My favourite artists tend to be those that totally break the mould. They sound like no-one else, they think differently to their peers, they challenge existing genre labels, and often inadvertently invent entirely new genres in the process. To select just a few, I’m talking about people like Brian Eno, Scott Walker, Tool, Autechre, Einstürzende Neubauten, Boards of Canada, James Blake, and Kyuss - more on them later. People often claim that there’s nothing original left in music anymore, everything is just recycled. But I believe that all the above have managed to truly achieve something original.
During the early stages of an artist’s career, while we are learning and developing our abilities, one of the key challenges is creating a unique voice - becoming a recognisable and original entity. This is something that many of us struggle with. During these early stages, finding inspiration in other artists is absolutely essential, and, indeed, this is likely the key reason why we decided to learn the craft. We fell in love with something, a painting, a style of music, a movie, and decided ‘that’s what I want to do!' However, while trying to emulate our heroes is an excellent place to start, there is a danger of slipping into ‘copycat' territory.
I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject, nor can I claim to be completely unique and original, though I am striving. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, and many of the world’s greatest artists started with humble beginnings, simply trying to mimic their heroes. However, not all of them followed this approach.
‘If you’re trying to do something different, you can’t ask someone for help, because they will make it not different.’ - Josh Homme
One example is Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, one of my favourite bands. Take a listen to Josh being interviewed, he is a very witty and charismatic speaker. He sometimes relays a compelling story of his formative years… It was the late 80s, the time of Reagan, the Cold War. Fashions were weird. Pop music was becoming heavily synthesised and commercial sounding. Whitney Houston and Milli Vanilli reigned supreme. Meanwhile, out in the Californian desert, near Joshua Tree National Park, a creative community was emerging.
One of the cornerstones of the desert rock scene that sprung from these dry sands was the conviction that you had to be authentic and original. Anyone that sounded like a clone was shunned, or ridiculed. This drive to originality ultimately influenced the birth of Kyuss (Josh’s band before Queens of the Stone Age). While an early incarnation of the band drew inspiration from a variety of rock and punk genres, one of their defining influences was their surroundings, the desert.
When their gigs started moving from inside local garages and living rooms, and out into the generator parties amid the vastness of the Joshua Tree desert, they found that they had to adapt their sound. The faster, more aggressive styles they were playing at the time didn’t quite seem to gel with the majestic horizon. They started playing differently, in a way that was more resonant with the scenery. They slowed down, they played longer, more hypnotic riffs, they detuned their strings way down low... and the defining sound of Kyuss was born.
Within this tale is an important lesson. Kyuss found inspiration in something outside of themselves, something outside of their limited universe of musical references. They didn’t simply mix and match musical styles, they crossed a boundary. They used a completely different frame of reference to inform their development, which ultimately helped them to discover a unique sound.
Adopt a New Frame of Reference
The concept of borrowing notions, influences, or ideas from outside your usual frame of reference seems to me to be a pretty solid way to generate an original approach or creative aesthetic. This approach can be applied no matter what type of music you create, be it minimal techno or Latin jazz. It can also be applied to every other creative discipline, including glass blowing, script writing, or ballet.
Think about this for a moment in relation to your own creative endeavours. Do you find yourself striving to develop an original approach? Are you struggling to find a unique voice, or aesthetic? Is there anything in your external environment that you can derive inspiration from? Dwell on this for sometime, and think about other frames of reference you can draw from. What about your upbringing, or cultural beliefs? Is there something else that you are knowledgeable about, that resonates with you, that you could use as a source of inspiration? Could you use woodwork skills to invent a new instrument? Or have ancient religious teachings inform your approach to composition? Could you create a new piece of software that specialises in generative art? What about employing the latest scientific technologies to invent a totally new art form? When you look outside of your usual frame of reference, the possibilities are pretty expansive.
There’s so many more examples we could add to this list, but what about you? Are you struggling with the issue of originality? Have you used any interesting sources for creative influence, or heard about someone who has? We’d love to hear from you.
In the meantime, keep at it.