Posted on 26 Nov 2009
There is episode of Friends with a guys vs. girls quiz where the question is posed “Rachel claims this is her favorite movie…” The answer is Dangerous Liaisons. This is followed up by the question, “Her actual favorite movie is?” And Joey hollers, “Weekend At Bernie’s!” John Mayer is my Weekend At Bernies. I will claim endlessly that I want to be Marvin Gaye, or Jeff Buckley or Miles. But at the end of the day, if I’m honest, it breaks my heart that I am not John Mayer.
I tend to attach qualifiers to John’s work. “Yeah, I like John, but I’ve been listening to him since the Eddie’s Attic bootlegs.” Or something less honest like, “I’m a John Mayer fan, but I like his album cuts, not those bubblegum singles.” That’s not fair. Do I like “Daughters”? No. But am I a fan of “Your Body Is A Wonderland”? Absolutely. Still I find myself skirting the subject. It’s a correlation I try to avoid when people listen to my own music and guess at its roots.
It would be easy to create a John Mayer laundry list of reasons for anyone to wish they had John’s career, but the success is not the point. If you have your own John Mayer and their success is your roadblock you need to rethink your frustrations. Sure, John’s level of success is rare, but in itself it is something anyone can strive for. The issue is my relation to his body of work. I’ve had this crutch since long before I knew being John Mayer meant sleeping with Jennifer Aniston and getting praised by Eric Clapton.
Now when I go back and listen to “Inside Wants Out” it is admittedly good, but if I were just discovering the record it would probably only hold a passing interest. “Inside Wants Out” is where I was at 20. The thing about John’s work is the synchornicity. I get a record, I obsess over it, I decide I’ve outgrown it and leave it behind. Then a new record drops and John seems to have grown in parallel with my own life even as I thought I was breaking away.
This is a dangerous relationship for anyone creative. Left unchecked it can be paralyzing because with each change and growth in life it is easy to feel the work has already been done for you. That someone has already said it better. I wouldn’t discourage having your own cornerstone in any form of art- Dylan had Woody Gutherie, Marvin had Sam Cooke, but once you identify a dependent relationship on someone else’s art you damn well better watch your moves and think about where you are going. It is too easy to get stuck in the trap of subconsciously asking “what would John Mayer do?” And with a deep enough knowledge of that artist the answer is easy, you can hammer their response to that chord progression right out, but you are no longer making art. You are creating second hand.
So how can you break out of this? I set limitations. I don’t deny myself the music, that seems counter productive. If something inspires you it should be investigated down to a molecular level. But I have periods of indulgence I allow and then force myself to turn off the stream. During spaces of creativity, when I am working on new music, I listen to everything I can get my hands on, except John Mayer. His music is so ingrained that without restraints I begin copying without realizing it, snagging lines, mannerisms, chord progressions. And while I am a great fan of reinterpreting stolen bits of art, I draw the line at the places that hit closest to home. It keeps me honest. Keeps me working towards my own goals and not projecting myself onstage when I hear “My Stupid Mouth”. And most importantly, when someone says, “I can hear a little John Mayer in your music” I don’t hastily respond, “John who?”
Posted on 12 Jul 2009
Miles Davis notoriously clung to the middle register. Generations of trumpet players from bebop to hard bop to free jazz reached for the stratosphere while Miles was content to dawdle in the mid-range. It wasn’t lack of ability, he was Miles Davis, instead the mid-range is where he heard music. For whatever reason his ears hadn’t stretched into the upper octaves, but that all changed around 1970.
At 44 years old Miles released “A Tribute To Jack Johnson”. The record found him pulling notes from the clouds, blurting upper register frenzies from cover to cover. This new range continued throughout Miles’ 70’s electric period, his bands with Michael Henderson found him continually reaching for the stars. Years later in his autobiography Miles said of this period that suddenly he had begun to hear the upper register. After three decades as a professional musician, Miles had new ears.
I have spent the past nine years of my life dreaming of music, obsessing over dusty record bins, boring my wife and friends with the mundane of circumstances of an artists recording session or their use of deceptive resolution. During this time I could not hear the bass. It was a strange paradox, a native son of hip-hop who literally had no ear for the bottom end. During the most creative period of my life I spent several months emailing beats back and forth with a friend in San Francisco. Listening back now almost no bass lines exist on the tracks we created together.
In the past two years I have been a little absent from music. I got a job, got married and forgot why I wanted to be famous. But in recent months a change has begun. Suddenly I hear the lower register. Not only do I hear it, it is all I hear. I find myself hollering on my commute to work when Maxwell’s bassist changes his rhythmic pattern unexpectedly.
