by Cody Kenner
There comes a time in every good musician’s life when the studio is not enough. They’ve made a solid debut album, a commercially-acclaimed sophomore album, and now, after months of touring and promoting and interviewing with inane journalists, the magic just isn’t there anymore. The best lyrics you can come up with are “The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed.” Your backbeats all sound like rip-offs of Vanilla Ice’s rip-off of “Ice Ice Baby.” It is in this state of artistic quandary that an artist must make one of two choices: either fade from the limelight and make a career of writing commercial jingles, or go to the woods.
Since time untold, artists have used woodland retreats to replenish their creative juices, communing with the spirits of the forest and relearning the sounds of the Earth. From reggae to disco, artists of all sorts have testified to the restorative powers of woodland seclusion. In the spirit of brevity, however, we will consider Zayn Malik, Grimes, The Decemberists, and Bon Iver as proponents of the vaunted forest retreat.
Zayn Malik, pop solo artist, has most recently and famously made the woodland venture. In pursuit of inspiration, Zayn camped for a week in the Angeles Forest, where he conceived and recorded his album. “It’s quite a personal album and we recorded a lot of it actually out in the woods and stuff like that which is quite weird,” Zayn clearly stated in an interview late last year with entertainment magazine Fader. “It was just something that we wanted to do because we wanted to make it quite real and genuine,” he said, commenting on his motives behind the forest recordings. It remains to be seen how the spirits of the forest will shape his album, but there is no doubt that Malik will undergo an intense artistic metamorphosis.
Further out on the fringes of pop, Grimes also trekked out into the woods to compose and record her most recent album, Art Angels. Disillusioned by the superficiality of Hollywood-style music production, she took to Squamish, a small town in in British Columbia. “There was a lot of ‘crazy’ going on,” she remarked in a late 2015 Billboard article, “but it was organized ‘crazy’—like lying in the dark and seeing if I could hallucinate. It felt good, letting myself be a total fucking weirdo. And I had cookies…” Clearly, Grimes extravagantly embraced the spirit of the woods, creating a masterpiece that otherwise would have remained stagnant in the clinical urban studio.
The Decemberists, perhaps the woodsiest of the musicians listed here, also took a rural venture, traveling to a barn in the wilderness of Oregon. “We wanted to go out to the country, set up in one room, play everything as live as possible and have a really natural‑sounding record,” said producer Tucker Martine in a 2011 Sound on Sound music tech magazine interview. “We were referencing things like Neil Young’s Harvest and the Band’s brown album. . . Of course, it turns out that most of those albums were not made that way.” On the effect of the natural atmosphere, Martine commented that the band “also had this idyllic idea of regularly camping out and being outside and had envisioned recording outside and using natural sounds and so on. But in fact, we hardly did that, because it rained so much while we were there.” Without a doubt, this magical journey into the woods crafted The Decemberists’s The King is Dead into a unique sonic experience vastly distinct from the urbane professional studio record.
The tale of Bon Iver’s winter Wisconsin retreat for For Emma, Forever Ago perhaps most poignantly captures the haunting qualities of the artist-in-the-woods experience. In Bon Iver’s case, music was not the original motivation behind his trip to the woods. Project creator Justin Vernon suffered from a series of health problems—first pneumonia, then mononucleosis, which developed into a liver infection that rendered him bedridden for three months. He then began to fight with his band members, who were also his childhood friends, leading them to kick him out of the band—a move that permanently tarnished their friendships with him. Shortly thereafter, he experienced a difficult breakup with his girlfriend of ten years. This buildup of pressure led Vernon to retreat into the woods of northern Wisconsin, where weeks of sedentary life morphed into musical inspiration under the hands of the woodland spirits. This magical transformation produced the weepy folk ballads comprising Emma, Forever Ago. “It’s sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin,” Vernon said in a 2008 interview with The A.V. Club in regards to the forest’s empowering effect on his spirit. “Maybe the whole thought of going to a cabin for a few months is something that people relate to,” he postulated in a 2008 interview with PopMatters. If we assume that the general populous similarly values moody trips to the forest, then he is probably correct.
From these testimonials and countless more, it is clear that the woods are the place to go when lacking musical inspiration. A sabbatical to the woods can clarify a vague vision, induce revelatory hallucinations, bring out the most essential tropes of Americana in a piece of work, and keep the artist depressed long enough to produce a beautifully pained indie folk record. If ever you reach an impasse in your artistic career, the woods are clearly the place to go—or maybe you can find a way to be creative at home.