Matias Kupiainen on the creative process, originality, flow and intuition in composing music
Creativity, like love, is a general term, with a different meaning to each individual. To me, creativity is a gift which nature offered to humans to help them explore and evolve in all aspects of life. Being creative means being able to make unusual connections between disparate pieces of information. The outcome is an idea which has to be evaluated as being original and surprising first, by the creator herself and secondly by coworkers, supervisors, investors, patent examiners, consumers, audiences, etc.
In the attempt to make sense of the creative process, researchers identified the following five stages: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation and elaboration. In reality, the generation and selection of a creative idea is not such a straightforward process. The depth and number of iterations between stages differ depending on the creator and the creative task. It can happen that a creator is in the elaboration phase when new insights emerge or when she finds herself in a creative block.
To get insights into the uniqueness of the creative process, I started interviewing successful musicians, entrepreneurs and scientists. The first musician who was willing to share his creative world is Matias Kupiainen, the Finnish guitar player, composer and producer in Stratovarius.
About 10 years ago when Matias joined the power metal band as guitar player, he started taking the composer role as well. To date, Matias has around 32 million streams of composed songs. According to his calculations, a new album requires 10,000 working hours of constant work, for almost 18 months.
The interview consists of four parts: 1) Matias’s creative process, 2) creative outcomes in other fields, 3) external and internal sources of inspiration, and 4) intuitive belief.
Oana: I’d like to start by asking, what would you say are the best qualities that help you do the best job in the role as a composer?
Matias: I’m really motivated. I take composing as a work. It’s something that I try to do, not everyday, but when I have some time, I try to do some new materials. Sometimes, I fail miserably, but sometimes, I make one minute of music in one day. So, it’s like an ongoing process all the time.
Oana: What would you say it’s the ratio of failing to succeeding in making one minute of music?
Matias: It depends, I would say like 70/30. If I succeed to make one really good song, I have to fail on 10 before that. But the material that comes from the failed 10, I can use it later or modify it so the material never goes to waste. I recycle it. I would say it’s a long process. Sometimes, just to make a 3 and half minutes song might take me a month. Or sometimes, to make a ten minutes song, it takes me two weeks. It depends also on what kind of inspiration I have or if I have a clear vision of what I’m doing. Usually I have no clue of what I’m doing.
“If I succeed to make one really good song, I have to fail on 10 before that. But the material that comes from the failed 10, I can use it later or modify it so the material never goes to waste. I recycle it.”
Oana: It’s great you mention about the vision of what you’re doing. Would you like to tell more about when you do have those moments of vision, how do they come up in your mind?
Matias: It’s more or less when I’m capable of imagining or seeing the big picture of how the ending should sound and what are the parts that I need to have. For me, clear vision, it’s not a clear vision. Let’s say I want to paint a scenery … You make the big lines really blurry quickly and what it takes most of the time is doing the small details. Just to make the background, can take one day but polishing it and making the details right, that might take me 3 weeks. This is the kind of work if I have a clear vision.
But usually I don’t have. It’s just like I’m trying to make a big line there and there… I’m doing the details already even if I don’t have the big lines. That kind of work is successful if you’re thinking you’re using lots of time to make details which are not actually part of something big.
Oana: When you fail, who decides if it’s a failure? Do you share your creations with the group?
Matias: I’m the first moderator. If I’m thinking this is an ok song, then I present it to the rest of the band members. But usually this means that I need to make the 10 songs first before I present. And then we can discuss later if it is good enough. This is the second layer of moderation.
And we hire the third person who is not related with us at all. When we are doing an album, we have 15 or 20 or 25 ready songs and the third person listens and then he ranks them. He doesn’t have a clue who is the composer. So it’s anonymous. We get the data. He likes this and he liked that and he hated that one. We then have to choose within the band. I, as a producer and then the third person and we can actually decide what gets to the record.
“When we are doing an album, we have 15 or 20 or 25 ready songs and the third person listens and then he ranks them. He doesn’t have a clue who is the composer. So it’s anonymous. We get the data. He likes this and he liked that and he hated that one.”
Oana: Who is this third person? A music critic or a fan?
