Listen to a new song from Spartan Jet-Plex.
The creative process is difficult; compounding that difficulty is outside expectations, which already compete with a series of maladies most artists know well — mainly anxiety, imposter syndrome, and writer’s block. In 1975, artists Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt set out to find a solution for the least real of the predicaments artists face: creative block. The results were Oblique Strategies, a series of cards which contain a prompt meant to encourage artists to experiment with how they approach their craft. While listening to “Clear Section,” the new song by experimental folk artist Spartan Jet-Plex (aka Nancy Kells), I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the song’s themes and structure and the cards' suggestions. The suggestions include advice as well as obscure adages to be interpreted by the artist for their own needs. Each quote below is a prompt from the series, which I will work backward to apply to “Clear Section,” the first single from Spartan Jet-Plex’s new album Get Some out September 30 via Fox Food Records.
One of the cards notes that “repetition is a form of change”: “Clear Section” is built on a looped sample. A droning synth line repeats the same three chords and light guitar flourishes over the song’s five minutes. After two minutes, a new element is introduced into the song: a syncopated drum beat. “Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities”: With the music operating on an almost ambient level— one that Eno himself would approve of — the focus for the listener lies in the lyrics. Kells' words are abstract. The ambiguity of her imagery allows an audience to color in its own specifics. “Humanize something free of error”: Anthropomorphizing nature is something humans do in order to understand it. Whether its sharing creation myths to make our world seem less random (in the literal sense of the word), anointing nature a maternal nickname in order to personify her, or naming hurricanes as if they live and breathe and think like humans do. Kells is oh-so human and her words evince that point. “Use an old idea”: The song’s title, “Clear Section,” came from a random-word generator. Kells was sent the title by Brian Piccolo who is her writing partner in another project called Noxon Light University. She wrote the lyrics for that project and then re-purposed them for her solo venture as Spartan Jet-Plex. In the song, Kells sings, “Clear section / Cuts straight through me” at the close of each verse. In this way, Kells' use of epistrophe continues her theme of repetition. “Listen in total darkness or in a very large room, very quietly”: This last prompt is not one applicable to Kells' song itself, but is applicable to how you, the listener, may benefit from allowing this song to be an experience.
Nancy Kells on "Clear Section":
"Sometimes I start out a concept for a song with just an idea or a few ideas or some images, and from there write what that might look like and feel like musically. The 'Clear Section' lyrics were written for a Light University (NLU) song, and that’s what it was already named when Brian sent me the song to work on. His program randomly names songs, and of course he also slightly alters them too or changes them completely. Some of the names are really cool and generate all kinds of ideas and concepts in my mind. It’s fun to roll with it. That’s how 'Clear Section' started. Then later I ended up using the words again for one of my songs.
Most of the time lyrics come second with songs I write on my own, but in this case they came first, and then I wrote the music for them. So for 'Clear Section', that name or title made me think of man vs nature or man as nature, the good and bad in man- dichotomy and also universality. These ideas are big and broad general ideas, maybe even trite, but also true. Then I mixed in personal feelings I’ve had as an individual. I also had several different outdoor landscapes in my mind- a seascape, a mountain landscape and an open field with giant redwoods. I pictured some places I’ve been camping and hiking, and again mixed this with love and heartbreak. So I’ve mixed all these things together in my mind, and that’s how the lyrics came about. I started with the title and then that progressed into what that stirred up in me in terms of images, concepts, ideas, and personal feelings. From there, I did the same thing with the music. I wrote what that made me feel like. The synthesizer has a sound that stirs up a lot of feelings for me. The song progressed from there. There is a first version that I then developed and built on. The final version accomplishes what I imagined or hope to imagine. Music is a helpful way for me to process all sorts of things while being creative and productive at the same time. I’m making positive use out of the existence I’m in and was in, or at least that’s how it feels while I’m in it."
Listen to Spartan Jet-Plex on bandcamp and pre-order the record here.
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Alex Wexelman is a professional music writer and procrastinator. His most prized possession is a book he got hand-signed by Patti Smith. Like his tweets here.