The Artist as a Collector

“The one thing you can’t avoid is sounding like yourself.”

John Frusciante


The artist is many things. We are the inspired child at play. We are runners in a marathon that is not only physical, but also mental, emotional, and spiritual. We are ruthless editors, scrutinizing our work in the most painstaking details.

Most of all, we are collectors, of moments, thoughts, and ideas. We keep these disparate elements close to us, so that we may come back to them — or have them come back to us — whenever the time is ripe for us to rearrange them into coherent forms.

Ultimately, this is the process that we all undergo in creating our own original work. We do this with other artists’ work, as we dissect, extract and digest them, and have them as a reference for own work, whether we’re aware of it or not.

As author Austin Kleon put it, “Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.”

Recently, John Frusciante, the guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, shared his similar thoughts on the Broken Record podcast with producer Rick Rubin. It is definitely inspiring to hear this worldview coming from an accomplished and revered musician such as Frusciante himself, who in the past year, has released two astonishing double albums with the Chili Peppers, namely Unlimited Love and Return of The Dream Canteen.

Discussing his songwriting process, he attributed his moments of creativity to having first learned other artists’ songs that interested him. In such moments, as he put it, he is subconsciously “mixing and matching” the various elements that he has picked up from those songs that he learned.

“Oftentimes when I get an idea for writing a song it feels like I’m remembering something. It doesn’t feel like I’m coming up with something new,” he said. “What has turned out to be the most beneficial kind of practicing for me is that I’m just creating a sort of an encyclopedia of what has been done before, and that’s all being stored in my subconscious. If I like a song, I might learn to play the guitar of it, I might even learn to play the keyboard of it, or the bass of it. This information is all stored in my head. So when I write, I’m drawing from that storeroom.”

He even suggested that learning plenty of other artists’ work might be the only way for you to build your vocabulary, or your inner storeroom of ideas, to “give your subconscious the ability to be able to offer you the right thing at the right time.”

This is essentially the same principle as having a commonplace system. For me, I write down interesting things I’ve read or heard, and also noteworthy thoughts I have, on notecards. I keep these notecards in a physical container that I can always go through whenever I feel the need to.

But most of the time, the mere act of writing these things down already makes it likely for them to be lodged into my mind. And with that, specific quotes, ideas and stories that I have written, even long ago, would suddenly spring to mind into something coherent when I’m not really doing anything. And that’s how I tend to write articles every week.

What about the risk of not sounding like yourself, then? In the same podcast episode, John Frusciante offered an interesting perspective, which I personally subscribe to.

The way he looks at this concern, is that no matter what we do, and whose work we try to imitate, we can never run away from being who we are.

As he remarked, “I’ve never heard a musician sound like another musician. For all the talk that people do about ‘Oh, this person stole from that person’, I’ve seen people try to, and they don’t — even when it’s drum machines and synthesizers. I’ve heard plenty of people try to imitate say, Aphex Twin, and I’ve never heard somebody actually sound like him.”

He then said something worth framing on your wall, “The human spirit is unique to each person, and I think you’re stuck with whoever you are as a soul. You can use influences to guide your ideas in different directions that you might not have gone otherwise, but the one thing that you can’t avoid is sounding like yourself.”

The last line he spoke was something that I particularly took to heart, because this is exactly the reason why we, as artists, bother to create anything at all.

Have you ever stopped to think, “why should I write when there are countless writers out there already, who could probably write much better than I can?”

Maybe you have.

Yet, you keep writing anyway. Because what you’re writing is your own personal story, your own take. Because if you don’t write it, then no one else can write it in the way that you want to, in the way that you can.

Agreeing with what Frusciante said, Rick Rubin, who has produced mega-successful albums with artists including the Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and Adele, added, “Most people making music might start by copying someone else, but very quickly that falls into being who you are.”

Try taking a closer look at the work you love, and you might notice the same thing.

Take Ghost’s latest album, IMPERA, for example, which is deliberately written and recorded in an ‘80s motif. Listening to my favorite track, Spillways, I could personally trace hints of Bon Jovi’s Runaway, Toto’s Africa, and Alice Cooper’s Poison, all at the same time. But somehow, it all coalesces into Ghost sounding like Ghost, in their own song about channeling your dark side into something productive.

I also recently learned that Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of Cheap Trick, to the point that he even saw his own band, Nirvana, as sounding just like Cheap Trick, albeit with louder guitars. It’s also interesting to notice that the color schemes of all three Nirvana albums actually match those of Cheap Trick’s first three, accordingly. Yet Nirvana is Nirvana, with its own unique dent in music.

So, remember that as an artist, you must always be in a state of collecting, of filling in your inner storeroom of ideas. This is the probably the only way for you to create something unique, and in the process, find your own voice.

Collecting inevitably leads towards creating. 

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