There are few things I value more than creativity. It is a truly unique phenomena that seems to manifest itself a different way in everybody. It is a characteristic of human intelligence that is far from algorithmic or predictable. There is no way it can be broken down into an infallible series of steps – a routine which, when completed, will produce the output of the creative mind. As someone who has, for the past ten years, worked in an area closely associated with artificial intelligence, you might think that this would irritate me. I spend my days turning very focused bits of human thought into patterns and mathematics that a computer can digest and reproduce. But the creative process? Replication of this by a machine will never be done.
This does not irritate me because it reminds me how valuable the human mind is. I often remember its value when I am listening to a great track. It may be an instrumental quality that leaps out causing me to wonder how the artist imagined the sound. It may be a lyric that caused me to pause and think. As a listener of music rather than a creator, I have very little insight into what processes go into the creation of a song. So, I recently did something I have never done before. I reached out to an artist and asked. You see, I am the among the most passive people you’ll meet. I tend to write reflective articles here because I can do so independently. I’d had the notion of writing on creativity for some time, but just could not bring myself to pose the question to an artist.
Then, a few weeks ago I was introduced to the music of Running Red Lights. This Toronto band caught my attention first with their sounds, and next, with their history as documented on their website. What caught my attention was the mention of creative disappointment associated with a struggling period for the band. Creative disappointment first, then going back to the roots of why they formed as a band to rebuild. This, in my perspective, spoke highly of Running Red Lights‘ commitment to creativity. I had to find out more. So, with some hesitation, I put the question to Scarlett Flynn (vocals, guitar, and keyboard for RRL). Much to my surprise, she was more than willing to discuss the creative process with me.
At the time I was well acquainted with the track Mulberry Love. The opening instrumentals hinted at elements of the band Do Make Say Think. It was not the structure of the instrumental, but its atmosphere. This set the stage for the vocals and lyrics which took Mulberry Love in a whole new direction I was not anticipating. It intrigued me. It was a song with feeling. When I began reading through Scarlett’s musings on creativity, I was continually scanning ahead to find a grain of insight behind this amazing track. And, its an incredible story of connectivity and free association.
It began with the word mulberry standing out in a composition by Sylvia Plath. The word stood out simply because how often does it really come up in daily conversation? Scarlett imagined a suburban city sidewalk painted red by fallen mulberries. Unquestionably, the red organic matter trampled underfoot would be an unwelcome sight to anyone passing through the area. But the mulberry is sweet to the taste. One object, the mulberry, is used to create contrasting situations; the desirable taste and the undesirable mess. Scarlett then realised this established a metaphor. An alluring woman who is irresistible, but whose love ends up causing an incredible mess. Mulberry Love.
I was fascinated with this on a number of levels. First, the notion of this very unlikely chain of connected thoughts leading to the song I was listening to amazed me. It began simply with the word mulberry. Second, I began to question how well I knew many of the songs I love. Unravelling this chain from the music alone would be an incredible and doomed exercise. Finally, I was struck by the simple fact the entire song was built around the title.
Personally, titles annoy me. I leave them to last and I have never been satisfied with any I’ve created. I should elaborate that titles themselves do not annoy me; just my own titles. So, the thought that this wonderful song was catalysed by none other than a title astounded me. I began to think a little further on this and it made sense. I am a prolific writer of the first paragraph of a story. I have countless documents containing just one lonely paragraph. Why? Because I often think of what might be the perfect opening line around which to base a story. More often than not, the story progresses no further than that initial line or, at most, a paragraph. I keep them around in the event further inspiration strikes me.
Along a very similar vein, I have countless written pieces that are simply the description of a character. I take a bus to and from work. A man in his mid-fifties boards every day. He has a long beard and wears no less than ten watches on his left arm every day. He proudly selects one that is the pinnacle and describes it to the person nearest him on the bus. He takes pride in showing these off. I’ve often wondered what his story was. I created a character sketch with him as the protagonist. I hope to one day materialise it as a short story. Much in the way I find writing inspiration in the world and people around me, Scarlett describes its parallel within the scope of Running Red Lights. The song How Your Silver Shines, for instance, was motivated by Scarlett’s observations of a wealthy man who once frequented a bar she worked at. That’s a fundamental aspect of creativity; its seeds are free for the taking and can be found in practically all observations around us.
As I continued to read I came across a series of sentences which need to be heard verbatim. While writing this I tried to frame the concept in an anecdote from my own personal experience, but this ultimately detracted from its importance. Scarlett writes:
Though there are literally thousands and thousands of songs and songwriters and although everyone has similar dramas and realities, everyone’s voice is unique and therefore has the potential to shed light on an issue for someone in a way no other writer has been able to do. I think of this often when I write and I feel that if something has made me cry, hurt, smile, laugh, question, angry etc then it has the potential to affect someone else the same way and is worth writing about.
This says a lot. It speaks of the importance of creativity and songwriting. It is the awareness that the lyrics, the instrumentals, and the tone can have a profound effect on the listener. Good music makes you feel. Our lives as we live them are full of feeling. The songwriter is able to feed on the range of emotions to communicate uniquely with the listener.
I found the experience of reading a musician’s musings on creativity thoroughly rewarding. It was a reminder of why I value the emerging artist so much. It is a rare slice of the music industry where creativity is held as a virtue. Creativity exists at all levels of music, of course. But, as the band become more engrained in the industry as a corporate machine, the ability to fully flex the creative muscle diminishes. Once the band has reached a level where their success has enabled them to regain the creative control, the will to do so is often lost. The effect is highly evident when contrasting so much of what is in the mainstream with the emerging artist. Running Red Lights is a band with creative vision and a determination to exercise that vision in all aspects of their music. The vision finds its way into each song. Whether we are aware of the complex and often unlikely route taken from seed idea to polished song is almost irrelevant. We are left with amazing music.
Michael Dakin //