This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.
I just read an article in which a musician said they’d never make an attempt at engaging with TikTok virality because they have “old-fashioned ideas about what an artist ought to be thinking about” (it was John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats, in this excellent piece).
That sentence has been banging around in my head, with the accompanying question: What should an artist think about?
I’m a songwriter, and at this point I don’t think I’ll ever make it big, whatever that means. I just turned 33, and I feel old and stuck, and I can’t help thinking about how futile it feels to make art without an audience. I can’t help comparing myself to my friends who’ve played packed shows, who have “numbers” on their SoundCloud pages, or even just have a handful of listeners who aren’t their personal friends.
I understand in my brain that comparison is the thief of joy, and I’m resolved to keep writing my weird little songs and putting them out into the world. But God, I would love to think about literally anything other than comparing myself and my art to other people.
What should I think about?
Hey there, JS!
Oh, wow. I finally have some actual expertise in this specific arena. I am an artist who has been asked a fair number of times about what “my process” looks like. I’ve given a lot of answers to this question over the past couple of years, and so I can confidently say that most of these answers have been hooey and I really don’t worry about having a process that much.
All due respect to this Mountain Goat, but everyone has a different approach to their art. We want to bring different things into the world and we have different ways of getting that done. Of course, this is an imperfect process, and so confusion arises. Am I doing this right? Should I be doing it completely differently? Should I even be doing it at all?
It’s understandable. The brain is a mysterious thing. It’s kind of like a cauldron, and our daily experiences get thrown into it every day to produce a brew. Your question is a valid one. What we think about, what we expose ourselves to impacts our art. It only makes sense to take some curatorial efforts toward that end.
But I think your letter is expressing an anxiety beyond wanting to switch up your influences. I’m picking up on an insecurity in your identity as a writer and a creative. That’s completely normal. I wouldn’t say I’ve met a confident, secure artist. To get to the heart of the matter, though, I think we should talk about how you perceive metrics in the context of your songwriting.
Metrics do matter, of course. We unfortunately live in a world that doesn’t support the arts near enough. It can definitely feel like a zero-sum game where only a select few make a shit ton of money and everyone else has to starve for their art. But I also think there’s more to it than whether or not you’re being received well by a certain number of people (trust me, the number you want will just keep getting higher).
Ignoring you calling 33 “old,” one thing that’s helped me is to de-emphasize the “performance” of individual pieces, like the number of likes and retweets and print sales, for example, and to focus instead on what my relationship to art looks like more broadly. What do I want art to give me? What do I want to say? What do I want to make, and what are some habits I could cultivate to make the process easier?
One of the most unpleasant, frustrating states to be in is one in which you know what you want to express but feel like you don’t have the tools or the skills to express it. I think that agita really pushes a lot of people into honing their craft, learning new tricks, and dedicating untold hours to practice. To me, each vision is an emergency, one that reliably introduces a new set of challenges — why does the face I just drew feel slightly off? How do I make this patch of feathers look iridescent? Why do I draw like I’m making Sonic the Hedgehog fan art in 2007?
The artist’s role, when seen through this lens, is that of an interpreter or a translator. Bringing what’s in there (your brain) to out here (a song or painting) requires negotiation, compromise, and problem-solving. It’s rather silly and moving, isn’t it, JS? Does anyone need this painting of a Godzilla-size crane towering over a city holding a fish? No, but I decided it was important to me, and so I must do everything in my power to make it real.
I think that this remark from John Darnielle disturbing you is a sign that it’s time to rethink your relationship to your art and mix up your influences. That’s not a bad thing, and indeed it’s something I love about feeling intimidated or challenged by another artist. It’s a sign that I’m a living, breathing creator who cares about his craft. I want to nurture it. I want to see what it does. I want to water it as best I can.
I can’t tell you what you should be thinking about. That’s definitely up to you to figure out. But I can tell you that these feelings of insecurity and unease are part of the package. Instead of learning to avoid them, I think it would be more prudent to learn how to use them as part of your process, as prompts for reflection and discovery.
It’s a great time to challenge yourself, JS! Listen to an album that you’ve been avoiding. Watch some old YouTube videos of interviews with niche songwriters. Make a visit to an art museum you’ve been putting off. See this more as an opportunity to grow as a writer instead of as an alarming sign that you’re a big phony. Everyone’s a phony. Some of us just have more fun with it.
Comparing yourself to others is inevitable, but I’m a firm believer that once you find your voice (and, mind you, you can find it then lose it for a while then find it again), it becomes less about competing with others and more about solidifying your point of view and your unique footprint. Let the world obsess over tier lists and Rotten Tomatoes scores and the exact number of stars your work deserves. This becomes irrelevant when you figure out what you want to say and decide you are determined to say it.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on November 2, 2021.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.