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Jon Cotton, Producer, Composer, Director

I’m thrilled to share this Shaker Conversation, the first in a series of conversations on creativity. I met Jon, producer, composer and director at Poseidon Music, when I was investigating places to live in England, and he generously took some of his precious time to share his Moseley with me. Our conversations ignited a musical friendship and I’ve since had the pleasure of seeing his creativity in action, working alongside his team to curate a magical candle-lit concert for Jo Hamilton. Jon’s way is meticulous, warm, and always infused with kindness and respect.

We met in Poseidon’s garden on a beautiful summer day, birds and trains trilling and rumbling as we spoke. 

jon 2013

Jon, can you introduce what you do – how are you an artist, a creative person?

There are two aspects to it, really: I produce, and what that means is that I’m a bit like the director of a film, basically. I’m given a script – the song – and the actors, which are the performers, and my job is to be the midwife – to help a great record (or sometimes a live show) come to life. Like a film director, a producer can very much direct the feel of the result, amplifying aspects of the artist or song for effect, seeking out the essence.

There’s also a project and budget management aspect to the production role – confusingly rather like a ‘producer’ in the movie sense – and it’s also technical too nowadays; I engineer and mix my own work – so it can be quite a good workout for the brain!

Nowadays every artist is their own little empire, so as an extension of the ‘music midwife’ role I increasingly find myself involved in other creative aspects than the record – the live show, the way the project’s marketed (‘portrayed’ is a better word), video content, even the merchandise. We’ve got a busy little creative office here in Moseley! Playing so many roles is challenging but it also gives us the opportunity to create multi-faceted/cross-media art which has a better continuity about it than the old paradigm, where the music video might tell a completely separate narrative to the song itself, because it was dreamt up by someone different. Of course the technology we have nowadays makes all this feasible for a little team.

The other – more pragmatic – half of what I do is writing music for television – commissions for BBC1, BBC2, Channel Four, a lot of TV music for Universal, EMI, and Warner’s libraries which get used all over the place. Nowadays I mainly do that in partnership with another very experienced television music writer, Ben Niblett.

Something that we wrote together was used at the opening ceremony of the last Olympics; we’ve had tracks used behind the TV weather in Hungary! [laughs] You name it… Norwegian films, Panorama, all sorts of things.

We also co-produced the soundtrack to quite a big Christmas feature film here in the UK – “Nativity.” For TV it’s usually writing stuff from scratch with lots of programming – synthesised orchestra etc – but we do try to use live instruments when time allows.

How did the longing to express yourself creatively first manifest?

I’m just trying to remember… We get into such habits, after you’ve been doing it for such a long time, remembering why you started doing it… When I was age seven, I moved to Sierra Leone with my family and two years later, I came back to the same class. In between, my class had discovered football, and I totally missed that transition – it forever remained a mystery to me after that.

So I kind of became a bit of an outsider and I think that from then on, in secondary school – also, I had some other friends who were interested in music… and it became a way of expressing self-identity, to start playing in a band. Early on, it was also partly an interest in the technology that goes with it. Adult Lego! I’ve since moved away from that; I rely on technology heavily but it doesn’t directly motivate my work any more, other things have replaced that.

Was being an outsider a part of that, was it an ingredient?

As teenagers, we all choose a tribe. And I wasn’t part of the football at lunchtime tribe; instead I would find a room and play piano. I was quite a shy, sensitive kid. And so this sort of introspection, hammering away on the piano and expressing your emotions… it suited me. I suppose from that point on, your choice becomes interwoven with your character development. So from early teen years, music became woven into me.

And it was always music?

I can’t draw for toffee! Yeah, it was music. Because it’s the most direct way of reaching our emotions. For me it’s the most powerful art.

So far, do you enjoy the world that you’ve created? Which world are you creating now?

