BEHIND THE SONG: ‘Honest’

So today I posted a new video on YouTube, talking about the story behind ‘Honest,’ the long journey from idea to final song, and what it was like working on it with the amazing songwriters that are Lauren Aquilina, Richard Marc, and Jonathan Whiskerd. This is the title track and final single of the Honest EP and is a tribute to the honesty in the four songs that came before, as well as to being authentic and honest, even when it’s really hard.

If you haven’t listened to the song yet, you can find it here and the music video will be out soon! I hope you enjoy the song and I hope it’s interesting to hear some of the behind the scenes of the writing process.

As always, thank you for listening to my songs, watching my videos, and reading my posts. It means more than I can say.

Creative Difference: Exploring Art And Autism

Recently I attended a webinar hosted by the Autism research charity, Autistica, about the relationship between Autism and art and it was really interesting. The panelists were Professor Jonathan Green (Autistica Trustee, Professor of Child/Adolescent Psychiatry at Manchester University, and artist), Sarah Jane Bellwood (artist and gallery owner), Lizzie Huxley-Jones (editor and author of Stim: An Autistic Anthology), and Jane Elizabeth Bennett (multi-disciplinary artist and researcher).

Each person introduced themselves and then the discussion began. I found the whole thing really fascinating so I thought I’d pull a few quotes from the video that I thought were particular highlights, but I thoroughly recommend watching the whole video to hear all of the points made.

So here are some quotes that I found really interesting…

JANE ELIZABETH BENNETT: “I think art is the first language that I really kind of learnt. So, for me, art is a way to speak, it’s a way to communicate, it’s a way to convey emotion, and they’re not always things that I’m fantastic at doing in a kind of neurotypical way. For me, art is a very atypical way of communicating. You do it through colour, you do it through gesture, you do it through sound.

I love this description of art and it’s something I really relate to as an artist. I definitely use my songwriting to tell stories and relay experiences and share emotions. I do that through the lyrics, through the melody, the vocal performance, the arrangement and instrumentation, as well as the production. While, for me, the song is the piece of art in its purest form, the performance, the arrangement, and the production are all a vital part of conveying and enhancing the emotional experience. I definitely experience Synaesthesia to some degree: sounds have colours (and some even have specific tastes) as do emotions and so a big part of my process is trying to bring those experiences together; I’m often only happy with a song when the emotions, sounds, and colours are completely in sync.

JONATHAN GREEN: “And I was totally absorbed in doing this drawing, like nothing else existed except what I was doing. And I came out of it an hour or two later or something and I think I felt, ‘That’s the most real thing that’s happened to me for a long time… is that connection, with that plant through drawing.’ And I think that’s, for me, why I held on to it… was that it felt… it gave me an access to something that was so real… It’s allowed me to feel really real.

Having just written and finished a song is when I feel most real, most alive. Sometimes I feel like I don’t really exist and when I finish a song I’m proud of, it’s like a realisation that I really do exist. It’s the only time I feel in sync with the universe. I never feel so connected to myself as when I finish a song, or to other people as when I perform a song I’ve written and they respond to it. We’re all in this single moment, experiencing this thing together and it’s magical.

LIZZIE HUXLEY-JONES: “We should have the space within an industry to create whatever we want.

JANE ELIZABETH BENNETT: “I think it’s very important that as an autistic artist… it’s very important to have that space to make work that isn’t about Autism. Just because I’m autistic doesn’t mean I have to be, like, the voice of Autism but I think my Autism – just as a personality or as a writing style – is gonna be inherent in the work I make.

LIZZIE HUXLEY-JONES: “The way I describe it is, ‘we experience everything autistically so why wouldn’t everything we create be a little bit autistic as well?‘”

I think these are really important points: just because we’re autistic, it doesn’t mean that we have to create art about being autistic. Many do because it’s an outlet for their individual experiences or because it’s a way to make sense of themselves but we should never be pigeon holed into just creating Autism related work. How much space Autism takes up in our lives is different for everyone and we obviously feel and experience unrelated things that we want to make art about so not all autistic artists will choose to make art about Autism. But as Jane points out, being autistic likely will influence the work we make because it influences the way we perceive the world. Day to day that can be incredibly frustrating but when it comes to art, it can be something that makes our work special and different.

JONATHAN GREEN: “I think, for me, making art or the process of making art does help me make sense of things or sort my mind out in some way. I always feel, kind of, more in harmony after I’ve been making art. Internally, you know? Kind of rebalanced, or something like that.

I can absolutely relate to this. I definitely feel most calm, in mind and body, when I’ve just finished a song. It’s not too far from the experience I described earlier, about feeling real and alive and in sync. I also feel this real sense of inner calm. It’s like everything within me has been shaking and it’s suddenly stopped. It’s like all these disconnected pieces have come together and everything makes sense. It’s not dissimilar to how I imagine getting high feels.

