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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Friday, August 26, 2011

Interview with Composer Christine Bougie

Christine Bougie is a guitarist, lap-steal player, and a composer music that defies genre categorization - blending jazz, rock, and pop into intricate, catchy and very approachable instrumental tunes.  She's made three albums of original music – Hammy's Secret Life, This is Awesome (a collaboration with Dafydd Hughes) and Aloha Supreme.  Besides the fact that I'm a big fan of her music, I was particularly interested in interviewing Christine because she is a fellow blogger, and a fellow process geek.  Like me, she frequently blogs about her creative process, and also like me, she often invents somewhat elaborate systems in relation to that – for example, she's a poster-girl for the online time-tracking website, Freckle.

This was actually the first interview I did as part of my composer's process project (the interview took place back in early April), and I was a little shy about stepping into the interviewer's role. As a result, it has a more conversational tone than the other interviews. Which I think is kind of nice in a way. You tell me.

Check out these two Southern Souls videos that just happen to be of my two favorite songs by Christine.  To learn more about her or follow her blog (highly recommended), visit

"Me Her" (from Aloha Supreme)

"Hammy's Secret Life" (from Hammy's Secret Life)

Christine Bougie: The Twyla Tharp book [The Creative Habit] is good – did you read the Steven King book – On Writing? It's great. It gave me a lot of ideas. At the beginning of this writing period I was re-reading both of those books and underlining.

Matt Roberts: It's cool that those are both books by people who are in different art forms than music.

CB: Totally. But I noticed a lot of similarities. Like there's a part where Tharp talks about what her process is – just in a couple of pages – and it was exactly what I do, weirdly. She says she goes in a room, and just starts dancing to nothing, and video tapes herself, and then reviews that and picks stuff to work with afterwards.

The Steven King book is really great too because he's so no-bullshit. Just blue-collar.

MR: Steven King is very prolific.

CB: Yeah, he's just constantly writing. In the book, he explains his schedule: “I wake up, I spend three hours on the current project, then the afternoon is for naps and letters, and night time is for watching T.V. and hanging out with the family.”

MR: I just got this book, The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. He was a modernist painter in the early 20th century. The book is a collection of letters he wrote to his students. He has a kind of romantic notion of art that I find inspiring. For example, at one point he says that he went to the Paris Conservatory, and people were there who were practising copying paintings who had been there for ten years, only learning to become better copyists. But he believes a true artist seeks to have some kind of original voice that can convey some sense of truth.

CB: That's good, you have to get past that imitating phase at some point. What do you think about the Kenny Werner stuff?

MR: I first met him at [The] Banff [Jazz Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music], and I attended his week-long workshop on his “Effortless Mastery” concepts.

CB: How was it? I just read his book.

MR: I think the things he talked about are really cool, and everyone should think about them, but I question the exact methods he expounds to achieve those ideals – “the steps”, I think he calls them.

CB: Right, you also have to work really hard. That's what I think is missing from that whole picture.

MR: Well, when I first got into it, I was in first year, and I was very eager and maybe a little naive, and I started doing his thing where you practice going into a relaxed state, playing one note, and putting down your instrument if you felt you had gone out of that state. After a few weeks of picking my bass up and putting it down, I thought “This is silly!” I think it might be better to do something like setting a timer for 5 minutes, and making it your main priority to play in a relaxed manner until the timer goes off. However, I think the book is certainly worth reading.

CB: I had the same experience with it. I was still in school. I appreciated the story of it, at the beginning – he talks about being at school and getting wrapped up in the stress of it, and the ego. But the application of it seemed off.

MR: I think the problem for me when I sit down to write something is that I become too self-critical and too worried about what people are going to think about it, and I have a really blown up idea in my head about how great I want it to be. So when I come up with an idea, I'll reject it unless it seems like it carries a seed of something incredibly great. Which is maybe not how it works, maybe the greatness comes by taking something somewhat ordinary and working with it.

CB: I notice that too. That's the struggle. I notice that the stuff that you write that comes out naturally [is best]. You want to write so much further ahead then you are. You hear an idea of something that's more complex and developed then you are actually at.

