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“Phone is an enemy of creativity”. Interview with Grammy-winner singer Corinne Bailey Rae

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

Creative people appreciate the value of being off the grid. A US rapper Kanye West famously tweeted that he got rid of his smartphone to have “air to create”. British musician Ed Sheeran, according to some critics, has written his “best album ever yet” after taking a full digital detox. So when representatives of Grammy-award winning British singer and songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae contacted me and said Corinne would like to record a podcast with me for her new album and talk about being in the moment, I instantly knew we’ll have lots to talk about. We talked about the importance of listening to our inner selves, and how gadgets can prevent us from doing this. First Corinne interviewed me for her podcast and later I interviewed her for my book Homo Distractus. Below is the extract from our conversation for my chapter about creativity and the value of unplugging for Homo Distractus.

Corinne, one phrase that stuck with me from your podcast was “Your heart speaks in whispers. You’ve got to listen”. What did you mean by it?

Recovering from a loss of my first husband took me away from people and noise of everyday life. As I had lots of time on my own, I realized how many internal resource we have to repair ourselves, how much internal wisdom we have. And so when I started going out of that period, I wanted to keep listening to my inner voice, my intuition, to keep paying attention to people and whatever made me happy.

What helps you keep listening?

For me being in the moment is a key. In the creative world the highs are really high, but they can easily be disintegrated if we are not “drinking them” at the time. For example, if after a gig instead of talking to people I need to do something related to business, or post something on social media, I can just feel how this subtle feeling, creative spirit, is disappearing. It’s so difficult to be in the moment. I remember an episode, when I was really lucky to work with my hero Stevie Wonder, and when being in the same room with him, I had this thought at the back of my mind: “This would make an amazing photo!” This thought was taking me right out of the moment, and I don’t want this to happen. I once went to see Prince’s concert, and he got lots of people on stage from the public to dance with him. And there was one who spent the whole 10 minutes she was on the stage begging someone from the public to throw her phone to her. She was not in the moment for any single second! Another example, at the inauguration of Obama, when he and Michelle were dancing, all invited guests were filming this dance with cameras. This is ridiculous, this was a national event, of course CNN was covering it, they surely wouldn’t have got better quality on their mobiles than CNN. So what was the point? This is the event that will never happen again! Every moment is unrepeatable. In pursue of trying to capture something in technology we miss on life itself. I’m keen not to miss on my own life. What’s your relationship with tech?

I do make rules for myself in terms of how to use technology, but I am also quite disorganized so I like to go with the flow. I do some social media to a small degree, but I am very conscious that for one good Instagram photo you need to take 15 shoots, and it takes you out of the moment. In private life, I always keep my phone on silent, just looking at it once in a while, and sometimes discover that it’s ringing, so then I pick it up and it’s a good coincidence. Of course, if I am shopping with my husband and we go to different parts of the supermarket, I’ll keep it on. And what about your friends, aren’t they missing you?

I have a set up for friends that they just can come around to my house without calling me. What about creative work? Are your devices around you when you create?

For creative work I definitely like to get lost in the moment. There’s no way I could work with my phone near me, checking whether I have a new Instagram like, so lots of time my phone is just not in the same room. I just go to it as if it were an answering machine. I don’t want to constantly present my life as idealized and don’t feel I have to be an ultraversion of myself. My brand is about a more natural presentation of myself anyways, so I feel a lot less pressure to keep up with the buzz, I guess I am lucky.

Photo: Chris Turner

What do you think of Ed Sheeran’s decision to give up social media and phone? Is it what every creative person should do?

For me the main danger is not so much always being on, but constantly getting comments. 50 people may say “you look nice”, but if there is just one odd or negative comment, it will stay with you. It’s no good to hear too many positive things, either, but negative things told directly into your phone are difficult, phone just feels too private to me. If you are a creative person, you should have time to develop whatever you are working on. I know many committed writers who are not on Twitter for this reason. You think of a funny thing you’d write now, but if you leak it out into the public space too early, it will take away the potency of the idea. I’ve heard this from quite a few creative people when interviewing them for my book.

Contemporary artist Tracey Emin says that the phone is an enemy of creativity, and I tend to agree. It creates the interruption you don’t need. I would rather get out of the studio and see that I have missed 3 calls, rather than ask myself – what was I doing, was I recording something, when I got interrupted? Give up the idea you’re missing out. But aren’t you missing out on something this way? Like, your friends could have told you they’re meeting somewhere, and you didn’t’ see it.

Sometimes you will miss out on something, but sometimes you’ll have a massive 3 hour chat with your friend, and if you were to move somewhere just because other friends were there, you would lose this opportunity. Not every choice has to be made. Sometimes you have just to be where you are, giving your attention to this particular person. Otherwise you are never really fully there. So what do you think about technology and creativity?

Tech can be massive help to creativity, but you have to choose it. I consciously go online to do some research, but sometimes I notice: I have looked already on this website twice today, there isn’t really anything new here. On my screen I have a reminder “Go outside” popping out, which helps. I also sometimes write down “next time I’ll look at this or that”. I can definitely be really sucked into browsing pages, like staying for hours on Pinterest. So you have to keep being very aware, and conscious, whether you are you even enjoying your browsing? Am I really wanting to see what I am seeing, or am I doing it out of habit? So when I am thinking that I am not enjoying all these images, I just close it, and go outside. This interview has been recorded for Anastasia’s new book Homo Distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age. Grab your copy here.

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