Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Letters to a Young Artist / Musician / Creative

A few months back my dear friend, Matt Cleveland, put me in touch with his younger brother Seth.  Seth is in High School and is getting excited about writing songs.

Since a lot of this flows out of conversations I have with other artists, musicians and creative folk I thought it would be fun to share some of our conversation here.

Hi Seth,
we never were able to connect a few months back but I'm finished with school now so I have a bit more freedom to think and write and be so I wanted to catch up.  I'm sending this to Matt too because I love him and I miss him and I want him in my life still and I figure he's a little interested in our conversation too.  We can drop him if you like. :)

From Writing Perfect Songs to Sketching
Matt had mentioned that you are interested in recording.  I started writing and recording a lot of music right about when I was your age and don't have much to show for it except a few dozen audio files I'm not really proud of.  I struggled and struggled to write anything I was proud of as a song or more accurately as poetry.  I gave up on that and focused on making music I could be proud of.  I figured out how to do that and at the same time I messed around a lot with recording on computers and doing a lot of field recording of people talking and nature sounds and things and built this big sample library of stuff I've never used.
But I digress.  In retrospect I don't regret focusing on learning recording techniques, but I do regret hating my own writing so much that I stopped doing it.  This is mostly because you only get better by doing it.  The thing that has really freed me musically is letting myself "sketch."  That is, removing the expectation that what I  am doing will result in a perfect, finished product.  This has allowed me to make things and accidentally I end up being proud of.  Both the albums up on are a result of me giving myself the freedom to sketch instead of feeling like I had to polish everything and as a result, never produce anything. 

How Other People Say It
Ira Glass puts it like this:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Tom Waits puts it like this:

Pitchfork: Are you someone who writes songs by making demos or recording things as you go?

TW: If you are recording, you are recording. I don't believe there is such a thing as a demo or a temporary vocal. The drama around even sitting in the car and singing into a tape recorder that's as big as your hand-- waiting until it's very quiet, doing your thing, and then playing it back and hoping you like it-- is the same basic anatomy as when you're in the recording studio, really. Sometimes it's better that way because some of the pressure is off and you can pretend it's throwaway.

It's like what they say about Chinese food: All this preparation and it's gone in a half an hour. How do you think the people in the kitchen feel? Then you got the dishes. But there are dishes that go along with every project. Now, I'm not in the studio dancing around or writing songs, having fun. I'm doing the dishes.

Write As Yourself Even If That's a Moving Target
So I guess I'm saying write about stuff you really feel and think and don't be embarrased if it seems too young, or too unsophisticated or too anything.  Just let it be what it is, your expression of something, on your way to becoming the person you are becoming.  Work on your technique but don't stress about it.  People can smell authenticity, earnestness, being "real."  People can tell if you believe in yourself and they will believe in you too.  People will overlook all kinds of failings if they believe you mean it.
I used to work as a hospital chaplain.  It took me a year to learn that I had to stop trying to be the kind of chaplain I thought was a good chaplain and be myself.  Once I did that, it got a lot easier and people started opening up and connecting with me in ways I never thought possible.  It sounds weird to say but I think the same goes for any kind of attempt at human connection where there was none before. Whether that's a chaplain dropping by your hospital room or a singer busking across the street with his guitar case open, or an artist pushing a painting out into the world, or a writer...  

The more yourself you are the better it will go.  And this makes sense when you think about it. You're just being honest about who you are and what connecting with you and the art you produce will be like.  This lets people decide if they want more of you or not.  This sounds scary but it's really freeing becuase it means that the people who want more will really want it and they won't want a shadow or a husk of you.  They will want the real you.  And when the stuff that naturally flows out of you is stuff that people really connect with, well that's when things get fun.
Feel free to write back with specific questions whether they are navel-gazey and introspective (like this one) or whether they are practical and technical like: what kind of software, mixer, mics guitars, mic placement etc do I use.
Write back.  I'll write back etc.

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