How this musician made beauty in isolation

It was early 2020. The songs had been mixed and mastered; the videos shot; the planned deployment.

You can guess what happened next. Rumors of a “new coronavirus” have turned into a global pandemic – the world has retreated. And this album, the one Saba was so ready to release, no longer felt necessary.

“There was nothing wrong with that music,” the 27-year-old told CNN. “But being isolated, and thinking and spending so much time with myself and my own thoughts, I was like, ‘Actually, enough is enough. I don’t want to contribute to the noise. I want to be intentional.”

But there was no plan to make art during a global health crisis.

The constant news of record deaths while fearing for the health of loved ones was a unique stressor. Then there was the ongoing racist violence against Black and Asian communities that not only didn’t stop when the pandemic hit, it got worse.
Yet the artists persisted. In April, barely a month into the pandemic, indie folk band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down make a music video for their song “Phenom” completely on Zoom. Electropop artist Charli XCX made her album ‘How I’m Feeling Now’ at home in quarantine, learning songs live on Instagram with fans. Members of Spillage Village, a hip-hop collective consisting of JID, Earthgang, Mereba and others, rented a house together in Atlanta and spent months creating “Spilligion” in their de facto art commune.
Eventually, Saba also made her own album during the pandemic: “Few Good Things”, which dropped last month, complete with a accompanying short film.

But the realities of early quarantine have made creativity elusive. In the past, you could be hit with sparks of inspiration just by being outside, Saba said. When you’re just sitting at home, it’s harder – you have to work for the spark to happen.

“We needed to depend less on inspiration and more on actual practice,” he said. “It’s like going to the gym or something. You have to get into a habit.”

So, like many people, he opted for Zoom. Alongside friends and collaborators (fellow musicians Joseph Chilliams, MFnMelo, Frsh Waters, Squeak and Daedae), Saba formed a virtual writing group with the challenge of writing a full verse, 16 bars, in 16 minutes. Soon the group grew to about 12 people. Sometimes they met several times a week, always holding each other accountable. Creativity flowed from their community.

When Saba started working on the new album, those larger sessions turned into smaller sessions between him and his two longtime producers, Daedae and Daoud. Because of the pandemic, they couldn’t just rent time in studios, like they could with previous projects. While recording “Care For Me” in 2018, for example, Saba and the others gathered in Oakland, Calif., to work on the project and would spend weeks at a time in the studio.

It was no longer possible. Instead, they fed each other audio from their respective computers, miles apart, and created songs from scratch.

There were logistical issues, of course – the three-hour time difference between them made planning difficult, for example. But distance also has a fairly tangible impact on music.

It’s most notable on the song “Fearmonger,” one of the tracks the trio did completely on Zoom. One person created the melody while another created the beat, but when they first played the riffs on the computer, there was a lag on Saba’s side. What he heard was completely different from what Daoud and Daedae heard.

Unlike in the past, Daoud (left) and Daedae only reunited with Saba three times for studio sessions while working on the album.

Later, when they sent the stem files of the instrument to Saba for arrangement, he was confused. At first he thought it was wrong. It was then that they understood the problem.

Saba arranged the track based on how he had originally heard it – speeding up the tempo and creating a funkier sound unlike anything they had done in the past. This is the version on the album.

“Some things that happen in the production or in the lyrics of the songs, some of them are random sometimes. Some of them are just based on a mood or a feeling,” Saba said. “So working without that as a creative hub is…what we had to figure out how to do while we were making these songs on Zoom.”

Without collaborative studio time, without gigs to connect with fans, Covid-19 has forced many artists back to square one, Saba said. They had to look inside: what artist do you want to be? What songs do you like? What message do you want to send?

The past two years have been marked by setbacks, of course. But it also caused many artists to come to terms with being uncomfortable. It’s easy to stagnate, to become complacent, in your art. By forcing that discomfort, Covid-19 has cultivated a new sense of exploration — and that’s where the best art comes from, Saba said.

In that sense, the pandemic hasn’t just been about finding new ways to be creative. For artists like Saba, it completely reshaped their relationship with creativity.

About Ethel Nester

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