favourite motifs. I would repeat that ogee-leaf shape and try to make it not look like a leaf so I ended up with a selection of sedimentary-rock-pea-pod-vaginas… nice.

My latest few drawings are not in ink, and they have no colour. I am somewhat irritated by the inherent messiness of the 8B pencil. But when I do manage to keep it crisp I am satisfied with the results. The ink/colour drawings were becoming occasionally stylised and cartoon like, my lines lazy. So the fact I am having to work harder to get at what I want is a good thing.

But yet again I have my rules. It has to be 8B. I’ve tried various others, but they just don’t quite do the job I want. 7B isn’t dense or soft enough. 9B is just unmanageable and very bad language ensues! I have a pen shaped rubber which I am only allowed to use to clean the paper, not to erase the drawing.

I am establishing a vocabulary.

This morning I have got out all the drawings. Right from the beginning, including the ones that appeared in my sketchbook as original textile project ideas. I soon discovered they held something that could not be expressed in stitch. So I pressed on…

It appears the drawings fall into seven categories that have evolved organically… appropriately.

each series teaches me more. It’s like the child acquiring language: the most important words come first. Subtleties, nuance, syntax and good grammar follow. A sense of humour and a little weirdness grow out of fluency. I am not fluent in whatever language this is, and I certainly don’t know what it is I’m trying to say yet. But I’m aiming at weird and funny maybe?

But I think I’m at the point where I can order a good meal, a beer, find out where the loo is….

 


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It can take an artist a long time to figure out how their sketchbook works best for them, and once the habits are established, the sketchbook is as individual as a fingerprint. Mine is no exception. I have documented mine a few times in these posts so I won’t go into that now, but I have recently though been pondering the nature of the audio sketchbook. I’m sure other songwriters have things that work for them, but it’s not really been my area as a developing artist over the decades so I’m sort of working things out as I go along.

I have my songwriting notebook: a notebook of lyrics as they come to me. Handwritten, scribbled, adjusted and edited. The pages themselves might be, or become, messy with the working. But the pages are titled, dated, catalogued very precisely. This is the lesson I first learned from Dan Whitehouse and it has stood me in good stead as I am easily able to find things at a later date. On these pages I will also note who has participated and contributed, and where any audio files can be found. It’s habit. Thats all. “Housekeeping” which is far more diligent than my housekeeping.

The audio files are also dated, and in folders, and backed up…so the development of each song can be tracked back. If that Sheeran bloke steals something of mine, I will have historical documentation to prove I got there first!

My problem is my brain hasn’t been trained to recollect the audio without going in to each file and listening for two minutes before going “oh yeah, that!” So it is time consuming for me. My visual brain is faster.

Having said all of the above, I am having to adapt and put in place a system to help me organise my slow ears/brain. I am embarking on a plan to develop and record some solo songs/sound pieces. I am in the stage where I collect, review, experiment… try to find ways of going about things that are unique to me. My partner in this solo endeavour (oxymoron I know) is the aforementioned Dan Whitehouse, who has been my songwriting mentor all along. His brilliance lies in his understanding of what I am trying to achieve, showing me what is possible, but without interrupting my slow processes… unless he has a eureka moment…

We have had three studio sessions where play is the order of the day really. I sing chords (clever huh?) and say things like “Can the washing machine sound a bit more violinny? Like it’s breathing?” (the answers are “yes” and “yes”).

Over those three sessions we have established a basic methodology that incorporates my looper, a selection of sound scraps, and some overlaid layers of vocal, and a wide variety of production styles and methods. Now I’m not saying what we have is the finished article, because it isn’t. But it is a page from my sketch book. It is a moment of departure marked. Stick a pin in here, a post-it note, and move along. This track is the reference for the next stage.

It’s going to take a while.

https://soundcloud.com/elena-thomas/we-are-the-kiss-20-02-18/s-rEuXn


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As a means of self-preservation, I keep my head below the parapet.

I don’t watch the news, or read the paper on a regular basis. I like my news sanitised and palatable. I know. I am accused often of being naive and idealistic. I like it that way, because my alternative is a very dark place that I fear.

This week however, I have found myself accidentally faced with television news. People are taking lives. I know they always have. I’m not stupid. Angry young men shoot people. Angry older men take knives to their own children. People jump in front of trains and off tall buildings… All within a ten mile radius of my house. The human condition is bleak. Children are getting shot in places where they should feel safe and protected. More and more ordinary people have nowhere to live. My local town centre now has more people living in doorways than I can count on both hands. It used to be maybe one, or two.… I cannot do anything about any of it. My circle is closed up around me but I can’t keep anyone safe. One son is a couple of hundred miles away, another is living under this roof but is dealing with child protection issues on an hourly basis. They are both adults I have no means of protecting.

Meanwhile I’m drawing stupid little drawings. I’m doing colouring in. I’m regressing to the child because the adult has no fucking idea what to do about anything.

I’ll do some sewing. I’ve bought some baby vests and I thought I might do some lovely embroidery and appliqué to spread some palatable and aesthetically agreeable disease on them.

This morning, my anger at the anger has forced me to get out an 8B pencil. Wow. There’s anger for you.


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So this is the waiting room.

The studio, condensed down to the immediate and the current. Future work cannot be considered here. Past work is in a different dimension.

It is a nest, undeniably. For which I am teased. This afternoon is a weird one. I sit in the chair isolated from everything outside the circle by the use of laptop, headphones and sketchbook. I am turned away from the room (husband, ironing pile, unopened mail). An artificial isolation perhaps, looking out into the brown garden, but necessary.

