Today I would like to welcome musician Harlan Pease to Artist Strong. His creative spirit should engage and inspire you!
How did you discover your love of music?
I grew up in a musical household, with both my Mom and Dad playing guitar, and my Mom singing. Music was always respected and valued. But I didn’t really “discover” a love for music until I got to college. It was part of the journey of self-discovery that many people start when they are 18-19 years old. I began to realize that I had a deeper connection to music, and a more special relationship with music, than others. For me, the music was never background at a party – the music was the point of the party.
How long have you been a musician? At what point did you feel you could call yourself a musician?
I started playing guitar when I was 15, and I was a competent guitarist by the age of 22, making a good side income playing music. I don’t really think I became a musician until I was in my early 30’s. That’s when I began to really “get” it, to open my mind to the essence of emotion and communication that is music, and to also embrace the fun and joy aspect of that communication.
What is one challenge you’ve faced as a creative and how did you overcome it?
I think the biggest challenge anyone faces in creating is working within and without the boundaries. Traditionally, the artists that have been honored through history have expanded or stretched boundaries of form and/or content by cross-pollinating styles or breaking boundaries or rules in other ways. However, too much change, too much weirdness, etc., and there is no audience for the art. On the other hand, too much safety creates a “what’s the point” issue. Why write another song that sounds like Merle Haggard or the Beatles – nobody’s going to write a better Lennon and McCartney song than Lennon and McCartney. This also gets complicated by trying to earn money from art – generally the money is in staying safe; however, the big rewards are in not staying safe.
This is a beating around the bush answer, and it basically comes down to self-discovery. How much risk am I willing to take? Am I being lazy towards my audience or am I respecting my audience’s ability to analyze and think when I insert something weird or different? Ultimately, the art is a reflection of self – and that is the biggest, and the ongoing, challenge: discovering who I am.
In that sense, I haven’t overcome it. I just try to face it.
What is a current creative goal you are working towards?
I am currently trying to find freedom and self-trust within the process. I’m basically trying to shut off the critic and let the mind play and create on it’s own, to separate the creation from the craft. I’m looking for what a friend calls the “one drink effect,” where her inhibitions are lowered and she speaks in a more witty and quick fashion – but I want it without the drink (a notoriously unreliable creative stimulant).
Where do you like to write songs? Do you have a system you use when you write?
I usually write at my desk, but it doesn’t matter so much anymore. I used to be much more systematic and environment aware, but moving to Nashville has changed that. Nashville is built on co-writing, and one skill I’ve had to learn is being to “turn it on” wherever and whenever. It’s counter to my nature to schedule creativity at 10:00 AM on Tuesday morning, but experience has shown that it can be done.
Having said that, those scheduled writing sessions are often more about crafting ideas that either writer brings to the table. Those ideas, which are probably where the real “creative moment” has occurred, often come out of nowhere, when I’m not looking – or at least actively looking.
That little tangent leads to method. I like to have an idea, and/or a title, before I start. I work on finding those ideas by doing timed free-writes – usually ten minutes, and I try to do that every day.
Then, I like to see how the lyric is going to develop and how it is going to shape itself, and I trust I will be able to create appropriate music for it.
Having said that, sometimes the musical idea just arrives, usually when I just wake up, and it is strong. Then it’s a question of “what does this suggest?,” and trying to find a lyrical idea that fits the musical emotion.
In essence, it’s a combination of discipline and freedom. I think you have to show up everyday and trust, scheduling time to write. Some days it will be a bust. But your mind has to be receptive to ideas and inspiration at any time.
Have you ever had trouble writing your songs? What strategies have you used to become “unstuck?”
This is the hardest question of all, because it’s very “right now” for me. The issue of getting stuck seems to come from two places: a lack of inspiration to create for others, or a lack of inspiration to create for myself.
If it’s a lack of inspiration to create for others, then some travel usually helps. Living in one place, particularly a place like Nashville where almost everyone I know is a songwriter or a musician, can limit the viewpoint. Getting up early on a Sunday, driving for a few hours to some small town, and watching the town come alive can be very inspiring. There’s something about drinking a cup of coffee and watching people go to church, go to work, deal with issues, etc., that reconnects me to people that I write for.
