In Conversation: Erica Bramham

In Conversation: Erica Bramham

A song a day in 2017. 

In Conversation: Erica Bramham

A song a day in 2017. 

You're embarking on something you term The Song-Chain Project, where you compose, record, and share a new piece of music every day for a whole year. Tell us about the genesis of the project - how did you form the idea?

The original idea came from a New York-based musician, Emily Hope Price.  She’s a cellist, vocalist and composer, and completed her own song-a-day project called the 365 Project, which I found really inspiring. I had been thinking about the issues I was facing in my own creative practice, and this paragraph in her preamble to the project did a pretty good job of selling the idea to me:

“I’m incredibly excited with what the project has already done for me: a realization that I can create anything. With so many days and opportunities to create something new, how can I possibly hesitate or over-edit?  And I suppose that’s what I want to teach myself: there are no limits and sometimes you just have to let things be what they’re going to be.”

The other side to the idea was giving people a reason to engage with my music, which is an awkward hybrid of jazz, folk and experimental music.  I released an album last year, and that really opened my eyes to the challenges of trying to market music that doesn’t fit nicely into one box. So instead of trying again with a second album, this project seemed to fit better with the way we are engaging with music and content in our current social-media-dominated environment.

How is this project different from, or similar to, what you normally do as a professional musician?

I am a freelancer, so my career as a musician is made up of a few different arms. The bulk of my income comes from teaching and performing at weddings and other corporate and private functions, but because I don’t really derive an income from writing and performing my own music it can often take a back seat. This project is a way of forcing me to find time for my own music, and the skills I’m gaining by stretching myself with each composition will feed back into my teaching and professional performance work.

A key feature of The Song-Chain Project is that each song follows on from the next, by beginning with an element of the previous song (maybe a theme, texture, rhythm, lyrical idea...). How has this helped you address those issues all musicians face in their own creative practice, like creative blocks, motivation, and self-criticism?

One thing I have always found difficult in my own practice is getting started. I can procrastinate for hours, days or even months before finally sitting down to work, but whenever I do sit down I enjoy myself and wish I’d started sooner. The periods of procrastination are usually made worse by feelings of guilt for not working, and are often brought on by not knowing where to start or being overwhelmed with possibilities.

This guideline I’ve set myself for the Song-Chain Project addresses getting started, although once I do start working creative blocks and excessive self-criticism are still an issue. I’ve found the longer I can keep my personal judgement out of the process the better, and using composition or lyric-writing exercises to work with the starting material really helps. It’s much easier when you are approaching the work from a problem-solving perspective, as your mind is focused on how you can use the available materials, rather than whether what you're making is any good.

You're a composer and performer, and this project is obviously going to take up a lot of your time for the next 12 months! In terms of time management, how do you balance the needs of your professional musician life while still maintaining a good work-life balance?

Life as a freelancer is one of peaks and lulls in terms of workload, which is something I’m still getting used to. I’m just coming out of a quiet period, thanks to the summer school holidays, and that has left me plenty of time for this project. I have no idea yet how I’m going to cope once I’m back to my full teaching load, and I’m honestly quite nervous. The time I have each day to devote to this project is going to fluctuate, and so far the best way I’ve found of managing it is just to work with whatever time I have available, and give myself permission to create something small, simple or half-finished on the days when I only have an hour or two to spare.

In terms of work-life balance, I am doing my best to keep this project on the “life” side of that equation. I first thought that if I could get each song done in the morning it would leave me free and unburdened for the rest of the day, but that mindset was making me treat the songs like an unpleasant chore to get out of the way as quickly as possible. I felt guilty on the days that I didn’t get it done first thing, and those feelings made me more reluctant to sit down and get started later in the day. I honestly enjoy the composition process, so I’m trying actively create a mindset where I can sit down to work whenever I feel like working and for as long as I feel like working, and whatever comes out in that time is enough for the day.

You've been doing this project for almost a month. What have you learnt so far - about the project, and about you yourself?

I have been pleasantly surprised by the response to the project from people who have told me it is inspiring them in their own work, or helping them think about the issues they face in their own creative practice. One friend suggested that I had created a little community around the project that he could plug into when he wanted, and I thought that was a really nice way of thinking about it. There is a tendency for artists to hide the dirty or difficult side of our work, and I’d love to open up more discussions about that side of our practice though this project.

So far I’ve discovered that the most difficult aspect of this project is not the composition, but the recording and sharing aspects. The time it takes to record, edit and upload each video, and then share it across my social media platforms is often just as long as, or longer than, the time taken to compose the piece of music. I am also having to be quite careful about how much of myself I invest in social media. Sharing each day’s work on social media keeps me accountable to an audience, but I have started turning off my phone for a few hours after I post each new song so that I don’t get caught up in what kind of reaction it gets.

You studied at the Victorian College of the Arts. How did your studies help you (or hinder you!) in getting to where you are now?

I came to music study relatively late in life; I was 28 when I started my undergraduate degree. Before that I had been writing and performing mostly solo, but I had a lot of frustrating holes in my music theory and technical knowledge, and was terrified of performing with other musicians. I went into the VCA hoping for a solid block of time to devote to practice, and to gain experience playing with other musicians. My original intention was to return to my previous career as a web developer once I’d finished study, but I quickly discovered that I enjoyed music much more than web development. Being an older student I was particularly aware of the need for an income once I graduated, and so as well as studying I spent the three years of my degree laying the groundwork for a career as a freelance musician.

The biggest thing I took away from the VCA was a huge shift in my creative mindset, which I am really grateful for. I went in with a very narrow idea about the kind of music I liked, and the kind of music I wanted to create, and came out far more open. There is quite a strong focus on free improvisation in the jazz course at the VCA, and I discovered this was something I really loved and it has become a large part of my practice.

Finally, many of our readers are starting out on their professional music careers, or thinking about what those careers are going to entail. What advice do you wish you'd been given when you were younger - or what would you give to your younger self if you had the chance?

I am probably not much farther along in my own career than many of your readers, so I am still wrestling with many of the same questions. One piece of advice I wish I’d been given when I started studying was that I was already good enough, that I already had something unique and interesting to offer, and that study was a chance to build upon those foundations. It’s so easy to fall into self-destructive behaviours, comparing yourself unfavourably to your peers and musical idols, or to the picture of success presented by your institution or industry. I think a lot of musicians (myself included) spend too much time trying to become the kind of musician we think others want us to be, rather than figuring out the kind of musician we want to be and working towards that goal instead. I know now that I’m not going to be the next world-class improvising jazz vocalist, but I’m OK with that because I’ve worked out what is important to me about the music I make and that list of features has led me down another path.

You can check out Erica's Song-Chain Project here.