A few years back I was involved in a production called Seven. It was a multi-media show that was hard to explain (which is maybe why it was never easy booking shows.) People would ask “What is it?” and I’d say, “It’s kind of a concept album set to preaching with video and imagery and hope and creativity and laughter and conviction…”
After being stared at blankly I’d end with, “I promise it won’t suck.”
There was a moment while performing Seven that I had a strong realization. This is the best thing I have ever done. Creatively, artistically, impact-wise… this was my best work. And it was not mine.
I was involved. I helped write it. I created it. Produced it… but it’s just not mine. It belonged to a whole group of people. It belonged to Jeff Cook, the speaker and co-creator. It belonged to the sound engineer and the stage-designer; the people who critiqued the show after it’s rocky beginnings and our wives when they let us practice on nights we had baby-duty. It came from a community. It was born out of a host of hearts and that’s what made it incredible.
I am a singer-songwriter based in Colorado. When I write I primarily do it alone. I get an idea and sing it into the memo app on my iPhone. Then I fiddle with lyrics and guitar lines. If the idea grows into a song and comes to fruition on an album, there’s a good chance that I’ll play most of the instruments on the recording myself (a la Bon Iver) depending on the project. When I take said project out to do shows I’ll most often play alone.
Even when my best work over the last few years, by far, has been in collaboration, my natural instinct is to go at it alone. I want to explore why this is. Why do I have a this inclination to do things by myself when I so plainly see that working with others produces far greater work? I think I have some answers. Allow me to present some things to push past.
Time is a huge barrier. I have a wife with a vibrant art career and two girls (3 year old Lucy and 10 month old Harriet. Insert “awwweee” here). Life is busy with my wife and I both working and parenting full-time. Practice takes time- to develop a chemistry and an understanding of how each person works and plays, to catch the nuances of the song you’re doing and truly telling the story beautifully. Do I have that kind of time to invest?
In June I saw a band play at a festival and they were overwhelming. They went so far beyond what the other performers were doing because it was a party onstage and every band member was a host. It went further than the songwriter singing his songs and everyone else backing him up. It was family. It was explosive. I came away thinking that I need to get together with my friends and practice. It would be worth the time.
The truth of the old African proverb comes to mind:
“You can go faster alone,
We can go further together”
In all art there is, of course, a need to stand out. Creating and presenting not just a project solo, but involving a community is something that can help us stand out. Some of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in music have not been when the sound comes from a single creative, but when it comes from a host of people working together and developing a large voice. These experience are born from sweating through the hours in order to achieve something larger than ourselves.
If I were asked, “what are the top traits of an artist? Someone who is creative and regularly sharing things…?”I’d have to put “guarded” into the top five.
Guarded over their work. Artists are so often afraid of being judged. The moment their creation is viewed by anyone other than their self, it’s no longer their own private thing. There is deep fear in showing others something you’ve made with your own heart. Is it worth it to show other people? Won’t that invite critique, criticism? Won’t it ultimately change how you feel about what you’ve made?
Guarded over their ideas. I’ve invited people to submit a song onto a “compilation album” before- folks who have never played that much other than their local coffee shop- and they get extremely scared. They get fearful of their song being stolen. As though the forces behind Ke$ha or Beiber are looking for the next big hook from a Colorado compilation album. (Honestly, I’d be honored if Kanye sampled my latest…)
Guarded over the return. This is closest and my most embarrassing reveal in this post for me. I have a family to take care of. If I’m sharing the spoils/ pie/ honorarium/ gig money with LOTS of people… I’m ashamed to say it but I often have to be upfront with people I play with. I need to keep the money for this… I found the show, booked it, got the people there… I can’t afford to pay you for the time I’ve put forth on this.
In many ways being guarded is the opposite of collaboration. To keep things all to yourself- the money, the ideas, the very work- is a survival instinct. But it’s an instinct that slowly kills your art; makes it a selfish, self-serving, lonely ordeal.
Leading rehearsals can be so hard. I fear having to tell the bass player I don’t like that riff or the drummer that a samba will not work at the bridge. What was she thinking? How do you tell the guitar player that his chosen amp and guitar sounds like it belongs on an Iron Maiden album, not on an indie-folk song…?
There is a loss of control over the vision/project/art the moment you let others in on the process. I’ve read about some control freaks and how working with them may be lucrative, and how it’s soul-crushingly boring. Because said leader dictates and micro-manages every moment of the creation, allowing for no other voices.
Anymore, when rehearsing for a large project or a church event or any show that’s going to involve more people, here’s what I look for: I push through those moments of explaining vision and guiding the sound to the moment when someone does something that surprises me.
It surprises me in the way of, “That’s not what I had imagined for this song… It’s better. It somehow becomes MORE now.” Call it chemistry or playing naturally together, but those are the moments I LOVE. When the song isn’t just the leader’s anymore but it’s OURS. A unique sound has been born because all of us showed up here, in this time.
SICK OF ME
This post is about myself as a musician but I also feel like it has a lot to do with the Kingdom of God. Life is about going beyond the self so you can be part of a bigger story, a bigger purpose, and something that holds far more gravity than our own unique and self-important little lives. I long to invest the time, push past where I’m so guarded, and let go of control when it comes to the big picture of life. I want my art to do the same.
Check out Tim’s newest project “Potomac: Capturing American Spirituality” online, where photographers were invited to post pictures in response to his newest music, for the sake of collaboration and better art.