while Danny still clocks his time on the road with bands like Jimmy Eat World and Band Of Horses, his other passion is a craft pasta company that he and his brother started over a year ago.
Jeff Brown’sRead To Lead podcast has become one of the top sources for people interested in leadership, personal and professional development, and a way to get a peek inside the minds of some of today’s top business and innovation thinkers. With guests including Seth Godin, Simon Sinek, Gary Vaynerchuk, Chris Brogan and Liz Wiseman, Read To Lead presents world-class guests as they share insight from their work and exploration.
I’ve known Jeff to varying degrees for at least a decade and a half, including his work as a nationally syndicated morning show DJ and music radio programmer. So I was fascinated to learn more about his journey and transition from traditional broadcast media into the brave new world of podcasting. As with so many people who have found success in varying lines of work, there are great lessons to be learned about listening, about taking chances, and of course about the value of consistently executing and staying present.
I hope you’ll enjoy this Q&A, and by all means check out Jeff’s podcast.
Q: You come from a broadcast radio background, where you have to hit posts, watch the clock and generally keep to a tightly run format. Was starting a podcast, with few rules other than what you decide to make them, a difficult transition? What from your broadcast background helped you the most? Were there things you had to forget about or unlearn?
A: I found there were a number of things from my time in radio that were transferable to podcasting. Chief among them was understanding what it means to truly connect with an audience.
You're right in that, technically, there are no "rules" when it comes to podcasting. I liken it though to writing a song. If you desire to make music people actually want to listen to, you'll do well to follow the rules (i.e. key signatures, scales, time signatures, etc.).
Q: You’ve spoken with some amazing leaders, thinkers and influencers. Are there any common themes that you’ve seen come up with the majority? Have you ever had guests whose ideas really conflict with each other’s? Could you share about any of those?
A: One theme I've seen come up multiple times is the idea that most of us believe we're underserving of success or not good enough to expect it in our lives. To that end, writing down goals and then tracking them and measuring your progress is a trait of 85% of wealthy people, according to a recent survey. Virtually every successful person I've interviewed does this.
Regarding the second part of your question: Recently, in back-to-back weeks, I welcomed the author of a book suggesting that traditional jobs are quickly becoming a thing of the past, followed by a guest who has written a book on the importance of hiring the right people.
I'm of the mindset that future generations need to ask "How can I create a job doing that?" instead of "How can I get a job doing that?"
Q: As a relatively new podcast, how were you able to get the guests you did early on? How difficult is it to reach the people you want to have on the show?
A: You'd be surprised what people will say when you give them the chance to talk about themselves.
At the outset, and still today, I leverage relationships built over time. Three of my first four invited guests were individuals I had forged offline & online relationships with. Then, when you come to your interviews well researched and prepared, your guests are much more likely to show a willingness to introduce you to their network.
Q: What lessons have you learned about developing a successful podcast? Are there key things that aspiring podcasters should know as they start? How do those lessons translate to other areas of life or work?
A: One lesson that is often under appreciated or overlooked, is the power of consistency; particularly, excellence with consistency over time. Most podcasts never make it past the first 7 to 10 episodes. Many other podcasts sound as if little if any thought went into them before the decision was made to hit the record button. If you're willing to put a little effort into it, it's probably safe to say you're putting yourself in the top 10%.
I'm also careful to tell people not to let perfection turn them into a procrastinator. Perfection is a moving target you will never hit. However, I believe anything worth doing is worth doing well. And, while excellence won't always guarantee your success, it will always precede it.
Q: How do you put together a show that people care about enough to come back time and again?
A: I believe it's important to articulate why you do what you do at the outset of every show. As Simon Sinek is famous for saying, "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."
When articulated emphatically and from a place of relevance to your listener, you, in essence, draw a line in the sand daring your listener to cross it and go on this journey with you.
This communicates to your listener, without apology, who you are and what you stand for. This is the best way I know to keep people coming back again and again.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode thus far? Why is it your favorite?
A: This is like asking if I have a favorite child. :-) Seriously, I'd probably have to say episode #066 with Seth Godin. He's one of my absolute favorite authors and getting him on the show was 16 months in the making.
His book Purple Cow had a huge influence on me and was the first of several books that renewed my love of reading at a time in my life when I hated to read.
