Devin Townsend’s Tips on Developing Creativity

I could probably write a massive article about why I think Devin Townsend is a genius (and I use the word incredibly loosely). If I had to sum up my reasoning, I would say that I think that he is self actualized enough (in the sense that he understands himself and his creative process in a really intimate way) that he has developed the ability to channel that creativity and prolifically produce authentic, powerful music. He has written or co-written over 20 albums of original music, often releasing 2 or more full albums in a year.  To help fans like me learn about his musical process, Devin recently gave a lecture, titled ‘How to Develop Creativity and Excel As A Successful Independent Songwriter In A Changing Industry’, in collaboration with Rodney Holder from Music Business Facts. This will turn into an 8 part lecture series called The Devin Townsend Creative Academy, and will cost somewhere around $500. I don’t have that kind of money, so I listened to the free introductory lecture (which was free to view for a couple days- it will probably resurface eventually) and took some notes. These are just my thoughts on the various sections-this is not an exhaustive summary of what was discussed. He divided his discussion into 5 sections, or steps, listed below.

Step 1: Music Is a Result of the Process- Not The Process Itself

One of the most important quotes for me was the line- “If music is to be an honest reflection of your internal barometer- You must be willing to follow the lead.” Devin Townsend has always made great efforts to be authentic, even at great personal cost. A good example of this is Strapping Young Lad. They had finally achieved some level of success, and he decided to call it quits and write music that was more true to his headspace, much to the dismay of Strapping fans. However, in Devin’s mind, he couldn’t have continued to produce anything authentic in that headspace, so a realignment was necessary. Also, I really appreciated the the advice to have everything ready to go for when inspiration comes. For me, this means setting up my music workstation and recording equipment, so that when I feel some sort of inspiration, I can roll out of bed, or run to the mic, and record a sample.

As an aside, it was really cool to see Devin record the song “Stars” on Toontrack. I’ve read elsewhere that when he gets a musical idea, he tries to develop it as much as he can, meaning that he won’t simply have his voice on a tape recorder, but he’ll try to track guitars and drums and keys to the extent that he can so that the vibe is not lost. The Toontrack video shows how intentional he is with each decision he makes in the studio. His comfort in this setting shows a guy who understands his process really well.

Step 2: Learn To Understand Your Limitations

Although Devin’s music ranges from aggressive metal to dance music to ambient, he explains that each album he has made has been an effort to find his unique, creative voice. He discourages young artists from imitating. Also, he talks about how others can make up for what you lack. It may be that I am very good at creating solid melodies or interesting riffs, and so I should find a co-writer who can do interesting words and has practice with song structure. Knowing that you have certain strengths and weaknesses allows you as an artist to effectively collaborate as you fill in the gaps with your collaborators.

Step 3: Learn Your Creative Drive Is Primarily Subconscious

Devin talks about how a lot of his albums aren’t necessarily concept albums, but that they revolve around themes, and how those themes become sketches in his art. He used the example of Ki. It was the product of what was going on in his head at the time- long nature walks, a fascination with aliens, religious existential angst, etc. I heard from this that he didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write an album with this vibe”, but instead allowed himself to soak up what was around him, process it, and create a new product from his influences. What he could have framed as distractions before became elements that formed into part of the music. Some more great advice: “Don’t worry if it’s not the greatest thing ever, because it isn’t”. This advice is great, because really, you can only do what you can do. My brother once wrote a song with the humble admission, “I can’t say anything that The Beatles didn’t already say/But everything’s gonna be OK”. So write the best thing you can write. It may not be Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, but remember, he wrote hundreds of other songs that weren’t “Hallelujah”. Just keep on writing, and who knows. Also, he quotes the inimitable Victor Wooten, who reminds us that “If you are improvising and you land on the wrong note, move your finger”. It’s a reminder that if you land on the “wrong note”, whether that’s a gig that doesn’t go well, or or a song that isn’t what you want, don’t beat yourself up- just move your finger.

He includes in this section the suggestion to set up minimal, ergonomic Digital Audio Workstation that channels creativity. It has been documented that limits allow for creativity, so Devin challenges listeners to be disciplined about that. If something beautiful is in your head, have something close and easy to capture it, or it will disappear.  This is always a good reminder, and it made me think of a quote I heard (that I’ll likely butcher) but it basically says something to the effect of, “Don’t die with a symphony in your head” (which is especially appropriate for Devin, who is in the process of writing a symphony about religion and genitalia).

Step 4: Allowing Yourself To Be Vulnerable With Your Art

Be honest with your writing, even if that is difficult. Speak from the stage that you are in. As I listened to this section, I was reminded that I have had a traumatic couple years, starting in mid 2015, for a variety of reasons. After some initial events, I began to wake up in the middle of the night with song lyrics and melodies in my head. Sometimes they were heartbreaking, sometimes they were funny, sometimes they were desolate and bleak. There was an intense period of writing, and then there was a lull. Devin basically says to seize these moments and to validate them by bringing them to life.

I had heard this before, but it was cool to see it confirmed- Devin’s melody lines are often created phonetically first, and words are then filled in. I so often start with lyrics, and sometimes I struggle to make them sound normal and honest within a certain meter. Devin hums melody lines and then fills in the words. I think that his words sometimes seem a little abstract, and this is likely the result of this step in his creative process. Other times I think his words are more coherent and intentional. It just depends. Finally, Devin closes with a section on not beating yourself up. He explained that self love seemed too hippie drippy for him, but that it was more powerful for him to try and decrease his self loathing, thus inadvertently allowing for more self love. Basically,  cut yourself some slack.

Step 5: Don’t Fight Yourself- Surrender To Yourself

In the final step, Devin reminds artists to not be critical about what they’re doing or creating. One phrase he says near the end is that it’s important to know how to fail efficiently. I definitely agree with this. We have all had our own failures in life, artistically and otherwise, and it’s easy to be deflated. But if even you write an album that means something to you and you never break even, it is still a major accomplishment.

Devin’s seminar really helped me see how he has refined his process over several decades, and his discipline and understanding of his own inner workings have allowed for his incredibly prolific output. I’ve mentioned before that several of his B-sides or outtakes are better than anything I could ever hope to write, but I’m beginning to understand the obvious- this hasn’t always been the case for him. He has worked hard to understand and fine tune his process. The seminar helped me peer a bit into his mind, and helped inspire me to start writing and recording again.  If you can afford the lecture, please consider doing The Devin Townsend Creative Academy. And then tell me all about it.


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