Write Ugly, Edit Pretty

Gracie Coates of Gracie and Rachel on the duo’s newly refined writing process.

I have a tendency to want to share a musical idea I create long before the idea is necessarily “ready” to be shared. An obvious reason I have this urge to share a premature, under-explored idea is because I think it’s right on its way to being a fantastic song and, in an effort to keep going, in not doubting myself, in staying absolutely steadfast on my path toward a hopeful piece of work, I seek your applause. But the devastating truth is that when I share new ideas in this seemingly-confident-but-actually-very-fragile state, approval is really all I’m seeking and, therefore, disapproval or even the slightest lack of total praise will derail me instantly. Outside approval reaffirms that I’m doing the right thing.

On the other hand, my collaborator, Rachel, often enters the main room of our shared loft space where, by the way, we live and work with zero emotional boundaries and about 47,000 blurred lines between us, and she’ll start quietly playing a hauntingly lonely violin loop or piano line that will stop me in my tracks as I’m just crossing the room, picking my nose. To her, these sonic ideas she’s exploring aren’t being presented in any formal way; in fact, she explores them quietly in hopes of no one taking them too seriously, playing until she hits a block and then stops, often just as I’m feeling she’s really onto something and hoping she’ll keep going. I, in turn, react with my overly-emphatic-can’t-help-myself-confetti-and-gold-stars-abound enthusiasm to which she more-often-than-not deflects my compliments, explaining it’s really nothing and to please not get too excited. “It was just an idea,” she’ll divert. Quick to deem her ideas not worthy of sharing at the onset, this sometimes means she won’t ever share them at all. For Rachel, in realizing a sonic world, not seeking immediate approval is crucial to her more patient process.

These differing ways of absorbing and outputting information date back to high school, where we met. When we would get our tests back in class, Rachel would immediately put hers into her backpack without looking at the score. When she’d get home she’d place it under her bed, never looking at it until the end of the school year. Not wanting to know the verdict, good or bad, allowed her to move on. Me, on the other hand? I needed to know the results before I’d even finished attempting to answer the last question. Whether I aced it or blew it, I needed to know the outcome in order to know how to feel about myself. We often didn’t agree on how to react or not react to a situation, but it somehow pulled us more magnetically to each other, intrigued by what the other had that we didn’t individually possess. I remember one day we heard the phrase, “Hurry up and wait,” and we looked at each other and laughed with a sense of comfort in our opposition; we sure knew which of us wanted to hurry up and which of us wanted to wait.

In writing our latest record, it became very clear early on that the kind of fragile vulnerability around either sharing too much or not sharing enough at the onset of unearthing musical ideas wasn’t going to help our mission of bringing ideas to their fullest potentials. Instead, we had to each find our separate ways of bringing forth underdeveloped musings with a feeling of total abandon and the understanding that, while it might sound one way in its incubation, if we can even hear the slightest inkling of possibility dripping from its creases, we must have the confidence to deconstruct it, rip it apart, and refine it to be something better down the road. Enter the concept: Write ugly, edit pretty.

Instead of presenting my barely incubated song seeds to Rachel on a silver platter when what’s being served hasn’t even been cooked yet, I began giving the writing process more room to breathe before giving it to someone else to digest. I would set up a voice memo on my phone about four feet away from our piano so that, once immersed in creating, I’d forget it was there and submit to a more uninhibited experience. At first anxious to practice this more hands-off approach, I had to retrain my brain to let go of its desire to edit on the spot in a quest to share shortly thereafter. Even when I started to think an idea was going somewhere promising, I’d push myself to not go back and replay it, to not present it in any formal way even to myself, but to instead keep flowing into uncertainty. Learning to trust my own instincts without needing someone else to give me the greenlight encouraged me to enter a whole new world of exploration. Sometimes, after going into a state of freely writing, I’d look back at the recording and it’d be about twenty minutes long when it only felt like it’d been a few. I’d label the recording something I’d remember it by and leave it for later. Weeding through those lengthy recordings at a later date meant a lot of laborious listening and scribbling, sifting through long minutes of uninspired sounds and words to find the rare few moments of hopeful epiphany. A word sung at the beginning would come back out of nowhere to make an unexpected connection to the second-to-last note of the recording. I couldn’t see it in the process of writing, but in my editing chair it was clear how everything should piece together.

Instead of judging her initial sounds unworthy of praise, Rachel began pushing herself to trust in her initial feelings leading her somewhere, using them as an access point to evolving an idea. Realizing that her comfort zone was not in giving a singular idea too much weight, but in oversaturating her palette with a variety of ideas from which to narrow down later, she started creating fully fleshed out tracks stacked with vocal loops, violin lines swirling in and out of one another, and imaginative melodies glistening atop it all. Overstuffing demos with a gazillion options gave her the freedom to not criticize one idea as not being enough. Before I knew it she was handing over so many of these sound worlds to me, in hopes I’d write lyrics to them, that I began to feel like I had never-ending assignments I couldn’t catch up on. Fortunately, they were the kind of assignments I couldn’t wait to do and, with all of my exhaustive voice memo recordings on deck, I had more than enough to pull from. When I got overwhelmed I’d look at her stacks of tracks and say, “Really, Rachel? 20 synth tracks?” And she’d shoot right back to me, “Really, Gracie? 20 minutes of gibberish?” Our problems were good ones and it was time to edit pretty. Less afraid of passing or failing these song tests individually, we were able to put together the ideas we’d been awkwardly growing for months. Unhinging our expectations or the lack-thereof in the process, we became more prolific than before.

In giving ourselves the permission to write ugly and edit pretty, we discovered ideas that were festering underneath us, ideas that otherwise might never have been expanded upon and that could now come to the surface. It required trust and abandon and a safe space where critical scrutiny wasn’t welcome and saying yes to things that don’t particularly feel ‘right’ was key, and that could be an uncomfortable place to exist in. But it helped us to look at one another with more compassion for our opposing approaches to creating. I took a lot of cues from Rachel in her former ways of not sharing too early, taking the time to patiently work through something before deciding how it should be pieced together. Rachel shared ideas earlier, piecing them together at a million miles a minute. Together we learned to feel more freedom in adventuring into the unknown without looking back, with a confidence that we’d find each other out there and reel it back in when we needed to. 

Write ugly, edit pretty takes varying forms for each person. For me, it means not needing my initial creative attempts to be received with confetti and gold stars, and it allows me to keep the art brewing and trust that I’ll be able to hone it later on. For Rachel, it means pushing herself to keep chipping away at ideas she doesn’t think deserve confetti and gold stars with the belief that they do in fact have the grounds to be celebrated down the line. In all scenarios, the real confetti comes in the authentic moments of writing ugly, of creating imperfectly with true unselfconscious abandon, the gold stars arriving with editing pretty, with patient scrutiny at a later date. If that later date is tomorrow, fantastic. If it’s a year from now, great. 

In any case, just hurry up and wait.

(Photo Credit: Aysia Marotta)

Gracie and Rachel are a study in duality: light and dark, classical leanings with a pop sensibility, Californians in New York. With forthcoming music releasing on Righteous Babe Records over the next several months (which will include their much-anticipated sophomore record), Gracie and Rachel’s new work explores the depths of their emotional states and the walls we build up inside ourselves, asking us to break them all down in order to face our truths. It’s music to excavate our inner fears and help us find the empowerment from within.

They will be releasing their album Hello Weakness, You Make Me Strong September 18 via Righteous Babe Records. 

(Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen)