May 10, 2019
By: Matt Williams
In the realm of creative musical tools, snappy (or scrappy) electric guitars and stylish, vintage noisemakers often get a lot of the limelight. They often warrant their own mythology as much as the people that play them—think of Prince’s purple axe or Annie Clark of St. Vincent’s custom six-string. But those showy weapons of creation are not the only ones in the arsenal of those artists. You never hear, for example, about Joni Mitchell’s favourite pen or Tanya Tagaq’s notebooks.
In the past few years or so, though, you may have heard a story about the writing process from a songwriter during a show, and it might have begun with them explaining jotting down an idea with the iPhone’s Voice Memos app. While it’s not like voice recorders are anything new, the advent of the smartphone has managed to put one in almost everyone’s hands, and musicians have taken note.
One of those musicians is Regina’s Amber Goodwyn, the beat architect and songwriter behind the avant-electro sounds of Natural Sympathies. She can’t remember the first time she used it, but at this point considers it an extension of herself as a creative being. For a long time—going back to her time as part of Montreal’s Cobra & Vulture—Goodwyn has been using recording as a means to jot ideas down and work through demos, but that often involved a bit of a process. She can’t always put life on hold and head down to her home studio to get a melody idea recorded. But the Voice Memos app means that she doesn’t even have to stop to pull out a pen and paper.
“Whenever any kind of idea comes to mind, no matter where I am—whether I’m driving someplace and pull over and record a melodic idea, or if I’m taking care of my kid on a playground, or just at home, and I don’t have the time to interrupt all activities—it’s always there, nearby, with me,” Goodwyn says over the phone from Regina. “It became a practical, easy-to-use extension of my everyday life.”
Before she regularly used the app, Goodwyn would have set songwriting times, usually a couple of days a week on Pro Tools or GarageBand. She and Cobra & Vulture bandmate Erin Ross would record ideas individually and then come back a few weeks later to finish them off.
“I think more than anything, the Voice Memos app has really suited the way I work as a songwriter even more so than my pre-motherhood days, where I had more set studio times and that sort of thing,” Goodwyn says. “I’ve always found my most interesting melodic and lyrical ideas were worked out vocally first—literally just singing to myself, wherever I was. The idea I could just record that wherever I am, on to my phone, it’s enhanced my songwriting.”
One way the app has changed Goodwyn’s songwriting, she says, is that it has allowed a greater focus on editing. That might seem incongruent with the nature of the thing—after all, the ability to collect every single idea you have seems to lean more toward impulse than a succinct approach. But in the right hands, with a mind afforded the clarity that time helps develop, the Voice Memos app allows for ideas to be fleshed out and cut up slowly, as certain ones surface as essential and others fall by the wayside.
“If you look at my archive of voice memos, the actual files, you’ll see similar titles that occur over a long stretch of time, because I really believe the most important ingredient in songwriting, to me, is the element of time,” Goodwyn says. “In that way the Voice Memos app is great—it captures something, an idea I feel very strongly about, and then when I come back to it, my editor brain is able to take over, and I can listen to it objectively and critically, and determine either what’s a good complement for it or I can change it in a way that will serve the song or melodic idea better.”
Not only does it make her a better editor, but it’s helped her develop something truly invaluable: the feeling that, at all times, she is an artist. That may sound like a minor thing, but pretty much anyone who’s pursued a life creating art will tell you that it’s no small feat to actually feel like and call yourself an artist. For a long time, it can feel like a hurdle you might never clear. Until, of course, it just happens.
“In my day-to-day life, I feel like I’m always a musician all the time,” Goodwyn says. “It’s definitely the soul of who I am to be writing songs and thinking about music all the time and building a community of friends who think the same way. This voice memos app is so well-integrated into my life no matter how it shifts, where I move, or what job I’m at. On any given day, if I have an idea, it validates me immediately because I can record it and know I’ve preserved that aspect of my being, even if a week or a month doesn’t allow me to be as much of an active musician [as] I would hope to be.”
While the app hasn’t radically shifted her sound, Goodwyn has been toying with the idea of incorporating the actual recorded memos into her music. On her upcoming album Porous, she used a cassette recorder to record the same take she was getting down with Ableton, angling to make something that harkens back to the lo-fi heyday of the ‘80s and ‘90s. That song is the icy, slow-moving “Winter,” one of the first songs she wrote as Natural Sympathies. The first single on Porous, “Hello,” experienced the greatest evolution from the Voice Memos app to the finished song. It began as a ton of ideas—in the app, notes under titles like ”small part Hello,” “bass line Hello,” “guitar part Hello,” etc.—but once Goodwyn stepped back to take a look at it, she took an approach more in line with Björk’s Medúlla, one of the song’s creative influences.
“She’d tried to twist the instrumentation with that album and found it was always killing the mood of the song, and in some ways “Hello” is directly influenced by that album in that it really features the vocals, and has a lot of space also,” Goodwyn says. “It’s not wall-to-wall vocal lines. There’s a lot of breath and space for the listener to relax into the beat of the feeling of the song.”
During our conversation, Goodwyn returns often to the value of this sort of editing process—long and drawn out and with the time to mull ideas over properly. With the benefit of time, editing becomes more than a way of making an idea more cohesive and focused, and transforms naturally into reflection, a surplus of which allows for growth as a person and an artist. And it sounds like that’s what Goodwyn has been able to achieve during the creation of Porous.
“Really, [the app is] most important for review,” Goodwyn says. “This past year I had a bit of an epiphany about all the stuff I keep repeating about time and perspective and distance. I feel like I still have so much work to do as an artist. It also helps me see the ways in which I lack as a musician, and in terms of actual musicianship, when I do play keys or guitar or bass or whatever. Also, how much more I can do in terms of songwriting and ideas. I’m saying that with a level head. I’m not feeling harsh about myself. But I feel like everybody as an artist always has lots of room to grow. Even though I feel like an older artist and I’ve been doing this a while, and the Voice Memos app, it’s like having a mirror.
“There are no illusions,” Goodwyn adds. “Just you and your idea and the clarity of time revealing every truth.”