And... why this might be the last one for a while.

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May 2021

A short history of
the James Bell newsletter

For a number of reasons, it's time to hit pause on the James Bell Central newsletter. The most obvious being that the baby is due pretty much any day now, and I'm treating the next 3 months like I've been given some big work commission, like scoring a film soundtrack or something, which is going to eat up all my time. Pretty much all the other projects get taken off the plate. The other main reason is that I've been slowly moving from blogging to video, both as a consumer and a creator. And I feel like it's time to make that pivot. And, to begin with at least, there just isn't going to be time to do both.

I'm going to try to keep the Bastard Session going (online and eventually in person), but pretty much everything else is going to need to be on pause.

Or... not, who knows – maybe the anxiety, lack of sleep and constant focus will unlock hidden levels of productivity and I'll write a novel or something. But I'm not counting on it, put it that way.

So let's do one more round of the old familiar.

Staying on-trend for 2021, I've also been ill for the last couple of months so I don't even have any new TikTok action to share, but recommendations once again come in any flavour you like so long as it's YouTube.



Animation video of the book's introduction.

I've recently been thinking a lot about the Green brothers. When you 'consume a lot of content' by someone, you get used to them as a friendly celebrity presence in the background. They become like family. And, like family, they become easy to take for granted.

Let's say I wanted to create a free online university. Go with me on this.

Let's say I wanted to create a YouTube channel that broke down the basic syllabus of secondary education into 10 minute videos, that were thoroughly fact-checked to educational standard. And let's say I wanted to provide this to the world for free. Let's see I wanted to make it so successful that the majority of children in my nation of birth (and indeed many around the world) will have at some point been shown one of these videos.

How... realistic would you say that is, as a goal?

Let's say that while doing this I also wanted to write books that would get me to the top of the bestseller list, as well as running a couple of podcasts, a weekly vlog, and maybe being in a band too.

Well... welcome to Crash Course, The Fault In Our Stars, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Dear Hank & John, Delete This, Vlogbrothers, Hank Green & The Perfect Strangers...

And, of course, The Anthropocene Reviewed.

This is a podcast turned series of essays turned book in which John Green reviews facets of a human-centred planet on a 5 star scale. Essentially, it's using surreal Yelp reviews as a jumping off point for writing a memoir.

It's great. This is a video of the introduction.


why bad posture isnt that bad

Sabrina Cruz is, as far as I can tell, one of those YouTubers who has been there since the YouTube big bang, incrementally honing her editing and animation skills (which are now considerable).

Now joined by friends Melissa and Taha and renamed 'Answer In Progress', she makes edutainment videos like this one, in which she explores the history of 'good posture'.

And... I am increasingly stunned by the production quality of YouTube now.  Just watch the first 30 seconds of this, and tell me that this isn't at least as good as television right now.


Two of today's most talented guitar players

A short duet from YouTube sensation Ichika Niko, the Japanese guitar 'tap god', and guitarist for the band Covet and equally fearsome Yvette Young.

My brother and I used to play a lot of double-tapping guitar riffs when we were learning as teenagers, but that was very much in the Eddie Van Halen big hair rock style.

I'm loving this new generation who play with a totally undistorted guitar sound, which makes tapping exponentially more difficult (as the distortion provides you with the compression and sustain to really make each note clear).

I don't know how many visits to the crossroads both of these players made recently, but they are clearly both witches and should be burnt at the stake.


Because Science™

It's... maybe kind of a clunky video in terms of how it's put together.

But it's a fascinating explanation as to why we tend to feel that our reflection in the mirror looks normal, and yet photographs of us just look... weird.


NASA scientist vs squirrels: Round 2

I posted former NASA Jet Propulsion Lab engineer Mark Rober's lockdown squirrel maze project in December.

Well, he's at it again: this time with a mock-Ocean's 11 casino heist.

What's interesting is that the squirrels seem to love it. Surely there must be easier ways for them to get food other than go through this arduous and (seemingly) dangerous assault course.

But they keep coming back!


Still legendary after all these years

Just stumbled on this Tiny Desk concert by the great Ani DiFranco. Having played many gigs with just guitar and voice, take it from me, it's really hard to sustain an audience's attention. And for me, she nails it like no one I've seen in a very long time.

And if you're not familiar with her work:

"I am not a pretty girl. That's not what I do. I ain't no damsel in distress, and I don't need to be rescued. So put me down, punk. Wouldn't you prefer a maiden fair? Isn't there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?"

Upcoming Events

Friday 11th June

Every second Friday of the month.
Even if there's screaming and baby poo in the background.

These are online versions of the Bastard English Session which has haunted the Isis Farmhouse Pub in Oxford for over a decade now.

You simply click this:

And then enter the password, which is:

  • bitshowy

And a reminder of the New (well, now Old) Bastard Protocol:

  1. If you’re performing, you’ll need to change your Zoom settings to ‘Use Original Sound’.
  2. It’s a one-at-a-time performing thing, and I have to mute everyone during each performance (because of audio lag) (and also, because I get an enormous kick out of it).
  3. Feel free to use the Chat function throughout!
  4. Also, I find all Zoom calls weirdly tiring, so feel free to hide your video, and wander in and out.

Dear Diary...

Most people wind down their musical aspirations when they get into their 30s. I'm a contrary motherfunster, and I wound them down when I was 23, and then cranked them back up again in my 30s, so I sort of went in reverse.