Having him on a show where I get to practice my love of reading, something he personally impacted, was a real treat.
Brian Bird is a veteran screenwriter and producer for TV and film, having a 30-year career that spans from hit TV shows like Step By Step and Touched by an Angel, to the feature film Captive, a hostage drama, which opens today, September 18th. We've long been interested in the art and craft of story telling, and how story helps to give context to the human experience. So when we had a chance to connect with someone whose entire career has been about crafting and shaping stories, we jumped at the chance. A little bit about Captive:
Captive stars award-winning actor David Oyelowo (Selma; Interstellar) and Kata Mara (House Of Cards; Fantastic Four), and tells the true story of Brian Nichols (Oyelowo), an Atlanta man who, in 2005, escaped from a prison, killing a judge, a guard and two others. He then held Ashley Smith (Mara), a recovering meth addict and widowed single mother, captive for over seven hours as Atlanta police conducted a massive manhunt for Nichols.
During the course of the captivity Smith shared parts of her life struggle with Nichols. In a twist that sounds like Hollywood but is true, Nichols asked Smith to read to him from the spiritual best-seller, The Purpose Driven Life. Smith credits passages of the book with providing common ground for the two to discuss their struggles and perhaps their opportunities to find a different path.
Nichols finally allowed Smith to go, and was arrested soon after. He is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole. Smith (now Smith-Robinson) has remained clean and sober and works as an imaging technician in a hospital, remarried and is raising her two children.
We're thrilled to be able to share some of Brian Bird's insights into the power of story, collaboration, and just that the title of Producer can mean.
Full disclosure: Dunk Tank Marketing is thrilled to be part of a team that is marketing Captive, and we hope that you'll go see the movie with 10 or 20 of your closest friends.
Q: In the movie Captive, you’ve adapted the true story of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols for the screen. How do you go about communicating the truth of the story within the context of a structured screenplay? Life generally doesn’t play out with the same arcs of a screenplay, but the format is effective for telling stories. Can you offer some insight into that process?
A: You’re right, life usually does not fall conveniently into a three-act structure necessary for the flow of a movie. And here’s a little secret when you’re making a narrative film: you can’t let the truth get in the way of good story-telling. If you’re making a documentary, it’s different… you just commit to stay with what happened in real life and let the entertainment chips fall where they may. In a narrative film, it’s much trickier because sometimes truth is actually stranger than fiction. The chronology of events and even the actual character quests are sometimes inconvenient to the rhythm and pacing that an audience is accustomed to when they are going to the movies.
In the case of Captive, however, the actual events laid out pretty amazingly in line with a three-act structure. The first act introduced both our protagonist and antagonist, leading up the moment that their lives intersected with Brian Nichols taking Ashley Smith hostage as the first act break. The second act then followed everything that happened to them in that apartment during the next seven hours, along with the escalating manhunt for Nichols, with the second act break coming at the moment Nichols let Ashley go.
The third act was comprised of SWAT teams surrounding the apartment complex when Ashley told them where Nichols was and the big question: will he surrender and do the right thing, or will he come out firing and trying to go out in a blaze of glory. Honestly of all the true stories I have adapted into screenplays, none have laid out as perfectly as Captive did. I did have to do some rearranging of key events, and used a little dramatic license, but I would say the true story accounts for 90 percent of what you see on the screen.
Q: What is a writer’s room like? Can you describe the process of collaboration on something like a screenplay or a TV show, where changes can be made almost in real time? How does that contrast with the image of the solitary genius writer?
A: The only solitude you have as a member of the writing staff of a TV show is when it’s your turn in the batting order to write an episode and you are off putting the first draft together. When you’re finished with that and you deliver it to rest of the staff, the dynamic changes. The best way to describe a staff of writers working on a rewrite together is controlled chaos. You’re always on deadline and the pressure is high to get the work done.
There is such a free flow of ideas and solutions to problems and a spirit of disruption to find the perfect line of dialogue or idea that sometimes it resembles what could be called (and I hope this is not insensitive) an Arab camel market. It’s the nature of the process. When you’re in the middle of it, it can be deeply competitive as individual members of the team are trying to get their ideas, jokes or pitches into the script.
