Creative ruts happen to everyone from time to time. It’s a fact of life.
Most musicians and artists have developed their own set of techniques and tricks to find inspiration and get their juices flowing again, but sometimes it helps to borrow one from a friend and try something completely new.
With that in mind, we asked Sara Landeau, who plays guitar with the New York-based five piece The Julie Ruin (the band fronted by Kathleen Hanna), runs the Brooklyn Music Studio for Women and Girls, and teaches at Girls Rock Alliance, NYC to share her favorite tips for breaking through creative ruts. We also found out more about the gear and studio techniques she used on the band’s second album, Hit Reset, which was released July 8 on Hardly Art Records.
Check out Landeau’s words of wisdom below, and go see The Julie Ruin when they play a town near you!
She Shreds: What guitar and gear did you use on Hit Reset?
Sara Landeau: For Hit Reset, I used the same 1970’s Fender Twin Amp as our first record, but a whole new slew of pedals and guitars. There’s a Wildkat Epiphone, Gretsch Pro Jet with a Bigsby, and a 1991 Fender Telecaster. Also assorted Fuzz pedals, Big Muff with Tone Wicker, Big Muff Pi, OCD [Fulltone Obsessive Compulsive Drive], Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, some no-name brand pedals someone gave to me, and to recreate some of the noise on the album, a Reuss Roland S. Howard RSH-03, which I’m really excited about.
Did you try out any new techniques in the studio this time around?
There’s more sustain and noise on these songs, and for the melodies, I toyed with placing clean lines over choppy “Au Pairs” type triad chords. I thought a lot about textures and how they work. I also watched some master classes by Nile Rodgers and was inspired by his chord shapes and how he weaved guitar through a bass part. For “Mr. So & So” I put the bass line in Pro Tools and spent a day soloing over it, until I finally came up with the riff I play throughout. Other influences were Elvis Costello’s early band The Attractions, and their surfy low end riffs. But mostly I played with noise and feedback this time with tons more improvising, something I didn’t normally do.
Can you share your Top 5 tips for musicians to work through a creative rut?
- Record everything: Every little snippet, a sound you like, a tone, a bass riff, and Shazaam anything you don’t know but are intrigued by. After a week or so I’ll listen back on all these things and look up the songs I Shazaam-ed, sometimes not remembering anything about them. Record three to four riffs or progressions in a row and don’t listen back for a day or two. Not just music either—an image can inspire [as well] so take tons of screenshots and quick pictures. Collect everything like a digital journal.
- Give yourself a very short deadline: A good strategy is the “one-minute-song.” For a recent adult women’s class I taught, we did one of these every week and came up with several new songs. We pulled three or four chords out of a key, put the fifth as the start of the chorus, and kept one lyrical theme throughout (for example, “knives”). A quick intro, outro, and a basic rhythm. No time to think, no time to judge.
- Play another instrument that you don’t normally play: As a guitarist, I still look in awe at synths and when trying to write on one, my whole frame of reference is off, and therefore am forced to be creative. Try horns, percussion, pedals, or anything unfamiliar. Record everything.
- Aim for 100 rejections a year: I recently read an article by Kim Liao who describes getting out of a rut by taking a different perspective: she aimed for getting used to failure, not acceptances. She submitted one hundred stories a year [for publication], got several rejections, and received plenty of great offers too. There is freedom in volume and progress in learning from mistakes. cShe referenced a ceramics class that was divided in half—one to produce a high quantity of work, the other to produce one quality piece. Who did better work? The quantity group.
- Learn one cover song per day: I was talking to our band’s keyboardist Kenny Mellman and he said by learning one cover per day for a year he was inspired to start Our Hit Parade, the series at Joes Pub. If you can’t make the time for one cover per day, learn a couple songs per week, no matter how easy or hard. I learn between 5-10 new songs per week, depending on the month, and am surprised to find inspiration constantly. Sometimes it’s something super easy, like hearing an A – F# progression, or an unusual bridge, or a great drum beat. It’s the small bite size things that add up over time.