10 Pieces of Advice for Musicians/Songwriters from Jamie Lidell
Steven J. Horowitz January 10, 2017
10 Pieces of Advice for Musicians/Songwriters from Jamie Lidell
Electro-soul singer Jamie Lidell is a seasoned veteran. Over a decade-and-a-half deep into his career, the 43-year-old has gone from overseas delight to international phenomenon, crafting a specifically unique sound driven by loops and characterized by a seamless bridging of genres. On the business end, he spent 14 years with decorated indie label Warp Records before going the independent route with his enriched Building a Beginning, one of 2016’s standout releases. In anticipation of his American Songbook performance on February 17, Lidell delves into his own past to impart practical advice for up-and-coming artists.
1. Pick an instrument that feels right. And stick with it.
George Clinton always had good advice: "Nothing's good until you play with it." A lot of structured learning, it has its place for sure. But I think you also have to make sure that you're genuinely passionate about it. You should pick something you think you're going to stick with longer than a few weeks and try to coax some kind of depth out of it.
The only instrument I actually studied was the trombone. I stuck with it even though I wasn't drawn to it beyond one weird freestyle moment when I picked it as a kid. But the thing is, just playing any instrument and following through and having a unique experience with it—it's hugely valuable. It can be any instrument. They can all be a gateway to something magical, something really deep.
2. Start with the basics. Repeat.
It's like cooking. If you want to be an amazing chef, you can't just jump in with really extreme recipes. You've got to start chopping vegetables and doing mundane shit. You see musicians rocking, you might see a carpool karaoke as a kid and go, "I want to be Bruno Mars!" Sure, how do you get there? Stick with something simple for a while and just play the music. Find a way that makes you compelled to put 10,000 hours in and the technique will come on its own.
Make sure you get good advice from the beginning, someone showing you whatever your instrument is, good rudiments, and once you've got that on board, literally drum them in. That's where the technique comes from. It's not a magical thing. It's just getting the muscle memory, it's connecting the brain and the ear with a physical gesture that's creating the correct result. Then, something will happen, and if you have other people around...
3. Play well with others.
The key for me is community. It was always about the kids in school who played music—I wanted to hang out with them. Without that, I probably wouldn't have done it, even though I loved music. It would have been too solitary an exercise. But that’s just my character.
The most informative musician and educator I had in school always said that a song is a question and answer, that's all there is.
4. Use the Internet.
It's a huge, huge, huge rich resource now. I think it's working. Back in the day, I sat there with records and listened to them again and again and tried to work out what was going on. But that's a self-taught method, that was my method. Nowadays, you can hyperspace into getting advice from loads of different people. You can find amazing learning sources, basically find a teacher who's inspiring for you. And again, the technical proficiency will just be a byproduct of the fact you're doing a lot of playing.
5. As a songwriter, keep it simple.
The most informative musician and educator I had in school always said that a song is a question and answer, that's all there is. These are our questions, and then there's an answer. Think of the nature of conversation and certain questions and how certain answers are quite complicated and need some explaining—same thing for a musical phrase. I think that's what songwriting is to me.
6. Show up and work, even when it’s bad.
The only real secret to it is just showing up. On a Monday, you might be a total genius, but a Tuesday, you're an idiot. “I thought I was supposed to be some kind of master.” But that's just life. I think every single person is subject to that. I don't think there's a person who always throws out genius. Don't be too hard on yourself. Just keep making stuff. Before you know it, you'll have something you really like and you'll be able to share it without wincing.
7. Keep music and business separate.
Art and commerce are like oil and water and ultimately don't really blend. I've heard other people say that it's good to compartmentalize your energy and take time to do no business stuff. I quite like that.
8. Know before you sign.
The same advice for music is good for any deal. Before you sign on the dotted line, know what you're signing. That's all. Have someone who can explain it to you who's not involved in getting money out of the deal, someone who will break it down for you so you can know what the terms are, what the master recording is, what the publishing really is, and when you can see the layers and layers; then you can field different deals that come your way and think, "I don't really need that."
Contracts are there to bind you. That's what they do. If you're not into the bind, then don't do it. Some people like bondage. Tie me up, tie me down. Who am I to judge?
9. Don’t go crazy on the road.
Try to stay relatively sober. I remember going on tour and just getting really wrecked, and the problem with that—nighttime after the gig is amazing, but the next day, the travel day is hell, sound check is hell, all that stuff is just shit.
Also, just treat people well. I think not disrespecting everyone and being a good person is a fundamental rule of being on the road, just being a decent human being and trying to not be a mess because it leaves a really crazy trail behind you, and people remember you. Every person you interact with can potentially remember you, so don't leave a bad taste in people's mouths. Think carefully.
10. Stay curious.
I'm still really curious. I'm surrounded by musical instruments, and I don't have enough time in the day. If you're genuinely curious about more than just being a star or something, then you're going to have no problem staying engaged. There's a fascination that is deep with anything, with any art. You're humbled by how the simplest things can just be sublime. Chasing those goosebumps is a completely addicting process. I'm basically chasing the goosebumps until I die.
Steven J. Horowitz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.