So last night I was out for a company meal with the cast of Scrooge. I was chatting with one my colleagues, who has been a reader of this blog (and who has also done his own PhD) and I was saying how my biggest fear is having nothing to say – nothing to say on this blog or nothing to say in my PhD. He gently reminded me that it isn’t about having anything ORIGINAL to say, necessarily, and that it is as valid to talk about YOUR OWN response to things.
Thank you David, you were right.
So this morning I sat with a coffee reading the Guardian at a local coffee shop. When this piece, an interview with Kaiser Chief’s lead singer Ricky Wilson (who is now a judge on The Voice) appeared. The subtitle says it all “Ricky Wilson is the first to admit that Kaiser Chiefs got fat and lazy. Now they’re back – and with something to prove.” The full article is here and I recommend you read it first.
One of the things that really interests me in general (and what I am hoping to study through my PhD) is what I call sustainable creativity. I feel so much of our training as creative people has a short term focus – getting an agent out of drama school, or getting taken on by a gallery out of art school, or getting your first novel published. These are all significant hurdles to clear. But what it takes to clear this first hurdle is a different set of skills to what it takes to sustain a career over a long time.
I remember the prospectus from my first drama school told us that ‘actors work hard to work, and work even harder to keep working.’ I didn’t really appreciate what that meant, but as I approach almost 25 years as a professional actor I have a much better idea of what they meant – and also an appreciation that I wasn’t equipped with the skills to keep the creative ball in the air for so long. I learned, as most people do, through trial and error. But the school of hard knocks has a pretty high drop out rate.
Now back to the Kaiser Chiefs article. It’s wonderfully refreshing and honest and kudos to writer Tim Jonze for getting Ricky Wilson away from any PR handlers and plying him with enough booze to get him to open up and talk truth. We artists need to start being more honest with each other about our troubles, so that we can learn from, and support each other.
Some of Wilson’s observations (and my examination of them):
1. One hit does not a pattern establish.
Kaiser Chiefs debut album sold more than 2 million copies – a fantastic achievement – but each subsequent album has sold less than the one before. Now this is a trend across the music industry (due to illegal downloads) but it points to something I have encountered with other artists, how do you keep creating when it seems like you are going backwards instead of forwards?
I once interviewed Stephan Elliott, director/writer of the feature film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert who talked of the difficulties he had with his first film being so successful and his subsequent films never living up to them. I remember him talking about how it was his ‘Freshman’ project and he really wanted to be allowed to move on to his ‘Sophmore’ film and he couldn’t.
Likewise I took a (wonderful) teaching course from writer Jennifer Louden, who talked frankly of how her very first book, The Woman’s Comfort Book, written when she was in her 20’s was a big hit, she was on Oprah and the darling of her publishers… but how every subsequent book failed to match its performance and how difficult it was to have had your biggest splash in your 20s your first time out.
What these examples touch upon is that success is hard won, and there is usually a huge amount of graft that goes into success. But there is also a healthy dose of luck. That little sprinkling of stardust that takes a good project and makes it great – or at least commercially successful – doesn’t happen everytime.
So what do you do?
You do what Kaiser Chiefs, Jennifer Louden and Stephan Elliot have all done – they kept on creating. They licked their wounds, they tried to be gentle with themselves about their perceived subsequent ‘failures’ and the kept on working. They used their previous success as much as they could to try and generate interest in their new work, but they kept on writing books, making films and producing albums.
And so must you. Whether they are successful or not.
2. You are responsible for selling your own work
We all fantasize about a world where we create and someone else does the dirty work of selling for us. We pay people – often huge amounts – to do the filthy selling for us. But the truth is that they can never, nor will they ever, do as good a job as you can. Why? Because it’s your baby, you birthed it and it’s your responsibility, not anyone else’s, to see it make its way out into the world.
Wilson has this to say, “Everyone wants to blame someone else for selling less records. But it’s nobody’s fault but yours. It’s down to you to write better songs, or deliver them in a better way.”
