I thought you used to be a musician once?

It’s been over a year and a half since my last album came out. Since then i’ve been busy with lots of different projects. Learning new skills, playing music with my band and with Polar Bear. In the whole it’s been a very happy time. Since January last year I have been trying to write new material for what I hope will be a new record. The strange thing is that when I listen back to what I have recorded a lot of it strikes me as not being quite right. This is not my self-conscious ego talking, well maybe partially but there is definitely something a bit broken in my creative process when it comes to songwriting. A particular problem has been the writing of lyrics. This can be really difficult at the best of times but for me over the last year it has often felt like I have absolutely nothing to say. This is of-course absolute rubbish as I’m sure something is in there but it’s been impossible thus far to get it to come out. I have managed to make a few pieces but my feeling is that they are not very good or trying to be something that I’m not. Trouble is I’m finding it hard to know what I ‘really’ am.

I have tried various methods to coax the timid little rabbit out of it’s burrow. I have tried the ‘write something every day’ method which produced material but it was, err really really bad. I then tried the ‘don’t do anything unless you feel like it’ approach which lead to me staying in bed a lot. I then went back to listen to the ‘something every day’ material which made me feel pretty depressed but I decided that I had not given it enough time to work so I started on it again which lead to yet more crap. Crap on Monday, crap on Tuesday, and on Wednesday more crap for a change… You get the idea. At one point I was ready to toss in a stick of dynamite down the hole and put an end to that stubborn furry little bastard.

There is lots of advice to ‘cure’ writers block available on the web – but let me warn you. If you happen to be suffering to the extent that you are desperate enough to take this ridiculous step you might also be sufficiently weakened to actually try some of the methods. Take it from me JUST DON’T OK! Take for example lovely Tina Morgan. She advises in her ’10 Ways to Beat Writers Block’:

3) Take Prozac – seriously – if you’ve been suffering from the symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor. There may be something he/she can do to help, be it medication or therapy. (of course, always check with your doctor before taking any medication)

Are you fucking serious!? I can quite do without developing a drug dependency. Oh and by the way Tina not being able to work properly for a year is fairly depressing but something tells me the pharmacist is not the one I should turn too. From the insane to the ridiculous she goes on to suggest:

6) Play on the jungle gym, crawl on the floor after your toddler for 20 minutes – not just for the exercise but also for down time from life’s problems and to marvel in the joy of exploration. 

Well I have no idea what a jungle gym is and I have absolutly no desire to get a toddler in order to find out. Perhaps unfairly I chose her as an example but there are countless others peddling such well meaning crap. there must be some great resources out there for the blocked, it’s just that I didn’t find anything that didn’t either make me laugh, cry, or want to disable the author. I guess the problem is that each person gets blocked for different reasons and there really are no simple answers or any website, book, or guru that can be consulted for them. The answers annoyingly (but simply enough) lie within.

You might by this point (in what is turning into an essay), be thinking “Why the hell are you putting this shit out there for everyone to read, just deal with it man! You are not getting my sympathy”. Or “Are you going to tell me you discovered the secret of becoming un-blocked and then try and sell it to me?” Well I’m really quite nervous about posting this blog, I’m not sure how people will react. But when I made this new website I put in a category called “The Making of the 5th Leafcutter Album” in which I imagined would document the triumphant making of a masterpiece (that’s sarcasm btw) Anyway I have decided that it’s time to start writing about the album, come rain or shine. I love all the things I’m studying but my number one desire is to communicate with people through song. When it works it fills me with an indescribable joy when it’s broken I want desperately to find a way to fix it. That’s the first reason I’m writing this and it explains the lack of new music here. Secondly there are probably loads of people currently stuck or experiencing similar things to this and it can’t hurt to share one’s experiences. The third reason is that I would like to try and publicly un-block myself by producing a series of Micro-Songs on this blog. I think one of the problems I’m having is that I try and do too much in a single song and I get very uptight thinking about how well or badly I can play and sing. I tend to obsess over some tiny detail which can, in the end de-rail the whole song I’m working on. 

If you are a regular reader here you will no doubt be aware that I’m currently learning the programming language Processing. In Processing a program is refered to as a sketch. At first I thought the idea of sketching code was cute but slightly ridiculous. But the more I sketch, the more Inspired an idea it seems. Thinking of coding as sketching removes the implication that code has to be long, tedious and hard to understand. An idea can be expressed quickly and with a minimum of fuss. It can be scruffy, half finished, broken and still somehow beautiful. In short it’s exaclty what I need for my songwriting.