Another thing that I notice is that I'll often be writing the same song again. I'll write something and notice that I've kind of written that before. People will say “Oh so-and-so only writes three tunes.” Like to me, Tower of Power has only two or three tunes. Their ballady thing, their crazy syncopated thing, and they just write those tunes. I'll notice myself defaulting to something. I'll be at the end of the tune, and I'll do what come out naturally, and then I'll say “Oh that's kind of like the end of these three other tunes that I've written.”

MR: I find that especially if I'm are trying to produce a lot of material, like writing a tune a week. That's the danger with trying to force yourself to produce more - that you'll just recycle.

CB: But I find that's good, just to get them all out. If I write twelve tunes in a few weeks I might use five or six of them.

MR: Yeah, you still come up with some new things each time.

CB: Exactly.

MR: I noticed that the third movement of The Little Prince Suite is sort of like the sixth movement of The Buddha Suite. But I kind of like that.

CB: Because it's your sound.

MR: Yeah, it's my signature.

CB: And you're just discovering that. It's cool to listen to stuff you came up with years ago, and you can hear, even though it is less developed, that there is something there that is kind of “you”. I hear all the stuff around it that is pretentious – trying to be something – but I also hear what is me in it. The influences are in there from the beginning.

Sometimes I'll hear something I like that is inspiring to me by somebody else, and then that will make me want to write something like that, but it never turns out like that at all. With a lot of my tunes – the ones that turned out well – I can hear where the idea came from, and I can remember that it was inspired by something else but it just became something completely different in the end.

MR: I've had that experience as well – it's nice!

CB: It's great, because you can just steal things from things you like, and there's no danger that you're copying because it just won't turn out like that.

MR: Robert Henri said something like “Don't worry about being unique, because you can't help but be unique.”

CB: I was writing something the other day which came out really quick. I played it for Ali and she said “This sounds like something...” It turned out it was “For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder. It was a bit different – it was slower, and there were a few changes, but basically that was it.

MR: Yeah, the fourth movement of the Little Prince Suite starts with a melody that is exactly Blue in Green. Same key and everything. I'm a little uncomfortable with that! [laughs]

CB: Just change one thing. I'm going to go back to that tune and change a couple things.

So do you write everyday?

MR: Well, yes, I have this calendar on my wall which I put a mark on each day if I composed that day, and I try to have a mark on each day. But it hasn't been very hard lately, because I've sort of entered a crisis phase with The Little Prince Suite – we're going to perform it in two weeks. The amount of writing I've produced has increased exponentially over the last two years as the deadline approaches. Which is interesting, because for the most part I still like what I'm coming up with almost as much. Although the recent stuff is tending to be less intricate and complicated.

I went to the Dave Holland Clinic at Humber just this past week, and asked him what he did when he had writers block. He said “Just get on with it - at a certain point fear takes over.” If you come up with an idea at the start of the process, you think “I'll have a better idea later.” But as the deadline approaches that becomes “I have an idea – good enough, let's go with this!”

CB: I read an interview with Paul Simon once, and his view was that writer's block comes from trying to write beyond where you are. I think it was in that “Songwriters on Songwriting” book – have you seen that? It's a great, fat book of mostly singer-songwriter people, and the interviewer is really good - he does a lot of research for each person, and their writing process.

MR: That sounds great, I'll get that book for sure! I just read this book called The Jazz Composers Companion. The last chapter is all interviews with composers. They all have very different things to say about composition – for example Chick Corea talks about “spiritual games”, while Pat Metheny is more technical, he talks about writing things so he can enjoy improvising over them.

CB: I think for me making a physical space to sit down and write is very important. I didn't have a room to write in. We had instruments scattered in different rooms. Once I managed to set up a space and decided “This is what I'm going to do everyday – I'm going to practise in this chair, this room, with this stuff, here is my loop station, my music stand...” Then the habit part of it became much easier. Also not going online until a certain time of the day.

MR: Right – you don't go online until 1 o'clock or noon, because you'll get sucked into it?

CB: If I wake up at 10 and I'm checking my email at 10:15, and like yesterday there was e-mails with some mixes of some songs I did on somebody's album, and I have to listen to them and make notes, and then there is a gig coming up on Friday, and how am I going to get there...

MR: That takes a lot of energy.

