Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Dream Bigger #5: Controlling the Narrative

When I began this series in January, it was to mark my resolution to dream bigger this year. So naturally the time has come to ask myself how successful I've been. Has everything gone according to plan?

Not exactly. For example, I was really hoping that I'd be running a regular improv night in Nottingham by now. And though we've had several ideas that have reached various stages of readiness, it just hasn't happened. I was also planning to write loads of short stories this year, after a great writers' retreat at the start of January. In reality, that ended up being the only time I got any short story writing done.

But does that mean I've failed? Well, rhetorical question, this is the beauty of abstract resolutions. They allow you to control the narrative.

It makes sense to think about your life as a story. Events happen in a certain order for everyone (birth, infancy, school, university, etc.), so there's a well-defined structure. But what makes your story unique is that you're the main character.

The trouble with thinking like this - perhaps especially for a writer, but maybe not - is that I often expect my life events to make sense, as if everything was planned out beforehand. If something doesn't work out, I'm left trying to work out how this failure fits into my narrative. 'Maybe I was always meant to have that unhealthy relationship,' I might say. 'It paved the way for something that happened a few chapters later.'

I'm not sure why I do this, but I know that there's a time and place for it. Sometimes we need to admit when something went wrong, and dig into why that happened. But other times it's healthy, especially when the narrative you're trying to create isn't your actual life.

So I haven't set up a regular improv night this year. But thinking about the events that I have run in the last 12 months, maybe it wouldn't have been the right thing to do this year anyway.

And I haven't written any more short stories yet this year. But I did submit one for a competition. And though I was unsuccessful, my rejection has helped me identify some issues in my writing that I can fix ready for next time.

In short, dreaming bigger has succeeded this year. I might not have achieved exactly what I wanted to achieve, but reflecting on 2019 has helped me realise two things...

1) I have done some pretty cool stuff this year. I wrote and performed my first ever one-man show. I co-wrote and performed in a live sketch show. I'm engaged to my best friend in the world, I've spent lots of time with wonderful friends, and I've really gotten back into reading for pleasure. I haven't spent as much time on creative endeavours as I could have done, but I couldn't call any of it time wasted.

2) Dreaming bigger isn't a one-year project. My resolution this year has helped me commit to my creative dreams, and work out ways of making them a reality. This series might be over, but the act of dreaming bigger has only just begun. I've got big plans for next year, and I've already started setting them in motion.

Thank you so much for following this series, I hope you've found it as useful as I have. If you don't want to miss another blog post, they're not going away. You can subscribe to the mailing list on this page. Thanks, and here's to another year of dreaming bigger.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Frozen VS Frozen II: When Plot Takes Over

I can say with certainty that Frozen II is not a bad film. It's well animated, the setting is full of imagination, and I laughed out loud more often than I thought I would. I saw it with my family on opening weekend, and we all left the cinema with the same reaction: satisfied with another Disney-tastic family experience... and pretty confused about what exactly had happened.

As soon as we got home I knew I had to write something about this film, because it presents a textbook lesson in storytelling. For those who haven't yet seen the film, this is your spoiler alert.

One of the strengths of Frozen (2013) is how tight the narrative is. Each main character has something they want, a motivation that is supported by the rest of the film's building blocks. Elsa is scared of what her ice powers can do, so she shuts herself away - both literally and emotionally. In response, Anna wants doors to be open: again, the real doors separating her from the outside world, and the metaphorical doors into her sister's affections.

The entire plot of Frozen is motivated by this tension. Anna's feelings of seclusion make her reckless - she almost marries someone she's just met, who turns out to be the villain. She sets off into the wilderness with no preparation. For Elsa's part, she embraces her ice powers, but still hides herself away, believing they can make her nothing but a villain.

The resolution of the story is equally tied to the bond between these two sisters. When Anna saves Elsa from Hans (the true villain of the piece), it heals the frozen heart that Elsa accidentally gave her years ago. At the same time, this act of true love thaws Elsa's cold demeanour, allowing her to open up and rule the kingdom with a happy heart.

And just in case you weren't convinced of their thematic link... Elsa, the uptight one with ice powers, was born on the winter solstice. Anna, the ginger one with a fiery personality, was born on the summer solstice.

Herein lies the reason that Frozen II can't really measure up to its predecessor. There's plenty of plot to the movie, but it's not really about anyone. In the film's opening, we flash back to Elsa and Anna's childhood, where their parents tell them of an ancient forest whose people are at war with Arendelle.