It can be exhilarating when one of your ideas wins, and a big bummer when you pitch something that just dies in the howling wilderness. But iron always sharpens iron, and when you have a good team of people who have chemistry together, you can get to a magical place. That’s why when TV shows are good, they are really good. It’s like professional sports. A bunch of really talented people pulling for the same goal.
Q: What does being a producer mean for TV or film? Are you raising/keeping track of money? Are you wrangling cast and crew? Reviewing scripts? Do you get the 3 AM call when something goes wrong? All of the above? We see that title a lot, and it seems like it can mean any number of things. Can you shed some light on that?
A: Being a writing producer can be many things. On a TV show, the co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer and executive producer titles are sort of like ranks in the army. Each year you’re on a show as a writer, you get a promotion to the next rank up the food chain. You are still a writer on the staff of the show, but often times your duties increase. You may involved in casting sessions, approving wardrobe and sets, and helping supervise the post-production process. But primarily you are still just one of the writers who has earned another set of stripes.
In the filmmaking process, producers wear a lot of hats. Sometimes you get a producer or executive producer title because you are responsible for bringing some asset to the project, such as money or a relationship. But true producers are involved in every aspect of production including script development, raising financing or distribution, casting, pre-production, actual production, post-production and even the marketing of a film.
Producers are bosses, counselors, policemen, firemen, travel agents and sometimes ministers on a production. And yes, 3 a.m. calls are the rule rather than the exception. In TV, the writing producers are responsible for everything, and everyone on the set reports to them. In films, producers and directors are the two most important roles on the set, and the creative buck usually stops with the director, but he ultimately reports to the producer. Of course, without the writer first, you don’t have a good set of blueprints for the skyscraper you are building and the whole thing can become a house of cards. That’s why many writers also stick around as producers on films, to guard the integrity of the blueprints.
Q: You teach a lot of writing and story development. What are the most common mistakes or oversight that you see as people are trying to tell stories? Do those things relate to how we communicate in other areas of life or work?
A: One of the biggest challenges I see among young filmmakers today is that the digital revolution and You Tube have created the sense that anybody and everybody is a filmmaker. And that’s just not the case. The same goes for screenwriting. It actually is a rocket science in it’s own way. People may be born with wonderful raw gifts and talents, but until they put in the right amount of training and experience, they will never become experts at what they’re gifted at. A lot of what I see coming from You Tube, however, skews in the direction of delusional amateurism which is missing craft and training.
In the book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell proposed the “10,000-Hour Rule.” You might be born a genius, but until you put in 10,000 hours working your gifts, you cannot call yourself an expert. How does this apply to screenwriting? All I know is it’s taken me 30 years to learn what I know, and I’m still trying to get better at my craft. I’m still striving for excellence. If we understand that we are made in the image of the author of the universe, the “good enough principle” should never be part of our vocabulary. We should strive to be the Michelangelo of our particular craft. I don’t see that very often coming from the digital revolution.
The one big fix I tell young writers is they need to “copy the masters” of their craft. All art is handed down in the same way from generation to generation, from master to student. The master is painting at the front of the classroom and the student is doing what? He is also painting, copying the master, but bringing himself to the canvas in order to eclipse the talent of the master. That’s what Michelangelo did at the Medici School. So in story-telling, we need to mimic the best story-tellers in history and then bring ourselves to the page in order to become a master. I find many young writers completely ignoring this concept.
Q: You mention a place called “Development Hell”, where things you’ve been paid to write have gone to likely never be produced. How do you bounce back from what must be a disappointing process? I ask this because we all face defeats in what we do, and bouncing back can be difficult. I’m curious as to how you do that, and what you think can help.
A: I’ve found over the years that you have to be like one of those punch-drunk fighters from an old boxing movie – too stupid to stay down after you’ve been knocked to the mat. I guess that’s what it means to have a short memory. It’s a very competitive business, and it’s a very subjective business. There is no accounting for taste in any predictive or mathematical way.
Opinions are like hind-ends. Everybody has one. So it can be tricky navigating the taste buds as you go from meeting to meeting or opportunity to opportunity. It can be full of disappointment, and highs and lows. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But if you are called to the work – and it really has to be a calling because it’s too hard to do as a hobbyist or if your goal is fame and money – then you are doing the world and yourself no favors by chickening out.
