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Do your very worst work: Laurie Anderson on getting past a creative block

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I often tell young artist who are like, “How can I get past these things?” I’m just like, “For one thing, try doing your very worst work. Do the worst song you can possibly think of. At the very least, you’ll get some idea of what your rules are. At the most, you’re going to get something that’s better than anything you’ve ever done because it has a lot of pure energy.” Nobody going, “That’s not good.” Somebody was going, “Just make it bad. Just make it really bad.” You know, so pure and bad. I have tried that. That works well. Sometimes I clutch on that, too. I think, “No, that’s so bad it’s good.” Go on and on and get yourself twisted up into a language!

Laurie Anderson, The Creative Independent

I love the idea of purposely doing your worst work to get past a creative block.

As Laurie Anderson says in the quote, you are forced to define what “bad work” is when you do that. What rules are you breaking? Are they your rules or the rules of some objective source?

When doing your worst work, there is no judgment. (Or is it all judgment?) In fact, the criticism in your head fuels what you’re working on. That voice in your head that tells you what you’re doing is bad is suddenly empowered. Instead of shooting down your ideas, it’s coming up with ideas to make it worse!

Of course, good and bad are just tricks of language. Maybe what you do will be too obvious or too obscure, and it will turn out that that is exactly what your work needed. Sometimes our rules are not about producing what is best, but something in our comfort zone.

Doing putrid work relieves you of responsibility for the final work and pushes you over the boundaries of what you’d usually try.

Try doing your absolute worst, definitely no good, all-time stinkeroo, very bad work!

 

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A hood for your engine: Captain Beefheart on creativity part 5

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This is part five of my exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. If you’re just coming across this post, you should start with the first post. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. Please leave a comment if you have any additions or thoughts on things I may have missed or misinterpreted.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place

When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

These last two commandments are related. They are both about the care and feeding of your creativity. The first is about respecting your talent. Treat it as a living thing.

Don’t neglect it or take it for granted when you’re not using it. Put it in a dark place so that it’s completely turned off. You’re not letting your car idle in the garage, you’ve got it stored entirely away under a protective barrier. Make sure it’s fed and watered and comfortable, but that it’s hibernating.

Also, notice that he mentions not using it for more than a day as an exception. You should use it every day, but if you do spend more than a day without using it, let it know you’re still thinking about it.

His dish of water is, of course, metaphorical, I think you can “water” your creativity by consuming related art from other people. Read, listen to music, watch a movie, just make sure that you are getting information and experiences that when you pick it back up will inform what you do. Take a trip to a museum, walk through a field of flowers or volunteer somewhere.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

Just like you’ve got to treat your creativity like a living thing, you can’t let it roam around free in the wild. You’ve got to create a habitat for it. There has to be a fence around the field where you keep it.

When you’re charged up and in the middle of a creative burst, you’ll feel like you can do anything, but you shouldn’t. Keep yourself contained. Set limitations for yourself about what you’re trying to accomplish.

Maybe it’s just picking a song to master or writing a short story. Focusing on one project lets you put all the horsepower produced by your engine into one thing, no wasted energy or confusion.

Whether you’re writing a children’s book or a blues song, decide what your project is and focus on that. All the heat from your heater will be keeping that project warm during the coldest moments.

Make decisions that limit what the project is so that you can finish it. People that never complete things are continually moving the target for what the project is and what finished means. If you say you’re going to write a poem on a postcard and mail it to yourself every day, you’ve limited the length of the poem, and you know that each one has to be done before the mail gets picked up. Sometimes it’s not going to be a great poem, but you’ll be finishing things and creating.

If you place the right limitation on yourself, the right hat on your head or wet piece of paper towel on your bean, your talent will grow. The number of projects you complete will grow, and they will be better than you think possible.

You need that stink on there: Captain Beefheart and creativity part 4

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This is part four of my personal exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here.