Every time we make something, we are creating a different little world, a galaxy of little planets if you will. We get to explore and create different terrains for each one; and perhaps as I’ve gone on the terrains have become more refined – or less refined sometimes, as I’ve realised that some of the refinement was unnecessary – being OCD when making a record isn’t what it is about, it’s about how it makes you feel. It’s wonderful to be able to create worlds.

Jo Hamilton calls my mixes ‘Victorian pop-up theatres’ (which is very nice of her) – those are miniature 3-D theatres that Victorians used to play with – because I like to use a lot of depth and place things clearly in a very tangible space. So they really do feel like physical worlds we are moving around in. I guess there is also a common emotional thread to the projects I work on. I’m drawn to ‘melancholy optimism’. Saying that it can be difficult sometimes to determine whether the worlds we’re creating are beautiful little things of wonder or just self-indulgent! [laughs]

It’s important to me that good music isn’t ego-driven. We all have egos and we all have to deal with that, and it’s usually destructive, I see that very clearly in artists sometimes. There’s a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, whose book went to number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list; the talk is about how on earth you follow that up. She looks on it the way the Greeks looked upon it… it’s a “talent,” and by that they didn’t mean that you are a genius, but that you are lucky enough to have a spirit talking through you; kind of like the daemons in Philip Pullman’s books I suppose. I really admire that attitude.

When we’re working on something that’s really lovely, it’s way healthier to deal with not as something that we’ve created, but as something we’re exploring. It’s a territory – ‘look how beautiful this is,’ just the same as the way that photographer goes around the world and comes across amazing views and captures it; it isn’t like “wow he created it, isn’t he amazing,” he’s just helping others celebrate something. We’re just exploring undiscovered countries.

I have a vague, pseudo-religious hope that when we stumble across a moment of absolute, sublime beauty, that we are in some way touching upon some fundamental aspect of the universe which we don’t fully understand. And music therefore, in some way is fundamentally woven into the universe and actually has some meaning, rather than simply being a collection of chemical responses to a particular stimulus. I tend to try and look at it that way: it’s a celebration of beauty – and that’s why I really enjoy my job!

Is balance something you look for in your work? Is it something you’d like to achieve between your creative work and the rest of your life, you make a distinction?

Literally speaking, I spend a lot of time mixing, which is all about balancing. But it’s clear the art of living well is the art of balance, we’re always walking a tight rope between things…. between ‘pure’ art and making a living pragmatically, for example. There’s always an equilibrium going on.

There are balances in terms of how you interact with people, between openness and defensiveness, given that there are some pretty aggressive people out there. Balances in negotiation – between being fair to other people as well as to ourselves. You want to not be walked on, but at the same time not be a dragon. “Be wise as serpents, innocent as lambs.”

Then obviously there’s the work-life balance, which is another whole question! I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about that, because I pretty much live what I do [laughs]. I suppose the relevance of “work to live, don’t live to work” – kind of depends what you’re doing! If your work is the thing you’re most passionate about in your life, then you want to live to do that. Telling Gauguin – I’m not saying I’m a painter – but telling him, “You shouldn’t do so much work, Gauguin!” [laughs].

Do you rest upon certain personal rhythms, rituals, or environments in order to create?

There’s the old cliché about right brain/left brain, it’s pseudo-science but I think that principle still applies in terms of states of mind – ‘modes’ if you will. The job I do is very much a balance between logical, rational, step-by-step thinking – project management, technology management, trouble-shooting, people management, event organisation etc – and then purely creative stuff. It can be a massive juggling act having to constantly switch between the two types of thinking, which is one of the reasons why I find this job so rich.

I’m on a constant productivity drive to try and make better use of my time, because I’m involved in so many different things. There’s a common thought going around in productivity circles that you do the most important thing first, in the morning. I’ve actually not been doing that. I tend to get up and hammer out emails for two-three hours and do the management/rational stuff from home. Then I’ll go to the studio and change modes.

Please describe your experience of what it is to lead an artist’s life… How do family, relationships, other career choices, or obligations fit into the picture? [Jon laughs] Do any of the following words describe how you mesh it all together: compartmentalize – balance – ignore – sublimate – integrate – transcend…?

