Parenthood and artistry...My hands smell of bleach and I’m wondering if I remembered to register an ISRC code with PPL.  My son waving a school form in his hand and I’ve just received an email from a radio station about airplay. This request then makes me have a slight panic as I realise that I haven’t prepared the EPK (electronic press kit) for the single. There’s laundry everywhere and I haven’t done my invoicing. This is the day to day reality of being an artist in 2019. I’m a mother, a singer-songwriter, a friend, a painter, a daughter, a writer, a sister and my manager all rolled into one. Everyday I spin plates to make things work at home and at work. 

There are lots of romantic notions about artists and how they live. As though we spend our days drinking coffee and pondering life’s realities whilst creating something beautiful in a loft apartment. For me, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes I do drink a lot of coffee and I do spend a lot of thinking, but my life is surrounded my other elements as well. I’m a single mother of two children, I live in a terraced house in a market town, I have a job as well as running a business. I’ve learnt to be creative in small pockets of time, whilst cooking the dinner or after I’ve put the kids to bed, while there’s an hour of quiet or while I’m sat on a train to town. In fact, large spaces of time seem intimidating now; they have no structure, no deadline to spur me on. That one hour slot of time makes me seize the day and be decisive in my work and thinking. Before I had children I could waste hours on projects that didn’t really go anywhere. Juggling family life and work has made me more focused on what I want. 

From the outside, my day must look haphazard and chaotic. Sometimes as I’m being creative, other ideas spring to mind and I have to shelve them so that I can get on with my day. I used to find this frustrating but more recently I’ve found that it makes me hone in on what I really want and what will work. It makes me work savvy. The chaos adds to the creativity; it’s a constant stream of ideas. 

Sometimes you have to be forgiving of situations that arise that you have no control over. Sometimes projects get delayed, or they change. Sometimes things just don’t get done. Life will take over. The secret is not to be too hard yourself and ride the wave as it comes towards you. 

If anything I want to encourage you to create and work in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. There will never be a perfect time to create. An idea has to lift off the ground at some point. If you wait for that perfect moment, you will miss an opportunity. I used have have an office to work in; over time that office has become a bedroom for one of my children. This morning I answered my emails at a small workspace in my kitchen; it’s also where I paint. Yesterday I worked on a recording of a new song; no fancy office, I curled on the sofa with my laptop. It’s less than ideal, but if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen. It takes resilience and tenacity to work through the challenges, but it is worth it in the end. It is possible to balance family life and work space. 

All dreams start from small beginnings. A humble seed may take years to grow, but it can grow into a mighty oak tree. So while I’m writing this blog, my hands smell of bleach from cleaning the sink, I’m uploading a song to a music distributer and the washing machine is on in the background. It’s all in a day’s work and I love it! Don’t let the excuses stop you from creating. 

Artists Have Big Mouths… And we have a responsibility to speak out about issues that concern others as well as ourselves. Art is about creating something beautiful, but sometimes it can also be about reflecting the ugliness, injustice, unfairness or the fractured nature of the world. An artist should represent the world as they see it. It’s about using our gifts to help others as well as entertaining. 

I’m always looking for new and creative ways to use art to promote causes or make a statement in the public arena. Back in May of this year, I was asked, along with a group of other artists, to create some art for a political protest that would highlight the differences in the gender pay gap for ministers in the Baptist Union. The project was presented to the Baptist Council at the beginning of November and was installed in secret before the meeting started so that no-one knew that it was on the agenda. The art installation was a response to a survey of salaries and benefits across the national ministerial spectrum.

All the artists were asked to create a leaf in any medium or style that represented one of the respondents from the survey: I was given the profile of a senior male minister on full benefits and salary. None of the artists knew what what the rest of the team were creating; this meant that each leaf was unique and distinct from the others, highlighting our individuality and the uniqueness the Lord has given each of us. The project was well received and provoked conversation about how to further the study and conversation of equality within ministry. Each member of the council got to take a leaf home with them to remind them of the discussion. 

It’s been an interesting and challenging project and not one that I would have have naturally gravitated to, but it’s allowed me to explore art in another arena and make art that speaks out for other people. Initially I found the protest element intimidating because of the possibility of rejection. However once I got past that I could see the true value of the project. It’s taken me outside of my comfort zone and made me think about other ways to use art writing, and music in society. Who knows where it will lead? I’ll keep protesting… the creative way.

