Erica Bramham wrote 180 songs in a year – and lived to tell the story

Last year, Erica Bramham made a daring New Year’s Resolution: to write one song a day. That’s how she started.

The concept was that each song would somehow influence the next, that the new day’s work would begin with something from the previous day’s result; that’s why she called it The Song-Chain Project. Each day’s work was recorded and shared through social media, in a gesture of brutal honesty that shed light to the creative process, the struggle, the joy, the inspiration, the limitations, the ineviable block. At times, you could almost feel the labour pain associated with crafting a song and the emotional cost that it comes with. At some stage, she stopped, but not before having created 180 songs, an impressive output by any measure. Erica Bramham herself shared her insight in a marvellous piece recently.

Being a fan of her work, I was following this project in awe of her creativity and determination, but also a bit concerned when it showed signs of fragility. Here’s an edited version of our communication, which took place at different stages of the project.

I’ve been following this through instagram mostly, and to be honest, I’m deeply worried about you. How have you been?

Oh, no need to be worried, I brought it on myself! I’ve been well. I was very up and down toward the end of the project, but after some time off, including about three months away from social media, I’m feeling refreshed and enjoying the fruits of my labour. I just spent two days recording some of the music I wrote, and it was really exciting to play it with Adam Spiegl and Justin Olsson after a year of mostly performing solo to my camera.

How did you come up with the idea?

I stole the idea from a New York based cellist named Emily Hope Price – she did a similar project a few years ago. I was interested in the diversity of music she created through the project, and inspired to have a go for myself. I tried to run a songwriting group for a while, with the plan for everyone to write a new song every week, but I always found excuses not to compose. I thought the daily project might be easier, because I had less time to procrastinate.

So, what was your main incentive?

I wanted to give myself some structure in my music practice – I had just finished Honours study and enjoyed having a project to work towards. I think I also wanted an excuse to make whatever music I liked, without having to worry about whether it would fit into a certain genre box. So the project gave context to the work, rather than finding some other external context to slot into.

How clear was all this in your head, when you started?

The only real plan was to take something from the previous day’s work for the next day’s work. I didn’t give myself any other rules, and there’s no real definition of what a “song” is.

I’ve made “songs”, but also spoken word pieces, pieces that are more like performance art, free improvisations…

Were you prepared for the challenges you faced?

I was prepared for some of the challenges, but other things took me by surprise. I thought the composition would be the hardest part, but I found all the other stuff that surrounds the project to be more challenging. For example, the sharing side of it. I’m still struggling to balance the motivation I get from sharing my work and the trap of seeking approval from sharing my work.

You mean counting ‘likes’?

Counting the likes was definitely hard at the beginning, as I was quite excited about starting the project and sharing what I was working on. Some pieces would get a good reaction, and then others would get no reaction, and although you tell yourself the numbers don’t matter you still find yourself thinking the one with no likes must have been no good.

But it has been a good way to get over those kinds of feelings – seeing myself as the final critic.

So, how many songs have you written?

I’ve done 180.

What are you going to do with them?

That is a good question… I’ve been playing some of them, mostly as a duo with Adam Spiegl.

I noticed a few themes emerging as I was writing and have just finished cataloguing all the pieces to try and select a cohesive set to record. While going back over them, I was surprised how much the songs were like a diary, reflecting my daily life as I moved through the project. I was more often than not writing about imaginary characters, but I still ended up with a lot of myself in the songs.

Any chance of performing all of them?

As in all 180 songs?

I don’t know, shouldn’t you invite people and say “here’s what I have been doing”?

It would definitely be interesting to perform everything I’ve written so far, from numbers 1 – 180. It might have to go over several nights though. I’m not sure how many hours of music I’ve created, I can probably figure it out.

Ιs songwriting easy for you?

Probably 80 per cent of the time it’s easy. I don’t just sit down and write from nothing, I do a lot of composition and lyric-writing exercises, but most of the time they yield results very quickly.

I’ve had a few moments where it hasn’t been easy, most of the time because I have a very specific idea about what I want to create and I’m unable to execute it in such a short space of time.

What do you do when that happens?

Sometimes I settle for less – in that I might just record what I have at that moment, even if it feels unfinished. Or sometimes I’ll set it aside and do something completely different. It’s easy talking about it now, although when I’ve been stuck in those moments it hasn’t been so easy. I’ve had a couple of breakdowns, where I haven’t been able to work at all, and it’s not so easy to just let myself let go of whatever idea is giving me trouble.

How many times did you have to stop?

I took a break at the end of June for a few weeks, and didn’t write anything at all. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just stopped writing, until I was ready to start again. When I look back at the songs leading up to the break, I can see the cracks forming, which culminated in the piece right before the break that was basically me hiding behind things in my studio and laughing. Definitely a representation of how I felt creatively at that moment in time. I picked the project back up again, but I never really regained my focus and took another break on July 30 that ended up being the end of the project.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I stopped, and it was partly because my life as a freelance musician got messy and I was preoccupied with paying my bills; I also lost some confidence in my work, and started to feel as though no one was interested in the music I was making. I was hoping the project would help me get past those feelings, and it did for the most part, but its something I’m continuing to work at.

How did this affect your other daily activities, or your relationships?

I’m wondering about this question, as there have been two or three moments when I’ve been in a pretty bad state of mind and it has definitely affected my personal relationships. But I’m not sure it would be any different if I were doing something else, so I can’t put it down to the project itself.

I hadn’t been socialising very much, as I’d been putting all my free time into the project, that’s probably the biggest change I saw.I am getting better at recognising what situations have the tendency to affect me negatively, so in that sense the project has been helpful.

Has it also affected your perception of the songwriting process?

I have generally held a strong belief that songwriting is not a magical process dependent on some mysterious invisible force – it comes down to work and practice, like learning any skill. This project has reinforced that, although there have still been moments when it feels like no matter how hard I work, nothing useful or good is coming out. But that probably comes down to my tendency toward perfectionism. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned about myself, that I am a perfectionist and not in a good way. I need to actively manage that side of my personality, or it can take over and stop me from creating anything at all.

So, this is a kind of self-discovery journey for you?

Yes, I think so. There is a part of the project that is about asserting my musical voice and sharing the work I make, but ultimately I did it for myself.

I think the more I work for myself, without worrying about what other people think of my work, the happier I become with the output.

How happy are you with what you got?

I’m pretty happy – there are a few pieces that really stand out, and I have been workshopping those for performance, but even some of the weirder stuff, or the pieces I dismissed as being average, I find myself surprised by when I go back through the archive.

Would you do this again?

If I had some kind of grant or stipend to pay my rent and bills for a year, absolutely. There is a part of me that is disappointed I didn’t keep going for the full year, especially when I look back over the work I created. I initially found it really difficult to revisit the songs when I started listening back and cataloguing them, because of this disappointment. Now I’m just proud of all the stuff I made, and missing the daily composing. I’m thinking up ideas for a 2018 creative project, although something that’s easier to fit into my precarious freelance lifestyle.

What would you do differently if you started off now?

I think I’d try to be kinder to myself, although I don’t know how well I’d do. I’d also try harder to ignore what I imagine other people think about my work, but again I’m not sure how well I’d do at that. I’d hope that I was at least a little bit wiser the second time around.