Thursday, 28 February 2019

Dreaming Bigger #2: Traps and Time Sinks



For me, dreaming bigger starts with clearing my own path. With a full time job and an active social life, it often seems like there's no time for being creative and working on my own projects. But deep down, I know that it's me not taking the initiative and devoting time to them. So today, it's time to put on the gardening gloves and weed out the traps and time sinks that are easy to fall into, but hard to escape.

As someone who spends a lot of time doing research online, I'm very prone to the internet rabbit hole. Whether it's the quicksand of a Buzzfeed list article or the bear trap of a pointless personality quiz, I want to avoid negative, empty interruptions.

Distractions can be good. In fact, I often get my best writing done when I allow myself to be distracted. I'll find out a nugget of information to weave into a story, or rest my brain for long enough to think of that rhyme I've been searching for. But Chrome and her cookies are on my tail with personalised clickbait, ready to pull me into a world of banal sports gossip and pictures of well-dressed micropigs.

Worst of all for me is what I call the 'clever clickbait.' The stuff that gets me even when I think I'm on high alert. A good example is this one from Zergnet: "Workers reveal what it's really like to work at a buffet." The part of me that makes me click is expecting a riveting account of the buffet industry from the people who felt trapped by their hospitality job - clearly I've been spoiled by podcasts.

The rest of me knows what's coming: endless ad-filled pages of mildly amusing, mostly disgusting stories grabbed off Reddit about what customers do when they want to pay as little as possible to eat as much as they can.

I'm not saying it's an intrinsically bad thing, but it's literally designed to make you spend as long as possible looking at adverts. And that's time I could be spending being creative. So I'm trying to be more discerning, and make sure advertisers can't just scoff at my attention buffet for free.

The other big time sink I'm trying to change my perspective on is video games. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. They're great for when I've had a very busy day or week, and I need to relax while also engaging my brain. They sit nicely in between just watching TV and actually being creative.

But there came a point where I would be looking for any spare moment when I could squeeze in some video game time. And that's not helpful when it comes to dreaming bigger. If I have a spare half an hour, I want to work on that sketch idea, or call that pub to find out if we can use their upstairs room. With a full-time job taking up my time, I should be taking advantage of those moments, not just letting them pass.

Do you still fall for clever clickbait? Could you be making better use of your fleeting moments? If you want to dream bigger with me, think about what your traps and time sinks are and how you can shake them off.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Intro: How Alt-J announced themselves

When Alt-J burst onto the alternative scene in 2012, I completely missed the boat. I actually avoided listening to them because I had them confused with X-Factor dropout boyband Union J. Their names are similar and they both reached their breakthrough in 2012, but it was a silly mistake nonetheless.

Seven years later, Alt-J's Mercury Prize-winning debut album An Awesome Wave is a true favourite of mine. Its quirky a-cappella interludes, literary lyrics and use of world music have tempted many critics to dismiss them as pretentious and aloof. But as a listening experience it's second to none. To borrow from John O'Brien's AllMusic review, its "eclectic arrays of sound are woven together so effortlessly that the results never feel forced."

And as for the whole 'pretentious' thing... well that's what this post is all about.

Alt-J made their breakthrough with their third single 'Breezeblocks', released just a week before the album it appeared on. That song is where most people heard them for the first time, but that's not the introduction I want to talk about.

I want to look at 'Intro', the first song on their first album: a song that allows Alt-J to introduce themselves to listeners on their own terms. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, they do have something to say about themselves.

The song begins with an 80-second instrumental introduction. Haunting piano chords give way to a clean, catchy guitar loop, and eventually the two combine to bring in the first line of lyrics: 'Shit them all festival, laugh at the beautiful." We're 90 seconds in and they've already told us everything we need to know.

With the rise of streaming services, and apparent decline in attention spans, mainstream music often does away with introductions altogether. According to a study of top 10 songs, it now takes an average of 5 seconds before the singer comes in, compared to 20 seconds in the 1980s.

Compared to chart music, Alt-J's intro is lingering, patient, perhaps even self-indulgent. But it, along with the jarring choice of a curse word to open their album, achieves the desired effect. They want to distance themselves from a genre, from a scene they don't relate to.

It's clear elsewhere too, particularly in the second verse: "Stickle brick, tickle quick, laugh at the beautiful." The band see today's pop music as a series of blocks being stuck together like toy bricks into familiar formulas designed to amuse, to give short-term entertainment. 'Today's charts don't see music as an art form', they say. 'But we do.'

