Embracing Limits

A couple of my favorite producer-teachers have been advocating the use of self-imposed limitations as a way of getting more work completed. It’s a ‘creative hack’ I’ve been ruminating about for a while. Cognitively, I get it – find it attractive, even. But emotionally?

Can You Really Do More With Less?

The musician part of me is sick of limitations. He doesn’t want to hear it. “Been there, done that,” he tells me. I try to lure him with visions of songs completed, making space for more songs to be completed. He sees the sense in it but he just keeps going back to how he always had to make do with pawn shop gear and hand me downs.

So, an impasse.

Then, a few months ago, this thought spontaneously arose in my mind: “What if I found a way of embracing limits that didn’t feel limiting?”

Ooh – big bump in my energy.

I promptly forgot about that intention. But lo and behold, as this very busy but often low-energy Mars retrograde period (that ends June 29!) lurched down into low gear, I started doing it.

At first, I don’t think I was even conscious of what I was doing. I was just so busy and tired, I didn’t have much time for making music. So when I found myself with the rare combination of a couple of unoccupied hours and some free energy on my hands, I had to choose. Either limit myself, work quickly, and complete something. Or resign myself to adding yet another song fragment to the considerable pile of them on my hard drive.

“I’ll finish it when I have more time” – what a hard thing to say to one’s inner artist.

Finding limits that work

So, when considering the concept of embracing limits, what do you limit? For me, time is probably always going to be a big one. Between being a dad and working, there’s usually not a lot of time left over at the end of the day.

Both of these songs (an acoustic cover of Bowie’s Five Years and an electric looping cover of Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy) were recorded quickly. The Five Years cover probably took me 45 minutes to record. I used my old Peavey vocal microphone as a low-rent room mic, got a decent level on the guitar and my voice, ran through a few takes and picked the best one. I did spend a couple hours EQing the track, but that’s about it.

If you’re interested in knowing why I care about these songs, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Because I love getting paid to write about what I love, I tend to ramble on to my patrons about what these songs mean to me personally, plus whatever else I’m thinking about. And, yes, your $1 per month really does make me feel special.

One curse of the modern recordist is that we have virtually unlimited tracks at our disposal. Meaning, you can go back and add part after part after part, hoping it all adds up to something epic. The inability to resist the temptation to keep adding on has been a huge time-wasting energy suck for me.

I did spend considerably longer mixing Mr. Fantasy. It started life as a 22-minute jam with four separate loopers running at various points, so it took some work to cut it down to a highly listenable four minutes. But, as with the acoustic Five Years cover, I restricted myself to working with what I had played live. No overdubs, no new parts, no punch-ins to fix mistakes.

It’s kind of weird, because it doesn’t feel “like me” but I just decided with both songs that if what I got on tape in the time allotted wasn’t good enough for me, I’d just wait for the next window of opportunity and record them again.

Compare that to the version of Starman I put out not long after Bowie’s death in January. I went back and listened to it a few weeks ago and I actually cringed. Don’t get me wrong – I really like the arrangement and I like the vocals. But I spent way, way too many hours obstinately trying to double-track the acoustic guitar accompaniment and match it up with the vocals. I re-recorded parts and then recorded over parts of those parts. I warped and snipped and cut and pasted and EQ’d and compressed…

And ultimately, by not limiting myself, I sucked the life out of the song.

The new covers are imperfect, they’re lo-fi (indie rock, yeah!), but they have energy and passion and joy in them.

This ‘limits’ thing might not be so bad after all.


P.S. How about you? Got any good stories on embracing limitations to create something you’re really happy with? What limits work for you?

P.P.S. If you’re able to be flexible with scheduling, I’m looking for a couple more new 3-session coaching clients. The people I’m working with right now are seriously breaking on through to the other side and rocking my world! And while I have a lull in the freelance writing action, I’d like to do more coaching. As one client said last week, “DK, I can’t believe how helpful and just wonderful this three-week package has been.” I feel the same way.

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