If you are called to do it, there’s no such thing as playing “small-ball.” You keep showing up, doing your best work, and being committed to making lasting friendships and relationships that are not based on your failure or success. Persistence always beats resistance. You also have to realize they don’t call it “Show Friendship.” It’s called “Show Business” for a reason, and if you can develop a thick skin for criticism you can survive it, and perhaps even thrive in it.
Q: What are 2 of your favorite movies / 2 favorite tv shows - in terms of writing? Why?
A: I’m a big fan of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time list, but if I have to be narrowed down to two, the first would absolutely be the 1989 Oscar winner for best foreign film, Cinema Paradiso. It’s one of the most moving and cinematically rich films I’ve ever seen, and it’s a beautiful metaphor about the ubiquitous importance of story (and the movies) in our human experience. Story ties us together as family and community and it’s also the touchstone for most of the big events of our lives. The Mission is another of my favorites, and it tells about the horror and beauty of the spread of Christianity in South America during 1700s. It has one of the most moving faith redemption stories I’ve ever seen in a film, and the best ever depiction of the power of the sacrifice of the cross in any movie ever made.
On the TV side, I’m going to have to go with Breaking Bad and the first season of True Detective. Both very gritty and not family friendly at all, but rich in themes of existential angst and the search for redemption in this post-modern age when we’re being told that there is no meaning in the universe other than our own pursuit of pleasure.
Matt D’Arrigo is Founder and CEO of ARTS (A Reason To Survive), a nationally recognized organization from San Diego that believes in the power of the arts and creativity to transform lives.
I met Matt several years ago through our mutual friend who was helping to mentor a young person involved in ARTS. I learned about the amazing studio center and programming that ARTS had developed for youth across San Diego County, and specifically for youth in need of a transformative outlet for their creativity. ARTS is a place that helps young people transcend some of the toughest challenges of their lives through artistic and creative expression.
In many ways, ARTS is an outgrowth of Matt’s own life, as the arts helped him shift away from self-destructive behaviors and work through significant life issues. A TEDx speaker, Matt sits on the boards of a variety of community, arts and educational organizations, and was one of two San Diego leaders selected for a fellowship to the prestigious Harvard Business School’s “Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management.” Matt speaks, advocates and advises on the use of the arts as a prevention, intervention, and celebration vehicle for at-risk youth.
As Founder and CEO, Matt is gifted at guiding a growing organization while maintaining focus on the reasons for the organization’s existence. And perhaps playing against type, Matt’s leadership style reflects his own personality: thoughtful, determined, level-headed and, to me, seemingly free of drama and histrionics. I always enjoy talking with Matt and learning from his experience and insight.
Q: What inspired you to start ARTS?
A: From an early age I identified as an artist. Although I really struggled in school and other areas of life growing up, I excelled at art. So I would go to my art whenever I needed a boost in confidence, and escape, or to find hope and joy. That time really came for me when I was 19 and my mother and sister were both diagnosed with cancer within a few months of each other. It was devastating and brought with it a lot of emotions that were hard to process: fear, anger, guilt, sadness. So I turned to my art and love of music. I would go up to my bedroom every day, close the door, put on music, and paint. The world would disappear for hours and my whole outlook would transform from despair to hope and joy. It struck me one day after one of those sessions – if it made me feel this way, it would make other kids feel the same way too. I sat down and created a little plan to start an organization that would provide the same experience for other youth facing pain. Just like I had my bedroom to escape to, I wanted to create an ARTS Center – a safe place where kids could come to express themselves and use the arts to transform their lives.
Q: In what ways do you see art reaching kids in ways that other disciplines don’t?
A: The arts are a natural language for youth (and all of us) to communicate and express themselves. When words are hard to come by, art, music, dance, theatre, etc. are an easy way to find your voice and communicate feelings that otherwise may get suppressed. That’s why we offer all forms of the arts; because you never know where a child might find their “voice”. It’s important to give them opportunities and options in various mediums. Besides the value of expression, the arts build self-confidence and esteem, social/emotional well being, and life skills needed to succeed in life. That’s why we not only provide therapeutic arts programming but also formal arts education and career and life preparation so we can meet youth where they are emotionally, developmentally, and artistically and create a long term engagement with them that follows them over time. The longer the engagement, the deeper the impact.