Turns out, Elsa and Anna's father was there when the fighting broke out, though conveniently he didn't see how things began. (We learn later that he was rushed to safety by the girl who grew up to be the girls' mother, though for some reason she neglects to reveal that at this point.)

Most of the movie takes place in this enchanted forest. Granted, it is a very cool setting, full of magic and mystery. But everything feels so... unmotivated. The only thing bringing them to the forest is a mysterious voice calling to Elsa. The only people we know connected to the forest are her parents, whose death early on in the first film means that we're not really invested in them.

To give you a concrete example of what happens when a film focuses on plot rather than character, let's focus on Kristoff's story. He spent the first film as Anna's guide in the frozen north, becoming her true love interest. The second film begins with the two of them in a comfortable relationship, and we learn early on that Kristoff wants to propose to Anna.

On the surface, a nice development of their relationship. Plenty to explore there, right? And they very nearly do. The film starts to examine Anna's loyalties - does she follow her sister into the unknown, or stay in Kristoff's warm embrace? But she doesn't have to choose, since they all decide to go north!

While it is good to have the gang all together (we don't get that in the first film), it changes Kristoff's role in the movie, and not for the better. As soon as they arrive at the forest, he becomes merely an annoyance to Anna, attempting to propose in various inappropriate moments until the film separates them entirely. While a local villager and fellow reindeer enthusiast teaches Kristoff about proposing correctly, Anna and Olaf go after Elsa, who's travelled north in search of the plot.

It's now that Kristoff has his best moment, a solo song that portrays how lost he feels whenever Anna isn't around. Shot like a cheesy music video, it's a very funny scene. But his sentiment is serious, so it's a bit jarring that the film plays it for laughs.

And where has his confusion about the state of the relationship come from? The two of them started the film happy together, and nothing's really changed - yes she's not around right now, but she has important things to do! Like many of the scenes and songs in Frozen II, this beat ends up feeling unmotivated, because the film hasn't spent enough time setting up the tension between characters.

If I was in Jennifer Lee's place, I'd have kept Kristoff in Arendelle for at least the first two acts. He would be our connection to the homeland, and provide comic relief as he prepares a variety of ridiculous proposals. The song could stay pretty much the same, but now it's the point when he realises that proposing is about expressing your feelings honestly, not about the grand gesture.

This would be emotionally dramatic, and also increase the tension of the final act. When the tidal wave from the broken dam rushes towards Arendelle, it's not very scary because the city has been evacuated. But what if we knew (and Anna didn't) that Kristoff and Sven were still in the city. Instant high stakes, and a better feeling of relief when Elsa saves the day.

The confusion my family and I felt when watching Frozen II is a classic symptom of sequel-itis. Everything was tied up with a nice bow at the end of the first film, so the writers invented a big complex plot to give the next story momentum. The result was an enjoyable, fun, thrilling, visually beautiful movie. But I think, if they had drawn the new story from the characters and their relationships, it could have been even better... and much less confusing.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Dear Evan Hansen: Passion over Poetry

In the first half of the musical Wicked, two teenage witches prepare for a college ball. In a classic trope of the genre, the classically beautiful Galinda is giving the (literally) green-faced Elphaba a high-school makeover. This is done through the lyrics of ‘Popular,’ a delightfully scathing comedy number that truly shows off Stephen Schwartz’s prowess as a songwriter.

Known elsewhere for his contributions to Disney films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted, Schwartz was undoubtedly the perfect choice to score Wicked. His knack for a sparkling, key-fluid yet very singable melody is matched only by his refusal to miss any opportunity for rhyme. ‘Popular’ is a classic example of this style:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis,
Think of it as personality dialysis.
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sister and advisor -
There’s nobody wiser,
Not when it comes to ‘popular’.

This trick of manipulating words to construct a perfect rhyme has long been a trick up the sleeves of writers like Schwartz. Whether it's the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, the wit of Stephen Sondheim or even the mind-boggling bars of Lin Manuel Miranda, it has proven a popular technique for as long as the musical theatre form has existed. But everything changes in the end.

Dear Evan Hansen recently opened on the West End, having made its Broadway Debut in 2017. It deals with themes of grief, social awkwardness, mental health and the struggles of parenthood. And it explores each of these themes from both the adults' and the adolescents' perspective - something few high school dramatisations have achieved.

One of my favourite moments comes towards the end - no plot spoilers, I promise. It's an intimate solo song called 'So big/So small', in which Heidi (mother of the titular Evan) recalls the moment she became a single parent. The rhymes in this song are simple, as are the words and the sentiment. A mother re-committing herself to being there for her son.

