A ‘creative’ block? Why I stopped (and started) writing music

[TW: Bullying. I recount a very, very limited portion of my experience of being bullied as/when it pertains specifically to the subject matter of this article. It may read as trivial, but that’s because it is far from the whole truth of my own or anyone else’s experience. I am not trivialising bullying, nor my own experiences, nor the experiences of anyone else who has ever been a victim. Everyone’s experiences differ, but we’re all affected by them.]

[Before I start this post, I should point out that this is just me reflecting on my own life – I guess a little bit more of a traditional blog post than usual – rather than what most of my posts so far have been, in which I’ve tried to offer insights on the world. But, in the spirit of a ‘traditional blog’, I feel like I really need to write this. As warned above, there’s quite a bit about my experience of being bullied in school, so this isn’t entirely a post about writing music…]

Since I wrote my “first proper song” at the age of sixteen (it was called Freedom Of Speech, and wasn’t too bad, thank you very much), I’ve considered myself a ‘songwriter’. It used to be a full-time hobby for me, to the extent that I would put off work and socialising “because I’ve got a song to finish tonight”. It was my thing, it was what I considered my purpose more than anything else. Worrying about how to structure my albums honestly used to give me sleepless nights. But bizarrely – bizarre because I’m quite an open, self-obsessed person – I barely, barely mention this to people. I’ve dropped in the fact that I’ve written 11 albums’ worth of material as an aside, to friends, but almost deliberately hoping they wouldn’t make any more of it. And I’m trying to figure out why.

It’s worth pointing out before we go any further that I have a lot of experience in many aspects of the music world, from being an avid (and daresay intelligent) listener/examiner of metal, to performing in metal gigs; Cambridge Part II music exams on the mandolin; background jazz at wine & cheese evenings and so on. So when I say I wrote songs, I don’t mean flights of fancy that could one day be turned into actual songs. I wrote full-fledged songs, drum parts, guitar solos, and everything, which, to blow my own horn a little, was better than a lot of music that’s actually been published.* I had album titles, cover art, song credits and specifically patterned track listings ready; basically, if someone gave me all the money in the world right now and told me to go and record them a decent album, I could give them at least seven.
*Of course, any musician worth his/her salt knows that success in the music industry requires even more perspiration compared to inspiration than the usually purported 99:1 ratio for genius. You can write incredible stuff but if you’re not willing to go out there and hack away for years to carve a name for yourself, it doesn’t matter. I know that, and this post isn’t about “why I’m not famous”; it’s introspective, talking about my own motivations and why I’ve basically come to a complete standstill with writing songs, something that used to be an all-encompassing passion.

Also worth noting that everything I wrote was almost exclusively heavy metal. Building on my best friend’s yearbook quote “Be the change you want to see in the world”, I, as a metalhead whose taste ranged somewhere between Slayer and Rainbow, set out to create the ideal music for myself to listen to. This is important to remember for later on, as I think taste plays a huge role.
Beyond the heavy metal, I also worked on a sort of ‘side-project’ of guitar solo material, in the style of Steve Vai/Joe Satriani etc. This also played a role later on.

To give you a sense of scale, and just how important this was to me; I wrote my first song in April 2008. I wrote and discarded about 20 that summer, keeping about 6. I wrote maybe 5 more through 2009, one of which is still my favourite ever song to have written, and then suddenly in 2010, my final year of school, things just exploded. I had my first album (consisting of 9 tracks, including 1 instrumental) written by April, then proceeded two write 2 more albums into June, actually recorded the first album with a studio and band in July, and by the time I arrived at Cambridge in September, I had written, half-discarded, and half-rewritten my fourth album.

But then things slowed down for me: it took me until June 2011 to write my fifth and sixth albums; though at the same time I managed to write an album’s worth of material for my guitar solo side project. Then, somehow, over the next few years, it slowed down to a trickle. I managed to cobble together a seventh album by mid 2012, and an 8th by mid 2013, and then a supposed 9th through the rest of 2014, built mostly on riffs and structures in my head. Unlike the previous albums, where each album had its own distinctive spirit and inspirations and marked a clear turning point in the evolution of my writing process, the 7th/8th/9th albums just took so long and sort of jumbled together in my head. Through a lot of work and remodelling, I managed to turn them each into something distinctive, a proper ‘album’ in each case, but it didn’t come nearly as naturally or easily as it once had.
Moreover, the songs grew steadily less complete. Where every single song had once been written through solos, lyrics, and everything, there were growing gaps in my notes that just said “[verse here]” or even just “[solo section]”.
I’m now working on my 10th, and have been pretty much since March of this year. All the songs are there, and a lot more complete than they have been, but it still feels like a slog. It’s not the same as that glorious year of 2010 when I could just pick up my BC Rich V and churn out some pretty damn good thrash/trad metal.

What I’m trying to figure out is what changed.