Matias: Usually somebody who has been doing lots of records, who has basic knowledge of how this works. It’s someone who has some knowledge especially about metal music. These people who have been making records know that the demo material can be very rough sometimes. They know what happens when we go to the studio, how the quality is rising by the different techniques used there.
The listener is the ultimate moderator. The listener chooses if this is a good song or not. But the thing is also this that we cannot make music just for the listener. Then usually you just start to think about what would this person like? And then when you start in that kind of perspective, usually you fail miserably. So, we actually have this kind of saying in our work collective, “What would Carlos like?” Carlos is a typical Mexican, maybe 26 years old, coming from a bad background but loves metal music. And Carlos is the dude who is in the front row. Carlos likes really simple stuff. You have to remember he doesn’t speak that much English because he lacks education. So, we are all thinking, does Carlos approve? We call it Carlos factor. But of course, Carlos is the fourth moderator. We are thinking about it but Carlos factor is the least that we are worried about.
Carlos is our main client. And then it’s really important when writing lyrics. We try to keep it super simple. So all kinds of listeners can also understand our message. In this case, Carlos factor is super important. Musical approach doesn’t matter that much, but with lyrics it’s very important.
Composing is actually really hard work. It has nothing to do with romanticism or what my heart is telling me. I have lot of friends who are professional composers. Nobody is actually doing a free composing work just because my heart is telling me. This is really rare.
“The listener is the ultimate moderator who chooses if this is a good song or not. But (…) we cannot make music just for the listener. Then you just start to think about what would this person like? And when you start in that kind of perspective, usually you fail miserably.”
Oana: What happens when someone is ordering music?
Matias: There are always guidelines. I need to have a piece of music for this kind of orchestra. I have also friends in my company who are doing lots of trailer work for Disney or all the big movies. How they do it? They have a demand. The agent is telling them, Ok there is a new adventure movie or there is a new some hero movie. We need to have some action stuff. Make me 25 trailers and it needs to be done within one month. Do it. One trailer gets there. That’s how it works.
Nobody is actually just doing something and oh this would be really nice and then, oh I got lucky. It’s not about luck. It’s hard work.
Oana: So, what you’re saying is that you are having some constraints and a playground where you are composing?
Matias: Yeah, the guidelines are there always. Of course, you can have some ideas out of the box thing but then we have to go back to your background and build it there.
Oana: What is creativity to you?
Matias: It’s really hard to actually try to explain. For me, in composing work, it’s more or less is that I go to work and I hear melodies in my head and I am able to write them down. That’s my creative process. Everything else is really technical approach or something I have learned in school. It’s a more or less I hear one thing in my head, I write it down and then what I’m doing, how I am constructing the whole song together, the more technical approach. It has nothing to do with creative. The only thing is the simple melody in my head and that’s my creativity.
Oana: When would you say it was the first time when you heard this music in your head?
Matias: It must be already when I started playing guitar years ago. But I harnessed that power 10 years ago when I knew that today I have to go to work, which is composing. So then I was trying to concentrate more to have some ideas and then to listen to myself to find those ideas. You cannot find any ideas if you are listening to radio pop in your ears or having a phone conversation. It doesn’t work like that. You have to listen to yourself. I think it’s more or less in every aspect of artistic careers, they have to listen to themselves and not to be interrupted because that’s the only way to be creative.
“It’s really hard to explain creativity. For me, in composing work, it’s that I go to work and I hear melodies in my head and I am able to write them down. That’s my creative process.”
“You have to listen to yourself. I think in every aspect of artistic careers, they have to listen to themselves and not to be interrupted because that’s the only way to be creative. “
Oana: If you compare your perception of a creative person now with the perception 20 years ago, do you think that the 20 years ago perception was any different than the one that you have now?
Matias: Sure, it’s very different. Twenty years ago it wasn’t my main job. OK, the composing is not my main job now but it’s one of my jobs. Nowadays, it’s a bit more difficult for a musician to have the income from doing just one thing. For me, the guitar playing is not paying my bills. I have to do also many other things on top of it. The music industry is changing drastically because of internet and other stuff like that. You have to be creative in that kind of manner, you have to be able to get income from different kind of sources.
Oana: The last question of the first part. If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?
Matias: I would play guitar and compose. I would not do anything else.