Alt J do reveal their pretentious side in this song - disdain drips through every word. They seem to see the music they produce as 'better' than the popular music of today, simply because they approach it as an art form, rather than a way to make money. And while this may draw criticism in the papers, there are a lot of music fans who feel the same way.

Many feel ignored by a music scene that favours heavy dance beats over well-considered lyrics and carefully crafted melodies and harmonies. So can you blame Alt-J for reassuring those groups that they're not like that?

I think it's their superior attitude that gets them the label 'pretentious', rather than 'experimental' or 'indie'. I am also not the biggest fan of chart music, and I'm happy as long as Alt-J keep producing songs as beautiful as 'Taro' or as deeply vulnerable as 'Dissolve Me'. This band clearly do treat every piece they write as a piece of art, and I'm just glad they're self-aware enough to tell us that.

Pretentious or not, 'Intro' is a powerful introduction to a frankly astounding album. I listen to it again and again, and I haven't gotten bored yet. So perhaps they're onto something.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Dreaming Bigger #1: An Abstract Resolution

Happy 2019 everyone! I hope you're enjoying the new year so far, and that at least some of you are sticking to your resolutions. If you've already broken yours, don't despair! Remember that tomorrow is also the start of a new year, just not one you can buy a calendar for.

In theory, the more measurable a resolution is, the more likely we are to stick to it. And I can see the logic - give yourself a tangible outcome, and you'll be able to see the finish line as you approach it.

On the other hand, abstract resolutions are just a bit more fun, aren't they? Sure, it's unrealistic to say you'll climb Kilimanjaro this year if you've never been hiking. But the first step is commitment: confirming to yourself that this is something you seriously want to do. If you don't do that, it's likely you'll never achieve whatever it is.

With that in mind, my partner and I have made perhaps the most abstract resolution of my life: Dream bigger. In this blog series, I'll be trying to unpack what that means for me, and how I'm making it a practical part of my year.

If you read my blog at all last year, you'll know that I'm trying to take my creative projects seriously, and in my head that's inextricably linked to the idea of dreaming bigger. Growing up, I flip-flopped between wanting to be an actor and being a writer. Both competitive professions, my parents assured me, but I was sure I could do at least one of them, if not both. It's funny how certain kids can be, right? Funny, but inspiring.

When I was a kid, becoming an actor or writer was at least partly about being famous. In the world of YouTube, Twitch, Instagram and TikTok, fame seems so obtainable. If Joe Wicks can get famous for being healthy and good at selfies, surely our own fame must be just around the corner! Fame isn't really a driver for me anymore, but the idea of writing my own stuff for a living still has a huge appeal.

If I'm writing more, then it's more likely I'll write stuff I want to share. If I share the stuff I'm proud of, then I can start to build a portfolio, and eventually it might lead somewhere. Even if it doesn't, I've still used my skills to make something new and meaningful. And I like the feeling that gives me.

So that's how I'll be dreaming bigger in 2019. I'd love to have you along for the ride :)

Friday, 30 November 2018

Motivation: Creative Endeavours Part 2

I haven't made a blog post in about 5 months. I'd like to tell you that it's because I've taken my own advice, and been hard at work on various creative projects. But that's not entirely true.

In truth, I've recently found that my own success isn't a very good motivator. I've always been a creative person, and loved to be part of things where I can put my talents and interests to good use. But these things are almost never done just for me. If I've written poems, it's been for a school or university assessment. If I've acted in a play, it's been for the companionship of good friends working towards a shared goal. Indeed, my most frequent creative output these days is the e-learning I write at work.

Watching BBC's The Apprentice is always good food for thought on this subject. Watching them bumble through the production of a half-decent kids comic or come up with an engaging advert for a new airline is often infuriating, with my partner and me yelling our own (better) ideas at the screen. But when it comes to the boardroom and the question of who will be fired, it's almost always qualities like drive, confidence and the gift of the gab that win the day over creativity, logic and originality.

And that's why I wouldn't make it as a CEO. I'm not competitive, I'm not ruthless, and I have no desire to be either of these things. But it comes back to bite me when I sit down to write something... and end up putting it off in favour of something more immediate. As I mentioned a few months ago, I'm quite good at setting myself deadlines or incentives, and I even follow them most of the time. But deep down I know that I'm only doing this for me, and there's probably something else I could be doing, with or for someone else.