7. Always carry a church key

That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

7f9e67fd41f4c37c4755b17a3e1788b8--key-bottle-opener-light-beerWhat is a church key? In the slang of the 1950s, it refers to a bottle opener. So Captain Beefheart is referring to both an actual church door and a bottle opener in this case. How do you open the door to the spirit realm and get to what you’re looking for?

He tells you to to carry your inspirations with you. Look to the people that make you realize what is possible to help you with your work. Just hearing their music or reading their books or listening to them speak fires up your creativity.

He mentions two people specifically. The first is One String Sam who played the Diddley Bow which is just a plank with a single string stretched across it. He created a classic song and recording with just that. No wonder he’s a key to the church. He created something from nothing.

The other is Hubert Sumlin, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He played every song with fantastic authenticity and emotion, bringing out qualities that you didn’t realize were there. He’s an inspiration in that he’s a national monument, almost unreal in his ability. The kind of person that you aspire to be, but is on another plane of existence. Mythologically talented.

I think there are many more kinds of “church keys” in the world, but his example is an excellent example of the primary broad division: someone who does not have the advantages you have and makes a piece of art you admire from sheer force of will and someone who has more skill and talent than you have that you aspire to be.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

I love this one.

Get your stink on your art. When you create something, leave the parts in there that make it unique to you. Don’t make it generic.

Make sure that people can see your work. That you are sending a part of yourself off with the finished piece. That your sweat from the effort is a permanent part of it.

When you think of your favorite musicians, comedians, artists, writers or dancers, you can tell their work within moments of seeing it. Their signature is in every second of what they do.

I write a lot of catalog copy. That means I read a lot of catalog copy. Most of it is boring and generic. You couldn’t tell if a company switched writers or used multiple people because they polish off the sweat before they use it. But, other companies know the value of a voice for what they do. When reading it, you can see the person writing it, even if all they’re doing is describing a bunch of boxes.

Don’t play Muzak. Don’t write bland, universal copy. Don’t do hotel art. Don’t tell hacky jokes.

The scary thing is that if you’re recognizably a part of it, when it gets rejected, which it sometimes will, part of you will be getting the rejections as well. By leaving your mark on what you do, you are taking a giant risk. That’s why people don’t do it. It hurts less when mediocre work gets rejected.

But, you don’t want to do mediocre work. You want to do great work.

That means you’re going to have to get your stink on it.

Read part five here

Walk with the devil: Captain Beefheart and creativity part 2

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This is part two of my personal exploration of Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read the first part here.

3. Practice in front of a bush

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.

Play until that bush shakes. Sustain yourself with the basics, eat and drink and wait for the moment when you think all the forces have gathered and then let loose. Does the bush shake? Does the earth quake? Then, your practice is over. If not, circle your wagons and try again.

The interesting thing is that the bush isn’t capable of reacting. Is the guitar playing like a strong wind? Is it the vibrations? The force of the playing?

Nope, it’s you.

You decide when you’re ready. You know when the bush shakes or the tree cries or the rock in your garden explodes with laughter. It’s inside your head.

Don’t listen to other people. You’re the judge. If you can’t handle it yet, practice in front a bush until it shakes.

It reminds me of a zen story about a master who told his student to meditate on an ox until he understood it. When the student failed, the teacher told him he had to stay in his hut until he had a total understanding of the ox. After a week, the teacher came by and asked again. The student said he still did not understand the ox. The teacher said, “You may leave the hut now if you want, but you can never return.”

The student tried but found he couldn’t leave. When the teacher asked why, the student said, “I can’t get out the door. My horns are too wide to fit.”

Practice until the bush shakes. It’s probably already shaking and you just haven’t noticed yet.

4. Walk with the devil

Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

58659-10791-91654-1-casper-and-wendyAre you too meek in your art? What are kinds of ideas are you trying to attract? Do you think you’re being dangerous, flirting with the dark side and you’re attracting Casper the Friendly Ghost?

Dare to be loud. Don’t let fear hold you back from fully exploring your ability to create. Flirt with the darkness and see what’s there. It’s not that the good stuff comes solely from the darkness, but if you never go there, you’re cutting yourself off from a vast source of inspiration.

