I recently had the pleasure of hosting Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards in my home and studio for ten days. They came down to the Mojave to get away from the busy-ness of their daily lives in order to focus on material for their next album. Oakland can be a great place to be around musicians and artists, to get stimulated and inspired, to take Haitian dance and drum lessons, but it can be a terrible place to do the kind of heavy lifting needed to write or finish new songs. They set up in my studio and worked with hardly any breaks and essentially no distractions, or none of the kind they’re used to at home. No cars dragging up the street, sirens wailing, social obligations.
After taking a half-day to settle in, Merril and Nate made up a scheduled regiment and kept it going until they were forced to break down their gear. Each morning, I’d cross paths with Merrill in the kitchen around 7:30, after she’d already been up a while, walking, sitting on a high boulder, writing, thinking, singing. Over breakfast, we’d talk about making things. Practice, touring, big ideas, niggling details, history, hopes, anxieties, pleasures and doubts. And again at dinner we’d all talk some more, having left them alone during the day, my one promise being I wouldn’t ask about “how things were going,” with the songs and the album. I didn’t want to add any stress to their process of making the follow up to their highly successful album, whokill, though we talked a lot about making something to fulfill a contract, on a deadline, under scrutiny.
I’ve toured in small doses. I’ve played to crowds large enough to where I couldn’t see the back of the room (not my music, but still). I’ve dealt some with labels and press and things like that, but I’ve never made creative work with anything like the stakes that Tune-Yards is making their new album.
I interviewed Merrill over a year ago, before she’d started writing the new record. She expressed some concern about how it was going to go, but she said that eventually she’d move past her anxieties and get back to the business of being herself. Talking with her now, on the other side of the hurdle, it was impressive to see how well she managed to look past all the pressures and just focus on doing her work.
The pressures, though, are significant. Multiple people’s salaries are on the line: booking agents (in U.S. and Europe), band manager, tour managers, label reps (in London, NY and LA), engineers, possibly producers, band members, and of course Merrill and Nate. And when you’re dealing with the capitalist system at all, the mandate is either increase or die, so a follow-up album that does the same as the previous successful album is deemed a failure. There are also the expectations of fans, friends, other musicians, and press (more on them in a minute), in addition to the stuff we all deal with; our own expectations and those of our parents, peers, mentors, society, etc… It cuts both ways though, because there can be something really empowering in knowing the work you are making will have a home, it will have support, an audience, a life beyond the studio or the inside of your head. For me, even just knowing ahead of time that this small article has a place it will be published (regardless of how many people might see it) helps motivate me to write, makes it a little bit easier. More so than writing a short story of the same length that I know will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to publish on an even smaller scale (let alone working up the motivation to complete an album or write a novel with no guaranteed release). But I wonder about scaling it up. Is it motivating now because I perceive only a limited potential audience, but it would become paralyzing if I knew 50,000 people were going to see my work? Is there some numerical tipping point beyond which things get scary?
I imagine there’s a difference between growing into that number organically, over time, building a larger and larger audience, like Merrill did through years of touring, versus exploding from the get go, as some folks do. Maybe it’s like travel? When you walk or bike somewhere (under your own, comprehendible power), the distance you’ve gone makes perfect, physical sense. When you board a plane and wake up on the other side of the planet, there’s a shock and some significant adjustment period, especially the first time you do it. Or maybe I’m totally wrong?
Apart from issues of anxiety or stress are issues of choice. Where and how are you going to spend your creative energy when you know that there’s some number of people out there who want you to spend it on a specific thing? Does it matter who those people are? Or how many of them there are? These issues are the same ones any creative maker faces, but again it’s a question of scale.
For some it doesn’t seem to be an issue. Their internal visions happen to intersect with popular taste and whatever demand there might be for their creative work. I believe that Whitney Houston made the music she had inside her. There was no avant-garde impulse she was setting aside in order to focus on projects that had a greater demand. Likewise, I don’t believe there’s a “My Dinner With Andre” brewing on James Cameron’s backburner. He’s 100% front-burner. I know, however, that Merrill and Nate have other music they can and do create that wouldn’t necessarily play well to the Coachella crowd (though who knows?). At which point it comes down to the limits of spendable time. Tune-Yards is a project that highlights particular areas of interest and expertise of their musical lives, it’s not their entire universe, and therefore, not every idea or impulse is appropriate for it. It’s certainly the center of their musical universe for now, and it demands the most attention and energy, so other things are forced to be tangential, which is maybe where it gets tricky because the creative part of our minds doesn’t always do what we want or even need it to do according to our external timelines. Sometimes it needs to abandon the well-lit centers in order to flourish in the shadowy corners.
