On a recent tour, I played a frantically put together house show that was a last ditch effort in saving multiple cancelled shows. Seeing as my show was one of those that was cancelled, it was a complete relief to be able to play and I met some awesome people I’d only heard of in name before. One of the bands from a different tour came to mind when I started preparing this article about diversifying your music. The reason is, their sound was completely bland. They were by far the most solid, energetic, and talented band at the show. But they had little to no originality. I had absolutely no desire after seeing them to go listen to their music, because I’d heard it before from different artists.
Unless the goal is to pay homage, it’s very hard for me to even appreciate an artist with no originality. Once I write off their creativity, their entire aesthetic starts to look like a cash crop. When I play shows with these bands, the smiles become fake and their performance becomes disingenuous. Even if they are genuine, I don’t find reason to listen to them more than once. They could be great musicians, but their album won’t touch my end-of-the-year lists.
Originality comes in diversity, I believe. And too often artists put themselves in a box – intentionally or not. But if you want your music to be remembered, you need it to be unique. Here are some tips that I’ve found help me escape the dull, boring blade of genericism.
Destroy your Genre’s Boundaries
Look at the style of music you play (assuming you can find somewhere to fit yourself) – what are its most sacred musical characteristics? My advice to you is to forget, destroy, and ruin those. They can too easily become limitations that keep your music sub par. Don’t get me wrong, they can be great suggestions, but never, ever should they become rules. Are you a country drummer? Start doing more on the upbeat. Do you play in a three chord punk band? Start using four, five, or six chords – in fact, make some of them jazz chords while you’re at it. The point is to not let your genre or style’s characteristics restrict you.
Note: As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a punk rock record that surprised me with a harmonica solo on the last track. That’s what I’m talking about!
Try Things You’re Not Comfortable With
There’s an Ian Mackaye interview where he talks about the stage in which a musician is learning how to properly play his or her instrument (I think the interview is at a college Q&A he did and that you can watch it on YouTube, though I don’t have the direct link). He refers to that time, in between expertise and clumsiness, as the time at which an artist is most creative. I wonder, if he’s right, how can an artist stay relevant and creative once they know how to do what they set out to learn in the first place? I think the answer is to keep learning new things and attempting to do things you’re not good at yet. In doing so, you’ll always be writing creative music, because you’ll always be learning and trying new things. So go ahead and do things you’re not comfortable with. Try writing heavy parts into your soft rock songs or soft parts into your hard rock songs. Learn to play an instrument you can’t, if only for a couple bars of a song. It’s those little instances of discomfort and tension that make a song or album truly special.
Limit Yourself From Cliches
Both of the things I’ve written about thus far revolve around removing limitations from yourself musically, but now I’m going to talk about the one instance in which a limitation is good: Cliches. Limit yourself from cliches. I first experienced the joy of this playing in my previous band, Sheep Among Wolves. I joined about two years in, and the band had a rule of no 1-4-5 chord progressions. This was the first time I had to strictly tell myself no to a cliche or a go-to when finishing a song. Ultimately, our music (in my totally biased opinion) was that much better and that much more interesting because of mentalities like that one. I recommend making simple rules as such. For example, if I heard a metalcore band that didn’t have chuggy breakdowns, or even if they only limited them to once a song and never in the bridge, I would probably listen to a lot more of that genre. Don’t sell yourself short with cliches – send ‘em down the river.
Play Things in Your Own Way
I hate putting a half-assed effort into learning a song, which I think is easy to do when someone tells you to play something “in your own way.” But there’s also a beauty to being able to say “I think this sounds better than how other people play this,” and playing it in your own trademark fashion. Not for the brand, obviously, but being opinionated and trying new things creates a brand for yourself. Not only will it give you a different edge than generic contemporaries, but it will make your songs more memorable.
Listen to Different Kinds of Music
Maybe the most important factor of writing creative music is drawing inspiration from unlikely places. A musician’s technique is developed based on the genres they like, the communities they thrive in, and how they have learned over the years. Aside from playing and technical writing, different genres utilize different song structures, use of tempo and rhythm, and different kinds of chords and chord use. The best thing you can do for creative influence is listen to something that challenges you, and even if it’s not your favorite thing in the world, learn to appreciate different styles of music and different techniques. This will, I guarantee, give you new ideas and help you to think outside of your own box, which is where creativity thrives.