Craft By Zen

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On A Year of EPs

Lessons taken from Nerina Pallot’s Year of EPs

Nerina Pallot Live
Nerina Pallot Live

For every month of 2014, Nerina Pallot has released an EP. Each EP contains five new songs. Nerina is a British musician whose past works include her own releases as well as writing and producing songs for Kylie Minogue and Diana Vickers. I’ve had her new music on repeat and it excites me she took on such a challenge. It’s a huge commitment to release something every month, trying to break free of that creative struggle we all face. We begin to create something, begin crafting, grow bored, and move on to a different project. In her explanation video, she says she has started more albums than finishing them for this reason. Out of my own fears of reaching a plateau stage of my skills and projects, I want to examine where one stalls with creative work, what it means to make a commitment, and what kind of sacrifices and risks there are.

We are nearly there, friends… It’s due in no small part to your encouragement, benign disbelief that it would actually happen and wonderful feedback. You are all always in the back of my mind when I sit down at a piano to write and when I’m wondering whether I’m going slowly mad and if anybody’s listening anyway. You keep reminding me that you are, so please keep willing me on in the home straight. I promise not to let you down.

— Nerina Pallot’s Newsletter, November 9th

Nerina has met her goal every month. I bought at her EPs every month and have been following her progress along the way by listening to her music, checking her twitter page and reading her newsletters. Her hope with the project is it will help her grow as an artist. In her past, she has started a song, works on it, can’t come to call it complete, and gets excited about another song while leaving her current one in limbo. It’s a curse of perfection, and I can relate in my writing when I leave something written for weeks untouched and realize I don’t want to write on this topic anymore. For example, last week’s letter on a year in review started as an excellent idea until I started writing it. I grew to hate it after realizing I’m just copying others’ year in review. I re-wrote it on the day I was to release it and now it’s relatively acceptable, but by far not my favorite letter.

Album cover for Winter Rooms
Album cover for Winter Rooms

When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again. ‘Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough,’ writes author Alain de Botton.

— Austin Kleon, from the book “Show Your Work”

Mr. Kleon addresses everything I fear in creative work — reaching the plateau phase. At some point, you realize you aren’t moving forward anymore, and you wonder why the work you’re doing doesn’t make you think. Maybe it’s your job, your relationship, the conversations you have with others. No matter, we don’t grow, and we find ourselves saying fairly arrogant things, like “that’s the why it just is” when we’re asked why we aren’t improving. This is a mental game, and there are strategies to move away from this slump. I talked in the past about being uncomfortable, but how does one push themselves to that state? Nerina forced herself to reach that level by announcing her ‘Year of EPs’ goal.

It’s difficult to do one-up yourself. The fact is we try so hard to make everything better that we forget that it’s the crafting in which we got into this business, not the fame and fortune. I’ve heard time and again if you’re in it for the money, you’re in the wrong line of business. Creative endeavors involve a lot of time and effort for something someone will notice as such little output. But that’s the true magic of creative work, and what happens behind the scenes is just as fascinating as what is the outcome.

NPR did this series called Project Song a while back where the producers would invite a musician to come to a recording studio and spend 48 hours creating a new song following a given theme. In one episode, the producers invited Moby to create a song about a specific picture given to him, and he took his time coming up with the lyrics, composing the harmonies and melodies, and had a singer come in and do the vocals. He mixed everything together and created a song that my friend and I played on repeat for a road trip to Portland, Oregon. I was astounded of the raw commitment to the deadline and sacrifices one makes when making something out of thin air in a short amount of time.

Nerina has more than 48 hours to create her songs but the constraint still makes it hard to keep with the commitment. In the video, she says there isn’t all day to record a hundred takes and choose the best one. Maybe at most, she gets 3 or 4 takes because of the limited time with the studio and access to other musicians. She must prep well beforehand to really get the songs right. And if it doesn’t come to par with what she would like it to be, so be it. At least she finished the song. Out of these sacrifices, she has somehow made music that I really want to hear every month. Sure, not every song has been a hit, but there have been enough where my interests have been perked each time. And fans like myself are what help drive her to create more. Knowing there are loyal fans who will back your endeavors is huge motivation to get the EP done. Knowing there are readers that are appreciative and will give me feedback is a huge motivation for me to write.