CB: Yeah, if I would wake up in the morning and put that in my brain, I wouldn't be able to concentrate on writing music. Your brain needs to be a little bit empty for that. Also with practising. I was never very good at daily practising, but I've been doing that for the last couple months. I've been enjoying it, and find that it has to be the first thing I do in a day for me to get into it. I think it is a little like meditation – because even though it is different in the sense that you're very busy trying to do something, it is similar in that you notice when your thoughts are interrupting you. I've been going through the second Berkley guitar book [A Modern Method for Guitar] where it is just a couple pages of scales – like a C major scale in five positions, ascending and descending, it takes like eight minutes to read through a few pages straight. If I screw up something simple, I find it is because I'm thinking about something else – say an e-mail I have to send. The later in the day I leave that work until, the worse it gets.

MR: I'm studying classical music right now. I find it more therapeutic to practise classical music, because is more technical.

CB: Yes, I'm just doing scales – for 15 minutes or something, and I love it, because it is kind of brainless in a way.

MR: I have trouble keeping track of time. Recently my girlfriend was sitting on my bed while I was composing, and she said to me afterwards “You spend about half your time on Facebook and YouTube. It finally makes sense to me how much trouble you have composing.”

CB: Yeah, I usually have to turn the computer off. Or, if I'm doing something on the computer, I have a timer program. I usually set things for either 45 minutes or 15 minutes. 15 minutes if it is something that I've really been procrastinating on – 15 minutes at least gets me started. I learned that from Rob McBride – he's my practising roll model. He does 45 minute chunks with 15 minute breaks – real breaks – he says he goes and waters his plants, or if it is nice he'll go outside. Because the 15 minute Facebook break – I do that too, but I noticed that it's not a real break. But it is hard to do that, if you are doing something in Sibelius that is hard, tedious work, and all the entertainment is one click away.

MR: I find I have this base-level of anxiety when I'm composing, and if I anything causes a spike in that I'm like “I'm going to see what's on Facebook...”

You know, I used to be very strict with scheduling. I had a Palm Pilot and I used to set alarms - 10am: practice scales. 10:45 take a break. 11 am: practice arpeggios. But right now I'm thinking of it in a more personal/emotional way – what is it that is causing me stress about this? I'm not sure how well it is working for me though...

CB: Yeah, I've given up on the idea of practising for a huge amount of time – you hear stories of people practising 8 hours a day. But I don't think that is really possible, if you're eating and doing all the things you have to do in a day. As a society we think of people working 8 hours a day – like “nine to five” – but when I've had real jobs, I've found you're not actually working for 8 solid hours. So when you're on your own being creative, you realize 3 hours is probably what you're really doing in an 8 hour work day.

MR: If I can get a consistent hour of practise in everyday, I feel really good about that. I can get a lot done in an hour. I think I can be a bass player worth listening to with an hour of practise each day.

CB: It is weird to put a time on writing too. I do kind of start a clock when I'm writing, but more than any other activity, writing is something that I don't religiously measure the time of. Because I find that sometimes I may be doing something else, like practising scales, and I'll just get into writing. Or I might be watching a movie and I'll just grab the guitar and play something I was working on. I can't really say: “I'll write from 10 to 11. That's it.” You're always kind of writing if you're in the middle of something.

MR: Yeah, one of my interview questions was going to be “Where do your ideas come from?” But I asked myself that, and I thought - “Well, I guess from every moment of my life...”

CB: Did you ever answer the questionnaire in the Twyla Tharp book? It like that. It's about your creative autobiography or something. Like on question was “What was the first creative idea you remember having?” I remember writing a story in grade 1, and I remember how my teacher liked it, and the feeling I got from people noticing that and saying that I was creative. That's a big deal – getting a reward for something that is easy or natural. Or “What's the best idea you've had?” or “What's the worst idea you've had?”

MR: Yeah it is interesting how writing about something can help clarify your thoughts on it. I feel that way about my blog.

CB: For sure. I've started blogging less lately – I was writing three times a week and I went down to once a week because I'm doing so much other stuff. It's good to take a break from telling the world what you're doing so often. But it did help me focus, and it made projects out of just rough ideas. If I had ideas and I started writing about it, it became like a real thing. It helped me get my last album together. Especially with the fundraising thing, because then other people's money was involved, so I thought “Now I've got to get it done!”

MR: What do you find to be the greatest challenge of composition?

CB: Writing from the place that I am.

MR: Because that causes a block, or because that causes bad compositions?

