COMMENT: The Real Strength in Numbers
The importance of Collaboration in Music
A band is the sum of its separate components. The bass and the drums make the backbone of the sound, whilst the voice and lyrics serve as the driving message (normally through the means of a song). No rock band is complete without a lead guitarist though, to provide all those lovely twiddly bits and riffs that in some ways have come to define a track. Or have they? Perhaps they’ve really come to define our experience of the song. Like the band, that crescendo style twanging of sound (Guns N Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine springs to mind as a notable example) is but one part of something bigger. On its own it wouldn’t do the same, or have the same impact, having had a big build up by the other tools to make up the full effect.
The same is true of choruses. Choruses prove that music (using western influenced styles as a reference) is primed, by design, for more than the one person – or instrument – to bear influence. Whilst improvisation defines some genres & heavily influences others (jazz and various mods of it, for example), a group will usually work within a set key at any one time, when composing a track. It is the possibilities that exist within the designated set of notes that allow the magic to happen and, perhaps, it is easier for bands to make music together once they’ve done so for a while. Of course, this is by no means set in stone – it’s debatable; however, without delving too far into the history of modern western music and the “science” of music, it can, for the most part, be accepted as a general truth. But, what of those who choose to partner up and combine their efforts, those who aren’t solely in a band together – artists of varying genres, working off of each other to improvise and jam and come up with something completely natural and new.
Richard Russell – the owner for XL Recordings & the Mercury Prize-nominated Everything Is Recorded project – believes that working alongside others doesn’t always mean penning for the skill-sets, or style, that is already proven. He believes that creativity as a talented musician is nothing if not a medium in which finding new ways to express oneself and push their usual style is naturally the goal. When a fresh approach like this is taken, it soon becomes easier to see why Russell claims that an experienced musician can gain much from working with one that is perhaps a less experienced, a “bedroom guitarist” who has yet to find their signature style. Adopting this attitude and by taking people outside of their comfort zone, a musician automatically finds themselves adapting, and it is accordingly where a very different type of magic happens. Collaboration requires a willingness to listen to ideas and suggestions that may seem difficult, but Russell assures people that it does indeed reap rewards – using this methodology also keeps people focused on the moment instead of simply working towards a set goal. The very concept of truly open-minded collaboration means that the creative process becomes something fluid and constantly shifting. Whilst it might seem like this is anarchy, or at least appears to value anarchic tendencies, that isn’t necessarily the case.
Using the concept of spontaneously created collage, Russell formed the project Everything is Recorded. The idea behind it being to bring people together and create without the boundaries that traditional studio-music making brings – Russell created a space in which there would be no tightly structured rules or requirements to make an album of pre-conceived ideas, in fact, it is quite opposite. In the award-winning documentary of the same name, Russell talks about the many “musical sketches” he has made for years. The producer doesn’t think much beyond the jam and simply collects the work that comes of it for personal use – with Russell’s ability as a record producer, it comes as little surprise that he would enjoy experimenting.
Russell calls this type of music making “Free and unencumbered artistic expression”. It’s a very organic process that can find its own way as it plays out because the reins are off. As opposed to knowing what a painting might look like before it’s begun, Russell and his group of artists try different colours and textures out and see which shapes and shades start to emerge. It’s a very emotion-based affair, challenging the traditionally used production process. The decisions are felt, as opposed to being scrutinised and judged. Celebrated artists like Sampha help to encourage others to gain confidence in contributing, whilst he does – Russell claims that along with his “supernatural level of giftedness” – evidently, another huge part of what makes Sampha such a special individual is his humility and deep respect of and for those musicians around him. Sampha seems to help the collaborative synergy happen without being fully aware of it. This is a fine example of Russell’s knack of seeing this light and talent in people; it’s tempting to state that Russell might, at times, know musicians better than they know themselves, or at least the potential they harbour under the right guidance. Whether this is true or not, what is indisputable is that being around others allows for a more objective insight from one person of another’s traits.
With so many artists working as a unit, it would seem there’s certainly the potential for sparks to fly and egos to clash. Russell identifies that this is far from true. This is no accident and is evidence of more of Russell’s extensive experience and eye. Producers are often cited as being some of the biggest names in the music business; George Martin’s work with The Beatles, Nile Rogers’ numerous projects ranging from Madonna’s massive album Like a Virgin (1984) to Bob Dylan and even Will Ferrell, being just two examples. Both of these prove just how diverse the creative mindset can be – that is, if it’s fully open to newness. Though technical know-how and musical-mastery are necessary to make any ambitious concept bloom and flourish, perhaps the ability for a producer to get the very best out of people is the real key to success – something that Russell must surely be aware of. The time frame is often limited in making albums or singles and the process expensive and the ability of getting a group of people who are spending long periods of time together, in an enclosed space, to co-operate shouldn’t be underestimated – Russell seems to realise that focusing on the enjoyment of the project can often allow this to happen in a much more natural way. However, just putting artists together depending on timings and availabilities doesn’t always mean plain-sailing but this can hold value itself. Working out differences and resolving them can lead to a much closer bond than before, and a new insight and direction into the creative process.
With the collaborative project’s natural theme around friendship Mela Murder and Infinite, both of whom play a crucial role in the documentary and project in helping to capture the very essence of Russell’s philosophy, demonstrate perfectly how adversity and even animosity can lead to new – or renewed – strengths being found. Surrounded by supportive and creative bodies, Infinite is not held back by any prior holds he might have on his style and creativity and instead allows access to his frailty, bravely discussing his crippling loneliness and how it’s been a destructive force in his life. Mela Murder empathises as the two musicians share a tearful and angry exchange during the process, culminating with the pair working out their collective differences whilst expunging sadness & negativity. Collaboration makes room for clarity of expression and a subsequent ‘rebirth’ of sorts, allowing for the type of raw emotion that exposes the delicacy of a frame of mind to be captured and transmitted. The trick to tapping into this potential appears to be knowing when to stand back and when to instruct – letting the tension naturally build before waiting for the natural conclusion that comes between people. Only when Infinite had made way for exposing his low point did Russell tell him to go and perform a vocal. In fact, his contribution turned out to be his best work for some time, and an end to his hiatus – the equivalent of a writer finally breaking through the block that they thought might never end. Powerful and inspirational stuff; a release for Infinite and a momentous incident for those around, leading to more innovation and positivity, continuing the process.
Far from being novel in nature, Russell’s project takes what already exists and hones it – that’s what makes it new. His entire exercise taps into the socio-psychological aspect of creativity and shows how awareness and concerted effort can be channelled into making something unique. What does feel refreshingly different from a standard mash up of different styles though, is the pronounced self-consciousness of things. Russell encourages self-awareness and allows the results to speak for themselves, realising that you can’t make people operate in harmony, but you can guide a way to it. Working around musicians throughout his life at XL, Russell is an astutely self-aware individual and one that’s well worthy of being deemed to hold a special type of wisdom. For Russel the rainbow of collaboration and creative output can never have enough colours – the spectrums are never limited for him – and it is the painting of the rainbow that counts; the final display is secondary. The extraordinary vibrancy and bright bursts of colour only happen when the atmospheric conditions are just right, if, and when they are.
Everything is Recorded is more – so much more – than a project, programme, experiment or mere arrangement. It’s a mantra and a philosophy. An outlook and an attitude on the importance of collaboration – and one that we contribute towards – and a way of doing things that we can all learn something from, but only if we choose to.