Have you wanted to do your own recording project – something truly unique? Judge Smith says it can be done.

Perhaps your ideas are so “off beat” that you’ve hesitated to begin work for fear of rejection.

So, there it sits, on a shelf at the back of your mind, while you get on with more socially acceptable work.

Maybe it’s time to roll up your sleeves, get to work and pursue your dreams.

VoiceCouncil brings you the advice of one someone who’s made a career of working outside of the box.

Judge Smith came to prominence in the 60’s with the progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator.

But now he is now renowned for his long narrative projects, which break all the industry rules and follow his unique vocal and writing talents.

Curly’s Airships, 6 years in the making, has been described as one of the largest and most ambitious single pieces of rock music ever recorded.

These projects have not brought Judge unmeasured money and fame – but they have brought him ever closer to his dreams.

Was there a distinct time when you found your own path or was it a slow evolution?
I had always been attracted to the idea of doing longer pieces, not just three-minute pop songs. This “Long-Song” idea has led, admittedly, to progressive rock monstrosities – double albums of noodling. But I stayed with the idea with a view to story telling. I’m interested in narrative and you can’t do that well in short songs.

Did striking out on this path bring you opposition?
None – I’ve always been outside the industry. My projects have been entirely self-financed. I have had some very limited commercial success in terms of theatre and television. But, mostly, I’ve always been outside the industry so I didn’t have any problems with doing something people thought was crazy.

OK. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. How can a vocalist best get started on their own unique project?
I think firstly you’ve got to pick a project you really want to do – and one that you can do given the resources you have available. It is heart breaking to do a lot of work on a project based on the belief that you are going to get a budget from a record company to finish it off – that probably won’t happen.

This sounds like balancing one’s vision with reality.
I’m not sure I would say it that way. You have to have enormous ambitions but these have to be grounded in do-ability—and even then you will face huge challenges.

I had planned my latest vocal project around a traditional Italian alpine choir (strange for an old rock artist!) – these are incredibly traditional choirs with a restricted repertoire and at least as many rules as barbershop – but their harmonies brought me to tears. I just knew I had to write for them. I found a progressive choir maestro willing to try a new direction. But by the time I had written my piece ‘The Climber’, he, sadly, was out of action due to ill health and I wasn’t able to find another Italian choir to take the project on. I thought, ‘I’ve broken my own rule about do-ability and this isn’t going to happen’. Fortunately I was contacted, a year later, by a musician in Norway – a professor at the Grieg Institute in Bergen – so ‘The Climber’ was performed and recorded there.

So, one needs a fair bit of luck to make a dream happen?
There’s no doubt that luck is a part of it. But even if you work on a project that eventually doesn’t come together, then you figure out how you can use all that material elsewhere – you just keep going.

So, what’s the next step to bringing your dreams to reality?
You’ve got to have discipline – but that is the same with everything—there is no point in me banging a drum about this.

What can you bang your drum about?
Have good friends and use them ruthlessly! I build my projects around musicians I know who are interested, who want to do something amazing and are prepared to dig in for the long haul. For ‘Curly’s Airships’, I got everybody I knew –all of my small number of famous friends were ‘dragooned’ into working with me.

Does this mean you didn’t pay them?
Musicians will work without money, but not without food. Feed your musicians and give them alcohol! It sounds crazy but it works. Also, don’t treat volunteers as if they’re professionals. You have to treat them better than that. You can say to a paid professional “That’s crap – do it again!” – but if the same guy is doing it as a favour to you, or for a share of royalties, you had better be a lot more diplomatic.

Given that you can’t yell at them – how can you direct them in the studio?
There are 2 ways of getting the very best out of musicians. One is to be better than they are: ask the drummer to give you his drumsticks and you sit at the drums and play exactly what you want, perfectly. – but that is not the way I do it! The other way is to be incompetent: musicians feel sorry for me and want to help me out.

Having heard your projects, I wouldn’t describe you as incompetent.
Well, I think the key here is always to stay open to the suggestions that your musicians offer. It’s a balance: you have to have a firm concept, a ruthless sense of direction, but amazing new ideas will appear when you actually get together to rehearse and record. Give people the space to surprise you. Don’t completely shield your vision. Be willing to react positively to what a musician is going to do spontaneously.

This advice could be applied to everything.
Film directors say this all the time. The “shoot” is closely planned, but the best directors are always ready for the great actor to do something spontaneously. The same thing applies to a three-minute musical number.

What are the biggest dangers of doing innovative work?
Not finishing it. The key thing is to finish the project within your means. For example ‘Curly’s Airships’, my epic 2+ hour project, was recorded on a 16-track half-inch tape machine – about as basic as you can get and still produce professional results. I did it in that format because I could do it; I could finish it. Make your dream do-able – however wild it is.

Next Week we ask Judge to define what it means to achieve success…

Judge Smith is a founder member (with singer-songwriter Peter Hammill) of 60s/70s progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator. He has been involved in numerous musical projects as writer, composer and/or performer, noted for his continued collaborations with Hammill (particularly on their opera, The Fall of the House of Usher), and new wave art singer Lene Lovich. His new album, The Climber: A Songstory (Masters of Art; MASTER105), a piece for solo voice and choir, is out now, as is a tenth anniversary reissue of his acclaimed magnum opus Curly’s Airships (Masters of Art; MASTER101).
Photo of Judge Smith courtesy of Katie Vandyke.

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  • Drmiczak

    I think the best advice that I've taken away from Smith's article is to “finish the project within your means”. I at first wanted to record a demo CD with 3-4 original songs including vocals. What I decided I could finish was a CD with ONE 3.5 minute instrumental track.
    I'm new to using a digital recorder, (or any recorder for that matter)! Still I had great results the fist time out and I use this track as the background to my videos on YouTube…sort of like my theme song! So it fit a much needed purpose while being a project I could actually finish in a reasonable amount of time. Check out my videos using VoiceTone Create XTon Eclectic Sound TV,

  • “Curly's Airships” is a phenomenal piece of work. When disc two ends, I actually wish there was a third disc to go to.

    I agree with everything Judge says – except that somewhat misleading bit about luck which he, fortunately, adjusts with the statement about just keeping on going. Luck is just a by-product of hard work and determination.

    I'd work with him for food and drink anytime.