Midway into the song “Room,” the opening track of Arthur Moon’s debut EP Our Head, a slightly out of tune banjo plows over top of the ethereal, washy atmospherics that the band has spent the last minute building. It’s a moment that catches the listener entirely off guard: “…Wait, what did I just hear?”
But that’s the beauty of what lead singer/songwriter Lora-Faye Åshuvud calls “incorrect music.” It’s all about confounding expectations and disrupting musical formulas. We recently sat down with Åshuvud to ask her about how she approaches the craft of songwriting and what she looks for in her music, which you can hear in the video above.
“I think correct is following a formula that’s tried and true…”
What Åshuvud means by “incorrect music” is doing something unusual, different, or even “wrong,” whether in the classic music theory or educational sense of the word. Some of the examples she points to include:
- disrupting normal, pop-song structures
- using surprising instrumentation
- adding dissonance or out-of-key elements
- playing with dramatic dynamic changes
It’s all about the rough edges.
To harness these rough edges, Åshuvud tries a number of different things. One song on the album was composed to mimic the wandering disorientation of a boxer who had been hit in the head too many times. Another track includes a dynamic shout alongside distorted guitar that serves to interrupt its otherwise quiet trajectory. Many of the tracks include layered vocals in which the vocal lines are in tune with themselves but not necessarily the rest of the instruments.
“When I first started writing songs, I was moved by simple folk songs on guitar, but the ones most interesting to me were the ones where the singer didn’t really know how to sing, like Bob Dylan, or the guitar was out of tune, or there was some fiddle solo that came out of nowhere and was way too loud in the mix.”
What are some other examples of incorrect music? Åshuvud pointed to a couple things that have inspired her over the years. The first one was Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
I spent a bit of time listening to some of Harry Smith’s collection since we spoke, and two things jump out to me: one, they’re often playing wildly out of tune, and two, it doesn’t matter one hoot because it contributes to the sense of fun and joy in the music.
Concert-hall technique has its place, but so does untrained mountain fiddling — so what happens if you confound expectations of where and when you hear one versus the other?
Another name she mentioned, which sadly didn’t make it into the video, was the Mauritanian singer Ouleya Mint Amartichitt — another reference that I’ve really enjoyed exploring. Finding ways to incorporate elements of her music into Western music, whether the plaintive tones, the dynamic range, or the microtonal scales often employed, would make it feel incorrect, according to what we typically find familiar in North American pop music.
+ Learn more on Soundfly: Throw a veritable wrench in your guitar playing by experimenting with alternate tunings. Learn a handful of our favorites in our free course series, Alternate Tunings for the Creative Guitarist.
“We often find ourselves in that kind of place in rehearsals where I’m like: I’m bored, do something different…. If I’m bored, I know I need to try something else, I need to try something weirder, and I have to try something less intuitive.”
It might seem strange for a music-education website to talk about doing things “wrong” — but, at Soundfly, we often find that many of the musicians we love the most spend time learning about music in part so that they know how to break the rules for a greater effect or make theirs sound more personal. We firmly believe there’s no one right way to play music and we love adding to our knowledge base. It’s that tension between doing something “correct” and “incorrect” that can lead to the best results.
As a songwriter, improviser, or composer, how do you go about actually making incorrect music? There are obviously tons of ways to add a little flavor of uniqueness to your sound, from irregular time signatures to innovative production techniques, but I think the biggest takeaway to me was the idea of taking an extra step with every song.
You know that moment when your song feels basically done, you’re pretty happy with it, and you could stop and hit publish? What Åshuvud taught me was to take one more shot at it in that moment — to add a twist that will make it a little more unexpected and interesting. To do something a little less intuitive, as she put it.
As for Åshuvud herself, her biggest piece of advice was to focus in on the rough edges that you naturally brought to your music when you first started writing and try to harness that to create something beautiful and unique. It’s an idea that I just might spend some time thinking about myself.
And it reminds me of something else that we helped usher into existence last year: Tim Hansen’s manifesto for trusting your creativity. It’s this perspective that “creativity allows us to break down walls we thought were unbreakable,” that Tim cemented into the foundations of his highly inspirational course, Introduction to the Composer’s Craft, which sets this course apart from anything we’ve seen on the internet.
Ian Temple is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.