Q: What’s the most challenging thing about running a growing organization?
A: Managing change. We’re constantly evolving and “becoming”. We’re a very creative and entrepreneurial organization. So we need to be proactive and consistent in communicating to all stakeholders – youth, staff, volunteers, donors, etc. why we are going in certain directions or why we are implementing new systems, policies, or procedure to make our work more efficient and effective to serve the youth. Change is hard, uncomfortable, and scary for people so we try not to leave “why” on the table because human nature is to fill in the “why” in yourself and make assumptions. We also try to hire the right people that thrive in a growing environment and embrace change. The other hard part of running a growing organization is keeping that intimate, family feel and continue to build the deep relationships with each youth as we serve larger numbers.
Q: How do you balance the demands of leading an organization with the need and desire to be directly engaged with the kids you serve?
A: This is a constant challenge for me. I remember in year three of the organization I had to make a conscious choice to step back from the front lines of teaching the kids and focus on the business and fundraising aspect because that’s where I felt I could best serve the organization to grow and reach more youth. That is still true today. But with a growing organization I am even more externally focused and traveling a bit more. When I’m in the office I also need to be there to support our senior leadership team and staff. However, I have built in time to constantly walk around the ARTS Center to talk to the kids, teachers, and volunteers. It helps me get the pulse of the organization and feel connected to the kids. I also don’t have an office anymore; I just have my laptop and set up wherever I want in the ARTS Center to be more approachable and accessible to everyone there – especially kids.
Q: What do you wish people realized about the impact of art?
A: The arts impact all of us everyday but we take them for granted. Think about it: everything created by man was first conceptualized and drawn by an artist, right?
The arts bring all of us so much joy everyday – our favorite music, TV shows, or movies. Try to live a day without the arts…almost impossible.
But the arts go so much deeper than that for hundreds of thousands of youth. For these youth who are intrinsically creative, talented, and passionate about the arts, it’s their identity. Yet they are constantly being told in school and society that it’s not important and to fit into these other “boxes” to be successful. So we’re basically telling these youth that THEY are not important. Cutting the arts out of schools and communities is a true form of identity theft – not allowing youth to be their true creative selves and lead fulfilled lives. The results are devastating. We have had students who have literally stopped suicide attempts because of our program, they finally feel accepted and valued for who they are. What’s more impactful that that?
Kenny Greenberg is one of the most heard, yet possibly unrecognized guitarists working today, unless you’ve seen him play, in which case you’ll never forget him. As one of the top session guitarists in Nashville, Kenny has appeared on hundreds of recording by musicians of all genres, including artists such as Taylor Swift, Indigo Girls, Willie Nelson, Etta James and scores more. He can also be seen on the road on rare occasions playing with global stars like Kenny Chesney and Faith Hill.
If you’re in Nashville you’re more than likely to see Kenny flex his muscles in clubs playing with his Grammy-winning wife, Ashley Cleveland, or his band The Fortunate Sons, featuring a collection of some of Nashville’s other top session and touring musicians.
He is also a Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated record producer and award-winning songwriter. On top of all of that, Kenny is a kind and generous human, seemingly always at the ready with some sort of encouragement and words of goodwill. I’ve been amazed and inspired by his humility, as it seems that every time I speak with him he talks about something new that he’s learned, either as a musician or in life. As someone at the top of his profession, I always have something to learn from talking with Kenny. Here are a few questions that came to mind for me to ask him.
Q: I don’t know that a lot of people have a sense of what playing studio sessions is like – can you walk me though a day doing sessions?
A: Session day. First of all, the producer or the producer’s assistant books you. They may say, “in two weeks, we need you for a 10 and 2” (session blocks are 3 hours, with a one hour break to eat, or haul ass to your next session). Then you call cartage and tell them what gear you need for the session. A lot of the time, the bigger the session, the less notice you have for a session, not sure why that is. Like, I can get a call from Dann Huff’s assistant on a Tuesday, saying they need me on Friday. If it’s a major label or a big artist, you have to rearrange your schedule to be there. Also worth mentioning, in this changing climate, budgets are small, so there might not be money for cartage. In that case, I throw my pedal board, amp, and a couple guitars in the car and I’m ready to go.
