As producers we have no control over when studio magic happens, writes Gregory Scott. All we can do is turn up in the studio and do the work; the rest is out of our hands.
Many moons ago, I read a book on meditation. Surprise surprise, I spent more time reading about meditation than I did actually meditating. But I’m not here to pontificate on the dubious habit of ‘researching something’ rather than ‘doing something’. Not today, at least.
Trying to ‘clear your mind’ puts you in a position of trying to control something that is not yours to control
Today, I’d like to get you thinking about what it means to be an artist, and specifically what your responsibility is – and what it isn’t – when it comes the process of making your art. I’d like to do this because I think we all have a tendency to get in our own way, to frustrate our muse, without realising how or why we’re doing it.
Back to my book on meditation, this is how it connects: I’d always thought meditation was the act of clearing your mind, of being physically still and ‘not thinking’ – of being blank in the head. It turns out this is a widespread misconception, one that is both inaccurate and impractical. Trying to ‘clear your mind’ sets a bar that is almost impossible to achieve and, more importantly, it puts you in a position of trying to control something that is not yours to control – namely the coming and going of your thoughts.
That was news to me, and understanding this simple piece of wisdom opened a whole new world when it came to my own meditative practice. But in all my reading on the topic, there was one piece of advice in particular that struck me deeply the instant I read it. I realised I had been told something whose application stretched far beyond the realm of meditation, into art – into all of life itself.
The general idea is that, for the five or 20 minutes that you sit and meditate, let go of your need to judge and/or control the process, what it looks like, how ‘well’ you meditate, how much time you focus on breath versus how much time you spend lost in thought.
And this is how simply and elegantly it was stated: sit on the cushion with the intent to meditate. Everything else that happens while you sit there is none of your business.
It’s the taking part that matters
Oh my. How does that work? Whether it’s meditation or programming a drum groove, why bother learning all the techniques, why go through the trouble of studying the philosophy and spending time practising the craft if, once you’re actually doing it, everything that happens is ‘none of your business’? More to the point, what does ‘none of your business’ even mean?
if I don’t show up and do the work it won’t happen, which is why I show up and do the work.
This is what it means to me: first, it means that the most important factor, perhaps the only important factor – and the only one which you have any control over – is that you sit down and do the thing in question.
If you adopt this view completely, the only conversation you ever need to engage is: Am I doing it? Yes. OK then. Your ‘work’ is done, and the rest comes down to a million factors that are outside of your control, from your mood to the types of ideas that come into your head to the way your mind hears the results.
Once you go beyond that – once you engage the How well am I doing this?, things begin to unravel fast.
To be clear, there is a massive difference between knowing the topline you’re hearing doesn’t work for a song and thinking any one of the following: why can’t I get this right, this song is lame, I’d be embarrassed if the guys on the forum heard this, DJ Suk’s toplines are so much more interesting than mine, my music sounds amateurish.
I’ve been slowly (and painfully) cultivating the habit of not feeding those kinds of thoughts, of not engaging them in a conversation. They still come, but I ignore them, and so they come less often as time goes by.
And nowadays, when I go into the studio to record a vocal, I adopt the same perspective I do when I sit on my couch to meditate: I show up, I set levels, I hit record, then I get out of the way. I set intentions, but I don’t attach to outcomes. I work for a final take, but I don’t tell myself I’m going to get my final take, because I have no idea if that’s actually going to happen.
I recognise that my capabilities, especially in something as subjective and elusive as ‘art’, vary from day to day and even moment to moment.
What I do know is that if I don’t show up and do the work it won’t happen, which is why I show up and do the work. But sometimes I spend three hours recording, and my mind is numb, and I’ve lost all perspective, and every take sounds the same or they all sound different but none sound good to me.
And that’s alright.
Sometimes I get fired up the instant the cue mix hits my headphones, and every take sounds like radio gold while I’m performing. (When this happens I’ve long since learned to simply enjoy that while it’s there, but not believe it for one second; too many times I’ve unmuted the speakers, hit playback, and wondered what cruel joker replaced my radio gold hit performances with the mediocre drivel now assaulting my delicate ears.)
And that’s alright too. I’ve trained myself to calmly hit delete on any/all funky takes, and get right back on the horse. As a side note, I love the delete key; I’m a huge fan of forcing my hand, trusting my instincts, and moving relentlessly forward.
Detachment: why ceding control is liberating
How does this all tie in with the notion that what happens is none of my business? Simple: I don’t get bent out of shape if things don’t go the way I wanted or expected them to. I approach the work in a way that exemplifies my idea of ‘professional’, which means I do what I do with care, precision, attention to detail, and the full extent of my capabilities.
But it also means I maintain a certain degree of detachment; I recognise that my capabilities, especially in something as subjective and elusive as ‘art’, vary from day to day and even moment to moment. I acknowledge that while I have influence over the process, I do not have control over it. I cannot force inspiration to come or a magical, emotionally charged performance to manifest out of thin air.
Whether the magic actually happens – that’s the part which is none of my business.
What I can do is practise my craft with discipline and show up in the studio with consistency because I understand that maximises the chances of magic happening. Whether the magic actually happens – that’s the part which is none of my business.
I don’t take it personally, I don’t curse heavens, I don’t get impatient with other drivers or act grumpy with the cashier when I take a break and get some coffee, and – probably most importantly of all – I don’t let it stop me from coming back at the mic, confronting the work, and hammering away until my head aches, my fingers are raw and some semblance of emotion pops out of the monitors, reassuring me that all the effort was worthwhile.
That gets me high for a while. Eventually, I come back down to earth, grit my teeth, and do it all over again.
Gregory Scott is an engineer, producer and the owner of Kush Audio.