The bridge of the song features almost no rhyme at all, and is sung through tears of anguish by Rachel Bay Jones on the original soundtrack - it's no surprise she won a Tony for this role. For me the pinnacle of this piece comes before the final chorus:

Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here.
Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here no matter what.

Pasek and Paul (composers for Dear Evan Hansen, as well as hit film The Greatest Showman) had so many options for conveying this statement, but they went for this. No metaphor, no flowery language, simple. And that's not all. They don't use the second line to rhyme cleverly with the first or impress us with a witty insight. Simply repeating the first line with an additional phrase makes Heidi's emotions here so much more powerful.

You might be feeling that this is an unfair comparison. I've picked a comedy moment from Wicked - of course that has more wit in it than a serious, emotional moment in Dear Evan Hansen. Well here's a chorus from 'No Good Deed' - the emotional climax of Wicked, where Elphaba scorns her attempts to do good and pleads for the life of her lover.

No good deed goes unpunished:
All helpful urges must be circumvented.
No good deed goes unpunished:
Sure I meant well, but look at what well meant did.

In musicals like Wicked, the wit and ability of the lyricist is on full display. It's a key part of the entertainment, and it lands almost every time. Tim Minchin's score for Matilda is a perfect example of this. He knows when to turn on the wordplay, and his intelligence matches the prodigy of Matilda herself. Then when things get serious, he tones it down a bit, to allow the honesty to come through.

But pushing the clever rhymes in the most sincere and sombre moments - like the above example from Wicked - can create a disconnect between the words being used and the emotions the scene is trying to convey. In Dear Evan Hansen, eloquence abandons the characters in moments of heightened emotion, a decision which only makes them more relatable.

All this makes me wonder if the era of the "clever wordplay musical" is coming to an end. Perhaps WickedMatilda and Hamilton are the last bastions of an age where complex language is used to convey complex emotions. We live in complex times, so maybe what we crave from our operatic entertainment, from our musical catharsis, is the simple passion that's often so hard to express in real life.

Dear Evan Hansen is a gem of a musical - an original plot that drags the classic high school image created by Mean Girls and Clueless into the 21st Century. Loveable, funny, flawed characters whose lack of word-based wit helps us to see them as real, normal people. Here's hoping for many more musicals like it in the future.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Dreaming Bigger #4: Making it Work

We all want to do a job we love, right? Well, the internet can help you. From the virtuoso guitarists of Fiverr to the game developers on DriveThruRPG, it’s never been easier for someone to start making money from their hobbies.

There are pros and cons to this approach - see this article for more. But that’s not what this post is about. Today I’m wondering - regardless of whether we want our creative endeavours to be our job…  is there value in pretending that they are? Let me explain…

Keeping Track of Time

At my first full-time job out of uni, the timings were pretty strict. We had to log exactly how much time we’d spent on each project every day, down to the quarter of an hour. It made sense for the work we were doing - our clients were being charged by the hour. But it could sometimes make my workday feel restrictive and stressful.

I worked there in different roles for just under two years, so the idea of logging hours on a time sheet is now inextricably linked to the world of work in my head.

I now work in a similar role at a different company, one where there’s less emphasis on when and for how long we work on different projects. And yet, I still can’t help but log my hours, even though no one’s really checking them.

And the funny thing is, I think it helps. It’s something to do with satisfaction in my work. If I log my hours, I can go home knowing exactly what I spent my time and effort doing, and how much progress I’ve managed to make in the time I’ve devoted to it. It feels like a silly impulse, but it does make me feel productive, efficient, and good at my job.

Funny, then, how I only just worked out I could do this for my creative projects.

Seize the Means of Productivity

I’ve been trying it on a trial basis over the summer. I’ve got a little spreadsheet where I can write out my projects, and log time for the different tasks I complete towards my bigger goals. I think it’s helping so far: I set a target for how many hours I think I can devote that week, and I’ve found myself wondering where I can fit in an extra half hour to make my quota.

It’s funny - I’m not doing this for anyone but myself, yet I feel like I’ve let someone down when I don’t make my weekly quota. I’ve said in a previous post that my own success doesn’t motivate me a great deal, but one thing that does is the chance to prove myself. And my favourite person to prove myself to… is me.

What’s more, the segmenting of my creative time into hourly or half-hourly chunks is helping me find time for my other, less productive hobbies. If I’m already on my way to meeting my quota, then I can definitely give myself a break to read a book or play a video game.

