Ben Lovett on creativity

Asheville-based musician, composer, filmmaker and producer Ben Lovett (not the Mumford & Sons band member of the same name) recently launched the four-EP series, Lovers & Friends. It came about when he was introduced to 12 songwriters in Los Angeles, and during a series of blind-date-type meet-ups, composed songs with each of those strangers-turned-collaborators. Follow the series at youtube.com/user/LoversLabel.

Here, Lovett talks about creating art, where ideas come from, and how to not be held back by fear or uncertainty.

Lovett in a still from his music video for

Lovett in a still from his music video for “HEARTATTACK.”

A fundamental part of my philosophy is to never let the fear of not know what I’m doing prevent me from trying.

The first thing I really ever did was make music for these guys’ movie in college, when I was a freshman or sophomore. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “I don’t know anything about writing music for a movie,” and they were like, “Well, we don’t know anything about making one.” I was like, “OK, awesome.”

That whole experience was so encouraging and rewarding that it multiplied into all these other things I’ve done. If you were to find a common thread, it’s [that] I charged into them inexperienced and without any idea of what I was doing. But if you’re too preoccupied with looking cool, you’re going to miss out on a lot of stuff. If you’re trapped in the fear of coming across looking stupid or untalented, you’re really not even allowing access to all the other parts of yourself … that you need to create art.

You’ve got to learn that even your most embarrassing moments are not going to kill you. In fact, sometimes they give you a really good story. On a long time line, that’s all you’re looking for — as many good stories as you can find.

If you knew were [ideas] came from, you’d go there more often and just stand at the door. It’s almost like you accidentally tune into that frequency. You have these moments where it’s coming in, but it’s coming in a little hazy you’re just off the dial of it. You’re constantly trying to figure out which way you need to lean or turn to get it to come in clearer.

Every songwriter and writer and artist has had these moments where it’s just, bam! Bolt of lightning. All of a sudden this whole thing comes through you in one spell. You don’t know why or where, but it’s so profound and it’s so real. You only ever feel the slightest bit, if any, responsible for it. You become addicted and you’re waiting around, trying to do anything you can to get it to come back.

There’s no more sort of religious experience, for me, when you go from nothing to a song that now exists. It will outlive you and it’s a companion for the rest of your life. It makes you feel lucky to be alive and to be in touch with that, [as if] you were tapped [to] have that luck that day.

I feel more like I’m just waving around my butterfly net most of the time. Every now and then you’re like, “A butterfly! Oh my god!” You can only really ever get better at building your net or waving it around. You don’t really know how to make the butterfly fly into any better.

So you want to be an artist.

From a 2009 interview of Asheville-based painter Barbara Fisher by Constance Humphries:

What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?

• Experiment a lot, follow your instincts.

DSCF3771• Let go of thinking you know what you’re doing.

• Start over again (if you’re just out of school).

• Set regular studio hours and show up.

• Work hard and listen to your inner voice.

• Don’t compare yourself to other artists.

• Talk to artists you admire.

• Don’t whine, it’s not an easy career path.

The world was a library

Chief Standing Bear

“Everything was possessed of personality, only differing from us in form. Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth. We learned to do what only the student of nature learns, and that was to feel beauty.” — Luther Standing Bear

Top tips for being a rockstar

This essay was originally posted at Booker Like a Hooker.

Stage setup

Stage setup

I probably can’t (or at least shouldn’t) advise anyone on being a rockstar. I realize this might come as a surprise since I just published the novel How to Talk to Rockstars, thus asserting my own expertise on the subject. That, and the book is based in part on my own experience as an arts and entertainment writer and editor. This August will mark 12 years officially interviewing touring musicians in a full-time-employment-with-official business-cards capacity.

If you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (that’s the number of hours of “deliberate practice” it takes to become an expert in any field), then I’ve got more than twice that under my belt — even after you subtract lunch breaks and watching back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. (For the record, I do not watch back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. Who would do that? Not this girl.)

But a 2014 Princeton study supposedly debunked Gladwell’s theory. I’m no expert on rockstars with or without Princeton (or Gladwell) — not on being one, not on talking to one. How to talk to rockstars (the idea, not my novel … well, maybe my novel, too) is actually an enduring mystery in my life. And I’m OK with that.

Birdhouse

Birdhouse

In fact, one of the things that keeps me excited about my day job, more than a decade in, is that the creative process in its many genres remains mysterious, elusive, wondrous and inspiring. It’s the wilderness in this world of instant accessibility, constant contact and utter disconnect. Art is the one place where we’re way off the map and, at the same time, completely connected to our source. It’s the antithesis of social media without being antisocial. It’s where we’re most vulnerable, most human, most true.

So maybe that’s what I would say to any would-be rockstars out there. Be more human. Be more of a conduit to that wilderness. Be more authentic; be a beacon to those of us seeking authenticity.