Many of us might be working with lower external stakes, but our internal stakes could be immeasurably high while trying to create a novel or an opera, or whatever project we’ve placed at the center of our creative universe, whether or not anyone is clamoring for it on the receiving end. There’s no controlling or comparing internal stakes, but the lack of external stakes may allow greater freedom of choice to follow the creative energy when it diverges from its task, and be open to seeing where it goes, what it yields. There can be great freedom in working off the radar, and freedom can (though not always) be our most valuable asset as creative laborers. (Personally, I’d like to have it all; the audience and support, and the total freedom. I am greedy with outrageous expectations, but I know I’m in good company.)
Though maybe this is just a personality thing? You’re either the type of person who can drop the task at hand (regardless of stakes) and gaze into a nebulon wormhole of potential creativity, or you’re not.
So there are the big decisions – either I’m going to stay focused on this band that’s doing well right now, or I’m going to shut it all down for 3 years and risk losing everything I’ve built because I HAVE TO write my 6-hour multi-media performance piece – but then there are also the millions of tiny micro-decisions. If I go beyond a certain amount of reverb on these vocals, it maybe makes the song less “radio-friendly,” or accessible. If I nudge the tempo of this track from 127 down to 120, then it will be easier for DJs to match its beat. On that minute level, the decisions don’t actually matter much, but it’s about how many of the micro compromises you make over time, how far the small decisions filter up through the process. And as before, it’s about one’s own perception of the stakes, what audience you’re hoping to reach, whether they exist or not.
Years ago, I cut a one-minute abstract sound collage intro to an album of songs because the label convinced me it might put off potential listeners. It’s a tiny piece of music, but one that I cherished. I’d created it as a kind of overture for a long, complex album I felt needed contextualizing. My decision to make the edit was conservative, fearful and influenced by an imaginary audience. It of course had no impact on the reception of the album (of which, there was effectively none) and I regret having made that choice to this day, which is a lesson I will hopefully retain if the external stakes for my work ever do change. But if I, being someone who holds some staunch, hard line views toward artistic creativity and who works under essentially zero external stakes, can be driven to a place where I agree to sacrifice even 1/100th of my vision for the possible payoff of gaining a few more listeners, how does that play out for folks whose stakes involve their livelihood and that of others?
I assume the difficulty of tuning out those external factors would get harder and harder, and then – pop – they’d no longer matter at all. The individual shouting voices (so many of them contradictory, all with their own agenda) would blend into a background hum, totally ignorable, dismissible. Because how else would anyone who’s ever received attention from the press be able to go about making something new and interesting?
Press and criticism are totally necessary (we need them, both as consumers and makers of things) and they are totally fucking useless. The message sent from the press to any popular artist (and the press only really cares about what’s already popular) is “For your next project, you have to demonstrate some development, but not too much.” If the next album/book/movie is too similar to the last, you’ve stagnated. If it’s too different, it’s overly ambitious, out of left field, you’re trying to be something you’re not. From my contact with artists I understand this has little correlation to how creative makers think and act and can only be destructive. But it’s easier to say press should be ignored than to ignore it. My only thought is, if you’re a critic, a reviewer, someone who writes about other people’s creative work, champion the stuff you love and don’t give any words at all to the work you don’t. You’ll say more than enough with your silence. And the best critique will always be making creative work the way you believe it ought to be made. There should never be someone writing reviews who isn’t also releasing their own creative work to the public. Ever.
So back to Tune-Yards. What impressed me most was that Merrill and Nate handled all these issues simply by working. They worked really hard. Long focused hours of writing, rehearsing, doing percussion rudiments and vocal exercises, looping a line or verse over and over until something locked in. It’s clear that the thing they care most about is not pleasing their label, or critics, or even fans, but being able to say at the end of the day that they worked their asses off. They are challenging their limits and pushing themselves to build something solid, lasting, and meaningful to them. This alone is not a guarantee for success, or even a guarantee that the work will be good. But it’s the only thing we, as makers, ultimately have control of.
Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and others. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at www.scottpinkmountain.com and @spinkmountain