But, as luck would have it, I'm now in a prime position to make a change. Over the last two weeks, I've had a few creative projects handed to me all at once: an original nativity play for my church back home, a flyer for a local book club, and another comedy-based endeavour I won't mention until the time is right.

This is perfect - flexing my creative muscles on projects led by other people, with deadlines that I have to make if I don't want to disappoint people. Suddenly I'm squeezing writing into my lunch breaks, watching less YouTube and having good ideas of my own. If I get my head in the game, I can turn this into a routine, but where it's my own ideas and projects on the page.

Thanks for your time. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Hope in the hopeless: alternative music in a post-2016 world.


For many, the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 was a terrible end to a pretty terrible year. High profile celebrities dying early every week, Britain choosing to leave the EU, and now the impossible President. Surely it couldn't get any worse.

And in many ways, it hasn't. Across the globe, mortality rates and cancer deaths decrease while wealth and education levels rise. The world of medicine is very close to completely eradicating polio. But in many ways it has got worse. Opiate addiction is rising in Western countries, civil war continues to rage in parts of Africa and Asia, and every week the news brings us stories of refugees being refused a secure home.

In a world that needs so much help, how can music have any kind of impact?
Well, maybe popular music can't.

Now, I'm prone to ranting about the charts. I can often be heard (both on this blog and off) dismissing pop music with its shallow subject matter and its focus on electronic over-production. But when all is said and done, chart music does what any popular media should - it entertains. Just as a romance novel provides escapism from the burdens of real life, pop music helps you forget the cares of work, and enjoy the evenings and weekends while you can.

Alternative music (defined here as any music that doesn't regularly appear in the UK top 40 singles chart) has a different role. And it's that something different that means it can't be pop music. Alternative music, almost by definition, is the anti-chart music. It doesn't help you escape from the world, it confronts the world head on. Alt music has thoughts and opinions on the issues of the world, and it wants to share them, however pretentiously (see Alt J) or humbly (Athlete) that might come across.

With this in mind, I've chosen three alternative albums that have come out since Trump's nomination as Republican candidate. They're all excellent, and I highly recommend you go listen to them. They are great examples of the role alternative music can have in exploring complex ideas in accessible format, while offering beautiful music for our ears to enjoy.

In October 2016, British folk artist Kate Rusby released Life in a Paper Boat. Those familiar with her work might see this as a classic Rusby album - lots of folk tales and traditional ditties set to new tunes, mixed in with some original songs - albeit with a new, more synth-led sound. However, those people would be somewhat missing the point.

The title track takes the perspective of a refugee mother, carrying her newborn baby across oceans in the hope of finding a safe place to rest. The woman is caught between the despair of her situation ("An ancient land I've left behind / In ruins now lies she"), and the optimism of the new life she has brought into the world ("This bundle that I carry is worth more to me than life"). The song is left unresolved, the refugee crying "will I feel my feet upon the sand?" echoing how, to a hopeless refugee, the world is a great, scary unknown. This plaintive, lilting song is a cry, to governments and  individuals alike, to show compassion to those without help.

But Rusby's vision on this album is far from pessimistic. The final track of the album, 'Big Brave Bill', tells the story of a Yorkshire-based superhero named bill who saves English people from problems big and small. The song never fails to make me laugh, touting Bill as 'the hero who drinks Yorkshire tea all the time', but the meaning runs deeper than that. We should be proud of our homeland, and the things that make it ours, but not to the exclusion of others. Bill is a symbol of local pride, but also of selflessness and compassion. Through this album, Rusby asks us to take note of life's nuances, not just to take the news at face value, and to use our capacity for compassion to do some good in a broken world.

Life in a Paper Boat - Kate Rusby (2016)
Favourite tracks: Hunter Moon, Life in a Paper Boat, The Witch of the Westmorland, Big Brave Bill

Until very recently, I just saw Elbow as the band who did 'One Day Like This,' and that was enough for me. But after their Beatles cover on last year's John Lewis Christmas advert, I started to explore them again. I'm so glad I did. Their 2017 effort Little Fictions is full of beautiful melodies, poetic lyrics, and so many meditations on the state of the Western world that I don't know where to start.

The most obviously political song on the album is 'K2'. named after the world's steepest mountain, the song paints an unrelenting whirlwind of current events - Brexit, the American-Mexican wall, the freedom of the press, and the misuse of social media that might "send us to a digital end". Yet within all this there is hope, and (perhaps predictably for Elbow) that hope is love. Garvey sings that the love shown by individuals has built a shelf on K2 that stops us from slipping to the bottom. "Love / Opens the fist just enough for a hand / to slip into the hand."

