Creation is Messy

Creation is messy. Artistic inspiration without the mess (and an incredible amount of work and planning) will never see the light of day. Our finished work is only as good as it is because of the untidy part. Art needs us to bravely embrace our inner slob, even though most of us prefer a little primping before going outside.

Written By

Gretta Harley

Creation is messy. Artistic inspiration without the mess (and an incredible amount of work and planning) will never see the light of day. Our finished work is only as good as it is because of the untidy part. Art needs us to bravely embrace our inner slob, even though most of us prefer a little primping before going outside.

The 19th-century poet John Keats coined the phrase “negative capability” in a letter to his brothers, explaining it as when a person is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This quote encapsulates the messy for me. From a new creation’s infancy through its adolescence, it has awkward moments of vulnerability that can scare many a creator away from ever completing or sharing his or her work. There is so much uncertainty. Is it good? Will anyone like it? Does it sound original enough? Will anyone care? I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what this piece is. This piece sucks. I suck. But if I allowed my work to be held hostage to perfection I would never share any of it. (In fact, that was the case in another chapter of my life.) It is the case now with some people I know, especially some of my students. It can be just too vulnerable an endeavor to share our creations. They are a reflection of us. So if people don’t like my music, will they think less of me?

Negative capability says to me that working with one’s intuition and a huge leap of faith must outweigh uncertainties, concerns, or doubts.

Negative capability says to me that working with one’s intuition and a huge leap of faith must outweigh uncertainties, concerns, or doubts. The artist first must have a vision, and then ride it, with no helmet. But sometimes the vision isn’t clear. That uncomfortable place where you don’t know what is taking shape can be paralyzing. I have learned to embrace that discomfort as an incubator. The irritable reaching after perfection can stifle the idea that needs to wiggle and breathe for a while. This part is messy. I like to swim in it like a luxurious mud bath. It does not mean that I am not also terrified or that that part of it doesn’t sometimes suck.

At the same time that we allow the messy, we can’t “wait” for the clarity. It’s not going to just appear. Well, most of the time. We have to actively sculpt it, like making a ceramic bowl where the clay gets under your fingernails and the bowl explodes in the kiln and you have to start over. We need to work. I had a composition student once who suffered so much insecurity because music didn’t come to him as divine inspiration. It was an uphill battle trying to convince him to build his skills and not be afraid to write a bunch of crap for a while. Part of this insecurity is a byproduct of our instant-gratification culture that millennials have grown up with. There has been glossy-clean, easy product of perfection served to us, like that TV show Glee. “Those kids,” I said, “rehearsed something like 15 hours a day, all week long, to make that piece look spontaneous.” Response: “Reeeaally?”

My music is collaborative, but the actual writing of music is a solitary act for me. With the exception of my songwriting collaboration in We Are Golden with Sarah Rudinoff, I have written my music all alone. Sometimes I hear a melody and I write it down. Sometimes I sit at my piano or have a guitar in my hand and I just play. When the music starts taking shape, I put on the recorder and/or jot notes on paper. Sometimes words come, sometimes a violin line, a drum beat… I take my dog for walks and listen to the recordings of the week and am drawn to specific melodies and chord progressions. Then I begin honing, editing, sculpting the music. I allow both my intuitive ear and the compositional skills I’ve developed to shape the music, often not thinking about them at all.

I found a remarkable group of active composers in Seattle who seek to meet once a month on a Sunday evening to share the music they wrote on that particular Sunday. We each attempt to write 20 songs in one day and then play them for each other that evening over drinks and snacks. Over the years these self-imposed parameters have mutated to include larger pieces of music, operas in progress, and my song cycle. Before it was finished, I played some of the music that became Element 115 (Uup) to the small group. A few weeks later, on a warm evening in August, I premiered some of the finished songs at a beloved Seattle venue, Café Racer, which has a stage the size of my kitchen table. One of my Sunday evening composer companions, Matt Menovcik, was at that public premier where I noticed some of the tempos weren’t right, one song needed total revamping, and some lyrics needed attention. I had told Matt that the record producer I planned to work with—someone I had worked with previously—had turned down working on the recording of this song cycle. (This project was different than what I had produced before, and he said he didn’t know what to do with this music. I was a little heartbroken and felt slightly “rejected.”) Matt said that he thought that the producer Kramer would like this music, and he wanted to introduce us. I was floored with the idea, being a Bongwater fan. Matt sent an introductory email, and Kramer and I started corresponding. I sent Kramer five songs that I had demoed. He said he liked three of them. I thought, “Good, he’s honest.” We set up a phone meeting date and, after an hour-long conversation, it was decided that Kramer would produce my record. We set a date in January. I continued writing and sent him demos. (He also asked for the songs in their bare form, with just piano or guitar and voice.) He consistently told me to sing softer.

Readying for my recording session, I knew I had to play all of the music flawlessly. There is no room for mistakes when you’re paying for a session and only have a few days to capture it. So in the month of September I began playing the songs-in-progress at an open mic night at a dive bar in West Seattle, where the audience consisted of 2-10 mostly other songwriters on any given Monday evening. I also put together a rock band. I called it Mettle. We rehearsed this music a few nights a week, beginning in October, and played a total of about eight shows over a six-month period.