 

 

Yesterday I hit a wall with the lyrics for a new song. I stared at the same piece of paper for two hours. I played the same part for two hours. NOTHING. Typically the week before I’d written 90% of the song and then got stuck on the last two lines. For many songwriters, this is the point that is “make or break” as to whether a song will be finished or not. I played the song over and over in the hope that something would materialise, but no. In the end I did a Facebook Live session about my frustration (you can watch it here) and it turns out that many of you have been through the same frustrations.

There seems to be a perception that songwriters just write a hit song in ten minutes and its complete. In reality, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind each song. There’s more than an element of truth in the saying 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. Often with lyrics, the version that lands up in the published domain will have had umpteen rewrites and edits to get to the final product.

So a morning was wasted. Or was it? It’s in these times of perceived lack of growth that our giftings really develop. We learn perseverance, tenacity, patience; all good fertilizers for creativity and art. We learn how to how practise our gifting: we can have all the talent in the world but if we don’t practise songwriting, our talent will never grow and flourish. We look for new ways of doing things, we try new techniques and we seek to understand the purpose of the barren season. We also learn to make the most of what we’ve got; I got two hours of piano practise out of my wasted lyrics session. That’s two hours of practise that I hadn’t planned but happened anyway.

So how did I break out of this lyrical dead end? A change of scene always helps; I went for a drive and a walk and cleared my mind of all the clutter. I pondered on what the song was really about… Had I conveyed the theme adequately in the current lyrics? Was there more that I needed to say? I also have several notebooks and cloud storage with ideas for songs which I plundered through looking for inspiration. Sometimes something that I scribbled down three years ago has relevance for the current song topic, so it’s worthwhile keeping old ideas for future projects. A couple of days later I wrote down a random idea that turned out to be the missing lyrics. Once the pressure was removed from the situation, there were the words waiting for me.

What I’m trying to say here is that all experiences whether bad or good can lead to growth and development. It’s the ability to keep going through barren seasons that lead us to have expertise in our field and the tenacity to deal with whatever our craft throws at us. Although we may want to quit and have an easy life, we gain more from continuing and seeing the task through. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about the “daily pages” where she writes down everything on her mind each day. I can’t say that I’ve ever had the time to do this, but I can see the value in practising a creative art form daily. If you are in the habit of writing, then you are more likely to prioritise it, and it becomes part of your daily or weekly routine. The same is true for any art form or project that you’re working on. So as I said in my Facebook live video, don’t quit, keep going, deal with where you are, find a way to make it work and the rest will follow.

You can listen to the new song You’re So Hard On Me here.

In 2015 I was in a dark place when I had this vision from the Lord. Two years on and life has changed dramatically and is slowly getting better. I believe the vision was to encourage me and others in this position. I still need to finish the painting so feedback is welcome!

 

Helen sunDo you remember when Mike and the Mechanics sang Over My Shoulder? I used to sing along to that song in bedroom, standing on my bed, yelling into a hairbrush. I was eighteen at the time. Twenty one years on, nothing has changed, except now I repeat the same performance with my eight year daughter. One the sad things about the song is that it is full of regret and hankering after the past. I was driving to work the other day when this song came on the radio and it got me thinking the consequences of looking back when we should be concentrating on the future. At the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked back and she turned into a pillar of salt. She was told not to, but a fleeting moment of curiosity ended her life. I don’t do regret, it’s a lens that distorts the reality of the future. It leads to nothing and makes us focus on our failures.

If we constantly have our eyes on the rear view mirror, we repeat the cycle of who we were and not what we could become. Time allows to move forward but never back. We are given a gift of moving  forward and it’s up to us to choose how we react. We can meet the future with hope and expectation or with fear and sadness.  Even when we pass through seasons that are not what we want, every day moves us closer to something much better… even when we don’t feel that way. When Alanis Morissette sang “the only way out is through”, she hit the nail on the head. Sometimes we have to grit our teeth and believe that there are better things on the other side of the season.

A few months ago I hit a wall with the whole music thing. Everything I had built up came crashing down and try as I might I could not rebuild it. Truth be told, I was too knackered and broken to fix it. Years of being a freelancer, performer, teacher, composer and everything else had worn me down. I kept looking in the rear view mirror and what I had lost and wondering whether there was any point continuing in music. But the law of life is that as something dies, something else is born and new shoots begin to sprout. Things are already moving on and I’m getting back some of the music opportunities that I lost a long time ago. I have opportunity to reinvent my music and in turn myself. Life constantly evolves and we should take every opportunity to grow and develop.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s don’t look back over your shoulder, face the future and reinvent yourself. Reinvent yourself

 

