I just made an album of comedy songs with AI... here's what I learned | Ashley Freize on whether it's cheating – or even ethical – to use the technology

I just made an album of comedy songs with AI... here's what I learned

Ashley Freize on whether it's cheating – or even ethical – to use the technology

So I just released an album of comedy songs co-written with an AI. If musical comedians weren’t already being accused of it, surely this really is cheating? In fact, if AI is good enough to make funny songs, doesn’t this lower the bar to entry, and make us musical comics redundant?

I realised people were doing this with a new generation of tools when I saw Obscurest Vinyl’s output on TikTok and YouTube:

I wanted to have a go, and started by putting together a pastiche country song about Trump supporters pretty quickly:

And then I got the bug and realised I was going to have to release an album to work it out of my system. That was a week ago, at the time of writing.

I’ve had a hell of a few days playing with these tools and I’d like to share my experience, along with some thoughts about the ethics of it, the effect it has had on my creativity, what I’ve learned from that, and the sort of results I got.

Firstly, I’ll lay out some parameters. Monkey Paw Cowboy is a 24-track album in which I wrote all the lyrics. The songs are mostly 2 minutes long. On top of the lyrics, I gave the AI tool - udio.com - musical genre related prompts. Who knew there would be so many ways to ask for both kinds of music - country AND Western?

Honestly, I don’t believe too much of this has directly helped me achieve any of my goals as an artist. I want to write funny songs, record them, and perform them live. The emphasis there is on the word ‘I’. If I just get the machine to do all the creative stuff, then where do I fit in? That said, in this project I’ve been a very active participant in the process and have produced some songs that I find funny enough to share.

Part of the fun of it is being in on the joke. I’ve made the machine make some rather demented music which both relies on, and parodies, country music genres. The results are uncanny, but they’re also astonishingly plausible as real songs. In some cases, I’ve revelled in the opportunity to make the sort of music I couldn’t normally make. I’ve also broken some of my own rules of comedy songs by having choruses, and tolerating unnecessary instrumental breaks (largely because the AI introduced them and I had to live with them).

Working with AI is like having a very chaotic, borderline genius, creative partner. It has a head full of every possibility and how to execute it, but absolutely no idea of whether what it’s doing is any good. Worse than that, successive attempts to fine-tune something that’s nearly there result in a wide range of variations, with limited ability to steer it into the right direction. You have to learn to work sympathetically with what’s coming out.

Conversely, when it gets something right, it’s like creating a fully produced piece of work in moments, rather than days. Generative AI is some hybrid of clown car and supersonic jet.

So, I’ve had to devise a workflow for writing songs with a neurotic writing partner. I’ve learned that most things sound funnier when the machine naively sets them to earnest music. The country music genre is an excellent vehicle for this too. I’ve also had to consider that the results are likely to fill me with false confidence about the material I’m putting in.

I’ve had to learn to listen better, edit more, and surrender some control to the process. The trick, for me at least, is to write a bit of the song, hear what the machine does with it, and then try to follow suit.

Udio.com works by building songs in 30 second segments, so it’s like playing a massive improvisation game - some combination of ‘yes and…’ and ‘shoulda said’. Sometimes I’ll follow where the song appears to be going from the AI’s contribution, and sometimes I’ll rewrite the lyrical part of the prompt to encourage it to do it differently.

The biggest skill needed to make good products with AI is curation. Most of the songs I’ve made required many many iterations before they were good enough. I had to rely on my experience as a writer, director and musician to find the ‘perfect take’. Anyone can do it, but doing it well feels like it’s expert work.

It’s also a case of garbage in and garbage out, and sometimes, owing to the way the AI works, the machine can start hallucinating and spitting out nonsense - I end my album with a snippet of it blethering with random instrument stabs, followed by giving itself a random round of applause.

Though I’m sure future tools will allow it, there’s no way, as a creator, to instruct the AI on making specific musical decisions. Owing to the fact that country music is often witty, and uses multiple singers, occasionally dropping to spoken lyrics, I got very lucky in terms of translating my ideas into comical performances. 

Indeed, when I wrote certain lyrics thinking that a certain line should be spoken, it often was. But I had several times when I was trying to convince the model to sing, rather than speak, and it was quite frustrating.

Having used it quite deeply, I still don’t believe that AI can replace actual artists. We’re performers and musicians because we love making the music ourselves. Humans have nuance, agency, consistency, heart and soul. The AI can impersonate the moves, but pretty much at random. Using AI to make music is like being a puppeteer - we all know it’s a puppet, and there’s pleasure in suspending disbelief, but it’s still just a puppet.

I was planning to release an album this year. The Monkey Paw"in my album’s title relates to that wish. Udio.com was made public on April 10. I started playing with it the following day, and released a 50 minute album a week later. That wasn't what I thought I was wishing for.

And incredibly, this all coincided with a peak of my feelings of writer's block.

There are some lessons here about creativity. Work fast, try to finish things, edit after creating, take feedback, follow your nose, kill your darlings, try doing it again but better. Embrace the weird things that happen by accident. Get all the half-baked ideas out of your system. Most importantly, try something you wouldn’t normally try. It’s easy to get set in writing habits and it’s great to embrace something new. AI tools seem to gamify all of these useful behaviours.

Finally, it’s worth noting that much of art is a case of standing on the shoulders of giants. People producing beats use loops they acquire from third parties. Even when I make a song the traditional way, I’ll bring in drum loops, or virtual instruments for things I can’t play myself. Creating songs in genres relies on the context and understanding of that genre. Every creative decision we make is relative to the exposure we’ve had to every other work.

Monkey paw sleeveAI is a shortcut, and an astonishing feat of engineering, but I have faith in the creativity of humans. If this adventure inspires you to go out and make something better than my album, then go and make some lovely noise.

• The album Monkey Paw Cowboy (AI) is available on all streaming services including YouTube and Spotify under the pseudonym The Incredible Jukebox. Ashley’s real life work can be found here.

Published: 22 Apr 2024

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