Name: Todd Speakman
Occupation: Producer, composer, post-production engineer
Current release: Todd Speakman's Seven Japanese Tales – THE REMIXES, a collaboration with bassist Joe Downard, is out now on Ears to Learn With.
Recommendations: I am going to go with 2 pieces of art that are immediately influencing and exciting me right now! 1. The Album Stone Flower by Antonio Carlos Jobim. 2. The Idiot by Dostoevsky
If you enjoyed this interview with Todd Speakman, visit his personal website for a deeper look into his work.
For further reading, check out our in-depth Joe Downard interview.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My Father loved music and played guitar. He performed in the UK psychedelic scene, so as kids we were always at festivals and around artists such as Gong, Hear and Now, Hawkwind, Arthur Brown. There would constantly be strange and wonderful people in and out of the house and Dad had a little room full of equipment. I was always obsessed with the drums so would crawl into the smoke-filled music room and jump on the kit whenever the rehearsals would break. Music was all around me from a young age, it was an unavoidable activity and interest.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I am still very much in my development, and not sure that process will ever truly stop. I certainly don’t feel I have reached a place that I can say my development has landed at a place of originality. So far, I have been hugely lucky to have met some inspirational mentors, who have helped me reach the stage I am currently at. One of them once told me to find teachers wherever I could. Music as a shared human experience means that teachers reside on every shelf full of CDs, vinyl, cassettes, on every iPod and every streaming service, and in every friend's music choice.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I feel one’s ‘sense of identity is the biggest interruption to creativity. I believe in 2021 there is too much enthusiasm put onto an identity. It can often be a barrier to truth and an excuse for laziness, and something that deters us from collaboration.
I do however hold principles that I attempt to let guide my creative life. The main being; that I believe teaching is the highest manifestation of art and the most useful beyond the domain of the self. I am not sure how much this influences my creativity, but it dictates how I invest time.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I believe that maybe my only challenge at the beginning was the lack of a challenge and the complete freedom my upbringing gave me. For all the positives it gave me, there was ignorance that came with that. At this stage of my career, I would say the biggest challenge is the negative side of the ego, a frequent battle to free the mind from self-judgment.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My childhood was all about jamming with friends on instruments. However, my Dad's room was full of little recording gadgets and he was forever in search of creating more and more cosmic sounds with technology. This definitely rubbed off on me!
That said there is a conservative part of my nature that would be content with a pen, paper, instruments, and friends. However, in such a technological world there is a demand for technological ability and a willingness to ‘keep up’. I am lucky my brother (other half of my duo Speakman Sound) Guy Speakman is a Sound Engineer. In 2012, I decided to start a studio with him and divert some of my practice and playing time on the kit into production and technology for the sake of wanting to be relevant and to participate in the direction of music as it is now (I have also always loved the process of ‘making records!).
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Every piece of new technology springs new ideas, but only in the same way as a new player or instrument influences ideas. Technology is just a tool for your creativity not the source of it.
If I had to pinpoint a moment where technology had a fundamental impact on my musical life, it would have to be when I first got a copy of Logic. I can't even remember where I got it from, but I was 16, just left home to study music, I shared a small room with a friend and we spent hours messing around learning how to use it. I remember thinking if I could get to grips with this technology it could open up so many new doors of music-making for me.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration is what it is all about. Collaboration doesn’t need to mean just ‘working on a track together, one’s own development is owed to the collaboration with peers along your journey. From the late nights sharing music to the youthful competitions on your instrument, to the playing together, to the making of tangible tracks together. It is all a system of teaching and learning from one another, music is just the centre piece of that learning experience. People in a room will always be my preferred way to collaborate, it is not always the easiest but it's always the most rewarding, for me.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Time becomes a more expensive commodity as age increases. This has meant I have had to become more disciplined with scheduling and with creative decisions. I have many aspects of my life which may look like separate ‘jobs’, but I believe the way I try and merge them all is by holding core concepts and principles. I want to be useful to others, I want to learn, I want to teach, I want to participate, and I want to be as independent as possible (financial growth). These core ideas allow me to dedicate and separate my time usefully.
I try to fulfil each one of the principles every day (I do not always achieve that). This means my schedule ends up being strict but inclusive of time that is invested into learning and thinking as well as growing my ‘career’.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I suppose a breakthrough work would be the Speakman Soundtrack ‘In Flight’.
We soft released it on Soundcloud in 2015, or 16. I can't quite remember, Lauren Laverne picked it up somehow and it ended up getting a few spins on radio etc. Then we re-released it in 2017 and it really broke through, reaching over 1 million streams and getting spun on Radio One. In a way, as a duo artist, we weren’t prepared properly for this and we definitely did not capitalise on it as we could have. But this was a moment that felt like a breakthrough in knowing that something we created can have appeal to a wider audience.
The track has a school choir on it, at that point of my career I was teaching a lot, workshops, schools, youth centres, prisons. I wanted to create an uplifting track with a childish spirit of adventure, to ignite that in young adults. Guy and I were heavily influenced by Bonobo, Quantic, Floating Points. So, the music was a blending of all these elements.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
This is a tricky one to say. I believe I don’t really know … on the one hand I think I like a little bit of stress and pressure. But at the same time, I have always loved the idea of “cottage time” escaping back to the countryside (Glastonbury where we grew up) with a bunch of equipment, people and just creating for a stretch of time with no distractions.
I think it is important to be able to adapt and find creativity in whatever state of mind or any situation you find yourself in. Maybe in the limitation of ability to achieve creativity, it is time for learning and discipline to fall into place.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I work in the justice system inside and outside of jail. Working with these young men I constantly see the battle between the positivity that music can bring but also the darkness and manipulation of mind it can bring. I believe when set in a wider context of learning, transferable skills, intrigue, etc even the darker side of music can create pathways to healing and course correction. A complex topic that is hard to properly discuss in this format … needs careful and open, consideration of censorship, freedom, education, the purpose of art, and more … tricky.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I am not afraid of cultural appropriation, humans share, copy, evolve, that is what we do. I am more afraid of moral appropriation … the fake righteousness to protect oneself and one's place within society by a pretence of guilt and judgment and a lack of self-awareness.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I have often had a cross-over between spacial awareness and sound. I can often feel shapes and distance within sound, not in a synesthesia type way just a ‘felt sense’ way. I know a little from reading the book ‘Music and the brain’ by Professor Aniruddh D.Patel that there is a deep connection between these 2 mechanisms. I am not an expert, so can't shed too much light on this question but the topic is fascinating.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
We have consciousness, we are attempting to make sense of the world that appears around us, we need tools to explore this properly, art gives us another window to peep into something true or not. Productive or destructive, it shows us something. It’s another wonder of the human condition and this life we are trying to make sense of.
As mentioned, before I hold some principles I use to try and guide my creative life, with the aim for it to not go too far off my intended course. These principles revolve around what I believe to be the most truthful and universal construct of morality, responsibility.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
A tricky question to answer with words …