The rest of the album has a similar theme. Despite its bleak subject matter, it's a joyful record. 'All Disco', perhaps the highlight of the album, reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously: "What does it prove if you die for a tune / Don't you know it's all disco?" Tracks like 'Trust the Sun' and 'Head for Supplies' acknowledge the growing tensions of today's society, "Something we dared never dream on TV everyday", but love and personal relationships always win out in the end.

Little Fictions - Elbow (2017)
Favourite tracks: All Disco, Head for Supplies, K2, Kindling (Fickle Flame)

The most recent album in this post came out just over a month ago: Chvrches' long-awaited third album Love Is Dead. This is perhaps the album closest to pop music, as the band often get mainstream radio play for their accessible, synth-heavy music style. However, it's the ideas present in the lyrics that lump this album in with the other two.

The album title is pretty pessimistic, as is the album's lead single 'Get Out'. In the lyrics, strains on a personal relationship cause singer Lauren Mayberry to lose her sense of self, and her only solution is to "get get get out of here" in the chorus. Similarly, ' Graves' comments on how those in power do nothing to stop the evils of this world - "They're leaving bodies in stairwells / Washing up on the shore / Do you really expect us to care what you're waiting for?"

But again, this is only half the story, and the album is more optimistic than it seems. The album's climax is the gritty, forceful "Never Say Die," Where Mayberry challenges us never to give up, even in our direst moments. In an interview about the song, she said she "really wanted to sum up a feeling of trying to be optimistic when you feel disillusioned by the people around you, but trying to keep going." And this is the theme of the album. Yes, there is trauma, personal and global, but we all have the capacity to keep going.

Love Is Dead - Chvrches (2018)
Favourite Tracks: Graffiti, Get Out, My Enemy, Heaven/Hell

I think my point has been made, but I'll conclude briefly. One of the things that keeps me listening to alternative artists, and keeps me looking for more, is their ability to create exciting, original and intelligent music. They are aware of what's going on in the world, but they know it's not their job to offer escapism. As songwriters, they have faced the issues head on, and still they have found reason to be optimistic. Every listener is an individual, and these artists' belief in our individual capacity for love, compassion and change, is a much-needed empowerment in a world like today's.

Well done if you got to the end, I know this was a long one. Do listen to these albums, I don't think you'll regret it. Thank you for your attention and I'll see you next time.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Taking Creative Endeavours Seriously

Nearly 11 months ago, I graduated from my English degree, and since then I've been very lucky to always be in work. Not only that, but I have an interesting job where I'm paid to use the degree I worked hard for and enjoyed.

Having said that, I had no idea what kind of impact a full time job would have on my creativity. I've tried to keep up reading, I've written poems when inspiration strikes, and I play piano for a musical improv troupe. But between those things, work, chores and my other hobbies, I've fallen into a routine in which my own creative projects don't feature at all.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy. I'm pretty low maintenance, so it's easy for me to be content on a salary with evenings and weekends free. But, as I approach a year of full-time employment, I've started to wonder whether my own contentment is really the end of the line...

As a kid, I always dreamed of acting or writing novels for a living, and while my job does involve a lot of writing, I shouldn't let go of those aspirations just because my day job is enjoyable and in the right sector.

So, after a few weeks of thinking, I've decided to see my creative endeavours not as a dream, but as something I can achieve through my own actions. In the past week I've done one thing everyday in aid of this cause:

Thur 31st May: Booked onto a level 2 improv course to revive my passion for stage improv

Fri 1st June: Opened a bank account for my community theatre project

Sat 2nd June: Played piano for my troupe (Rhymes Against Humanity) at the Nottingham Playhouse

Sun 3rd June: Started writing a song for the first time in a year or so

Mon 4th June: Bought and began to watch the Aaron Sorkin screenwriting online masterclass

Tue 5th June: Invoiced a client with my new community bank account

Wed 6th June: Wrote this blog post (And it's only early afternoon at the time of writing!)

Call it a quarter-life crisis (it occasionally feels like one :P), but it's so exciting to see my creative endeavours take shape, even at this early stage, and I want to continue taking them seriously, taking proactive steps to make them a reality.

Finally, if you've found yourself in the same position as me, stuck in a rut where you feel like you've let go of what you really want to do, I encourage you to change your thinking. Take small steps, do one little thing every day to make your dreams real. These things don't simply happen, they take work, so make like Shia LeBeouf, and just do it.

