Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Costello-ing Creativity

This article made me very very happy... In general, the release of music made by Elvis Costello is cause for celebration. The details of his new album seem to confirm this will again be the case... from the roster of talent, to the producer, to the tunes, to the actual name of the album... Secret, Profane & Sugarcane Say it out-loud.


The link in the article to Elvis' website/journal is even better... there's a fantastic, song-by-song (perhaps these are the liner notes even?) and player-by-player breakdown, ostensibly written by the man himself. I just love reading what creative people write about creativity... it's no substitute for actual creativity obviously, but it does provoke ideas and allow one to perform a kind of self-analysis of one's own creative process, one's own goals and agenda...

From this particular piece, two quotes stood out (where have I written that before?):

"Sometimes I think it actually steals a little from the listener to say exactly what a song contains." 

"There are undeniable threads and themes of rivers and oceans traveled, of bondage and guilt, of shame and retribution, of piety, profanity, lust and love, though only the last of these is absolute. There are always contradictions. The music offers the way out. It offers the way home."

Regarding the first... I feel like I've been wrestling with this idea since the Post-Modern Philosophy class I took in college called The Death of the Author... in which we examined the idea of who determines the meaning of a piece of art: the author or the perceiver. As this blog evidences, I lean towards disclosing as many details about the art I create as I feel comfortable... but I sometimes wonder if it's better to just leave it up to the listener to interpret with nothing but the actual piece of art. 

Regarding the second quote... Really, what more is there to say? The King has spoken.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Motown, No Problems

So I was emailing with an old and important friend last week, and we were discussing what music we had been listening to recently... I was telling him I had been kind of obsessing over the Marvin Gaye/Tami Terrell duets album... and my taste for Motown had spread to rediscovering the Four Tops.

My friend wrote that he thought Motown was a little sappy and sentimental and couldn't listen to it without thinking about Barry Gordy and some of the politics that surrounded the creation and marketing of the music. Which are all good points.

The thing is... when I listen to, for instance, Standing in the Shadows of Love... I don't hear any of the politics, any of the exploitation... anything in the least bit calculated. I just hear a great song with simple but deceptively dark lyrics performed by a killer band with a great (and underrated?) singer supported by superb backgrounds and production...

Ditto a song like Bernadette... sure, a love song, but I've always thought there were not-so-subtle overtones of infatuation in the lyrics and the incredible, almost desperate vocals. And Ain't No Mountain High Enough... I mean, it's a relatively simple love song lyrically... but if you read a bit closer, it seems pretty poignant to me... not complex, not heavy, not Bob Dylan... but direct and honest and startlingly moving.

So... what's my point? Not sure I have one. It's just hard to argue with the formula of good writing, good production, good musicianship, and good vocal performance...

And James Jamerson.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Fostering Creativity

For the last few weeks, I've been obsessing over this article in the New Yorker about David Foster Wallace. The story is packed with quotes and insight and not a little tragedy.

These two quotes have been echoing around my head a little louder than the others...

“I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff.”

“It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort to actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet.”

I mean... Really.

A couple of things about the first quote: I love the sentiment and also the expression of this sentiment... the idea that you can strive to make art big and important enough to "restructure worlds" while still maintaining its capacity to move individuals on a personal level... I love the use of the word "stuff" and more broadly the phrase "feel stuff." Wallace had as big and complex a vocabulary as anybody... and I love that he chose the word "stuff." Just so... messy and beautiful... and perfect somehow for this idea. 

A couple of things about the second quote: The more I think about it, the more I think that Wallace has managed to distill everything one needs to know about making art into this one sentence... I love the distinction he draws is between "so-so" art and "good" art... implying, I think, that one can make competent pleasing art without "being willing to sort of die" but that in order to make special art, there needs to be a different level of vulnerability and commitment. I love the line "willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow." Again, with the kind of throw-away messy wording of "sort of," "somehow."

On first blush it seems to have sinister even eerie connotations given that he hung himself... but really, this idea is completely unrelated to his tragic end... I love his awareness that it sounds kind of sappy to put it that way. Which it does. But that doesn't make it untrue.

Lastly, I love his self-analysis... and the idea that it's so much easier to say something of this magnitude than it is to actually put it into practice. I think this whole article in general and these quotes specifically have so much resonance for me right now because I'm trying to write again after finishing a project... and that's usually a somewhat tricky time for me creatively. I'm still reacting to what I've just finished but trying to break free from it and start something new... I'm usually acutely aware of what I've just finished, and what I like about it and what I want to try to do different.

And finally, and most importantly, I'm still stuck in a conceptual frame of mind rather than a directly creative... I'm not thinking "how can I move the listener" or "what am I feeling and trying to express," I'm thinking "what should I try to express" or "what would be cool to try to express." If that makes sense.

It's hard to break free from the conceptual frame of mind, because that's what making a set of songs into an album is all about... you look at the collection of songs you're recording and piece together what they're about,the common themes, etc. If you're like me and you write the songs mostly in the same period of time about a certain time in your life, it's pretty simple. Themes naturally tie the material together... But even then, there are some surprises and a lot of different shades of meaning and complex emotion...

So, the new album could have been many different permutations of the 25 songs we started with... but the cool thing is, and I've never said this about a project before, Things We Would Rather Lose turned out exactly the way it should have... really, exactly the way it had to... I can't imagine these songs about the last two years of my life being any different, from a writing standpoint as well as recording standpoint.

That doesn't mean people will like them or really that they're any good... but they couldn't have been anything different than they are... And that's pretty cool. So... right now, I'm stuck thinking about what I should write rather than just writing and sorting the conceptual piece out later... I'm sure I'll get through it... I always have before... and maybe I'll have the Wallace article to thank.

Somehow. Sort of. And stuff.