This month at IVY, we are focusing on creativity and how we can nurture, express, and utilize it to produce our best, most unique work. In order to get some insight into creative process, we sat down with singer/ songwriter Xona, who is one half of Irish pop duo Xo Mo whose songs ‘May’ and ‘Sweat’ have recently been featured on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist.
So tell us about Xo Mo? What kind of music do you make, and who are your biggest influences?
Xo Mo is two halves of a great idea. We make pop music, so naturally pop is our biggest influence. Everything from when Madonna reinvented the genre in the eighties to now. No era of pop music has struck me harder than the 2000’s. Albums like Fergie’s The Dutchess and the emergence of Lady Gaga, particularly her album The Fame Monster — that album changed my perception of pop music. Christina Aguilera is probably my biggest influence, mainly due to the voice behind the music. I also learned how to sing by singing gospel, so I think that’s where that appreciation comes from. I am also really inspired by rock music, and I studied Jazz for years, so I gather influences from everywhere. Elliott (the other half of Xo Mo) is really a child of hip hop. He grew up listening to Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye. He also loves pop and that’s kind of where we bridge our love for music together. We collaborate to form this eclectic pop sound that amalgamates everything that we bring to the table individually.
What is your songwriting process?
It’s definitely evolved over time. It started off as Elliott and I sitting in a room and coming up with an idea, and then we would both try to elaborate on it (and he was much better at this). The way I write music is going with my favorite melodies and writing lyrics to go with the subject matter we have chosen. Elliot is definitely the more accomplished writer, he’s very poetic. He will bring me a piece of writing and I will look at it and think “OK, how can we make it more musical?” Writing for me is like open-heart surgery: it isn’t a linear process; it’s kind of a metaphysical process where the song reveals itself to me. I’ll write line by line and leave spaces if I can’t think of something, and I won’t finish that line until it feels right. Most of the time the song knows the message I’m trying to bring across before I do, and that’s the characteristic of a good song for me, when it knows more than you do.
How long did it take for you and Elliott to nail your musical style and aesthetic?
I can remember when we decided on what direction we wanted to take. Back when we started off and decided to take this venture more seriously, I had a thesis I had to write, and I decided to write it about recording an EP. We didn’t really have a plan; we just started to make music together. The process we had was we would make the songs, then hold mini focus groups to gauge how people reacted to the music. There was a song we wrote together called “Holy Water.” Out of all the songs we did, people said it sounded the most like how we looked. So I was like, “OK, that can be the anchor of our music, and everything else we create can have that same kind of sonic appeal to it.” There was a lot of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks but that song was definitely a lightbulb moment for us, and I think that is the only way you can figure out what works best for you: trial and error.
Our style is ever-evolving, but we basically wrote everything down that we wanted Xo Mo to be. Buzz words like “happiness and “melancholy,” “fear of time wasted,” “owning whatever talent you have and accomplishing what you think you deserve.” They are some of the strands we wanted to use. We go back to those themes when approaching what kind of songs we want to write, because the songs have to represent who we want to be as artists.
Do you write on a song by song basis or do you always have a bigger project in mind?
Right now, we write on a song by song basis. It’s funny, Elliott and I have this discussion all the time where we are always waiting for someone to give us permission to be songwriters. I think there’s a difference between a pianist and a piano player, a guitarist and a guitar player, a singer and a vocalist. I think of myself as someone who writes songs, not a songwriter. I can’t functionally sit down and say, “Hey I’m gonna write a song right now. What do I have in my arsenal?” It comes easier to Elliott than me, and compositions and melodies come a lot easier to me. I can go like two or three months and nothing will come to me, but when something does come it feels like you have to release it. Not saying that it won’t ever change but right now we write on a very singular basis, with the hope of compiling them into something bigger.