“The music industry is changing drastically because of internet and other stuff like that. You have to be creative in that kind of manner, you have to be able to get income from different kind of sources.”
Oana: We are now entering the second part of the interview where I’d like to inquire about where you personally see the traces of creativity in other fields. What are the areas of life where you see the outcomes of creativity?
Matias: First thing I see is with my kid. She always likes to invent and that’s always creativity at the best. She can create and imagine stuff. Then in adulthood, of course, if you are a painter, you have to have a vision. But I would say even though you’re doing creative job, 70% of the actual job is technical. It’s rare to see somebody in this creative process. Usually that happens when the person is alone.
“My kid always likes to invent and that’s always creativity at the best. She can create and imagine stuff.”
Oana: What you just said about the creative process being a lonely job reminds me that creative individuals describe having flow experiences, which are optimal experiences where you lose the sense of self and time. Do you have this kind of experiences?
Matias: Yeah, actually, when I’m at the best is night time. I don’t know why. I have been trying to do like 9 to 5 or 10 to 6 but it doesn’t work. (laughters) Usually you’re sipping coffee the whole day. But during night time, yes, actually it happens. When you are alone and you’re talking to yourself. Then you realise it is happening. You have to act fast because you don’t have so much time. This is going to be gone in 2 hours. It’s like catharsis kind of thing, you raise above and you know that ok, now you have to do it because then it will be gone in a couple of hours or even in 30 minutes. You don’t know when you’re gonna lose it. And then you have to do it and do it. But it happens not so often, maybe once or twice in a year. But this is kind of like a maniac. It’s not a disease but when you get into it, you are really maniac about it and then you just have to do it.
“… during night time, yes, actually it happens. When you are alone and you’re talking to yourself. Then you realise it is happening. You have to act fast because you don’t have so much time … But it happens not so often, maybe once or twice in a year.”
Oana: Outside your field, do you know other people about whom you think, “Wow, these people are doing something creative or innovative!”?
Matias: Yeah, actually I know and I am admiring people who are pulling it off. I have a good example, this Chilean friend who had basically nothing when he came here to Helsinki. And I rented a small 2×2 warehouse kind of thing and he was building pedals. Now he is running one of the biggest pedal industry in the whole world, 3.5 million net last year. He made it in less than 10 years. He had a clear vision of what he wanted and he executed it. It was on the long-term what he wanted to do. I don’t know. Does it have to do anything with creativity in this kind of case? Yes it has, you need to have a product and you need to be creative to do the actual product and you have to believe in your product. You can’t sell just nonsense. But when you have the product ready and have to sell it, then it’s more like business and technical approach again. And of course, you need to be lucky. The product development is the creative, artistic process. Sure.
“The product development is the creative, artistic process.”
Oana: We are starting the 3rd part of the interview, external and internal sources of inspiration. Inspiration is a big part of the creative process. I’d like to ask your point of view, your perspective, though. What do you do, if anything, to get inspired? After you get the demand to write a song, what do you do after that?
Matias: Let’s say somebody is calling me, “OK, we need a song”. The first thing that I need to think about is the group or what is the audience or genre. Usually I approach it first with a technical approach, I go through what they have done in the past and I think what is the next direction and what I can do there. And then, I will go through each player and then the main thing is the singer, what is the range and where I play the vocals. These are the strict guidelines. Then it comes the creativity with the strict guidelines.
Oana: In other fields, like writing or doing research, experts get inspired from reading other people’s work. What about you? Do you listen to other genres of music?
Matias: Yes, we actually talked about this. It’s the out-of-the box kind of thing. I listen to lots of music which is not related to my music. So, I try to find something which inspires me from there and then … stealing is not the word … You take what you like about it and then you mold it up until it’s your own.
And in music business this is how it’s been for centuries. You take something that somebody made and you mold it and present it as your own. There’s no such a thing as original song nowadays. Everything has been done already. But anyway, I listen lots of core music and stuff like that which is not even close to what we are doing.
Couple of years ago I heard an Icelandic hymn from 14th century or something like that. Then I took, moulded it and then it took me 3 days to compose a 12 minutes song ‘cause I had so clear vision. I took the theme, moulded it and put it and I knew exactly what I will do with this song. And it’s a super quick process to make the big guidelines. Three days and it was done. And then, maybe I added 2 days to make the details right. But that was inspired by an Icelandic core music from 700 years ago.
