When we hear stories about the musician Damon Albarn and his new album, it’s often couched in terms of his reinvention. That’s one of the things we know about him, his ability to produce work different to anything he’s done before. I’ve always been interested in how Albarn approaches his work, how for example, moving from London to Essex as a child informed a sense of being the outsider (something I can relate to in my own story). I admire his ability to experiment, to not restrict himself to the same musical genre. I particularly like that sense of being a misfit, because it echoes my own experiences, of having an outside-perspective and of approaching work differently.
In seeking guidance and ideas to improve our own work lives, it’s useful to look at experiences from completely different worlds: I often find inspiration from artists & musicians that can help drive my own creativity and productivity.
In Sunday’s New York Times there was a great interview with Damon Albarn by Dave Itzkoff (hat tip to Ravi Mattu for linking to it on Twitter). Do read the article here; below I’ve extracted some of Albarn’s experiences that have resonance beyond the life of a musician:
- Starting afresh. “I feel like I’m on my umpteenth apprenticeship,” Albarn says of his experience — at the age of 46 — releasing his first solo album, ‘Everyday Robots’. “There’s something honest about starting afresh,” he says. Starting a side project, changing direction or just adding new strings to our bow can be really energising. In the last fourteen years working for myself, I’ve chosen to start afresh, becoming a business writer, trying my hand at other new disciplines. Starting afresh can be frightening and exhilarating in equal part, but it’s those episodes of my working life that have provided the most adventure.
- Getting stamps in your passport. Dave Itzkoff describes how Albarn has a ‘ready cache of passports and aliases’ to draw on, from other musical projects like Gorillaz to working with musicians in Mali and Ethiopia. Albarn told Itzkoff this had given him a bigger vocabulary. “The bigger your vocabulary gets, surely the more articulate you can be,” he says. It’s easy to stay in a single territory our whole careers, not drifting outside our specialist field. Why not try crossing borders, getting new stamps in your passport, learning a new ‘language’. Ten years ago I found myself working on a book, consulting with a fashion brand and launching a rock band, all at the same time. Mixing those experiences made me more ‘multi-lingual’ — bringing ideas and lessons from one experience to help another.
- Showing up for work. Albarn describes how he creates his music in a workmanlike way, going to his London studio 9.30 am to 5.30 pm, every day, five days a week. That surprised me; you don’t expect a musician to lead an ‘office hours’ life. But it’s that act of going to work - just as people do in any other industry — that makes him prolific.
- Keeping the tap on. Albarn admits that some days he doesn’t come up with much, but he keeps at it. “Some days, nothing happens. But the fact that you went through the process means that you’re still in the process,” he says. It’s this approach of keeping the tap on, to keep on ‘making’ regardless of the results, that seems to be an effective strategy for most of us, whether we’re musicians or entrepreneurs. I wrote about this in my post ‘Keep putting potatoes in the ground’, the need to keep doing the work, even when things get tough.
Itzkoff’s article reminded me that however much musician’s lives are glamourised in popular culture, at the end of the day, Albarn is just doing his job like the rest of us.
Here’s Itzkoff on expressing surprise about Albarn’s work ethic, working 9.30-5.30, five days a week:
Asking how he kept to such a reliable schedule, Mr. Albarn responded with slight incredulity,
“That’s my job.”