Also, you can choose to whisper your art or to limit your release of it, but you can also face your fear directly and sometimes bring over devils and demons from the other side. They’re always there, what happens when we recognize them and explore them instead of denying their existence?

The fact that you have an amplifier means you can play it louder and share it with more people.

Use the tools at your disposal to face your fears and shame, to summon the forces you want. Make sure you’re being challenged. Walk with the devil for a while and see where it leads.

After all, you don’t have to show anyone else what you’ve created until the bush shakes.

Read part three here

 

Listen to the birds: Captain Beefheart and creativity part one

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A few years ago, I posted Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing. You can read that post to see all of them, but this week I wanted to take some time to comment on them a few at a time. HIs list is different than most “how to be creative” lists because it’s a poem, a magic spell and yet it still has very practical advice embedded in it.

Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) was an outsider musician famous for his unique sensibilities, intensity and for doing things like kicking a drummer of out of his band for being unable to follow the instruction to “play a strawberry.” Instead of struggling to be original, he seemed instead to be trying to find a way to make his endless creativity intersect with the rest of the world.

I am giving my imperfect interpretations below. Please leave your take in the comments.

Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

1. Listen to the birds

That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.

He’s not saying to mimic the songs of the birds, which you might assume since this list is about music, but to look at their method. Their music is not something they decide to do, it’s part of who they are. Birds don’t sit in front of a piano feeling anxiety about being able to write a top ten hit or a perfect love song. They don’t struggle to come up with something to sing, they know where it comes from so they have to let it out. They don’t make mistakes because it’s not possible for them to sing something that they wouldn’t sing. They just keep going with their endless song.

“Birds know everything” because they have no presuppositions about how their music should sound. There is nothing to know. Our knowing how it should sound or directing it to sound like we want gets in the way. Listen to the bird, don’t critique the bird or try and convince the bird to sing something else.

And, don’t forget the hummingbirds going full speed even when they aren’t going anywhere. They aren’t waiting for inspiration. Their effort is not based on a destination or a goal. While listening to the bird is wonderful, don’t forget to take action.

Constant effort based on your true self is his first commandment.

“Listen to the birds” could be read to mean, figure out who you are and put all your effort into being that thing without pretense or judgment.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

Never mistake the tools of your art for the art itself. Your word processor is not a word processor. Your paintbrush is not a paintbrush. Your ballet shoes are not ballet shoes. They are tools that take the spirits in the other world and transform them into something in the real world. They are what you use to find the ideas you need.

It’s interesting that Captain Beefheart also uses a magical example and a real-world example for this one. A divining rod, or dowsing rod, was a forked stick that you could use to find water underground using spiritual or pseudo-scientific means. So, both a fishing pole and a dowsing rod are used by a person above a giant hidden space to try and discern what’s underneath.

Is that space the subconscious mind? Other people think so. But, it doesn’t matter what metaphor you use. The important thing is to find the tool you need explore that space to get access to the ideas you need.

David Lynch also talks about ideas as catching fish, but his fishing pole is a camera and a paintbrush. In his book on creativity Lynch extends the fish metaphor, but I think it lines up nicely with what Captain Beefheart is saying. For example, Lynch says, “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure.They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”

What is your divining rod? What is your metaphor for the place where the ideas reside?

Click here to read part two!

Massive Creative Recharge From Captain Beefheart

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Captain Beefheart‘s music is not for everyone. That’s a good thing. I’ve seen this bit of his prose reprinted multiple times since his death, but I thought it would be useful to reprint it again. The advice isn’t for everyone, but it might be exactly what you need to hear at this exact moment. Don’t be put off because it says it’s about guitar playing. It isn’t. It’s a magic spell. It’s about whatever you’re doing right now.

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Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

1. Listen to the birds

That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.

4. Walk with the devil

Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out

If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone

Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

7. Always carry a church key

That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.