So, if I’m the leader, they send me the work tapes to chart. I can chart 4-10s songs in an hour; I might do that the night before. Then I have an idea what the songs are like, and I can think a little bit about what I want to play. But a lot of the time, I show up, have my gear turned on and tuned up, ready to play, then we all go in the control room and listen to the work tape or demo. We usually listen once, maybe twice. Then we talk about direction, style, who’s gonna play what, and the whole time, each musician in the room is thinking about what part he’s gonna play.
So, you have 5 or 10 minutes to come up with a part, a signature lick, or sound. Then if it’s a demo, we’ll be getting 4 to 6 songs in three hours, so you’re prepared to get your part right the first time through. Maybe replay or fix right after we get the track. If it’s a record date, it’s anywhere from 1 to 3 songs per session, then we get to spend more time carving out a part, experimenting, etc.
I use the analogy that we’re like writers for a TV show. You come in to work everyday, and you have to invent music to fit the artist’s song. You get used to using that part of your brain. So it’s like writing a script for a show. You get used to having a limitless supply of ideas to dress up a song. It’s actually exciting and fun.
So, as a guitar player, when the track is done, you will probably add a second part, a solo, some ear candy, etc. If it’s a demo, and you’re doing 6 songs in three hours, that means you have 30 minutes for the band to get the track, and the guitar players just about never get out of their seat, because they spend the remainder of the 30 minutes playing a solo, 2nd part, etc.
Also good to know, very few guys do three sessions a day, 5 or 6 days a week. You burn out if you do that. Occasionally I’ll have weeks where that just happens, and it’s all important record dates I want to be a part of. But most of the time, I do one or two sessions a day, sometimes three. And I try to do that just 4 days a week, because I also write and produce.
I function best when I mix it up between playing writing and producing. It seems to help my creativity, and I get juice from each job that fuels the other jobs.
But there is absolutely an addiction to recording music in a room with great musicians that is very addictive and stimulating. There’s a huge rush to getting a great track done, and I always say the first time I hear the playback, I always think that song will never again sound that good:) It’s like you just participated in giving birth to a living entity.
I also do a lot of overdubs for people at my studio. The send me files, I load them into my computer, and I sit down there by myself and record my guitars, send the files back. I LOVE doing that. I find I can be very creative with no distractions. That can also be considered a typical session day..
Q: What’s it like to come into a session not knowing what you’re going to play that day? How do you prepare for that?
A: It’s exciting going into a session not knowing what you’re going to play. I kind of look forward to that. It’s best when you don’t think about it and just play off the top of your head. That’s when the really good stuff happens…
Q: What’s the best thing about being on the road? The worst?
A: The best thing about being on the road, at least with the gig I’m on, is getting to play for really large crowds. That’s a super big rush. Nothing quite like it. The next best thing is walking around the downtown of whatever city we’re in, checking out the sights and the people. The rest of it is kinda hard, you have to roll with a lot of stuff, work at getting along, etc.
Right now I’m sitting on the bus with the band, huge storm, we’re supposed to play outdoors at a George Jones tribute TV special, but there’s tornadoes and a storm. Yeah, being on the road is great!
Q: How does collaboration with so many different musicians and producers make you better?
A: Collaborating with so many musicians and producers is absolutely one of the best things period. I totally get my juice and creative ideas from the people around me. Here’s what’s really true. I’m not really technically that good as a musician, I just sometimes have good ideas. But I get to work with some of the best musicians and producers, writers, etc in the world. So I get better, because most everybody i work with is better than me!!
Q: Where do you find inspiration to keep you growing as a player, and as a person?
A: I get inspiration from the all the great young musicians I work with. And also occasionally I work with an older musician that still has the spark, and that really inspires me too. As a person, I get inspired by older musicians that aren’t jaded and still have a good attitude. That’s how I want to be…..
Jacob Slichter is a musician, author, and teacher. He was a member of the multi-platinum band Semisonic, whose global hit “Closing Time” can still be heard pretty much everywhere, especially at bars or when a baseball team’s closer comes in to wrap up a game (not nearly enough for this Cubs fan).