It’s funny this is just coming to the surface. My favorite moments playing guitar were the trancelike states that emerged from repeating the same one bar James Brown riff for eleven minutes on end. I may never know why it didn’t occur to me that a soul and funk obsessed musician with a pension for monotonous repetition would be well suited for bass.
What is important is that I have new ears, perhaps for the first time in my musical life. While I hope that most musicians are able to experience this significant a transformation without the urge to put down the instrument they have spent a lifetime mastering, it is a feeling that would be well worth the new challenges were that to happen. It is a liberating experience to have your entire sonic world turned on its ear. I hope you can one day relate to the feeling.
Posted on 14 May 2009
The corporate culture of Pixar ties directly into my recent discussion of failure. We know Pixar as the creators of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille, but I doubt most people recognize it is a 30-year old collective of artists, animators, and creative minds who have been backed at various times by Lucasfilm, Apple, and Disney. President Ed Catmull and director Brad Bird both recently gave interviews on creativity and innovation. The interviews were held at different times under different circumstances but both Catmull and Bird seemed to focus around a few key points.
Repeated like a mantra by both men was the statement- don’t minimize risk. “Instead do risky things,” says Catmull, “If you want to be original, you have to accept the uncertainty, even when it’s uncomfortable.” It is the fear of risk and resulting failure that directly hampers creativity. Brad Bird encourages his co-workers to, “do something that scares you, that’s at the edge of your capabilities.” Ed Catmull adds to that idea with, “if we aren’t always at least a little scared, we’re not doing our job.”
I love this idea that at a company with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake on any given project there is still a freedom to walk right out to the precipice and look down. Instead of harping on potential failures, Ed Catmull says Pixar works to “build the capability to recover when failures occur.” They do this by collectively pooling talents, and using dailies as a way to collaborate and discuss areas for improvement. Catmull also notes that there is no reliance on a single “high concept.” Instead he says, “Don’t focus on a single idea. There is no single idea. The importance is in the guiding and filtering of thousands of ideas generated by the collective.”
The final key is something I’ve always held Miles Davis and Neil Young in high regard for- foster a restless artistic spirit. Brad Bird cautions, “worry about being complacent. In areas of past success, guard against simply repeating successful formulas.” When Brad was asked to join Pixar by Ed and Steve Jobs, Pixar had been successful with toys and fish, but had been unable to create believable human characters. Brad immediately got to work on The Incredibles. The film had more backgrounds and locations than any previous Pixar film, and it starred a human family. After the success of The Incredibles Brad went on to direct Ratatouille, which had stagnated in production for nearly 5 years before Brad took the helm. Catmull summed up how Pixar fosters this restless nature to the Harvard Business Review, “Be clear that things never stay the same. We must constantly challenge all of our assumptions and search for the flaws that could destroy our culture.”
Posted on 29 Apr 2009
I’ve been really interested in failure recently. With a few exceptions I have felt like the failure rate in my own life has been too low. That’s not a braggart’s way of pointing out my tendency to succeed, because that tendency may just as well be subconsciously constructed to prevent failure. It can be hard to tell in something if we’ve gotten lucky or if we simply didn’t reach high enough. In Miles Davis’ bands risk and growth were heavily praised, but perfection brought the wrath of God. If you weren’t stumbling on occasion, you weren’t pushing hard enough.
So what should we fail at? Everything, or at least almost everything. Don’t fail at marriage, friendship, or loyalty, almost everything else if fair game. Creativity is something at which we can, and should, afford to fail. As Twyla Tharp points out in The Creative Habit, much of this failure can be done in private, stretching past your comfort zone to discover new spaces. Failing in private can help reduce the number of failures we share with the public. Still, public failure should not be something that deters forward progress.
As a teen Charlie Parker was chased off the stage by having cymbals thrown at his feet mid-solo, Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, Emily Dickinson published less than a dozen poems, and everyone knows the story of Michael Jordan failing to make the varsity team his sophomore year. If you follow the career of anyone you deem truly successful you will find moments of perseverance, when they refused to be held down.
I would make the argument for setting almost unreasonably high goals, for “reaching for the stars”. In this regard I am happy to sound cheesy or naive. As a child we were all told we could do anything. At age 5, when asked what you want to be when you grow up, the answers Fireman, Astronaut, and Elephant are all met with the same warm smile and “good for you”. Maybe I have no hope of being an Elephant, but I cling to the belief that given the work ethic anything else is within my grasp. You should too.
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