Mesmera: The freedom of independence
Mesmera is, much like every one of my solo releases since 2014, an independent release. For most of my solo musical career I’ve written and released music independently, and I figured I was overdue talking about why that’s been the case.
When I first started out I, as I imagine a lot of musicians do, had this idea in my mind that getting signed and releasing an album through a label was kind of the “big goal”, this nebulous idea that somehow being signed to a label would validate my musical output up until that point. I had already released a bunch of music for free on-line, and in retrospect I don’t think I fully appreciated the following I’d acquired by doing so. While this seems to be less of a big deal nowadays, releasing music independently to an international audience in the late 00s was a bit of a daunting prospect – especially to someone who had never put out a “proper” release before, and had no idea of what to expect or even what to do. It wasn’t my initial intention to release my first album independently, but that’s how things worked out.
In 2008 I released my first album, Distant Activity. This album was comprised of tunes written between 2006 – 2008, and I’m still incredibly happy with how it turned out. It was written and produced in a variety of bedrooms and student houses in totally inappropriate acoustic conditions using a laptop, Reason, a microphone, a guitar, and a Behringer audio interface. Once I had a mostly-finished version of the album to hand, I set about sending out demos and copies of the album to as many labels and individuals as I could think of. I must admit, I’m still pretty atrocious at the whole “blatant self-promotion” aspect of releasing music independently, and I can only surmise that I was probably worse at it in 2008. I received a lovely response from the good folks at Magnatune, but outside of that – nothing. Nada. Not a “thanks, but we’re not interested”, not a “good lord this is awful, go away”. Not a thing. This was initially a little dis-heartening.
A little time passed and I had a completed version of Distant Activity ready to go. The record was mastered, the artwork was ready, and I was just sitting on it. Rough around the edges, very much a product of its environment, but I was really pleased with how it turned out. One day I started thinking “you know what? I’m really happy with this, why haven’t I released it already?”. It was done, and I was sick of sending e-mail messages and CDs out to a seemingly ambivalent world… so I started taking steps to get it out there myself. I had a small run of CDs duplicated, I signed up for digital distribution through CDBaby, and because independent digital outlets weren’t much of a thing back then (to my knowledge) I decided to start selling it through my own website.
I had no idea what I was doing back then (some things never change!) – I hadn’t even figured out a proper release date for the album beforehand, it just came out when it came out. All that said, I was thrilled to see that people were buying CDs and checking out the album through Magnatune / CDBaby / iTunes / whatever. I was getting frequent feedback both directly and on forums, people were leaving messages on Myspace (yes, this was still a thing), it was an absolute blast. All of this was going on when I probably should have been paying more attention to my final year of studies at university, but I loved the experience. All of this was also going on while I was still getting my toes wet with the world of music licensing, which would prove to be a much smarter direction to go in.
This was a pattern I repeated somewhat with Lightfields, which I initially released independently in 2010… albeit this time I actually had a release date in mind before I released the damned thing!
Fast forward to 2014, and I’d had a few label releases by this point (a topic I may delve further into in the future!). Distant Activity and Lightfields were re-distributed by Distinctive Records, And All Is As It Should Be was released through Lost Language, and my follow up Icarus was released through Distinctive Records. All of these are albums that I am incredibly happy with, and in retrospect I feel a large part of my experience in producing Icarus comes down to my own personal attitude towards it rather than anything on Distinctive’s end.
Icarus was a slog to complete. Distant Activity and Lightfields were two totally different albums stylistically, and rather than writing whatever felt natural I spent too much time thinking about audience and label expectations. Should I lean more towards the style I established with the former? Should it sound more polished? What if people are expecting something more like Lightfields? Why do all of my mixes sound awful? I ended up going through a multitude of album revisions, with the first rough cut being completed in 2011. I couldn’t bring myself to move on from it, and it was drove me nuts.
Following the release of Icarus I realised I needed to try a different approach, and I remembered how much fun I’d had releasing music independently – at this point, it had been over three years since I had done so. I also figured that if I was going to do that, I wanted to take the opportunity to try out new ideas. I had come to love the idea of rewarding fans for purchasing my music rather than punishing people for having the audacity to seek it out. I also loved the idea of working on a release that didn’t have an over-arching concept, that didn’t impose any kind of expectations on myself, and that felt completely natural to write. That release was Pieces, and I absolutely thoroughly loved working on and releasing it. People responded really well to the pay-what-you-want approach. As such, I decided to adopt a pay-what-you-want model for all of my independent releases, and rewarding fans while encouraging listeners became my go-to model for releases. This is a model I adopted for subsequent releases Obscurer and The Broken Divide… and now Mesmera (whew, at last – bringing this back around to the album at hand!).
Mesmera continues in this tradition. In many ways I consider it a bit of a spiritual successor to And All Is As It Should Be (which I considered a spiritual successor to The Dawn EP at the time…), but it’s what I wanted to write. It came together naturally because it scratched an itch I’d had for quite a while, and that’s why I was able to bring in ideas from 2016 despite having only “properly” started working on it in 2017. It was wonderful to be so hands-on with every single aspect of the creation process, as in many ways creating the music is only one step (albeit a large one) towards completing an album. I went through several artwork revisions (with my incredibly patient buddy Tom Pritchard), track-list orders, mix approaches… but it never became obsessive or manic, and it never felt like a slog. It always felt like I was working toward something I wanted to create at the time, and that’s something I feel I lost sight of while working on Icarus. Again – can’t stress this enough – I am 100% totally and absolutely thrilled and happy with how Icarus turned out, but I’d rather not repeat that creative process again if I can help it!
Mesmera is available NOW through Bandcamp. You can listen to it in its entirety and download it from my Bandcamp page. Bandcamp subscribers also get access to an exclusive audiophile master, along with a beatless arrangement of the album. It’s also available to stream & download from a wide variety of digital distribution outlets.