There are other things I do to help my creative projects feel as important an urgent as work: for instance, I have now finally embraced the to-do list, after years of avoidance and apathy. But as my hour-logging system leaves its beta stage in time for September, I feel positive that it seems to work well for me, and maybe it will help you too!

Until next time, thanks for your attention!

Monday, 19 August 2019

Welcome to your Airbnb (after Dolly Alderton)


Hello there guests, and welcome to the Barn! We hope you have a really pleasant stay. Just a few things you need to know before you unpack, sit down or make a cup of tea.

We hope you love the rustic feel of the place as much as we do (Yes, that is real straw in your mattress!). You won't believe what it smelled like when it was still a barn! We've made the bedroom wardrobe into a little 'conversion museum,' in case you want to find out more about the space.

While you're here, you have free reign of the bedroom, living space, kitchenette and bathroom. There is a power shower in the bathroom, though the water is heated by solar panes. So if you want a hot shower, best to wait until about 3 pm. Fresh towels and sheets can be found in the airing cupboard, located in the main house, just next to the master bedroom. Don't worry about walking around the house undressed, we do it all the time!

Feel free to use any of the storage space available in your part of the house, just try not to leave any food lying around the place. We think that hole behind the TV might be a fox den, so let us know if you see any!

Before you ask about the toilet - we know! It seems something went wrong during the installation of the auto-close toilet seat. If you're having trouble flushing, take the watering can provided, and fill it from the outside tap in next-door's garden (they know about this too, don't worry). Then hold down the flush while pouring water into the bowl from about head height.

While we pride ourselves on our countryside getaway, this isn't the middle of nowhere! Your nearest convenience store is The Coppiton General Store, just a 25 minute drive from here. A train into Gloucester runs once every two hours from Coppiton station, though be warned the last train leaves Gloucester at 18:11.

Now for the really fun bit! Here are a few rules to make everyone's experience as great as possible!

  • Please keep noise to a minimum. There's an independent recording studio less than a mile away and sound really carries out here.
  • If you're planning to order takeaway, please tell them to call you instead of ringing the doorbell! We don't want to set the dog barking late in the evening. Also, maybe give us a heads up if we're in - we don't want to be strangers, and we love a good pizza!
  • That handmade ceramic chess set on the coffee table is there for playing, though needless to say, be careful! It's an antique set, one of only 3 ever made.
Finally, please note that your check out time is 11:00 AM. And that's everyday, not just the last morning of your stay. In the afternoon we rent this space out to a local dog grooming service, though they usually manage to clean up most of their mess before guests get back.

Enjoy your stay, and thanks for choosing our little annex as your home away from home!

Tim and Jemima

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Dreaming Bigger #3: The Diary and the Deal

Welcome back to Dreaming Bigger, the blog series where I try to make my unrealistic goals more practical and tangible. Though it's been four months since the last installment, I'm proud to say that it seems to be working. I write to you now following the success of Hideout Productions' first ever scripted show!

It ate up a lot of my free time and caused some stress along the way, but it was absolutely worth it. Performed to a sellout audience at the Nottingham New Theatre, 2021: A Sketch Odyssey was a success. So, to celebrate a creative idea becoming a reality, I thought I'd share a couple of unorthodox motivational techniques I've been using to fuel my creativity...

Jane Austen is Watching

As a child, my partner was an avid diarist, but A-levels and University left little time for it. So at the start of the year, she bought a "line-a-day" diary - a journal with one page for every day, and enough space to write a sentence or two on each day for 5 years.

Not to be outdone, I bought one too; but I've never really been a diarist, and I knew I'd never find time to record my day even in a couple of lines. So I decided to use it as a method for tracking creativity. Since I'm trying to do something towards a project every day, why not write it down?

Initially my ritual of writing down the creative stepping stone of the day did help me stay focused on my projects. But, inevitably, the habit has slipped. Yet it continues to be of use. Keeping it on my desk, unopened, serves as a reminder, not to write in the diary, but to use the little time I have to actually do something creative or productive.

Each page of this diary is headed with a quote or aphorism from Jane Austen's body of work, so even if the pages remain empty (as many of them now do, half way into the year), I know there are still some words of wisdom to be found within.

A Creative Wager

So now the sketch show is done and dusted, what's next when it comes to big projects? Well, this is where motivation two comes in.

Readers of this series will know that my own success is not a great motivator for me. I'm much better at getting things done when there are other people who I might let down otherwise. It would then seem ambitious for my next project to be a solo show. So how have I ended up submitting a one-man show to perform at the Nottingham Comedy Festival in November?