Thanks :)

Friday, 27 April 2018

Filmmakers Think No-one Reads Books Anymore

As an avid Harry Potter fan (perhaps, at times, bordering on obsessed), I learned at an early age that film adaptations would never truly reproduce the world I grew to love in the books I was reading. At the time, I was not okay with this. I grudgingly agreed that watching the five-hour film containing all the intricate details from the novel might not be the best way to view the film, but still couldn't see why they left out the potions riddle from the end of Philosopher's Stone.

In more recent years, I have of course snapped out of this delusion, and learned to appreciate the Potter movies as pieces of work in their own right. I distinctly remember walking out of the final film, aged 15, thinking that I don't care how different the films are to the books, because we still have the books, and always will.

The Potter franchise is pretty amazing in that respect. The eight films saw four different directors take the helm, yet the series feels like a single cohesive unit. The changes of tone don't feel anachronistic, quite the contrary. Though his films do not rank among my favourites, Christopher Columbus did an incredible job making Harry's wonder at this incredible magical word our own. The introduction of Alfonso CuarĂ³n age the film a less filtered, grittier tone, just as the story takes that exact turn.

What I'm saying here is that, while they might not stick to the books 100% of the time, the Harry Potter films do an excellent job of capturing the spirit, the essence, of why we love the story so much.

Cut to late March, 2018. I've seen three films this week. The first was The Social Network, which is great and not the subject of this blog. I do have something to say about the other two.

I read Ready Player One when it was new, and it is just brilliant. Nerdy, clever and told from the heart, fans of all ages flocked to it for its wide range of pop-culture significance, but they stayed for the thrilling, human story at the centre.

I also really enjoyed the film. As a work in its own right, it's everything I want in a sci-fi adventure movie. Its thrilling action sequences are exquisitely choreographed (no one does a chase scene like Spielberg); the dialogue is (mostly) engaging and snappy; and the performances are excellent, especially Mark Rylance as the eccentric game designer James Halliday. It makes many deliberate decisions to move away from the novel, and I'm fine with that. I'd rather it went its own way than tried and failed to be a re-creation of the book.

My main problem with Ready Player One as an adaptation is that it doesn't quite capture the spirit of Ernest Cline's book. In the film, the main problem facing the world is overpopulation. The Earth of the book is much more dystopian. Abject poverty abounds, as does pollution, starvation and rampant capitalism. A good example is emergency responses: the police appear more than once in the film to sort out civil unrest. In the novel, there is no infrastructure. Had police turned up, they would most likely have been owned by the antagonistic tech conglomerate IOI.

This might seem like a small detail, but it changes the framing of the whole story. In the film, everyone is addicted to the virtual universe of the OASIS. It's the internet on steroids, a place where infinite content is instantly accessible, and anything is possible. IOI are threatening to end that freedom, so the main characters must complete the quest first to keep the OASIS how it should be. In the novel, the OASIS is humanity's only escape from a horrible, oppressive world. Here the protagonists are fighting not just to save the OASIS, but to save the world. That heart, that higher cause separating good from evil; that's what's missing from the film, what stops me from loving it as much as the novel.

A similar thing happened with Netflix's film adaptation of Dave Eggers' The Circle. I haven't read the novel, but I saw the film with my partner, who has, and it seems a similar case. While the book asks fundamental questions about the nature of privacy in today's world, the film's focus on the rise of social media (a force only questioned by the protagonist's elderly parents and Luddite ex-boyfriend), makes it feel behind the curve, trying to engage in debates that were raging five years ago.

Ready Player One is a better movie than The Circle. It's hard to find a good review of the latter, and it definitely has more problems than mentioned above. My main reason for mentioning The Circle is that it has one similarity to Ready Player One. For each movie, the author of its respective novel was on the writing staff. 

And here we finally come to the point of this post: however the decision was made - studio pressure, creative differences, cinema audiences VS novel audiences - the authors of these two books made fundamental changes to their stories. Not just to the characters, or plot points, but to the very core of the original stories they wrote. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this, but I would like to know why; and my worry is that I already know the answer.

The magic in Harry Potter is cool, but we love that story for its heart, its generosity of spirit, its human relationships. Ready Player One has a very similar aim, and The Circle seeks to do what any dystopian novel does - comment on the present by writing about the future. More and more, the film industry exists to make money through entertainment, and I know so much research goes into what makes a movie successful. I just hope filmmakers haven't forgotten why stories like these become popular in the first place.