First of all, as I noted in my first paragraph, it’s still definitely my hobby, and I’m as metal as ever (I’ve been massively into Venom this year, so go figure)  – so it’s not as if I’ve lost interest.* I still consider it something I “do”. I have my bass and guitar next to my desk at all times, and I’m constantly coming up with riffs, structuring and arranging songs etc. But I’ll do about 70% of a song, and then decide to finish it later, or simply… stop. I’ve just lost the will to assemble these massively complex albums, setlists, and things like I used to.
*I may be speaking purely from personal experience here, and it may be different for other musicians, but I really feel like when you play an instrument, especially devotedly, you never really do lose interest; you never stop noodling, never stop creating.

Arguably, you could say that my schedule, and my lifestyle, has changed. I’m a Masters student; in theory I really shouldn’t have a load of free time to write an album every two months. And yet, I wrote two albums and rehearsed one with a band during my A-levels, and I wrote 3 more albums during my first year as a Chinese undergrad at Cambridge. The amount of time pressure on me hasn’t changed that much.

You could also say that my goals and dreams have changed since the early days. When I left school, all I knew was that I was leaving school. The future seemed so ridiculously open, and in many ways it was, that I had no thoughts but for what I was doing at that present time, and I was so sure I was going to go “out there” and be a rock star, with no real thought for the practicalities of doing that while studying four years at Cambridge University. All I knew was, I was going to write this music because one day I would play it in stadiums. Nowadays, though, I’m working hard on my degree, so that I can get the kind of job that will make me both happy and self-reliant, like I see my peers doing. I consider myself a student, an academic, and in a broad sense a writer – but not really a rock star. I’ve accepted that those dreams, while beautiful dreams, will take a lot more time and effort to achieve than I’m willing to devote now. So for that reason, my spare time, in which I would usually write songs and assemble albums, no longer seems crucial for building my career in rock.

A huge factor to be considered is the direction I went in, musically speaking. When I wrote my first three albums, I listened to approximately twelve bands in the world, in total. (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Armored Saint, Metal Church, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Dio, Diamond Head, Motorhead). So what I was writing was a distillation of all my favourite aspects of those artists, and I created something I loved. I view early 2012 as a crucial turning point, however. In January 2012, I discovered Rush and Tom Petty, which put me on a completely different path entirely. Thanks to Rush, my writing got a lot more prog rock-esque; but I didn’t like that, as it didn’t fit with the previous six albums I had created that lay neatly between traditional and thrash metal (I called it “transition metal” for the chemistry pun). From there, my musical influences expanded to include just so much more; System of a Down, Nirvana, AC/DC, Saxon, Dire Straits, Rammstein, Rainbow, Ozzy Osbourne, more Rush (they’re a very diverse band), Alice In Chains, Bad Religion, Venom, Tool, Queensryche – all over the shop. While these bands do generally head in the same direction, they have very different ways of going about it, and it affected my music writing – structurally speaking, System of a Down have more in common with Nicki Minaj than they do with Metallica, and Iron Maiden probably more in common with big 1950s musical numbers than they do with Rammstein. I got more confused, and I started disliking what I was writing. That slowed the process no end. The influences of these bands are hugely evident in my later writing – the seventh album is Slayer meets Rush meets Rammstein but the eighth is basically Saxon – which, as I say, did not sit well with me in light of the first six, which were pure transition metal.
Even more crucially, in 2012 I became involved in the theatre community. This means that what took up a large portion of my musical focus was musical theatre. I started listening to showtunes and soundtracks, stuff like Cabaret, Footloose, West Side Story, the Last Five Years, and basically anything by Sondheim. I do believe these shows are fantastic, and could go on and on about them, but that’s for another post. The point is, when I had built my musical portfolio on creating something within the “transition metal” framework, suddenly when all I could think about or listen to was musical theatre, it stunted my writing a hell of a lot. Mostly, because it was just too different – I could see no way to write a metal album while incorporating musical theatre influences, unlike the way I did with the bands above.* But also, it just slowed my writing down entirely, because I don’t know how to write musical theatre (though I did give it a go in late 2012), and I wasn’t really listening to metal any more, so what was my muse?
*It’d be interesting to give that a go today, though.

But none of this sufficiently explains the trend of the slow death of my writing music. Yes, my dreams and aspirations have changed, but that’s been true pretty much since I started uni, and it doesn’t explain why I kept writing studiously long after I had given up on those hopes.
I haven’t done theatre in more than a year, so that’s no longer stopping me from writing metal. If anything, I’m a better musician now, and I love what I’m listening to just as much as I loved those primary twelve bands when I first started writing, so I should be able to create something, more than one song every few weeks, even if it doesn’t fit into the old framework, and yet I can’t. I’ve lost most of the spirit of the thing, and that’s what really needs to be examined.

