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“When I write music, I go back and forth between being mindful and then putting that mindfulness aside to let some kind of sub-personality inhabit me.”
In this episode of the Mindspace podcast, Dr. Joe speaks with Conner Molander, guitarist, vocalist, and keyboardist for the Montreal indie band Half Moon Run. The band plays a mix of electronic music, indie rock, and folk and have achieved commercial and critical success with their first two albums Dark Eyes and Sun Leads Me On. They are now putting the finishing touches on a third album due out in fall 2019 and hitting the road for an international tour in July 2019. Conner is thoughtful and introspective and has a lot to say about art & creativity, the music business, psychology, and mindfulness.
The interview with covers:
- The role of flow, mindfulness, and the self in the creative process.
- The tension between commercial success and authentic artistic expression
- How the demands of life on the road with the band sapped Conner’s creative energy and how he managed to restore it
- How Conner sees and copes with celebrity
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Here are some highlights from the interview:
On How Half Moon Run Writes Music
Maybe you can talk about what the creative process is like for the band when you guys are writing and coming up with new material.
It’s not a formula. It’s just the way that we interact as songwriters collaborating.
That’s the main thing that characterizes–especially my experience in this group is that it’s collaborative. Which is really different I think from just single minded individual creative pursuits.
So Devon, our lead singer, will often have some kind of little guitar lick or a vocal melody or something like that. And then it’s on us to respond to that and to provide counter melodies and rhythmic counterpoint.
I would say that the rhythm in our in our music is often lyrical in its own way. And that has to do a lot with Dylan our drummer being a classically trained piano player.
So when the initial idea, which sometimes comes from Devon, sometimes it comes from other people, gets thrown out, there’s this kind of negotiating process. Whatever you kind of hear you try to throw that out there and offer it and then we wrestle with it. And sometimes that process takes one afternoon and everything falls into place, and sometimes it takes years for it to refine or reduce to its most potent elements.
I think the music often has a feeling where each voice can stand alone. But you can also hear how it fits almost geometrically into the sonic spectrum. And that’s something that we’re always looking for, not stepping on each other’s toes.
Often with guitar music, I find that there’s this kind of just blocky stacking of drums, bass, and rhythm guitar and lead guitar on top. Things are just kind of stacked, like bricks on top of each other, and it can obscure things.
So we try to stay a little bit more three dimensional in that regard, and that process takes a long time.
On the Tension Between Commercial Success and Artistic Expression
I find music is like magic in a way. It moves people. It helps people see new connections in their lives and helps them feel certain ways or work through certain emotional experiences.
And certainly when I was younger, I used to see a lot of concerts and found that the experience sometimes can be therapeutic in a way.
But for your job, if I understand correctly, there is a chronic tension between commercial constraints and your own expression as an artist. I’m curious how you navigate that.
There are a few things that I think about that.
Of course I believe in what you’re saying about the magic. That’s why I got into it because I felt the same way that you’re describing. But I think that the magic is something that people assume from the outside more than what I feel from the inside. So I think that that’s kind of an unconventional thing to say as a musician.
I don’t mean to diminish the emotional kind of value that I feel towards it, but it’s more that I try to take care of the technical side of the craft, and that is not so magical. Your fingers have to be able to do things. You have to have a certain harmonic access to be able to improvise effectively and that takes work. You look at other styles and you try to incorporate different rhythmic motifs and harmonic motifs, so you have to have a versatile palette to work with.
When I’m working with the band, if I hear something that I think that I might want to add like some sort of interval or I think I might want to add this kind of rhythm, it becomes more like almost like construction work. And you have to kind of move back and forth in your mind between that and then understanding the emotional effect that you’re trying to preserve. When I think about it that way, that’s not so different from lots of different kinds of jobs.
Being a teacher, you have to you have to maintain a kind of emotional interest with your students in order to be able to teach them effectively and keep them emotionally engaged. Or doing your job as a clinical psychologist, your professional tool kit and your kind of emotional awareness are in tune to achieve an effect.
And so music has a certain mysticism surrounding it that I don’t know is necessarily unique to the fine arts. I just got back from a trip to Greece, just two days ago, and I was looking at Acropolis, the amazing old city. And when I think about the Acropolis, it’s impossible not to think about Pericles, the statesman, who ordered all those things to be built. And just like last year we talked about how I went on a trip to Florence in Italy and it’s impossible to separate all that great art from the Medicis who again kind of ordered that to be built. It was all commercial.
Without the commercial push, the facilitation to make those things happen wouldn’t be there. There might be a kind of a marriage in the perception of the Fine Arts with this kind of mystical feeling, magical feeling that isn’t necessarily justified as far as I can tell. It’s a bit romanticized.
I think that the arts might be more similar to other walks of life than people might think.
On Mindfulness, Flow, and Improvisation
There are some very cool brain imaging studies done with jazz musicians who were improvising in a scanner. I believe–I could be wrong–there was a very strong deactivation in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.
Whether that’s the brain region or not, the interpretation was that these musicians are incredibly good at shutting down their sense of self-consciousness, self-criticism, or self-analysis. And they’re just fully immersed in the moment and letting whatever creative skill they have just express itself with ease.
But it’s not clear that that’s necessarily a mindful state.
It’s closer to a state of flow, maybe.
And so the difference between those things–that would be more for the experts to talk about–but it seems like the concept of kind shooting back and forth between these different kinds of states, between different levels of self-awareness. Not to make it sound all esoteric or anything, it’s just that you’re allowing yourself to be inhabited, totally in the music or you’re kind of checking back in to see what’s happening, to check your direction and maybe make a recalibration. And then to reimmerse yourself. That happens really in a fraction of a second.
It’s not always clear to me whether or not it’s even useful to be aware that that’s what’s happening. You don’t always want to know how the sausage is made. But it has been useful for me. It feels like another tool in my arsenal, another weapon that I have.
When I started practicing mindfulness, it just kind of put more of a name to that process of kind of stepping outside your experience and taking a snapshot. And then to be able to have that just kind of really in your tool belt for when you might need it.
It’s especially helpful when you’re collaborating. But even on my own, when I might be stuck up against a wall, and then to just be able to step back and you realize that you’ve gone down kind of a rabbit hole here. So then you go back to what worked.
I think mindfulness can help organize your creativity maybe.