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(This is an update of a piece I wrote a while back, but it will always apply)
I have so much to tell you, but I should probably distill it down to the basics. This is what I would tell any young artist or student who stands in front of me wondering what to do in this massive and confusing world of art and commerce.
Basically, I can explain it in three chunks:
1. Read and listen to everything that came before now. Films too.
2. Leave home. Travel.
3. Bring something new to the tradition of your craft
I would advise you to read and listen to anything you can get your hands and ears on.
Poetry: you should read it every day. Short stories, novels, all the classics. Get to it.
With music, you are going to have to step out of your comfort zone and visit the sounds and songs of those that came before the songwriters you are listening to now. Go back to the beginnings of your favorite genre. All of the greats studied the greats before them. If you are an American musician, you are doing yourself a dishonor by not listening to and studying the first American musicians who gave us jazz and the blues and the folk music that teaches you the chords and stories you need to know. There is a foundation there that is absolutely necessary if you wish you be a part of the constantly evolving family of musicians and artists, rather than the disposable, flavor of the month variety.
In North America, our native or “classical” music is jazz. Through serious suffering and eventual liberation came the blues. Finally, we were very fortunate to be the birthplace of rock and roll(disco, hip hop, etc.) and although we’ve had to have its message of ass shaking freedom re-explained to us time and time again by different generations from both sides of the pond, you won’t find any of the long term successful people in these musical genres that didn’t go back and study the greats that came before them.
You want to learn to write good songs? Then learn how to play the great songs of history. You like The Beatles? Learn Motown, Buddy Holly, and Cole Porter. Learn McCartney’s bass lines. You like M. Ward? Go listen to Roy Orbison or Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, or Elmore James.
If you listened to every Kinks album and then every Sonic Youth album in a row you will have accomplished a few days of well spent research.
Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Blind Willie McTell…they all have stories to tell more down and dirty than most any Stones tune. Learning songs by them will enable you to tell your own stories. Go to the library and get all this education for free. You can sign up for a card and cruise your library’s collection on your computer, ordering books, films, and CDs to be picked up at your local branch. World music, classical music, avante-garde or modern sonic explorations, Mongolian throat singing: it’s all there waiting for you. While you are at it learn the names of some constellations, trees, and plants.
To me, it’s painfully obvious when a band or writer hasn’t bothered to listen to any albums that came before, say, Nirvana. Rock and roll and popular music/culture in general is more or less a young man/woman’s game-as far as music business goes-but as a lifestyle it can be permanent if you wish. Great art, or the individual expression of those trailblazers that came before can truly charge your creative batteries and help you grow as a person to embrace doing things just a little different from the status quo. You can find temporary happiness with what is current, or you can go back in time and stand on the shoulders of the giants of storytelling, and therefore continue on in the tradition of learning and then creating something new out of your own experiences.
This leads me to my second point which is that you simply have to hit the road. I don’t care if you live in NYC or Nashville or LA,(which is where you will most likely end up if you actually want to do something about a “career” in entertainment)if you are a young man/woman then you need to see another world besides the one you are accustomed to. Sitting around a coffee shop and talking about all the different things you want to do isn’t going to accomplish anything. If all North Americans could visit other nations, then we would have a more enriched culture and a better understanding of the world, and therefore be an even better country ourselves.
Go to Europe. Take your guitar. Hitch hike. Play on the streets. Meet some other travelers. Share a bottle of wine beside a famous river. Get laid. Fall in love. Get your heart broken. You don’t have to live life the way you have been taught you should, unless you would like to end up working in a cubicle.
Returning to your home town art scene isn’t a crime either. Enliven or participate in your community’s art and music scene by providing couches for those traveling musicians and artists who are on their way through. Throw house concerts. Form a musicians co-op and record company for you and your friend’s bands. Start a ‘zine, or participate in one that is already on the move.
Lastly, and this will most likely happen through experience, but you must bring something new to your craft. If it is songwriting, then add your own life experience to it. Whatever made you the unique individual you are today, put it inside your art.
There are some things I would like to point out that might assist you in achieving some of these goals, and though I didn’t say it before, you should indeed make some goals, and wake up every day and do something towards achieving them. Think it, believe it, do it.
4. Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet
5. Film: Cinema Paradiso
P.S. Did I mention that you should practice your instrument every day? Or write in your journal…or write down some of your dreams…or carry a pen and small pad with you at all times? I guess that is just too obvious.
P.S.S.How much time every day do you think Connor Oberst or Jack White or Jeff Tweedy or Chan Marshall or any life long artist songwriter/musician you admire spends fucking around on Twitter or Facebook?
Exactly. Now start making plans to hit the road.