To get in the mood for writing this, I've sequestered myself outside, on the far corner of my back porch, with a TV tray for a desk, a $100 digital audio interface I bought seven or so years ago, an electric guitar, a bass, an extension cord and, of course, my laptop. It's lovely outside. A hint of fall has been cutting through the southern heat all week long. There's also been a bit of lightning – enough that I should go inside but, since there's no rain, I just wait it out a bit. It's not heat lightning – probably just some far-flung remnants of a tropical storm.
But why risk a potential lightning strike? I can make music and not worry about waking up my 18-month-old daughter – and, more importantly, her mother, who has claimed (while pregnant) that my strumming an unamplified electric guitar from across the house carries into our bedroom (where the door is shut). Sitting outside with my guitar running straight into my computer hasn't been a problem. So, weather permitting, my porch becomes my studio – which is especially nice after being stuck inside all day.
Fortunately the porch isn't my only option. I can sometimes practice in the space where I do my radio show. I'm also part of a Krautrock-inspired group that improvises its sets – it's super fun, a good way to keep sharp, and we don't have to rehearse.
Music is a huge part of both my work and personal lives. It's an obsession as well as a passion and, as such, it's easy for it to temporarily take over every ounce of my being. It was was a lot easier for me to get away with staying up late making music before my tiny masterpiece came into the picture. Now there's more to consider.
But the music has to get out one way or another… or else I'd go crazy. So if you're in the same boat, here are some things I do that help keep it flowing.
1. Streamline your process by lowering your expectations
I'm a work-at-home dad – which is like a stay-at-home dad with more emails. I really get to work in the late afternoon/early evening when Momma comes home. This usually means my nights are busy with work, but when I get the chance to play music for a bit, I have to make the most of that brief window of opportunity.
You may be accustomed to taking a lot more time to refine your music, but a new family will no doubt cut into that creative time (as well as shift your priorities a bit). With less time to do your work you may feel the pressure to come up with something great every time you get an hour or two to play music. This can be a killer to your creativity – not to mention your self-esteem. So what you need to do is let go. This is way easier said than done, but getting in the mindset of just creating freely without high expectations can be a way to generate ideas you may not have normally come up with. Use the moments just to improvise ideas. Record them if you can, even if it's just on your phone, so you can listen later and see what sticks. This way you might start building up a bunch of new songs and, eventually, you may find yourself knocking out more complete ideas faster.
2. Embrace technology
If, like me, you tend to write on an electric guitar rather than an acoustic – or you just desire the catharsis of cranking up – then you should make the computer your practice space. Amp simulators are nothing new, but I've come to rely on them more than ever. If playing loud is not an option, I can recreate my preferred rig (including my pedal board) in something like GarageBand to great effect – and then I have the added bonus of recording those ideas and recreating them with my normal setup. Besides amp simulators, many DAWs have a wide array of keyboard, synthesizer, and drum programs, which should wholeheartedly be embraced.
Time being a premium also means that your time to collaborate with others will likely be diminished, but fortunately – and as I've written recently -- there are lots of great ways to collaborate with others without leaving the house, which is a great way to keep flexing your creative muscles. Also, with a collaborator, you'll have someone to share those improvised song ideas with and, with any luck, help you turn them into finished songs at a faster clip.
3. Find a cheap place to get loud
Bands have long used storage spaces as practice pads – and that's certainly still an option – but you can get creative and find other spaces to work if being at home isn't an option (or you just need to get out of the house). Sometimes office buildings (especially ones that are underutilized) will take a little money in exchange for an empty closet to store your gear in and allow you play in a common area. If you know a music-friendly business owner, then maybe he or she will let you practice in the space after hours in exchange for some cash or an in-kind favor, especially if you're only going to be around for a few hours every week.
4. Accept that you can't accept every show
It never fails that opportunities come your way when you're busy as hell. That said, once you have newfound duties at home, you'll have to be more picky about the shows you play. How you prioritize those gigs is up to you. Perhaps you should only take the ones that pay (bringing a little bit of extra money home can ease tensions around your extracurricular activities). Or wait to play the shows that will be more fulfilling to you either creatively or socially. Things change a lot with a new family, so you have be flexible both at home and in your creative life. Don't overbook – you’re bound to disappoint someone.
5. Pick your battles
Even when music is central to your life, your family needs to come first. That said, if your art is part of what sustains you, the thing that relaxes you, or your therapeutic release, then quitting cold turkey will make you miserable. Make a case to your significant other for why and when you need to make music. Talk about it, be reasonable, and make sure that you're keeping a healthy balance at home. And don't forget to return the favor, especially if your SO is also an artist. Or he or she may wanna spend the night just drinking and watching crappy reality television.
If all else fails...
6. Start a family band
It worked for the Partridge Family.
James P. Fahy is a writer, musician (Teen Getaway), radio show host (Blood on the Knobs airs every Tuesday on Substrate Radio), occasional publicist, full-time dad, and music business person who's worked with the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, Communicating Vessels, Naxos, and Redeye Distribution. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.