IMG_2106We all assume artists will go on forever, that the muse will constantly demand some creative output. However, a few days ago I read a quote from Carole King stating that she no longer writes songs and prefers to write novels instead. I wasn’t shocked but I was intrigued; she claims that she feels that she’s just writing about the same topics over and over again. Notably she hasn’t stopped being creative, just channelled it into a new form. King isn’t the first musician to do this and she won’t be the last, but it can be hard for fans to understand why their favourite artist no longer wants to create in the same way. This got me thinking about seasons and how life changes and evolves…

Well it turns out the that The Byrds were right, “There is a season… And a time to every purpose under heaven.” Some people love change, while others hate it. Change often helps us to refocus and try something new; what seems unwelcome can actually be the making of us. Who knows if Carole King is the next big novelist? Only time will tell…

Seasons are necessary for shaping our character and making us more robust. Without challenges and successes, we wouldn’t know what we are capable of or how strong we are. What’s meant to throw us can often be the making of us. Seasons also bring variety and colour into our lives; without it, life would always be the same.  One thing we can be sure of though, is that no season lasts forever. If you’re in a difficult situation, rest assured that it’s not forever, things will change and improve. What I admired about Carole King is that when she faced a wall in her creativity, she found a way to climb over it and start something new. She hasn’t wasted her talent, just shifted her focus. And of course, she is still touring and delivering stonking shows.

It’s knowing how to respond to change that dictates how successfully we will navigate the mountain high and low valley. The composer Aaron Copland retired from composing when his health started declining. He gracefully bowed out on a high and also went on to write a two volume autobiography with help from another writer.  Failing health did not stop him! So next time the season changes whether it is for better or worse, find a way to be positive and find a route through. You may find you’ve got hidden talents! The the show isn’t over until the fat lady sings!

Half written songs, rejections, unshakeable belief and failed projects; it turns out that you’ve got to have guts to be an artist! Last week I had a conversation that sadly I’ve had over and over again in the last fifteen years…

Person: “so I hear you’re a musician”

Me: “yes that’s right”

Person: “so what do you do for a living?”

Me: SIGH…

IMG_3524You see no-one ever believes you when you say you’re a singer, musician, artist. People either think that I’m going through a phase and that I’ll get over it or that I have delusions of grandeur. But what if being an artist is just about wanting to create something beautiful and represent the world that you see around you? Art has many purposes: social comment, raising awareness, soothing emotions and trauma and “just because”.

But I’ve discovered that this isn’t for the faint hearted, its not just about singing, playing piano and painting a few nice pictures here and there.  I’ve found that to follow those artistic purposes involves painful honesty, boldness and courage. Earlier this week Adele, admitted that she didn’t think she could write another record and that the “25” album took much longer than she thought as the songwriting was difficult. The reality is that the creative process takes a piece of you and this is emotionally and physically exhausting.

Then there’s the practical side that no-one ever warns you about. Like all freelancers and business owners, I have to go out and find work opportunities and more often then not, if there aren’t any, I have to create them. Everyday I work as my own manager, promoter, booker, marketer, financier, administrator as well as composing and dreaming up new ideas. The launch of every new album, EP, single is a gut wrenching roller coaster ride of excitement and terror. Will the songs be well received? Will the project break even, let alone run into profit? Have I just released some terrible songs?

The exciting part of being an artist is that you get to be a pioneer! Artists are often called into uncharted areas where there is little creativity to shed light into darkness. We’re called to try new things, expressions, media to see where it will go. It’s risk taking – we put our hearts on our sleeves in order to encourage, enlighten, warn and protect. The downside of this can mean that we risk rejection, being misunderstood, loneliness and sometimes humiliation. The artist’s world is a brave one; it means going out on a limb.

Artistry also means accepting a Bohemian lifestyle. Artists choose a lifestyle that the world says is unconventional, different and not “normal”. We are called to think and see the world differently: to dream… Sometimes we choose to create when the mood takes us, other times we are forced to put pen to paper and hope that we can conjure the magic. We are often misunderstood as the creative force means working with ideas, notions and timetables that are different to what the world says is acceptable.

The whole package of artistry means being DARING in everything from self belief, to work, to lifestyle. It means daring to be different and knowing your own mind. You need to seek out others who will support you through all seasons, not just the good times and the successes. They may not always understand but they are the type of people who will support you no matter what. You got to have guts to be an artist…

When I was 17 I had a dream of how my songwriting career would pan out… I would live in London in a tiny bedsit, just me and my piano and spend my days writing beautiful songs whilst trying not to starve to death from crap pay and late night gigs. My days would be spent thinking up new ways to be bohemian, playing my Carpenters vinyl and reading trendy paperbacks. To some extent my student days were like this: I lived in a damp house with 3 friends and piano, I drank Cinzano and Jack Daniels (not together in the same glass, that would just be weird), listened to Sarah McLachlan and Sophie B Hawkins (showing my age now!) and bought clothes from Camden market.