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

I would also say I know that’s terrifying. Creativity is a scary prospect. Writing a book sure is. To be alone with the blank page is to stare into the abyss. That’s actually thing I’ve said dozens of times for dramatic effect. And I’m probably not the first person to have said it — it sounds suspiciously like something I probably heard from one of my MFA professors and managed to co-opt by virtue of a foggy memory. But lately looking into the abyss is less dramatic and more … something. Not quite comforting but, like, what’s so terrible about an abyss? It’s not necessarily a black hole or dark matter or one of those “Star Trek” anomalies. It’s just the unknown. And life experience, 20,000-plus hours in, has taught me that most unknowns, once addressed, are completely navigable.

Music, however, refuses to be completely navigable. It remains — at its best, at its richest — unexpected, emotional, surprising and overwhelming. It’s a shot to the heart, a jolt to the psyche. It’s a time machine back to who we once were, a post card from past selves and a missive to future versions of ourself. It has the power to render us, in the moment, undone. It contains the ability to recast us, for the length of a song, cooler than we really are.

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

I would say to future rockstars, go there. Go farther. Dare into the abyss, into the wilderness, into the world beyond the world. Lead the mission; strike out on a hero’s journey; lean out over the precipice and don’t fear the fall.

The world needs rockstars. Not big egos. That’s not what I’m talking about. But seekers, seers, those who walk on stage, larger than life, and remind us of our own inner starpower. And, for that matter, I’d say that anyone who accepts this mission — to be more true, more human, more creative and more of a light into the dark heart of our collective artistic source — is already a rockstar. No tour bus, logo t-shirts or fan base required.

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

According to the tag on my Yogi Tea bag, “You will always live happy if you live with heart.” And it’s a nice (if vague) idea, but I have to disagree. Here’s the thing: while I prefer terms like “soulful” and “an examined life,” I suspect that they share DNA with living with heart. And none of those experiences is particularly happy. Horizon broadening, mind-expanding, life-changing and growth-inducing, yes. All of which can lead to a better quality of being, a greater capacity for love, understanding, and even heartfulness. But growth is hard and challenging and often real soulful living makes the heart ache more than smile.

That’s not a bad thing. Personally — and I realize this is not going to be a popular opinion — I think happiness (along with fun) is overrated. It’s a wonderful side effect, but should never be the goal. And yet there’s this kind of first world idea that we all deserve unlimited quantities of happiness (and fun) and anything that is not happy-making is to be avoided. That might be oversimplifying the situation, but I feel like our collective march toward 24/7 entertainment, gadgetry, consumerism, single-use, throw-away, increased stimulus, newer, faster, louder, shinier and more is a kind of kid-in-candy store approach to being.

Being a kid in a candy story is fun! And then you have a sugar crash and everything gets really ugly.

I’m not against social networking. I don’t crochet my own pants out of recycled earbud chords. But of all the apps I’ve installed on my phone, my favorite is the Insight Timer I use for the mini-meditation sessions I squeeze in between the obstacle course activities of my daily to-do lists. The app does nothing but count down from 10 or 15 minutes and sound a soft chime when time is up. That, and it tells me how many other people around the world were meditating with me, using the same timer. That’s pretty cool, to think that for 10 silent minutes I’m in community with 500 or so complete strangers who share my goal of stilling my chattering brain and carving out a little space among the clutter.

Meditating hasn’t made me happier (though I’m pretty sure that’s a major selling point of the current mindfulness trend). It has given me some tools to calm down, take account of my current situation and ditch a few to-do list items that maybe don’t really need to be done. It’s given me a little perspective and, more importantly, a kind of shelter in the storm of changes, excitement, discouragement and other swells.

Publishing a book hasn’t made me happier, either. That’s been a dream of mine for nearly 20 years and to finally realize it has been pretty incredible. It’s been a roller coaster ride — thrilling, rewarding, and a great sense of accomplishment. But it’s also come with an intense amount of work that I never could have predicted, and its own kind of hard knocks. Anyone who’s ever attempted to learn anything knows that success/defeat ratio. Very few people get good at anything without sucking first, and it takes a special kind of courage to persevere.

Perseverance is its own reward. Again, it’s not necessarily a happy thing. Summiting a peak is a triumph — often at the cost of scraped knuckles and utter exhaustion. Most marathoners, upon crossing the finish line, look more like they want to vomit, die or punch someone than do a happy dance. But no one ever ran a race to get happy. We run to get healthy, to prove it to ourselves that we can accomplish a goal, to compete, maybe to win, but mostly just to finish.

I understand why my tea tag doesn’t say, “You’ll probably finish more stuff if you live with heart.” Or, “You’ll learn more in life if you put yourself out there, risk defeat and care more about the process that what kind of selfie you can post on Facebook.” The bubbly quick-fix of “Happy” makes better marketing sense than the dogged determination of “Hang in there.”

But hanging in brings better results. Hanging in gets us all closer to the finish line, and — more importantly — it keeps us on the journey. Plus, sometimes (many times!) happiness happens along the way, like a good tail wind, like a cheering section, like a double rainbow out of a storm-dark sky.