So what is a Micro-song?

  • Short and not overly complex
  • Self Confident
  • Not concerned with virtuosity or eliminating errors
  • Honest and true (It does not have to pretend to be anything other than what it is because it’s content)

I tried today to write my first Micro-Song and freed from the rubbish I had floating about in my head about what my music should sound like I managed, with relative ease to create something which I’m actually very fond of. As a song I’m not sure what it means other than that I managed to make something that I don’t despise.

I humbly give you “Big Black Eyes” (haha)

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“Don’t move over, don’t move over. Good night, night, night-night. Big black eyes. Never sleep.”

It’s late but I’m going to post this anyway, please forgive spelling and grammar.

All the best,

Leafcutter John.

P.S. this is for Maria & Seb, may you never tire x x x.

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21 Comments to I thought you used to be a musician once?

Rui Guerreiro
January 18, 2009

Hello John,

Always good to hear from you (musically or not). I have a couple things to say about this last post.

1- Browsing the web for writers block cure? Not to worry! Although you’re right, pretty much everything that you find is rubish, there is at least one I would suggest that you take a look. It’s a book, the author is Twyla Tharp and it’s called The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creative-Habit-Learn-Use-Life/dp/0743235274/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1232278251&sr=8-1
It’s not a bunch of miraculous and often idiotic solutions to unblock your ceativity, but the story of very focused person and her love for what she does. At least you’ll get a few hours of good reading.

2- I believe that the person who did “The forest and the sea” will, sooner or later, come up with something as good, to say the least. Your album is a central piece of my own will to create music, and it keeps inspiring me everyday. So, take your time, the ones that really like what you do will wait!

3- “Big Black Eyes” – It sounds like a morning lullaby, though… (eheheh)

Have a nice week.

Bertrand Fraysse
January 19, 2009

Really interesting post.
I’m pretty sure that what you are unsatisfied with, a lot of artists would beproud of. Maybe, don’t be too hard with yourself.
You are SO unique.

PS : Very nice new little song. Happiness, strangeness and melancholia perfectly mixed together.

Andy Wales
January 19, 2009

Mr John,
Thank you for a refreshingly honest and frank post – I would’nt expect anything less.
I’m sure that anyone involved in creating things experiences periods when it becomes difficult to come up with something they are happy with. Stick with it, the ideas will come.
Liking BBE’s a very lot. Ouch!

Andy Wales
January 19, 2009

I love songs about insomniac pandas! x

Robert Henke
January 19, 2009

Hi John, and happy new year btw!
This sounds all way too familiar to me. I often end up doing ‘something’ instead of doing music because I feel I have nothing to say. And then comes guilt for not doing music, and I try to create music but do not feel it, and then I step back from it and so on. However, unlike some years ago, it is now technically possible to store all my sketches. And to my great surprise, a lot of things I did while not believing at all in myself turned out to have at least some very interesting elements in them, which cry out for refinement and integration in a new work.

So, I learned that even when I think I am not creative, there is something going on. Therefor I think your concept of doing these little micro songs is perfectly fine. Keep your sketches and review them later. Do not rush. Your new album will come and it will be great when the time is right. No one needs another bad album, done in a rush. But a good album…. will be fine even if it took four years to get there.

Cheers, Robert

January 19, 2009

go running. outside. in the woods. like a maniac. every morning. through the dark and into the light. that’s what i do. works every time. clears my head, opens it to new ideas.

xoxox, b.

January 20, 2009

I so enjoyed your blog! I assume from the little bit of musical loveliness you included that your elusive!furry muse has resurfaced. It would be beyond silly for me to give someone like you any advice on songwriting but I do have an overwhelming and passionate obsession with words. Red wine has always been rather helpful to me in luring out truthful expressions. That is, as long as I don’t first fall asleep in my glass! haha ;)

Good luck, sir, and shine on!

January 21, 2009

Writers Block, a terrible brick wall.

It is maybe simply a moment of change or transition for you creatively, and once that is complete things [that furry thing] will be whole once again.

Good luck !