I think you have to look back a little further in my history; look back to the roots of the first album. Out of sheer nostalgia, I’ve been listening to it a lot lately (as I said, that was the one we managed to record), and thinking about what drove me to write and rehearse and record that material, especially during my A-levels. I almost missed my school Leavers’ Ball just because I was busy setting up the recording studio.
I may be interpreting this wrong (but it’s my life, so it’s my say) – but for me, there was a distinct set of personal circumstances building up into the creation of that album. I was mercilessly bullied in school for listening to metal. It didn’t help, of course, that I don’t have a very thick skin, but this went further than general schoolyard “banter”.* I can take people shouting “SLAAAYYYEAAARGH” at me in the common room, when, yes, I listen to Slayer, proudly. But this extended to things like anonymous online bullying by people I didn’t know, because my peers had sent my song (I posted one online) to them, specifically for them to trash me; people graffitiing the word “Slayer” on my fucking car – not to mention abuse in the school’s small music community; I found my bass trashed a number of times** and even when I showed my teacher the genuinely enthralling level of musical expertise that can be found in such metal giants as Iron Maiden and Megadeth, he maintained for a good five years that it was just “generic metal” and actively tried to discourage me from listening to it.
Indeed, most of all, my love of metal music served to generally discredit me as a musician in other people’s eyes. (I really don’t want to turn this into a rant about antimetalism, but in principle, how disgusting is that? What kind of a message is that to send to a burgeoning, enthusiastic artist?) Nobody cared what I wanted to put on shuffle, because of course it would be “some metal” (never mind the fact that even the most hypocritical of them loved Run To The Hills). Everyone assumed I must be a “shit” guitarist and/or bassist, despite various music examinations, competitions, certifications, concerts etc to the contrary, purely because I listened to metal. (Again, stop and think about the principle: what an awful thing. To devalue someone just because you don’t like the music they listen to.)
*Personally, I think it’s got something to do with my old school’s vehement vigilance against any forms of violence that made the verbal abuse that much more vitriolic. V.
**To be honest, while I took crap from everyone, it was one guy who really led the charge against me, and others mostly followed his encouragement. He just seemed to really hate metal and really hate me. I’m determined not to slander anyone specifically on this blog – absolutely no names will ever be portrayed negatively, so he can remain anonymous. Not all that relevant to the article, but this is me writing for me, and I have to address it. All I will say is that his actions haunt me to this day, and I just sincerely hope to God he’s a better person now and feels some remorse.

So what does all this have to do with me writing music? Well, it’s the fact that this vitriol, this disrespect, antagonised me, but it antagonised me the right way. They drove me to go and prove – first of all to myself, and then if I needed to, to everyone else – that actually, I am a good musician. I can write, and I can play. My opinion is valid, dammit, and I will make myself heard. So I went away and wrote a ton of material and recorded an album that I could be proud of, from a metalhead’s and a musician’s point of view – so I could remind myself that everything I’ve given my life and spirit to, this art and this community, meant something. Metal was worth something to me, and vice versa, and I had just proven it by going away by writing several really damn good albums – even if I didn’t have to say it to those antagonistic pricks at school. In fact, I used their antagonism to fuel some of my lyrics, and used their doubt to keep up the standard of my playing, turning their negative emotion into a positive relic for myself.
This, I believe, is analogous to the ‘hunger’, the ‘drive’ that so many artists refer to when thinking of their breakthroughs. And for me, this ‘drive’ steadily decreased. I could be myself at university, and generally university – with a few unpleasant but rare exceptions on my corridor early on – was a place much more accepting of all tastes. This became even more true as I moved out of my college into a new friendship group in the theatre community, to whom I am forever grateful for just how welcoming and accepting they were.
(And even though my final year of uni was a pretty depressing time, the people I was falling out with, to their credit, never antagonised me about metal and so never spurred me into writing something to prove them wrong – they were just friends who really turned on me. That explains the complete slump I experienced in 2014; it was a depression, but not one I could use to drive me to write better metal.)
So as the years progressed, I simply had less and less to prove. I had fewer people telling me my opinion was invalid because I listened to metal, so I didn’t need to go away and write songs to let off some steam/express some angst/rebuild my self-esteem (take your pick).

The more I think about it, that’s the trend that really stands out. I write less now, because I have less reason to write. And I’m not talking about “building a career” as a reason to write – I’m not really sure how much I entertained the prospect even as a teenager (propping my leg up on the sofa while bassing and pretending I was Steve Harris and the sofa was a monitor). I’m talking about what it meant to me personally, to be able to prove to myself that I could write music like the best of them, and fuck what anyone else said. I grounded so much of my identity in heavy metal fandom, and so by contributing to heavy metal (at least within my own Guitar Pro files and mind) I was able to give value to my own identity.
It didn’t matter if anyone heard it; it mattered that I wrote it. (Funnily enough, the same could be applied to this blog…)
This also explains why, in recent years, I’ve been so reticent, even with close friends, about the fact that I’ve written hours upon hours of decent music; I’m surrounded by good friends these days, and I don’t have anything or anyone to reaffirm myself against.
Now, I just don’t need to write that much any more. I still love it, but I don’t need it the way I did when I was 18, 19, 20 years old. I’m in a much better place in life, so writing music is no longer a safeguard I need against my own social problems. I’ve still got demons, but I address them in other ways, like blog posts. Now, writing music is just… a hobby. And that’s a pretty nice thought to conclude with, actually. Though I have to say, through rose-tinted glasses, I really do miss being able to churn out three solid albums in two months!

JH

P.S. If anyone ever wanted to know, the name that I wrote all this material under and published with my friends’ help – so, in essence, my band – was called Howling Furies. Our one extant album was called Stronger Than Steel. Those are two names I’ll always hold dear.

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