Do you ever find yourself battling writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Personally, yes. The last song I wrote I was really struggling. If I cannot remember the lyric or the melody, there’s no point in starting to write. I’ll just keep recycling a melody or a lyric in my head over and over again until they make sense, which is very difficult to keep doing on a regular basis. So a colleague of mine told me to get a book and write everything down, and it’s the age old advice given to people to just keep a journal and document everything. And it’s like I said earlier, the song that you are trying to write knows more about what it wants to be than you do, so you writing everything down and trying to construct it, helps. It makes the process easier. If I really like a line too I’ll record it and come back later and elaborate on it. It’s a very disjointed process.
The music video for your song “Sweat” told its story in a very artistic, nuanced way. Can you tell us about the process of making that video? Did you have the video in mind when writing the song?
It’s funny, the idea for Sweat didn’t come from us. I’m a big believer in collaboration and outsourcing, I think it’s important to play to your strengths, and know when to use your network. Networking is so important in the music industry, in every industry! We live in Dublin, and it is a melting pot for talent here. We sat down with my friend Jamie, who is involved in media production and writes with his partner Emily, and they basically asked us what Sweat meant and what Xo Mo meant to us. They went away and wrote a treatment that we loved, and then the shooting process began. It was a long process to shoot but it was super fun, and I know the work we did there will pay off soon, because the work that we created with Jamie and Emily was something we are so proud of. The story was all Jamie and Emily. They fleshed out the story of the song in a beautiful way that the rest of the crew were able to materialize it perfectly.
Performing live gives you the opportunity to infuse visual art, fashion and live vocals into your songs. What is the creative process like when you are preparing for a live show?
I remember our very first show and I was so so nervous. I had written out exactly how I wanted the show to go: two songs, chat with the audience, next two songs, chat with the audience etc. I take the way that I am presented on stage very seriously. I’m a child of 2000’s pop and an admirer of pop stars, and one thing I love and appreciate about them is their ability to create eras. People were always really good at amalgamating their music with how they looked at the time. For a certain era, someone would look a certain way for the entirety of that era and then completely transform for the next era. We always have a short discussion before every show about what we will be wearing, it’s something that has to be taken into consideration. It’s all about theatrics; the bigger the stage, the bigger the theatrics have to be. People will always remember how you looked and what you were wearing. This kind of being our first “era” out on the music scene, I decided to wear a lot of jumpsuits because I liked how they look on stage. Positioning on stage too is super important. Every little detail counts.
What role does creativity play in your life outside of music?
Being a non-linear thinker really pushes you to work harder. It gives you a unique vantage point to approach everyday situations. I always try to make everything a performance. Anything can be theatrical if you want it to. You can walk into a room and command it, become the center of attention, creativity gives me the ability to do that. Performing on stage gives you the confidence to perform and command a room off the stage, but it also gives you self-worth. Knowing that you are a creative person improves your self-worth, because you have something to offer that nobody else has. Teach a man confidence and you don’t have to teach him anything else. That’s what creativity is to me, putting out songs like “Sweat” and “May” and seeing them do so well reaffirms the belief that I have something to offer, and I carry that with me in every other aspect of life, and I try to make that impact in every other thing I do.
What do you think is the best way to cultivate new ideas?
I think the best way to cultivate new ideas is to have a partner. I have Elliott and he has me. Our slogan is “two halves of the same idea,” which has always worked for us. I think ten percent of the time we don’t see eye to eye on things. We do agree on things but our approach to music is so different, so when we come together only the best parts of our respective ideas get to the final cut. We come together with all of our ideas and then try to marry them together and everything else that doesn’t work falls to the side. Elliott is really good at being critical. He is the guy that goes for the A+ and I’m the guy that’s happy with a B. Working with Elliott has made me super astute to everything that we put out. Also to cultivate ideas on your own, Lady Gaga had it right when she said about the process of making “Born This Way.” She said “I just listened to everything that everyone was listening to, and everything everyone wasn’t listening to.” It’s important to listen to the things you don’t like, but everybody else gets, so that you can somehow amalgamate it with your own vision. Mariah Carey is famous for incorporating rap music into pop, because she’s always admired rap music, but the worlds are so distinct that it wasn’t really done very often before. It’s about balance, you can’t be leaning too far in one direction, draw inspiration from both sides, and that’s what I’m learning to do.