Oh… artists have always been at the edge of normal society, on the outside. If you’re somebody who creates, then by definition you’re not accepting the world as it is, you’re changing it or exploring an area that hasn’t been mapped yet – depending on your point of view!

I read some research a couple of years ago, I think it was in The New Scientist, an anthropological discussion about the evolutionary reasons that creative people exist. When we were hunter-gatherers, often it was the people who had a screw loose who had the strong, ferocious ideas and became fixated on certain things. People were drawn to that kind of confidence. Although creatives tend to be seen as slightly odd, they also tend to be leaders in some way, or they end up that way. I do think that me and most of my colleagues are slightly nuts – certainly by normal standards of what’s ‘sensible’ to do. You certainly wouldn’t do art if you were being “sensible”; you’d want to make sure that you have security, money, maybe power, all good genetic stuff. It’s fundamentally a risk-embracing thing to do this. So being slightly ‘fringe’ is an accepted part of the lifestyle.

Time management can be difficult – it can be very difficult to predict timings of creative projects, it’s not like you’re working at a bank where you can book your vacations six months ahead. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in terms of family events – I managed to miss my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary, which I regret, for a job which was potentially quite a big break. The trouble is, distinguishing the breaks from the non-breaks tends only to be possible in hind-sight… a constant balance between different types of opportunity costs!

There’s also the fact that it’s extremely competitive – if you want to make a living out of this, in certain areas you are in hot competition with gazillions of other people, music for television being a classic example. If a job comes up, early on in your career at least – you have to take it, otherwise it goes to the next guy, and then a relationship develops and you’ve lost that client. So it’s a classic freelance dilemma….and that can be a nightmare for family life.

So in short, if you want stability, don’t become an artist – don’t become a freelancer at all for that matter! Go and work for someone else, so you can book your holidays ahead… Working freelance in the arts is the worst of all worlds in terms of compatibility with other commitments; it requires total commitment, really.

I do think that a lot of people get into without quite realising what they’ve let themselves in for. I’m too far gone now to change… [laughs]

How do others fit into your creative/inner world?

…those who have a similar vision and/or fellow artists?

…those who don’t understand your work?

…those who are supportive without participating in your creative process?

What was the second one – those who don’t understand? I immediately think of parents, there! [laughs] Which Is probably a bit unfair. Parents tend to want their children to be stable and secure, so they can understandably have problems understanding ‘artistic’ motivation! I went with Jo down to New Zealand to make a music video with some people from Weta, Peter Jackson’s company. They’d approached us asking to make a video for a song they loved. My Mum, for the life of her, couldn’t understand why when I told her. She said, “But what are they going to get out of it?” and I answered, “They want to make something beautiful, they’re inspired.” “But, you must be paying them!” “No…” [laughs]. My parents are very good though generally, very supportive.

I’ve got a great relationship with Jo [Hamilton] who I’m doing most of my most creative work with currently. We talk about the work we do together as exploring a kind of secular prayer, celebratory. We see very eye-to-eye on a lot of things, from musical tastes through to imagery, largely I think because we have similar philosophies… the work is not us, we’re simply observers and celebrators of something that already exists.

What is your guiding energy, your main source of inspiration?

I call myself an optimistic nihilist [laughs]. The rational part of me looks at my body, the way we’ve evolved and what we know of our place in the universe, and concludes that I’m probably an insignificant bit of carbon, my life probably doesn’t mean very much.

But when we happen upon a moment of sublime beauty, although it may be that we’re just setting off neurochemical transmitters, I do like to hope that there’s something more to it. The Buddhists would refer to that as a glimpse of Enlightenment – they’re optimists too!

If I was doing another job – say a stockbroker – I would be busying myself with things which I imagine I would know ultimately have little meaning – just being a cog, helping others (or myself) become rich. In my work, what I’m doing probably has no meaning, but I like to hope that it might do, in some fundamental, universal way.

