COULOU is a trumpet player, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer-songwriter living in Bed-Stuy, New York.
He’s known for his bedroom-style indie / alternative / R&B sound as well as the use of trumpet in his music. His expansive range has placed his music on playlists like Fresh Finds Indie, Fresh Finds Folk, Lorem, Indie Chillout, Morning Acoustic, and more. His new single “start over” comes out Friday, February 2nd, with a lot more music and live shows to be announced soon.
Below, COULOU sat down with us to share his six key lessons and experiences related to how he sparks ideas as a musician.
1. Engage in an open exploration of sounds
“One ritual I’ve stuck with that can really make a difference is freely playing an instrument before going to a session or diving into a new project,” COULOU says. “Either alone or with another musician, I’ll explore sounds on the trumpet, piano, or guitar with the intention that nothing is being recorded and I’m just making sounds, seeing where they go, and noticing how they make me feel. You can do this with MIDI synths and keyboards as well—anything that makes a sound. I find that opening up and making sounds freely relaxes my thinking mind before entering a creative space.”
2. Try drawing on non-musical sources of inspiration
“My personal life is always my main source of creativity; journaling about it has been a link to stay tapped into my life in a way that allows intentional ideas to come up in the creative process,” COULOU shares. “I’ve found using non-musical sources of inspiration to be really powerful as well. Reading a book, watching a show or movie, going to a museum to look at art, looking at the people looking at art—in those spaces you can try to think about what music would enhance any of those experiences. We all score our lives with the music we listen to each day, so listening to what comes up when there’s no music is a great way to spark creativity.”
3. Learn from other creatives’ music
“I also love learning songs on guitar and piano as well as recreating and recording covers myself to try and understand more about how songs come together,” COULOU says. “Often, after learning new songs and new chords, the freshness of the experience can break me out of habits and ideas will come naturally.”
4. Keep creating, even if you’re initially unsuccessful
“I spent COVID in my Bed-Stuy apartment, and having lost my job at the coffee shop due to the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to be receiving unemployment,” COULOU tells us. “I would spend weeks at a time without leaving my apartment, and for a while I simply loved my routine of waking up, doing yoga, playing trumpet, and making beats all day. I was also putting in a lot of my creative energy towards a band I was playing in at the time, but as the months passed, I faced a lot of burnout from the group. This started to really chip away at my confidence in my creativity, and soon every idea I made felt lifeless and uninspired. I had stopped making my own music, and my sense of doubt only grew.”
“Finally, after a particularly bad rehearsal, I realized nothing was going to change unless I decided to act. I was fortunate enough to have been saving up some money from the unemployment, and I reached out to a couple who had a cabin slightly off-grid in Maine. I explained I was hoping to be out there for two weeks by myself, and wanted to just work on music. They gave me a great deal on the spot, and at 4 a.m. the next morning, I packed up a guitar, bass, trumpet, keyboard, microphone, and some speakers into my car and drove up there.”
“It was the first time in my life I had spent any substantial amount of time alone. The first few days were really hard—my thoughts were running wild with self doubt and criticism, the cabin was creepy, and I hated everything I was making. I kept at it though, because there was really nothing else to do, and on the fifth day I finally had a breakthrough. It was like a crack had finally been made in this shell I’d been stuck in, and I made something I loved. That sense of life that comes with making music that you truly connect to is one of the best feelings in the world.”
That sense of life that comes with making music that you truly connect to is one of the best feelings in the world.
“My mind continued to open up and ideas came more and more naturally, and throughout the next week I continuously created music that felt real and exciting. I have had many creative blocks since then, and I have found time after time that the only way I get past the block is to sit down and just create over and over again. Keep creating, keep listening, and just keep going, and every time I’ve done that (and sometimes it’s taken months) I’ve always found my way back to that open and honest creative space where I make my best work.”
“For me, it takes creating a lot of music to allow myself to take away the pressure on each individual idea and let them just come naturally. When I’m not creating music enough, my ideas hold too much baggage; I feel I need them to be something people will like and it’s a lot harder for me to find my natural flow of fun creativity.”
If you’re finding yourself in a similar situation, here are some additional ways you can overcome creative blocks as a musician
5. Learn what doesn’t work for you
“Since I started producing music, I’ve always been the one at the computer, recording and mixing my songs in my bedroom,” COULOU reflects. “My music has grown a lot in the past year, and I was encouraged to record my next songs in a proper music studio with a producer. I took four songs that I had written to one, and for the first time built them up from scratch in a really beautiful studio.”
“As cool of an experience this was, I quickly realized how far out of my comfort zone I was with someone else making their own decisions about how my songs should sound. Instead of shaping and recording sounds in the way I heard them, I had to just explain the ideas to another person and hope they could make that happen. The studio was amazing, everything was recorded beautifully, and incredible musicians came in and played on the records. After a week straight of all-day sessions, we were done and I was exhausted. I got the first mixdown of the tracks, and I hated all the songs—nothing felt like me and nothing sounded like me. Yes, they were incredibly well recorded, but I didn’t sense any life in them.”
“This was a huge hurdle to get past, but I got all the stems from the sessions and rebuilt, recorded, and worked on the songs for months until I loved them. The whole experience transformed my approach to music and I learned so much. It definitely wasn’t easy, but I understand so much more clearly what I need as an artist to make the best music, and a huge part of that was learning what doesn’t work.”
6. Switch up your approach
“Switching up my approach to making music has always helped me grow my sound and voice as an artist,” COULOU says. “I was obsessed with sampling and chopping records for years, and almost all of my song ideas would sprout from there. Then, I started writing more songs using the guitar and found a whole new kind of voice for myself by writing music away from the computer. Splice Sounds, synthesizers, cool effect plugins, and pedals have been another great way for me to explore and experiment with my sound. A huge one has also been collaborating more with other artists; being a sponge in a room with another talented individual is priceless, and there’s so much you can learn just by observing how another person approaches creativity.”
Being a sponge in a room with another talented individual is priceless, and there’s so much you can learn just by observing how another person approaches creativity.
“I find rotating these approaches keeps music making a lot more fresh and helps me break out of certain sounds and musical habits. I also get really obsessed with things outside of music—cooking, plants, photography, design, and fashion aesthetics. These have all been really influential when creating new musical spaces to explore, and help me try to continue to evolve personally and creatively.”
What was your favorite tip from COULOU? Do you have any tips for sparking creativity of your own that you’d like to share? Start a conversation with us and a community of other music creators via the Splice Discord.
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January 29, 2024