I recorded an album of Stephen Sondheim duets in 2010. It was a labour of love, made with a good friend, with our own money poured into the project. It went sideways. I lost a friend and I lost money (which is a cautionary tale for another time). After 3.5 years it is coming close to breaking even, but its lack of real success has to rest squarely on my shoulders. I wasn’t clear enough about who my market was. I wasn’t clear enough if there was even a demand for this album (there wasn’t). I didn’t keep a firm enough eye on the total quality of the album and some of it falls short of the mark. I perhaps didn’t manage my relationships well. And I haven’t been aggressive enough about marketing it.
But that’s all nobody’s fault but my own.
And I love that Wilson acknowledges this in their own work.
3. Nothing is created in a vacuum
Like my discussion last night over tandoori lamb, nothing comes of nothing. This blog post is born out of a Guardian interview. My album was a response to Sondheim’s 80 birthday.
In talking about being asked to be a judge on The Voice, The Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson says, “At the time, I was a bit snobby about those kind of shows. But fact is, Saturday night, I’m not out in some bar in Hoxton. I’m watching the X Factor. I don’t think I’d be a very good songwriter if I couldn’t enjoy things that 99% of the UK enjoys.”
Kaiser needs to be living in the world of his fans. He needs to live in their world so they he can offer them his opinion of everything that’s happening around him. That’s all we can ever really do as creators, REACT, to the world around us. Our art is where we reflect upon our world – and crucially the world of our viewers/listeners/readers/collectors.
We can’t create on a mountaintop, in complete isolation, and TRUST that someone will give a crap about what we have to say. We need to be out in the rice paddies, with our fellow rice farmers, singing our song to entertain us all as we harvest. Or cracking jokes about the high water levels. Or offering recipe suggestions of 100 different ways to cook rice. It’s the context, and the fact that we share it, that makes it relevant.
Don’t seek solitude. Seek to be in the thick of it. That’s where inspiration comes.
4. Longevity = persistence and doggedness
I love working with people who’ve been around for a long time. They inspire me. And without fail what I have witnessed in old-timers is work habits that shame the young.
In my current tour are two actors in their mid-70’s. They are professional to the last bit of sweat that falls from their brow. I have worked with them for years and have seen them out graft actors a third of their age. While actors in their 20’s and 30’s are dropping out with colds and flus, these two old-timers just keep on going. Acting their way through anything that stands in their way. They personify professionalism, craft and tradition (plus respect for their audiences and their art form).
You want the secret to sustainable creativity? That’s it. Keep going through anything that stands in your way.
To quote from the piece – and a great insight into another fantastic old-timer Tom Jones:
“Meeting fellow judges – will.i.am, Kylie and Tom Jones – seems to have acted as a wake-up call. There were times, he says, when they’d regroup after a relentless day and he’d [Wilson] have a moan about how tough it was. ‘Tom Jones would look at me and say…”You’ve just got to get on with it though, haven’t you?”‘ Wilson shakes his head, “It made me remember the early days when we were making things happen every day. Then you get a bit of success and you take the foot off the gas.”‘
Next time you meet an obstacle, remember Tom Jones, “You’ve just got to get on with it though, haven’t you?” That, and a rousing chorus of ‘Sex Bomb’ should blast open any doors in your way.
5. Teaching and sharing what you’ve learned makes you better and feeds your inspiration
I was reluctant to start teaching. I had heard too many times that bull-shit quote about how ‘those who can’t do, teach.’ There is such a negative attitude towards teaching, particularly in creative fields, that the people who teach are failures. This is crap. Yes it’s true that some teachers are better teachers than others, but that has to do with their skill of teaching (which can be learned) and not with their perceived inability to do what they teach.
I have found that my own teaching has made me a much better practictioner. Having to break down and explain something to someone else forces you to think about what you are doing and as a result you understand it on a deeper level. Helping someone else solve their problems deepens you knowledge and understanding of your craft. And the enthusiasm of students is infectious and goes a long way towards healing wounded creative souls.
Wilson, who is slightly more rock and roll about it than me, has this to say:
“As for his proteges, he wondered what on earth they could possibly learn from him. Yet it came more naturally than he thought: ‘I realised that I’ve met a lot of people and worked with great producers, so I’ve absorbed a lot of that by accident. And I’ve got loads of stories”
Stories including one about smoking crack through an apple in a dressing room….(which puts to shame most of my dressing room tales which usually involve eating too many chocolate eclairs or fighting over the last wine gums.)