There were a couple of things that bothered me though. I felt like having three visual artists and one writer wasn’t the best representation of artistry; they could’ve had a musician or sound artist, an animator, a photographer, etc and that would’ve created a more varied discussion because the forms of art were more varied. The discussion was really interesting as it was but I think a wider variation of art forms would’ve only added to that.

There was one thing specifically that I really didn’t like and that was the repeated use of the word ‘obsession’ in place of ‘special interest,’ the term more commonly used in Autism. I know that some people don’t like the phrase ‘special interest’ (I must admit I don’t love it) but I don’t think that that’s a good reason to revert to the word ‘obsession,’ a word that has some very negative connotations. Various definitions of ‘obsession’ involve the terms ‘unhealthy’ and even ‘disturbing’ and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I find those associations with my special interests uncomfortable and actually upsetting. I’ve had a handful of special interests in my life and none of them have been unusual in subject (animals, writing, singing, songwriting, to name some), but the intensity of that interest and fascination is what stood out. Definitions of ‘obsession’ also include the idea that they dominate a person’s thoughts, that they have control over you (which links back to the idea that they’re unhealthy), which, again, I personally wouldn’t associate with my special interests. While I think about my special interest – songwriting – a lot and would prefer to spend all of my time doing it, I can think and do other things and I can recognise when I’m spending too much time doing it and neglecting the other areas of my life. And during my research into the difference between ‘obsession’ and ‘special interests,’ I found several articles about how helpful and positive engaging with special interests are for autistic people (here and here). In the former, the writer, Laina Eartharcher, makes many good points that I feel I should quote rather than attempt to paraphrase:

  • “They soothe and calm me.”
  • “My interests do not dominate my thoughts the way that is consistent with an obsession. It’s not like I can’t think about–or talk about–anything else. It’s not like I can’t set my other interests aside and focus on my daily work. It’s not like I can’t get anything else done. If my interests were indeed obsessions, none of that would be true; my life outside of the interest would have come to a full stop.”
  • “For me, it’s all about relaxation and curiosity. I want to learn, focus, explore. And I want to do so in depth, with a sense of completeness. I don’t want pieces of the picture, I want the whole picture. I want to connect dots. I want to reach understanding. I want to feel solid in my knowledge. Tidbits and soundbites just don’t do it for me. They’re pointless and unsatisfying. It’s like, what’s the point of spending time gathering a bunch of soundbites and headlines? Meh. Give me the whole story, or don’t bother me with it.”
  • “I would like to see the ‘obsession’ association fall out of favor. It’s not accurate. It’s not nice. It lacks understanding.”

I relate to all of these statements and fully agree with her. ‘Special interest’ may not be the perfect word but the use of ‘obsession’ can be damaging and create misunderstandings about Autism. So it did really bother me how many times this word came up and the fact that it was never addressed, even briefly. I want to talk about special interests more in the future – I think it definitely deserves its own blog post as a subject – but as it came up here, I felt like it was important to talk about.

But that issue aside, I found the webinar to be a really informative, enjoyable experience and I look forward to similar events that Autistica puts on. I’ve followed several of the speakers on social media and have enjoyed delving deeper into the work they’ve created. As an autistic person, I’m always intrigued by the work of other autistic people and to what degree they experience and interpret the world in the same way I do and then (if they do) how they translate that into art.

The Second Semester of My Masters

So, that’s it. I’ve finished the second semester of my Masters Degree. That’s a very weird thought. I kind of can’t believe I made it. But I did. And I wanted to write about it, like I wrote about the first semester because all of this is weird and wonderful and difficult and part of the journey.

This semester, the module I studied was called Musicology (“the scholarly analysis and research-based study of music”) and my classes were split into two different blocks. The first was a series of lectures, each based around a different artist/songwriter and a specific element of their career, like David Bowie and identity, Prince and authenticity, and Max Martin and his use of melodic math (not all of them were men – these are just the ones that are coming to mind as I write this). I’d expected it to be based more around elements affecting music and it’s creation and consumption, like the history of certain genres, feminism, the constant evolution of technology and social media, rather than specific artists but maybe that was a misinterpretation on my part or simply a different approach that could’ve been taken. I don’t know. It was interesting and I learned a lot but a lot of the reading was very academic which I struggled with, given that I’m having  some trouble with what you’d probably call my cognitive processing. Having said that, we had a great tutor who is really passionate about the module, which made it so much more enjoyable and engaging than a lecture heavy module could’ve been.

The group was larger than I was used to but there were a lot of familiar faces, including my two closest friends on the course. That was definitely a positive, both because I love them and because it helped me to adjust to all the changes. But it was also nice to meet some new people and get to know better the ones that I sort of knew and wanted to know better. So that was really nice, even if it took me a while to adjust to the new group dynamic. I’ve made some good friends from that class, even though it was cut short by the lockdown (I’ll get onto that in a bit).