The analogy I like to think of is walking on a beach, and to your left you’ve got the water and there’s thick fog. As musicians we keep thinking that maybe we’re seeing a glimpse of something through the fog. We spend our lives exploring those glimpses. I like to hope that one day the wind will blow, the fog will lift, and there’ll be an amazing city in the sky, some fundamental aspect of the structure of the universe that we don’t understand currently, just as we didn’t know anything about radio waves two hundred years ago.

So I see my job as something that is a probably hopeless but nonetheless optimistic attempt to try and explore that structure, I suppose. Also trying to pay the bills! [laughs]

What keeps you dragging? How do you get beyond feeling stuck, or what is your outlet for dissatisfaction?

I don’t really get stuck creatively; I don’t really have time! We’ve got so many things going on – I just don’t have the luxury of writer’s block. And I’m also surrounded by so many ideas, not just from me but from other people, that I’ve never got any shortage of “stuff” that I could be visiting with them.

The sort of “stuck” that I get tends to be to do with optimism, with positivity, because particularly when you’re running a label and promoting music you’ve been intimately involved with completely from nothing, your self-confidence and belief are the only things propping it up, really. At times, like anybody, when I get low – winter 2012 I got horribly depressed, having had three winters back-to-back – I left the UK as winter ended, spent a few months working in New Zealand during their winter and then returning just as another British winter was starting. All of the spark that I use to push forward and to push through doubt and make things happen went and I ended up in a terrible limbo. It doesn’t happen often thankfully! I’m lucky – or unlucky – to have some insanely obstinate genes that push forward. I collect quotes about persistence which maybe tells you something.

Where does your gratitude flow?

I try to be grateful every day. My muse is my grandfather who used to say that he got up every morning and he opened the curtains, and if he could see the sky, would think “thank you for another day, I’m still here.”

I like to not be presumptuous. A lot of my work is about gratitude, particularly the work with Jo. [Train passes – “Thank you, train!”].  My Christian friends would ask me, “Who are you thanking, Jon?” And my answer to that is – I don’t know, but I’m not going to choose an arbitrary tradition just because I don’t know. Richard Feynman gave a great interview about how great it is to not know – how he’d ‘rather not know, than be sure and be wrong’ [laughs].

So my gratitude flows to wherever, whomever or whatever underlies – if they do!

How does playfulness fit into your creative process?

Laughter is very important. We have a lot in the office. I think maybe sometimes the ludicrousness of life is a bit more apparent to creative folks than those some other jobs.  I’ve noticed, now I’ve passed forty, that people I went to school with… I’ve been doing this long enough that I can see a clear difference in psychology between those who’ve been in a corporate environment and those who’ve been in a creative environment for the last twenty-odd years. Playfulness is a good word… being in the creative world is all about being an individual, exploring, trying stuff out, playing. Whereas often (not always, shouldn’t generalise) the corporate environment seems to encourage the opposite – you’re a cog and you’re meant to fit in – what they call ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome” in New Zealand. Saying that, I’m probably glad that that exists, otherwise I wouldn’t have an insurance company or an accountant…blablablah.

When people forget that they’re really just kids wearing daddy’s clothing and start taking themselves too seriously, it’s really tragic. Yesterday, I was on the LinkedIn page of somebody I know and it described their main skill as doing “stakeholder augmentation,” or something like that…I’m sure even the target audience (their industry) would be uninspired by that. They’re forgetting.

Would you say that sharing your work is intrinsic to the creative process?

Yeah – it didn’t used to be so much, I was more into the sounds and technology for their own sake.  But I think after a certain number of years, making recordings that no one hears (mostly) – that’s what happens in recording studios, most stuff that gets recorded doesn’t go anywhere until you hit a certain level – I’m at a stage now where what I’m interested in is one thing and one thing only: having an impact on people – and you can’t do that unless your work reaches people.  For work to be satisfying, it has to have meaning. So for me, the meaning is the effect is has on others.

