Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Some Thoughts On My Approach

I’m learning to paint. It has been a long time coming, but somehow up until now I’ve spent little time with a brush in my hands. I’ve noticed that I think about a painting in a similar way to how I think about a recording - I approach the balance of colors and textures with a similar mindset. Recording is also feeling a lot like sculpture. This has made me reflect on the way I make music, on the way that I take abstract thoughts and feelings and moments and mold them into something tangible. It has made me think about why my music process differs from my process with visual art.

Learning how to paint is easier than learning other things because I’ve become more skilled now at learning new skills - and I’ve already put a short lifetime behind my approach to creative endeavors. That’s not to say that I can make the brush do everything I want it to do (hardly!). I just finally know how to be patient with myself, I know that with time and the right effort, it will get there. I know that when I start learning something it will seem simple and I’ll have some semi-conscious fantasy that I’ll be a natural, and know all the moves instinctually. I’ll want to do it my own way, but eventually I’ll make mistakes and learn why the masters of that skill share certain techniques in common. I’ll work to learn the rules, and then I’ll encourage myself to break them. I’ll find myself humbled by the infinite ways to approach the medium. And I’ll do whatever it is, a lot, and over the course of years find my place within it.

I’ve been painting as much as I can. I have a better handle on the brush, on the feel of paint, the way it mixes, and I’ve had multiple pieces to show to people further down the path than me, who can offer a few constructive words in response that break the task wide open for me again. The more you do it, the more confident you become. The more you respond to a piece in a way that only you could respond to it, the more that your pieces start to be recognizable as “yours.”

The way that the system supporting music has been set up really stunts the art-making potential of musicians. We aren’t often encouraged to treat ourselves as “artists,” as far as the process is concerned. The album cycle, the idea that you refine and record a dozen songs and then go on an insane journey to market that material greatly inhibits creative growth. Being signed with a major label allowed me to see the priorities of the system from within. It’s a business. They finance a product and use all the channels they have to sell as much of it as possible. Indie labels do this. Independent artists do this as well. It's standard twentieth century American procedure. The scary thing is that when I talk with musician friends, our conversations usually turn to matters of business, as that’s how we’ve come to gauge success. Things are of course changing as this system crumbles away, but I don’t want to expend my limited moments of life worrying about how much my music sells or who I get to open a show for or what some executive says they think.

As far as creating great artistic material is concerned, though, there are relatively few musicians that have been able to produce enough material to have their own voice start to shine through. Your starting point as a young artist is most always going to be the work of others that moves you or entertains you or challenges you, so it makes sense that so much of the new music we get pushed at us is a collage of references to other people’s works and style from the past.

As much of an adventure as I’ve had creating and releasing two full length albums, I feel that I have held myself back in a lot of ways. I’ve probably started more than a thousand songs in the last ten years, but seen only a couple dozen through to a polished, recorded, state. Recently, learning to record myself has been empowering. I now am less dependent on engineers and producers and studios and someone to finance those great costs. I also have a direct connection with the medium, when before, as a performer, I brought the concept and the paint, but someone else with a different skill set was doing the painting. As my own producer and engineer, I have control over the brush, and of so many new colors to mix in. I can paint on so many surfaces now. This has made songwriting and recording fresh and exciting again. There is so much new potential to aspire to, a new medium in which to find my voice, in which to make new shapes, to say the things I need to say.

A few months ago, when Lucinda Williams released a new album and I was blown away by the continued growth in her songwriting, even in her late fifties, I began to ask people why is it that most musicians do their most compelling work so young in life and sputter out instead of grow? Shouldn’t artists like her be the rule, not the exception?

This question obviously gave way to tons of other questions, and I had a lot of great discussions, but one answer that rang true to me is that musicians have the freedom and motivation as amateurs to create provocative work, but in entering their professional career, the call of the day often becomes entertainment and marketing - selling the product. As professional entertainers, the art becomes secondary (it feels pretentious to even be calling it art!), growth is stunted by tour schedules and the details of photo shoots and agents and managers. You are as a young artist, more often than not, critiqued on such abstract grounds as trends and fashion and who you associate with, that it is easy to become more insecure with success, to shoot towards the safe middle instead of finding your edge. If creative work was only a vehicle to enter into the spotlight, then once in the spotlight, different priorities might emerge in order to stay there. That is a totally separate issue.

I don’t want my creative process to suffer, to never develop to its full potential because I’m driving to the ends of the earth to market it. With Street To Nowhere we worked on our one album for three years, and toured on it and marketed it for almost two years. The experience was incredibly interesting, and I wouldn’t change it, but it still shocks me how much time was spent on eleven of my songs. I think of my favorite painters and how much work they produced. I can’t picture any of them going around the world for a couple years to promote their paintings, painting the same image again, night after night. They experimented freely, took risks, and just their finished pieces fill thick reference books. I’m becoming more interested in their approach, in those creative priorities. I’d rather share with you more songs, straight from my head and heart, even if that means they are less polished, even if some experiments yield freaks of nature. I’d like to expend my energy to further find my voice, and refine my skills, even if that means my work reaches less people. I don’t need to be Starbucks. I’m happy being a neighborhood coffee shop.