8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place

When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

Taken from the Captain Beefheart Radar Station

The Creative Power of Faking It

Today’s post is guest-written by Jay Hathaway an always entertaining writer and blogger! Why do it for real when you can fake it?

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Sometimes a fake is even better than the real thing. Before Ben Folds released his latest record, Way to Normal, he spent a day in the studio producing “fake” versions of his new songs to leak to the public. Although these recordings were initially meant as a joke, a fun way to kill a day in the studio, they contain moments of brilliance that match anything on the “real” album. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Folds said that the idea of making a fake album allowed him to create in a way he wasn’t totally used to: “The word ‘fake’ came up when we started doing it and it takes all the responsibility out. You can just be free to write and let it go.”

That goes a long way toward explaining how the leaked album, made in a single day, even came close to the official release. Trying to fake being yourself might actually generate something that feels completely authentic, not burdened by reputation and assumptions. The distinction between real and fake is important during the process of creation, but its power diminishes once the art is out in the wild. If you played Lovesick Diagnostician (a fake song) and Dr. Yang (the real track) for someone who knew nothing about Ben Folds, and asked that person whether they were real songs, the question wouldn’t make any sense.

Frank Portman hit on this idea in one of my favorite novels, King Dork. Tom Henderson, the titular dork, learns the following lesson during his life as a high school outcast: “Start a band. Or go around saying you’re in a band, which is, let’s face it, pretty much the same thing. The quality of your life can only improve.” To really be in a band, you have to make music. When you just say you’re in a band, you don’t necessarily have to make anything.

If you’ve ever made up fantasy band names and album titles, a game Tom Henderson and Sam Hellerman play throughout King Dork, you know that the identity often matters more than the music. The iconography you produce under the guise of your new band can take on a life independent of any music that has been or will ever be made anywhere in the world. There’s something tantalizing about titles of songs and records no one will ever hear and posters for shows nobody will ever play.

Some fake bands, like the ones Tom and Sam create in King Dork, eventually cross over into real band territory. They rehearse, they make recordings, and they play shows. Others have no intention of getting there at all. In fact, they make a point of never engaging in any musical activity whatsoever. My friend Evan Hamilton (who, it’s worth mentioning, is in a real band) told me about The Tree Brains, a “theoretical rock” band that started online (at The Sneeze). Here’s how The Tree Brains describe themselves:

The Tree Brains are an imaginary band that anyone can be a part of. No musical ability is required to join. The band will never play anywhere because it only exists in theory. There is no initiation into the band. If you want to be in it, you’re in it. You may lay claim to any instrument or job in the band you would like.

If you decide to join the Tree Brains, you’ll be able to go around saying you’re a part of the band, and there won’t be anything made up about it.

A concept like the Tree Brains seems fun, but not particularly practical. I think it can actually be put to great artistic use, though. Creating a band, or an alternate personality, takes the pressure off in the same way Ben Folds did when he labeled his work “fake.” If you feel too close to your work, like you’re risking too much, then try acting like it’s someone else’s. Invent a character (or a band) that comes from the part of you that doesn’t self-censor, and then write, draw, build or sing from there, too. The part of Ben Folds that writes whimsical, honest, borderline inappropriate lyrics made a damned good album.

Songwriting Ideas From Wikipedia – Black Francis Interview

Village Voice Frank Black
Black Francis, lead singer of the Pixies, and incredibly prolific solo artist as Frank Black, gave the Village Voice an interview on his creative process. A lot of it is very specific to songwriting, but I thought this snippet was universally valuable. Beware, if you view your creativity is a fragile flower with magical inspiration from another realm, his method might seem a little mechanical. All I can say is that I have used this exact method before and it works.

Sometimes, you have an idea in your head and it’s just looking for a connection to bring it into the real world. Looking at random things can help it to take shape and connect it to reality more quickly. Plus, you’ll get to surprise yourself.