Gretta Harley's band Mettle in rehearsal (Photo by Taylor Bowen)

Gretta Harley’s band Mettle in rehearsal (Photo by Taylor Bowen)

The experience of playing with these guys was invaluable. Other people always bring something fresh, new, different to the music. Guitarist Brian Emery played with us once before deciding he had no time for another band and in that one rehearsal played something I kept: that metallic guitar sound on “Innocent,” the sixth song in the cycle. Dave Pascal gave me the idea for the bass line on “Needle In The Groove.” The four-piece band (other members: Mike Katell and Ben Morrow) got tighter over the months, and I was able to explore and decide on arrangement possibilities with them. Kramer, although never hearing the band, did not want to work with a band on this music. He encouraged me to play all of the instruments, to make a real solo record. He called it my Blue.

Come January, I flew to Florida and met Kramer in the parking lot of his Fort Lauderdale condo. We loaded up the rental van with gear and drove four hours north to St. Augustine where I had secured a house to set up shop. We recorded all day and night during two one-week sessions each, to coincide with my teaching schedule. Between sessions I intentionally didn’t want the band to hear what I was doing with Kramer, or the other way around. I wanted the different versions to incubate in my ear and hear what worked best. What made me so happy in working with Kramer is that he kept the authenticity of the original demos I had sent him pre-Mettle, but I still brought some of the choices I made with the band, fully recognizing their contribution to the music. Kramer and I worked well together. He had so many great, unique ideas, but he was also very open to mine. It was a true collaboration that we both left feeling proud of.

Fin Records was scheduling an August release. The plan was to tour Europe in late August, and I was hoping to bring Mettle. Fin had been showing signs of financial trouble for months, and they postponed the release. I still wanted to go to Europe and had already booked some shows there. There was no monetary tour support at that point. I didn’t have any money to bring the band, so I reworked all of the music on just guitar. I bought a travel guitar that fit in the overhead baggage compartments and played shows in four different countries, solo. When I returned, it was apparent that Element 115 (Uup) was not going to be released on Fin Records. They were folding.

It had been over a year since I finished writing the song cycle. I’d worked so hard. I had made my solo record—a long held dream. We recorded the music in a way I dreamt about as a kid. I was happy with the way it sounded. Yet so many obstacles kept coming up. I could recount them all here, but I’ll just simply say that I wondered if the universe was telling me not to release the record. Everything about the music was going so well, but every single logistical hurdle that could get in the way did– Sod’s Law. It was an uphill battle all the way. I had come so far with this music, music that I wanted desperately to share. But I was exhausted. I hosted the December composers meeting and had a mini-breakdown in front of the last straggler in my hallway. Josh listened to me cry, and encouraged me to take my time. I cried myself to sleep that night. I talked with my then-boyfriend, James, who encouraged me to put out the vinyl record that I wanted to release, and I rethought the whole thing with his encouragement, which I will always be grateful for. This release was so close I could taste it, but there was a long haul ahead. I could not abandon it.

I wanted to hear the music with Mettle and an acoustic chamber orchestra. I set up a date with a venue. (I always work better when I have a date to work towards.) I started orchestrating and gathering musicians and talking to venues. But my physical energy was low since I had caught bacterial meningitis between recording sessions and was still feeling its effects. I decided to hire an orchestrator to help me arrange the music, based on the arrangements that Kramer and I had made on the record. Some members of the band got frustrated with me. I hadn’t thought about this detail, but they had worked so hard on our arrangements and felt proud of their contribution to it and I was just asking too much of them to relearn the material, because it was different. I felt terrible because I thought they felt disrespected, but the music was guiding me and it had to be heard in the way I was hearing it inside my head. It was my intuition, and it was messy. I hired a different rhythm section, began rehearsing, started a crowd-funding campaign to pay them, and played the show in June, one full year after completing the recording. (All of this takes a lot of planning and organizing, which is another topic.) The vinyl records were delivered to my house two days before the record release show. It was a nail biter.

It is not enough to write the music. Not for me. I need to communicate it. I need supportive people to cheer me on in my vision. I need people to want to play the music, and to help me with the logistics along the way.

The point I am trying to make is that we artists create works that each has its own process; and we need help along the way. We need to reach out to other trusted people and ask them to swim through the mud in a very messy pool in order to bring our ideas to fruition. It is not enough to write the music. Not for me. I need to communicate it. I need supportive people to cheer me on in my vision. I need people to want to play the music, and to help me with the logistics along the way. Of course there is no communication without the listener. Not everyone likes the music of Element 115 (Uup). I am past caring because to the people who do like it, I have communicated, and that communication means so much to me. My own town of Seattle never reviewed the record. That did hurt my feelings. But the reviews I received from Philadelphia to Belgium warmed my heart. Many artists before me have echoed this thought in their own words: it is not our job to care if people like our work. It is our job to do our work. Period.

In the end, the possibility of the record reaching more people was thwarted once James was diagnosed with cancer a few months after the release show. I canceled the plans with my publicist to promote it further because life got very messy. Messier than art. James passed away a few months ago, in February, and I am just starting to organize my writing again. There are several files of music ideas on my phone, and lyrics on pages in journals and loosely strewn around in messy piles on my piano, and on napkins in my pocketbook. I’ve been talking with Kramer about producing another song cycle, but the music hasn’t taken solid shape yet. I’m planning to premier a few of these unfinished songs at a show in early June. I have a lot of doubts and uncertainties about it. But all I can do is keep working.

(Top photo by ML Naden.)

Mettle live in performance (Photo by Maria Lamarca Anderson)

Mettle live in performance (Photo by Maria Lamarca Anderson)