In a pinch, sitting at a diner here in town and watching the breakfast crowd come through can have the same effect. There’s just something about the beginning of the day that is inspiring, when you consider what most days consist of – it takes faith and belief and sometimes just sheer momentum to get going, to find purpose, yet humans seem to have a pretty deep reservoir of these qualities.
Listening to music that inspires me can also inspire me to create for others, as it makes me remember how powerful music can be – and it reminds me that it’s my job to try to give that powerful experience to someone else if I can.
If I lack the desire to create for myself, it becomes a trickier problem. The two main issues are a lack of confidence or a lack of play in my life. If it’s a lack of confidence issue (and it usually is), then often it becomes a bootstrap operation – I just have to pick myself up and fake it, go through the motions, etc., having faith that I’m doing it for the right reasons and that the end result will be worth it. Sometimes I have to trust that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train.
If it’s a lack of play, then I need to engage in play. That can be harder than it seems, because I tend to get competitive about anything, and I expect myself to do well. I have to remind myself that I’m shooting baskets for fun, not to play on a team and to win, etc.
Often, I just write a silly song. It’s amazing how the floodgates will open if I stop constipating my brain with the vagaries and rules that dominate it when I think “commercial.” Once I start thinking, “it’s just a goofy song, it’s not for anyone else to hear,” the child inside starts making up silly words and rhymes and fun melodies, playing with the materials of music.
It becomes a reminder that songwriting is supposed to be a fun, or cathartic (or both) activity – which is why I started doing it in the first place. And, ironically, those personal songs often eventually get crafted into my best songs.
Are you inspired by artists and creative thinkers? Who are they?
Reading John Updike always blows me away, not for content but for words. It amazes me that he can create an image or metaphor on seemingly every page that makes me stop and think. And he does it for four hundred pages. And that’s just one of his many books. Tom Robbins has the same effect.
On the other hand, someone like Charles Bukowski just seems to let it rip, it’s more of a raw outpouring of feelings and ideas, and that is inspiring.
Musically, it’s the same. The craft of Leonard Cohen is inspiring; the raw energy of Nirvana is inspiring.
To be completely honest, I’m inspired by people that do what I don’t – sometimes I don’t craft enough, and sometimes I am too controlled and don’t just let it all out.
If you could create a compilation of the best musicians across time, who would be in that album?
Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, John Lennon, Beethoven, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Johnny A, Paul Simon, Keith Richards, John Paul Jones, Bootsy Collins, Jim Keltner, Dr. John, Brent Mason – I should stop here.
Who is your secret, perhaps a bit shameful, must listen to right now?
I have a folder in Itunes entitled “Embarrassing.” It’s full of pop stuff, like Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time;” Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry;” Miley Cyrus, Boys to Men, etc. – just catchy, well-crafted pop tunes.
What would you share with would-be musicians and songwriters?
I read a book called The Advancing Guitarist, by Mick Goodrick, and took two pieces of wisdom from it that have inspired and haunted me ever since.
The first is that how we look at the same data can heavily influence what we become. Goodrick gives the example of a guitar student practicing eighth notes on the guitar and hearing that the notes aren’t even. Reaction one: I suck; I’m not good enough; I’ll never get this right; I lack talent; etc.
Reaction two: It’s interesting I play the notes that way – is that how I naturally hear them? Can I develop that into a personal style? Perhaps it has something to do with the way I’m physically approaching this rather than my ability; etc.
The other piece of wisdom is this: the problems we have in life will be the problems we have in music, and the problems we have in music will be the problems we have in life. This little bit of wisdom has proven true countless times, and it’s where I always start when I’m out of synch with music – what’s going on in my life? That piece of wisdom is probably behind three or four answers I’ve already given, come to think of it.
A special thank you to Harlan for taking the time to answer these questions! If you have further interest in this musician, he is currently building a site www.harlanpease.com, so stay tuned (ha, ha)!
ARTIST THINK ACTION: Are you feeling blocked? Maybe Harlan is right in that the problems we have in life will be the problems we have in music, and the problems we have in music will be the problems we have in life. Reflect on your own creative practice and see if life is getting in the way!