In November 2023, I embarked on a project to base myself in an artist’s community to explore if it would stimulate me to write or approach songs in a different way and to see if songwriting could have an impact on the artists. I searched for information from other songwriters who had done this before and found very few resources, so I offer this ‘blueprint’ to songwriters who may be interested in doing something similar. I would love to hear any comments, builds and thoughts you have.
Johnsons Island is a tiny land mass located at the start of the Grand Union Canal in West London that once housed the lock keepers’ cottages. Now it operates as an artistic community, where a series of small ramshackle buildings offer dedicated studio spaces for around 15 artists. My thought was to introduce myself to the community via one of my dear friends, artist Angela Chan, with a view to interviewing them over a few weeks. When I tested the idea with Angela, she generously offered me the use of her studio for a few days so I could base myself on the island full-time to explore the environment in more depth.
What I expected…
I invested significant time thinking about how the residency would go. What I would need in terms of equipment, how my schedule would look each day, which activities I would do on the island, and which I would do back in my home music studio. I set out a vision and clear objectives, I was completely prepared. However, a few days before the residency, a storm hit the UK, flooding many of the studios, including the one I was expecting to use. A few days late another storm hit, flooding the community a second time. Thankfully the impact on the artists had been contained causing minimal damage to their unique works of art. But the disruption was significant, and the spaces needed time to dry out. My residency was looking decidedly iffy.
But, I had blocked the time and was determined to utilise the period in a creative way. Five days out, after a little cry, I pulled up my big-girl songwriter pants and started thinking about other ideas. The location of the island is at the intersection of the Grand Union Canal and the River Thames in Brentford, I started to wonder if I could build a collection of river stories as an alternative to the artists community idea. Fortunately, three days before the residency I got a call from Angela saying that she had managed to put the studio back together and I was back on. I had visions of spending whole days hanging out with various artists, guitar in hand, in a creative swirl. I was nervous but excited.
How it went…
The artists were incredibly welcoming and friendly. They all seem to genuinely enjoy working there and appeared to like the idea of the experiment, but understandably, they are working artists with commissions, deadlines and busy lives. Many of them come and go at all times of the night and day so my chats with them were brief. Each person I met generously shared their stories and allowed me to see their work – often in progress – a huge privilege. It was a wonderful environment, but an unexpectedly solitary one. Luckily the disruption of the storm led me to think more broadly about the river and the canal which became an enticing theme for me to build on.
The first day I was anxious, I was concerned that singing or playing my guitar would put the artists off and so I fiddled around with some lyrics. I was cold, because the studio had an isolated electricity metre, and I didn’t want to rachet up the bill. I had built up so many expectations and wrote the best part of nothing all day.
Day two I enjoyed fabulous conversations with collage artist Sam Dodson who laughs as he works and gave me the courage to both make a little noise and put the heating on. His studio was toasty, warm and inviting. I also had a tour with historical boat builders John's Boat Works and I practised a form of creative meditation which delivered a song and a half.
On day three I felt really I hit my stride, with more ideas coming for songs and, by the end of the day I had three completed pieces for the collection.
My last day the anxiety came back, and I wonder whether it was because I knew I was leaving. I had a few precious hours to try and create something and the pressure got to me. I kept thinking about when I was going to leave, fretting about tidying up and leaving things as I had found them.
Any immersive experience like this continues to deliver after it’s over, and even now several weeks on I am still creating songs with the inspiration and ideas I generated from the experience. I am hoping I will short-list five folk songs to release as an EP in 2024. I am sure this sense of generation will continue, but for now I can see that over and above the obvious creative inspiration, I also learned how to adapt to a changing situation, how to create using an environment as the stimulus, how to be brave and to trust in the creative process in an unfamiliar place. I am already thinking about my next residency. It is a luxury to spend a few days out of routine in a different location, but an important way to refresh and reset an artistic mind.
If you are considering any kind of residency as a songwriter, or any other kind of creative practice, here are my top tips to get the best out of it.
1 – Do spend time planning, thinking about what you want to achieve, what equipment you need and how you will use your time. While you will need to be prepared to throw all your plans out the window as I did, the planning is still a solid investment of time. It is far easier to pivot from a plan than a blank sheet.
2 – Think about, and write down, how you want to ‘be’ during your residency. I wrote a list of principles to work by which included being friendly, adaptable, considerate, open minded and curious. These enabled me to have a form of instant success because I could control how I showed up even if I couldn’t control the stormy weather or the people I encountered.
3 – A songwriter residency doesn’t need to be formally run or funded by an institution. If you can get some time off work and family commitments - just do it. My residency lasted four days and has delivered a wealth of inspiration. Other residency ideas could include: a nature reserve or formal gardens, a museum or even a building site. Use your network.
4 – Stay local, there are a myriad of options within commutable distance of most homes. While a residential residency would be amazing, it isn’t necessary if you don’t have the budget or a generous benefactor offering a grant.
5 – Keep ‘field notes’. I had a special, quite beautiful, journal I bought on holiday a few months before which I had been saving for ‘I don’t know what’, it was the perfect time to open a blank book and create a single place for all my thoughts and ideas.
6 – Collect artefacts, along with your journal / field notes, it will help you to collect other items which may include photos, sketches, voice notes of the natural sounds of the place you are in. These are incredibly useful when you return home and will continue to inspire you.
7 – Don’t give up – if something goes wrong use it as an opportunity if you possibly can. The flood at Johnson’s Island caused me to extend my thoughts and led me reach out to other local people in the community. My experience meeting a man who lives on a narrow boat inspired me to write a song about life as a continuous-cruiser on the Grand Union Canal which is one of my favourite tunes from the residency.
8 - Be BRAVE! It is incredibly daunting to step into a completely unknown environment and to ask questions of complete strangers. Do it anyway, the people you meet will be utterly fascinating I promise. After all, everyone is.