The second block of classes were practical classes where we discussed in further depth the techniques we’d covered in the lecture class (the technical skills and application) and then we’d go away and write a song based on those techniques. Some of the briefs were really inspiring but on the whole, I found the whole exercise frustrating and a bit of a waste of time. We’d just spent a whole semester working on our creative process and tackling our blocks and weak areas and suddenly we had no time to work on them any further because we were focussing on and trying out other people’s techniques. I just feel like I was finally making progress, particularly in my musical ability (I’ve always struggled when it comes to experimenting with different chords and chord progressions), and suddenly that progress was being curbed dramatically, making it really hard to invest myself in the songs I was writing for this class.

The assessment for this module was a single four thousand word essay on anything related to songwriting. Most people choose a songwriter and then focussed on some aspect of their songwriting or the impact of their songwriting in a certain area, like feminism or the genre they were part of, for example. I really didn’t want to go through the overwhelming stress I went through at the end of the last semester due to lack of clarity around the assignments so I spoke to my Module Leader (who was also my tutor and a tutor I’ve known since my BA) really early in the semester so that I could be as prepared as possible and when I presented the potential subjects I had in mind, he gave me some really good advice: choose the one you’ll learn most from. So I decided to investigate Taylor Swift’s use of imagery and how that links to the authenticity in her songwriting, specifically in her song, ‘All Too Well.’ I thought that would benefit my songwriting the most, since those are elements that are important in my writing and therefore knowing more about them could only strengthen my use of them. So, alongside my classes, I slowly started to gather research about those topics.

I was still researching (I readily admit with the help of my Mum because I found myself struggling so much with the academic language and with my cognitive functioning) when the Coronavirus reached the UK. Classes continued but as a course (there aren’t a huge number of us and we have a group chat on WhatsApp where we’re in constant contact with each other) we discussed the situation and came to the collective conclusion  that we didn’t feel safe travelling to and from uni, as well as being in the busy setting of a university. Our representatives contacted the senior staff and not long after, our classes were moved online. I think it was a week or so after that that the lockdown was announced.

Initially, not much changed for me, apart from the fact that I was no longer commuting to London for my classes. I attended the online classes, did my work, and researched for my essay. Determined not to go through a last week of panic writing, I got to writing as soon as I had enough material and added as I learned more. My tutor was fantastic in recommending sources when I got really stuck (there’s not as much research on imagery and authenticity in song lyrics as you’d think) and giving me some excellent feedback when I finished my first draft, still with plenty of time before the deadline. He’s been amazing throughout the whole module and I’m really grateful. I, again with my Mum’s help, went through the feedback and did the best we could to improve and strengthen the essay before submitting it just under a week before the deadline. So no last minute panicking. I think I did the best I could under the circumstances. But it wasn’t a solo effort. They’re my ideas and my words but I would NOT have been able to do it without my Mum’s support, and gentle pushing on the days where it just felt too hard. I couldn’t have gotten through the researching, the writing, or the editing without her. It is a better piece of work because of her help and I’m so incredibly grateful, both for her help on this assignment and throughout this module but also for her in general, for the ways she has supported me otherwise: helped me manage and protect my mental health, organised my life for me when it took all I had just to stumble through the days, for making sure I ate, even and probably especially on days when I didn’t want to. I’m so lucky to have her and I’m aware of that every minute of every day.

It’s been a weird semester. In a lot of ways it was smoother than the first, both because I was getting the hang of my routine as a Masters student but also because my mental health was more stable, if not necessarily better. I had some great, cherished times with my friends but then they were all suddenly ripped away without proper goodbyes by the lockdown (thank god for video calls). I got to do some really fun cowrites, which were then suddenly stalled for the same reason. They can be rearranged and done by FaceTime or Zoom but it’s not the same: I find it much harder to be creative WITH someone when we’re not actually in the same room (plus the lag time makes singing or playing together a real challenge). I’ll make it work because I love cowriting and I love the people I’m writing with but I do find it harder. I was also really enjoying the lectures and discussions we had in class and online classes just aren’t the same. So what was mostly a pretty positive semester was cut off in its prime and I do grieve the way things could’ve been.

I’m done now. The full-timers have another semester but I’m free until the end of September ish. I’ve completed the first year of my Masters Degree. That’s a very strange sentence to write out. There were many, many moments where I was sure I’d have to defer, despite the fact that the thought made me feel physically ill. But I made it. It was somewhat anti-climactic, given that we’re all in lockdown: I uploaded my assignment, clicked a button, and that was it. Year One done. I don’t think I could sum it – or the emotions I’ve experienced – up if I tried, not without writing a PhD length post. It’s been good and difficult and inspiring and more stressful than I could’ve possibly imagined. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve met some wonderful people. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

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