CB: Both I guess, because it will end up causing a block, but in the short term you start grasping at things that you're not there yet. For me, it could be harmonically maybe – I might want to write something that's more dense than I can actually hear, because I appreciate that when I listen to other writers. But it's not natural for me to do that. If I hear something that's in my head and I play it on the instrument and I realize that it is just a plain “G” chord, I shouldn't try to make it weird by adding this and that. It's strange, because you have to push yourself at the same time.

Also, like we were talking about, not writing the same tune over and over. I feel like I can default to certain structures.

MR: I found Twyla Tharp's thing where she makes people come up with 50 different ways to do a particular motion is very helpful with that. If you force yourself to come up with many ways of doing something simple, the first few are going to be your usual way of thinking, but then you are going to have to become inventive.

CB: Yeah, and they come out of your head too, right? I guess it is a challenge not to grasp beyond where you are, but then it is also a challenge not to repeat yourself. You've got to find some middle ground.

I was talking to my friend Mike Holt – he's a songwriter. He is very pure about how he writes his tunes. He never sounds like he is grasping for something that's not natural to him, yet the harmony's interesting, and it isn't over-simplified or anything. He says he only writes in his head first, before he goes to any instrument. He says he dreams his songs a lot of the time, and he'll wake up and hum them in his head for a while before he gets to the keyboard. So that way you're only playing the things that you're actually hearing. On the guitar, my fingers can do things that my brain is not really hearing. Which is cool because it can break you out of your usual thinking. But you're not actually hearing that, honestly.

So in my last chunk of writing tunes I sat at a keyboard – because that's a little bit less familiar to me. I had a wurlitzer in my house for a while. Usually what I do is as soon as I have something I like, I turn on the loop station and record that. Rather then that, I spent a week on the wurlitzer, trying to play what I was hearing, and not recording anything or writing it down, and then the next day I would try to play what I played the day before. So only what would stay in my brain is worth sticking to.

MR: Yes, I've done that to – I have all my ideas written down in a book, but often I will start out by trying to remember what is in the book without opening it. And I realized that I naturally remember only what had the most emotional connection for me.

CB: It's a way of finding the real honest stuff in it, and taking away the “trying to be clever” stuff.

So I did that for a week, and I came up with a tune at the end of it, and then I recorded it. That was good, but it was a harder process. Now I'm using the guitar again. But I might try that again, like for a week. Just to do something different.

MR: Have you seen those song-a-day blogs?

CB: Yeah, I researched that before I started doing this song-a-week thing, which was near the beginning of the year, coinciding with blogging less. I had the urge to make a blog thing about it. But I decided that I didn't want to show what I was doing during doing it, for the same reason I didn't want to show Ali my ideas before they were done to me. Even though that way you can get feedback.

MR: What composers or compositions do you admire?

CB: I've been listening a lot again to Joni Mitchell. I started listening to Joni when I was 15 or something, getting into the 70's stuff. And I've just been getting into her earlier stuff – the super folk-y stuff, I was more into the jazz period. I've been into Blue and going backwards. I recently learned a bunch of her tunes for a Joni Mitchell tribute show. I'd always kept her music a mystery to me, because of the weird tunings. When I learned the tunes I realized that the song structures weren't that weird, it was just the voicings of the chords, because she had all weird tunings.

MR: I find her compositions are so unique, but not in a showy way – it always seems to serve the meaning and the effect of the song.

CB: I'm not writing lyrics or anything, and there's not much melody to a lot of her songs – but the music always fits the mood of what she's talking about so well. That gets me the most.

I kind of got into Ry Cooder's latest album to the point where it is an album that I would put on everyday. But for what reason I don't know. It's bluesy, and it's songwriting. It's weird – I don't listen to music that reminds me of the kind of music that I write. I used to listen to a lot more guitar players – Metheny and Scofield – and now I can't really listen to them.

MR: One last question: Why compose?

CB: As opposed to just recording other people's stuff? I did record a Beach Boy's cover on my last album. I feel like composing is the best way to leave your mark. I have a desire to actually make something tangible that will last. Making an album is a work of art. It's the work I want to do as a musician - I want to have a body of work. I used to focus more on improvising. That was what excited me about music. But composing is improvising – when you compose something you're making it up, you just spend a bit more time crafting it.

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