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Honesty and Creativity

My musical journey started when I was around the age of three, I guess. My grandfather had an old out-of-tune upright piano in the spare room at my grandparent’s house, where I’d spend hours hammering the keys and generally making a racket. I loved the sound that it made. I have never figured out why until recently, but it sounded friendly, and even though it was, as stated previously, out-of-tune, it sounded “honest”. It was like someone who liked to sing just for the fun of it and didn’t mind their own limitations and imperfections.I loved that piano. It was one of my best friends. 

I’d spend timeless Saturday afternoons not only hammering out discordant versions of “Popeye the Sailor” (the first tune I ever learned!), but I’d lift the lid at the top, stick my hand in and scrape the strings with anything I could find – usually cutlery, much to my grandmother’s disapproval. I’d open up the front panel above the pedals and hit the strings with sticks from the garden. The stranger the sounds the better!


Then at the age of five my Grandfather let me listen to an album he had just bought. It was Jean Michel Jarre’s “Equinoxe” (if you have never listened to it you should check it out!) The year was 1978. Like most great albums on hearing them for the first time, it blew my mind. It was as if someone had dumped a whole pile of TNT onto that little flame that was my imagination. 




The music was beautiful but it wasn’t that. It was those sounds! I had never heard anything like it. Immediately on listening I saw strange other-worldly landscapes, I visualized strange half-animal, half-machine beings who dived off high cliffs into purple oceans, or flew across green skies, or squelched around blue mud, or, or, or……my mind raced every time I listened to it. Those sounds! Sonic sunrises glistening on ethereal vapour oceans as metallic birds shot lasers off of high altitude clouds.

I’ll be forever grateful to my Grandfather for introducing me to my own musical journey in such a way.


Perhaps I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I had learned something very important. Well, for me anyway:


Sound is as important as the music it carries. 


Sure, this album could have been played by an orchestra or a rock band and it probably would have sounded good either way, but I doubt that it would have painted the same dreamscapes in my mind or evoked the same wonder. It was the synthesizers and their sounds that painted those particular scenes. Or rather, I used those unique tones to paint my own pictures!


Growing up, I listened to a lot of different styles. My Mum often played Simon and Garfunkel, or Joan Baez in the house, my Dad played ELO. Lots, of ELO! But again, I was always aware of the sound. S&G had a warmth, like a cosy blanket, ELO had a rhythmic energy that would shake me out of bed when my Dad played their records late at night. Even forty years down the line, I swear sometimes that I can hear THAT bassline to “Livin’ Thing” as I try to get to sleep.


Over the years, I explored many genres but  I kept coming back to that recurring idea – it’s the sound that I love. Of course I love the music also. But what I mean for example is, listening to recordings of someone like Woody Guthrie, there’s tape hiss in the background and audio distortions due to less sophisticated recording equipment back then. This is as important as his songs. The imperfections take us back. It’s like listening to an old memory – something you forgot that you ever remembered in the first place! And it sounds kind of honest. It’s not trying to be something that is isn’t. Mowtown wouldn’t be “Mowtown” without its own slight distortion (you can hear that often in the vocals) . 80’s synthpop would never be if it were void of its over the top “sparkle”. Heavy rock would sound…well, a lot less heavy without guitar feedback. These things that I speak of isn’t the music, but it IS “the music”! It’s the soul.


Melodies, basslines, harmonies, chord structures. Of course these elements of a song are vital. This is the communication of the song. The sound however is the quality of the communication. And I feel we’re often misled into thinking that by “good quality of communication” we mean a super clear, sharp, crisp, sonically perfect sound. Although we may find the principle of that appealing, in actuality it loses something. Take a listen to a lot of today’s music. There’s no tape hiss, there’s no microphone distortion – and if there is it’s deliberate. Everything, the drums, the guitars, the vocals, they’re all as “perfect” as they can be. Too perfect. There are many incredibly technically talented singers out there today with fantastic range and control over their voices. But when I listen to Johnny Cash (especially in the recordings he made just before his death), the gravel in his voice, his croak, his limited range (by today’s standards), the imperfections in his voice tell a story of a lifetime of ups and downs, highs and lows, successes and failures. It gives his songs soul. I mean REAL soul. He’s not trying to be anyone he’s not. The songs have “honesty”


I’m a recording artist, or a musician, or whatever. I normally tell people who ask that “I write and produce music”. That’s it. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to make money from my art, sometimes I’m not. I used to get really bogged down with searching for this “sonic perfection”. Mixing tracks would take days, weeks sometimes. I lost sight of myself in the mix. It was as if spending all my energy in eliminating the imperfections I was extracting my soul from the music. My creativity lost its sparkle. I started writing less music as I felt that ultimately I’d end up disappointed with the final product. So I stopped focusing on production values too much and took the approach that some things are just meant to sound the way they are. (I’m not trying to justify not doing a good job with my art. My production techniques are at least competent and I still strive to create a good product. I just decided not to get hung up on spending days on “perfecting” a high hat, or obsessing over the level of one piano note in a whole song.)


When I did this I found that my creativity not only came back, it washed over me like a tidal wave of ideas! I splashed around in eddies and rip-tides of creativity. Over one weekend I wrote seven pieces of music. I even put paintbrush to canvas for the first time in years and completed two paintings. I experimented with field recordings, used sounds that I hadn’t used before. The seriousness had washed away and the fun and excitement came back like bright sunshine breaking through grey skies. My music started painting pictures in my mind again. Like an aesthetic feedback loop, idea followed idea. I found myself again. I was being me, an artist and not a technician. The excitement that I felt when I was five and listening to “Equinoxe” with my Grandfather once more embraced me. My music was “honest”.


I guess that none of us are perfect and maybe those imperfections in our work is actually part of our identity, our spirit, our uniqueness. And maybe the obsession with perfection of production was in some way like standing in front of a mirror and being disappointed because I didn’t like my reflection. Whatever happened, I realized that creativity and art should be fun and exciting, and you should not feel self conscious about the beautiful things you create. Have fun, lots of it, and go make wonderful things!


Colin McNeil

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