 

In the case of Svn Fngrs I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I was really up to the gut to try to go above and beyond the call of duty. And so I was under the gun and I was like, ‘Okay, what the hell am I going to write about here? What am I going to write about?’ And I literally just started doing the random article search function on Wikipedia. And I did this for quite a long time late one evening in a very tired state, and somehow I stumbled upon the article for demigods. And I was like, ‘Oh, demigods.’ And then, of course, ‘Okay, well what is a demigod? And who was a demigod? What do they mean by demigod?’ And, of course, on something like Wikipedia one article has other links in it and suddenly you’re off, you know. So the Internet has become a really great resource for me because I’m not a deep researcher. I just want to have an impression. I just need to find out some facts. I’ve already got my little concept going. My little concept is already in place, but I just need some facts so when I rhyme “phone” with “zone” my couplet – well, hopefully it has some artistic merit on its own, regardless of what it’s about or if it’s about anything – but if it happens to be about something, it’d be nice if it was sort of backing up some cool fact about the subject. It’s satisfying, I think, for the listener and it’s satisfying for me.

 

David Byrne on making money from music

Wired has just posted a fantastic article by David Byrne on the strategies of making and marketing music for emerging artists.

Touring is not just promotion. Live performances used to be seen as essentially a way to publicize a new release — a means to an end, not an end in itself. Bands would go into debt in order to tour, anticipating that they’d recover their losses later through increased record sales. This, to be blunt, is all wrong. It’s backward. Performing is a thing in itself, a distinct skill, different from making recordings. And for those who can do it, it’s a way to make a living.
So with all these changes, what happens to the labels? Some will survive. Nonesuch, where I’ve done several albums, has thrived under Warner Music Group ownership by operating with a lean staff of 12 and staying focused on talent. “Artists like Wilco, Philip Glass, k.d. lang, and others have sold more here than when they were at so-called major labels,” Bob Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch, told me, “even during a time of decline.”
But some labels will disappear, as the roles they used to play get chopped up and delivered by more thrifty services. In a recent conversation I had with Brian Eno (who is producing the next Coldplay album and writing with U2), he was enthusiastic about I Think Music — an online network of indie bands, fans, and stores — and pessimistic about the future of traditional labels. “Structurally, they’re much too large,” Eno said. “And they’re entirely on the defensive now. The only idea they have is that they can give you a big advance — which is still attractive to a lot of young bands just starting out. But that’s all they represent now: capital.”
So where do artists fit into this changing landscape? We find new options, new models.

Read the rest here

Theory of Obscurity – creating for yourself

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 8.04.49 PMThe Residents may be the world’s most famous unknown band. No one knows who is actually in the band, they disguise their face with giant eyeballs or other disguises, and their music is not designed to appeal to everyone. In fact, it is purposely composed to appeal only to them. They developed their interesting way of looking at the world through the theories of (possibly fictional) Bavarian composer N. Senada. The theory, as stated in this Wired article, goes as follows.

According to this philosophy, artists do their purest work in obscurity, with minimum feedback from any kind of audience. The theory adds that with no audience to consider, artists are free to create work that is true to their own vision.

I bring this to your attention because it led The Residents to try an interesting exercise. They decided for this theory to truly operate, they would have to create music that was not intended to be heard by anyone. They recorded an album that there were going to lock away in a vault until they forgot about it. Eventually, during a dispute with their label, it was released under the name Not Available.

I remember a woman in a poetry class I took years ago. She was so
desperate for an audience and so fearful of a negative reaction that
she would write poems, tear them out of her notebook and abandon them
on park benches and buses. She hoped that someone would find them and
be touched in some way. She would sit in class and cross out negative things in her poems because she was afraid people would like them less.

I was often left wondering what she actually thought because all she wrote was what she thought I wanted to read.

Creating for no audience with the intention of locking something away may be just what you need to spur yourself onwards. If nothing else, forgetting an audience will let you push yourself into areas you might not be comfortable with. It will let you bring up ideas and thoughts that you do not otherwise consider for fear of being judged.

Use the Theory of Obscurity in the spirit in which it is intended. It only matters while you are creating. Afterwards, if someone does see it, it doesn’t compromise the initial process.

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