However my life 20 years on is very different. I’m married with two children and although I lived in London for 11 years, I now live in the Home Counties in a sensible house that hasn’t seen any bohemian, artistic deaths. My songwriting techniques have changed over the years and I’ve learned to adapt as my situation changes particularly with motherhood and the demands of running a business. Nothing ever prepares you for these changes but here are the things that I have found interrupt my songwriting…

Blog photo sept 15

  • At the crucial lyric or harmony development stage, my 2 year old will always fill his nappy with something disgusting and demand a nappy change. Not only does it disrupt my creative flow, it completely and utterly kills the mood…
  • I stuff myself with food. Yep I write 8 bars and then immediately think that I deserve some sort of treat for 15 minutes of concentration. Hello treadmill!
  • Suddenly everyone wants to visit. My doorbell only ever rings when I’m working, yet no-one ever shows up when I’m watching TV or cleaning the sink.
  • The smell of burning food. I can’t tell you how many dinners I’ve ruined by “just having a few minutes on the piano” while its cooking. I always get into the song, forget the dinner and serve up something cremated with a side of “would you like to hear my new song?”. My family aren’t impressed.
  • My children join in… There’s nothing more distracting than my 7 year old daughter singing one of my songs in face or my 2 year old son banging the piano and pushing me out the way so he can have a go.
  • The piano is too messy. I can’t deal with untidiness in the area I want to be creative in. If it’s not tidy then I’m not writing. I’ve spent many hours procrastinating under the guise that  “I can’t possibly write unless the ambience is right!”.
  • I’ll just check Facebook, Twitter, my emails. LISTEN UP HELEN: NO-ONE EVER WROTE A SONG BY READING FACEBOOK.
  • I get lonely.
  • The spreadsheet of doom… or otherwise known as “The album song list”. This can either cripple or energise my composing. It’s either “Ooooh I’ve written 8 decent songs that could go on the album, let’s write a hit!” or “Great. 8 crap songs, let’s see if I can completely kill the album”.

And then there are all the other things: accounts, emails, promotion and of course writing blogs! So I’m off to write a song…

It will take as long as it takes…

Last year I embarked on writing the new album; an exciting new adventure filled with lots of creativity. Or so I thought… Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE songwriting and creating new music. However, I couldn’t find my joy with it. Years of having to write to a deadline whilst under the pressure of teaching, running a business and holding a family together were beginning to catch up with me. Previously I had felt that the quality of the music I was producing wasn’t up to standard and that I hadn’t got sufficient time to think and prepare the material.

11666043_10153166177393863_2720499530418960870_nI was also becoming entangled in the machine… Constant promotion, constant reinvention, constant campaigns were getting in the way of writing and in 2013 when I went on maternity leave I made a vow that things would be different when I returned to work nine months later. I’m not decrying that these elements aren’t important, but they were beginning to supersede what I was meant to be doing. The pressure to continually produce something new was becoming immense, and in my mind this way of working doesn’t always mean quality. I’m not driven my money (if I was I wouldn’t be making music!), I’m driven by artistry and the desire to create, and represent life as I see it through music. With everything that was going on, I didn’t feel that I had done my best. Something had to give.

The journey of artistry and creativity over a lifetime is varied. Sometimes the path of creativity is exciting and sometimes it is downright boring, other times it is full of joy and then it can be excruciating. It’s messy, outrageous, quiet, dormant, unrelenting and possessive all in one go. It changes all the time, it’s never the same. For me, the only thing that stays constant is the goal to produce something of beauty that helps others.

The upshot of taking my time is that I am finally writing the songs I’ve always wanted to! I’ve got time to go deeper into the subjects that intrigue me and compose in the styles that aren’t necessarily commercial but suit the topics on my heart. I have a group of trusted colleagues that listen to my work during the writing process and give me feedback, so far their reaction has been great and they are loving the new direction that things are moving in, which means the world!

So please excuse me while I take my time, lie in a field, staring at the sky and be excessively artistic for the next few months. This will mean many trips to Starbucks while I ponder on the issues of the day and will lead to huge piles of manuscript paper being left all over my house (this really winds my family up!). I like doing my best; I want to do my best, so the new album is going to take as long as it takes… Hhhmmm that sounds like a good album title!