Joseph Campbell wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.” Do you agree with this? If so, how do you “follow your bliss”?

It’s funny, I watched a fantastic film on that very subject – Mr Nobody. It‘s a completely underrated movie, a sort of cross between Sliding Doors and Inception, about the decisions we make and the alternative futures that can crop up from small decisions.  As I’m get older, I’m starting to be able to look back and see clear decision trees, forks I’ve taken. Maybe there’s another me that took the other fork somewhere, I don’t know.

This arguably comes back to pseudo-religion, but I do have a feeling that when I’m ‘getting it right’, when I’m walking the line right between all the factors in my life (strong/weak, proud/humble), there’s a kind of state of grace that descends; and I guess that’s my word for what he calls “bliss”.  It’s a feeling in some way of being benevolently positioned and the universe being somehow in synch with you, you’re doing the right thing. I don’t have that all the time, though I try really hard to get to it – it’s partly to do with having a clear conscience. We’re always struggling with dilemmas… So it’s my goal, I suppose.

There are periods where I’ve certainly had it. One period, I was working with some artists from India, and this guy stopped and said, “You’re the first person I’ve met in the UK who has peace in his eyes. “It really hit me. I’m not sure I’ve been that blissful since then, but that’s a good aspiration.

Where do you turn for solace, would your creative work be something you would turn to for solace?

I think during really tough times, when things go badly, when people around you die or there are relationship problems, we tend to ask ourselves questions about what we’re doing here, ‘What choices have I made?’, ‘Am I a good person?’ ‘Should I have regrets?’ – fundamental questions. My work often touches on those same areas, so I suppose it can be a good way of channelling grief or pain. When things are not good, tastes are stronger, colours seem brighter and the meaning in music seems more apparent.

There’s a kind of painful pleasure in wallowing in sad music at times, and the process of making music can be a more intense version of that as you’re viewing it from the inside out. There comes a point though where you have to stop, because it gets a bit intense. I don’t know why we find that cathartic, as human beings – I guess I’m not different to anyone else in that respect, only I get to do it from a different point of view and maybe spend more time exploring it.

What is the place of longing in your work?

Aah… longing’s very important. I was with Jo [Hamilton] at TED Global, in Edinburgh – she played on the main stage. And it didn’t go that well, actually; we had problems with the instrument she was playing. It really threw her – she coped very well with it, but it rather sabotaged the whole experience for us. Nonetheless, her music still shone through, and when she came off-stage, we did a CD signing.

At TEDGlobal, you meet some amazing people.  One of the people who came up to the merch desk where Jo was signing CDs came up clutching a book and said, “Can I swap you a book for a CD?”

I thought, here we go, another crappy book, but looked at it and realised it was a book I’d read just two weeks before! It was a guy called Hugh MacLeod, who had a New York Times best-seller with a book full of his doodles on the back of business cards. I think he was working as a graphic designer, and in-between soulless commercial jobs he sat in coffee shops and drew pictures on the backs of business cards he’d collected. Mini reflections on life, little cartoons which became a bestseller.

He drew a doodle for Jo and said to her, “I loved your work, it’s got so much longing in it.” The card is beautiful.

There is only longing

Hugh MacLeod

So I guess it’s quite important. I have great problems with music that’s very resolved, I can’t listen to a lot of Mozart for that reason. It’s so often nice and neat and tied in a bow. I mostly like music that has emotional tension in it, and for that you have to have a sense of longing. There’s a little bit of a conflict between the Buddhist idea that you should have acceptance and live in the now, appreciating every moment for what it is, and the fact that good art to me requires longing, which fundamentally is about not being quite happy with what you’ve got and wanting something else [laughs]. But I guess, again… it’s a balance!

Does your creative path match your highest expectations?

