One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. —Unknown
It is through creating, not possessing, that life is revealed. —Vida Dutton Scudder
When I’m holding on too tight, when I’m too meticulous, analytical, judgmental—lacking confidence or (insert neurosis here)—then the act of writing a song, playing a show, or just getting through the day becomes a lot more difficult than it should be.
The more I second guess an idea, the more it breaks into a hundred pieces. Heart not mind. When I’m grateful to be able to create and make music, when I know that my job is to settle down and listen for the idea, not force it, then something new might come through—whether that be the studio or on the stage. And when it’s not happening just right, that’s OK, too. Tomorrow is another day—as long as we keep showing up, over and over.
The muse can be a really unreliable friend, but one way I know she won’t find me is if I stay on the same track all the time. The best way I’ve found to trick the muse into stopping by more consistently is to shake everything up. Get off the trusted path and get into the field, the weeds, the forest—into the subconscious—then there’s a chance I might get a better idea to work with. Sometimes an idea is only being worked on to get to another idea. You don’t get to know what’s what till you FINISH and get away from it for a while.
The muse wants us to make brave moves. She wants a little chaos sometimes—not in our personal life but in the way we approach our work. (More on not creating chaos in your life for your art in another post—if you have been kind enough to read a few of these, you already know I think the “dead at 27” club is garbage.)
Here are a few things I try to keep in mind—and next week I’ll share a list of tricks I’m keeping close at hand in the studio —a tarot card deck of sorts that I stole from producer Brian Eno.
DON’T SAVE EVERYTHING—KILL YOUR DARLINGS—DON’T GO BACK
One of my fave humans on the planet, Wade Hampton, happens to be a fantastic painter, among many other things he does creatively. Our house is filled with his work. One of my fave paintings of his was created years back, part of a series of Devils and Angels holding one another, and it was (note the “was”) breathtaking. I kept bothering him about it every time I saw him—where is that painting? I’m saving up to buy it. He told me he didn’t like it and used it as a background for colors and just painted right over it. I was blown away. HOW COULD YOU?? My righteous indignation, as if I had painted the damn thing myself. I told him it was amazing, why did he do that? and boo-hoo-hoo… Newsflash here, folks. It’s HIS WORK. He can do any damn thing he wants with it. And if it helped him stay creative to destroy it, if it helped him move on to other things, who am I to yell at him? He paints tons of magic all the time.
Sometimes you get stuck and the only way down the path is to rip up the road a little bit and move even faster. As Wade says, “You gotta throw a lot of paint”—and as they say in Nashville about songwriting—“the first thousand are free.”
I used to hold on to every single idea I started. Hard drives full of half-finished songs. Legal pads all over my library with riffs and scraps of lyrics. Some might be worth finishing, but there is a real creative toll to looking backward (as with life). I have journals going back to childhood, ticket stubs, a million photos of every tour, etc., but the last time I went through and looked at everything? NEVER. As my buddy Chris Beauchene says, “The clock only goes forward.” Get on with it. The well is not dry—there is always another idea as long as you believe there is. Take care of yourself and the muse will take care of you. Going back and trying to piece things together, especially if you are working alone and not bouncing things off someone, can be creative death. I have slowly learned to give myself the license to just rip up the legal pad full of chords or lyrics I’m grappling with. If it ain’t filling in fast or if I can’t remember any of it later, it should probably be making that sweet sound of a crumpled page about to fly into the old round file.
DELETE is your friend. ERASE is your friend. There is freedom here.
I do this with these posts all the time. Not that I think I’m gonna give you any ancient wisdom :-), but if I feel we aren’t having a conversation or I’m not being honest enough—not feeling confident, the words aren’t rolling fast—I will put it in a file called MARINATE. And after a while, if the idea hasn’t come back into my mind, it’s done, son. TRASH. Goodnight, Irene. Some ideas are just not worth working on. No one bats a thousand. Anyone who says there are no bad ideas is probably making some bad work. God knows I have finished things I should have abandoned. Not everything is salvageable. Kill your darlings.
I’ve heard several artists use this metaphor—“songs/books/ideas are like our kids.” Some of them graduate from college and do very well, making us very proud (sometimes if we are really, really lucky, making us some money, too)—but sadly, some of them are basically useless. Maybe you didn’t love them enough and you made them mean—you screwed it up from the inception and can’t get back to zero. This is why the beginning of a song is the most important part to me. If I don’t get to the heart of it pretty quickly, I probably won’t get the whole thing down right. I don’t believe there are bad puppies or bad babies—I think we don’t give ’em enough care and they turn on us. Songs are like that, too. When they start, they are fragile. You need to protect them, but you also don’t need to put them on a leash every second—they gotta find their own way, too. We don’t write this stuff; we just put ourselves in a place to get it down and share it.
I WANT REAL AND NOT PERFECT. EMBRACE MISTAKES.
When I am trying to track everything 20 times, the muse runs screaming from the room. I have made some very clean, very perfect records that I am not proud of. When I’m moving fast and am a little reckless, I can usually get to where I want to go. I have close friends who prefer my demos to our finished records. I am a fan of BIG sounding records, so I hesitate to put out demos as a finished recording. I love some of the polish and think it’s part of the process, but I can’t deny there is usually magic in something going to tape (hard drives) for the first time that is almost impossible to recapture the next few times around. Daniel Lanois once said something like, I don’t believe in preproduction—if we are recording, we are working on the record.
All this comes down to looking for new ways to see the work. It’s important to shake things up. I believe that’s what people come to artists for anyway. People pay their hard-earned money to see/hear/feel something new. When I’m in a spot where I feel stuck, whether it be a creative endeavor or life, it’s usually because I’m clinging way too tightly to my comfort zone. I’m not swimming far enough away from shore. Don’t be afraid to abandon something that doesn’t work for you or to try a totally new way of working. See what new things might appear. If nothing else, you will find out what works for you and what doesn’t—what to bring in and what to leave out—which is more than half the battle anyway.
UP NEXT WEEK: A list of ideas to create some chaos and get out of our own preconceived ideas—out of our ruts. My list applies to the recording studio, but hopefully there is something there for everyone. I look forward to hearing what helps you as well.
Thanks for reading. See you next Weds!
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