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Highway to the Comfort Zone

“My gut reaction has always been to zig when everyone else zags”

  • Kevin Roberts, Lovemarks

Life loops. It’s governed by cycles, from the tides to our sleep patterns. Even the world of music and film has its cycles; apparently pop culture nostalgia follows a 40-year tide (eg. the rise of Beatles-esque brit-pop in the early 2000’s). Music writer Alan Cross argues that Rock and Pop are in a constant battle of 13-year cycles

All of this to say, more often than not, the creative act is constantly pulled at by cultural cycles. Cycles that sway trends and movements like invisible tides. And as an artist, that’s the sea you’re swimming in. As you write songs, you’re unconsciously doing it within these cultural cycles. Ask any pop songwriter how much of their writing is informed by whatever sound or production method is hot right now. Ask any music exec which genre is ‘taking off right now’ (clue: it’s probably a revived version of 70’s synth pop). 

The problem is, creativity by much of its definition, requires you to be ahead of the curve. On the edge. Already dipping your toe into the next thing. Proactive and not reactive. Challenging the status quo, not responding to it. One foot firmly in the weird and misunderstood. Chances are, if you find yourself writing the same song every day (I’m looking at you, ‘pop songs about heartbreak’), it might be time to take a creative leap.

The most vital part of ‘cutting edge’ is the edge. Creatives are driven by the desire to set trends, not respond to them, and that requires creating from a place that Kevin Roberts calls “restless and resourceful”; a place where you “shake off conventions and worn-out formulas”. As Kurt Vonnegut says, “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the centre”. 

That’s a difficult ask. It requires stepping out from the centre of the trend. Bucking the cycle. It requires a realisation that the real cultural inventors are already standing outside of the zeitgeist, looking for the next thing. And that takes a crazy amount of commitment, danger, and time. They don’t call it the comfort zone for nothing. Escaping it takes you out of the safe and into the outrageous. Art is so often a prophetic act. 

Here are a few stepping stones to help you get out onto the edge and out of that creative rut:

Listen to the unknown
Your journey begins by listening widely and deeply. Gorge yourself on the unknown. Subscribe to Spotify playlists that highlight deep cuts from genres you’ve never heard of - start with David Byrne’s round-up of music from the Middle East and the Maghreb. Even better, make a daily habit of heading to Soundcloud, picking a random genre, and scrolling through the myriad of tracks from unreleased bedroom-producers. There’ll be a lot of dross before you hit gold, but this is the truth of any good archaeologist. Go to the Opera. 

Give your gut some credit
So much of our creativity is defined and pre-constrained by the presence of an imaginary audience. Before we hit that first chord we’re thinking about what’s cool, what’s socially accepted, what’s on the Top 40. Once a day, turn off that inner critic and make some music that amuses you. Play blind roulette with the settings on your keyboard. Play the same thing on a different instrument. Forget about concepts of what works and what doesn’t. Everything works. Everything has promise. 

Follow Oblique Strategies
In the 1970s (see - 40 years ago), Brian Eno made this beautiful deck of cards with one-liners designed to inspire creative thought and push boundaries (and buttons). He used it with David Bowie when making Heroes. There’s an online version here. Next time you’re creatively stuck, head for one of these and obey it without question. It works. 

Here’s a good one to start: “Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them”.