One step backward to take two steps forward

Thinking about the value of (re)discovering your own personal ‘sound’.

Since reading the announcement of Mick Karn‘s illness in June this year I have been reacquainting myself with his unique bass-playing style. I’ve been struck by the fact that he’s one of those musicians who’s contribution to every project he’s part of (at least all those that I’ve come across) is distinctively ‘him’ – I haven’t yet heard anyone else who’s note choices and phrasing sound like Mick. Of course some folk may not like his work but I don’t think that really matters.

Much of the popular culture around us (by definition, I guess) seems to be built around the notion that

success = fame = popularity = money

You only have to take a quick glance (and honestly, that’s about all I can stand sometimes) at the profusion of TV ‘talent’ contests to see that actually they are ‘popularity’ contests.

As a bass player my role in a band is very much a supportive one. So I was encouraged to be told by a member of a band I had played with for a one-off project recently that I was a ‘true bass player; not just a musician who plays bass’ and that having understood the role of the bass as part of the band’s foundation I had really helped keep everything together. Not only had we been playing a style of music I don’t often get to play (so it was something of a refreshing change, and great fun into the bargain) but I’d played my part – literally.

I guess that’s part of the ‘bread and butter’ of being invited to play a part in someone else’s project – I’m there to fulfill a pre-conceived role in a specific setting – and it goes with that territory.

Of course you could say that by choosing to play bass (though in truth it feels more like it chose me) I stuck myself with that problem – and I guess it is a problem because so many people have a specific and narrow understanding of the role of bass in a band.

In another setting recently I’ve recently found myself deliberately constraining my contribution to a band to fit in with the expectations of the people I was working for. Afterwards I felt rather disappointed with the result and wondered whether I had over done the restraint – only time will tell.

And then I come back to people like Mick; people who find a way to be distinctively themselves in the work that they do. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to create a more even balance between serving other people’s projects on the one hand and making time for projects in which I can be free to explore being me (even if only for my own sense of satisfaction) on the other. That way projects with a rigidly defined requirement will not be the only outlet I have.

Just a few days ago I was playing in church (a familiar context for me). We had a slightly smaller band than usual and I set up for the service as I used to (a few years ago) rather than as I have been doing more recently. As the evening progressed I found that I was enjoying myself even more than usual (and I do love playing bass in any context!). The next day I realised that on some level I had managed to be not only a bass player fulfilling the expected role but had re-connected with a more ‘fundamental me’ granting myself a greater freedom than I have done for some while.

Steve Lawson (who, according to his website is “a solo bassist who spends a lot of his time making very unbasslike noises”) recently posted the following on Twitter which sums up beautifully what I’m facing up to right now and pondering,

Great music makes the world a better place to be. Don’t waste that opportunity chasing fame and money. Dig deep, people. Be extraordinary.

I guess the road to greater satisfaction may come through pushing harder – not just to serve the music other people want (or ask) me to make but to re-release the source from which the music I want to make comes. And do you know what? I have a feeling that by doing so I will also end up better able to serve other people’s music when the phone rings (or the email pings).

Update 5th October. I originally named this post, ‘Being me (again)”, then renamed it, “Reconnecting with a truer me” but it still sounded like I was rather self absorbed (though to be honest, I guess that’s always a risk with blog posts anyway – as with any kind of social media). Hopefully, “One step backward to take two steps forward” is a little more comprehensible.