“… in music business this is how it’s been for centuries. You take something that somebody made and you mold it and present it as your own. There’s no such a thing as original song nowadays. Everything has been done already.
Couple of years ago I heard an Icelandic hymn from 14th century or something like that. Then I took it, molded it and then it took me 3 days to compose a 12 minutes song because I had so clear vision.”
Oana: Other than being exposed to other genres of music, there is another aspect to being inspired. Researchers found out that we are more likely to be inspired when our brains are in a certain relaxation mode. Do you do anything in your day with the specific intention to put your brain in a relaxed mode? For instance, mindfulness meditation or yoga could help with that. Do you do anything like that in your daily life?
Matias: Not really, no. Actually, what I could compare with meditation is when I am practicing guitar playing. This is like other aspects of being creative. When I am playing guitar, at least one hour is technical approach. Maybe then I can switch off thinking about the technical approach and I just play. And sometimes I find something really what I like and I can do based from that. That’s the closest to meditation because then I can actually put my brains off. But in other manners, no.
Oana: You have a family. Do take time to disconnect from the world and go somewhere with your family?
Matias: I’m really workaholic and my wife knows it. Now with kids in the house, it’s more complicated to be creative. They occupy a lot of your time. On top of this I’m travelling a lot for my job. It’s also taking lot of time. When I’m travelling it’s stressful. We have to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and you have to be able to play the show at midnight in the same day. You’ve been awake for 18 hours before you even can start to play the show. You don’t sleep, bad food. It’s always like this. It’s almost impossible to be artistic or creative on the road. And then when you come home it’s play time: “Come to my room, I want to show you my shop.” But yeah, I usually go to my rehearsing room or somewhere else if I need to have some peace and try to approach it as professionally as I can, move everything from my mind away and just focus on one thing and maybe I get something done. Or maybe not.
Oana: The last question from this third section is about other domains of life that you might be interested in, other than music. Is there something else that attracts you whenever you have some free time, like reading about how they build rockets?
Matias: When I have nothing to do and I don’t work, then I do the random wikipedia articles. It’s actually nice, you can put random stuff and then you read facts. And sometimes you get really cool facts and titles from there.I take a cool title to my scrapbook. Maybe I use it as a song title. And then I like to cook.
Oana: I’d like to go back to the scrapbook. Is it a notebook where you collect ideas?
Matias: Yes, I put there drafts of lyrics and working titles. Then while watching a movie or TV series if there’s one good one liner, I took it and put it in my book. There’re maybe 100. Of course, I will never use 99.9% of those. But it’s something I’d like to work on all the time. Or if there’s a really cool story I found in Wikipedia or cool history then I just put the links there and check it later.
“I usually go to my rehearsing room or somewhere else if I need to have some peace and try to approach it as professionally as I can, move everything from my mind away and just focus on one thing and maybe I get something done. Or maybe not.”
Oana: So, you get back to the scrapbook later.
Matias: Sometimes, yes. Let’s say I start to work with lyrics. I just read it through, and maybe if I find something nice, I just take it and try to figure out something out of it. And then of course, I have syllable lists for our music because sometimes you need to have 4 syllable or 5 syllable or 3 syllable like power words. I have a power word list of different syllables. And there’s 300 or 500 for different syllable list. It’s a mathematical approach to make lyrics. You have 4 or 5 hits and then you have to think that maybe I’m doing it with 3 syllable word and maybe 2 syllable. Then you have to find the right words that rhyme.www.rhymezone.com
No joke. This is what is used by most people who do the lyrics. I don’t consider myself as a professional lyricist. If I’m doing lyrics, I have rhymezone and some other rhymes.com open so I can check all the time any ideas. And there’s lot of sites with poems with your keywords. Let’s say I’m working with a title, I put the title there and I try to find poems. Sometimes you get super good matches and I take that, mold it and write it as my own.
“It’s a mathematical approach to make lyrics. You have 4 or 5 hits and then you have to think that maybe I’m doing it with 3 syllable word and maybe 2 syllable. Then you have to find the right words that rhyme.”
