“Songs do have a life of their own. Good ones will outlive us all, travel down through the generation, and can mean different things at different times to different people.”
Appreciate Every Emotion in Life’s Spectrum
“Poetry is the language of a state of crisis”
Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote in his memoir, “When you start putting pen to paper, you see a side of your personal truth that doesn’t reveal itself in conversation or thought.”
The Chili Peppers were in their working of Blood Sugar Sex Magik — The album that unexpectedly placed them into the limelight and brought them international fame.
Meanwhile Anthony was battling a crippling state of depression. He had always acted as an older brother, even a best friend for the young guitarist, John Frusciante, who had started to alienate himself as he felt overwhelmed by the band’s growing popularity.
He said of John, “Here was this young man who had dedicated every waking moment in his young life to music, and you could feel that” — This young Hendrix protégé was getting colder, his world turning over, much to Anthony’s heartbreak.
Driving home from a rehearsal one day on the 101 Freeway, his sense of loss for John and the loneliness that was wallowing up in him triggered memories of brighter times. To ease his sadness, he felt a certain connection to the city they were in, and he took out his notebook to write a poem titled “Under the Bridge”.
Their producer, Rick Rubin came across the poem when he visited Anthony’s home and persuaded the band to turn it into a song.
As Anthony recalled, “The next day John came over my house to polish the song. He brought a miniature Fender amp and plugged in.”
John said, “Okay, sing it again. How do you want it to sound? What do you want it to feel like? Where do you want it to go?”
A huge part of Anthony Kiedis’s success as a songwriter is that he would always welcome whatever emotions that he may be feeling, channeling them into his songs.
When John Frusciante was in the band, Anthony would call him up and say, “I’m very sad today”, to which John would respond, “Come over right now. We’re writing a song.”
Anthony said, “So I’d bring my sadness to John, and he’d say, ‘Sit down. Get the notebook. Start writing your feelings’ — And then we have a song.”
It’s okay to not be okay. Find a shoulder to cry on. Feel whatever that you’re feeling. You don’t have to get everything together immediately.
It’s part of life anyway, that we all undergo hard times, that we’re bound to feel painful emotions — And often times, they can be turned into very beautiful things.
Channeling them into your art is also a great way to get out of your self-centered mindset, of being instantly freed of your own pain — By being of service to others who might be suffering the same things, or those who might pick up the art you create.
For the singer Adele, one important pillar in her songwriting that she adheres to is that before a song can move her listeners, it has to move her first. She has to feel personally connected to what she’s writing. She has to sing what she believes in.
In an interview for her album 25, she said, “In order for me to feel confident with one of my songs it has to really move me. That’s how I know that I’ve written a good song for myself — it’s when I start crying. It’s when I just break out in tears in the vocal booth or in the studio, and I’ll need a moment to myself.”
Leave Some Air For Interpretation
“These writers (Anton Chekhov and Shakespeare) described timeless elements of human nature but without judging or directing the audience to what they should feel or think. Take that as a model for whatever you produce.”
It’s our nature that we all secretly mourn for the child part of our character that we have lost — The wildness, the spontaneity, the playfulness, the open-mindedness. We don’t actually like someone to direct our every move, rather we want the adventure of finding our own way through.
What many classics have in common is that they leverage on this fact. They have an air of mystery around them — They don’t give specific answers, but only vague ideas as to what they could mean. That’s the reason why we’re still studying the works of writers like Shakespeare and Homer. Even movies such as the Godfather are still being watched, and new insights are still being discovered.
As the playwright Samuel Beckett said of his work, “The key word in my plays is ‘perhaps’ “, artists such as Bob Dylan have taken the same approach in engaging the reader to think and interpret their work on their own — Dylan even told contrasting stories about his songs so that we could realize that there just isn’t a one and only way to think of his songs.
Let’s look at how Anton Chekhov wrote his stories.
Chekhov would usually begin with one single sentence that leads into the very essence of the narrative. He would write really long introductions, before deciding to ruthlessly throw away the inessential parts, leaving only scant descriptions of his characters, and of the story itself.
Instead of giving elaborations of how a character in his story My Life gets to keep his job because of his reputable father, he only eloquently wrote in dialog, “I’m keeping you only out of respect for your honored father, otherwise you’d be fired long ago”.
The more active our imagination, the greater our pleasure.
Remember when we were kids, we didn’t like games with lots of instructions and rules? We liked ones that were loosely structured so that we could inject into them our own ideas and imaginations.
Apply this in your work.
Have a Heart
“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of bases.”
An essential trait in creating great art, of course, is the artist’s immense love for her craft.
It’s the image of Jimi Hendrix speaking through his guitar, Al Pacino exhaustively devoting hours in a day rehearsing his roles, or Jack Kerouac manically typing on his typewriter, writing spontaneous prose.
Their craft is such a huge part of their identity that it’s hard to imagine them living on something else — When their craft is one with who they are, they could then create art in ways that only they can express.
All of us are born with a talent, a natural interest in a particular subject. But without a doubt, talent or interest alone isn’t enough.
You’d think Hendrix came off easy because he already had an intense love for the guitar at a very early age. But the thing is, he had to work as hard as anyone else, if not harder.
As a child he would pretend that a broom was his guitar, and even then, he couldn’t let go of it. His first real instrument was a one-string ukelele that he found in the garbage, which he used to learn and play Elvis songs.
He once wrote to himself as a teenager, “You hear different bands playing around you, and the guitar player always seems like he’s so much better than you are. Most people give up at this point, but it’s best not to. Just keep on, just keep on. Sometimes you are going to be so frustrated you’ll hate the guitar, but all of that is just a part of learning. If you stick with it you’re going to be rewarded. If you’re very stubborn you can make it.”
For Hendrix, there was “nothing but music and life — that’s all. They flow together so closely, it’s sort of like a parallel”.
Jack Kerouac wrote a poem about the saxophonist Charlie Parker in which he said,
“His expression on his face
was as calm beautiful and profund
as the image of the Buddha
represented in the East — the lidded eyes
the expression that says: all is well”
Personally, that’s how I feel when I watch Keith Richards’s performances with the Rolling Stones — The older he grows, the better he seems to get. There’s a sort of calmness in his playing, as if like a companion, he has become so well acquainted with his guitar that he could play as freely and as smoothly as he wants.
The Rolling Stones are still touring strong, doing what they love to do after 57 years. Despite their age, they still have a strong desire to play all the time. As Keith Richards remarked, “Why should we stop? It’s fun”.
Art and life do fuel one another. They do intersect — That’s the place where great art comes from.
Great artists perform right from where they are in life — When life pushes them around, they sing, they play, they write, they paint — And their work lasts and resonates with generations of audiences.
Hunter Davies wrote of the Beatles, but really, it goes the same way with all artists who create great, lasting work : “Their music comes out of their lives, just as their lives and feelings and emotions got reflected back into their music. So in some ways it has been the story of their lives as told through their music”.