Anyone who has ever taken on a big creative project knows that creativity is a fickle mistress. Anyone who's followed Beyoncé's career knows that it's possible, for some super humans, to be insanely creative whenever they like.
There are secrets to creativity — tricks that work for the best musicians going. Here are some of the most successful musicians' daily routines and creative practices:
1. Taylor Swift: Give yourself time, embrace anxiety.
Image Credit: Taylor Swift
Inspiration hits Swift at random points: She jots notes in the car or at diners; she writes songs on trampolines.
But anxiety is integral to how she creates. "It's starting," she told reporters backstage at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville last June. "All the anxiety is starting. When the anxiety starts, the writing happens right after, usually."
It makes sense, then, that most of her biggest hits have come out of emotional conflicts. Her first No. 1 hit, "Love Story," was written in an anxious fit. She was mad at her parents because they wouldn't allow her to date some guy when she was 17, so she "ran to my room and wrote a song on my bedroom floor called 'Love Story.' So that turned into something that I never expected to be our first No. 1 worldwide hit."
But even though songs come in fits and starts, the whole album takes a long time. She sets aside two years at a time to write albums and usually throws away most of what she writes in the beginning because it sounds old to her.
And as shown in a recent Diet Coke commercial dramatization of her writing process, Swift also holds her pencils really weird — leave it to the Internet to take great offense to this.
2. Jay-Z: Embrace spontaneity, practice every day.
Image Credit: YouTube
Jay-Z strives to keep his writing process fluid and uncomplicated. He likes his inspiration to flow directly onto the track with as little redrafting as possible. Jay stopped writing his lyrics down after his first album, claiming that writing forced him to rethink his words too many times and arrested the flow of his ideas. His best songs are those that he writes in five minutes. "If I work on them more than, say, 20 minutes," Jay said in an interview with Rolling Stone, "they're probably not going to work."
Even Pharrell, king of pop, was amazed by Jay's process: "Jay-Z mumbles when he writes his songs; he mumbles for 10-15 minutes, then he comes back with like 16 bars of one of the most comprehensive verses you have heard in a long time. He does it every time. But again, there is some sort of skill set to accompany his madness."
But Jay told Oprah that he had to build this mental stamina by practicing every day. He described this practice as "exercise." The "muscle" only got stronger if he consciously worked to flex it every day.
Talk about a literal "Lyrical Exercise."
3. Kendrick Lamar: Make a schedule, seize creative moments.
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Lamar's creative method is totalizing. He sleeps little and works a lot. He described a day in his life for his Grammy Best New Artist profile: "In the studio til 4. Up at 9, ate some type of breakfast, did a couple phone interviews, played some beats on my computer prior to me comin' back up here, so I could be ready and know what I wanted to get into. Came to the studio, laid down what I wanted to write, and then straight to the Kanye show."
The man is constantly writing out snippets of lyrical ideas in notebooks, on his phone or on napkins. He surrounds himself with staff who understand that if he gets hit with a lyrical idea, he'll "need a studio ASAP to get this off." They'll help him reschedule interviews, meetings, whatever and get him in the there because the "music comes first."
4. Frank Ocean: Separate work and life, watch silent movies, work in silence.
Image Credit: Tumblr
Ocean, on the other hand, tries to downplay the role that spontaneous inspiration plays in his music. He only writes while at "work," and when he leaves the studio he puts music out of his mind completely. If he's not feeling what he's writing, he'll "abort mission," pack up and drive around the city, or binge-watch TV to recharge — he has cited Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones as two of his more useful creative tools.
To keep himself focused on improving, Ocean takes piano and music theory lessons every morning except Sundays. He works in nearly complete silence when he's in the studio. He'll watch old movies with the sound off for inspiration, and will frequently surprise his collaborators by suddenly emerging from silence with a complete song idea. He'll hop in the booth, lay it down and then recede back into silence to stew over it.
His plans for his next album are to record in various "remote locations" around the world in order to surround himself with even more of this prized silence.
5. Janelle Monáe: Be freaky, embrace other art forms, get therapy.
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Monáe lives in the closest thing you'll find to a hippy utopia: Wondaland.
Her mysterious house in Atlanta doubles as the base of operations for her art collective called the Wondaland Arts Society. Artists are constantly coming and going throughout the house — writing, reading, singing, cooking, partying — everyone feeding off everyone else's creative energies.
The group's manifesto begins: "We have created our own state, our own republic. ... In this state, there are no laws, there is only music. ... In this state, there is no food. We eat books and season them with wine and cotton candy. When you want the news, you read a comic book."
Monáe draws a lot of her musical inspirations from other art forms, particularly painting. She came up with the idea for the Electric Lady, the heroine of her sprawling conceptual cyber-punk/R&B albums, through painting: "Every night I would perform, I would paint on a canvas while I would sing … this image of a female body, a silhouette, every single night."
Her therapist helped her name this silhouette the Electric Lady. That became the name of her next album.
Therapy has been a big help to Monáe in helping her realize her creative potential. "It was like I had a computer virus in my brain, and it needed to be fixed," she told Pitchfork. Therapy helped her overcome some serious emotional fallout left by an ex-boyfriend, and it continues to help her keep her mind unburdened so she can focus on, you know, albums about androids.
6. Beyoncé: Exercise, raise a child, see music, be a superhuman.
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Sadly, all we really can glean from Beyoncé is that we'll never measure up.
Beyoncé has said in numerous interviews that she "sees music," as a way to explain her choice to make a visual album. In Self-Titled, a mini-documentary series on the making of Beyoncé, she walks through that process.
To record the song "Partition," she listened to the simple beat Timbaland had put together and was immediately hit with memories of driving around in her car listening to E-40 and Too $hort. The beat took her "back to the time when I was meeting my husband," she said, "he’s trying to scoop me, and he thinks I'm the hottest thing in the world. And I kinda had this whole fantasy, and this movie played in my head."
By the way, this is that movie:
Beyoncé spent a lot of time taking care of Blue while she was writing and recording Beyoncé, but she always made sure to carve out at least an hour every day to write and record. She used those opportunities to live an alternate life.
"In real life I was this woman, a mother, trying to get my focus and my dreams and myself back," she says in Self-Titled. "And recording this album was such an outlet for me to escape and create whatever world and fantasy was definitely at the time not happening." She also spends a lot of time exercising and staying in shape. She finds she can write best when she's feeling fit and sexy.