I first encountered Jacob’s writing in his fantastic book, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life. It may be the finest book I’ve read about an artist’s life in the music business, in that it is honest, self-effacing, self-aware, and thoroughly entertaining. I’ve easily purchased at least a dozen copies for others, including friends and family members whose children are pursuing their own rock & roll dreams. Much of the book feels eerily familiar to me, as “Closing Time” was a massive hit almost exactly a year after a band that I worked with, Sixpence None The Richer, had its own worldwide hit with the song “Kiss Me.” The adventures of the band and their struggle to make sense of the massive opportunities and stardom, as well as pressures from a global record label, powerful radio stations, and broadcast groups. Then there was the puzzle of, “how do we follow up?” It’s a realistic look at a career in music that pulls back the curtain from the romantic myths of rock & roll excess and shows a talented, hard-working band trying to navigate a bewildering business. Jacob now teaches non-fiction Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence, and through a series of Kevin Bacon-esque connections to childhood friends of both my wife and I, I was able to connect with him and ask him a few questions about creativity, teaching, community and pulling back more curtains in life and work. Enjoy!
Q: One thing that comes across in your book is the sense that artists are commoditized by the industry – seen as products and not necessarily people. How did you and your band mates in Semisonic navigate the demands (and fear) placed on you by labels, radio stations, etc.? Looking back – do you see that you could push back more than maybe you did?
A: We made pop music and wanted to be pop stars, so in the largest sense, our ambitions were aligned with those of the record label. Certainly they wanted Semisonic to succeed, but they came to have doubts, and it’s hard to push back against doubt. With a couple of important exceptions they were totally surprised by the success of “Closing Time.” That and “Secret Smile” (a big hit overseas) briefly inspired the label’s confidence in us, but the confidence faded quickly. It wasn’t that they wanted us to do things differently. It was more like they stopped believing.
Q: Much of the book, to me, seems to dispel myths about the business of making music and the experience of being in a band. The lack of glamour, the pressures that have nothing to do with making music taking over the creative process, etc. Do you think that there are other ways in life that we can pull back the curtain and perhaps encounter others in a more realistic way?
A: One of the things I tried to do in the book was to reveal how the structure of the music business imposed all kinds of constraints on the people who worked in it—musicians wanting to be famous, and record company employees trying to keep their jobs. If there’s a villain in the book, it’s the business.
I think it’s important to look at the larger world the same way, to learn to see the limits that various systems impose on us. If we do that, we can get on with the work of replacing those systems with more humane alternatives.
Q: What things help you to be a better teacher? Are those things different when you’re teaching creative writing or drumming?
A: Whether teaching writing or drumming, I try to remember what my favorite teachers did for me. They were good listeners, gave honest encouragement, recognized their students’ desire to learn and improve, believed in their students’ intuitions, and left open the possibility that the students might have had insights that had not yet occurred to their teachers.
Q: You’re involved in a group called Music That Makes Community that brings people together to sing (without paper). What does that act of a group gathering to sing do for a person?
A: Singing with others is empowering, especially for people who feel embarrassed about their singing voice. Anyone who has sung along at a rock concert or a protest or a wedding knows this. Singing with others allows you to become part of something larger than yourself.
Q: So often we read, hear or see stories of the lone genius, without realizing that perhaps community has affected that person. What role do you see community playing in the creative process?
A: I totally believe that creativity is much more collaborative than we know. Most performers will tell you that live performance is a something like a dance with the audience. What may be less obvious is the fact that artists hold an imagined audience in their minds as they compose, edit, practice, and otherwise work things out. Creating a work of art invites the creator to imagine what an audience will think, and that audience includes non-artists.
I recently came across a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “One must be an inventor to read well.” I believe that. Among other things, it means that if you’ve been moved by art, you’ve encountered your own creativity, the same creativity that is in the air that all artists breathe. When fans listen to records and start imagining the record they want to hear next, I think those desires make their way into the minds of music makers. I know this sounds mystical, but I actually believe this. The lone genius theory feels deeply wrong to me. We all do this together.
Q: What’s your favorite song to sing a cappella?
A: I am so embarrassed by my singing voice, I never sing on my own. But I enjoy singing with others, especially anything with tasty harmonization, anything from a Palestrina motet to some pop gem.
For more of Jacob’s writing, visit his blog, Portable Philosophy.