I’ve recently come to the viewpoint that it’s necessary to understand all art in order to understand any art. I’ve noticed that people who have an appreciation for the visual arts, literature, dance, etc. also approach music in a more vulnerable way. And, conversely, those who are virtually illiterate, and pride themselves on the fact that television is the height of their artistic appetites, may even make a living in music, but they appear to be unmoved by it, unchanged by it and approach it as a product, in much the way the commercials they watch deal with their products.
As my writer friend, Thomas Lane, pointed out after looking up the derivation of “art,” the word comes from “ars artis” meaning to join together. His “Artist Manifesto” makes a very strong point about the necessity of artists in all areas to join together. He also places the responsibility for the condition of the arts back into the hands of the artists—which will rob us of our self-righteous whining and give us a pretty huge job to do.
I am beginning to believe those around me who insist we are at the threshold of a Renaissance in the music business. I certainly hope this is true, and think it might be because of the quality of songwriting I see around me, from my colleagues, my students, my friends.
I was first pondering this possibility when I heard a statement from my producer, Nik Venet, which I feel I must quote. In fact, I keep it in mind much of the time when I’m writing, or singing. It goes like this:
Not everyone tells the truth.
It’s the truth that touches people.”
He just said it in the studio, in passing, when he was trying to get me to perform the songs we were cutting, LIVE, and by that I mean playing and singing at the same time in a total performance, as opposed to overdubbing and making it “all perfect.” You have to remember, I’m from the South (or Southwest if that’s where you consider Dallas to be) and I was brought up on advice like, “Look your best even when you’re breaking up with him,” so you can imagine how hard it was for Nik Venet to convince me to do things live. It sometimes feels like I’m being asked to stand in my underwear in bright sunlight with no make-up on. Sure it’s real, but so is a train wreck. But who can forget the impact of Anne Hathaway’s performance in the film, “Les Miserables” perhaps due to its being performed live.
I recently read a quote from the London Times that discussed the John Stewart Phoenix Live album, also produced by Nik, that had recharted in England. John voiced the same insecurities when Nik first urged him to release it, “flaws and all” because it’s real, it’s human, and it’s truthful. The effect it created arain and again is amazing. I suppose if it had been overdubbed to make the performers feel good, the listener would have felt much less.
But back to the point I opened with—that of appreciating all art in order to really “get into” one form of art. I went to an exhibit of Modern Art at the county museum on Wilshire and I studied two paintings by John Singer Sargent. I was completely awed by them. In order for him to create the picture you get when you stand across the room, from the close distance where he painted it, he had to have the craft down totally cold, and then he had to be so free of the craft, he could express himself directly and communicate without attention to technique. As songwriters, that’s the point we must arrive at, so that we don’t pull the listener into our struggle with the form, or into our cleverness with it. When I mentioned all this to Venet, he sent me a transcript someone took off a tape of a lecture he delivered at UCLA in 1984, where he taught record production to a class that achieved some renown for having started with 30 enrolled, and having ended up with over 300.
This quote actually says exactly what I want to say on the subject, so rather than paraphrasing, I’ll just give it verbatim:
“Sampled, crystal clear records, void of the human condition, cannot compare with a live performance captured on tape or a real-life experience placed on paper . . . to be sung from the heart. Only a few have the bravery to do it honestly, using their years of dues-paying craft study to free their fingers and voice from the mind . . . so that the soul, without obstruction of form, dictates the words, music and paint strokes and how they will be shared.”
The entire transcript of this speech is phenomenal, but I wanted to quote salient parts of it here, because it articulated beautifully something I’ve been trying to say to my advanced students, in answer to the sometimes unspoken question, “When is it finished? When am I good enough? When can I stop working at it and just enjoy it? What is craft, anyway? And what is art?”
So our job is to become good enough at the craft that we can become free to engage in the art, and take enough responsibility for the condition of the arts to make sure there’s someone out there capable of not just hearing—but listening. And once we know they’re listening, to give them the truth.