The song in my headphones and head is an appropriate choice: the lyrics stick:

It’s ok, it’s all right, nothing’s wrong

Tell Mr Man with impossible plans

Just to leave me alone

In the place where I make no mistakes

In the place where I have what it takes

A verse taken out of the context of Elliot Smith’s “Waltz #2”, but a sentiment that cuts to the bone today.

I have had three amazingly brilliant music studio days, doing my own work and supporting other people’s. I have learned things… mostly about myself. I’ve been told I’m good at something. I have good pitch apparently. In that little booth with the headphones on, I have what it takes. No one told me I was good at this before, not really. I’ve been complimented on my voice – it’s lovely to be told nice things about your performance – but this practical application of a skill I didn’t have a clue I had, or was even a thing… it’s had an effect on me. I’m accurate, therefore quick, therefore expensive studio time is saved. I’m useful. This might to others seem to be a small thing, but today I retreat to think about it all.

I am at the very beginning stages of trying to construct a body of musical work that is just me. That is very difficult. I’m having trouble focussing. It’s like knitting smoke. I’m distracted by the skills/talent/experience of others and forget myself… so it is taking a while to figure out what it is that I want. I value others’ musical experience and knowledge over my own, definitely. I have to remind myself that I am of value, and that my opinions, ideas and different skill set have worth. I have something unique to offer other people’s ears. My ear to brain transport system is slow, synapses are on slow-burn, not quick-fire. What takes someone with musical training five minutes can take me five weeks.

I suppose yesterday’s revelation of a gift/skill came as a shock. yet again I review myself. I retreat to my armchair studio, with my back to the world while I try to make sense of it… “in the place where I make no mistakes, in the place where I have what it takes…”

…troubling… art is all about making mistakes and being open to what is revealed. Discovering you might have what it takes in a new arena is terrifying, so I retreat to the safe place.

Maybe that is what “studio” is as an etherial hard-to-pin-down concept? The place to retreat to and venture out from? Whether that is the space in your head, protected by headphones and sketchbook, or the physical space with walls and a door and window that I’m waiting for at the moment is perhaps not as relevant as I think?

I know that if I am to create this piece/collection/body of music that is completely an expression of me, then I’m going to make lots of mistakes, and make lots of false starts. How I view my internal/external “studio” could be crucial to my mental health.

When I started writing this as scribbling in my sketch book I didn’t know if it was going to stay in the pages or get published on the blog (some posts are transcribed from my sketchbook, some are directly typed here).

It is a truth – my truth – that I waver between the capable and incapable; the novice and the accomplished; the bucket of self-doubt and the egotist; the ugly, fat woman and the beautiful, desirable woman. In my lucid moments I know that this probably applies to most people, most women, most artists.

Some days I can strut out and do my stuff.

Some days I curl up, unable to cope with the external.

Tomorrow is a different world.


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On the outside it looks like I’ve changed tack. Someone asked me how I frame the art and music within my practice the other day.
These days I’m more comfortable talking about this because I do actually have it “framed” in a way.

After weeks and weeks and weeks of painstaking drawing and colouring I’m now in a music studio. I’m reviewing a selection of songs, consisting of a bundle of lyrics, a few basic recordings and half-baked ideas. A sketch book if you will. Dan is helping me look at them objectively. This is a crit. Which elements “fit” the philosophy, which are worth pursuing, which are ripe and which need to stay on the tree for further thought and development.
My art background has helped me here. Decades of self, peer and group crits become professional habit. My beloved songs can take it on the chin. If the chorus isn’t good enough then it gets picked at until it is.

As I listened to yesterday’s recordings at the table, I catch sight of those labels. It is equally valid that I can attach them to the songs. It works. It’s interesting.

The songs I’m working on are for me. They’re not attached to the drawn and stitched this time… Or not at the moment at least. These ideas are not band songs. Either lyrically, musically or conceptually they are too heavy on the Elena to pitch to the band. This is another first. At the moment I don’t know what will become of them. Dan asked if they would be an album, or at least an EP… They might. I’m unsure of the shape of them yet. This weekend we examine them, shore them up where/if they need it. After yesterday they’re more real already. I have divided them into piles now, and know which three or four we are ready to push towards a basic recording. Those we will look at again today. The discarded three will go back in the pot for another day, and there are three or four more that need a little extra something that I shall work on before the next session.

So I use a different media. So what? My themes are the same, my philosophy remains the same… Occasionally poked at by Dan to check. My working methods actually are remarkably similar in the way I collect and manipulate material… Gather, compare…. Then select…. Then work into some more. I could just as easily be stitching or drawing.

This part of the work was (comparatively) easy to find a parity. And now I’m comfortable with it. I’m comfortable with how a recording fits with the rest of my output. What is not so easy for me to articulate still is performance. But that is getting closer. And I care less that I’m unable to accurately state why performance is important. It just is, and I love it… So it obviously should be there in the mix.

To be honest I’m the only one that’s bothered. And that I think is just part of the artist I am. I’m far more methodical than I like to admit. I’m not messy in the making and I don’t like to be messy in the thinking. I like my thoughts to be clear. Especially as I like the work (in whatever format) to be ambiguous. I still enjoy that point of balance… The point at which people have been drawn in by the outward pleasantness, the comfort of beautiful embroidery, or a well crafted song, with interesting chords and decent harmonies… The point at which its too late…. They suddenly see the ugliness when it’s too late. They suddenly hear the lyric and understand that the song is about rage and jealousy, couched in metaphor and gold thread. That’s where the good stuff is.

And I think that point is where the performance lies… I’m capitalising on what I am… How I look, at last, is useful. I am a grey haired, overweight woman in a marks and spencer cardigan…. I’m singing about anger and death and infidelity with a sweet mellow voice to the rhythm of a bossanova or a delicately plucked waltz.

It’s all the same stuff really.


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