Well, I have a little bet with a fellow performer. He's also writing a one-man show, so we've decided to motivate each other. If both of us have our shows ready for the festival, then great. But if either of us doesn't, then not only do we have to pay the cancellation fee to the festival, we also have to make the other one a three-course dinner. It's a simple incentive, but effective nevertheless.

So, if you're struggling to get going on a creative project, then I suggest thinking outside the box. Not just when it comes to the content you're creating or the ideas you're bringing to life, but with the ways in which you find motivation. And remember that, even if your project is a solo one, you don't have to undertake it alone.

Until next time, thanks for your attention :)

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Wes Anderson and Shakespeare: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Even if you've never seen a Wes Anderson film, you're probably familiar with his visual style. Bright colours and beautiful, ambitious settings work with deliberate, often symmetrical composition of the frame to create a distinctive, stylistic picture that mirrors the wonderful worlds he shows us.

Anderson's critics have called this style superficial, a 'clever' artfulness that disguises films with no real meaning. But I challenge anyone to call his 2014 hit The Grand Budapest Hotel meaningless.

In case you haven't seen it, the film depicts the decline of an opulent hotel in the austere world of Soviet Russia, alongside the final years of its head concierge, M. Gustave. The story follows Gustave and his young protege Zero as they navigate this harsh environment while trying to keep the hotel running.

So where does Shakespeare come in? 

Towards the end of his writing career, William Shakespeare penned four plays that some scholars separate from the rest. Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest

These are plays that subvert what we've come to expect from the bard. There are always lovers, but they are not central to the plot like in his comedies. There are tragic elements, but rather than consuming and killing all the characters, those tragedies are solved by the end. For want of a better term, these four plays are often called 'romances', but I prefer the more obvious term 'tragicomedies.'

But what does this have to do with Wes Anderson? Well, there are some more specific tropes that these later plays share. Bear with me while I borrow from Wikipedia: 'The romances call for spectacular effects to be shown... opulent interior and exterior scenery, dream settings and the illusion of time passing.' Sound familiar?

As the film goes on, the charming, comic world of the extravagant hotel clashes with the cold, oppressive, tragic world of 20th Century Russia. Bright colours fade to pastels, and the beauty of the hotel's symmetry gives way to military, institutional symmetrical order. The Grand Budapest Hotel, like other Anderson films, is itself a tragicomedy.

But it's more than just visual style.

There are similarities in plot and content too. As mentioned above, the film features a pair of lovers (Zero and Agatha) whose love story is not central to the plot. All of Shakespeare's tragicomedies contain families who have been torn apart; we learn late on in the movie that Zero himself is a refugee from the conflict in the middle east, and at least some of his relatives are dead.

Fantastical settings, getting lost, taking shelter in harsh environments, being chased, usurped and undermined - all of these are common to both Shakespeare's late romances and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it is at the end of the film (spoilers ahead) that Anderson allies himself most closely with the Shakespearean canon, and the genre of tragicomedy.

As the old saying goes - if there's a wedding at the end, it's a comedy; if everyone dies at the end, it's a tragedy. Wes Anderson puts both at the end of his film. Zero and Agatha get married, but we find out from the narrative of an older Zero that both Agatha and Gustave died not long after that event. Tragedy and comedy juxtaposed in the starkest of ways.

But why?

Why has Wes Anderson (deliberately or not) chosen Shakespearean tragicomedy as the genre for his film? The simple answer is form following function. The script, to all intents and purposes, is a comedy. But it's a story about the realest tragedy of all: the relentlessness of time.

By the movie's end, many of the characters are dead, and Zero is an old man. In the outermost frame of the narrative, even Jude Law's author character is dead. The hotel is the last bastion of a bygone era, left half-empty and ravaged by the years.

But I think Wes Anderson is cleverer than that.

The plots of Shakespeare's tragedies can be described as redemptive. Prospero is re-instated as Duke of Milan; Cymbeline and her daughter are reconciled. The ostensible villains must experience tragedy in order to come out the other side as if they were in a comedy all along.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the other way round. We are faced with likeable characters for whom tragedy is inevitable. The adventure they go on isn't their punishment for being bad, it's the comedy that keeps the darkness at bay.

At one point M. Gustave himself says: "There are still faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide, in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh fuck it." That's what Anderson wants to show us through his use of both tragic and comic devices. The film is a tragicomedy because life is a tragicomedy. We must face the inevitability of time, but try to have fun along the way.

If you've made it this far, thanks very much for your time and attention. Since films lend themselves to the video essay format, here's one I came across halfway through writing this. Thanks again, and see you next time.

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 :)