I was initially in an indie pop rock band, but quickly realised that my heart wasn't in it. It was only as I got to my late 20s that I realised that all I wanted to do with my spare time was write songs. So... at this stage, I'm pretty sure I'm never going to give up songwriting, because I've tried giving up. And it didn't work.

But, as time has gone on, I've got more and more focused about what channels I choose to invest in. And so over the last 5 years or so I have been gradually winding things down. And the newsletter was always something I wanted to keep doing, because I really enjoy making it. But it does feel like it's time.

I wanted to produce this newsletter for a number of reasons. I had all this music, and I wanted to start promoting it properly, and I didn't really know how to go about it, so I came up with this idea of setting myself a challenge: writing, recording, mixing and posting a new original track, and also a new traditional track, every month. And then promoting it in a monthly Mailchimp newsletter, also including some blog posts and other stuff that I could schedule on Facebook and Twitter over the following month.

Looking back, I think it was actually pretty well designed, and generally a good idea. But over time, some big cracks started to form.

First off, I couldn't keep up with the '2 new tracks every month' thing. Or rather, I could, but I realised that that's not really how I write. I like to sit on songs for an extremely long time, until they hatch. And every track that I got done in two weeks felt desperately underdeveloped to me.

Any kind of artistic project where you do every stage yourself is likely to suffer from one major problem: lack of perspective. That's why most people make art in some kind of team, so that they can bounce ideas off each other and point out obvious flaws. The way that I counter this is by taking my sweet time. Each time I come back to a track after a break I can see things that I got wrong before, and I can fix them. And I keep doing this until I come back to something and I just can't see anything wrong with it. So anyway, one of the fundamental reasons for the structure of the newsletter was undermined right there.

And then there were the platforms I was using. I wanted to come up with a monthly routine that would push me into doing the kinds of creative things I wanted to do on a regular basis. Which tended to be blog articles, seeing as I'd kept some form of blog since about 2006. Which I would then post on Facebook and Twitter.

But after a while it occurred to me that I wasn't reading other people's blog posts anymore. In fact... I realised no one really was. The interesting conversations had moved to video.

Indeed, I had moved to video! By far the majority of my screen time was spent on YouTube, which I was starting to really enjoy and get immersed in. And I was spending hardly any time on Facebook and Twitter (or Instagram, which I never quite managed to get into in the first place).

Also, I have this chronic illness thing which flared up in 2018, just as I went fully self-employed, and I quickly ran out of money, and therefore time. So I had to strip a lot of creative projects back. Including writing blog posts. I had also pretty much stopped playing live (the Half Moon All Stars had parted ways by then), so the newsletter was becoming a much more skeletal thing.

The one thing that stuck was the recommendations. I liked the fact that I had committed to finding interesting cultural things to recommend. It meant I had to keep making the effort, keep exercising those muscles. I think Paul McCartney had a saying that artists' creativity takes a dip when they become wealthy and comfortable enough to stop taking the bus, and I think he meant that as an analogy for not really paying attention to what else is happening in culture around you. That said, after I stopped adding posts to the blog, all my recommendations became YouTube links. And it's all really pointed to one direction.

If I'm going to be spending time making stuff that is both challenging and enjoyable, I should probably do it on YouTube. I always preferred blogging to vlogging because I don't really want to put my face on things – it feels like a loss of privacy that I'm not sure I'm comfortable with. But on the other hand I watch and enjoy YouTube, and feel I understand it, and I'm not really interested in blogs. So it sort of makes sense.

So I've been working for a while on an idea which... is basically this newsletter on YouTube. Or at least, it involves taking the key things that I enjoy and think are interesting about the newsletter, and translating them into the YouTube format. I'm currently in the testing phase: filming ideas until they don't look terrible anymore.

And, while I'd like to say 'coming soon!', the next three months, like I said at the top, are kinda spoken for. If I get any spare time (and that is an industrially-sized 'if') then it'll probably still be testing, or banking videos to show at some later date. Now is not a time to give myself more deadlines to commit to!

And of course, this all assumes something big doesn't come out of leftfield to derail it (like, say, a global pandemic). Which I'm starting to realise is actually a relatively frequent occurrence. We'll see.

And I don't think that this is the end of this newsletter. There are things about it that I don't think are going to carry over to YouTube. For example, the focus on YouTube is going to be about the process of making music (and making art generally), and not so much about me and my life. I like the Dear Diary / What Have We Learnt thing, and the intimacy of this format seems to suit that.

But yeah. Time for a pause, and a recharge.

And a nappy change or two.

So What Have We Learnt?

Over five or so years of making a newsletter... what have we learnt?

It's a tricky question, because when I think about it it's actually been more than 5 years. I first started my blog on MySpace 15 years ago, and it's basically continued since then in different formats.

What I've learnt over that time is that Socrates may not have been correct when he said "the unexamined life is not worth living", but constantly journaling and examining life has made it so much more fun that I can't imagine another way. And doing this in a scheduled routine, with an audience to compel me to get off my backside and get it done, has been a great format for doing it.

And every once in a while, I'll find that a particular format doesn't quite work for me anymore. But this is fine!

This is the process.

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the folk session. About life. About the universe. Unless you know anything about parenting. In which case, I have a few things to ask you...

  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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