Oana: Who is writing the poems?
Matias: It’s a collection of the whole world poets.
Oana: We are entering the fourth and last part of the interview on the role of intuition in generating ideas. What is intuition to you?
Matias: For me, it’s just a feeling of something. Like we already talked about going out of your body experience when working. Intuition for me is that kind of thing, I have an intuition, ok it’s coming now, I have the intuition I have to go to work.
Oana: Do you believe in this feeling?
Matias: In my case, it actually starts that I know I have a small idea. And if I’m working a bit more, that’s actually the intuition. I have to think a bit more. And then it might lead to psychosis of work but usually it doesn’t. But I must be clear that the intuition is never alone, it starts from something. It starts from an idea. Without this idea, I never have the intuition, “ Today, I’m gonna …”.
“I must be clear that the intuition is never alone, it starts from something. It starts from an idea. Without this idea, I never have the intuition. “
Oana: And where is the initial idea coming from?
Matias: It can be anything, like a couple of words or I have a melodic idea or while playing guitar I find, “oh, this is actually interesting”.
Oana: And the last two questions. First, why do you do what you do?
Matias: Really hard question. Honestly I cannot answer. I know what I need to do. Sometimes, I don’t want to do it. I try to approach my work as professionally as I can. Then I know I have to play guitar, I have to be prepared. Usually then I go to my rehearsing place to do proper noise. For me, to be in an isolated environment where nobody gives a damn about what you’re doing. That’s important.
And when, using public transportation, I usually have my ear plugs on but I don’t listen to any music. Just isolate myself. That is the best place to get the intuition and have the artistic vision. Then when you’d not listening to anything, it’s the best part. I know I have to get off the bus in 30 minutes. That’s the best place to be and have the vision or small melodies in my head or what not.
“…when, using public transportation, I usually have my ear plugs on but I don’t listen to any music. Just isolate myself. That is the best place to get the intuition and have the artistic vision.”
Oana: Interesting. And it has to be in a public transport because you’re on the move?
Matias: If I’m in the car, then I’m thinking too much. You have to be able to switch off so you are not thinking anything else but, “Ok, I go to work and I have an idea”. Most of my songs, the main melodies and the lyrics are written in a bus or a train. I isolate myself with the ear plugs and then I cannot hear nothing else from other people.
Oana: It’s amazing, Matias. Summing up, you are sitting a lot in the bus, you work hard and are motivated.
Matias: Yeah, also you need to be multi-worker nowadays because it doesn’t pay the bills. I noticed in the past 10 years that composing can pay part of my bills. And then it’s not like big thing, maybe ⅓ of my income it comes from the composition I have done so far. And then these compositions are something nobody can take away. It’s something you did once and then if you succeed you may get a hit song that’s gonna be played in the radios for the next 100 years. And then you get like steady income from that.
“ … you also need to be multi-worker nowadays because it doesn’t pay the bills.”
Oana: And the last question. What are the happiest thoughts of your career, so far?
Matias: It’s a really good question. Of course, I had many good moments. The funniest thing, I was laughing on stage like in this super weird mental state almost 10 years ago. The first really big show that I played when you have 75,000 people in front of you and then you put your hand like this and everybody does it after you. That’s a weird feeling. You actually have power, you put your hand up and 75,000 people follow you. And then the first 10 minutes I wasn’t able to play guitar because I was laughing. It was so funny. That’s like really odd situation. I don’t know if it’s a happy moment but it’s like something I remember because it was so weird like actually I’m doing this. Like why?
“The first really big show that I played when you have 75,000 people in front of you and then you put your hand up and everybody follows you. That’s a weird feeling. You actually have power.”
And then, in moments when you have been working on a song or album for long time and finally you get it ready. It’s super big relief. Finally, it’s done! I calculated few years ago that making an album it’s basically 10,000 working hours. So, for me it meant I have to work constantly almost 18 months. 24/7 working for 18 months. That’s the time it takes.
“Most of my songs, the main melodies and the lyrics are written in a bus or a train. I isolate myself with the ear plugs and then I cannot hear anything else from other people.”
Oana: Thank you, Matias, for an inspiring interview. I’ll follow your music with interest.