Contrast this short burst of creativity to the anal perfectionist style of creativity. An example that comes to mind is the attention to detail Jackie Chan gives to his movies. In his Hong Kong work, Jackie Chan will take hundreds of shots to get his fight scenes perfectly right. He wants the fight scenes to be as real as possible where the audience can see the blows, feel the pain, and still be able to follow the rhythm. In most modern day fight scenes, most shots cut too fat to show the blow, usually to cover up the fact the main actors don’t know how to fight. But modern cinema could get the right shots, but it would just take too much time. In one movie, Jackie took 2,900 takes for a ten minute scene. It eats into his budget, but because he knows what his audience wants, he’ll go the extra mile.

Being the perfectionist and waiting until you get the perfect take is one way of recording music. Nerina has done this before if you’ve listened to her other albums. In one of her video diaries for her album, “The Graduate”, she shows you she can play all of the back-up instruments and can mix them all together into one performance. With over a decade of record producing, she distills her knowledge and forces herself in limiting her options of creating the perfect. Instead, she has to make the best take in one or two studio visits, which pushes her in her discomfort zone and she must exert a lot of time and devotion to the preparation. The big truth behind creative work is it’s actually really boring. If you watch me practice piano, I will often play the same part over and over for a few minutes. By the time I’m about to move on to the next part, you’ll get up and leave. Sure, you can take shortcuts in music making. You can slap together some lyrics, bad vocals, and editing it like crazy with auto tune. Yes, it will sound decent, but not different. It takes the years of deliberate practice and a devotion for crafting the sound you want to hear as soon as you can before it fades away.

Nerina found a different way of approaching music making where the stakes are low enough where failure is alright. But failure isn’t a bad thing. It teaches you what you can’t do and forces you to think in other ways. The audience might not like her most recent EP, and that feedback drives directly back to her next piece of work. Musicians aren’t perfect, and sometimes they don’t get it right every time. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love”, gave an excellent TED talk about failing after success. She talks about stalling the difficulty mentally to write more because she saw that others expected her to write another hit. But she knew it was a damn near impossibility to strike lightning twice. But after a change in mindset on how it was never about the success and the fear of irrelevancy is a mental game, she carried on and wrote another book. That book flopped, but it was the failure that allowed her to carry on. Regardless of outcome, Mrs. Gilbert saw that it was never about writing hits but about writing something she wanted to write. Whether or not the book was going to be a wide success is something beyond her control. What she controls is her creative endeavors. Everything else is just icing on the cake. And in the end, the really devoted Elizabeth Gilbert fans really supported her while other people who were on the “Eat, Pray, Love” hype train jumped off the boat. Mrs. Pallot has the same drive. I thought some songs could use a bit of polishing, but I love this imperfection and the feeling that there is room for an artist to improve. I am a super fan, and will support her future endeavors because I just love the work she produces.

On top of her limited time to write, produce and record her EPs, Nerina has been playing live shows. During the home straight, she played 20 live shows all around the UK. One of her EPs, number 11, contains five songs from her live show in Union Chapel back in October. She is no slouch; she’s knows she has to hustle. Her tenacity for delivering goes above and beyond, and that’s the type of artist I want to listen to.

You might be thinking, “now what?” She’s made the goal, but will her creative juices stop flowing and she will go through a slump? Her latest newsletter assures otherwise as there are more surprises in 2015. I was with an experienced runner this New Year’s Day trail running though the mountains. She told me she almost have up running last year after she meet her distance goal of finishing a marathon. She asked herself, “what now?” and took a hiatus from running and subbed it with cycling. She recently rediscovered trail running, and that’s gives a different running high. Like Nerina’s project, it took a different approach to understand why we do what we do.

I’m not worried for Nerina either, because this was her journey of rediscovery. This project has been an absolute inspiration for me because it helps me put what I do in perspective. It’s also a repeated reminder that it’s always possible to commit yourself to a project like this, but you must be aware of the sacrifices.

In closing, you should check out the entire EP collection from this past year. If you want the highlights, you must check out the following songs. I’ve also made a Spotify playlist if that’s your thing.