Various and Sundry: Arron Dean on His Creative Process

Arron Dean

Arron Dean

I’ve been interviewing folks for a long time – artists among them. After a while, it becomes difficult to keep having the same conversations over-and-over-and-over again. Many times the interview process seems like a struggle especially when – at its core – what I want to know is what makes an artist tick and how they craft their work.

That’s the aspect of musicians that intrigues me.

As someone with little musical talent (thus my deejay background) I know good music when I hear it but I couldn’t even begin to craft even the worst of songs. So last year I started experimenting with giving artists an open forum to discuss their creative process. Frankly, I was hoping to learn more about the process than I have been able to extract in my past interviews.

What I’ve posted below is an Op-Ed Arron Dean – a South African-born, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter – wrote exclusively for on May 1, 2011. It’s an open and candid look into his songwriting process. One of the things I found most intriguing is Dean’s admission that his process wasn’t something he had given a great deal of thought to until this piece.

It’s pieces like this that I like reading because they entertain and educate. Hopefully you will find it has interesting as I did.

Lastly, if you also enjoy reading about the songwriting process of artists, I highly recommend Songwriters On Process – a wonderful site written and published by Ben Opipari (who happens to have a PhD in English Language and Literature). Since starting his site last June, he’s published more than 80 interviews with songwriters of all levels of acclaim.

Okay, with out any further adieu, here is Dean’s Op-Ed:

What Is My Creative Process?
by Arron Dean

When asked what my creative process was, I realized I hadn’t a clue. I’d never really thought about it much. Well, after a lot of analysis (and writing a new song since being asked), I think I finally figured it all out. Here goes:

The first thing I start with is a bit of boredom or loneliness. Being bored and lonely and maybe a couple fingers of whiskey (red wine works well, too) seem to be my catalysts for nostalgic regret and a rerun of every stupid choice I made. It’s no accident that most of my songs deal with buggered up love and the like.

Following the regret, I tend to read maudlin murder mysteries (Agatha Christie is my no.1 choice) which in turn tends to throw up a lyrical line or two.

Next up, I spend a few hours playing around with the guitar to find a chordal or tonal pattern I feel works and then I start tunelessly singing the line I have until something sticks.

I then sit my cat down nearby and watch him while I sing it in different keys and tunings. If he falls asleep, I’ve found a winner. He’s a little like a canary in a mine – if I’m strident or sounding horrid, he tends to march off and hide.

So, at this point I tend to wander off and do something unproductive like smoke a few cigarettes and just sorta think about what would capture the song’s mood in terms of instrumentation, lyrics, words etc. I especially concentrate on the way individual words both are expressive and how they physically feel to sing. I tend to really love “sh” and “f” sounds and words with lots of “l’s”.

If in a few hours I still remember that I was writing a song, and even better, I remember the melody I had started with then I tend to do nothing else until the song is complete. I do everything I can to cultivate the mood I was in and write and re-write lyrics concurrent to writing the music. I don’t write lyrics and then music – they both feed off each other too much to separate them and I feel if I did, the song itself would suffer. It generally takes me about 2 days to wrap the writing of the song up and then another 3 to 5 days of playing it repeatedly while recording all variations on my laptop so I can latch on to any mistakes that “work!”

Okay, so I really am a studio guy – I don’t consider a song finished until it’s recorded. An important aspect of the process is picking the studio and I love traveling to record in different cities. I feel that both the city, the hotel and the studio impact the vibe of the song and I’m often surprised by the resulting quirks that wouldn’t have occurred anywhere else.

Arron Dean

Arron Dean

Musically, I always imagine a larger ensemble for every song and I love lush instrumentation so I spend a lot of time thinking up both who and what I’d like on each track. I often hire musicians based on personality rather than instrumentation and use the player for their “voice” and the atmosphere they’ll bring to the song. I never write out chord charts and expect every musician to go with their gut and improvise until something works. We then build on that until the part becomes solid. Then we track it!

This part of the creative process is my favorite! Watching musicians I love and respect take pride in my song and working creatively (with some minimal direction from me) is a joy. Sometimes the finished song is so far removed from what I imagined and other times it’s exactly what I had in mind but I feel it always ends up where it should. The emotional impact that the basic song has on the musicians playing it is as import as the lyrics. If it doesn’t capture their imagination then it’s dead in the water but if it does, then it’s vehicle for expression.

I write and record because I can’t seem to stop writing and recording. I believe that my songs are sincere attempts to capture a momentary mood and share that with others who experience the same heartbreak or longing or regret. The process is always cathartic and I hope it brings a little pleasure and love to anyone listening. for Paper Crane Collective for Paper Crane Collective

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