Leafcutter John
January 21, 2009

I would like to say thank you to all the people who have taken the time to leave a comment or send me an email or myspace message. Your messages, stories, and advice have been both thought provoking and touching. Things are beginning to crystalise and become clearer now. Your messages have been a catalyst for that process.
I’m going to carry on with the micro-songs as I feel that really helps.
More thoughts and Ideas soon.

[…] This post follows on from: I thought you used to be a musician once? […]

[…] To find out more about the origins of the micro-song idea read I thought you used to be a musician once? […]

January 21, 2009


I was actually gathering courage to ask you about how things were shaping up with the next album, but I see you have been busy with it, one way or another.

The whole idea of a “creative crisis” is rather strange – to my mind at least, creativity always implies a kind of crisis, even at a small scale.

As far as the writer’s block thing goes, the approach you have adopted seems the best one possible: think small, take one bite at the time. (I should know, I keep forgetting to do this when I get stuck).

So, keep it up! Remember, the best thing about this is that time is not important. There’s your own time of working, writing, recording, and then there’s the industry’s production calendars and launch plans. Never let the other interfere with your work (well, as long as you have an option).



January 21, 2009

John you have written this and explained this very well. Here I was/ we were shouting ” John we love what you do! Give us some more! give us some more! Encore! ” Of course we want more of you, everyone does, and you want to give more but that doesn’t seem fair right now. You have given plenty.
What I love about the way you make music, and I think I can say this because I’ve known you since your first record, is that there you were, composing sounds, playing tunes, and I was quite fascinated because I thought you were bigger than music. By that I mean that music/ sounds were the tool that you were using at that point. I used to imagine by the way you observed and discribed the world around us that, you could see and process your vision in a special way, and that your mind and soul could be applied to any creative process because you have a unique way of knowing how much, how little, when things are balanced, preventing something being spoilt etc. These are qualities that you apply to everything, so you are doing it right now, wether you are cooking, or tidying your room or whatever. I hope I’m not being too abstract.
You don’t have to be leafcutter john if you don’t want to. we’ll still love you. Just do what you really want to do. I’m sure you’ve got something burning in that heart of yours x

January 27, 2009

That was a really inspiring. I feel like I’m starting to break my own ‘creative block’ (or maybe it’s a ‘living block’ in my case) and I think that it’s really hard to find the answer if you keep on focusing in the things that are going wrong, or the results you are not happy with. it makes this kind of knot in your brain which can be really hard to undo. Small things (like micro songs:) are a great start, and once a good ideas will come from there (or somewhere else) I’m sure it will roll…
I’m looking forward to hear the new Leafcutter album, but I don’t mind waiting, it will be all worth it in the end

(oh, and go cycling, in Lea Valley river, I’m sure there are loads of lovely sights and sounds for you there…)

Jeff Fairlight
January 31, 2009

No one can ever tell you how to find it again. When I found myself in your condition I wrote music that expressed my very frustration with not creating what I wanted to hear. This did the trick and least for the time being.

gerard one r.
February 2, 2009

hi john. re:writers’ block try putting your own interpretation and context to overheard snatches of conversation!. write-on. salaam, gerard.

February 11, 2009

Hay John ..
Its a London thing ..
there is an other life outside
go on Safari a big long Safari
Love K

Junior Cop
February 11, 2009

a good read. for me writing lyrics makes a song easier to compose and adds a whole new dynamic as an instrument alone. perhaps sometimes it helps me to empathise with a character in a book i’m reading as an inspiration.
i write alot of crap though too ;)

[…] Click below to hear the original, also read why I made this song. […]

Stephen Berleakney
March 24, 2009

have had musicians block / creative crisis for 6 straight years now (been producing for 9). i hope one of us finds an end to it. might have a go at knocking off a remix though.

michael farley
November 1, 2010

Big black eyes is a beauty. I’ve been a musician/composer for decades, but never wrote songs because I couldn’t write words, and had “nothing to say,” just the same as you felt. This past year I had a powerful urge to write songs. When I came up with the idea of using Spam email as lyrics, the flood gates opened. I wrote and recorded 10 tracks in 9 months, and I think they turned out well, even as my first attempts at songwriting. Using Spam email made me feel like the words were simply material to use and didn’t burden me with extraneous meaning. Anyway, they’re here, if anyone’s interested: http://happynewyearrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/caramel-snow

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