I had an eventful Fall in 2019 and have decided that it needs to be documented. This little series of blog posts will go over the various things I did in the last few months, and perhaps talk about how I feel now.
Earlier this year, I put out an album.
The album is called Instructions Unclear, and it went out on October 22nd, 2019. People that listened seem to like it. Somewhat. I think. I don’t know.
For years, making music has been one of my favorite ways to spend time. I’ve tried a million ways to incorporate this — be it working as a tech assistant in a studio, participate in noise-music ensembles, try and fail at building guitar pedals, shoehorn audio into every other art project I was a part of, haplessly hold on to the guitar at parties (even at the risk of having to play Wonderwall) and talking incessantly about music to everyone I knew.
After graduating from a master’s program and finding myself a job that paid me well, I was struck by this odd feeling of being trapped — trapped in a script that someone else had written for me: Yet another Indian guy from a middle-class family, aspiring to be cool and edgy and piggybacking on whatever familial privileges he had, to get higher education in the first world, and find a job in the tech industry. I was but a trope, and this sat very poorly with me.
Writing this album really began as a coping mechanism to combat that feeling, but turned out to be something else towards the end. In the process, I ended up making new friends, understanding an industry, and indulging in a lot of 16yo Sumanth’s hopes about making guitar driven songs with elaborate arrangements that quoted lines from his favorite books. At the end of it, I am left drained but a tiny bit more secure about myself.
Here are 25 Things I learned from working on Instructions Unclear (2017–2019):
- How not to suck at playing the guitar — one of the constraints I gave myself while working on this set of songs was to record long takes of each instrument track. In the months that followed, I became more aware of how bad I was at it, and grew to be more forgiving if not improve.
- How to sing — Possibly the biggest hurdle I had to get past in the making of this album. This newfound ability to control my body and be expressive was an underrated upgrade. Pushing for clarity in singing has also driven me to be clear in speech and generally articulate.
- How to edit a song down to meaningful levels — I approached the songs like essays, being conscious about overstaying welcome on specific sections. An unwritten rule I followed was to ensure something happened about every 40sec-1min. I’m glad I did that.
- How to setup equipment — My brief stint at a recording studio in 2016 certainly helped me get started on this. However, working with a home-studio workflow setup still took up months of trial and error. The limited equipment, space and infrastructure I had on me also turned out to be excellent constraints to work with.
- How spaces strongly affect the music that’s made in them — Half the album was made in a dingy basement and the other in a room with bright natural light. I think the difference shows up in the music. The weather, the sights, sounds, lighting, height of the ceiling; it all shows.
- How to perform on stage — The making of this album was also accompanied by me performing shows from time to time. For most part, the performances had nothing in common with what I was recording, but what I gained was mostly from having to switch contexts and think about music differently, and get a hang of the various energies that people tend to carry with them.
- That performances offer instant feedback — In retrospect, I could have spared months of mulling over certain ideas if only I’d performed them at a couple of shows and made a note of how people responded to it.
- That collaboration is a great way to get things moving — The three tracks thatI finished the quickest, as well as had a lot of fun recording were the ones that I collaborated with people on.
- Momentum ebbs and flows, and sometimes it takes 5 weeks to get 3 days’ worth of work done — Creative work can be frustrating once you get a taste of how much of it you’re not in control of.
- That subtraction is a great way to create progression — In multiple occasions, the solution to my quagmire existed in the form of taking things away from the mix. This could mean muting tracks, removing a whole verse, or sometimes just deciding not to work on certain songs.
- That flailing around is important — Each song started with me flailing around, followed by me being very pleased, followed by weeks of self-hate after which an odd sense of security kicked in, followed by boredom and the urge to get it over with
- Mixing can make good recording sound better. It cannot make bad recordings sound good — I found out the hard way what every production blog and forum endlessly repeats: get the sounds right at source. When I attempted overproducing and doctoring tracks, they ended up sounding soulless and broken in a way that the voice memos in my phone were not.
- Computers are an amazing invention for music — If you make music alone, computers can be many things: instruments, rehearsal rooms, arrangement systems, a studio.
- Live coding is beautiful — A lot of what I was doing with my life snapped into perspective when I found a way to write code and make music at once.
- It’s useful to set yourself up for spontaneity as much as possible — A lot of good stuff came out of not thinking too much.
- You get better at things with time — Considering where I started, I’ve gotten much better at singing over all this time. Also a much better mixer. I had also become better at not being precious about my work.
- Lonely creative geniuses are not a thing. But creative work can get lonely nevertheless. This part is not fun. Not at all. Nope.
- Everything you do is derivative. It’s shit. And then it becomes ok when you selectively clean up after yourself — Deciding what gets axed is also a creative decision and contributes to making your work unique even if it didn’t start out that way.
- If you stretch things out for too long, you’re holding yourself from moving on — If I have any regret from having worked on Instructions Unclear, it is that I worked on it for far too long. The album deserves the time I gave it, but I continue to harbor a sensation of lost opportunity to be prolific instead of being endlessly meticulous.
- Music is a great bullshit detector — people can tell when you’re trying to be smart, and when you’re trying to be honest. The latter is always gratifying, to everyone.
- That there’s a lot to making an album besides music — I spent two months leading up to the release doing a ton of project management work; coordinating with various people, handling costs, deadlines and priorities.
- Being an immigrant always complicates things — I hate having to wear that part of my identity on my sleeve while talking about art, but even for someone that lives in what is arguably among the most diverse and liberal cities in the world, it is a non-trivial hump to get around legal constraints surrounding immigration. There’s no one to blame. It’s just what it is.
- Choosing to be good at something is choosing to suck at everything else — In the time I worked on the album, I fell out of touch with so many of my other interests. I miss being the jack-of-all-trades guy and hope to be able slide back into it.
- Life goes on —I moved houses twice. Friends got married, graduated, or both. Parents have aged. Entire countries have gotten insular. New wars have replaced old ones. Coming out of a long project like this can feel like being stuck in an elevator.
- The real album is the friends we made along the way — LOL. It is true, though. Through the music, I made friends in the LivecodeNYC community, as well as grew closer to some of my other musician and artist friends. It turns out that people are willing to help when you ask them for specific favors. I was also humbled by how many friends, old and new, turned up to celebrate the album release with me.
It was miserable and it was great. Would do it again.