Teach what you know. Share what you’ve learned. It will help you sustain your own creative practice over a long period.
6. Losing your hunger can make you fat and lazy
I remember in my 20’s when I was burning with ambition. I remember saying that I would drive over top of anyone that stood in my way. I was ruthless. I was aggressive. I was deeply insecure! But boy did I work hard. My hunger fueled an epic work ethic.
I laugh at the quote from Wilson earlier in his career when he said he would “wank off a tramp for success.” In the current interview he justifies this remark by saying, “I just wanted to give an example of how I would do anything not to lose the success we’d had at that point.”
‘Lose the success we’d had at that point….’ this speaks of the insecurity of success, once tasted the fear creeps in of never being able to eat from the buffet again. It’s like the Kylie Minogue quote about how she works so hard because once you get used to turning left on the airplane (into first class) you don’t want to go back to turning right. That’s fear speaking. And it’s that kind of fear that makes people willing to do anything to sustain it….
…. until you stop wanting it. See this thing starts happening in middle age where you stop wanting things so desperately. The fire of ambition that once burned so bright starts to dim. You maybe have a taste of success and realise it isn’t as great as you expected (I expected the heavens to open up and an angelic choir to sing when I finally appeared in the West End, only to discover that no one cared). You start to derive your satisfaction from family and friends – or sometimes food and drink. When you start to find less pleasure in your work, it’s easy to start to look for pleasure from food and drink instead. This creates a cycle: you are unhappy with your work, so you seek pleasure in your food and you drown your frustrations in alcohol. And around it goes. I’ve done it. So have most of Take That! and every other boy band of the past 20 years.
Wilson describes his own descend thusly:
“I was probably unhappy if I’m honest. I was drinking too much, eating too much and maybe I had lost the passion. I achieved everything I wanted quite quickly. And didn’t really want anything else. But now I do.”
Wilson found a renewed passion. So have many other people. But you have to keep looking for it. Passion doesn’t just pop through your letterbox one day. You find it by going out in the world and trying things. Taking risks and daring to fail. That’s when passion makes another visit. And not until it’s good and bloody ready – you can’t rush the process. All you can do is stay open to it.
7. Nothing ever stays the same
Even though it’s easy to feel like you are ‘stuck’ it’s important to recognise that nothing ever stays the same for long. Things shift. People move on. Situations change. Sometimes changes beyond your control can set you in new directions.
My duets partner walking out on our album made me figure out how to market a duets album on your own (a bit like promoting a book on marriage while you go through a divorce!). Our whole marketing plan for the album revolved around doing public concerts and selling the album…. which is a bit difficult when you no longer talk. So a new plan, and a new direction had to be hatched.
Ricky Wilson experienced something similar when his drummer, and presumably friend, Nick Hodgson, decided to depart from the band. It sounds like the break up was pretty acrimonious and for a time they weren’t sure they would carry on. Until they decided to pick up the pieces and go forward without Hodgson. They found a new energy and drive, which they plowed into a new album. “Basically he did me a huge favour.”
Shit happens. It’s how you deal with it that counts.
8. It costs money to make art. Make friends with people with money
There is only so much art you can make out of stuff you find in dumpsters. There is only so much of an audience for theatre performed in ‘found spaces.’ There are only so many novels that can be written in drafty cold bedsits.
Sooner or later you need a cash injection to realise your creative plans. Whether it’s to buy proper canvass and paints, or to pay your actors, or to rehearse in spaces with heating, or to actually have fingers that are warm enough to type. Sooner or later the romantic myth of the starving artist has to be killed off. You need some money.
Where you get it from can be uncomfortable for a lot of artists.
But if you make peace with how your art is funded, it frees you up to enjoy it. Whether you self-fund by making coffee at Starbucks or whether you partner up with organisations that can help you, you need to be at peace with these decisions and recognise them for what they are, commercial transactions. There is no judgement involved. You are simply funding your art.
Kaiser Chiefs have funded their most recent album through appearing in a Barclays advert. Perhaps not the most rock ‘n’ roll choice, but a practical one none-the-less. As Wilson says, “I think my new philosophy is to not worry about it. Because at the end of the day there’s no point.”
There’s no point. Face the truth. Acknowledge what you need and honour the process it takes to get it. That’s part of being a mature artist.