[Laughs] Sometimes! Most of the times, not; most of the times there are pragmatic concerns. There have been some things that I’ve done which I look back on and go, that’s really something great. I’m not self-celebrating, I’m celebrating the thing. A lot of the time, I look back and I see flaws, areas where it could have been better.

There’s also a good way of looking at it… rather than being a perfectionist and never finishing anything, which is an easy state to be in, it’s seeing any work of art as the best you could do at that moment in time, with the circumstances around you. It’s tending towards perfection, rather than being perfect.  You’re always tending towards it; you’re trying your best to get as close as you can get within your realities. The Persians say the only thing that’s perfect is God – so they purposely put a flaw in every rug they make. I tend to take the same approach, particularly when working with artists for whom a record is very important, and they start to get extremely anal about stuff, and they want every single squeak and every single breath to be controlled and edited, and it’s ridiculous. It is a record of the time and we should accept it for that. The recording itself has a life of its own.

There is no such thing as the definitive version of anything. You’re tending toward an aspiration of what you’re trying to say, what emotion you’re trying to capture. At the end of the day, if something has a powerful emotional effect on somebody, the technical details of what you created to make that happen are less important. For example, I’ve occasionally worked with people who will want everything edited, even things you can’t hear in the final mix. I’ve reached a point where I say, our time will be better spent making more music which will have an impact on people, rather than changing something which will have no impact. Musicians can worry a lot..

What is your relationship to a sense of completeness, or lack thereof, and how does that affect your work?

I’ve come to the conclusion that having had a lot of longing in me, the feeling of always looking for something else, I thought when I was younger that I’d reach a point when that would be answered, through romantic love, for example, and I’d suddenly hit some sort of nirvana. But I’ve realised it’s actually an innate part of me; it’s something to be celebrated. Not in terms of “I’m so great,” but it’s something that I should embrace as intrinsic to who I am. Just as insecurity or self-doubt, all these negatives we’re always trying to overcome in a very sort of optimistic, American way – we’re great, we can do it – they’re all parts of a person’s shape. They’re part of a complete picture.

What is your gift – how do you most enjoy being remembered?

Whenever you interact with somebody, there’s an exchange of energy (to use a hippie word). Some people are definite drains on you, they immediately start telling you their problems at length, they’re wanting support, even if they’re complete strangers. Or equally, if you’re trying to accomplish something, they may be a drain on the energy of the situation, sighing for example, body language… The energy I like to give off – or what I like other people to perceive when they’re with me is the opposite of that. I want people to feel that they’re energised and inspired, I want to give them a gift..

I’m not that bothered about being remembered in the long term, about my genes going on. Nothing lasts, and I haven’t got any lofty aspirations of immortality through work. I think we’re here, and if I can help celebrate it, and hopefully that has some meaning, then great. And if I can help other people to do that, then great. I would say that I seem lucky in that I have a brain which seems able to draw on lots of different worlds and disciplines, I tend to combine a lot of different disciplines in my thinking . Colleagues often tell me that they find me quite unusual in that way – people tend to be creatives, or scientists or whatever. I feel lucky that I seem able to roam mentally quite wide, and so make connections. I’d hope to be able to help blow away a few cobwebs for people who aren’t as lucky in their work environment as I am.

We live in a very interesting time in terms of all the media industries, because all the old paradigms are going out the window. I was talking to somebody yesterday about how difficult it is to shake off old paradigms. The classic example is Kodak, who recently went bust; when I was growing up, they were the name. How do you go from world domination to going bankrupt? It’s because they couldn’t shake off their old paradigm, they couldn’t make that psychological leap. This is something that creative people can be pretty good at, by thinking outside of convention and making connections.

Would you like to add something, whether a thought, a story, a sketch, a tune…?

The only thing I’d like to add is that it’s very nice to be asked questions that show appreciation for what people like me do. Not many people know the right questions to ask.  So for someone to get it right and treat our world with great preciousness, worth exploring and probing, is appreciated.

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This interview by Gabrielle Sedita is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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